Chapter 2: Byronic Unhappiness

Chapter 2: Byronic Unhappiness

It is common in our day, as it has been in many other periods of the world's history, to suppose that those among us who are wise have seen through all the enthusiasms of earlier times and have become aware that there is nothing left to live for. The men who hold this view are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man. Their pride in their unhappiness makes less sophisticated people suspicious of its genuineness; they think that the man who enjoys being miserable is not miserable.
This view is too simple; undoubtedly there is some slight compensation in the feeling of superiority and insight which these sufferers have, but it is not sufficient to make up for the loss of simpler pleasures. I do not myself think that there is any superior rationality in being unhappy. The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead. This is what I wish to prove in the present chapter. I wish to persuade the reader that, whatever the arguments may be, reason lays no embargo upon happiness; nay, more, I am persuaded that those who quite sincerely attribute their sorrows to their views about the universe are putting the cart before the horse: the truth is that they are unhappy for some reason of which they are not aware, and this unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the world in which they live.

For modern Americans the point of view that I wish to consider has been set forth by Mr. Joseph Wood Krutch in a book called "The Modern Temper"; for our grandfathers' generation it was set forth by Byron; for all time it was set forth by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Mr. Krutch says: "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." Byron Says:

There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away,
When the glow of early thought declines in feeling's dull decay.

The author of Ecclesiastes says.

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

All these three pessimists arrived at these gloomy conclusions after reviewing the pleasures of life. Mr. Krutch has lived in the most intellectual circles of New York; Byron swam the Hellespont and had innumerable love affairs; the author of Ecclesiastes was even more varied in his pursuit of pleasure; he tried wine, he tried music, "and that of all sorts," he built pools of water, he had men-servants and maid-servants, and servants born in his house. Even in these circumstances his wisdom departed not from him. Nevertheless he saw that all is vanity, even wisdom.

And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

His wisdom seems to have annoyed him; he made unsuccessful efforts to get rid of it.

I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.

But his wisdom remained with him.

Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise.? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity....
Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

It is fortunate for literary men that people no longer read anything written long ago, for if they did they would come to the conclusion that, whatever may be said about pools of water, the making of new books is certainly vanity. If we can show that the doctrine of Ecclesiastes is not the only one open to a wise man, we need not trouble ourselves much with the later expressions of the same mood.
In an argument of this sort we must distinguish between a mood and its intellectual expression. There is no arguing with a mood; it can be changed by some fortunate event, or by a change in our bodily condition, but it cannot be changed by argument. I have frequently experienced myself the mood in which I felt that all is vanity; I have emerged from it not by means of any philosophy, but owing to some imperative necessity of action.
If your child is ill, you may be unhappy, but you will not feel that all is vanity; you will feel that the restoring of the child to health is a matter to be attended to regardless of the question whether there is ultimate value in human life or not. A rich man may, and often does, feel that all is vanity, but if he should happen to lose his money, he would feel that his next meal was by no means vanity. The feeling is one born of a too easy satisfaction of natural needs. The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness. The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If he is of a philosophic disposition, he concludes that human life is essentially wretched, since the man who has all he wants is still unhappy. He forgets that to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.
So much for the mood. There are, however, also intellectual arguments in Ecclesiastes.

The rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.
There is no new thing under the sun.
There is no remembrance of former things.
I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.

