From Out of Soundings, Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 9, p135-147.
The Dawn of Reason
H. M. Tomlinson
IT It should not be supposed, because I shall mention Moscow, that I feel able to explain the effect of revolution on life and work in Russia. I do not know everything of Russia as it is, even though I have not been there. It would be wrong to make the high claim to plenary inspiration in a matter because of the strength of my moral perceptions, especially as I doubt that I have the gift to acquire knowledge through divination. All I will do is to assume that probably the effect of civil war and absolutism on a country is not pleasant, for it has been observed that a treatment of continuous violence to no more than a plot of grass will do it no good. Then again, we have been sufficiently warned, by lessons it would be hard to forget, that however pure may be our idealistic emotion wakened by an important event, that event, nevertheless, has its undesigned issues, and obeys its destiny regardless of the motives of its pioneers, and comes to an inevitable end unwelcomed because unforeseen by the lofty idealists who expected instead milk and honey in a happy valley secured from trespass.
It is safe today to write the name of Leon Trotsky, because the Russian Revolution has declared that stalwart son to be illegitimate, and has cast him out. Mr. Trotsky now would be less safe in Moscow than you or I; yet as an amateur general he so commanded the Red Army that he made the Tsar's professional officers, when they were aided by all that England and France dared to give them, appear to lose battles by force of habit. I think he must be a most intelligent and formidable man, but it is safe now to name him aloud, because Russia, whose revolution he saved, disowns him. History seems to teach us that in a revolution the men from whom we may expect neither reason nor quarter are our comrades. As we are secure in the knowledge that he is disowned because of his defection in an article of revolutionary faith too refined for outsiders to perceive, we may freely examine Mr. Trotsky's book on Literature and Revolution.
Should we doubt that our world cannot be better than what we commonly think and do, then let us consider the excursion of this implacable revolutionist into the realm of art. Mr. Trotsky, after turning Imperial palaces into committee rooms for the scientific discussion of democratic needs, after abolishing with superb ease the armies of those who would have restored the Winter Palace to its traditional use, is at last free to give some attention to the poets.
That, we know, is more than the Tsar ever did. I do not remember that a crowned head ever published its reflections on the relations between literature and the state. The august guardians of a national constitution long and securely established may afford to neglect the poets, and probably not even a Poet Laureate would deny that. Poets may be tolerated and may win admiration, if not too queer; they are even encouraged, when their songs inspire popular thanksgiving for national virtues; yet always, at the back of our thoughts, is a little friendly contempt for the usual indifference shown by that genus for practical affairs. The artist is unable to cope, as a rule, with the coarse realities of the street, the mart, and the senate, though for rightly balanced minds which accept the world as it is, to make the most of it--and such we know our minds to be--the profitable management of those realities is not only native, but affords both interest and fun. Those remorseless facts are not funny to the poet, however, and that makes him, in private, funny to us. He is such a fool, and we enjoy the comedy his astonished innocence affords. Yet, in secret still, we are occasionally a little afraid of him. He can make us angry. We are aware of a certain demonic quality he has, which enables him to regard our comforting conventions and circumstances, that are as divinely based, we have no doubt, as the eternal hills, with eyes either unseeing or scornful. Does he see something we do not? For we have learned that, when his interest is lively, he is able to place things in the due order of their importance, by a careless inspection, while we are still puzzling over them, suspecting that here a choice of vital consequence is offered to us, yet unable to see where and why. And though we smile at his innocence, we have reason to dread his questions, as we dread the artless examination of a child who is suddenly curious about problems withheld from its nascent understanding. At times we are not certain whether we are listening to the silly prattling of an infant, or to the diabolic irony of a deathless spirit which looks like a baby but is older than Adam. We can remain certain of ourselves and our communal customs and rites only so long as the secret is kept of the skeleton in the cupboard. Does the child know of the old bones that are hidden by a door never opened? We doubt something unfortunate is there, for such is the traditional whisper, but we have never ventured a peep at that hidden thing. We do not care to look closely at the stuff we are made of. We do not seek trouble. There is no telling but what a grinning skull might ask us in a bony voice to distinguish between truth and evil, and we are not going to fashion an answer, if we can avoid it, for there is no guessing what would be involved. Beyond doubt it is better to maintain our cheerful and wholesome ignorance of questions that might test the props of society, for thus we may save the city we love from tumbling down. But how much does the blue-eyed infant and the poet suspect of what is behind our confident pomp and posture? Whatever they may guess, we will not confess one word beyond the point where the fine show of things, which gives us what we want, would be disturbed. If necessary we must lie to the child; there will be fairy tales so long as it is desired the young should accept as of divine ordination, or by inexorable law, that proper world which we maintain for them. As for the poet, with his inclination to upset the idols, we can keep him moderately suppressed on a low dietary; and as a rule we do.
Even Leon Trotsky sees that this is necessary. The Tsar and his court have gone, not before a change was highly desirable, and the Communists have come, but the poet is not abolished. Mr. Trotsky, with a quick instinct for any danger that may threaten that new society established by a revolution, turns to frown on the poet. He appears to know where trouble may begin. The poets helped the rebels to bring about that deep dislike of the law and order necessary to support Imperial Guards and Cossacks with knouts. The poet was not an anarchist. He was a poet. If he were in revolt, it was not against the Tsar, but ugliness. By the only light he knew, his country was an unhappy prospect, and he sang his protest to so good a tune that common people, who did not think their hard lot was known, or that anyone would care if it were, paused to listen, and were encouraged. The singer hints of a better clime, where we would fear winter less. He can change the look of things, turn even the sombre aspect of irrevocable fate into the shadow of human folly, which good will could disperse. When this is done, anything may happen, though the poet does not care; the rest is our concern. He scatters his words broadcast, and most fall on stony ground, but some do not.
