All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/2

As Willi Schlamm once put it, the whole darned army is in the avant garde. Insofar as writers are concerned, this means that we have an almost totally unrelieved preoccupation with savagery in our plays, poems, novels and even philosophical speculation. The excuse is that you “gotta see it like it is.” In the avant garde writer’s view, “seeing it like it is” means that the human being is just another animal, and not one of the cleaner animals, at that — Trousered Apes, as Duncan Williams calls our literary “anti-heroes” in his scarifying attack on “sick literature in a sick society” (Arlington House, $6.95).

Professor Williams, a British critic, thinks rather better of human possibilities than the angry young playwrights of London or such American novelists as Norman Mailer. Not everyone is dedicated to “violence and animalism, “and there are still whole sections of society? — the recalcitrant “bourgeois” element — that would reject Norman Mailer’s “decision to encourage the psychopath in oneself.” Nevertheless, Mr. Williams does admit the provocation that pushes young writers to pessimistic extremes.

For one thing, there has been “an almost total loss of religious faith.” We have “no ultimate reference.” Mr. Williams thinks the population explosion, which he takes seriously, must offer a dizzyingly dangerous temptation to totalitarian rulers who possess the nuclear ability “to destroy the species.” With no belief in a rationally structured universe or in a beneficent Creator or First Cause, it is easy for people to slip into the attitude of “anything goes.” Our novelists and poets and dramatists, with no faith of their own to sustain them or guide their artistic efforts, become easy victims in their turn of a temptation to mistake an ugly part for a less lurid whole. It is all quite understandable.

The Double Duty of Artists

In Mr. Williams’s opinion, however, artists have what amounts to a double duty. They should “mirror” the civilization they see around them. But they should also be capable of rising above the “chronic upheaval which is engulfing our culture.” This has not been a popular notion of the artist’s duty, as Malcolm Muggeridge makes clear in his foreword to the American edition of Trousered Apes. Not since the Eighteenth Century have writers considered themselves to be teachers or moralists. There was a time in the “halfway house” of the Nineteenth Century when they aspired to be “objective” observers, as the very word “naturalism” indicated. More recently, out of despair, they have become conscious immoralists, mocking the idea that you can have a believable moral code in a world without purpose, or teleology, or God, or any other concept that gives meaning and dignity to existence.

The trouble is, as Mr. Williams demonstrates with a wealth of references to scores of writers from the times of Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope and Jane Austen down to the present, that one little thing leads to another. The creations of the poets and the fiction writers have a definite influence on the texture of a culture. When a Shakespeare or a Richardson can discover heroes and gentlemen, life will ennoble itself by imitating what it sees on the stage or reads in books. But when the very idea of a hero is called into question, leading ultimately to the cult of the Dostoevsky anti-hero, life will imitate that, too. So the modern avant garde writer who has a clinical obsession with man as something that is “violent, animalistic, alienated, mannerless and uncivilized,” becomes more than a mere neutral observer. Our Sartres, our Mailers, our Truman Capotes (In Cold Blood) and the film makers of Bonnie and Clyde take on Satanic pastorates in spite of themselves.

A Re-Run from the Thirties

The Williams thesis, however heartening and welcome it may be, is not quite as novel as either Malcolm Muggeridge or Christopher Booker (the delighted sponsors of Trousered Apes) might suppose. We had the whole argument out in the early Nineteen Thirties, when Gorham Munson and the “new” Humanists took issue with the prevailing negativistic cults of the moment. The fact that Munson and his friends got nowhere in the “proletarianized” Rooseveltian decade is an indication that the malaise goes much deeper than anything that might be corrected if only Truman Capote, say, would start writing about something other than moral monsters. But if novelists, dramatists and poets cannot be satisfactory substitutes for great religious leaders or philosophers, they should be quick to catch any stray hints of regeneration in society. After all, they pride themselves on their acute sensibilities. Gorham Munson was right to the extent that he held it a novelist’s duty to “body forth” the best that might be found in the world around him, even though few fiction writers can ever have the stature of a Confucius, a Thomas Aquinas, a Luther, a Calvin or a John Wesley.

America Follows the Trend

Since he is an Englishman, Mr. Williams chooses most of his more extended references from his own side of the Atlantic. If he had taken a closer look at American literature, he might have discovered that the American writer held on to a basic moral health until well into the Twentieth Century. It was not until the Nineteen Thirties that the anti-hero really invaded our fiction. The characters of Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Elizabeth

Roberts (The Time of Man), Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington and even Scott Fitzgerald had a healthy forward-living quality that disappeared from our fiction only after Hitler and the depression had made their simultaneous appearance on the world scene. For all his naivete, Lewis’s George F. Babbitt had something to commend him; he wanted to live in a true community. Lewis even found himself a hero in the businessman protagonist of Dodsworth. Willa Cather’s operatic singer in The Song of the Lark and her glowing pioneer women in My Antonia and 0! Pioneers were certainly not anti-heroines. We have had only one full generation of writers whose stupid devotion has been to the literature of the absurd. If memories weren’t so short, we Americans might still find it in us to recover from the malaise that Mr. Williams anatomizes with such powerful accuracy.

Prospects for Recovery

The conditions of recovery, however, will not prevail as long as our contemporary critics remain sunk in what Mr. Williams, who has a genius for the happy phrase, calls our “temporal provincialism.” This provincialism is currently enhanced by the current academic rage for the “relevant” — i.e., what is being thought and said in 1972 and 1973 at the expense of ideas that were prevalent twenty, forty or a hundred and fifty years ago. How to break the vicious circle? Maybe a maverick group of young college presidents such as George Roche at Hillsdale College in Michigan and John Howard at Rockford in Illinois can do something about it. They might even prevail on Malcolm Muggeridge, or even Duncan Williams himself, to spend a year or two in American surroundings as visiting lecturers. Even our rebellious young might be willing to listen to common sense when it comes with a foreign accent.

Aside from his perspicacity as a critic, Mr. Williams is a competent theologian. He does not try to prove the existence of a Supreme Being. He notes that, just as a cat can’t do calculus, the human species can’t fathom the ultimate purpose of the universe. But he argues with great good sense that if the calculus exists beyond the ken of a cat, so there may be an ultimate purpose in the universe despite man’s inability to go beyond the intuition that where there is evidence of structure there must also be a structuring intelligence. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.