The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940 and the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting this ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes a long time to say this. I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) – and the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument – an entertaining flow of ideas will suffice.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists, yanking in quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’. Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments.

  • The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…
  • If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…
  • Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…
  • Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy would feel like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using – characteristically for the man of Africa – the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and become alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

  • The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)
  • By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves. This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, for paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive, so often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual reading of it may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me.

Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its rather histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a real waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

  • An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)
  • Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

  • In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)
  • It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)
  • At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)
  • A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description as a traditional moralist – his text is just the stuff which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, which are meant to be taken away and meditated on.

  • To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China.  The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

He suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the grinding humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) – but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation. There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

At the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Beauty of Life by William Morris (1880)

HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOUSES WHICH YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL.

A lecture delivered to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, February 19, 1880. Reading around the subject I discover that the Birmingham school was in fact the first municipal school of art in the country and that Birmingham, through Burne-Jones and his circle, played a leading role in the Arts & Crafts movement.

Repetition

Morris apologises for repeating himself and this is, indeed, the most obvious feature of this lecture, that it is made up of the same ideas as the previous lectures:

  • current civilisation in the Century of Commerce is degraded
  • the arts have become split between a high art of demoralised artists working only for the super-rich or just for their own small coterie (art for art’s sake)…
  • …while the popular arts, the decoration and ornamentation of the everyday objects most people see most of their lives, have become crude and cheap
  • this reflects the unfair nature of Victorian class society ie a small number of parasite rich leading a life of luxury paid for by the wealth extracted from a vast class of slave labourers condemned to lives of servitude and ugliness
  • whereas everything we know about history and prehistory suggests that decorating and ornamenting everyday objects is a central element of human nature; preventing men doing that is cruel and stupid
  • thus, an ideal society would remove the parasite rich and, by doing so, liberate workers to work shorter hours and take more care over what they make – the pleasure of and pride in their work would be restored to everyone who works
  • it may seem a long way off but we handicraftsmen must set the tone and aim for this goal and have hope of better things to come

To be fair there are new sections here: the recap of the history of civilisation which takes in the Romans and Greeks and noticably downplays the Renaissance; a short passage about how his friends the pre-Raphaelites have saved English art; a section on the Environment and a plea not to litter, not to cut down trees; a section on the contents of the Ideal Home.

Sermon

I read that Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford earnestly wanted to become priests, ambitions that took some time to die, and only when they transferred their zeal and passion to Art, as practised by the new pre-Raphaelites and expounded by John ‘the Baptist’ Ruskin. These Morris lectures, in their high-minded but vague phraseology, their uplifting vision of the New Jerusalem, and their call for moral reform, are much more like sermons than any factual and informative lecture I’ve ever heard.

A young socialist, Bruce Glasier, has left his impression of hearing Morris lecture in 1884:

On the lecture itself I only remember that it seemed to me something more than a lecture, a kind of parable or prediction, in which art and labour were held forth, not as mere circumstances or incidents to life, but as life or the act of living itself.

Quotes

I must once again call the faithful of art to a battle wider and more distracting than that kindly struggle with nature, to which all true craftsmen are born…

Most people live as if the beauty of life were irrelevant or an unaffordable luxury, whereas art and beauty in the widest sense, are vital elements in the life Nature intended us to lead.

The lack of art, or rather the murder of art, that curses our streets from the sordidness of the surroundings of the lower classes, has its exact counterpart in the dulness and vulgarity of those of the middle classes, and the double-distilled dulness, and scarcely less vulgarity of those of the upper classes.

Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.

The danger is that the present course of civilisation will destroy the beauty of life…

My message is, in short, to call on you to face the latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts, and thereby enslave simple people to them, and themselves to themselves, and so at last drag the world into a second barbarism more ignoble, and a thousandfold more hopeless, than the first.

