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Psyche and Zeitgeist

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Huropa. By Robert Briffault. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.75. The World from Below. By Jules Romains. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

When Tennyson inquired rhetorically, “What know we greater than the soul?” he voiced a faith not merely in immortality but in the individual; and like many another Victorian acclaim of individualism, his was doubtless somewhat defensive. Liberty, equality, fraternity, these three abode, sufficiently; but there were indications that, willynilly, some day the greatest of these might be fraternity, and that with a vengeance. To this arrangement your Britisher accedes reluctantly. “In God and Godlike men we build our trust”—and we don’t take any too much stock in Society.

It will, therefore, be interesting to see what the British novelist eventually contributes to the recently instituted attempt at the dethroning of the individual in the novel, and the substitution of a social entity resembling him, a thing that has not merely body and soul but countenance withal. Possibly the British novelist, like the sensible man he is, will never wholeheartedly try this. Possibly he will never go much farther with it than, for example, Robert Briffault in his “Europa,” and will never throw himself into the emprise with the serene abandon exhibited by Jules Romains in his “Men of Good Will.”

At any rate, though the major interest in “Europa” is social, society gets critical rather than creative treatment; also it is thrust out of regard occasionally. At such moments the foreground is occupied by Julian Bern, through whose eyes, presumably, we have been viewing the higher circles of life in pre-war Europe, and upon whose story the book depends for motive power, there being otherwise but slight sense of time passing, of things succeeding things in a way that matters.

When Julian is given this prominence, he is disappointing. He is a wraith among the full-fleshed personalities that crowd the book. Because his sojournings as boy, youth, and man, in rural Italy and England, in Rome, London, Berlin, and elsewhere, are asserted to have shaped an individuality, the result should be more impressive. Bern is credible and familiar enough: he is youth of his period in revolt against what should no longer be or never should have been. He has a mind and he feels appropriate emotions, but he lacks—well, countenance. Despite his part in a fairly memorable love story of some fervency, he recedes promptly into that dim, faceless legion of rebellious heroes captained by young Pon-tifex of “The Way of All Flesh” and subalterned by the protagonists of H. G. Wells.

Nor is Julian Bern notably helpful in taking us a progress through the pleasures and palaces whither we follow him. He does not seem thoroughly part of the spectacle, nor does he play the showman well. Hence the book lacks momentum. Julian’s story is not robust enough to be the Jupiter-Taurus for a very full-bodied Europa of social criticism.

In short, “Europa” does not triumph in the adjustment of interests individual and social. But it does do many other things. It makes us downright nostalgic for old Rome and the coasts of Italy; it sets us all agog with inside information on the great and the soon to be great, on the Czar and the Emperor, on the Mahatma, and on Mussolini. In all, the chief virtue of “Europa” is that it confirms a generally held view as to what ailed pre-war Europe, and that it employs one symptom of the malady, uncontrolled or misused sexuality, as not merely type but symbol.

It is a bad case that Dr. Briffault diagnoses. He finds that “the fevered, morbid search for pleasure of the social circles” and, in a measure, an equally frantic condition among intellectuals, betoken a cancerous condition of society in which the cells of its body prey on one another disgustingly. Industrialism and repressive hypocrisy in a variety of human institutions are responsible; the ultimate cause, Briffault, indicates, is greed and a failure to acknowledge the importance of sex.

Over this diagnosis most of Dr. Briffault’s readers will nod the head affirmatively, though some will question the degree of emphasis upon sex, now that Freud is a bit outmoded. And, indeed, there is too much erotic and aphrodisiac acreage in the book, enough almost to be suggestive of Hollywood tendencies before the recent purge. There is also something of the naughty-ninety, bourgeois-titillating way of referring to recondite depravities. Nonetheless, thanks to such circumstances as the lamentably memorable sadistic “voyeurism” attending the flagellation of Baroness Rubinstein, our imaginations as well as our minds know more thoroughly how Slavic dukes and princelings bring on wars and revolutions. That is something, surely. Though neither Bern nor the doctor makes us as well acquainted with the patient as with his cells—still, what a cancer!

