Comparative Literature/Book I, Chapter III
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Chapter III. The Principle of Literary Growth
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|Published in 1886, source Internet Archive|
§17. Sir Walter Scott, in his preface to the Bridal of Triermain, published in 1813, offered some remarks "on what has been called romantic poetry." Though the main object of these remarks was to deprecate the practice of selecting "epic" subjects after the Homeric model, they contain a passage which, apparently without any conception of this particular bearing on the author's part, touches a most profound problem, not only of literature, but of all human thought. The passage is as follows: "Two or three figures, well grouped, suit the artist better than a crowd, for whatever purpose assembled. For the same reason, a scene immediately presented to the imagination and directly brought home to the feelings, though involving the fate of but one or two persons, is more favourable for poetry than the political struggles and convulsions which influence the fate of kingdoms. The former are within the reach and comprehension of all, and, if depicted with vigour, seldom fail to fix attention; the other, if more sublime, are more vague and distant, less capable of being distinctly understood, and infinitely less capable of exciting the sentiments which it is the very purpose of poetry to inspire. To generalise is always to destroy effect. We would, for example, be more interested in the fate of an individual soldier in combat than in the grand events of a general action; in the happiness of two lovers raised from misery and anxiety to peace and union than in the successful exertions of a whole nation. From what causes this may originate is a separate and obviously immaterial consideration. Before ascribing this peculiarity to causes decidedly and odiously selfish, it is proper to recollect that while men see only a limited space, and while their affections and conduct are regulated, not by aspiring at an universal good, but by exerting their power of making themselves and others happy within the limited scale allotted to each individual, so long will individual history and individual virtue be the readier and more accessible road to general interest and attention; and perhaps we may add that it is the more useful, as well as the more accessible, inasmuch as it affords an example capable of being easily imitated."
The limited range of living human sympathy is, no doubt, a key to many secrets of our modern literature; but it is not true that individual character has always been the centre of human interest, or that generalisation in all states of society "destroys effect." The individualism on which Sir Walter Scott bases his theory of poetry has been evolved from conditions under which men and women were more deeply interested in social action and communal sympathies than in any emotions or thoughts of personal being. If we compare the early dramas of Athens, England, France, we discover certain points of similarity which cannot be attributed to imitation; and the most striking of these resemblances is the absence or weakness of individual character. In the medieval mysteries and morality-plays, as is well known, the so-called "characters" introduced are either divine or allegorical—God and His angels, Satan and his devils, Justice, Mercy, and the like. We are accustomed to regard these abstract or general personages as the handiwork of the monks and medieval religion. We are accustomed to credit these spectacles as well as the scholastic lovers of abstractions with a profound desire to express the invisible and the infinite in their art and philosophy. But let us not confuse the idealism of a Plato or a Berkeley with the average thought of peoples saturated with superstitions grossly materialistic and narrowly limited in their intellectual and social views—men and women who forgot limitations of space and time in feudalised pictures of Hebrew, or Greek, or Roman antiquity, not because of their "universal" ideas, but because they were incapable of apprehending even very limited ideas correctly; who could only see the crucifixion through the associations of knights or burghers, and who reduced divinity with an almost savage confidence to the compass of their human senses and the little sphere of their sensual wit. Such men, such women, can have possessed no real conceptions of the infinite, can be credited with no true efforts to express it. The "realism" of the Middle Ages—which shines out as clearly in their dramas and allegorical "epic" poetry as in their formulated philosophy—is but a weak power of abstraction seeking to prop its steps on every kind of external object. Far from indicating a lofty feeling for the invisible and infinite, 1 it shows how short a distance the human mind 'could then travel without perpetual returns to the visible. This "realism," as well as the allegorical and abstract characters of the medieval mysteries and moralities, reflects a weak sense of personality which is found in all early stages of social life, and to which the social organisations of medieval Europe contributed in a manner to be hereafter discussed. But let us pause to note certain evidences of the same weakness in the early drama of Athens.