So much is now known of the periods of art that have left abundant examples of their work behind them, that we can judge of the art of all periods by comparing these with the remains of times of which less has been left us; and we cannot fail to come to the conclusion that down to very recent days everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful: so that in those days all people who made anything shared in art, as well as all people who used the things so made: that is, ALL people shared in art.

It is strange and perplexing that from those days forward the lapse of time, which, through plenteous confusion and failure, has on the whole been steadily destroying privilege and exclusiveness in other matters, has delivered up art to be the exclusive privilege of a few, and has taken from the people their birthright; while both wronged and wrongers have been wholly unconscious of what they were doing.

I believe that art made by the people and for the people as a joy both to the maker and the user would further progress in other matters rather than hinder it, so also I firmly believe that that higher art produced only by great brains and miraculously gifted hands cannot exist without it.

We must work towards an art MADE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY FOR THE MAKER AND THE USER.

To be a man is to understand and create and appreciate art. Men in these degraded times have shut down that feeling in themselves, and so acquiesce in the squalor of the times. If men were whole again, it would inspire them to want to reform and change society. A feeling for art would prompt feelings for reform if not revolution!

Well, people will not take the trouble or spend the money necessary to beginning this sort of reforms, because they do not feel the evils they live amongst, because they have degraded themselves into something less than men; they are unmanly because they have ceased to have their due share of art.

You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you can give them a share in art.

He has a good passage describing the subtlety of the influences by which the system has ensnared us, by making the lives of so many people so much more comfortable in so many ways – but at the price of new forms of slavery for the oppressed.

If civilisation is to go no further than this, it had better not have gone so far: if it does not aim at getting rid of this misery and giving some share in the happiness and dignity of life to ALL the people that it has created, and which it spends such unwearying energy in creating, it is simply an organised injustice, a mere instrument for oppression, so much the worse than that which has gone before it, as its pretensions are higher, its slavery subtler, its mastery harder to overthrow, because supported by such a dense mass of commonplace well-being and comfort.

And Art, far from being the irrelevant luxury that the people in power believe it to be, can play a vital role in restoring to slaves their humanity.

… that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.

This is what we should set ourselves to aim for, a true and noble goal of creating a free, just society, not the continuation of our crass materialistic culture.

I had thought that civilisation meant the attainment of peace and order and freedom, of goodwill between man and man, of the love of truth and the hatred of injustice, and by consequence the attainment of the good life which these things breed, a life free from craven fear, but full of incident: that was what I thought it meant, not more stuffed chairs and more cushions, and more carpets and gas, and more dainty meat and drink–and therewithal more and sharper differences between class and class.

What I want to do to-night is to put definitely before you a cause for which to strive. That cause is the Democracy of Art, the ennobling of daily and common work, which will one day put hope and pleasure in the place of fear and pain, as the forces which move men to labour and keep the world a-going.

The pre-Raphaelites

There is an unblushing passage about the role of his friends (and himself) in restoring art to England.

You know well that one of the master-arts, the art of painting, has been revolutionised. I have a genuine difficulty in speaking to you of men who are my own personal friends, nay my masters: still, since I cannot quite say nothing of them I must say the plain truth, which is this; never in the whole history of art did any set of men come nearer to the feat of making something out of nothing than that little knot of painters who have raised English art from what it was, when as a boy I used to go to the Royal Academy Exhibition, to what it is now.

It is amusingly revealing that later in the lecture, in his brief historical overview of western history, he uses the same phraseology to describe the founders of Christianity.

Therefore no tyrant was too base, no pretext too hollow, for enslaving the grandsons of the men of Salamis and Thermopylae: therefore did the descendants of those stern and self-restrained Romans, who were ready to give up everything, and life as the least of things, to the glory of their commonweal, produce monsters of license and reckless folly. Therefore did a little knot of Galilean peasants overthrow the Roman Empire.

The pre-Raphaelite mindset of a small group of high-minded men determined to change the world morphs seamlessly into Morris’s vision of a small group of artists who can bring about a transformation of society, a vision still in the loose and open phase in these early lectures but which crystallises into the notion of a vanguard political party in his later political phase.

