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Two Dreams and a Nightmare

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Verdun. By Jules Romains. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, By Aldous Huxley. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. No Arms, No Armour. By Robert Henriques. New York: Farrar and Rinchart. $2.50.

Paul Valery, in his tenuous but brilliant “Variety,” suggests that all writers, in effect, are dreamers-out-loud: seeking to give some form, some substance of reality, to their own inner visions of the world. This, one believes, is particularly true of novelists—who are, furthermore, faced with certain difficulties inherent in the art-form with which they work. Unlike the historian or the biographer, the novelist has only the furniture of his mind to make credible the world he seeks to create: and without credibility the novel is nothing. The stuff that passes as “documentation” in novels, background or atmosphere or local color, is no more important than the scenery to the play. It is simply an aid to credibility: helping to create that illusion of reality with which the writer hopes to endow his dream.

We have here, then, three dreams in novel form. M. Jules Romains, in his “Men of Good Will” series, has been dreaming out loud for quite some time: eight books around the clock: a dream marathon, as it were, in which “Verdun” is only an episode. As an episode, it is complete enough—and by far the most interesting segment of M. Romains’s as yet unfinished view of his world.

M. Romains seeks credibility with a vengeance. He is like a man who, describing a house in a dream he has had, must actually build the house. The author’s dream-house in “Verdun” is the early years of the last World War: and it has been created so skillfully, and on such a proper scale that many people will find M. Romains’s architecture more interesting than the characters who act out his dream. This book is perhaps the best total picture we have had of the last war: picture, rather than report or history, in that it has all the emotional quality of a work of the human imagination. To assign it to the rank of “War and Peace,” however, as a writer in Pourquois Pas has done, or to praise it in terms of enduring greatness, is to give it more tribute than it deserves.

Since “Verdun” is only part of a novel, equal to a chapter in the usual book of fiction, it cannot be measured by ordinary standards. Nevertheless, it may be said that both its weakness and its strength derives from M. Romains’s method and theory of fiction. The latter, requiring an extensive investigation, need not be gone into here. The former, of more immediate concern, may best be described as the method of accumulation : the careful piling of detail upon detail, fact upon fact, like a patient mason building a skyscraper out of red bricks. Looking upon the finished job we may not find it altogether to our liking: but the effect, in itself, is more or less bound to be impressive. Thus, while the human drama in “Verdun” is negligible, the novel acquires a great, solid strength from the skillful massing of those events that led to one of the greatest land engagements in military history. But what does the author say about war? What does he speak in his dream? It is always dangerous to identify any character as a writer’s “mouthpiece,” but one suspects that M. Romains comes closest to personal statement in these lines spoken by the philosophically inclined Jallez:

If one could bring it about that millions of men on both sides should refuse to get mixed up in the universal crime, then I should agree with you that the sprinkling was not worth bothering about. But in the absence of those millions, it is still worth while to give one’s mite to the cause of saving, if only symbolically, the dignity of man, the invisible seed-ground of the future. . . . I am convinced that at all periods of the world’s history, particularly in the blackest, this role played by a handful—no matter how small—has been inestimably precious.

The dream of Aldous Huxley is an altogether different affair. Set against the Dada-esque jungle of the Hollywood area, the story of a W. R. Hearstian character gripped by the desire to live forever, it is more of a nightmare than a dream: filled with feverish mutterings, wild visions, and the dark goat-cries of what used to be called a troubled soul.

Let us grant Mr. Huxley the highest of motives. Let us forget that he often delights in brightness for brightness’ sake; that all his novels, as novels, have been loose, formless, and frequently bunglesome; that he does not hesitate to use his wonderful felicity of phrase to replate old platitudes which he smoothly palms off as minted gold; that he employs a bagful of literary tricks unworthy of his talent; that his characters, for all their three-dimensional appearance, are seldom more than paper dolls whose only purpose (God help them!) is to illustrate one of their author’s points. Let us, in short, ignore the fact that Mr. Huxley is not a good novelist and accept him as Mr. J. W. Krutch suggests—a philosopher in search of the good life. What then?

In this book Mr. Huxley attempts to answer two questions: What reason might there be for man to want to live forever?; and, How may one achieve good? Part of the first answer is given by a thinker named Mr. Propter, who fully answers the second. “What shall we all be doing at three hundred?” he asks. Reading or writing books? Obviously not. Engaging in scientific research ? Again obviously not. “You don’t think you’d get a bit bored,” Mr. Propter says. “One experiment after another. Or one book after another. In general, one damned thing after another.” No, says Mr. Propter, it’s really better to die. “As for time, what is it, in this particular context, but the medium in which evil propagates itself, the element in which evil lives and outside of which it dies?”

Separating sound from sense, what do we find? What is this evil that propagates itself in time? What but life itself! Life, then, is evil: and the longer man lives the more evil he will do. Incapable of doing good, as Mr. Huxley expounds, he is bound to do evil. There’s no help for it.

The author’s principal character is a puppet manipulated to illustrate the latter point. Having rejected the notion that prolonged life might be productive of prolonged good— this whole thing is a hell of a notion to begin with, and the odds are two to one that Mr. Huxley once read a book called “Phra, the Phoenician”—the only justification the author can find for anybody’s wanting to live indefinitely is the desire to do indefinite evil through excessive sexual intercourse: and he’d do it, drat his ornery hide, even if he had to end up at two hundred and fifty living off carp guts and looking like an ape.

So much for one question: now for the other. “How may one achieve good?” The only way, Mr. Huxley informs us through his Mr. Propter, is by doing nothing. Solely by doing nothing can we escape. Any action on the part of the human animal, regardless of the plane on which it is pitched, is doomed to result in evil. Thus, at the end of our search, we come to three negations: of life, of the will, of the spirit. That fairly cancels out man: and Mr. Huxley’s good life, as seen in this dream, reveals itself as an absolute zero.

Mr. Henriques, in his “No Arms, No Armour,” has also dreamed a dream. It is well, he dreams us, for a man to grow up: even if he is a British soldier. The theme has been used before, and in ways far more moving than this, but Mr. Henriques writes soberly, honestly, with no literary fireworks or high-jinks. If life in the British army is as dull as this, however—well, no wonder men sometimes don’t mind going to war.


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