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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Cheerful Readers

Title:     On Cheerful Readers
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

There has been an increasing demand lately for cheerful books. Mr Balfour began it--at least, he gave it a voice by quoting approvingly a phrase from one of Mr Bennett's novels about the books that cheer us all up. It was a most unfortunate phrase to quote in public. It confirmed every bald old scaramouch in all his hostilities to realism, tragedy, and every other form of literature that does not go about with its hat over its eye. It also confirmed a popular prejudice to the effect that it is the duty of men of letters to be cheerful in a way in which it is not the duty, say, of mathematicians to be cheerful. Now, one need not be an enemy of cheerfulness to detest this theory. One merely needs to be sufficiently awake to recognise that cheerfulness may easily become a tyranny which will bind the hands and feet of literature as it has already bound the hands and feet of drama. Cheerfulness, cheerfulness, and yet again cheerfulness, is the all too golden rule in the theatre. One result of this is that Ibsen has been expelled from the stage for the only naughtiness of which the English theatre takes notice--the naughtiness of being serious. Even Mr Shaw, who possesses the comic spirit in greater abundance than any other writer of his time, is flayed alive by the critics on the production of each new play he writes, because, besides being cheerful, he is a man of ideas. It is not enough that you should be cheerful: you must be cheerful to the exclusion of everything else--everything, at least, that might bring unrest to the intellect or the spirit or to any other part of a man except the muscles that work the oil-wells of sentiment and the creaking jaws of laughter. The consequences might have been foreseen. No one unaided, could be quite so inhumanly vacuous as the audiences in the theatres expected him to be. And so the dramatic author had to call in to his aid the musicians, the poets, the limelight-men, the mask-sellers, the dancing girls, the dressmakers, and a host of other people, each of whom separately could only be a little inane, but all of whom together could be overwhelmingly inane; and among them they produced that overwhelming inanity, musical comedy. There you have the ultimate logic of cheerfulness in the theatre. It is like the obtrusive cheerfulness of the performing animals in music-halls. It is a tedious and beastly thing. It is cheerfulness without mind or meaning. It is like a laugh painted on a clown's face. Compulsory cheerfulness must always end like that, because, if one has to laugh all the time, it is far easier to put the laugh on with a brush than to keep one's face distorted by strength of will.

With the warning of the cheerful theatre before us, then, it would be the stupidest folly to pay any heed to the new plea for cheerful books. It is an extraordinary fact that thousands of people can be serious to the point of bad temper over a political argument or a game of cards or tennis; but if you asked them to take a book seriously, they would regard the prospect as worse than a dry pharyngitis. They put literature on a level not with their games, but with the chocolates and drinks they consume when they are resting from their games. It is of the chocolate kind of literature that ninety-nine out of a hundred persons are thinking when they applaud phrases about the books that cheer us all up. Or it might be nearer the mark to liken the sort of literature they have in mind to one of those brands of medicated port which innocent old ladies find grateful and comforting. We live in an age of advertised brain-fag, and we demand of literature that it shall be the literature of brain-fag. We ask of it not friendship, but a drug. That is the heresy which must be killed if letters are to live. Till it is killed they will not even be enjoyed. I grant at once that it would be an impudence to expect an average sensual man to regard books with the same profound interest as his business affairs or his wife. On the other hand, persuade him that it is pleasant to put as much of his heart into the enjoyment of a book as he puts into the enjoyment of a football match, and you will produce a revolution among the book-reading public. No man who is not eccentric dreams of asking that a football match shall be amusing or a game of chess cheerful. He goes to the one for its furious energy, for the thrill of the rivalry of real people; he turns to the other for an experience of intensity, of prescient skill. It is for energetic experiences of a comparable kind, as Mr R. A. Scott-James suggestively pointed out in a recent volume, that we go to literature. Literature is not primarily meant to cheer us up when we are too tired to read the paper, though incidentally it often does so, and to despise this kind of literature would be as sinful as to despise Christmas pudding and brandy sauce. But the purpose of literature is not to be an epilogue to energy. It involves not a slackening, but a change, of effort. That is why even the difficult authors like the Browning of Sordello attract us. They have the appeal of pathless mountains. It is a curious fact, at the same time, that some of those who delight most boldly in physical experiences turn from intellectual and imaginative experiences with a kind of contempt. They despise from their hearts the mollycoddle who will not risk a wound or a cold for the pleasures of the sun and air. But, so far as the imagination is concerned, they themselves are mollycoddles who will not venture beyond a game of halma or a sugarstick by the hearth. What the world of literature needs most is not cheerful writers, but adventurous readers. The reading of poetry will become as popular as swimming when once it is recognised that it is as natural and as exhilarating.

