must forgive me, Socrates, but I am not all satisfied
with my own conclusions on the question of decadence.
Why is it that a few people seem to think we are living
in a period of decay, and that our art and letters show
signs of decay?"
he replied, "one cannot answer that off-hand. I
think you must be pretty well convinced that the term
decadence itself is not used with any degree of definiteness.
Let us take some other word or phrase. You say that
people speak of this as an age of decay. Are there no
other terms you hear them apply to it, or to the art
of the day?"
I said, "there are several other adjectives in
common use, applied to current literature and contemporary
art. I have heard people call them morbid, unhealthy,
debauched, insane, depraved, idiotic. What do they mean?"
deliberated a moment before saying, "You have used
six adjectives, but I think we may for the present discard
three of them as being, like the term decadent itself,
too indefinite to throw any light on your inquiry. 'Morbid,'
'unhealthy,' 'depraved'-are not these words a little
too vague to be of much service in leading us to any
conclusion? I feel in using them that I am not getting
any nearer the truth. But when you say 'debauched,'
'insane,' 'idiotic,' I have a much more definite notion
before my mind. Each of these words means a very different
thing, and yet the meaning of each is pretty well understood.
For instance, what do you understand is implied, when
a man is said to be debauched?"
should understand," I said, "that the man
had become debased or depraved through the abuse of
his senses. I should say that the physical part in him
had been allowed too greatly to predominate in his make-up."
refer to the 'physical part in him.' What do you mean
by that? In how many different aspects are you considering
was thinking," I replied," of the threefold
character of the man. And I spoke of the physical part
of him, or his senses, as opposed to the mind or purely
mental part, and also distinguished from the emotions
or more purely spiritual part."
well," said Socrates, "that is clear enough
for the present. I understand now what you are talking
about. You would be willing, then, I take it, to call
debauchery a triumph of the senses? You would call it
the supremacy of the physical in man to the exclusion
of all other attributes?"
he said, "that is the usual notion. But tell me,
would you be willing to admit that a man could fall
into debauchery in a fit of mere absence of mind?"
not at all. The very essence of debauchery is that the
creature devotes himself to the exercise of his senses.
His whole bent is to contrive new sensations for himself."
take it, then," said Socrates, "that he will
not be lacking in invention. He will rather, in fact,
display much ingenuity in devising new pleasures of
sense for his own gratification. Is it not so?"
I believe you are right," I admitted.
perhaps you can tell me some other characteristic of
debauchery, can you?"
said I, presently, "it seems to me that debauchery
is always cold-hearted."
said he, "I believe you are right there. And although
you were wrong in defining debauchery as the triumph
of the senses, the supremacy of the physical, you would
not be far wrong if you should define it as the absence
of the spiritual in a man. I think you will find that
it is only men of some intelligence who are capable
of becoming debauched. The average man is not so heartless
as to debauch others in cold blood, as we call it, and
he has not wit enough to contrive fresh debaucheries
for himself. Debauchery only becomes possible when there
is in the man a strong preponderance of the imagination
and the animal qualities, and a more or less entire
absence of the emotional or spiritual nature. But now
tell me what you understand by madness or insanity."
being mistaken in my first notion of debauchery, I was
careful to reply now to Socrates, so I said:
commonly speak of a madman or a lunatic as a person
who is 'out of his head.' But perhaps this is wrong;
for certainly the insane are not lacking in reasoning
power. They draw conclusions correctly, although their
premises are wrong. And they certainly have too much
feeling usually. They seem to be in a world by themselves.
They are not responsible for their acts."
said Socrates, "you are right. They do somehow
dwell in another world than ours. They are beings who
think and feel as we do; are subject to fear and joy
and anger and resentment; but all their thoughts and
emotions have no relation to the actual fact; they have
no relation to the world as their senses report it to
them. They dwell in their bodies like aliens in a foreign
country, where they do not know the language and customs
save by rote. It seems like an awful catastrophy that
they should be confined in these bodies at all, to which
they have no real relation. And while his body is fed,
and breathes, and moves here and there at his will,
it is yet merely a dangerous instrument in the control
of the insane, a menace alike to himself and his fellows.
It is no exaggeration to say that the body of the demented
is like a sharp weapon in the hands of an infant. And
I think we may conclude that, although the physical
attributes of an insane man may be all complete in themselves,
they have, nevertheless, no true relation to his personality.
