The subtitle of Martin Green’s book is A Narrative of “Decadence” in England After 1918. (Thanks for the inverted commas.) It is really a curious mixture of anthropological theory and a Baedeker of the main cults or “gangs” that have succeeded one another in English literature for forty years after the national disaster in 1918. And since this is the period when Great Britain ceased to be a world power and when a wealthy, brilliant, and traditional governing class lost its will and its money, and virtually gave up control of English life (and about a third of the earth’s surface), Mr. Green slips in dramatic headlines about the state of society to which literature may be linked.
The subject is well worn: it has been irresistible to simplifiers and theorists; Mr. Green himself is a man who cannot resist a generalization. He is not primarily a literary critic but a cultist and iconographer. For him the question is what cultural clothes the writers of the period were dressed in. Sackcloth and ashes? The glitter of the dandy? The revolutionary denim? The Puritan black? The buccaneering eye patch and gaudy sashes of Pop culture? Or the shabby suit of the likable old humanist who “fatally lacks power, for he is not where the action is in the cultural debate.” The critic must pant after the Zeitgeist.
The novelty of Mr. Green’s situation is that he is a more or less repentant Leavisite of the 1947 vintage who has become fascinated by the display of the dandies and aesthetes who dominated the Twenties and the “naif” dandies of the Thirties who gave up cosmetics for semicommunist sunburn. In his undergraduate years he would have called himself a Roundhead in conflict with Cavaliers. Thirty years later he is wondering whether a touch of the Cavalier might not be “reconciling”; what a critic must go for is power. Now he makes the fashionable appeal to mythology. It is dull to call the dandies of the Twenties Cavaliers; after consulting anthropologists like Bachofen, T. J. Perry, and the cultural diffusionists he sees the dandies of the Twenties and Thirties as the Sonnenkinder, the legendary Children of the Sun, and invokes the heady names of Demeter, Apollo, Adonis, Narcissus, and Dionysus as he studies the careers of the old Etonians and Oxford undergraduates of this theatrical period. One noticed in Mr. Green’s earlier book The von Richthofen Sisters a tendency to pile it on; the detail distracts the argument, for, as usual with schematic writers, the ambiguities and the exceptions proliferate.
It is well known that after the slaughter of the 1914 war the younger generation born after 1900 became rebels against the Victorian patriarchy and family, and declared that responsibility and maturity, as represented by them, were palpable evils. The gifted rebelled and turned to elegance, irresponsibility, and hedonism. Even when they were not as rich or as well born as, say, the Sitwells, the Actons, and their like who went up to Oxford with £3000 a year of their own, all the young hated their elders. The dandies were out for publicity and power, and the snobberies of art carried on a successful war against social snobberies. But here comes the first ambiguity: dandyism has a long and complex history in English literature: the men of the Twenties could look back to the Decadents of the Nineties, who had looked back to the Regency and further back to the Restoration, even to the Elizabethans. In the midnineteenth century Dickens himself was a dandy even when, to punish BulwerLytton, he made his dandies villains. Meredith’s Radicals are dandies. And today, dandyism has revived in popular culture as it did in Goya’s time in Spain.
The second difficulty is that in its stand for dandyism against middleclass values and realism in the arts, all Europe, even Russia and the rebel American expatriates, had taken to dandyism long before 1918. The English revival was given the kiss of life by the French—Cocteau and Proust and their forebears, and above all by Diaghilev. The old sad images of the Pierrot and Columbine, and by the commedia dell’ arte, were unkillable. Fantasy might seem like a deplorable item of the class war, or a response to the loss of 500,000 British soldiers in three weeks on the Somme, but the revolt was the revival of a tradition, and on this aspect Mr. Green is interesting.
How does he define dandyism? He picks up Ellen Moers’s definition: the dandy as a social type is “a man dedicated solely to his own perfection, through a ritual of taste…free of all human commitments that conflict with taste: passions, moralities, ambitions, politics or occupations.” By extension, he is a rebel, often a cynic, conscientiously “immature,” always “selfish” because the criteria of maturity and unselfishness (as Mr. Green says) are the crucial parts of the official value scheme of our cultures. The dandy is likely to be a snob. He will make a cult of art, clothes, luxury, and following other dandies.