If one were to attempt to set up these arguments in the style of a modern philosopher they would come to something like this: Man is perpetually toiling, and matter is perpetually in motion yet nothing abides, although the new thing that comes after it is in no way different from what has gone before. A man dies, and his heir reaps the benefits of his labours; the rivers run into the sea, but their waters are not permitted to stay there. Over and over again in an endless purposeless cycle men and things are born and die without improvement, without permanent achievement, day after day, year after year. The rivers, if they were wise, would stay where they are. Solomon, if he were wise, would not plant fruit trees of which his son is to enjoy the fruit. But in another mood how different all this looks. No new thing under the sun? What about skyscrapers, aëroplanes, and the broadcast speeches of politicians? What did Solomon know about such things? (Ecclesiastes was not, of course, really written by Solomon, but it is convenient to allude to the author by this name) If he could have heard on the wireless the speech of the Queen of Sheba to her subjects on her return from his dominions, would it not have consoled him among his futile trees and pools? If he could have had a press-cutting agency to let him know what the newspapers said about the beauty of his architecture, the comforts of his harem, and the discomfitures of rival sages in argument with him, could he have gone on saying that there is no new thing under the sun? It may be that these things would not have wholly cured his pessimism, but he would have had to give it a new expression. Indeed, one of Mr. Krutch's complaints of our time is that there are so many new things under the sun. If either the absence or the presence of novelty is equally annoying, it would hardly seem that either could be the true cause of despair. Again, take the fact that 'all the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again'. Regarded as a ground for pessimism, this assumes that travel is unpleasant. People go to health resorts in the summer, yet return again unto the place whence they came. This does not prove that it is futile to go to health resorts in the summer. If the waters were endowed with feeling, they would probably enjoy the adventurous cycle after the manner of Shelley's Cloud. As for the painfulness of leaving things to one's heir, that is a matter that may be looked at from two points of view: from the point of view of the heir it is distinctly less disastrous. Nor is the fact that all things pass in itself any ground for pessimism. If they were succeeded by worse things, that would be a ground, but if they are succeeded by better things, that is a reason for optimism. What are we to think if, as Solomon maintains, they are succeeded by things exactly like themselves? Does not this make the whole process futile? Emphatically not, unless the various stages of the cycle are themselves painful. The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts. Life is not to be conceived on the analogy of a melodrama in which the hero and heroine go through incredible misfortunes for which they are compensated by a happy ending. I live and have my day, my son succeeds me and has his day, his son in turn succeeds him. What is there in all this to make a tragedy about? On the contrary, if I lived for ever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savour. As it is, they remain perennially fresh.

I warmed both hands before the fire;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

This attitude is quite as rational as that of indignation with death. If, therefore, moods were to be decided by reason, there would be quite as much reason for cheerfulness as for despair.

'Ecclesiastes' is tragic; Mr. Krutch's Modern Temper is pathetic. Mr Krutch, at bottom, is sad because the old mediaeval certainties have crumbled, and also some that are of more recent origin. 'As for this present unhappy time,' he says, 'haunted by ghosts from a dead world and not yet at home in its own, its predicament is not unlike the predicament of the adolescent who has not yet learned to orient himself without reference to the mythology amid which his childhood was passed.' This statement is entirely correct as applied to a certain section of intellectuals, those, namely, who, having had a literary education, can know nothing of the modern world, and having throughout their youth been taught to base belief upon emotion, cannot divest themselves of that infantile desire for safety and protection which the world of science cannot gratify. Mr. Krutch, like most other literary men, is obsessed with the idea that science has not fulfilled its promises. He does not, of course, tell us what these promises were, but he seems to think that sixty years ago men like Darwin and Huxley expected something of science which it has not given. I think this is an entire delusion; fostered by those writers and clergymen who do not wish their specialties to be thought of little value.
That the world contains many pessimists at the present moment is true. There have always been many pessimists whenever there have been many people whose income has diminished. Mr Krutch, it is true, is an American, and American incomes, on the whole, have been increased by the War, but throughout the Continent of Europe the intellectual classes have suffered terribly, while the War itself gave everyone a sense of instability. Such social causes have a great deal more to do with the mood of an epoch than has its' theory as to the nature of the world. Few ages have been more despairing than the thirteenth century, although that faith which Mr Krutch so regrets was then firmly entertained by everyone except the Emperor and a few great Italian nobles. Thus Roger Bacon says: 'For more sins reign in these days of ours than in any past age, and sin is incompatible with wisdom. Let us see all conditions in the world, and consider them diligently everywhere: we shall find boundless corruption, and first of all in the Head . . . Lechery dishonours the whole court, and gluttony is lord of all . . . If then this is done in the Head, how is it in the members? See the prelates: how they hunt after money and neglect the cure of souls . . . Let us consider the Religious Orders: I exclude none from what I say. See how they are fallen, one and all, from their right state; and the new Orders (of Friars) are already horribly decayed from their first dignity. The whole clergy is intent upon pride, lechery, and avarice: and wheresoever clerks are gathered together, as at Paris and Oxford, they scandalise the whole laity with their wars and quarrels and other vices . . . None care what is done, or how, by hook or by crook, provided only that each can fulfil his lust.' Concerning the pagan sages of antiquity, he says: 'Their lives were beyond all comparison better than ours, both in all decency and in contempt of the world, with all its delights and riches and honours; as all men may read in the works of Aristotle. Seneca, Tully. Avicenna, Alfarabius, Plato, Socrates, and others; and so it was that they attained to the secrets of wisdom and found out all knowledge.' Roger Bacon's opinion was that of all his literary contemporaries, not one of whom liked the age in which he found himself. I do not for a moment believe that this pessimism had any metaphysical cause. Its causes were war, poverty, and violence.

