Is It The Age or Us?

“Neither is it true to assert that the ‘ages of faith’ are past, and that we live in an age of scepticism or defeat. The ‘age’ is an abstraction; only the individuals who make it are real. Man’s experience of himself is at all times a simultaneous experience of greatness and misery, god and worm. He is free to give primacy to either of these experiences. Like a compass, he is pivoted between acceptance of defeat or belief in the absurd. Whichever he chooses can determine his existence and, ultimately, his age.”


“All this springs from an acceptance of the idea that we live in ‘an age of decline’. But is this true? What evidence have we that we are tireder, more exhausted, than the Elizabethans or the Victorians? What is usually regarded as evidence—the increased crime rate, the teen-age ‘idols’, and so on—is really neither here nor there. We know that the challenges we face are some of the greatest in human history, but what evidence have we that we are less competent to deal with them than the Elizabethans would have been? It seems likely that we are far more competent; the ‘ordinary man’ of today has to deal with a far greater complexity than his counterpart of four hundred years ago.”


“There is an automatic assumption that belief in oneself is a form of self-delusion. This is the major cultural heresy of the twentieth century, the very foundation of the ‘unheroic premise’, the central cause of the cultural slump in our time. Until it is destroyed, there can be no hope for a ‘cultural revival’. It is a sign of our age that inner-direction is regarded with suspicion and a certain amount of fear, and any expression of self-belief stands in danger of ridicule. Thought becomes blurred; the inner-directed man expects to be attacked for selfishness. But the chief necessity of our age is to dare to be inner-directed.”


“This ‘order’ must reach beyond intellect as music does. The art and philosophy of the twentieth century must be rebuilt on foundations in which the words ‘purpose’, ‘optimism’, ‘idealism’, are given a new meaning. And the instrument for creating these new meanings is existential philosophy.”


“In short, if there is to be a ‘revolution’, it will have to begin as a ‘cultural revolution’. The reason for the defeatism that underlies so much modern writing is the feeling that nothing that happens in the ‘cultural world’ can have any bearing on the world of practical events.”


“It may be invaluable for diagnosing the anti-individualist tendency that is eating away the foundations of modem society, but it fails to emphasise that the first characteristic of the ‘inner-directed’ man should be a higher intellectual and moral perception.”





The Fallacy of Insignificance

“The fallacy of insignificance can be combated on the ‘writer’s front’ by a deliberate attempt to replace worn-out religious and cultural concepts with a new existentialism.”


“When I enquire into my own experience of ‘nausea’, I discover that it is closely connected with a great number of other terms: unreality, boredom, futility, frustration.”


“In the final analysis, ‘the nausea’ is the fallacy of insignificance. It is expressed in Eliot’s lines:

-. . . and leave me sitting, pen in hand…

Not knowing what to feel, or if I understand.-

This feeling is ‘existential’; it refuses to put an interpretation on the world.”


“All men are supplied by a powerhouse of will and subconscious drive, but very few are aware of anything but the need to keep alive.”


“If it is a mental attitude that has created the problem, then it will be a change of attitude that will be the first step in solving it. ‘Insignificance’ is a literary trend that can be combated.”


“Now obviously, the statement ‘a man is free’ is almost meaningless if it is taken to mean ‘he has no limitations’. In order to have meaning, his limitations must be stated, the boundaries within which he has freedom and choice.”






The New Existentialism

“Fundamentally the ‘heroic urge’ is only the desire of life to find a broader field for its powers. Nietzsche asked “What is happiness?” and answered: “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance has been overcome.””


“Ultimately, the hero is the man who lives constantly out of a sense of his own freedom; his ‘commitment’ to the world is nourished by his ‘inwardness’, and his inwardness is constantly strengthened through being reflected back from society. Such a man would recognise all life as sacred, as all is involved in the same struggle towards expression of its freedom.”


“This existentialism must make the fullest use of the invaluable work of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus, but its chief task is to break beyond their limitations.”


“I envisage the new existentialism as a mystical revolt, based upon recognition of the irrational urge that underlies man’s conscious reason. The writer’s task is to try to make the ‘noise of the power house’ audible. For this reason, I regard Blake and Shaw as seminal figures, in that both were permanently aware of the ‘power house.’ Their rationalisations of it are less important (Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, Shaw’s ‘vortex of pure intellect’, superman, etc.). What matters is that they recognised the need to give life an additional dimension of purpose.”


