Towards a Better Life
Every historical period is unjust on principle to its immediate predecessor, partly as a way of escaping from it; generations reenact in large the primeval jealousies of fathers and sons, but between grandfathers and grandsons there often opens space for a reconciliation. Thus the time seems ripe for a reconsideration of the muchabused Thirties—“a low, dishonest decade,” as Auden described it, with a convert’s scorn for his former squalid circumstances. As applied to the international skulduggery of Chamberlain, Daladier, Stalin, Hitler, and their supporting cast, Auden’s adjectives are no doubt too mild, and few of those who committed themselves to the ideologies of the day, whether establishment or opposition, have much to be proud of. But books were written, during the decade, which got beyond ideology, and after lying buried thirty years and more among the dead rationalizations, they are starting to rise and reassert themselves. Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed, first published in 1934, is now reprinted with a circumstantial afterword by Lionel Trilling; Kenneth Burke’s Towards a Better Life, first published in 1932, is reprinted with a preface and helpful “arguments” by the author prefixed (à la Milton) to each chapter. Surely these are two of the books around which a fresh image of the American literary Thirties will have to be reconstituted.
Miss Slesinger’s novel, a satiric study of New York’s radical intelligentsia, rather exercised the critics when it first appeared, because they couldn’t think it was really a novel. Its last chapter had already been published as a separate short story, its narrative ends were not tied very tightly together, and on this score the book was generally judged structurally deficient. Nowadays we are likely to be less distressed by a story’s looseness, and are ready to excuse looseness generally as an expressive device. Miss Slesinger’s radicalism had somewhat the flavor of Dorothy Parker’s; it was disabused, worldly, and tended to view social man as a collection of hollow, wordy grotesques. Thus the class war is transformed in her novel very largely into a war of the sexes; characters neither deepen nor change nor influence one another, but run automatically through their predetermined cycles. Jeffrey Blake the popular novelist is automatically promiscuous, but it is mere infantilism, and in one of the strongest scenes of the book he is lulled to rest with a revolutionary bedtime story by his party-organizer mistress, “under Comrade Lenin’s eyes.” Miles Flinders is a guiltbound, inhibited Puritan whose Marxist orthodoxy barely allows him to perceive, and respond with awkward naiveté to, a single moment of his wife’s transfiguring emotion, before his compelling fear of life imposes on her a shameful abortion. Dr. Bruno Leonard, held throughout the novel in a paralysis of indecision over his relationship with his cousin Elizabeth, a program for a proposed radical magazine, responsibility for a clinging disciple, and practically everything else in his life, is finally forced to make an unprepared speech; it turns into a maundering medley of wisecracks, self-pity, and nihilism. The young are presented as a scattered flock of rigid-minded dissenters, under the calculated, contemptuous name of The Black Sheep. Amid these incoherent and forlorn grotesques, the women of Miss Slesinger’s novel are truly “The Unpossessed,” and from this point of view the loose arrangement of her narrative seems perfectly functional. The book’s theme is immobility and disintegration; either the characters are embarked on absurd enterprises, or they are absurd people to be embarked on those enterprises; in either case, scraps and fragments are their natural milieu.
AS A NOVELIST of social protest, Miss Slesinger was altogether in the respectable tradition of Zola when she depicted the proletarian sufferer as sexually deprived and exploited—an owned but not possessed—woman. Like Zola, too, she hesitated over making her mystique of woman (natural, vital, instinctual woman) a black or a white religion. There is, to be sure, no figure of diabolic proportions in the novel, whether witch or warlock; but several of the women in the book serve, no less effectually than the men, as agents of muddle and impotence. Indeed, Miss Slesinger’s characters are just as much “possessed” as those in the Dostoevsky novel which, evidently, she had steadily in mind as she wrote. They are all pretty much dominated by phantoms, to the point sometimes of caricature and burlesque; if one of the four major females is allowed to suggest, for a pathetic moment, the possible goodness and richness of life, that scarcely gives the sex as a whole redemptive powers or functions. There isn’t really more than a token center of positive value in the book; it is one of the most anti-political revolutionary novels of an age which often thought ideology an imposed but unfortunate necessity.
A perspective on its happy peculiarities can be had by reading The Unpossessed alongside Miss Slesinger’s book of short stories (Time: the Present, Simon & Schuster, 1935); the novel, it seems, succeeded in getting out of its author’s ideological control, as too few of these contrived and limited stories ever did. We are told that The Unpossessed was a roman à clef; perhaps the stimulus of personal malice was good for it. Its sharp disorder and authentic desperation contrast remarkably with the formality of a construct like “The Mouse-Trap,” in which a sadistic boss humiliates systematically his well-meaning but ineffectual employees, and culminates his enjoyment by debauching his secretary. This is American capitalism as enacted by papiermâché puppets made of ground-up Pravdas. But The Unpossessed is more complicated, because at least in its tone of false romantic despair it is authentic. Bruno Leonard’s catastrophic speech at the climactic party for the Hunger Marchers corresponds to a similar disastrous venture toward articulation by Stepan Trofimovitch at the literary fete which climaxes Dostoevsky’s novel; and both speeches are haunted by a sort of buffoonish sincerity. The total collapse of rhetoric is supposed to provide evidence of insights reaching beyond rhetoric; intellectual contrivance and artifice go down the drain in a swirl of destructive language. If anyone attains transcendent insight in The Unpossessed that insight is entirely bleak and negative. No harm to this, quite the contrary; whatever its technical deficiencies, The Unpossessed is not work done to a formula. But perhaps it supplies in itself a reason why Miss Slesinger, in the last decade of her sadly foreshortened life, did not write another novel, or carry further, in any literary direction, the talent so apparent in this book. Humiliating collapse of rhetoric has been a device of American fiction since Melville and Poe; equally familiar is the young American author of a single immensely promising book which he was never able to follow up. Perhaps there is some connection between the two phenomena.