The weakness of character-drawing in the early Athenian drama cannot escape the most superficial student of Athenian literature. Thus in the Prometheus of Aeschylus we have Violence (Βία) and Force (Κράτος) executing the will of Zeus against Forethought (Προμηθεύς); and, as Aeschylean critics have often observed, the chorus, and not the individual characters, may be seen to predominate in the dramas of Aeschylus. Far from the Athenians of the Aeschylean age being, in Sir Walter Scott's phrase, "more interested in the fate of an individual soldier than in the grand events of a general action," the Suppliants (the earliest Greek play extant) turns entirely on the action and character of its chorus—the fifty daughters of Danaus; the Persians derives its name from the chorus of twelve Persian elders, and is far less individual than social in its interest; and the Eumenides centres in the action and character of the Furies who form its chorus, supply its name, and make the allegorical personifications of the inherited curse—a conception of impersonal ethics with difficulty harmonised in the later Athenian drama with freedom of personal character. Moreover, when we follow the developments of the ancient and modern dramas, we find a striking similarity in their progressive treatment of character. By degrees the divine, saintly, or allegorical personages of our medieval stage give way to human character in its contemporary individualities, and the tragedy or comedy of real life is reached. So, also, in the Athenian drama. The chorus, dominant, as we noticed, in Aeschylus, is by Sophocles subordinated to individual character, and by Euripides is finally converted into a mere spectator. Heroic personages are, indeed, retained, but only as the external clothing, the stage "properties," under which varieties of individual character may be put forward. Allegorical personages, like Dêmos and Eirênê, "The People," and ."The Peace," walk the stage side by side with living celebrities, just as in the "Miracle du Saint Guillaume du Desert." Saint Bernard, the famous Abbé de Clairvaux, figures beside Beelzebub and the rest. And, at length, the open introduction of everyday life banishes or altogether subordinates the mythical heroes and allegorical characters of old Athenian tragedy and comedy. It will not, of course, be supposed that individual character in the Athens of Aeschylus was as weakly developed as in the French Communes of the twelfth century or the early German town-guilds, much less that the social life of Athens at the time of Euripides did not differ in many respects from that of England and Spain, of Italy, Prance, and Germany, at the appearance of the legitimate drama in modern Europe. But they who will remember how inherited sin supplied the pivot conception of theatrical ethics in Athens, and how a grossly sensual view of vicarious punishment supplied the ethical doctrine of the mystery-plays, will admit that weak ideas of individual responsibility and character imparted as much interest to early Athenian tragedy as to the medieval spectacles. Wherein do we find the causes of such similarity? The answer to this question discloses that principle of literary growth to which in preceding pages we have incidentally referred.
§18. The development of individual character is at the outset confused by certain facts which tend to mis-lead both the makers and the critics of literature. It is easy to forget that the very existence of a literature implies a considerable degree of social and linguistic unity, and that such unity involves the break-up, more or less, of those miniature communities, clans, and tribes in whose corporate and unindividualised ideas we find the roots of early religion, law, and literature. Thanks to such scholars as Von Maurer and Nasse, Emile de Laveleye and Sir Henry Maine, we now know more of these little circles of kinship than we ever did before. We know that, with more or less modification, they are to be found in every part of the East and West, and that wherever they have perished survivals of their existence have been left in human action or thought. But we too often forget that in literature, in the productions which states of social communion on a much larger scale than that of clan or tribe have thought worthy of transmission, we must view any survivals from these early communities through the medium of much later associations. Hence it is easy to be deceived by the prominence of individual life in the Iliad, or Beowulf, or the Nibelungenlied. Yet this prominence is readily enough explained. The clan communities, whose impersonal conceptions of ownership, contract, crime, have only been recovered because at the birth of central government they forced themselves on the recognition of a weak authority, were in the process of their decomposition into larger groups (such as tribal federations) subordinated to military and religious chiefs; and it was only when this process had reached a considerably advanced stage that writing began to be employed, and, in the interests of the widening social groups, legends of clans once isolated were combined and centred round this or that eponymous ancestor, this or that individual hero. Literature, therefore, apparently begins in some countries with the prominence of the individual. But we must remember that this early individualism is something very different from that to which our modern associations are accustomed. The chief of clan or tribe represents his group. Such personifications of the group we are liable to confuse with individual character in the modern sense, We are liable to forget that personality in an age of even weakened communal life means something quite different from personality in an age when individual independence—feudal or democratic—has been developed. Some leading ideas of clan life will sufficiently illustrate not only the differences which set a gulf between primitive and highly-evolved personality, but also the hopelessness of attempting to understand the nature of social evolution without attending to such differences.