“How far can critical analysis hope to create a new existentialism? Its value is obviously limited to clearing the ground. The actual edifice must be the work of poets and novelists.”


“The aim of the ‘new existentialism’ is identical with that of ‘the hero’ and the ‘inner-directed man’—to be re-connected with the vital impulses and the sense of purpose.”


“This points to one of the main causes of the failure of French existentialism. It has failed to place sufficient emphasis on the creative drives. It deifies the ordinary at the expense of the extraordinary. One might adapt Shaw’s comment on Shakespeare, and say that it understands human weakness without understanding human strength.”


“The problem, then, will be to create a new positive existentialism. It would not be accurate to say that this would have to begin where Sartre and Camus left off, for both have been committed for some time to the direction that appears to have led to an impasse; a new existentialism would have to begin further back, utilising only their psychological method.”

The Artist’s Responsibility

“The responsibility of literature in the twentieth century becomes appallingly clear: to illuminate man’s freedom.”


“From the considerations of the preceding section, one point emerges with undeniable clarity: the responsibility of the writer in our time. His responsibility is heavier than that of the politicians or the church, for what is in question is a revolution in thought, not a five-year plan or a recipe for ‘getting right with God’. Man in the twentieth century suffers from an insignificance neurosis, which can only be attacked from ‘inside’.”


“I envisage the new existentialism as a mystical revolt, based upon recognition of the irrational urge that underlies man’s conscious reason. The writer’s task is to try to make the ‘noise of the power house’ audible. For this reason, I regard Blake and Shaw as seminal figures, in that both were permanently aware of the ‘power house.’ Their rationalisations of it are less important (Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, Shaw’s ‘vortex of pure intellect’, superman, etc.). What matters is that they recognised the need to give life an additional dimension of purpose.”


“The picture builds up with appalling inevitability, selecting details of human sin, weakness and misery —and entirely omitting any reference to the strength or poetry of human existence. If the reader has been carried along and convinced, the final effect is to make him feel that the world is a far worse place than he had ever imagined. And once this idea is firmly established, he is in the right frame of mind to appreciate Greene’s patent remedy—Catholicism. “Don’t worry, the world may be an awful dump, but the mercy of God is infinite”, etc. For the reader who feels inclined to ask: “But what about Beethoven, what about Michelangelo and Van Gogh and Rabelais…?” there is no reply, and he is left with a guilty suspicion that perhaps he is rather immature to ask such questions.


“The picture we are faced with, then, is of a society which is neither more nor less ‘decadent’ than in any previous age, but whose artists and writers have allowed themselves to sink into a minor role. The value of the artist lies in the fact that he asserts a sense of order, of the power of the human spirit, into the sordid conflict of our everyday lives.”


“The central preoccupation of existentialism can be defined in one phrase: the stature of man. Is he a god or a worm?”


“Modern literature takes the latter view. This is not because all modern writers are unaware of the alternative. Even Sartre’s Roquentin has strange god-like moods. But the tendency of the age has been to emphasise the insignificance of man, his misery and weakness. It is all a question of emphasis.”


“E. M. Forster was right when he called Ulysses “an attempt to make darkness and dirt succeed where sweetness and light failed”. He might have gone further and characterised the whole of modern culture as an attempt to make cynicism and despair succeed where enthusiasm and optimism had failed. With such foundations, it is hardly surprising that the culture of the mid-twentieth century is a monument to the unheroic premise.


“The acceptance of this view could affect the writer in certain obvious ways. The novelist or playwright who creates characters who are slaves of their environment does so because he accepts their predicament as his own. The conscious rejection of the unheroic hypothesis, the insignificance premise, might produce some interesting results. It might reveal that the influence of the writer on society is actually greater than the influence society is supposed to have on the writer. If this were established, it would reveal that all writers are committed whether they know it or not, committed up to the hilt in determining the attitudes of the society they live in.”


“The writers and thinkers are becoming increasingly ‘other-directed’, while the ‘saints’ are as rare as ever (and the few men who possess ‘saintly qualities’—Schweitzer in Africa, Dolci in Sicily —have a full-time job relieving human misery, without concerning themselves with ‘new values’). In the literary world particularly, it has come to be accepted that no new Tolstoys or Shaws can be expected, and the reviewer has put his yardstick in a cupboard and uses a six-inch ruler for his weekly batch of novels.”