In the beginning, we have been told, was the Word. How potent was the word! So let us never despise the idle singer of an empty day; his idleness may fill it, Heaven knows how. Perhaps Mr. Trotsky, when at leisure he began to consider the poets, remembered the words of such men as Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gogol, pollenating stuff blown over the wilderness. He would have remembered, too, that all the Tsar's Cossacks could do nothing to subdue that magic.
From the tone of this book on literature by a revolutionary leader one would guess that he feels, about poetry, just what the Tsar's advisers used to feel. I do not think I should care to discuss literature in Moscow, any more than I should plead the loveliness of gentle peace in the smoking-room of a Pall Mall club, or the right to liberty of conscience in modern Rome. It would be inappropriate, and it might be dangerous. To discuss poetry with Mr. Trotsky would be as useful as reciting the Ancient Mariner while inside a tank in action. Not only would one's style be somewhat cramped, but one might not be heard.
If I were pressed, I should have to confess there is very much in literature I do not know and shall never learn. Our days are short and there is much to do. Yet, as to literature when a revolution is placing its machine guns in advantageous bedrooms at road junctions, we need be in no doubt whatever. It goes into the gutter. As do the babies, it dies, with much else that is good. Mr. Trotsky himself noted this, but it gives him no lasting remorse. With an original program that had destruction for its purpose, naturally he destroyed. Did poetry perish? No matter. It was only bourgeois literature. That properly went, with the society it flattered.
Still, Mr. Trotsky is intelligent and has read widely. He is aware of poetry. It exists. He rebukes his triumphant proletarian soldiers, therefore, when they complain that their own art differs from that of a despised and abolished group of time-servers, and when they beg of their great leader, "Give us something even pockmarked, but our own." He reminds them truly that a pockmarked art is not art, so is not necessary for the working classes. What Mr. Trotsky has to consider, in consequence, among the other duties of a revolutionist, is the proletarian production of poetry without pockmarks.
This product is not supplied in sunny abundance, even to the order of a revolutionary tribunal. And is there any pastime so interesting as watching a fanatic making recalcitrant facts accord with his faith? They ought to fit into his scheme, which he knows is right, and therefore they do, for they must. The process of reasoning, which is man's prerogative, can be no less wonderful than the life cycle of the liver fluke. Perhaps there is not a wonder of creation to equal it. It can reach the certainty of a moral conviction, by force of logic, with a celerity which makes man's evolution from a lemuroid shape seem a long, clumsy, and a very casual affair, hardly worthy the name of wonderful. Reason, in its humbler mood, pretends that it cannot square the circle; but it can do harder things than that; it can prove the circle to be a square, relatively, when considered with impartiality, should that be necessary to perfect a theory about which it feels ecstatic.
Because of this, Mr. Trotsky has few hesitancies when he looks to the future, to discern there the rise of proletarian art. Why should any man hesitate, when he is merely prophetic? He is supported, too, by the Marxian gospel, which has some of the advantages that jargon bestows on those who use it. Why not use it? If jargon cannot be depended on to do whatever a true disciple desires, what is the good of it? It is jargon which enables a Marxian revolutionist to be as reasonable as the Holy Office used to be when explaining that the execution of Indian infants after baptism saved them from further sin; as reasonable as Signor Mussolini when explaining that the imprisonment of political opponents brings an argument to the conclusion he desires.
In the first chapter of Mr. Trotsky's adventure in æsthetics there is expressed so savage a satisfaction at the discomfiture of poets, laughter so genial over their surprise at the withdrawal from their feet of the accepted earth, that one fancies one can hear an echo of the joyous shout which went up long ago when a ridiculous Christian toppled to a lion. He remarks, "the traditional identification of poet and prophet is acceptable only in the sense that the poet is as slow in reflecting his epoch as the prophet. If there are poets who can be said to be ahead of their time, it is because they have expressed certain demands of social evolution not quite as slowly as the rest of their kind."
So he cannot find a use for poets. They may sing their songs before sunrise, but not after. Let Juggernaut go over them. The revolutionist supposes, we see, that the poet should reflect his epoch, just as good Englishmen used to suppose that, to earn his guineas and his cask of wine, the Poet Laureate should celebrate the throne and exalt the Empire's flag. The trouble with the poet is that he will see us all damned first, revolutionists included. We have our hope and faith here; the topless towers of Ilium are of a dream which the light of common day never shows. Our world and the artist's cannot be reconciled; yet it will be perenially easy for Trotsky or another to parade the poets at dawn, and shoot them. They do not celebrate their epoch. As the gun-carriages go lumbering off to glory, we must not be astonished, nor grieve, when the Grecian Urn goes under the hooves and the wheels. It does not celebrate its epoch. And the devoted gunners, sure of the approval of patriotic onlookers, will merely turn in their seats to grin over their shoulders at the shards they have made. Something that was beautiful is lost. The gunners are amused. The populace is cheering too heartily to see that victory has already begun, and that the first death is on the road. But to what triumph in a new epoch does the Urn, now shattered, bear testimony? What is celebrated by its loss?