The notions and sensations that come to him from the
outer world have no bearing on his inner life. Or rather
they do have an influence on him, but he interprets
their meaning all amiss. He is living in a world of
his own imagining, swayed by fanciful emotions and drawing
conclusions from premises that never existed. Do you
not think, therefore, that we may say madness implies
a more or less entire lack of the physical or sensuous
in the man's make-up?"
I assented, "perhaps we may."
well, then," said Socrates, we have now come to
this distinction; we mean by debauchery the havoc wrought
in conduct and character by an overbalance of the sensual
and intellectual capacities, that is to say by a lack
of the spiritual or emotional capacities; and we mean
by insanity, the wreck of character and personality
due to an overbalance of the emotional and intellectual
capacities, that is to say a lack of efficiency in the
proper office of the senses. An idiot, you say at once,
is one without intelligence. His actions have relations
to the outer world about him; he is trustworthy to the
limit of his ability; he is not, like the madman, an
unattached spirit let loose on the earth, a peril to
himself and a hazard to others. It's on his intellectual
side that he is at fault.
you think I am wrong here?"
Socrates, you seem to state the distinctions correctly.
And, indeed, when I think of it, I believe all the ailments
which the soul of man inherits may be grouped under
one or other of these three forms of abnormal life.
But now how are we to apply these terms to art and literature,
or rather how are we to find in art and letters traces
of these terrible obliquties?"
Socrates: "You must first put me in mind of your
notion of art. What do you mean by literature?"
I replied, "I should call literature and poetry
merely one of the fine arts. And I should say that all
art, whether painting or music or poetry, is the embodiment
of man's reflections upon himself and his fate and the
beauty of the world. It is more than that, too; it is
the manifestation of all his aspirations and desires,
wrought out in accordance with his ideas of beauty.
It is really a complete image of the life of the soul,
a record of the human spirit. I should almost say that
art is man's commonplace-book."
that case," said he, "you would expect to
find man very completely mirrored on the many differing
pages of the great book of art, would you not? Certainly.
And you would not be astonished to find in art, as the
ages have gone by, traces of those blemishes and obliquities
which you tell me I have rightly called idiocy and madness
should expect to find only very faint traces of these
weaknesses in art, Socrates, because art has always
seemed to me something better and more beautiful than
he replied, "that notion is true to a certain extent.
And I agree that all great art is better than the reality.
But you are thinking only of the historic treasures
of art. The world would naturally care to retain only
so much of the art bequeathed to it by each age as it
found useful to it, helpful to its development. Very
much would be lost. All the faulty art would be lost,
just as all the faulty men are forgotten. However, this
is a phase of the subject I must ask you to defer for
the present. But I must ask you to consider the whole
artistic activity of your own time and the century immediately
preceding it. You thus have at your command for reference,
not merely the great and best works of art, but all
the faulty ones as well. You thus have a body of work
at your command, from which to draw you inferences,
far more complete and representative of humanity than
if you considered all the art that has been preserved
for us through so many centuries. It is as if you sliced
down through a cake rather than cut away the top crust
merely. And I must remind you, too, that your definitions
of the diseases of the soul were drawn from your knowledge
of all sorts of men, not merely from men of distinction.
Reverting to your definition of art, then I fancy you
will after all admit that in a great mass of contemporary
art one must expect to find traces of the three blemishes
we have been speaking of."
may be right, Socrates." I assented, "but
I had not thought of the subject in that way before.
Tell me, though, where do you note traces of insanity
in our literature, for example."
it is not quite fair," he said, "to speak
of traces of insanity. For that implies an insanity
in the author. I should prefer to speak of traits of
insanity. For you see a work of art or a poem might
possibly, though rarely, be the work of a perfectly
sane person, and yet exhibit the traits of the insane."
do not see that," I said.
mean," said he, "that you may find inherent
in the art itself, quite apart from its subject matter,
quite apart from its teaching or purport, certain traits
or tendencies corresponding to the traits we have mentioned
as existing in individuals. For instance, whenever art
is very greatly developed on its physical side, that
is, when the technique is very elaborate and wonderful,
and when, in addition to this, it shows very great ingenuity
and imagination, and yet is lacking in heart or emotion
or spirituality, I should be inclined to say it showed
signs of becoming debauched. I should say it exhibited
traits of debauchery in itself. In itself, mark you,
not in its originator. Its author might or might not
have had these fatal tendencies in himself. He may have
had a purpose in constructing his work in that way.