The clan, as such, knows nothing of personal responsibility in a future state, for its corporate view of life needs no such individual sanction for morality. The Hades of the clan, therefore, like that of the Odyssey or like the Hebrew She'ôl, is merely a subterranean gathering-place of buried kinsmen whose life is a pale reflection of their life on earth. Keward and punishment, the terrors or consolations of an individualism not yet developed, have here no place, and for a reason easy enough to understand. This reason is that each clan, as a corporation which "never dies," suffers, or is liable to suffer, for the sins committed by any of its members as long as atonement is not made. Hence the place of personal reward or punishment in a future state is taken by corporate responsibility in the present life. Just as among the Bedâwi the rights and liabilities of Thâr or Blood Revenge extend to the fifth generation, so in all clan communities responsibility is more or less an impersonal matter. Hence, too, there is nothing illogical to the clan mind in the sacrifice of an innocent man as a compensation for the sin of a guilty member or of the group; such a sacrifice only becomes illogical when the idea of individual intention and personal responsibility is clearly realised. Hence, also, as the clans lose their communal character (for example, by their land ceasing to be common property, and their ties of kinship being weakened by artificial expansion) and are broken down into their component families and individuals, ideas of inherited guilt survive into the new social conditions, and are misapplied to purely individual life in a manner which can only issue in a conflict between personal intention and corporate responsibility. It is by this kind of survival that we find inherited guilt the leading ethical doctrine of the Athenian drama in its earlier period—for example, in the Seven against Thebes, in the Orestian trilogy, in 'Oedipous Tyrannus. It has been observed that the subtle Greek gradually altered the old and gross conception of inherited guilt into a personal liability to commit fresh offences, and so to incur divine vengeance. In this way his growing individualism avoided such a direct repudiation of inherited sin as the less subtle Hebrew found himself compelled to utter. But even conceptions of impersonal responsibility so considerably removed from the oldest and purest life of the clan as the ethics of the early Athenian drama are enough to show the gulf which separates our modern analyses of intention, and consequently our ideas of personal character, from days in which the individual was morally merged in his group. Indeed, the survival of such conceptions in the highly intellectual atmosphere of Athens is altogether a more remarkable fact than the condemnation of belief in inherited guilt, the ethics of the Decalogue, by Ezekiel (ch. xviii.). If the latter proves that in Ezekiel's age the communal sympathies of the old Hebrew clans (mishpâchôth) had dwindled into an individuality with which inherited guilt came into direct collision, the former should prepare us for survivals from the impersonal view of human character in any state of social life, however civilised, however favourable to individual independence.
§19. Impersonal ideas of human character, mainly resulting from certain forms of social organisation, are thus the source of the similarity we have observed between the early dramas of Athens and modern Europe. If such ideas are in Athens survivals from the corporate life of the clan, a life gradually expanded into the entire demos of the city commonwealth and at the same time narrowed into an evolution of individual culture, they are in medieval Europe due to a resurrection of corporate life in the towns whose rise everywhere marked the decadence of feudal individualism. If clan communities have been in literature more or less concealed from view by the fact that only during their absorption into larger groups and their decomposition into individualised life has literature to any considerable extent made its appearance, if they were fused into cities and nations, the town communities of the Middle Ages likewise lost their corporate sentiments by becoming the local organs of monarchical centres, and neither the literature of feudal castles nor that of kingly courts could sympathise with their corporate life. But we must here remember another cause of the darkness which hangs between us and really archaic conceptions of human character. In any comparison of the classical and modern literatures of Europe in their early developments we must be ready to allow for the influence of a world-religion (as well as a world-language) on barbaric and medieval imagination and intellect. Christianity, like the eagle wounded by an arrow which a feather of its own had winged, is to-day attacked by social and physical theories which claim to rule a wider empire of time and space; but at the Christianising of Europe, this majestic world-religion must have opened up such visions of human unity as the barbarians would have needed centuries of internal conflict, civilisation, and philosophy to approximate. To the Europe of the barbarian hordes Christianity came as a ready-made philosophy—a philosophy, moreover, not too refined to touch certain deep feelings of clan life; indeed, two leading conceptions of the new faith were identical with conceptions long familiar to such life, viz. inherited sin and vicarious punishment. So far as these doctrines were concerned, Christianity did not introduce new ideas; it simply extended ideas already existing, within small circles, to a range apparently boundless. How, then, it may be asked, did the Christian world-religion contribute to throw ideas of clan life and impersonal character into the background?
