« AnteriorContinuar »
SIMPLICITY AND ‘SOCIAL' LITERATURE
The saying, I remembered, was from Fénelon, but not first hand-I had not been reading Fénelon. I had come across it in a magazine, and had been so struck with it that I had lifted it into a commonplace-book. There it was to rest among my maxims - my truths. And now that I see it again, I find I still like it. And I remember that once I had imagined myself as writing a sermon, an eloquent and surpassing sermon, with this saying of Fénelon for my text- as one might announce: "My text to-day will be found in the fifth chapter of the first book of Fénelon, verse seventeen: 'Simplicity is an uprightness of soul which checks all useless dwelling upon one's self and one's actions. It is different from sincerity, which is a much lower virtue.'" And then in order to bring the people to absolute quiet, I had repeated the text: "Simplicity [slowly and distinctly] . . . . lower virtue.”
virtue of sim
At this point I imagined myself—not very cleverly, it seems to me now as taking my congregation a bit into my confidence by advancing a double explanation, or, I might say, apology; that, in the first place, though I was to extol the plicity, I was speaking to them as a sincere man. I was sorry, but such was the case. I would have given years of my life to be able to speak to them in simplicity. That was a virtue upon which I had cast my highest, though forlorn, admiration. But my horoscope was against me. In my most outrageous moments, I had never been able to be anything but sincere. The fault was due partly, no doubt, to heredity and partly to environment. I had been caught in both traps.
In the second place (my vein was still ingenuous), I had warned my hearers that I was likely to become intemperate and say some things I should be loath to stand by. For instance, I should be fairly certain, before the sermon were over, to denounce vehemently the virtue of sincerity, to have quite forgotten, in fact, that it was really a most excellent possession. Life, indeed, would be unbearable without it; they could all of them recall estimable and sincere people in their community. So, in
the sincerity of my excitement and in my yearning for simplicity, I should be likely to degrade the very virtue which in my own person I unavoidably represented.
Thus I should have launched my double warning. And having cleared the ground, I imagined myself as naïvely turning the page and proceeding. But it was too wonderful a sermon for me ever actually to have pulled through.
Fénelon, I doubt not, had come to his definition in the school of experience, and when he spoke of two qualities of the race, he was thinking, not of abstractions, but of people, kinds of people, such as he had dealt with often in the confessional. "So-and-so is conscience-ridden," he might have said, "she fetters her spontaneity with too much thought. I'll see if I cannot beguile her into betting on the next horse-race!" Or, as Fénelon pondered upon his definition, he might have been led to play with it, by recalling famous characters in history, putting, say, a simple man over against a sincere man, and being satisfied that the former was the finer; as we might put Homer against Dante, Shakespeare against Milton, Nelson against Wellington, St. Francis against Calvin, Cervantes against-I don't know whom. Perhaps, too, I might have hedged on the name of Dante, and Savonarola might take the place of Calvin as illustrating my point more subtly. The sphere of life, it is evident, does not matter. There are simple and sincere men of religion, just as there are simple and sincere statesmen, or poets, or scientists, or philosophers. These qualities are human attributes; they are not fastened upon definite professions. Darwin and Pasteur, for instance, are fair examples of simple scientists; Huxley, who lived, it is said, in a resolute fear of self-deception, of a sincere scientist.
But it seems as if this juxtaposition or balancing of traits might be illustrated otherwise than by calling upon figures of history. The theory or saying ought in some way to be brought nearer home and applied. Perhaps then we could see our own tendencies more clearly. These traits of sincerity and simplicity I should like to isolate, to examine each one naked, as it were, in order to probe the words of Fénelon. And I think I find them isolated and 'enfleshed' in two characters of a dramatist who
himself had the experience of passing from the state of simplicity to that of sincerity-I mean the characters of Solveig and Nora in Ibsen's plays, Peer Gynt and the Doll's House.
Solveig and Peer Gynt, we remember, first meet at a wedding feast; the encounter results in love; she becomes Peer Gynt's betrothed. He takes leave of her at a little hut in the high forest, he to go on his years-long travels, she to remain there spinning, spinning, and steadfast. She loses her youth awaiting his return; her hair turns gray. Still she sits sadly cheerful, uncomplaining, singing her little songs, and spinning.
Finally Peer, an old man, pursued, breathless, and in despair, drags himself to Solveig's hut, at the very moment that she, dressed for church, appears in the doorway. Peer flings himself down on the threshold, breaking forth into cries of self-condemnation. But no word of reproach passes her lips. "In nought hast thou sinned," she says; "Thou hast made all my life as a beautiful song." In reply to his riddle where Peer Gynt has been since they parted, she says, "In my faith, in my hope, and in my love." As Peer clings to her and hides his face in her lap, Solveig begins to hum softly a cradle song; the curtain falls while she is still singing, louder now, in the full daylight.
