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Pause Before Resurrection

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Experience and Art: Some Aspects of the Aesthetics of Literature. By Joseph Wood Krutch. New York. Harrison Smith and Robert K. Haas. $2.50.

It was inevitable that some such book as Joseph Wood Krutch’s “Experience and Art” should shortly be added to the American literature of positions; it is more than interesting that the author of “The Modern Temper” should be the writer of it. At the end of his former work, the position whose adoption Mr. Krutch regarded as necessary was that of the spectator, “choosing always rather to know than to be.” The position which he actually occupied, and which renders his transition to his present point of view intelligible, was slightly different, for his quantitative knowledge was never separated from qualitative feeling, as was epitomized in the last sentence of his final essay: “Ours is a lost cause and there is no place for us in the natural universe, but we are not, for all that, sorry to be human. We should rather die as men than live as animals.” By so much did his Stoicism differ from that of the robust suavity of Mr. Lippmann, in his contemporary “Preface to Morals.” The latter was positive, “whether he saw the thing as comedy or high tragedy or plain farce, he would affirm that it is what it is, and that the wise man can enjoy it.” Mr. Krutch, by contrast, was suffering acutely from a Stoic ache, brought on by two causes. One was intellectual. Faced with the demonstrated hypotheses of modern knowledge, with the mass of document which had no place for values yet which he could not but choose to know, he was seized by what the French call angoisse metaphysique. The other was physical. Faced not only with the naturalism of scientific findings, but with the pagan exuberance of the Ameri-can 1920’s, which heaped the applied forms of velocities, light-years, foot-pounds upon him with an energy commensurate with astronomical statistics, he recoiled into a half-romanticism of self-pity.

The latter pressure has now been removed. The depression may not have made America stop and think, but at least it has made it stop. The tumult and the shouting, in which the conviction that applied science and its pleasures alone mattered was so loudly broadcast that thought was impossible, has been discontinued for lack of funds. It has consequently become possible to get a perspective on something else. Having considered the relation of human experience to nature, and resigned himself to its irrelevance, Mr. Krutch now turns to consider the relation of human experience to art. He equates art very broadly with order, and his book, though primarily concerned with literature, makes common cause with the research of order currently undertaken by widely separated writers in the political, religious, and social fields, joining in their recognition that “The world of speed and power and exactitude in which [many of our contemporaries] live is a world which still exists only upon the periphery of the consciousness. It is known chiefly through instincts and reflexes, not through ideas. It is, in other words, a world not yet given form by Art, a world which has been directly experienced but never successfully thought about.”

The power of an organizing, a form-giving idea, is the positive power which Mr. Krutch has newly felt. He discusses literary works of art as hypotheses of possibility which sort the unsorted reality of nature into consistent patterns. Through them are conveyed ideas of significance, which become concrete as ideas of appropriate action and eventually affect men’s experience of the natural world in the most vital manner: “To no insignificant extent we enjoy adventure, savor love, and even compose ourselves to die, out of books.”

The problem which Mr. Krutch now feels most acutely, is the central modern problem of authority, of which organizing idea to adopt. In the acceptance of old, completed authorities he has no faith: “Those eccentric converts to fifthcentury paganism, thirteenth-century Catholicism, and seventeenth-century Anglicanism, who propose to live and write as though they were in the heyday of the culture which they have chosen, are mere refugees whom few will follow. They have acknowledged the defeat of their imagination and taken refuge in a world which, however substantial it may once have been, is now no more than a world of phantasy.” Yet lie pauses before the incomplete and tentative character of modern alternatives. His concept of an idea suffers throughout from the thinness of its Platonism; a comparison of his “idea” with Sorel’s “myth” is all that is necessary to bring this vigorously out. His sense of the absence of an authentic impulsion is witnessed by the fact that he discusses “Experience and Ant,” when what he is feeling for is the combination of form in experience. An inability to touch Unamuno’s flesh-and-blood man, in whom an idea becomes an incarnation, leaves him with a bit of his old wistfulness. The subjectivity of “The Modern Temper” reappears when he maintains “that that ‘higher truth’ vaguely attributed to certain works of art is the result of a correspondence with the needs of man rather than of a correspondence with any mystical reality of which Nature is an imperfect shadow. Nor is there any reason to suppose that this intricate world of human desires and fears is any less complicated, any less interesting, or any less fertile of possibilities, than it is found to be by those who prefer to use words which suggest that the world of Ant is something with which human beings come into contact, rather than something which they generate.” But it is perhaps too much to expect that there should be no pause between the life and death of a value and the resurrection. At the end of “The Modern Temper,” Mr. Krutch stood by a sealed grave. Now he has at least become, with growing faith, a watcher at the tomb.


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