The Christian conceptions of personal immortality, personal reward or punishment in a future state, must have contrasted curiously with the usual doctrines of clan ethics. We cannot here attempt to trace at any length the influence of this individualism on barbarian feelings; we need only observe how largely it must have contributed to strengthen such sentiments of personal independence as had been developed among the tribal chiefs before Christianity became known to them. As in the two social lives of early Greece brought before us by the contrast of Homer with Hesiod—the life of the chiefs splendid with heroic ideals and personal prowess, the life of the villagers oppressed with poverty and toil—we find among the barbarians of the fifth and sixth centuries marked differences between the independence of the chiefs and that of the common clansmen. But the difference does not assume Homeric proportions until the barbarian conquerors have settled down, and the comitatus or gefolge of the chief changes into the retainers of a feudal lord, while the body of clansmen sink into villagers over whose common lands the seigneur alternately extends his protection and his domain. Then a striking contrast to the social life of Athens and Rome begins to disclose itself. Instead of the life and the ideas of the city, we find men passing their days in isolated groups under the shadow of the seigneur's castle, serfs dependent on a master whom there is no public opinion and little public force to keep in check, serfs who hardly know of any world beyond their village and their lord's retainers, and who bear in ruined harvests or devastated homes the marks of that knightly independence to which Europe for a season offered a romantic field for individual caprice or chivalry. In such ages literature had no resting-place save in the lord's hall or in the monk's cell; and it is not surprising that some centuries of this feudal individualism did much to destroy recollections of the clan and its social character. In such ages the very notion of "the people"—that abstraction which the social conditions of our modern life have made so significant—did not exist; for the isolated groups of villagers had, until the rise of towns, no bond of social communion save through their lords. Hence, in feudal, as in Homeric, literature, personal character, aggressive and isolating, overshadows all corporate bonds of social unity. To create such bonds was the work of new groups whose rise in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, England, makes the most memorable chapters of modern social history. With the rise of the modern towns—so different at once from the early clan communities and from the municipal systems of Greece and Rome—began a twofold process; the subordination of individual to collective interests accompanied by a development of individual liberty within limits prescribed by law. It is in the earlier growth of this town life, when feudal enemies kept the commune and its corporate interests uppermost in the burghers' minds, that we find the social source of likeness between the early dramas of Athens and modern Europe. How much of this resemblance was due to survivals from the clan age in Athens and medieval Europe we need not now inquire. It is enough to observe how great must be our difficulties in tracing the evolution of personal out of impersonal character when Homeric bards, feudal trouvères and troubadours, or monks deeply imbued with the universal humanity of a world-religion and the personal ideas of Christianity, were in the course of social progress our early makers, and witnesses to the making, of literature."
But there is another cause of our difficulties in realising the evolution of individual character. Living in communities highly individualised, which have derived so much of their art from Athens and Rome—communities themselves highly individualised—adult ideas of personality have long formed for us the centre of all our creative art, of all our criticism. The corporate life of men in groups has only found admittance in our modern literatures since industrial development began to create a new social and impersonal spirit. Marks of this corporate life on creative art we may, for example, discover in Faust, with its allegorical personages recalling the medieval mystery, in the Légende des Siècles, with its vision of the social changes through which humanity has passed, or in the poems of Walt Whitman, in which, as it has been well said, each individual suggests a group, each group a multitude, and the poet manifests a recurring tendency to become a catalogue-maker of persons and things. The impersonal laws of science have also contributed to aid the corporate spirit of our industrial life and modern democracy in producing a creative art of corresponding nature; witness the reign of law, physical and social, in the works of many contemporary makers of literature, whose feelings of personality sometimes seem to die within them at the vast vision of social and physical causes and effects—
"On n'est plus qu'une ombre qui passe,
Une âme dans 1'immensité."
