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An essay by Robert Lynd


Title:     Confessions
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Father Hugh Benson has been praised for his courage in confessing that he could not read Sir Walter Scott. Surely this must be a world of lies if it is remarkable to find a man honest in so simple a matter as his tastes in literature. All but one--or it may even be a few hundred--we are under the empire of shame, which withers truth upon our lips and threatens us with the rack if we do not confess things that are lies. That is the reason why in any given year we all appear to have the same tastes. This year it is Croce; last year it was Bergson; the year before that it was William James; the year before that it was Nietzsche. In advanced circles you can already say what you like about Bergson. You will hardly dare to be frank about Croce till after midsummer. It is the same in literature as in philosophy. Twenty years ago we were all swearing that Stevenson and Kipling were two such artists as England had never seen before. We did not say they were greater than Dickens and Shakespeare. We simply accepted them as incomparable. To-day, no one who is not middle-aged speaks of Mr Kipling as an artist, and one is humoured as a fogey by boys and girls if one mentions Stevenson seriously in a discussion on literature. Nor can we blame this popular changeableness as entirely dishonest. We may love an author for his novelty for a time, as we loved Swinburne for his novel metres and Mr Kipling for his novel brutalities; and after a while, when the novelty has faded, we may see that there is little enough left--too little, at any rate, to justify our primrose praises. It is an ignominious confession to make that we have been taken in by a new kind of powder and paint, but, as everybody else has been taken in and afterwards disillusioned in the same way and in the same hour, that does not trouble us. We do not mind being ignominious in regiments. It is the refusal to right-about-face and to march at the public word of command that would be the difficult thing. We had rather go wrong with the crowd than be solitary and conspicuous in our rectitude. In the Sunday-school we used to sing "Dare to be a Daniel," but we sang it with a thousand voices. The lion's den was an acclaimed resort for the childish imagination at the moment. In one's surroundings, as a matter of fact, one could have achieved resemblance to Daniel only by some such extreme step as casting doubt upon his historical existence. Had one done so, the commiteee of the school would quickly have made it clear that Daniel in short breeches and a white Sunday tie was a most undesirable person. It has always been as great a crime to behave like Daniel as it has been an act of piety to praise him.

It is because there are so few who are willing to face the terrors of isolation that any one who will do so gains an easy notoriety. A man has only to confess quite honestly that he has individual tastes and failings in order to take a place among men of genius. His confession, however, must be as honest as if vanity and pretence had never been known. It is not enough that he should confess his vices. It may be more fashionable at the time to confess one's vices than one's virtues. When a confession is merely a form of boasting it becomes as frivolous as Dr Cook's story of his discovery of the Pole. There is a natural humility in the great books of confessions: the writers of sham-confessions are no more capable of the act of bending than a balloon. It is possible to give the life-story of every sin one has ever committed and yet to remain dishonest. One may be attitudinising even while one tells the truth. It is, it may be granted, extraordinarily difficult to see oneself truly and without bias, and to refrain from discovering excuses for oneself faster almost than one discovers one's faults. It is this humbug sense of excuses in the background that makes most of us the merest pretenders when we confess that we are blackguards, and call ourselves by other insulting names. Our confessions are as often as not mean attempts to forestall the accusations of those we have injured. We make them in the hope of turning anger into pity, and when the trick has succeeded we laugh in secret triumph over the simplicity of human nature. Anatole France has maintained that all the good writers of confessions, from Augustine onwards, are men who are still a little in love with their sins. It is a paradox with the usual grain of truth. The self-analyst, probably enough, will fall in love with the material on which he works just as the surgeon does. One has heard surgeons wax enthusiastic over some unique case of disease which they have cured. They will even speak of such things as "lovely." It is thus a fighter shakes hands with his opponent. Similarly, the saint with his sins. For him they will always be illuminated, as it were, by grace. Saints have even been known to thank God for their sins as the means of their salvation. On the other hand, no good book of confessions is mere play-acting--lip-service to heaven, secret gratitude to the devil. When confession becomes a luxury of this dramatic sort, one may begin to suspect oneself as but a refined sort of sensualist. There are moods of false exaltation in which the confession that one has broken a commandment seems to add an inch to one's stature. The true confessor, on the other hand, will as soon confess a mouse as a mountain. He will not begin, like Baudelaire in the cafe: "On the night I killed my father...." He will more likely tell us, like Pepys, how he beat the servant-girl with a broom, or how, like Horace, he threw away his shield and ran from the battle. Pepys lives in literature because he was unblushingly, unboastingly, frank about his littleness--his jealousy of his wife, his petty conquests of other women, his eternal sensualities mixed with his eternal prayers. How vitally he portrays himself in a thousand sentences like: "I took occasion to be angry with my wife before I rose about her putting up half-a-crown of mine in a paper box, which she had forgotten where she had lain it. But we were friends again, as we are always!" Between that and the artistic attitude of naughtiness in a book like Mr George Moore's Memoirs of My Dead Life, what a gulf there is! The one is as fresh a piece of nature as a thorn-tree on a hill-side; the other is as near life as the cloak-and-dagger plays of the theatre. English prose literature has suffered immensely during the last century because it has shrunk from the honesty of Mr Pepys and attitudinised, now in the manner of Prince Albert, now in the manner of Mr Moore. It has worn the white flower of a blameless life--or the opposite--instead of the white sheet of repentance. It has suffered from the obsession at one time of sex, at another time of sexlessness. It has seldom, like modern Russian literature, been the confession of a man's or a people's soul.

It is not only in literature, however, that the supreme genius is the genius of confession. One demands the same kind of honest and personal speech from one's friends. One cannot be friends with a man who is not a man but an echo. The poets have sung of echo as a beautiful thing. It may be well enough among the mountains, but who would live in a world of echoes? One demands of one's friend that he shall be himself, even though it involves a liking for the poems of Mr G. R. Sims, rather than that he should be a boneless imitation who can talk the current jargon about Picasso and the cubists. To confess that one has no taste for the latest fad in the arts and philosophy is becoming a rarer and rarer form of originality. We utter our pallid judgments in terror at once of the clique of the moment and of posterity. We are afraid that our contemporaries may tell us that we no longer can keep abreast of les jeunes, but are become ossified. We are afraid that our grandchildren will look back on us with the smiling superiority with which we look back on those who raved against Wagner and flung epithets at Ibsen. Be in no trouble about that. Your grandchildren will smile at you in any case. Has not the reputation of Matthew Arnold already sunk lower than that of the reviewers in the daily papers? Is not even Pater being thrust into a second grave as an indolent driveller without judgment? There is no phylactery against the poor opinion of one's grandchildren. Nor need we be greatly in fear of damning bad art because an occasional Wagner has been condemned. After all, there were other people condemned besides Wagner. They were so bad, however, that we have forgotten what the critics said about them. Pope wrote his Dunciad not against the Wagners and Ibsens of his day, but against all those fashionable fellows whose names survive only in his satire. No one would have the courage to write a Dunciad to-day. We have discovered that there are no dunces except the people who were the vogue yesterday. Thus we chorus the season's reputations. We are ready to stab last week's gods in the back if it happens to be the fashion. We can all say what we please about Shakespeare now that it no longer requires courage to do so, but we dare not confess with equal frankness our feelings about some little wren of a minor poet who came out of the shell a month ago. The world has become a maze of echoes in which no honest conversation can be heard for the dull reverberant speech of the walls.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Confessions