A Commentary (Apr 1933)
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[ 515 A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 12 (Apr 1933) 468-73 IdonotknowwhetherabookcalledTheIronicTemper,byHaakonChevalier (whose name was previously unknown to me) has been published in London or not.1 It is a book worth reading, and also one that inspires the kind of reflexions appropriate to the literary form of these commentaries, if they have a form. Its primary aim is what the title affirms, a study of the ironic temper; it is, incidentally, a very sympathetic and understanding analysis of Anatole France. The book is a study of a temper and a temperature which the author believes to belong to the past, which in Anatole France reach their culmination . It is therefore by implication a study of the “modern temper” as well; and Mr. Chevalier makes, by the way, some shrewd and destructive criticisms of the book by Mr. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper, which was widely noticed a few years ago.2 Being at present engaged in the attempt to give a course of lectures on contemporary literature, I feel that the modern temper is something that I ought to inform myself about; and it is with this aspect of the book, rather than with Mr. Chevalier’s very able analysis of the ironic temper, as exemplified by Anatole France, that I am concerned.3 Mr. Chevalier, observes in his introduction: Anatole France’s generation still lived under the spell of the past. The everywhere (sic)visiblecontrasts betweenthepastandthepresentformed rich soil for the growth of Irony; and the prevailing mood of reminiscent piety allowed pity also to flourish. Hemingway’s generation has lost that sense of the past. “Irony and Pity.” Meaningless words. There is no irony, because there is no complex interplay of concepts and beliefs casting ambiguous shadows over human affairs. There is no Pity: no sense of value attaches to pain and defeat to throw them into emotional relief. Irony and Pity are foreign alike to ages of faith and to an age like our own, to which the loss of faith, if not the lack of it, is not a matter of acute concern. [5-6] To generalize about the present is a dangerous business; unsafe as predicting the future. Mr. Chevalier is by no means unaware of the dangers; he Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1933 516 ] adds,“whenwedifferentiateourowngenerationfromthatofAnatoleFrance we are drawing, possibly, a fine line of distinction of which the future will take no account” [7]. Certainly, France is one of those writers who do represent for us the age which is past.4 Perhaps his remoteness from us might be expressed in terms other than that of Irony – though for Mr. Chevalier, of course, Irony means the ironic temper, and not the polemic irony which is a permanent weapon for the sensitive civilized man. What we rebel against is neither the use of irony against definite men, institutions or abuses, nor is it the use (as by Jules Laforgue) to express a dédoublement of the personality against which the subject struggles.5 It is the use of irony to give the appearance of a philosophy of life, as something final and not instrumental, that leaves us now indifferent; it seems to us an evasion of the difficulty of living, where it pretends to be a kind of solution of it. And the work built upon it comes to seem merely superfluous, an encumbrance, a luxury article produced for a public that has disappeared. Our time (but possibly when we say our time we mean ourselves and perhaps a few friends) is impatient of the superfluous and the complicated. The international situations, the elaborate complications in which many of Henry James’s problems involve themselves, now seem remote; what is not remote is his curious search, often in the oddest places, like country houses, for spiritual life.6 And in Anatole France we find, I think, a kind of pretentiousness which is unendurable. He appears before us, with his long row of books, as a popular entertainer, and a very good entertainer he is; but the sad thing is to find that an essential trick of the entertainment is to impress us with a profound worldly wisdom, sapping all other philosophies, and a sophistication with which he flatters us by making us feel that we share it. The flattery is turned to fraud when we realize how shallow is his philosophy , how puny and defensive is his sophistication. Like good breeding, sophistication is a quality to be dissimulated; when it is...