The next stage of the definition is less satisfactory. Ambiguity appears with the key word “immaturity,” and here Mr. Green makes his leap to the image of the Children of the Sun, in which dandyism is attached to the adolescent myths of Adonis and Narcissus. The young man loves his own beauty and turns away from the beauty of women and the accursed family look in their eyes: he attracts the love of older men. He becomes fixed in the indeterminate sexuality of adolescence. He becomes homosexual—i.e., rejects the father and has a covert relation with mother Demeter.
Certainly many of the important dandies of England, America, France, and Russia in the arts in the Twenties were homosexual and rejected “the Apollonian assumption of responsibility.” On the other hand, Narcissism is notoriously mistaken for homosexuality, and can one say that homosexuals like Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo did not reach “Apollonian maturity”? (Perhaps they were not dandies?) Perhaps the Children of the Sun in the Twenties were simply the rich or well-connected, produced by privilege, a manifestation of high bourgeois culture in its sunset and not its sunrise? If rich men like Harold Acton, Brian Howard—on whom Mr. Green’s biographical narrative depends a good deal—or Osbert Sitwell, who said he had “given England back its youth,” were homosexual, many of their close admirers in the upper middle class were not.
The ambiguities and half-shades increase. The English Children of the Sun have to be split into categories; they are intensely individual, and as the years go by they change. Harold Acton and Brian Howard set out to rule Eton, Oxford, and London, and did so; but Acton was more aesthete than dandy, and may even be said to have reached a mild “Apollonian maturity” as a historian and connoisseur, and indeed the warmest and kindest of cultivated men; Brian Howard was not an aesthete and turned into a handsome self-destructive monster of very minor talent. He represents an interesting alliance of the dandy with the rogue whose style is brutal. (There is Evelyn Waugh’s half-dandy friendship with Randolph Churchill, which was not, of course, sexual but a bond forged in bouts of insubordination and the laughter of outrage.)
In the Thirties the “naif” dandies appear. They “offer their minds and hearts as being all limpid sensitiveness and generous responsiveness, as being things as attractive and beautiful as a face or body (Stephen Spender, Philip Toynbee, Christopher Isherwood) in search of models by which to form themselves.” They were attracted to communism but refrained at the last moment “because…they would have betrayed their identities by becoming ‘members.”‘ Incidentally, it is not a sign of weakness in these writers that the working-class communists in England coarsely slapped them down: the same tactics have been used in Russian labor camps against the intellectuals who too obviously carry their freedom with them. The only excused intellectuals during this period were the scientists.
But we now run into an enormous stream of names and potted biographical commentary to which Mr. Green applies his litmus. It becomes plain that dandyism is spreading as it disintegrates among the politicians, administrators, generals, diplomats, etc. There is a farcical, shameless side to it in the secret services, M15 and M16, at the beginning of World War II. We have the much told story of aircraftsman Brian Howard bellowing out what he hoped was a secret matter in the Ritz Bar and being called to order by an officer who asked him his name and number. “Miss Smith, duckie,” he replied. The best jokes and scandals of war occur at HQ and in the cloak and dagger world, and are a relief in a country under siege.
But many years before dandyism disintegrated Dr. Leavis was preaching and insulting in Cambridge where Mr. Green sat among the new privileged class—the young men and women of the state schools to whom the love of the beautiful body meant little. Mr. Green’s account of the new Puritan cult is very creditable. It did nothing for prose but a great deal for criticism and moral responsibility; the rude labors of our fathers in the marriage bed were invoked; solid rancor replaced ornamental wit. (Even the disastrously enjoyable liar Guy Burgess read Middlemarch over and over again and treated it as his Bible: the defector was the dandy turned bad Puritan.) I think Mr. Green is sound in the opinion that while Leavis did everything for the standards and dignity of criticism, his movement was self-consuming and offered nothing to the creative imagination.
The dandies were quick in adjusting themselves to World War II, gave up their exclusiveness and added a spice to the lives of the laborious and those whom Mr. Green calls the “decent,” i.e., estimable fellows, who declined to join cults but to whom dandies were nervously respectful. In this, English literary life got back its variety. Mr. Green recalls, for example, Lord Berners, a charmer, who painted his doves at Farringdon and kept a spinet and a porcelain tortoise in his Rolls; to struggling novelists short of plots he would send an American book called Plotto. Nor were the dandies idle: they had steel in them. It was remarkable to see Cecil Beaton in shipyards catch the admiration of riveters and welders. In middle age the dandies replaced impertinence with an ironical deference to the new society; and, in their sansgêne, they were brave. For them the war was like the return to the prefect system of their hated public schools:
In many ways, civilian England during the war does not evoke the image of an army so much as of a school…. Harold Acton [in his autobiography] says, “Bliss was it then for politicians and bureaucrats to be alive, for they enjoyed the kudos of earthly divinities…. The dandies in particular felt they were back in an institutional atmosphere just like the one they had so joyfully escaped at the beginning of the Twenties—an atmosphere of do’s and dont’s, of punishments and reports, of lights out and school meals and pedagogical praise and blame.