One of Mr. Krutch's most pathetic chapters deals with the subject of love. It appears that the Victorians thought very highly of it, but that we with our modern sophistication have come to see through it.

'For the more skeptical of the Victorians, love performed some of the functions of the God whom they had lost. Faced with it, many of even the most hard-headed turned, for the moment, mystical. They found themselves in the presence of something which awoke in them that sense of reverence which nothing else claimed, and something to which they felt, even in the very depth of their being, that an unquestioning loyalty was due. For them love, like God, demanded all sacrifices; but like Him, also, it rewarded the believer by investing all the phenomena of life with a meaning not yet analysed away. We have grown used - more than they - to a Godless universe, but we are not yet accustomed to one which is loveless as well, and only when we have so become shall we realise what atheism really means.'

It is curious how different the Victorian age looks to the young of our time from what it seemed when one was living in it. I remember two old ladies both typical of certain aspects of the period, whom I knew well in my youth. One was a Puritan, and the other a Voltairean. The former regretted that so much poetry deals with love, which, she maintained, is an uninteresting subject. The latter remarked :

'Nobody can say anything against me, but I always say that it is not so bad to break the seventh commandment as the sixth, because at any rate it requires the consent of the other party.'

Neither of these views was quite like what Mr. Krutch presents as typically Victorian. His ideas are derived evidently from certain writers who were by no means in harmony with their environment. The best example, I suppose, is Robert Browning. I cannot, however, resist the conviction that there is something stuffy about love as he conceived it.

God be thanked, the meanest of His creatures
Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with,
One to show a woman when he loves her!

This assumes that combativeness is the only possible attitude towards the world at large. Why? Because the world is cruel, Browning would say. Because it will not accept you at your own valuation, we should say. A couple may form, as the Brownings did, a mutual admiration society. It is very pleasant to have someone at hand who is sure to praise your work, whether it deserves it or not. And Browning undoubtedly felt that he was a fine, manly fellow when he denounced Fitzgerald in no measured terms for having dared not to admire Aurora Leigh. I cannot feel that this complete suspension of the critical faculty on both sides is really admirable. It is bound up with fear and with the desire to find a refuge from the cold blasts of impartial criticism. Many old bachelors learn to derive the same satisfaction from their own fireside.

I lived too long myself in the Victorian age to be a modern according to Mr. Krutch's standards. I have by no means lost my belief in love, but the kind of love that I can believe in is not the kind that the Victorians admired; it is adventurous and open-eyed, and, while it gives knowledge of good, it does not involve forgetfulness of evil, nor does it pretend to be sanctified or holy. The attribution of these qualities to the kind of love that was admired was an outcome of the sex taboo. The Victorian was profoundly convinced that most sex is evil, and had to attach exaggerated adjectives to the kind of which he could approve. There was more sex hunger than there is now, and this no doubt caused people to exaggerate the importance of sex just as the ascetics have always done. We are at the present day passing through a somewhat confused period, when many people have thrown over the old standards without acquiring new ones. This leads them into various troubles, and as their unconscious usually still believes in the old standards, the troubles, when they come, produce despair, remorse, and cynicism. I do not think the number of people to whom this happens is very large, but they are among the most vocal people of our time. I believe that if one took the average of well-to-do young people in our day and in the Victorian epoch, one would find that there is now a great deal more happiness in connection with love, and a great deal more genuine belief in the value of love than there was sixty years ago. The reasons which lead certain persons to cynicism are connected with the tyranny of the old ideals over the unconscious, and with the absence of a rational ethic by which present-day people can regulate their conduct. The cure lies not in lamentation and nostalgia for the past, but in a more courageous acceptance of the modern outlook and a determination to root out nominally discarded superstitions from their obscure hiding places.

To say shortly why one values love is not easy; nevertheless, I will make the attempt. Love is to be valued in the first instance - and this, though not its greatest value, is essential to all the rest - as in itself a source of delight.

Oh Love! they wrong thee much
That say thy sweet is bitter,
When thy rich fruit is such
As nothing can be sweeter.