And, again, whenever art is very greatly developed on
its spiritual and intellectual sides, when it has great
fervor and imagination, and yet deals with very mystic
or remote themes, I should feel that it was not closely
enough related to the world in which we live, and I
should be inclined to say it exhibited traits of insanity
in itself. Here, too, the production might or might
not be the work of a person who had tendencies towards
the peculiar weakness which his art showed. He might
himself be perfectly sane, and yet he might have permitted
himself for the occasion to press too far in the direction
of the unknown. He may have wandered too widely from
the domain of our daily life, and his art would lose
effectiveness accordingly. Let me ask you to consider
a moment the work of the English poet, William Blake.
You will not quarrel with me if I take him as an example
in literature, will you?"
the contrary, Socrates," I said, "I am glad
you have named him, for I have always considered him
one of the greatest of the poets in the second class,
second I mean to Shakespeare and Homer and a dozen perhaps
of the supreme poets of the world."
you have been reading the Savoy Magazine," continued
Socrates, "you will have noticed those articles
on Blake by Mr. W. B. Yeats, himself a mystic and almost
occult poet, as Blake was. Now Mr. Yeats closes the
first of his papers with a very wise sentence. After
remarking that 'the errors in the handiwork of exalted
spirits are as the more fantastical errors of their
lives,' he adds, 'he who half lives in eternity endures
a rending of the structures of the mind a crucifixion
of the intellectual body.' That is very true. And so
it was of Blake; he 'half lived in eternity.' His work
had imagination and fervor. It had the traits of great
intelligence, and great spirituality. It was lacking,
one would say, in the qualities of prose and common
sense. You would call him, I dare say, a poet's poet,
as you would call Shelley. His fervor and his imagination
carried him far afield upon explorations of the unknown.
Yet he failed of being perfectly effective in his own
day, because he was not perfectly related to it. So
that although critics have come to regard him as a sane
and beautiful poet, he is yet a stumbling block to many,
and in his own day he was thought to be mad. Does it
not seem to you that in these beautiful poems of his,
the 'Book of Thel' and 'The Songs of Innocence,' you
can find traits very similar to traits which you have
told me indicate the verge of madness in men?"
I assented, "I see what you mean."
yet," he continued, "I would not have you
think of Blake as a mad poet. Far from it. He was merely
a century or two ahead of his time. And again if you
will think of that master of imagination, Carlyle, and
recall how the qualities of fervor and thought predominated
in his work, to the exclusion of beauty of form; if
you will recall how fiery he was, and how he reeked
himself on his language-how, indeed, he almost tortured
expression in the imperious anguish of his conviction-you
may find, I think, an analogy between the violence of
his art and the wildness of one who is sane, indeed,
and yet is driven to the outer boundaries of sanity.
And even the poems and essays of your own Emerson, if
they can be called faulty at all, must be called so
because they so constantly abound in imagination and
spirituality. If they seemed to those who first heard
them a generation ago, to be lacking in anything, it
was in continuity and pertinence. Those who listened
to him were cheered and calmed, indeed, but it was by
being rapt away out of the coil of their daily habits
and surroundings. It was long thought no shame to ask
of him, 'What does he mean?' He was, we may say, but
imperfectly related to his time. Now I am sure you will
not misunderstand me in making use of these names, Blake,
Shelley, Carlyle, Emerson, to illustrate my meaning.
You must know that I quite agree with you in thinking
of them as very great thinkers and poets. At the same
time the very fact that one can refer to them as seers
or prophets, without any incongruity, supports my somewhat
exaggerated contention. Remember we speak of tendencies
rather than actual facts in art. If you will permit
me to speak somewhat fancifully for a moment, I might
say that these four men when they wrought themselves
into their pregnant words, were shaken with a delirium
not of this world, and haunted by a possession such
as the warders of the oracle were supposed to know-as
if one of the superior intelligences should condescend
to mortality and be borne about in a human body, to
which he was only imperfectly accustomed, hampered by
inferior relations which he could never quite comprehend.
Were they not instances of the saying that 'Great wits
are sure to madness near allied'? Did they not always
'half live in eternity'?"
Socrates, I see what you mean to imply. And I think
your distinction a helpful one, even if it need to be
used carefully for the most part. But now, having given
me these instances of what you understand by a tendency
to madness in art, will you not follow it up for me
with a few specific examples of the idiotic in literature?"
are too numerous to mention," said Socrates.