Related links

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

The Art of the People by William Morris (1879)

 History (so called) has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created.

Morris delivered this lecture to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, of which he was President, on February 19, 1879.

Art is despised

Morris laments that in their day Art is despised by the rich and powerful.

There are some of us who love Art most, and I may say most faithfully, who see for certain that such love is rare nowadays. We cannot help seeing, that besides a vast number of people, who (poor souls!) are sordid and brutal of mind and habits, and have had no chance or choice in the matter, there are many high-minded, thoughtful, and cultivated men who inwardly think the arts to be a foolish accident of civilisation–nay, worse perhaps, a nuisance, a disease, a hindrance to human progress.

But he and his audience are certain Art is not only valuable but vital to human nature and to society.

The arts we have met together to further are necessary to the life of man, if the progress of civilisation is not to be as causeless as the turning of a wheel that makes nothing.

Art for Art’s sake is a dead end

One of the obvious corruptions of the time is the immense amount of badly paid work and poor craftsmanship which goes into making pointlessly showy objects for the philistine rich:

I have never been in any rich man’s house which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held.

Alongside it has gone the production of genuinely marvellous artefacts by a smaller and smaller coterie of genuine artists who, due to their complete rejection by wider Society, have turned in on themselves and work only for themselves and have finally come to believe that Art has no relationship with wider society or moralit, but can and should be made for this tiny elite alone.

I believe that if other things were but to stand still in the world, this improvement before mentioned would lead to a kind of art … cultivated professedly by a few, and for a few, who would consider it necessary–a duty, if they could admit duties–to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art. It would be a pity to waste many words on the prospect of such a school of art as this, which does in a way, theoretically at least, exist at present, and has for its watchword a piece of slang that does not mean the harmless thing it seems to mean–art for art’s sake. Its fore- doomed end must be, that art at last will seem too delicate a thing for even the hands of the initiated to touch; and the initiated must at last sit still and do nothing–to the grief of no one.

It is not that Art for Art’s sake is wrong in itself; it is that society is in danger of coming to believe that this incredibly restricted definition is what art is when Morris passionately takes the diametrically opposed view.

I know that those honest and intelligent people, who are eager for human progress, and yet lack part of the human senses, and are anti-artistic, suppose that such men are artists, and that this is what art means, and what it does for people, and that such a narrow, cowardly life is what we, fellow-handicraftsmen, aim at. I see this taken for granted continually, even by many who, to say truth, ought to know better, and I long to put the slur from off us; to make people understand that we, least of all men, wish to widen the gulf between the classes, nay, worse still, to make new classes of elevation, and new classes of degradation–new lords and new slaves; that we, least of all men, want to cultivate the ‘plant called man’ in different ways–here stingily, there wastefully: I wish people to understand that the art we are striving for is a good thing which all can share, which will elevate all; in good sooth, if all people do not soon share it there will soon be none to share; if all are not elevated by it, mankind will lose the elevation it has gained. Nor is such an art as we long for a vain dream; such an art once was in times that were worse than these, when there was less courage, kindness, and truth in the world than there is now; such an art there will be hereafter, when there will be more courage, kindness, and truth than there is now in the world.

The people’s art

Art for art’s sake is a dead end because the best art in all ages has come from popular craftsmen. Of course there are great cathedrals and mansions (though almost always the craftsmen who actually built them are anonymous, of the people) but the great life of the people of the past involved creative labour, work which produced beautiful ornamentation to even the most practical objects, and whose work can be seen in lovely village churches and in the best village cottages.

History (so-called) is the annals of tyrants and psychopaths. But between the endless wars, ordinary life went on and Morris wants us to celebrate everyday creativity in all its forms:

Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

The core of  his message is that work should and could be pleasurable, not the downtrodden slave-labour it has become for so many Victorians.

That thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour. I do not believe he can be happy in his labour without expressing that happiness; and especially is this so when he is at work at anything in which he specially excels. A most kind gift is this of nature, since all men, nay, it seems all things too, must labour; so that not only does the dog take pleasure in hunting, and the horse in running, and the bird in flying, but so natural does the idea seem to us, that we imagine to ourselves that the earth and the very elements rejoice in doing their appointed work; and the poets have told us of the spring meadows smiling, of the exultation of the fire, of the countless laughter of the sea.

If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect… If I could only persuade you of this, that the chief duty of the civilised world to-day is to set about making labour happy for all, to do its utmost to minimise the amount of unhappy labour…

The Victorian age has perfected two kinds of machinery, those for making money and weapons, both a type of war-machine, the war of commerce and the war of imperial conquest.

But, on the other hand, matters for the carrying on of a dignified daily life, that life of mutual trust, forbearance, and help, which is the only real life of thinking men–these things the civilised world makes ill, and even increasingly worse and worse.

In contrast to the miserable slave labour which is carried out to create shoddy goods which can only be sold by huckstering salesmen (‘the toil which makes the thousand and one things which nobody wants, which are used merely as the counters for the competitive buying and selling, falsely called commerce’) or weapons which are only good for killing people in foreign countries, Morris’s vision is of a country at peace with itself and an economy built on fulfilling work.

It is necessary to the further progress of civilisation that men should turn their thoughts to some means of limiting, and in the end of doing away with, degrading labour.

Come the Revolution…

Morris is adept at listing all the ills of his age: poverty and squalor; terrible architecture of Victorian terraces knocked up to house slave labourers; complete disregard for art or ornamentation anywhere in life; the wealth generated by this slave labour frittered away by the rich who go out of their way to display their disgusting philistinism. But he can’t quite see a clear way to the improvement of this sorry state unless it is in a magical Transformation:

The present time of strife and doubt and change is preparing for the better time, when the change shall have come, the strife be lulled, and the doubt cleared…

That great change which we are working for, each in his own way, will come like other changes, as a thief in the night, and will be with us before we know it…

What shall we do then? what shall our necessary hours of labour bring forth? That will be a question for all men in that day when many wrongs are righted, and when there will be no classes of degradation on whom the dirty work of the world can be shovelled…

Hope

But the mechanism by which this change comes about remains a mystery. This is why the word HOPE is so prevalent in his writings. Without a clear roadmap for the future, he urges himself and his audience to work and educate and create IN HOPE of a better time to come.

if we were only come to our right minds, and could see the necessity for making labour sweet to all men, as it is now to very few–the necessity, I repeat; lest discontent, unrest, and despair should at last swallow up all society–If we, then, with our eyes cleared, could but make some sacrifice of things which do us no good, since we unjustly and uneasily possess them, then indeed I believe we should sow the seeds of a happiness which the world has not yet known, of a rest and content which would make it what I cannot help thinking it was meant to be: and with that seed would be sown also the seed of real art, the expression of man’s happiness in his labour,–an art made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.

I am, indeed, hopeful, but can I give a date to the accomplishment of my hope, and say that it will happen in my life or yours?

Meanwhile, if these hours be dark, as, indeed, in many ways they are, at least do not let us sit deedless, like fools and fine gentlemen, thinking the common toil not good enough for us, and beaten by the muddle; but rather let us work like good fellows trying by some dim candle-light to set our workshop ready against to-morrow’s daylight–that to-morrow, when the civilised world, no longer greedy, strifeful, and destructive, shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.

Related links

The Lesser Arts by William Morris (1877)

Morris’s few forays into painting weren’t a success and he quickly realised he had a gift for the other, practical or decorative arts. In 1861 he set up ‘the Firm’ – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. ‘Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’ – which became a thriving concern and undertook major commissions for the next 30 years and beyond his death. Morris was a lifelong champion of the practical arts and, when he became interested in a new one, he taught himself from scratch, often using medieval handbooks. Thus, in his final years, he taught himself bookbinding in order to set up the Kelmscott Press.

