‘The artist is responsible.’ He must ‘concern himself with present-day social and political problems.’ So asserts a Meanjin editorial. It seems a reasonable, almost a necessary demand. The diseased state of our body politic has its origins in the detribalisation of our society. We are left with no secure set of traditional values. Our anthropological pattern has been broken, and we wander as aimlessly as the aborigine after his disruptive contact with the white. Unless we can quickly achieve a coherent set of values suited to modern circumstance, can re-construct a pattern, we are done for. In that task the creative writer can help us if he will; and if he can, surely it is his plain duty in so urgent a crisis. At a moment of emergency, ‘all hands to the pump’ is a reasonable demand, and the Trade Unionist who grumbles that he didn’t sign on for pumping is a frivolous slacker.
But, adds Meanjin, the writer ‘must retain his artistic integrity.’ True again. But what happens if his artistic integrity does not happen to permit him the discussion of contemporary social problems? Meanjin appears to believe that the artist’s integrity is simply a matter of employing ‘the greatest artistic skill and imagination of which he is capable,’ of shaping his material into satisfying form. Artistic integrity goes deeper than that. It is vitally concerned with the selection of themes.
The creative writer cannot compose what he ought: he has to compose what he must: he has to obey the mandate of his individual daemon. He ignores or tampers with that mandate, his artistic integrity is compromised. The choice of theme is outside his control—if it is not, he is no creative writer.
Of course there are good writers of the second or third rank who do not compose to the orders of a daemon. They may be reasonably adjured to turn their attention to social problems: and the resulting work may bel very valuable. But it is the front-ranker who matters most, and he is under daemonic control. And the devil of it is that the daemon cannot be cajoled (if he can, he is no true daemon). No amount of ‘oughts’ can turn aside his ‘must’—whether the ‘oughts’ come from the writer’s own social conscience or from the nagging exhortations of the critics. Use a sense of duty to prod at the daemon, and the brute simply turns sulky on you.
ls the artist, then, to be permitted ‘to sneak off to some frangipani-scented gazebo: I do not think so. ‘Art for Art’s sake’ is a fatal attempt to constrain the daemon. He cannot be nourished upon frangipani; his tipple is the blood of life. The gazebo-haunters—the Parnassiens or the Yellow Book-worms—either had no daemons or were so terrified of them that they deliberately starved them to death.
But the alternative to ‘Art for Art’s sake’ is not necessarily ‘Art for society’s sake,’ it is ‘Art for life’s sake.’ That, of course, may take the form of a preoccupation with contemporary problems and with the individual’s relation to society—in which case the dilemma happily solves itself; on the other hand the writer may be indifferent to the present, may concern himself with the individual’s relation to the Universe.
This failure to distinguish the possible differences between ‘Art for life’s sake’ and ‘Art for society’s sake’ has been responsible for two violent swings of theory. The Victorians tried to force upon writers the dogma of ‘Art for morality’s sake.’ The writers, instead of legitimately demanding their freedom assert the aesthetic rather than the ethic values of life, swung to the extreme of ‘Art for Art’s sake: and became immersed in bookishness and the problems of form. This bred the counter-revolution and the equally violent swing to ‘Art for society’s sake.’ The nature of that reaction may be studied in Wells’ autobiography; its dangers arc apparent in his work. Fruitful as his propagandism has been on its own level, he could have done richer, more daemonic work, if he had not constrained his genius for the comic and his primarily romantic temperament. Shaw, on the other hand, could accept the new thesis safely because it happened to suit his daemon. ‘Art for society’s sake’ is not a heresy; the trouble is that, as a universal dogma, it places a fatal constraint upon the writers whom it does not suit. The critics who try to nag them into conformity show a dangerous ignorance of the nature of creative inspiration. They will probably serve their term in purgatory being gnawed at by starving daemons.
We may see where such nagging leads the critic by observing an example—Mr. Rees upon Mr. Stewart (Meanjin, Vol. 4, No. 3, p, 210-1 I). Mr. Rees shows a ready appreciation of the quality of the writing in Mr. Stewart’s plays—he was, indeed, one of the first to discern it; but he is doubtful about their themes. The combination is creditable to Mr. Rees, for it takes a good critic to accept with enthusiasm a writer of whose attitude he disapproves; but his doubts seem to me misconceived. Although he does not explicitly say so, I believe that they are founded on the dogma that the writer should select themes directly relevant to contemporary society. Mr. Rees complains that Mr. Stewart is ‘too romantic’—nagging at the daemon. Is it really the function of a critic to prescribe the degree of a poet’s romanticism? More concretely, his objection is that the plays represent ‘an escape from reality, a flight into dream.’