Inner-Directed and Other-Directed Man

“It may be invaluable for diagnosing the anti-individualist tendency that is eating away the foundations of modem society, but it fails to emphasise that the first characteristic of the ‘inner-directed’ man should be a higher intellectual and moral perception. If this were not so, there would be no problem of the hero, and heroes would be two a penny.”


“One of the most important exceptions, and one not generally considered as a ‘character’ of fiction is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Nietzsche, who was in every way an inner-directed man, tried in Zarathustra to create the new hero. Zarathustra begins by turning his back on society and coming to grips with his own problems. We are told that he had passed through a period of utter pessimism and life-denial; he obviously feels the same as the Underground Man about the ‘old hero’, as his comments on the army and the State show clearly. What is most interesting about Zarathustra is Nietzsche’s realisation that the real hero must be a perfectly healthy man.”


“When a man begins to look outside himself for his freedom, he has already plunged into ‘inauthentic living’, and his thinking is unsound in its foundations. But there is another important way in which men surrender their freedom: in slavery to their own pasts.”


“But the final index to an author’s insight into ‘inner-direction’ is his ability to create an inner-directed man, the ‘hero’.”


“It is a gospel of complete inner-direction, that in spite of physical bondage, man is free and will always remain free. He may not know it, but his freedom is indestructible. When he knows it, as Meursault does in a sudden vision, he is happy as well as free, but it doesn’t really matter whether he is happy or not; he is always free.”


“It is no longer a mere figure of rhetoric to say that man’s freedom is being destroyed every day. In such a situation, it is hardly surprising that men are losing their sense of interior certainty and becoming more ‘other-directed’. Yet it is impossible for man to regain his power over his situation without turning away from the immediacy of his experience, and concentrating upon his intuitions of his own value.”


“Riesman makes it clear that he considers the spread of other-direction to be due to the switch of emphasis in American economic life from production to consumption. Sartre and Camus know that the roots of existentialism can be traced back for at least a century and a half. And yet all four are ultimately concerned with the loss of autonomy in modern man. “

The Hero in Literature

“Faust had expressed pessimism and despair as he sits alone in his room, but the despair has nothing to do with society; it is to do with the problem of the meaning of the ‘will to truth’. He feels a certain patronising affection for society; he would like to take refuge in the gaiety of the country folk on Easter Day, but knows he can never feel restored to kinship with other men.”


“The ancient Greek hero was a mortal who hoped to gain the favour of the gods, and the mediaeval knight was a mortal who trusted to his patron saint and Jesus. Faust is the man who objects to being mortal. His whole quest is aimed at becoming god-like; his despair lies in his inability to escape his own miserable limitations. Now Shaw continues in the Faustian tradition, making Don Juan state: “Life is a force which has made innumerable experiments in organising itself.” “The mammoth and the man, the mouse and the megatherium . . . are all more or less successful attempts to build up that raw force into higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely unilludedly self-conscious; in short, a god.” The issue is now plain. The old hero was the favourite of the gods; the new hero aims at becoming a god. Riesman would say that the old hero was ‘tradition-directed’, while the new hero aims at being completely inner-directed.”


“Shaw decided that men have more control over their lives than they realise (the answer is typical of him) and that they could live indefinitely if they made the effort.”


“But his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, provides an important exception. In this book, Mann writes about the ‘old hero’, the ‘lucky’ man. In Greek mythology, to be lucky meant to be favoured by the gods. The same concept lies behind the stories of knights in the Middle Ages, and it is invisibly present in the Arabian Nights. Joseph, like Ulrich, is born with all the qualities for greatness; unlike Ulrich, he is not a ‘modem hero’, which means that there is no obstacle to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny. On this level, the story is simple and straightforward. Its main interest lies in the fact that Joseph is an authentic hero figure, an exception to the ‘unheroic premise’. ”


“In this essay, I am deliberately paying very little attention to Proust, for obvious reasons. If his hypochondriac Marcel is to be seriously considered as a hero, then the word hero is almost meaningless. Marcel suffers from an acute form of the insignificance fallacy. In Swann’s Way, he relates how his mother stayed the night in his room, and “permanently weakened his will”. All through the book, he is never wholly free of a feeling of self-contempt. Defenders of Proust might argue that this reveals self-knowledge. I am more inclined to believe that it shows self-deception, the weakness of a man who is too lazy to make any effort to discipline himself. He suffers from the notion that sensitivity must involve various kinds of weakness.”