‘The Contemporary Novel’: an essay by T. S. Eliot

In his little book on Nathaniel Hawthorne, published many years ago, Henry James has the following significant sentences:
“The charm [of Hawthorne’s slighter pieces of fiction] is that they are glimpses of a great field, of the whole deep mystery of man’s soul and conscience. They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it.”
The interest of this passage lies in its double application: it is true of Hawthorne, it is as true or truer of James himself. “They are moral, and their interest is moral”; this is the truth about all of James’s long series of novels and stories; a series of novels and stories which fell, accordingly, exactly upon the generations least qualified to appreciate the “moral interest”. Note the term “deeper psychology”. James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.
It is in trying to find some principle of unity among the bewildering diversity of forms and contents of the contemporary novel in England and America, that I am led back to Henry James. The conclusion is certainly not a cheerful one; for I can find unity – or rather, unanimity – only in the fact that they all lack what James seems to me so preeminently to possess: the “moral preoccupation”. And as I believe that this “moral preoccupation” is more and more asserting itself in the minds of those who think and feel, I am forced to the somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times. The production of novels in England at the present time is, it is true, vast; I have only read a few; but I think that the names I can cite are amongst the most highly considered.
I am aware too that in my opinion of Henry James I come into conflict with so distinguished an authority as M. Abel Chevalley.1 Were M. Chevalley alone in his opinion, I should consider it great temerity to disagree with him. Not only is M. Chevalley as thoroughly documented as any English critic; but a foreign critic with so much knowledge of the language and literature, and with the acumen and judgement which M. Chevalley displays elsewhere, is quite likely to have perceptions, and a line of reasoning starting from a new angle of vision, which will render him decidedly formidable. But in this case M. Chevalley’s opinion happens to be, in general, the opinion of that of most English and American critics of Henry James; so that he raises no objection for which I am unprepared.
It would be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose. It would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud. All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.
We will take four examples of very different types and orders of value: D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett and Aldous Huxley. Mr. Lawrence, it would seem, is serious if anybody is, is intently occupied with the most “fundamental” problems. No one, at any rate, would seem to have probed deeper into the problem of sex – the one problem which our contemporaries unanimously agree to be serious. No line of humour, mirth or flippancy ever invades Mr. Lawrence’s work; no distractions of politics, theology or art [are] allowed to entertain us. In the series of splendid and extremely ill-written novels – each one hurled from the press before we have finished reading the last – nothing relieves the monotony of the “dark passions” which make his Males and Females rend themselves and each other; nothing sustains us except the convincing sincerity of the author. Mr. Lawrence is a demoniac, a natural and unsophisticated demoniac with a gospel. When his characters make love – or perform Mr. Lawrence’s equivalent for love-making – and they do nothing else – they not only lose all the amenities, refinements and graces which many centuries have built up in order to make love-making tolerable; they seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm. This search for an explanation of the civilized by the primitive, of the advanced by the retrograde, of the surface by the “depths” is a modern phenomenon. (I am assuming that Mr. Lawrence’s studies are correct, and not merely a projection of Mr. Lawrence’s own peculiar form of self-consciousness.) But it remains questionable whether the order of genesis, either psychological or biological, is necessarily, for the civilized man, the order of truth. Mr. Lawrence, it is true, has neither faith nor interest in the civilized man, you do not have him there; he has proceeded many paces beyond Rousseau. But even if one is not antagonized by the appalling monotony of Mr. Lawrence’s theme, under all its splendid variations, one still turns away with the judgement: “this is not my world, either as it is, or as I should wish it to be”.
Indeed, from the point of view which I have indicated, Mr. Lawrence’s series of novels mark, from the early (and I think the best) Sons and Lovers, a progressive degeneration in humanity. This degeneration is masked, and to some extent relieved, by Mr. Lawrence’s extraordinary gifts of sensibility. Mr. Lawrence has a descriptive genius second to no writer living; he can reproduce for you not only the sound, the colour and form, the light and shade, the smell, but all the finer thrills of sensation. What is more, into detached and unrelated feelings, in themselves and so far as they go feelings of importance, he has often the most amazing insight. In Aaron’s Rod there is a passage in which an Italian marquis explains the difficulty of his relations with his wife.2 You hear the marquis speaking English perfectly, but with a slightly foreign intonation; you follow every rise and fall; it is a living voice. And the situation he describes is one which might occur to anybody, not necessarily a very complex or very highly cultivated person, but which has never been set forth with such accuracy or completeness before. It is revealed. And yet, when you read on, you feel that Mr. Lawrence has not grasped the meaning, that indeed its meaning, whatever it might mean for us, is meaningless for Mr. Lawrence. And this is one of the directions in which psychology – not psychology for the psychologists, for that is a science with the right to go where it likes, but psychology in its popular inferences – may have misled the novelist: in suggesting that momentary or partial experience is the standard of reality, that intensity is the only criterion.
Mrs. Woolf is a very different type from Mr. Lawrence. She is not only civilized but prefers civilization to barbarism; and she writes with great care, always extremely well and in one at least of the great traditions of English prose, and sometimes with astonishing beauty. She also has a remarkable descriptive gift (witness two short pieces, “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall”), a gift which is very much under her control.3 She does not like Mr. Lawrence abandon herself to the ecstasy of one moment of perception; her observation is employed continuously and involves an immense and unremitting toil of arrangement; illuminating not by flashes but by a continuous mild and steady light. Instead of seeking the primitive, she seeks rather the civilized, the highly civilized, only with something left out. And this something is deliberately left out, by what may be called a moral effort of will; and being left out it is in a sense, a forlorn sense, present. Of all contemporary authors, Mrs. Woolf reminds me most of Joseph Conrad. For if you expunge from Conrad’s book the Strong Man – the isolated man battling against the forces of nature, or the forces of the jungle – and this Isolated European of Conrad’s tales is a diminished relic of the moral issue, the “deeper psychology” of Shakespeare or Racine – you have the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s novels. If the strong man is a loss – and I am not sure that he is – then Mrs. Woolf at least deserves credit for having performed at Kew and at seaside watering places what Conrad performed in the tropics and south seas.
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