This lecture on the Decorative arts, delivered in 1877 (Morris aged 44) was thus given by a man with lifetime’s interest in and commitment to the subject. In his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of News from Nowhere, Clive Wilmer says he thinks Morris’s factual prose is stronger than his imaginative: this reminds me a little of George Orwell who said that when he wrote well it was because he had something to say.

Morris really passionately means what he says and so his prose reduces to a minimum the Victorian phraseology, abandons the medievalisms and cuteness which mar News from Nowhere and his prose romances, and says what he means as plainly as he can. The result is page after page which you want to quote in their entirety because his meaning is conveyed as much by the rolling rhythm of his sentences as the content of his argument.

The decorative arts?

Our subject is that great body of art, by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life… A very great industry indeed, comprising the crafts of house-building, painting, joinery and carpentry, smiths’ work, pottery and glass-making, weaving, and many others: a body of art most important to the public in general, but still more so to us handicraftsmen; since there is scarce anything that they use, and that we fashion, but it has always been thought to be unfinished till it has had some touch or other of decoration about it.

These arts, I have said, are part of a great system invented for the expression of a man’s delight in beauty: all peoples and times have used them; they have been the joy of free nations, and the solace of oppressed nations; religion has used and elevated them, has abused and degraded them; they are connected with all history, and are clear teachers of it; and, best of all, they are the sweeteners of human labour, both to the handicraftsman, whose life is spent in working in them, and to people in general who are influenced by the sight of them at every turn of the day’s work: they make our toil happy, our rest fruitful.

The arts have split

As man’s thought has become more intricate, more thorough, the two branches of art – the Greater and Lesser arts – once united, have become separated to the detriment of both: serious art has become heavy, earnest, doomy, the decorative arts vulgar, mass-produced tat.

…the great art of Architecture, and less still with the great arts commonly called Sculpture and Painting, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser so-called Decorative Arts, which I have to speak about: it is only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life, that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether: the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater, however they may be practised for a while by men of great minds and wonder-working hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.

The Decorative arts are intrinsic to human nature

It is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in: forms and intricacies that do not necessarily imitate nature, but in which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.

…the art of unconscious intelligence, as one should call it, which began without a date, at least so long ago as those strange and masterly scratchings on mammoth-bones and the like found but the other day in the drift…

(This last phrase reminded me of all the artefacts I saw at the wonderful Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum, tiny fragments of bone or wood or antler which had been intricately carved and decorated.) As such, as an intrinsic part of human nature and human activity, decoration and ornament should be part of our everyday work, part of our working hours to make our work rewarding and fulfilling and to create a world full of beautifully decorated objects which brighten our rest time.

I say that without these arts, our rest would be vacant and uninteresting, our labour mere endurance, mere wearing away of body and mind… only let the arts which we are talking of beautify our labour, and be widely spread, intelligent, well understood both by the maker and the user, let them grow in one word POPULAR, and there will be pretty much an end of dull work and its wearing slavery.

The death of Art in our current capitalist society

Morris paints a dismal picture of the low state to which the arts have sunk in his time and, in a typically extreme section, foresees the eventual complete death of Art.

Even now amid the squalor of London it is hard to imagine what it will be. Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, with the crowd of lesser arts that belong to them, these, together with Music and Poetry, will be dead and forgotten, will no longer excite or amuse people in the least: for, once more, we must not deceive ourselves; the death of one art means the death of all; the only difference in their fate will be that the luckiest will be eaten the last–the luckiest, or the unluckiest: in all that has to do with beauty the invention and ingenuity of man will have come to a dead stop.

The solution is for craftsmen to set an example

You whose hands make those things that should be works of art, you must be all artists, and good artists too, before the public at large can take real interest in such things; and when you have become so, I promise you that you shall lead the fashion; fashion shall follow your hands obediently enough.

