Thursday, 12 November 2015

GENIUS AND CONVENTION.

Maxim Gorki, the great Russian revolutionary writer, was requested to leave a big American hotel because the lady accompanying him was not legally his wife. The facts of the case are that Gorki was legally divorced from his first wife, but the Czar-bossed Greek church in Russia refused to declare his second marriage legal ; though it is so regarded by his divorced wife, his present wife, and all their friends; The Russian authorities not daring to send Gorki to Siberia, appear to have used their power through the church to wound and handicap a dangerous opponent. And the plutocratic press of America, which has never said an unkind word about the wealthy Chicago sausage-makers, howled in unison that Gorki was 'not respectable.'  
A. M. Thompson, in the CLARION (Eng.), deals with the question interestingly:
 Not even the terrible calamity of San Francisco has sobered the fury of plutocratic America against poor Maxim Gorki. The American millionaires, 'prodigies of turpitude,' as Lombroso calls them, 'anomalous creatures reared in the hotbed of poverty and ignorance, and urged along by an insatiable thirst for gain,' have been outraged to spluttering madness by the discovery that the great Russian writer lives with a lady who is not his wife.
 'Rend him ! tear him ! spit on him !' they scream. Nothing will do for them but that the whole 'putrid cancer' of the fallen hero's work shall be cut off from the public knowledge for ever.  'He has never written a wholesome sentence,' shrieks one; 'poison lurks in everything that he has said,'  screams another. Which is certainly not true, as those who attended the performance at Gorki's 'Bezsemenovs' at Terry's Theatre on Monday will enthusiastically testify.
 And it is worth while to point out that if great literary works are to be expunged because of their author's offences against conventional standards of morality, the interdict must destroy not only the bulk of the Greek and Latin classics, but the works also of Clement, J. J. Rousseau, Diderot, Richard Wagner, etc.  The American literary critics, in denouncing Gorki, seem to have forgotten Virgil, Martial, Catullus, Anacreon, and Socrates.
 Yet it was worth while to hear them tear the air, if only for the delight of hearing them splash softly back afterwards into the oozy slush of their respectable self-righteousness. As thus :

    Happily for America the superiors of our country have not been 'degenerates.'  Never were there healthier minds, minds freer from every form of taint or morbidity, than those of Franklin, Washington, Lincoln, and Grant, or those of Irving, Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell. Whether we turn to public affairs or to literature, our men of genius have been singularly free from every form of degeneracy.

 This list of 'men of genius,' it will be observed, prudently omits the only two 'men of genius' American literature has produced. Walt Whitman is ignored because his evidence might not support the tenor of the argument ; and Edgar Allan Poe because neither his work nor his life could be described as 'free from every form of taint or morbidity.'
 But in the matter of ordinary 'morality,' there are many of the 'truly great' whose lives will not bear inspection. We learn of deeply philosophical woman-hating Schopenhauer's subjugation by a little ballet-dancer. We read of Petrarch's sonnets to the eyebrows of a portly married woman, the mother of a large family, and recall how utterly he neglected his own wife and daughter.
 Sallust's exposure of the vices and follies of Rome is admirable and improving; but his own debauchery, corruption, and felony are not edifying.
 Seneca's refined sentiments and virtuous precepts leave nothing to be desired ; but there are writers who pretend that it was Seneca who initiated Nero in those unspeakable vices which have made that Emperor's name notorious for ever.
 Casanova, the friend of Rousseau, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and Catherine, was a charlatan and swindler, with strong 'convictions' from the Courts.

    If parts allure thee, think how Bacon shined,
   The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind,    

Scarron, the husband of Madame de Maintenon, and author of the 'Roman Comique,' led so licentious a life that it shocked even his dissolute age. Francois Villon, 'the prince of all ballade-makers,' is said in his fifteen years' career to have contrived to win more fame and more infamy than a whole generation of lesser poets.'  And Byron was not the sort of character to whose constant companionship a careful wife would care to entrust her husband.
 From archbishops up to plough-boys we all worship Shakespeare, but would it have pleased the American Shakespearolatics to choose Will Shakespeare, the creator of 'Jack Falstaff,' to direct their children's studies ?
   Amongst the Elizabethan poets there was indeed one of habitual chastity of diction and absolute sobriety of deportment.  Meres, Lodge, Carew, Drummond, Harrington, and Spenser, all commend his strictly proper Muse, and he himself wrote, saying :—

 I know I shall be read among the rest,
 So long as men speak English, and so long
 As verse and virtue shall be in request
 Or grace to honest industry belong.