Literature thus justifies itself not so much by cheering us all up when we are limp as by its appeal to the spirit of adventure, or, if you like the phrase better, the spirit of experience. That is the explanation of the pleasure we take in tragic literature. Tragedy reminds certain spiritual energies in us that they are alive. It enables them to expand, to exert themselves, to breathe freely. That is why, in literature, it makes us happy to be miserable. To put forth our strength, whether of limb or of imagination, makes for our happiness far more than the passive cheerfulness of the fireside; or if not more, at least as much. It would be ungrateful to speak slightingly of the easy-chair and its pleasures. But the chief danger in literature at present is not that the easy-chair will be neglected, but that it will be given a place of far too great importance. Hence it is necessary to emphasise the pleasures of the strenuous life in contrast. This may seem to some readers a tolerable excuse for liking tragedy and poetry, but a poor defence of the taste for realism, naturalism, or whatever you like to call it. Even those who respond immediately to the appeal of the mountains and the sea will often resist the invitation of Zola and Huysmans and their followers to seek adventures in the slums. They will not see that it is as natural to go on one's travels in the slums as in the most beautiful lakeland on earth. As a matter of fact, the discovery of the slums was one of the most tremendous discoveries of the nineteenth century. It was one of those revolutionary discoveries that have changed our whole view of society. Whether it was the men of letters or the sociologists who first discovered them I do not know. I contend, however, that the men of letters had as much right to go to them as the sociologists. They found life expressed there in horror and beauty, in sordidness and nobility, and to reveal this in literature was to some extent to create a new world for the imagination. It was to do more than this. Society could not become fully self-conscious or articulate until the pauper aspect of it was expressed in literature. Hence the novelist of mean streets extended the boundaries of social self-consciousness. The realists indeed have brought the remedial imagination to us as the sociologist has brought the remedial facts and figures. This remedialism, no doubt, is an extra-literary interest. But nothing is quite alien to literature which touches the imagination. The imagination may find its treasures in Tyre and Sidon or in an alley off a back street, or even in a semi-detached villa. One must not limit it in its wanderings to safe and clean and comfortable places.

This seems to me to be the great justification of the demand, not for cheerful books, but for cheerful and courageous readers. The cheerful reader will be able to go to hell with Dante and to hospital with Esther Waters; and though this may be but a poor and secondhand courage, it is at least preferable to the intellectual and imaginative cowardice which will admit danger into literature only when it has been stripped of every semblance of reality. The courage of the study, it may be, is not so fine a thing as the courage of the workshop and the field. But it is finer than is generally admitted. And it is much rarer. There is no place in which men and women are so shamelessly lazy and timid as among their books. If happiness lay in that direction, the laziness might be justified. But it does not. Happiness can never come from the atrophy of nine-tenths of our nature. It is the result of the vigorous delight of heart and mind and spirit as well as of body. The cheerful reader feels as ready for AEschylus and his furies as the yachtsman for his sail on a choppy sea. He fears the tragic satire of Madame Bovary no more than a good pedestrian fears the east wind. This is not to say that he does not enjoy cheerful books when he finds them. He may even prefer Tristram Shandy and The Pickwick Papers to Tolstoi. But he realises that cheerfulness in a book is a delightful accident, not a necessity of literature. He knows that to be cheerful is his own business, whether he goes with his author into the dark and solitary places or into the sheltered and smiling gardens of the sun.

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Robert Lynd's essay: On Cheerful Readers