If anywhere there can be hope of more than a nominal acquaintance with society, it is in Jules Romains’ “Men of Good Will.” He is patiently building up an organism composed of individuals, each complete in himself, yet all subdued to their larger function and true, in the main, to their period of small souls, the same period covered by “Europa.”

From his bewildering first book to the end of the recently published eighth, M. Romains has wrought widely and well along essential lines—the industrial, the political, the erotic, the domestic, the religious, the intellectual, the artistic, not to mention the treatment of locales and of all the unmastered international confusions that have produced at least one World War. There are now some forty major characters figuring in twelve or more narratives connected by their contributions to the various motifs rather than by personal relationships.

As usual, the last volume, “The World from Below,” contains two books, “The Lonely” and “Provincial Interlude.” The former continues the account of the Parisian students Jallez and Jerphanion. The long thoughts of youth have taken Jerphanion well beyond the vague Napoleonic dreams with which he entered the novel. He is in quest now of a new religion, one that will do something for Paris and for all Europe. Socialism, upon investigation, seems inadequate. What then? Possibly European Masonry, some mystic yet efficient depth of it below the flummery of lodge ritual. We leave him undecided. Jallez contributes to the erotic motif. He has turned from the idyllic loves that served his adolescence, but he has not found contentment in more carnal satisfactions. Does Jerphanion know what is wrong? And then, hard on the question, which Jerphanion cannot answer, Jallez suffers a new amorous distress, jealousy, the thwarting of the male possessive instinct, the outrage of lingering idealism. The book is rounded out with some account of big business, politics, theatrical life, other amours, and with many touches added to the already powerfully conceived entity, Paris.

The title of “Provincial Interlude” indicates a change of scene; but the familiar themes continue, with special attention to provincial church affairs. This book is welcome despite some very meticulous accounts of provincial politics and business. It is well to contrast Paris with a town like “M—,” modern yet antique and very French. And how true it is that some churchmen are merely men engaged in a profession. This book, on the whole, is simpler than its predecessors and widens the view; it includes even a mysterious episode of presumably international import in Brussels.

In both books the quality remains evenly that of the whole series. M. Romains writes with assurance, in a quiet passion of thoroughness almost Teutonic, with the air of a man who has notebooks full of additional material. Sometimes he bores you with specifications. Sensory details, however, usually have a taking Gallic frankness and directness, and here and there an aptness that belongs to the symbol. While Jal-lez is making tormented queries on love and things sexual, he and Jerphanion pass a railroad bridge. “To their right the crisscross of metal rose and fell beneath the mass of the curved framework, on which the heads of nuts looked like pimples on a reptile’s hide.”

And with assurance M. Romains treats the inner realities, going freely and precisely into the most delicate and complicated moods of his forty major and four-times-forty minor persons, not neglecting that droll and abashing dog Ma-caire. Where you falter because of your limited acquaintance with what fellow beings think and leave unsaid, you are reassured by what you have verified elsewhere in the book. M. Romains is right about the schoolboys, young intellectuals, men of business, and country folk; doubtless he is equally accurate, then, when he sets forth confidently a woman’s most intimate thoughts.

If “Men of Good Will,” all the eight, ten, twelve volumes of it, endures merely as a vast pyramid in which the generations may quarry for blocks of well turned truth, it will have justified its composition. That it will be much more, few can doubt. Surely there is a large life in this huge structure, Perhaps it cannot be perceived until about the end of the sixth book, when a reader lacking the memory of a Lord Ma-caulay finds that he must skim and reread the earlier volumes, and so begins to feel an animation that belongs to the entity of the whole, a quiet, deep motility. Perhaps the best way to perceive this is to turn from “Men of Good Will” to another realistic novel. It will seem thin and still; its lights throw no shadows; its people’s voices are strangely loud yet muffled as if in a broadcasting room proof against all sound waves, especially those from without. The reverse of all this is the quality that we hope to find more and more evident as M. Romains completes his treatment of society in the chosen epoch, a vibrance, a dynamism, that comes from the manifold personalities of which the whole is made yet does not draw away the life force of any individuality.


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