The “normal” dullards they had hated had trapped them. Indeed the official dossiers on Acton and Howard were cruel. And soon there was to be Beveridge with his Reality principle and the Welfare State, the ascetic saint of planning and service to the community, unmoved when Evelyn Waugh publicly insulted him.
By now Mr. Green’s thesis is lost in the literary byways; dandyism becomes no more than a strain. It is less a cult than the inevitable private cul-de-sac where talents park: where semi-dandies like Waugh, the mischievous historian, can eventually sternly interrogate himself and Betjeman preserve his Edward Lear-like passions and his nostalgia for the lost commonplace.
By now, too, we have read enough to have doubts about Mr. Green’s strange attention to personalities. It is odd to find the Bloomsbury figures scarcely sketched, on the general grounds that they were born a few years before 1900 and in any case—except for the lightweight Clive Bell—were really neo-Platonists. So they were, but many of them fought in the war and were the first to denounce it and their fathers when they came back from the Somme. It was serious rather than flighty England that first rebelled. Of course Bloomsbury spoils the image of Children of the Sun, yet Bloomsbury believed in brains and hedonism and produced a genius in Keynes and a female dandy in Virginia Woolf. They were very English whereas Acton and Howard were part American. In the period I would have thought Osbert Sitwell with his bellicose British satire and originality was a far stronger figure for long examination than Acton. On similar grounds I find it astonishing that the bohemian modernist Wyndham Lewis, the contemporary “enemy” of dandies, aesthetes, and Bloomsbury, is not mentioned. He was a cult artist and writer to the marrow, he denounced the youth cult, and was not easily surpassed in his power to publicize and outrage.
And then Mr. Green is capricious in his commentary. Henry Green gets a line or two because he was at Eton, but his originality, his total difference from his contemporaries as a novelist, is missed—he was the earliest in the proletarian Thirties to see and understand the mysterious seeping of life out of the dragging cycles of repetitive talk of the ordinary man or woman, of any class: dandyism among the People! Not a Child of the Sun, I suppose; no publicity value there; heterosexual too. Still he was a hard-working rich man and schizophrenic.
By 1957 the old dandies had gone but the revolt of the angry young men, the grammar school boys, has its dandyish aspects. Mr. Green is disconcerted, for as a cult Anger wore thin. Where is a new cult to be found in cozy little England—as it still was a year or so ago when this book was written—working “decently,” getting poorer, pursuing peculiarity once more. How can the little islanders stand up to Americans whose energies and wealth have never been wasted in living down their fate or their errors, who are adept at forgetting and at going on, constantly in touch with the Zeitgeist.
Mr. Green is at a loss. For him, in the last years England has forgotten about the antics of Adonis and Narcissus. It is passing through the next phase, the Dionysiac which for the adolescent precedes “Apollonian maturity.” We have been reveling in drugs, violence, robbery, bastardies. Are these the “Aphroditean Gestalt” of Weimar Germany? What is to be done? Being “a decent man” is a positive impediment to taking part in the crucial cultural transaction of our time: the activity of “criticism” as practiced by Leavis and Orwell “does not lead naturally into practical action even of a politically serious and responsible kind.”
And so at the end of his book we find Mr. Green saying that the decent man must renew his vitality by a freer and easier relation with the dandy—to be a bit of a Diaghilev and a bit of a Leavis and recover from “his literary Dunkirk.” How the names drop! The figure who is most sympathetic to him is Auden, yet Auden was too hopelessly decent for the present crisis—he had the maturity but brought no imaginative power to it. Power is what Mr. Green is looking for in a new hero to follow. A sudden desperate shot is heard in the book’s last paragraph: it is Nabokov who holds “the key to the locked door of England’s dungeon.” Having been born in 1900 and having seen the whole show from the gallery, I have the impression that it is about to begin all over again, for those who can spare time from their writing to watch out for the next bomb.
April 15, 1976