But such conceptions are of comparatively recent origin. Corporate life had little place in the masterpieces of earlier European poetry—little in the song of Dante full of the note of Italian individualism, more perhaps in the character-types and allegories of Chaucer, but little in the drama of Shakespeare in which the "people," seldom noticed, appear only as a fickle and irrational mob, now huzzaing for Cade and now for the King, now siding with Brutus and now with Antony. Nor need we feel any surprise at this predominance of the individual in modern European literature till the middle of the last century. "The people" at the time when Shakespeare wrote was scarcely in existence in England, or France, or Germany; towns there were, indeed, with their local patriotism, their parochial politics, their hostility to the seigneurs and to each other; but " the people," in the sense familiar to our modern industrial communities, in which the steam-engine and the telegraph have done so much to destroy local distinctions, was then and for a long time afterwards, in Mr. Dowden's excellent phrase, like Milton's half-created animals, still pawing to get free its hinder parts from the mire. Hence the progress of literary art under the patronage of courts, as previously under that of seigneurs, moved in a groove of individual thought and feeling to which the influence of classical imitation only confined it more strictly. Hence, too, the language of criticism which expressed or analysed this literary progress was altogether conceived from the individual standpoint, and can with difficulty be employed by the socialising spirit of the present day. To take one example of the influence of these individual associations, we may refer to the unfinished essay of Montesquieu on Taste. In his famous Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu, after starting, indeed, with abstract principles not much superior to the usual imitations of Plato and Aristotle, had struck into the true path of social and physical causation; yet, when he afterwards came to discuss the theory of Taste, there rose before his mind the figure of an individual, dependent indeed for his conceptions of the beautiful on his senses and liable to have such conceptions altered by the sharpening or blunting of his senses, the increase or diminution of their number, but still an individual with whose statical nature questions of aesthetic development as depending on social life or physical environment have little to do. So hard was it even for such an intellect as that of Montesquieu to rise above ideas of individuality which the art and criticism of classical antiquity and modern civilization had combined to create.
§20. Anticipating evidences to be adduced elsewhere, we may here lay down the principle that in the movement of civilisation—a movement by no means regular, but often spasmodic, back and forward, forward and back, though on the whole forward—personal character comes  to stand out more and more distinctly from the general crowd. But this evolution of personal character—under which we include the actions, instincts, emotions, reason, imagination of the individual unit—must not be viewed apart from the extent to which it prevails, that is, the number of units in any social group who may be regarded as having attained a given standard of such evolution. The highest evolution of character is where every individual in the entire group stands out in clear-cut personality—it cannot be found in a sprinkling of individuals, as in the priestly culture of the East, nor in an educated few supported by masses of slaves, as in Athens and Rome, nor in a few seigneurs towering like their castles among herds of serfs, nor in the poets and orators of European courts. To use a phrase of logic, we must not only regard the comprehension but also the extension of individuality; and only as both of these go hand in hand can we say that permanent personal progress is being made. Walt Whitman, whose three leading ideas are clearly democracy, American nationality, and personality, seems to keenly appreciate this truth. The American bard, who will content himself with "no class of persons, nor one or two out of the strata of interests," sees "eternity in men and women—he does not see men or women as dreams or dots."* How immense is the difference between this conception of a multitudinous people composed of perfectly distinct personalities, and the little groups of common kinship in which personality was almost unknown! How vast and intricate this twofold process of individuality deepening in the separate units while expanding in the number of units it includes! Now, it is this twofold process which we mean by "the principle of literary growth." Only when depth and extent of individuality are concurrently developed can we feel confidence in the permanence of such growth; witness the rapid withering of Athenian literature. In a well-known canon Sir Henry Maine has expressed one aspect of this individual evolution when he says that the movement of progressive societies has been from status to contract, or, to translate the legal into everyday language, from the restraints of the communal group to personal freedom of action and thought. But the extent to which this free individuality prevails is an aspect of such evolution no less important than its degree or depth. If any one doubts this, let him remember that average character, on which the reasoning of sociological science is based, means simply the extent to which any given individuality prevails.
We accept, then, as the principle of literary growth, the progressive deepening and widening of personality. We shall find in the course of our inquiries that not only have the depth and extent of personality varied in different conditions of social life to an astonishing degree, not only have they left upon diverse literatures the most diverse marks, but that the animal and physical worlds have assumed new aspects under new phases of personal being. At present, however, we turn to a question which more immediately concerns us, viz.: What is the method by which the discovery and illustration of our principle may be best conducted?
- See Miracles de Nostre Dame, edited for the Ancient French Texts Society, by MM. Gaston Paris and Ulysse Robert."
- Shakespeare: Ms Mind and Art, p. 320.
- Preface to Leaves of Grass.