How much truth is there in this criticism? The Fire on the Snow is an honestly imagined interpretation of the actual experience of actual twentieth century men. This hardly sounds like an escape from reality. The Golden Lover deals with the conflict between the longing for romantic passion and the need for domesticity, for the fellowship of the tribe. Domesticity wins—and Mr. Stewart seems to agree that it must and should win. Where is the escape from reality here? Isn’t this conflict a plain fact of human experience? Ned Kelly traces the conflict between the Will to Power (Kelly). the Will to Vitality (Byrne), and the need for moral conformity. Again the rebels are defeated, and again, although Mr. Stewart’s sympathies are plainly with Byrne at least, he admits the rightness of and the necessity for that defeat. This, surely, is a truthful interpretation of human reality, not an escape from it.
Mr. Rees’ objections are based on somewhat different grounds from those I have suggested. He complains (or suggests the possibility of complaint) that ‘the author is merely completing himself through his hero’ as ‘adventurer-unto-death, prince charming or daring outlaw’ and that ‘this nostalgia represents a Right from reality.’ It is true that Mr. Stewart is expressing the human longing for an unattainable freedom, fullness and vitality of living, and that he presumably writes from his own inner experience. What of it? What man worth tuppence has not experienced that longing? And why on earth should we forbid the artist to write of so universal and significant an experience? The theme only becomes escapist wish-fulfilment when the writer falsely asserts the successful realisation of the longing, or grows querulous over its defeat. Mr. Stewart does neither. If the recognition of this nostalgia is an illegitimate theme for poetry, what becomes of Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, Shelley and Lawrence? Must we ban them from our shelves and solace ourselves with the perusal of the Sidney Webbs?
What has led Mr. Rees to this curious assumption that the nostalgias of the human spirit form no part of reality? Doesn’t it really rest on the dogma that the writer should concern himself with the contemporary social situation: that if he ignores it to consider aspects of the human situation not directly concerned with the Here and Now, he is ‘irresponsible’? If that guess misinterprets Mr. Rees, I apologise. At least that is the objection raised by the ‘socially conscious’ dogmatists to romantics of the Stewart type; and therefore it is relevant to my purpose to examine it, whether it is Mr. Rees’ attitude or not. Are these themes so socially irresponsible as the dogmatists assert? Let us look more searchingly at the handy examples of Mr. Stewart’s plays. The Golden Lover theme is almost precisely that of Mrs. George’s speech in Shaw’s Getting Married—and no-one could accuse that play of lacking a social reference. The difference is simply this—that Shaw states the social implications, whereas Mr. Stewart leaves them to the intelligence of his reader. The theme of Ned Kelly I have defined as ‘the conflict between the Will to Power, the Will to Vitality, and the need for moral conformity.’ Did this cease to be a live social issue in the ‘eighties’? Has it nothing to do with the problems of Fascism, of the deficiency diseases of a devitalised industrial civilisation? Hasn’t Mr. Stewart’s forceful reminder of that conflict a value in deepening our thinking about such problems?
The social relevance of The Fire on the Snow is harder to see, easier to feel. If its subject were really only the adventurer-unto-death, it could be dismissed as trivial; but it is more than that. The quality which moves our admiration for Wilson and Scott—and which moved Mr, Stewart to write his play is not their adventurousness, but the magnificent temper of their endurance. It renews our faith in the potential dignity of the human spirit. The periodic renewal of faith seems to me a necessary preparation for any decent social thinking. If we have grown too sophisticated to be refreshed, socially and individually, by the contemplation of the Scott story, then we are indeed decadent and damned.
It may be objected that in none of his three plays does Mr. Stewart state a new idea. That is true, but not to the point. It is often enough the artist’s duty to re-assert values rather than to discover them. If he fights shy of re-assertion, he must give a false emphasis to the novel and the transitory. His task is to sound the alarming reveille. The tune need not be new, provided it is played with enough freshness and force to stir us out of the spiritual torpor in which nine-tenths of us pass nine-tenths of our time.
The point at which I am aiming is not the impertinent one of justifying Mr. Stewart. It is rather to suggest, by means of this typical example, that writing need not have a social reference in order to have a social value. If the writer chooses directly to illumine contemporary problems, so much the better, provided he can do so without constraining his daemon. But we cannot demand such a treatment, willy nilly. It is for us to apply the values which the artist asserts; we have no right to shirk our responsibilities on the specious plea that the writer should shoulder them for us. If the writer can freshly assert the values on which social planning should be based, he has surely done enough.
I should agree that a writer can be ruined by remoteness, by lack of the sense of human fellowship; but it is the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ remoteness which is dangerous, not the kind of ‘Art for Life’s sake’ which doesn’t happen to be directly interested ill the Here and Now. I believe that many writers of the immediate future will be mainly concerned about the Here and Now, and I welcome that swing to a contemporary interest. But there will remain others for whom the immediate social theme is a fatal constraint. They have their own value to our social thinking, they are indeed necessary for a sane width of view; and they should not be distracted from the essential attentiveness to their daemons by sectarian nagging.
Arthur Angell Phillips (1900 – 1985), generally known as A. A. Phillips, was an Australian writer, critic and teacher.