The anonymous author of these lines was not seeking a solution for atheism, or a key to the universe; he was merely enjoying himself. And not only is love a source of delight, but its absence is a source of pain. In the second place, love is to be valued because it enhances all the best pleasures, such as music, and sunrise in mountains, and the sea under the full moon. A man who has never enjoyed beautiful things in the company of a woman whom he loved has not experienced to the full the magic power of which such things are capable.

Again, love is able to break down the hard shell of the ego, since it is a form of biological cooperation in which the emotions of each are necessary to the fulfilment of the other's instinctive purposes. There have been in the world at various times various solitary philosophies, some very noble, some less so. The Stoics and the early Christians believed that a man could realise the highest good of which human life is capable by means of his own will alone, or at any rate without human aid; others again have regarded power as the end of life, and yet others mere personal pleasure. All these are solitary philosophies in the sense that the good is supposed to be something realisable in each separate person, not only in a larger or smaller society of persons. All such views, to my mind, are false, and not only in ethical theory, but as expressions of the better part of our instincts. Man depends upon cooperation, and has been provided by nature, somewhat inadequately, it is true, with the instinctive apparatus out of which the friendliness required for cooperation can spring. Love is the first and commonest form of emotion leading to cooperation, and those who have experienced love with any intensity will not be content with a philosophy that supposes their highest good to be independent of that of the person loved. In this respect parental feeling is even more powerful, but parental feeling at its best is the result of love between the parents. I do not pretend that love in its highest form is common, but I do maintain that in its highest form it reveals values which must otherwise remain unknown, and has itself a value which is untouched by scepticism, although sceptics who are incapable of it may falsely attribute their incapacity to their scepticism.

True love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never dead, never cold,
From itself never turning.

I come next to what Mr. Krutch has to say about tragedy. He contends, and in this I cannot but agree with him, that Ibsen's Ghosts is inferior to King Leer. 'No increased powers of expression, no greater gift for words, could have transformed Ibsen into Shakespeare. The materials out of which the latter created his works - his conception of human dignity, his sense of the importance of human passions, his vision of the amplitude of human life - simply did not and could not exist for lbsen, as they did not and could not exist for his contemporaries. God and Man and Nature had all somehow dwindled in the course of the intervening centuries, not because the realistic creed of modern art led us to seek out mean people, but because this meanness of human life was somehow thrust upon us by the operation of that same process which led to the development of realistic theories of art by which our vision could be justified:' It is undoubtedly the case that the old-fashioned kind of tragedy which dealt with princes and their sorrows is not suitable to our age, and when we try to treat in the same manner the sorrows of an obscure individual the effect is not the same. The reason for this is not, however, any deterioration in our outlook on life, but quite the reverse. It is due to the fact that we can no longer regard certain individuals as the great ones of the earth, who have a right to tragic passions, while all the rest must merely drudge and toil to produce the magnificence of those few. Shakespeare says:

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

In Shakespeare's day this sentiment, if not literally believed, at least expressed an outlook which was practically universal and most profoundly accepted by Shakespeare himself. Consequently the death of Cinna the poet is comic, whereas the deaths of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius are tragic. The cosmic significance of an individual death is lost to us because we have become democratic, not only in outward forms, but in our inmost convictions. High tragedy in the present day, therefore, has to concern itself rather with the community than with the individual.
I would give as an example of what I mean Ernst Toller's Massenmensch. I do not maintain that this work is as good as the best that has been done in the best ages in the past, but I do maintain that it is justly comparable; it is noble, profound and actual, concerned with heroic action, and 'purging the reader through pity and terror', as Aristotle said it should. There are as yet few examples of this modern kind of tragedy, since the old technique and the old traditions have to be abandoned without being replaced by mere educated commonplace. To write tragedy, a man must feel tragedy. To feel tragedy, a man must be aware of the world in which he lives, not only with his mind, but with his blood and sinews. Mr. Krutch talks throughout his book at intervals about despair, and one is touched by his heroic acceptance of a bleak world, but the bleakness is due to the fact that he and most literary men have not yet learnt to feel the old emotions in response to new stimuli. The stimuli exist, but not in literary coteries. Literary coteries have no vital contact with the life of the community, and such contact is necessary if men's feelings are to have the seriousness and depth within which both tragedy and true happiness proceed.
To all the talented young men who wander about feeling that there is nothing in the world for them to do, I should say: 'Give up trying to write, and, instead, try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate, a king in Borneo, a labourer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy all your energies.' I do not recommend this course of action to everyone, but only to those who suffer from the disease which Mr. Krutch diagnoses. I believe that, after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile.