Criticism of 20th Century Contemporary Civilization Between the Wars

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      Though many critics worshipped Joyce and Virginia Woolf, writers were reluctant to indulge in further revolutionary experiment. The greatest change in the novel in the 20's was not in technique but in the impact of new ideas upon moral standards in the flux of the post-war mind. As regards the novel, the period between the Wars indeed presented a remarkably rich and varied scene, impossible to summarise with real justice. With Joyce and Virginia Woolf in the vanguard, the novelists who, next to them, attracted most attention were probably D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forester and Aldous Huxley.

      E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence: Basically the “modernness” of Forster and Lawrence consists in the discomfort of soul which made them both critics of contemporary civilization. From their earliest novels their attack upon the materialism of their day is clear, if sometimes implicit rather than explicit Forster from the start was explicit enough in his denunciation of the life according to convention and in his preaching of the spontaneous life, and by Howard’s End (1910) undisguised in his attack on the business mind and the worship of bigness in industrialized England. Discomfort of soul is obvious in his characters, and not difficult to feel in their creator’s urgent attempt to “save their souls” in the course of his stories. As against the cheerful enthusiasm of Wells advocating an open conspiracy to beget the World State, Forster rather impresses one as preaching a secret conspiracy for culture and the education of the heart, with a fear, in his last novel, that the battle may be lost. In Forster’s attack on his Pembrokes and Wilcoxes there is a tension of the spirit quite absent from Galsworthy’s exposition of the weaknesses of the Forsytes. Lawrence’s reaction against the materialism of the machine age, against the intellectual and scientific bias of the time, against the unnaturalness of the personal and social life in modem conditions, soon cried aloud in novel after novel.

      Not only did Forster and Lawrence share this general reaction against contemporary civilization, but they also had a common positive theme, for the novels of both are really exercises on the motif of “right personal relationships”, a favorite phrase of Forster’s. Their solutions were radically different: Forster relied on intelligence, culture and an awakening of the heart, while Lawrence, though he too was preaching to the heart, relied primarily on the passions of the blood and was preoccupied with sexuality, a theme almost alien to Forster.

      D.H. Lawrence, who led the revolt against reason, was one of the most disputed geniuses of his time. He traced the springs of conduct to Freudian depths, and his heroes and heroines were prompted by dark urges springing up from their subconscious selves. His novels were not concerned with telling stories, but with the study of inner conflicts and their resolution. He was acutely conscious of the unhappiness which comes from the divided mind, and he sought to restore wholeness. Lawrence was one of the most prominent of the novelists who were influenced by the psycho-analysts.

      His first novel The White Peacock, was published in 1911, the year following his mother’s death. The novel exhibits his awareness of the social influences that operate to thwart the natural play of instinct and affinity. Sons and Lovers, which followed in 1913, is largely autobiographical. In this novel from the vantage point of twenty-eight Lawrence surveyed his childhood, the loves of his early manhood and his relationship with his mother. In Rainbow (1915) Lawrence dealt with conflicts and soul-storms of sex on an almost epic scale. Women in love is a sequel to The Rainbow. The rainbow, which in the earlier novel was the symbol of reviving hope, is paralleled in ‘Women in Love’ by the statue of an African woman, a study in pure sensation. Lawrence suggests that harmony might be restored to life by accepting the value of purely physical experience. Lawrence was now ready to begin his mission as a prophet of the new order; to build up the new myth of the blood consciousness that should save humanity from the sterile waste of spirit in a world bounded by the limiting cerebral reality. Christianity he rejected, because it was dualistic, perpetuating the conflict between flesh and spirit, mind and matter. He wanted to do away with the centuries’ old domination of the cerebral intelligence which ignored the cosmic mystery of life, to liberate the suppressed instincts and to return to the primitive belief that there was an organic relationship between man and the universe. So largely expressed in his novels but very much in his letters too, he evolved a kind of modern pagan religion to free men from the sterility, from the monotonous boredom and mechanical slavery of the machine age. In a letter he writes:- ‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh as being wiser than the intellect...All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without ? fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what-not.” Fully convinced that he had found the solution for society’s ills, Lawrence wrote ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ (1928), in which the entire social system is made to depend on an integral sex relationship. The theme presented is, in a way, allegorical. Chatterley, returning crippled and impotent from war, symbolizes the degenerate post-war world. Mellors, his gamekeeper, is the “natural” man and has affinities with Morel in ‘Sons and Lovers’ and with Birkin in 'Women in Love’. Chatterley is the effete, worn-out, over-civilized product of purely mental living. Connie, Lady Chatterley, is the feminine consciousness that must decide between the old social order, devitalized and sterile, and the new, bright with promised life. In the end Connie and Mellors unite in triumph over the forces of convention that threaten them, and the novel ends with the awaited birth of their child.

      Lawrence was no experimenter in technique as Joyce was, but content to use the traditional form and plot, although his conception of the dynamics of personality was peculiarly his own. He was the only novelist of his time to use the novel for the purpose of recreating the great myths by which humanity lives, and he did it with a burning intensity and sincerity. His prose style matched his
strange vision. Its dark radiance sprang from a poetic fervor that found expression in words and phrases charged with, suggestive beauty. Yet the fact that he was attempting to convey a meaning that is only truly explicit in symbols led to an intolerable amount of repetition and diffusiveness. He often seems to be suffocating in his effort to express the visions of his brain. But when all is said, there is greatness in him; he is something of an authentic visionary, and the future may be in a better position to interpret his dreams.

      E.M. Forster, a liberal and a humanist, loved civilization, which he regarded as liberalism’s finest achievement. Order, culture, toleration, admirable as they were in themselves, were so often balanced by hardness, complacency and insensitivity and by the absence of the vital principle that gave richness and joy to life? Those who were the pillars of society, respected guardians of civilization, often lacked heart and were devoid of tenderness. This problem of the confused complexity of human characters and relationships is the chief theme of Forster’s novels. His novels depict the conflict between two ways of life - the way of the heart, which loves and understands but is often confused and misguided, and the official way that preserves order but stifle genuineness under a pall of good form and convention. Human beings tend to fall (in Forster’s words) into two main groups, the “crustaceans” and the “vitalists.” The former are the adherents of lifeless convention, hidebound conservatives whose responses, once conditioned in youth, are never modified by experience or understanding. They are the enemies of the idea, they destroy love because their hearts are undeveloped and they cause the delicate fibers of human relationships to wither. Opposed to them are “vitalists”, who feel deeply and are not afraid of their feelings, who let the heart guide them in their relations with others, who take the broad view and refuse to let respect for convention stifle their generous impulses.

      His first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) deals with the clash between the “Crustaceans” and the “Vitalists”. In The Longest Journey (1907) the same patterned contrast between convention and nature, the “Crustaceans” and the “Vitalists” is worked out more elaborately. In Howard's End(1910) his theme was that, while the practical business mind, typified in the Wilcoxes, was limited, it had qualities essential to successful living, and that the desired end was its humanizing by the qualities which the Schlegels possessed, a sensitive understanding of moral and aesthetic values. The pattern of the novel is indeed once more based on the attempted saving of a soul, for that is primarily Margaret Schlegel’s aim, to redeem Mr. Wilcox from materialism and to achieve in their union the truly balanced life.

      If Forster had stopped there, he had done enough already to encourage the keen questioning of current materialism. A Passage to India (1924), however, displaying the mature power of its author, added weight to his first novels. The gist of this novel, in fact, is that the establishment of true personal relationships is not as hopeful of achievement as had been suggested. Forster draws in Fielding a character whose sympathies with Indians are true and sensitive, but Fielding in the end finds that intelligence, good-will, and culture, are not enough to connect East and West, not enough indeed, we feel, in Forster’s view, to solve life’s problems anywhere. In the center of the book Mrs. Moore’s faith in life is drained away by the desolating echo in the Malabar caves.

      But A Passage to India is too great a work of art to render up any simple view of life. On the surface it presents the magnitude, mystery and complexity of India; symbolically it presents the complex mystery of all life and is a study of the problem of evil in the universe. Neither its end nor its total effect depresses. Indeed the last section hints strongly at an ultimate goodness behind the mystery of the universe. The end is a brusque parting of East and West. But one feels that, if only Western civilization could learn the uninhibited naturalness of the East, its ability to be happy, it's blending of the serious and the humorous, the result might not fulfill the motto “Only Connect”, yet it would certainly help the West. Indeed in his own understanding of the East. Forster in A Passage to India created the one character who exists in the fullness of life in his novels, Dr. Aziz, fluid, contradictory and unpredictable.

      Somerset Maugham: Like other Georgian novelists Somerset Maugham reflects the mood of bitter cynicism and frustration which overtook the post-war generation in England and elsewhere.

      Maugham revealed himself as the master of documentary realism in Liza of Lambeth (1904), and Of Human Bondage (1915). Sternly suppressing sentimentality, Maugham presented an unvarnished picture of life, laying special emphasis on the forces that make for the frustration of the individual, whether they spring from human passions or are occasioned by the workings of society Of Human Bondage is a sad grim book in which the working of fate has a menacing inevitability; its sincerity cannot be questioned but the total effect is undeniably depressing. The book reveals his quest for stable values. ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ (1919) told the story of Gauguin and his flight from civilization to a tropical island. ‘Cakes and Ale’ (1930) is his masterpiece and contains Rosie, the unforgettable character created by Maugham. The novel presents a caustic portrait of two authors, one a genial old Bohemian who has become famous and the other a novelist who has been commissioned by the celebrity’s second wife to write an official biography. She is anxious to provide a reverential idea of him for his admirers. The novel is chiefly distinguished for its clever study of the first wife, a good-natured harlot who runs away.

      Aldous Huxley: Social historians of the future will undoubtedly turn to the writing of Huxley as a guide to an understanding of the generation that came to maturity between the First and Second World Wars. He was the spokesman of the “modernists.” Lacking the imaginative power of Lawrence and the poetic sensitivity of Virginia Woolf, Huxley had a more assured grasp of the problems of the time and approached them with more knowledge and a better intellectual equipment than either.

      Huxley’s novels are primarily talk, at first amusing with its wit and satire, later purposefully seeking a beneficent truth, and then issuing the gloomiest warnings in profound despair. His first novel, Crome Yellow (1921), was little more than a conversation piece. In Antic Hay (1923) Huxley expanded his treatment, but did not change his method. In Those Barren Leaves he let his people talk at even greater length. The result was a sprawling novel, diffuse and discontinuous. By the end it became a novel with a purpose, that of analyzing the disease of modem civilization and of searching for a cure. In Point Counter Point (1928) in fact Huxley followed on from the end of Those Barren Leaves. What kind of man was “Fully realizing the value of science and of the scientific spirit, he was fully as much afraid of the kind of world its abuse and idolatry might produce, but in trying to present his fearful imagination he lacked the persuasiveness of H.G. Wells”. (S.D. Neill)

      Eyeless in Gaza (1936) represents Huxleys’ most ambitious effort. The story is told in three layers of time: in the foreground is the diary kept by Anthony Beavis in 1934; below, are the events of August 1933, which gradually draw up to the time of the diary and finally overtake them; below those again is the previous life of Anthony and his friends, also told in three layers, one between 1902 and 1904, one between 1912 and 1914, and one between 1926 and 1928. But the novelist does not keep to the chronological order: he shuffles the layers. The novelist, however, controls the shuffling and the result is extraordinarily successful. The method suggests, too, the continuity of life, with the future implicit in the present and the past living in the present, so that, looking backwards, one has a sense of destiny in cause and effect. This shuffling of chronology was Huxley’s one striking development. After Many a Summer (1940) is a closely-knit novel with an exciting main plot, but its basic theme is philosophic-the contrast between two conceptions of time, that of the mystic, and that of the scientists. Time Must Have a Stop (1945) showed a starting return in manner to the style of Crome Yellow and Antic hay. Undoubtedly the most original aspect of ‘Time Must Have a Stop’ is Huxley’s attempt to explore the consciousness after death. Failure to persuade humanity to follow him along the path of non-attachment and unity provoked Huxley to a savage denunciation of man in Ape and Essence (1949), a bitter novel, in which he predicts the bestial degradation of the human species after a third world war.

      Huxley made little or no contribution to the development of novel as an art form; in fact his novels are really essays and conversations strung together on a slender thread of plot. But he did for fiction what Shaw had done for the drama, namely, made intellectual discussion as exciting as emotional experience. He created in fiction an image of the dynamic world of ideas that underlies the changing outward society. His mental evolution in the two decades between the two wars, reflecting as it does the main trend of intellectual opinion, gives him a unique value as a commentator in contemporary fiction.

      J.C. Powys : John Cowper Powys never had or could have so wide a public as Aldous Huxley, but his work, equally a product of the times, and, like Huxley’s, is indeed hardly conceivable out of relation to the years after 1920. It appealed to a relatively small, but to a devoted audience, for whom Powys was something of a prophet speaking to hearts repelled by the materialism of the age.

      A Glastonbury Romance appeared in 1933. It centers on a huge religious pageant culminating in the impersonation of Christ upon the Cross. The story is fantastic enough. Yet the strange, often grotesque improbability of it all, is conveyed with a searching psychological realism. He was indeed the supreme instance in this period of the creative artist absorbing and bringing to life the teachings of the psycho-analysts, excelling even Joyce in his artistic command of his material. He rivals Virginia Woolf in presenting his people in such a way that we live constantly in their infernal world of thoughts, memories and feelings and are immersed in the flow of consciousness.

      That his novels became controlled by a mystical view of life links him not only with the Huxley of the middle period but with D.H. Lawrence, to whom he is in fact closer in prophetic quality and in a tendency to over-write both his mysticism and the emotional sensitivity of his characters.

      Though A Glastonbury Romance was a great achievement, Owen Glendower (1941) was superior, and it is perhaps the greatest example of the historical novel in this century. Owen Glendower is the Welsh Prince of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’, and in the hands of Powys the man, the prince, and the age, the early fifteenth century, are shown with all the vital complexity characteristic of the treatment in A Glastonbury Romance. It is on the grand scale: one has the national scene, English and Welsh, the political, religious and economic aspects, soldiers, courtiers and peasants, fighting, loving, worshipping, singing, plotting. His technique is as before, presenting both the inner and outer life, and many of his historical figures have dark twists of soul and a tortured eroticism like his modems. The novel is indeed a wonderful application to the part of the psychological and historical knowledge of a penetrating modern mind, humorist and mystic, which is drawn to the darker aspects of human nature but reacts with a fascinated sensitiveness to all life. “His great virtue as a novelist lies in his deep and sympathetic knowledge of human nature and his conviction that life, even in pain, is a glorious experience. He did not try to run away from modern civilization like Lawrence, or hate humanity like Huxley, or help to paralyze the nerves of living like Joyce” (Dr. A.S. Collins).

      Regional Novel: The regional novel was a healthy development, but it was a narrowing of the novel’s scope. Partly from the stimulus given by Hardy’s concentration on Wessex, several novelists made a particular region their chosen world. Arnold Bennett, about whom enough has already been said, is the best exponent of the regional novel in the beginning of the twentieth century. Mary Webb took Shropshire and in Precious Bone (1924) her aim was very largely to preserve a passing age with its old local customs and superstitions, while her earlier novel The Golden Arrow had been pervaded by the sense of changes as modem ideas began to intrude into here isolated countryside. Sheila Kaye Smith too had for some years concerned herself with Sussex past and present, before The End of the House of Alar d in 1924 depicted the break up of an old Sussex landed family under the force of modern conditions. The regional novel had begun early in the century as in the West Country Tales of Eden Philpotts, but it was in the twenties that it really took root. Then it continued in the thirties and forties, Yorkshire being a particularly favored region, as in Winifred Holtby’s South Ridings while Leo Walmsley became the novelist of the fisherfolk of the North East coast. The Anglo-Welsh novels of Caradoc Evans and others, though hardly to be labeled “regional”, may also well be borne in mind here.

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