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Le Malade Imaginaire

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

The Contemporary and His Soul. By Irwin, Edman. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50. The Melody of Chaoi, By Houston Peterson. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $2.50.

Civilization is sick. That is the burden of the two books before us; it is the burden of Spengler’s apocalyptic visions; it is also the burden of Mr. Krutch’s “The Modern Temper” and Mr. Lippmann’s “A Preface to Morals,” which I reviewed some time ago in this magazine. The list might be extended indefinitely; it includes, to mention only a few recent examples, Mr. Norman Douglas’s homesick longings for the good old days of iron clothing, as well as the neo-humanists of Harvard and the neo-agrarians of Tennessee. Our two books are thus heirs to a respectable and ancient literary tradition, which dates back to the Old Testament prophets. Neither is a highly important specimen of the genus, but each will serve as a type. Whatever may be the truth about the present state of our Western world, the appearance, in large numbers, of this kind of book, is itself a symptom of some significance.

“The Contemporary and His Soul” is a smaller book than “A Preface to Morals,” but it parallels it rather closely, not only in its general plan, but in its conclusions. Mr. Edman devotes a larger portion of his space to a criticism of alternative “religions”: The Soul of Man under Modernism, The Cult of Disillusion, The Faith in Intelligence, Retreat to Platonism, Nostalgia for Tradition, Flights to Action and to Ecstasy—these chapter headings make further elaboration of the contents unnecessary. All of these Mr. Edman weighs and finds wanting. In the last chapter he proposes his own formula for salvation; somewhat stoical, serene without enthusiasm, the upshot of his Religion of Naturalism is much like Mr. Lippmann’s recommendation that we accept the fact that we are not so young as we once were. If we can no longer take pleasure in fairy tales and little red wagons, there is still much solid contentment in a bottle of old Madeira and a rubber of whist, or in a pipe in the chimney corner, There is nothing corybantic about the followers of Naturalism, but they claim they are facing the facts.

Mr. Peterson’s book resembles Mr. Krutch’s in one particular. Like “The Modern Temper,” “The Melody of Chaos” takes a microcosm as representative of civilization as a whole. But here the resemblance ends, for while Mr. Krutch takes himself as a corpus vile, Mr. Peterson uses Mr. Conrad Aiken for dissection. The resulting gain in objectivity is won at the cost of artistic value. As literary, critic, Mr. Peterson is able and convincing, but his work has that shadowy and unimpressive quality that belongs inevitably to books about books. There is much to interest the reader in “The Melody of Chaos”; there is nothing to move him as he is moved by Mr. Krutch’s poignant sincerity. But let us take a look at Mr. Aiken through Mr. Peterson’s eyes.

Mr. Aiken’s whole artistic career has been an attempt to give expression to the “modern” conception of personality. This conception abolishes the soul as a single unifying entity, and sees in its place a multiple flux of currents, counter-currents, and eddies, shifting and unstable. He thus takes a place among the “stream of consciousness” writers, along with Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. The philosophic and scientific fathers of this school are supposed to be William James, Bergson, and Freud. The first two would hardly acknowledge their paternity. The whole argument of “Matiere et Meinaoire” implies the essential unity of the ego, ard James, while he recognized the existence of suppression, found his unity in the act of will which suppressed. Only Freud has attempted to elevate to equal right all the possibilities which confront the choice. Scientifically he gocs little beyond James; it is his altered ethics toward repression that has given him his vogue with the multitude. Mr. Peterson makes abundantly clear the Freudian influence on Aiken; where one may differ with him is as to the importance of the result. For he obviously considers Conrad Aiken a great poet. To me “The Melody of Chaos” is, in a phrase of William James’s, “the apotheosis of rottenness.” It is an account of a literary beach-comber, walking the shores of the Freudian swamp, and picking up decayed fruit, dead fish, and the like, to make (if you hold your nose) decorative arrangements. Mr. Aiken has a marvellous sense of form, but no sense of smell.

But what of civilization? Is it, as Spengler thinks, suffering from hardening of the arteries and softening of the brain? Can it be cured by the humanistic clyster, or the vegetable diet of the agrarians? One thing is clear. There is a popular demand for books of this type. Now when we see a lot of doctors attending a man the immediate inference is that he is very ill indeed, but this may be a little naive. The only certainty is that he fears he is sick, and also that if he consults enough doctors he will be sure to think so. The vicious circle is thus complete. Perhaps I am unduly, skeptical. The world had a real illness, very acute and violent, some fifteen years ago, It still faces a slow convalescence. Gilbert Murray has described its cond5f: - as a “failure of nerve.” And now come the docta iking about pains in the back, and shortness of breath, listening while it says “ninety-nine,” and they shake their heads, and some prescribe, and others just shake their heads again. My own belief is that a civilization may think itself sick, and xb uiM(. extent and in that valetudinarian sense, be sick; but that it cannot know itself to be sick; that its last fatal illness will be a great war (unforeseen like the last one) or a state of coma,

And my prescription for the present is—an apple a day,


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