Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Realism Once More*


 

In the current number of the North American Review Mr. Howells enters the arena of criticism once again to do service for his beloved realism. And certainly he exposes many incongruities and absurdities in the fiction of the hour, the would-be romance of current literature. The many inaccuracies and impossibilities of this sort of writing are a palpable blemish, while their blood-thirsty cruelty is really appalling, if one thinks of it seriously. The question is not, Could such times and scenes ever have existed? It is rather, What possible interest can these middle ages of civilization have for us? Certainly we would not wish to return to their ideals.

Well, but perhaps we are so returning. Perhaps our time is a temporary reversal of the cause of peace, and a revival for the moment of the grosser passions in man. Much as we must regret it, this may very likely be so. Do we not, for the moment, really believe in violence, in the right of might, and disbelieve the gospel of peace? It is even said that war arouses patriotism and encourages endeavor. War is the sanction of struggle; and, without struggle we should become enfeebled and degenerate.

But what absurd logic is here! Can I not love my country without fighting for it? If I have a friend, can I not love him without forcing him and his ways upon others? Defend him I certainly must, at all hazards, from all attack. But think of the unremitting service I can do him every day, in a thousand ways that strife never dreamed of. It is true of our country. War is a lamentable necessity, true; and they who go to war righteously have their honor. But is there no honor for the stay-at-home? Not the least of the evils of war is the destruction of ideals. It is ourselves and not the enemy who are always injured, no matter on which side victory alights. Both sides alike share the brutalizing influence of conflict. This, too, is inevitable; and this we forget. If I should have a quarrel with a fellow being, and be drawn into a fight, no matter how just my own cause, I should feel degraded and shamed and vulgarized by the resort to force. I should feel that I had been hurried out of myself by the madness (that is, the insanity) of anger. I take this to be a common human trait. Now in the warfare of nations there seems to be no sense of this degradation. Granted that the contests in Africa and Cuba have been just, does not our race partake of degradation thereby? If not, why not? What is the difference between the nation and the individual? And why isn't the morality of the one good for the morality of the other?

It is a question whether our better self ever acts in concert. It is a question whether the magic and magnetism of a crowd, a mob or an assembly is not the unconscious influence of all the lower, mere animal passional elements existing in the individuals who compose it. Perhaps the only safeguard of democracy is the fact that man's power of communication is so tremendously increased. We can learn the news every morning without coming together in the market place. Every man receives the review of the doings of the day at his own breakfast table; and he can make up his judgement upon it alone. Also he votes alone. The best in him has a chance to think, decide and act.

If this were not so, think of the anarchy we should be subject to. Fancy for a moment the danger to commonsense if our voting were done by a show of hands. Even supposing there were no violence, there would be the ever-present danger of the capricious, irresponsible will of our lower nature, freed and encouraged by a sort of hypnotic influence it finds in a crowded company. There would be the imminent danger that we should follow our feelings, in utter disregard of our own judgement, even more than we do now.

And suppose that our wars could be carried on like our elections, by a sort of ballot system. Suppose, for instance, that the United States should declare war against Canada. Then, instead of placing a number of trained armies in the field, after the manner of the effete monarchies of Europe, suppose that every Canadian resident in an American town should go out alone and murder, not the President who declared the war, nor the commercial magnate who forced it on, but any harmless, innocent man like himself, whose only object in life was to live in the enjoyment of powers like his own. Then, of course, the citizens of the Unites States should retaliate in kind. The summer visitor from Bar Harbor or Newport who might be passing a week in Quebec would go forth after lunch and kill any of the peaceful habitants he might encounter. This would not be scientific warfare; and I dare say it would not be the easiest means of determining which of the two nations is stronger. But I fancy that if a concensus of the nations were to legalize this ancient sort of fighting it would have a deterrent effect on the bellicose spirit. It is one thing to vote to send an army to the other side of the globe for the glory of the flag; it is another thing to declare a race feud in the street where you live. Yet, ethics can see no difference between them. The same lack of logic which allows peaceable men to make war must account for the slaughterous novel from the pen of the respectable M.P. or the innocent young person. And in so far as these works are insincere, they are ill executed attempts at art: for the soul of living art is conviction.. We shall be near the truth, then, if we say that romantic fiction of to-day is liable to fail because it must often be insincere.

But what's the province of good romance? For certainly there are good romances, and an interest in them is not only perennial but legitimate. First of all we should have to ask what it is that art tries to do for us. Well, no doubt, one of the things it must do is to interest us. But, granted that an interest in art is secured, it is too much to claim for art to say that it must by some means ennoble us or better us?

Here we may make a more or less rough classification of the way in which art may ennoble its lovers. Art may ennoble (1) by the presenting the worm of life, (2) by exhibiting the inadequacy of the actual, (3) by a combination of these two ways, in sharing the progress of the actual toward the normal. The first of these ways is the classic; the second is the realistic; the third is the romantic.

The classic method portrays the calm, unperturbed aspect of normal life, from which everything imperfect has been purged away. There is no storm nor stress in that ideal world. To think of classic models brings to mind the serene creations of Virgil and Keats.

The realistic method must dissatisfy us with these things as they are. If you are going to show me the world just as it is, then you must show me its seamy side as well as its smooth side; for if I am only to be pleased and deluded with the notion that humanity and myself are good enough as we are, then, pray, how am I ennobled by your art? So the realist must always, must he not, bear the brunt of unpopularity among the Philistines, who dislike to be put out of conceit of themselves and their own times. The realist who does not leave us with a profound discontent is hardly true to his creed; he is trenching more or less on the methods of classical or romantic writers.

The romantic method must show us first of all, and always, growth, movement, progress. Both the classic and the romantic method must, of course, encroach upon realism, just as realism encroaches upon them. They must be realistic enough to be convincing. They may be false to actual fact; they must not be false to ideal fact or to growing life.

It had always been the office of art to show us a fuller, richer, ampler, more lovely life than any we have actually known, and this is the possibility in art which realism will always have to respect and make room for. No matter how absurd and unnatural romanticism and classicism may have been, this great virtue resides in them and remains; they have foreshadowed the approach of beauty and perfection.


"Realism Once More," Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 15, 1900 [back]