the imaginative conservative logo

Sicut erat in principio
et nunc et semper
et in saecula saeculorum.

I

ClioWe not only read a novel, we enter into its created world. We identify a novelist by his world, that is, the world that especially conveys the body of his vision. We relate the novelist’s world to a particular place and time in history, to a particular human condition, and above all to particular phys­ical entities. The novelist’s world becomes both a process of discovery and a journey of revelation. His fictional world makes us more aware of the map of our human world. In the end, what the novelist does, if he is really successful, is to dramatize for us the inner and the outer aspects of the world which we call our home, our uni­verse, our topos. Since too often we know, or think we know, that we possess and con­trol the world we live in, we perhaps take it too much for granted, which means that we do not always see, and see into, our world as fully or incisively as we can or should. The world in all of its forms and shapes, its sunshine and shadows, its sunsets and dawns, which the novelist paints in a work of art, gives, or should give, the reader a shock of recognition. It should help him to comprehend more vividly the world’s infinite mystery, wonder, beauty, as well as its paradox, its enigma, in short, its inspiration and its unfathomability. It is a world with landmarks and touchstones. On its roads and pathways, in its crowded streets, as in its open spaces, we travel, meeting ourselves and others, touching the known and the unknown. Its topography is our most visible connection with the seething immensity of life, as saints, mys­tics, prophets, philosophers, poets, and painters have testified to from the earliest times. The world comprises a ceaseless double rhythm of creation and of death, of cohesion and of dissolution; it is the alpha and the omega; our whatness, our temp­tation, our judgment, our beginning and our ending—the final apocalypse. “The world is a closed door,” writes Simone Weil, “It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.”

The world, as I have tried to describe its encompassing perimeters, fills immensity. Man, it is often said, cannot jump over his own shadow. The poet—and by “poet” I mean a writer of imaginative works in verse or prose—leaps over the universe. He can, in William Blake’s  words, “See a World in a grain of sand.” The poet gives us his visions, or sense-perceptions, of the dramatic sense, as well as his imaginative grasp of the human scene in its wondrous totality, and specifically its spirit of place. The poet gives voice to the world. He con­veys its most essential qualities of body, of weight, of color. The world is the poet’s center of gravity, a geographical point of actions in convergence. Undoubtedly, one poet’s world will differ from another’s. The primitive world of Homer is our own world from moment to moment. The medieval world of Dante, on the other hand, is a world which we step into. Homer’s is an immediate physical world as it is felt and seen. Dante’s is a prophetic world in which we view the journey of the soul, self-lost, self-sought, self-found. The Iliad tells us about the destruction of the city of man, the greatest of griefs that can afflict man. The Divine Comedy tells us about the attain­ment of the city of God, the greatest of spiritual joys that can be given. One of the supreme glories of the poet, as both Horner and Dante confirm, is to be able to present the kingdoms of the world in a captured moment of time—the world now and the world to come.

world of the poet lady readingThe poet as novelist includes and portrays in his work a particularizing world, a visible landscape, which serves as the stage of what happens in the story that is being told. Of course, this landscape may ultimately indicate something more than what is merely physical in appearance and atmosphere. Indeed, it may have the deep­est and widest of implications, connecting story and action and people (or things) with happenings, with significances, of an internalizing nature, of a most profound psychology. The great novelist is one who includes and renders the world’s physical properties in order, as Henry James be­lieves, to make us catch a glimpse of a great space, the complete and profound mystery of the soul and of the conscience of man. In great art, the world attains its true and most relevant meaning in these­ transcending and transcendent dimensions. These dimensions of great fiction are moral: “…they deal [as James also be­lieves] with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life.” We must make our judgments of discrimination in order to distinguish moral vision from sham vision. Our hesitation to do so merely leads to drifting consequences, for ourselves and for our culture. At the risk, then, of being labeled a traditionalist, I shall here re-as­sert, and re-affirm, T.S. Eliot’s dismissal of a novelist as useless if he neglects or lacks a “moral preoccupation,” which is the abili­ty to perceive evil and good. At the risk, too, of being labeled as a moralist, I think it necessary to apply Eliot’s criterion to the ways in which the novelist handles his fic­tive world. If the world into which the novelist lures us, in which he even traps us, does not have its impelling moral interest, it neither contains nor communicates the seriousness and the profundity that Eliot associates with moral preoccupation.

If we are to avoid the awful conse­quences of non-oriented and disoriented thought in our comprehension of modern literature, and if we are to penetrate more meaningfully into the artist’s world, it is necessary to restrict our attention to the world of the novelist that has its source in the moral imagination, that qualitative imagination which is aware of the differ­ence, the eternal struggle, between good and evil. This requirement is especially pertinent to our tough-minded generation whose moral interest in art is in eclipse. It is hardly necessary for me to note that the super-secular appetites of our age lead in­creasingly to moral immobility, a condition that spreads dangerously to all areas of per­sonal conduct and collective life. Hence, we need to be severely selective in our reading and reckoning of novelists and to make our selection on the basis of the validity of a work of art in terms of the human awareness and the moral interest it promotes. It is nowhere enough merely to see in a novel a particular world in its intensity of self­ consciousness, but rather, and above all, to gain a deeper moral knowledge of our world. How a novelist’s world develops in us a real moral understanding; how it shapes first our perception and then our conception of our own world, helping us thus to fathom its meaning and to approach more closely to spiritual reality through physical phenomena; how, in short, the novelist, through the world he creates, can acquaint us with the idea of moral value and character: these should mould our con­cerns as well as the standards that we should be applying rigorously to imagina­tive art, if it is to escape inanity and chaos. What I am saying here—the criteria I am trying to define and to defend in relation to separating and saving what is of value from what is of little value—comes down finally to this critical principle: If we be­lieve that the human world is significant, because of its moral significance, then art that is morally rooted can help us recog­nize the conditions of our existence.