This character of Solveig is not a person so much as an embodied idea or ideal. In the flesh or to the eye she is of the peasant class, like Gretchen in Faust, a girl of very limited experience. A connoisseur would doubtless pronounce her heavy. She is without nerves and subtlety, devoid of outward resourcefulness. Life has for her few twists and turns, but is a straight path from which when once her feet strike it she never strays. Her being stretches to a fixed, clear goal. She has had a vision of the ideal in her youth and sets herself undeviatingly, unquestioningly, almost dispassionately, toward its realization. Her part in the play, in the number of lines, is not large, yet one somehow feels her presence there, just as one feels the presence of Cordelia in Lear, far in excess of the impression one would get by keeping tally on the number of times she appears.
Solveig, as I have said, is a symbol, an ideal; to me she is a sheer, unmixed embodiment of what Fénelon meant by sim
plicity,- that uprightness of soul which dwells not upon self, and which is a higher virtue than sincerity.
"What is life?" asks Ibsen in one of his lyrics,—
a doomsday account of souls?
Is Peer Gynt have said it was. What we are certain of is, that soon after writing this play he dropped verse for prose. Ibsen's later interest lay not in the quiet spinners, but in nervous, active women, women in bustling difficulties, whose lives are torn by devious, conflicting motives. He seems deliberately to neglect poetry, those doomsday accounts, for the battles of mankind. He became, in a word, sincere, and naturally those characters through whom he fought his battles were sincere people, terribly in earnest and ill at ease.
We are pretty familiar with Nora now, or at least if not with her, with her lineal descendants on the modern boards. She enters, a twittering, frisking animal, for all the world as charmingly irresponsible as Dora in David Copperfield. It is Christmas Eve, and she has been buying presents for the three children. When they appear, she has a glorious romp with them, one of the most celebrated romps, indeed, in the history of the stage. It is still unfinished when the figure of Krogstad darkens the door. And now that brilliant play is begun. The plot hinges upon a forgery, the ensuing complications of which furnish Nora with much to reflect and act upon. She ultimately releases her husband from all his obligations toward her; she leaves the room and, as he sits there stupefied, from below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door closing.
Nora has been called to arms against a deadening environment of moral turpitude. Her struggle involves, in her awakening mind, the very existence of her personality. A further life with Helmer would have reduced her to a shell with a dead mollusk inside. So on her past she lets a heavy door reverberate.
And Ibsen, too, has closed a door on the Solveig type of woman. As a student of human responsibility under modern
social conditions, he has evidently concluded that people do not save themselves through renunciation, nor do they save others by weaving about them a web of their own ideals. Ibsen sets his characters down in a field of contemporaneous social barb-wires and calls on them, "Now cut your way out single handed." In other words, Nora will best arrive at her duty to others by recognizing fully at first what she owes to herself. The conceptions of society about her may have hardened, in so far as she can apply them to herself, into mere superstitions.
And now I think I have given a fair account of what Fénelon probably meant by the virtue of sincerity, that virtue which if left alone leads its possessor constantly to dwell upon himself and his actions. It involves a problem and a doubt. We accept Solveig; we discuss Nora. She is never absolutely certain that she is doing the right thing. Her creator, indeed, consented to give the play another ending. What of her children; what were her obligations there? The thing becomes insoluble. A singleness of purpose is wanting; she is tossed on a sea of misgivings, this poor girl. She becomes egotistical. She was, when all is said, as experienced a person as was Cordelia or Solveig; but she was intent upon saving herself. They threw themselves to the winds and in their simplicity saved others. I seem to see prefigured in this character of Nora a contemporary malady,—not universal, of course, but fairly prevalent, especially in circles that like to think of themselves as intellectual and social leaders.
When a society is living in a condition of adjustment, of measurable content, let us say, both in matters temporal and spiritual, then the artists come forth and adorn that life and interpret it. Great art springs ever, I conjecture, from adjusted communities. I do not mean, of course, self-satisfied communities, but rather a society in which there has been a solution. In such a society there may be fervor and flux; the poets may dwell upon themes of high tragedy; yet in this poetry there are encountered always visions of definite ideals. "A great creative epoch in art can never occur where society is uncertain of itself and distracted in its aim."
But to live in an uncertain society is rarely thought of, I