 But Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that 'Daniel was a good, honest man, had no children, but was no poet.'  And Daniel, the 'admirable Daniel,' as Coleridge calls him, is now forgotten.
 Is there any rector in Britain, though he were as Scotch as Sir Walter himself, would be content to trust his Sunday school to the unguarded charge of Bobby Burns?
 Alas! alas ! there is no greater illusion extant than the young ladies' boarding-school notion that great men must be 'nice men' !
 As one poet has prudently exclaimed:—

 Ah ! spare your idol ! think him human still.
 Charms he may have, but he has frailties too;
 Dote not too much, nor spoil what ye admire.

 Yet many great men have told the people the truth of this matter.  Walter Scott wrote : —

I have read books enough, and observed and conversed with enough, of eminent and splendidly cultivated minds too, in my time ; but I assure you I have heard higher sentiments from the lips of poor, uneducated men and women, when exerting the spirit of severe, yet gentle, heroism under difficulties and afflictions, or speaking their simple thoughts as to circumstances in the lot of friends and neighbors, than I ever yet met with, except in the pages of the Bible.

 Perhaps Moreau de Tours was right when he formulated the sentence that 'le genie est une nevrose.'  At any rate it is a fact that the exquisitely strung nervous system indispensable to genius is more readily subject to derangement than the placid, turbid slab of grey matter which regulates the comings and goings of Wordsworth's multimonial hero : —

A primrose on the river's brim
 A yellow primrose was to him,
 And it was nothing more.

 'Common sense' says Mirabeau, 'is the absence of too vivid passion ; it marches by beaten paths, but genius never.  Only men with great passions can be great.'
 ' Extreme mind,' says Pascal, 'is close to extreme insanity.'
 Says Dryden :

 Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
 And thin partitions do their bounds divide.

 Diderot says the same thing.  'How close the insane and the genius touch,' says he ; 'they are imprisoned and enchained, or statues are raised to them.'
 And Democritus declares that 'insanity is an essential condition of poetry.' Which is probably the reason why I, alone among the CLARION men, never write any. [Q.E.D.]
 Aptitude for literary work more or less resembles intoxication. The dull mind may be whipped into the frenzy of invention by strenuous self-torture, or it may counterfeit the genuine rapture with the aid of musical, narcotic, or alcoholic inebriation.
 We owe Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner' and much, doubtless, of Poe's work and De Quincey's to opium.  How many other masterpieces, I wonder, must we set down to the credit of alcohol ?
 'I am compelled to believe,' says Tasso, 'that my insanity is caused by drunkenness and by love ; for I know well that I drink too much.'

 And Socrates the wise, they say, of yore,
 Amongst boon blades, the palm of drinking bore.
 And of the elder Cato it is said
 He often went with a hot pate to bed.

 Was Dick Steele always sober when he wrote?  Was the author of the 'Vicar of Wakefield ' ?  Was Addison?  Sheridan?  Savage?  Jas. Thompson? Chas. Lamb?  Burns?  Alfred de Musset?  or— place aux dames— Madame de Stael?  How much did Jan Steen and Morland Turner owe to artificial inspiration?  how much Gluck and Handel?  how much Alexander the Great? and how much Bismarck?
 'Great men should drink,' says Shakespeare, 'with harness on their throats.' and the caution has been in all ages and all countries sorely needed ; teetotal poets are as rare in history as midsummer snow.
 No, it is not true that :

 Lives of great men all remind us
 We can make our lives sublime ?

 The inflammable constitution and sensitive minds in which genius subsists have been commonly a prey to passions which have left colder, harder natures untouched ; have been always more or less defiant, sometimes needlessly defiant, of conventional standards of morality ; have been daringly apt to lead their own lives in their own way, and to make their ethical codes for themselves to the measure of their own requirements ; and have in many cases bred as luxuriant a crop of rankest weeds as of wholesome flowers.
 But outraged American plutocracy has nothing to do with that. The millionaire, according to Lombroso, is destitute of moral sense, kindliness or justice.  A successful money-getter 'must not mind ruining his friends, or breaking his wife's heart.  'He makes gain from other people's ruin, and he is only removed from the commonplace type of man by his near approach to the criminal.'
 But, thank God, the plutocrats have a religion, which, as Charles Dickens puts it, 'is a gloomy sacrifice of tastes and sympathies that never were their own, offered up as a part of a bargain for the security of their possessions.'


The Clipper 16 June 1906

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