The remedy, I repeat, is plain if it can be applied; the handicraftsman, left behind by the artist when the arts sundered, must come up with him, must work side by side with him: apart from the difference between a great master and a scholar, apart from the differences of the natural bent of men’s minds, which would make one man an imitative, and another an architectural or decorative artist, there should be no difference between those employed on strictly ornamental work; and the body of artists dealing with this should quicken with their art all makers of things into artists also, in proportion to the necessities and uses of the things they would make.

True that we live amid the disgusting squalor, poverty and hideousness of Victorian London, but we can decide to rise above it:

If you can really fill your minds with memories of great works of art, and great times of art, you will, I think, be able to a certain extent to look through the aforesaid ugly surroundings, and will be moved to discontent of what is careless and brutal now, and will, I hope, at last be so much discontented with what is bad, that you will determine to bear no longer that short-sighted, reckless brutality of squalor that so disgraces our intricate civilisation.

The loveliness of English folk art

Having recently visited the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain, and looked at shop signs and quilts and primitive paintings and pub signs and carved fireplaces and pin cushions I have a better sense of the unstoppability with which people will decorate and adorn everything in their lives. Morris hymns the modesty of this English folk art, shaped by the modesty of the English landscape:

For as was the land, such was the art of it while folk yet troubled themselves about such things; it strove little to impress people either by pomp or ingenuity: not unseldom it fell into commonplace, rarely it rose into majesty; yet was it never oppressive, never a slave’s nightmare nor an insolent boast: and at its best it had an inventiveness, an individuality that grander styles have never overpassed: its best too, and that was in its very heart, was given as freely to the yeoman’s house, and the humble village church, as to the lord’s palace or the mighty cathedral: never coarse, though often rude enough, sweet, natural and unaffected, an art of peasants rather than of merchant-princes or courtiers, it must be a hard heart, I think, that does not love it: whether a man has been born among it like ourselves, or has come wonderingly on its simplicity from all the grandeur over-seas. A peasant art, I say, and it clung fast to the life of the people, and still lived among the cottagers and yeomen in many parts of the country while the big houses were being built ‘French and fine’: still lived also in many a quaint pattern of loom and printing-block, and embroiderer’s needle, while over-seas stupid pomp had extinguished all nature and freedom, and art was become, in France especially, the mere expression of that successful and exultant rascality, which in the flesh no long time afterwards went down into the pit for ever.

Art is labour beautifed, pleasurable labour is art

What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent? or, to put it in another way: the decoration of workmanship, what is it but the expression of man’s pleasure in successful labour?

Nothing can be a work of art which is not useful; that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under command of the mind, or which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate the mind in a healthy state. What tons upon tons of unutterable rubbish pretending to be works of art in some degree would this maxim clear out of our London houses, if it were understood and acted upon! To my mind it is only here and there (out of the kitchen) that you can find in a well-to-do house things that are of any use at all: as a rule all the decoration (so called) that has got there is there for the sake of show, not because anybody likes it. I repeat, this stupidity goes through all classes of society: the silk curtains in my Lord’s drawing-room are no more a matter of art to him than the powder in his footman’s hair; the kitchen in a country farmhouse is most commonly a pleasant and homelike place, the parlour dreary and useless.

Environmentalism ie creating an environment fit for humans to live in

Science–we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting- house, the counting-house and the drill-sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of heavy black silks, or the biggest of useless guns. Anyhow, however it be done, unless people care about carrying on their business without making the world hideous, how can they care about Art? I know it will cost much both of time and money to better these things even a little; but I do not see how these can be better spent than in making life cheerful and honourable for others and for ourselves; and the gain of good life to the country at large that would result from men seriously setting about the bettering of the decency of our big towns would be priceless, even if nothing specially good befell the arts in consequence.