KENNETH BURKE’S NOVEL, Towards a Better Life, though it appeared in the early 1930s, is not really affiliated with that era; despite its title, it has no connections with the Depression, with the movement of social protest, or for that matter, with twentieth-century North America. In shape it is a series of monologues—laments, admonitions, invectives, rejoicings, aphorisms, and beseechings—articulated, perhaps as imaginary letters, from a worldly ascetic (John Neal) to his perhaps-temporarily successful rival (Anthony) for the affections of a lady named Florence. The interlocutor writes at a conscious distance from the events he discusses, forswearing all effects of immediacy; having retired from the city in discomfiture, he finds temporary solace in the arms of another lady named Genevieve, briefly encounters Florence again after a long estrangement, and concludes his soliloquy inconclusively in solitude, isolation, and a Jim hope that the darkness is only a prelude to some sort of rebirth.
So laid out, the bare bones of the novel no doubt seem sparse enough. It is only the counterpoint of the inner action, which is the mind’s search for its personal equilibrium, that renders the fable properly multi-dimensional. Behind a stately series of formulas and façades, the narrator’s intelligence twists and equivocates under the pressure of personal needs; he really is in search of a better life, or at least a possible one. Once again there is a European parallel, Sénancour’s Obermann, that classic of dry, lucid romanticism. Obermann is an isolated, voluntary unbeliever, in search of a private mental decorum; he is a bit of a psychologist, a bit of a sentimentalist, a bit of a philosophical dandy—paralleling in all respects Mr. Burke’s plaintive protagonist. The eighteenth-century flavor is particularly strong in Mr. Burke’s novel; its aphoristic style, balanced periods, and abstract concision all raise the artifice to a level where it can be appreciated in its own right as comedy while simultaneously heightening one’s sense of an anguished destiny being worked out in the background.
What the anguish is over, what salvation is being sought, Mr. Burke, who has a playful appetite for rich ambiguity, will not limit himself by telling us too precisely. His hero, he remarks, “is an outsider, an ingrate, a smellfeast, and who could possibly see the burgeoning of a saviour in such qualities?” It is a sign of the distance we have traveled in the past thirty years, that a passage like this now strikes us as much too broad in its irony, too obvious in its reversals. Where else could we look for a savior nowadays? In fact, Mr. Burke’s novel, like Miss Slesinger’s but from the opposite direction, is devoted to the unpossessed and unpossessing mind. His theme is the disengaged, ironic intelligence; and at least one of the salvations being explored is the mind’s ability to invent for itself a sufficient ritual, and generate a sufficient order, to propitiate, however precariously, its own distresses. Its protagonist stylizes his experiences at a frantic rate (sometimes inventing experiences to eke out the style), and toward the end of the book, as he starts to lag behind his own life, he is in evident danger of being eaten up—no doubt this is the fate which is understood to overcome him. In Miss Slesinger’s gallery of ineffectual isolates, he would figure as just another gargoyle; but in his own terms, he is an imaginative venture, active and perilous.
A BOOK SO ABSORBED with style and stylization had better be well-written. Mr. Burke’s prose, which has been known to develop opacities, displays here a translucent elegance and humor, but the novel isn’t just fine writing. It is, in addition, beautifully expressive writing, with a vem of mockery at work under the formal turns of phrase. “Johnsonese” Mr. Burke calls it—doing himself less justice than anyone without an acute sense of irony could possibly conceive. If he had been talking about A Grammar of Motives, there might be grounds for agreement; but the prose of Towards a Better Life is dramatic and light of foot. As a deviser of do-it-yourself rituals against the void, John Neal faces a classic Puritan-American predicament; the resources of his several styles derive, with appropriate mockery, from Quintilian and LaRochefoucauld; his agile wit and insight into psychological gamesmanship are Mr. Burke’s own. Towards a Better Life is likely to count more, in future histories of American literature, than any given dozen of its soggier contemporaries.
A word here, in celebration of Mr. Kenneth Burke. He has been among us so long in so many capacities, and to such pervasive effect, that it is easy to lose track of how much the literary temper of our time owes to him. In whatever genre, his work has always carried the strong stamp of his individuality; he has never dissolved it into pap for the multitude or codified it into tablets for quick absorption by graduate students. He has never made it with a book club; he has never seemed ashamed of being learned. The subtlety of his critical work has challenged, its perversity has provoked, its original insights have opened up immense corridors of thought. Nobody who is capable of following him at all plodges in his footsteps; he is a critic for the adventurous, you take from him what you can get, and only realize later how much that was. Our sense of how literature can work and be worked upon is immensely richer because of him.