Frank Wilson is Book Review Editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Below he writes about J.B. Priestley's Literature and Western Man.
Frank Wilson on Literature and Western Man by J.B. Priestley
J.B. Priestley's Literature and Western Man was published in 1960, the year after I graduated from high school. I didn't go to college immediately after high school. I spent a year and three months working a bit and reading a lot. One of the books I read was Priestley's, and few books have exerted a greater influence on me. I think that was because it demonstrated to me not only that literature matters but also why it matters.
'What really tempted me,' he writes in the introduction, 'was my conviction that ours is an age of supreme crisis, when the most desperate decisions have to be made, and that some account of Western Man, in terms of the literature he has created and enjoyed, might help us to understand ourselves... and to realize where we are and how we have arrived there.'
The book chronicles Western literature from the invention of movable type up to the beginning of World War II. The titles of the book's five divisions are revealing. The first is 'The Golden Globe... the Whole Man'. This is followed by 'The Ordered Garden... the Supremacy of Reason'. With Part III, 'Shadows of the Moon... the Revolt of the Irrational', the first discordant notes are sounded. This continues in Part IV, 'The Broken Web... the Deepening Division in Man's Inner and Outer World', and culminates in Part V, 'The Moderns... Armageddon and the Alienated Man'.
Like most of his generation, Priestley was much influenced by depth psychology, and in particular by such Jungian notions as archetypes, introversion and extroversion. The aforementioned divisions in fact reveal a kind of Jungian subtext. As Priestley saw it, Western Man during the Renaissance was still integrated within himself and with his society: 'The greatest writers of this age... are nicely balanced between their conscious and unconscious life... neither over-extroverted nor obviously introverted.' In the succeeding age, however - when, in Pope's phrase, 'God said, Let Newton be! And all was light' - a shift occurred, 'everything important was outward' and literature 'was entirely public, essentially a social activity'.
But 'it was not possible to maintain this one-sided attitude very long; the unconscious inevitably asserted itself'. At first this was manifested by a wave of sentimentalism, then the Sturm und Drang period in Germany, finally in full-fledged Romanticism. Literature began moving away from the centre of society toward its periphery, a process that accelerated during the 19th century:
Compared with earlier ages, this age, lasting roughly from 1835 to 1895, though remarkably rich in great talent, especially in the novel, seems strangely confused, committed as an age to no particular attitude. But somewhere in it can be found almost all the ideas that have shaped men's lives during [the 20th] century.Finally, 'the modern age shows us how helpless the individual is when he is at the mercy of his unconscious drives and, at the same time, is beginning to lose individuality because he is in the power of huge political and social collectives'. Literature is now 'further removed from the centre than ever before'. It has become 'one-sided, inevitably because it is over-introverted, often so deeply concerned with the inner world, and so little concerned with the outer world, that it... becomes a literature for specialists, themselves nearly always equally introverted...'
While I have never fully subscribed to Priestley's conceptual framework, I continue to be impressed by how insightful his application of it has proved. He shrewdly observes of Tristram Shandy, for instance, that 'if we take away most of [Sterne's] touches of affection and add a dash of bitterness or despair, it is largely the humour of our own time, certainly far closer to us moderns than it is to any of Sterne's contemporaries'. Indeed, what is perhaps most impressive in Literature and Western Man is Priestley's ability to discern the prophetic elements in the works he examines - in Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, for example:
It is a work that does not seem to belong to this age of reason, nor to the following age of romance already beginning to take shape, nor to the one following that. It appears to leap forward two centuries, to this very time of ours, when what was lying in the dark then has come blinking and grinning into the glare of our lights, when you may take up half a dozen novels... and find as their central character, hardly different except for a change of costume and style of dialogue and a decline in wit, no other than Rameau's nephew.The phrase 'when what was lying in the dark then has come blinking and grinning into the glare of our lights' reminds me that one reason this book has remained with me throughout my life is the way Priestley has of indelibly describing the details of the literary landscape. There is, for instance, Manon Lescaut, buried, 'a jewel in a heap of litter', in the 'immensely long and verbose' novels of the Abbé Prevost. There is the 'extraordinary nostalgic charm' of Gerard de Nerval's stories, filled with 'the green and gold of long-lost summers'. And there is this, about the death of Dylan Thomas:
For a few days a poet was in the news: he had come, he had gone, and forever; and then the machines went grinding out their familiar tale of collective insanity, the ruin of the earth, the day's rat-race, and, like trinkets on a death-bed, all the huge, costly, glittering trivialities of our time.Priestley believed that what was behind the marginalization of literature, the disintegration of society and the alienation of the individual was the loss of religion, that what man and society and art require is an embracing framework of symbol and ritual. He believed this while admitting that 'I have no religion, most of my friends have no religion, very few of the major writers we have been considering have had any religion; and what is certain is that our society has none. No matter what it professes, it is now not merely irreligious but powerfully anti-religious'.
I thought this was correct when I first read it nearly half a century ago and I think it remains correct today. I also believe that Priestley was right in saying that those 'who imagine the particular religion they profess, their Church greatly magnified, could save the situation' are wrong. I believe this even though I am a practising Catholic, because what Priestley noted in 1960 is even more evident today than it was then: that the churches are among the institutions contained by our society. Authentic religion is never merely a part of society, but is, rather, its integrating principle.
Priestley's proposed solution may seem rather feeble:
We must wait. Even if we believe that the time of our civilization is running out, like sugar spilled from a torn bag, we must wait. But while we are waiting we can try to feel and think and behave, to some extent, as if our society were already beginning to be contained by religion, as if we were certain that Man cannot even remain Man unless he looks beyond himself, as if we were finding our way home again in the universe. We can stop disinheriting ourselves.Actually, I do not think this is feeble at all. Think of how posture can affect disposition. Bow or genuflect with as much reverence as you can muster and you will find yourself genuinely feeling a measure of reverence. Make-believe can prove quite powerful. It does, after all, tap into what I like to think of as the integrating faculty of human intelligence: imagination.
Literature and Western Man had a profound and lasting effect on me. It demonstrated to me the degree to which literature enables us to discern who we really are and what is really going on in the world. There is more political science in Richard II than there is in any dreary white paper some think tank is currently churning out. As Priestley says of Montaigne: 'there is something that can be known... something much closer and more comprehensible than the doctrine of the Trinity or the world plan of the Absolute, and that is - the mind, the inner world, that shapes and colours both character and action. No wonder Montaigne was free from the raging and murderous fanaticism of his time. He had taken a peep into the kitchen where that hell-broth was brewing.'
The mystery of which we have the most direct experience is the self. Great literature enables us to find our way around this ever-uncharted wilderness, where angels may be found to dwell, but where also, for sure, there be dragons.