Against the elitism of Art for Art’s sake

Unless something or other is done to give all men some pleasure for the eyes and rest for the mind in the aspect of their own and their neighbours’ houses, until the contrast is less disgraceful between the fields where beasts live and the streets where men live, I suppose that the practice of the arts must be mainly kept in the hands of a few highly cultivated men, who can go often to beautiful places, whose education enables them, in the contemplation of the past glories of the world, to shut out from their view the everyday squalors that the most of men move in. Sirs, I believe that art has such sympathy with cheerful freedom, open-heartedness and reality, so much she sickens under selfishness and luxury, that she will not live thus isolated and exclusive. I will go further than this and say that on such terms I do not wish her to live. I protest that it would be a shame to an honest artist to enjoy what he had huddled up to himself of such art, as it would be for a rich man to sit and eat dainty food amongst starving soldiers in a beleaguered fort.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.

His vision for the future

I have a sort of faith, though, that this clearing away of all art will not happen, that men will get wiser, as well as more learned; that many of the intricacies of life, on which we now pride ourselves more than enough, partly because they are new, partly because they have come with the gain of better things, will be cast aside as having played their part, and being useful no longer. I hope that we shall have leisure from war,–war commercial, as well as war of the bullet and the bayonet; leisure from the knowledge that darkens counsel; leisure above all from the greed of money, and the craving for that overwhelming distinction that money now brings: I believe that as we have even now partly achieved LIBERTY, so we shall one day achieve EQUALITY, which, and which only, means FRATERNITY, and so have leisure from poverty and all its griping, sordid cares.

Then having leisure from all these things, amidst renewed simplicity of life we shall have leisure to think about our work, that faithful daily companion, which no man any longer will venture to call the Curse of labour: for surely then we shall be happy in it, each in his place, no man grudging at another; no one bidden to be any man’s SERVANT, every one scorning to be any man’s MASTER: men will then assuredly be happy in their work, and that happiness will assuredly bring forth decorative, noble, POPULAR art.

That art will make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountain-sides: it will be a pleasure and a rest, and not a weight upon the spirits to come from the open country into a town; every man’s house will be fair and decent, soothing to his mind and helpful to his work: all the works of man that we live amongst and handle will be in harmony with nature, will be reasonable and beautiful: yet all will be simple and inspiriting, not childish nor enervating; for as nothing of beauty and splendour that man’s mind and hand may compass shall be wanting from our public buildings, so in no private dwelling will there be any signs of waste, pomp, or insolence, and every man will have his share of the BEST.

Hope and Fears for Art

This 1877 lecture was collected with four others in the 1882 volume Hopes and Fears for Art, and a further set of lectures, all broadly socialist in nature, were collected in the 1888 volume Signs of Change. Clive Wilmers writes of them: ‘These two books, central to Morris’s work, must count among the finest of his achievements.’ Hmm. Better read them, then…

Related links

William Morris (Wikimedia Commons)

William Morris (Wikimedia Commons)

A Gossip on Romance by Robert Louis Stevenson (1882)

Stevenson published essays throughout his career. One of his earliest books was a collection of essays published in various magazines in the late 1870s – Virginibus Puerisque (1881). They are surprisingly light and gay and playful, oozing defiance at the Gradgrindish restrictions of Victorian Philistinism. The following year he published a short essay, A Gossip on Romance, which is a useful insight into his aims as a writer and amusingly useful in thinking about fiction in general.

‘In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.’

In it Stevenson draws a simple distinction between the active and the passive – between what we actively do in life – which requires conscience and morality and discretion – and what happens to us – which requires we manage and cope with circumstances thrust upon us. The first is the stuff of serious novels and drama, emphasising serious analysis of character and the weightiness of making balancing motives and deciding how to act; the latter is romance, emphasising incidents which somehow feed our deeper longings and dreams.

‘Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life. With such material as this it is impossible to build a play, for the serious theatre exists solely on moral grounds, and is a standing proof of the dissemination of the human conscience. But it is possible to build, upon this ground, the most joyous of verses, and the most lively, beautiful, and buoyant tales.’

Stevenson suggests English fiction has become too fond of the sound of tinkling teacups, and mentions Anthony Trollope (who died in 1882, the same year this essay was published). Stevenson anticipates a Freudian view of literature, of art in general, that it feeds our subconscious desires and drives:

‘The desire for knowledge, I had almost added the desire for meat, is not more deeply seated than this demand for fit and striking incident. The dullest of clowns tells, or tries to tell, himself a story, as the feeblest of children uses invention in his play; and even as the imaginative grown person, joining in the game, at once enriches it with many delightful circumstances, the great creative writer shows us the realisation and the apotheosis of the day-dreams of common men. His stories may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the day-dream.’

Fiction which engages our intellect, demanding moral and aesthetic judgement is fine. But what always goes further, penetrates our minds, makes us engage and lose ourselves in a fiction, is just the right set of circumstances and incident; a profounder type of fiction which feeds our deepest wishes and dreams.

‘In character-studies the pleasure that we take is critical; we watch, we approve, we smile at incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of sympathy with courage, suffering or virtue. But the characters are still themselves, they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted, the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do they thrust us back into our place as a spectator… It is not character but incident that woos us out of our reserve. Something happens as we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realised in the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget the characters; then we push the hero aside; then we plunge into the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experience; and then, and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance.

‘It is not only pleasurable things that we imagine in our day-dreams; there are lights in which we are willing to contemplate even the idea of our own death; ways in which it seems as if it would amuse us to be cheated, wounded or calumniated. It is thus possible to construct a story, even of tragic import, in which every incident, detail and trick of circumstance shall be welcome to the reader’s thoughts. Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance.’

Paradoxically, Stevenson argues, the light adventure stories – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll – so often dismissed as books for boys, feed something deeper in our imaginations than indisputably more grown-up, serious and analytical texts can provide. They have certainly lasted, endured and prevailed in the popular culture in which we all swim in this year of 2012.

Jacket illustration of 'Treasure Island'

Jacket illustration of ‘Treasure Island’


A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Dickens’ Journalism (1850-70)

19 June 2012

Dickens wrote with feverish energy, unstoppably, creating a vast output. The Penguin volume of Dickens’s selected journalism is 688 pages long. Michael Slater has edited four volume of Dickens journalism and even these aren’t complete.

Having read the novels I came to the journalism expecting the hundreds of articles he wrote to be factual, analytical critiques of Victorian society, complete with statistics and investigations. I was bitterly disappointed. Only when I learned to see them for what they are, did the scales drop from my eyes and I began to enjoy them.

They are entertainments. All Dickens’s prodigious output can be summarised by his wish to entertain. When he sits down to plan he is moralistic, as in the novels. But for long stretches of the novels and lots of the journalism there is no deeper motive than to entertain, to distract and to amuse.

When I first read Hard Times expecting an economically literate, politically informed critique of Victorian industrialism I was shocked at how muddled, shallow and thick it was. It offers next to no insight into his times; its one great message is the importance of the imagination to the human spirit. Sleary’s Circus is at the heart of the novel, not Gradgrind’s factories (is there a single description of the work that goes on inside any of the factories?).

After a while you realise the joy of the essays is similar – it’s their unsystematic, unstatistical, unanalytical style. They are more stream-of-consciousness than Parliamentary report, with memory tumbling over memory, imagery striking out like sparks.

Exuberance and intimacy. Dickens enchants with the utter candour of many of these memories and offers an immediate sensual identification with the excitements of his experiences. A famous example is  ‘Gone Astray’, where he was lost as a child and blundered round a city of giants. But the effect is enchanting not terrifying.

He visits slums, police stations, was an obsessive visitor of prisons and lunatic asylums (read the American Notes where he makes a beeline for the prison, asylum or morgue of every city he visits).

We are seduced by a) Dickens’s candid tone b) the openheartedness of his memories c) the relentless optimism of his style, which overrides pessimism of subject matter. Dickens’s energy energises his reader. Creates an implied author of confidence, candour and permanent good humour. Creates an exuberance which seems endless. One of the ways in which he seems more like a world, a universe, than a mere mortal author.

Painting of Dickens’ characters populating his study by Robert William Buss

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