world of the poet danteFor the true novelist, the burden of vision and responsibility is imperative and un­avoidable. Consequently, in his fictional world we are thrown into a world of good and evil; a world in which moral struggle, loneliness, and choice, accompanied by pain and misery and terror, become a tran­scending and a transforming experience. This experience of moral crisis can be a prelude to moral awareness. Art that provides for this heightening experience be­longs to that ancient and higher tradition of wisdom that returns us to the world of the Bible, of Sophocles, of Virgil, of Dante, of Milton. The world that the modern poet­ novelist creates discloses the extent and the depth of his capacity to be, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, a “discerner of spir­it.” In this redemptive role, he helps us to grow wings, as Plato said, to overcome gravity. A novelist who is a “discerner of spirit” contends with and dramatizes ulti­mate questions, the “everlastingly accursed questions” as they are called. Such a nov­elist reveals in the world he portrays a special dimension of moral insight, a special mission, a special aspect of the hu­man situation. He thus reveals the unique­ness of this poetic vision and, inevitably and finally, its identifying moral meaning. To be sure, poetic value is something differ­ent from moral value. Yet the two, when they do converge, have a reciprocal effect on our life-outlook and life-values. The nov­elist’s vision-world engages our rapt, intransitive attention, as Eliseo Vivas describes it. (And the fact remains that we become what we contemplate.) It also enables us to lo­cate a center of values.

In dramatizing his moral concern, the novelist helps us to envision “man in the modern world,” perhaps even “the end of the modern world.” The fictional world of a Franz Kafka, for example, expresses an existential morality. That is, his world contains a permanent hope-defying paradox against which man, both as victim and as assailant, struggles. Kafka’s is a nightmare world: an airless, grotesque, dark, suffocating city world in which it is always three o’clock in the morning. It is a world filled with the intolerable tension of man’s predicament. “If one is not being pursued by the world or carried off by the world, one is running after it,” Austin Warren says of “kosmos Kafka.” In it, one suffers through a never-ending waiting for grace; one is always trying to reach something that, at the same time, is always withdrawing, insofar as that something—call it God—is not-there, not-yet. To the ques­tion, “Will a savior ever appear to us?”, Kafka replies that, yes, a savior will come. But he will come “when he is no longer needed, he will arrive the day after his arrival, he will not come on the last of the days, but on the day after the last.” It is true that Kafka’s world depicts man in search of salvation, but his search, with its relentless but elusive moral expectations, has no telos. “There is a goal but no way,” Kafka writes, “what we call the way is only wavering.” We discover in Kafka’s world how moral Angst subsumes moral fantasy and becomes a permanent human condition.

world of the poet rainbowIn D.H. Lawrence’s world, on the other hand, we have a naturalistic morality, revolving around the legitimacy and the holiness of the human passions in which he finds man’s infinite possibility and final redemption. His assertion that the true artist “always substitutes a finer morality for a grosser” helps us to gauge Lawrence’s moral perspective and purpose. He refines his moral vision from a natural, a sacred, and a primordial world in which the sun and moon, the “birds, beasts and flowers,” the “city’s gold phosphorescence,” and even the scars on the landscape as­sume moral implications. Lawrence’s is a paradisal world in which the passions themselves are embarked on a paradisal quest. The very last sentence of The Rainbow (1915) crystallizes Lawrence’s vision of a reborn world: “She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and fac­tories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over­-arching heaven.” In contrast to Kafka’s moral concern, which is existential and metaphysical, Lawrence’s is physical and intuitive. This intuitiveness makes him aware of the vulnerability of “finer moral­ity” that he offers and affirms as good. After the Great War of 1914-18 he saw this vulnerability objectified in “mechanisms of matter” and “dark satanic mills,” the agents of evil debasing and destroying the world. It is the “terror of history” that now appears in Lawrence’s dark and tragic novel, Women in Love (1920). Flood, fire, snow, ice are the apocalyptic images that dominate this novel, in which we view the death of civilization brought on by capit­ulation to a grosser morality. But let Law­rence describe this process of dissolution, found in those remarkable concluding pages of Women in Love: “It was a grey day, the third day of greyness and stillness. All was white, icy, pallid…. In the distance a slope sheered down from a peak, with many black rock-slides.” The Lawrence we hear in these words is a prophet who seeks to save the modern world from an immoral destiny.

Books mentioned in this essay may be purchased from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 1978).

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: