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Lord Dunsany on Romance and Modernity

Skepsikyma
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4/30/2016 9:51:10 AM
Posted: 7 months ago
This is a lovely excerpt of an article written by Dunsany for the 1911 London National Review, a long-defunct British magazine. I think that it hits the mark when it comes to questions of culture, especially how people are relegating too much to any institution with an overall impression of materialism.

Something must be wrong with an age whose drama deserts romance; and a cause that soonest occurs to one is the alarming spread of advertisement, its frightful vulgarity, and its wholehearted devotion to the snaring of money.

What advertisement (the screaming voice of our age) seeks to be other than a lie, and if the actual statement is literally true, then all the more must the suggestion correct this error by being especially false.

Everywhere the sacredness of business is preached, everywhere it is pointed to as an end, to this great error advertisements testify alike in all places; children are brought up on them; for everything sublime or beautiful that any city shows them twenty times do they see far more noticeable, some placard sordid with avarice. Advertisements drop from the books that children read, they confront them in their homes. They stand large between them and the scenery when they travel. Will anyone say that their preaching is neglected; not unless the bill-sticker has lost his cunning. Those who are thus educated will learn to bow down to business. When most we need romance, romance has been frightened away.

As he steals over dewy hills in the dusk of summer evenings he sees those placards standing in the fields and praising Mammon; to Romance they seem the battlements of the fortress of Avarice, and he is gone at once.

It is not from business that romance has fled, but from the worshiping of it; the calf was not an unclean beast among the Israelites, but when they worshiped the Golden Calf then God deserted them.

To-day a work of art must be defended in terms of business. 'What's the use of it?' they will say of some painting, and woe to the artist who cannot answer, 'It brings me in much.'

A year or so ago this age of ours spoke through the pen of some writer of a brief letter to a journal. The fate of Crosby Hall was being discussed. I do not remember the arguments; it was beautiful, it was historic, and in the way. And the age spoke and said, 'Let us have a little more business and less sentiment.'

That was the great error put into a sentence which the age inspired its prophet to write to the press.

Human happiness is nothing more than a fairy ring of human sentiments dancing in the moonlight. The wand that compels them may possibly be of gold. Business, perhaps, may be needed to make them dance, but to think that business, the possible means, should be more desirable than the certain end showed that that obscure writer whom the age had inspired was ignorant firstly even of himself and the little fanciful things that he intended some day to do. Thus is the end given up for the sake of the means, and truth and beauty sacrificed every day upon innumerable counters, until the generation fostered among these things says to the artist, 'What do you get by it?' and to the poet, 'Does it pay?'

In discussing the state of the stage one has to watch the affairs of its neighboring kingdoms, the stalls and the pit. If their conditions are sordid, romance will not easily flourish across the border.

The drama is the mirror of life if not something more. And an age that paints its woodwork red to ape mahogany, that makes respected fortunes by mixing up sulfuric acid with glucose and calling the product beer, the age of flannelette and the patent pill... such an age may well have such a drama as will be pleasant and acceptable to the doers of these things: for when insincerity has once raised up its honored head in politics and commerce, as it has, and in daily life as well, it is quite certain that its worshipers will demand a drama sufficiently stale and smug to suit their lives.

In any beautiful age a poet is scarcely noticed, he is the natural product of the beauty of the time, he is no more than the lilac in the Spring; only in evil days does he appear half-witted, having the foolish look of a lily upon a pavement.

I am quite ignorant of the cost or feasibility of risking new experiments in the theater. I have no means or method of producing romantic drama. I should not dare to advise and have nothing to say except to ask that the theater be set up against the false, that the highest realism, the realism of the poets, who see the whole of life's journey, be set up against the lower realism that sees only how man equips himself with morals, and money, and custom for the journey; but knows not where the journey leads nor why man wants to go. That is what we need more to-day than in any age.

But romance has not been driven from the stage only by those that like the false and the sham -- obviously among these romance will not abide for romance is the most real thing in life -- but he has been jostled out of the way by the enemies of the shams that are too busy trying to overthrow the false to have leisure to let their fancies dance on the hills. For our age is full of new problems that we have not as yet found time to understand, that bewilder and absorb us, the gift of matter enthroned and endowed by man with life; I mean iron vitalized by steam and rushing from city to city and owning men for slaves. I know the boons that machinery has conferred on man, all tyrants have boons to confer, but service to a dynasty of steam and steel is a hard service, and gives little leisure to fancy to flit from field to field. Machinery has given us many problems to solve, and it may be a long time yet before we make the ultimate discovery that the ways and means of living are less important than life. When every man has recognized that for himself, we shall come out on the other side of all our problems, and laying aside our universal interest in the latest information about the newest question upon any subject that arises anywhere, we shall come to know a little about something once more, as our forefathers did before the days of encyclopedias. Then we shall have drama again that shall concern itself with life rather than with our anxious uncertainties about it. But the discoveries of steam and electricity which have given life to matter, are as perplexing to every one of us as what came out of the bottle that the Arabian fisherman found, and we have not yet recovered from our perplexity. I am not criticizing machinery. I stand in awe of so terrible a genie whose shadow has darkened all the midlands of England; but I mention it to explain the newness and suddenness of our problems, our unfamiliarity with ourselves and the puzzled expression on the faces of all who deal with these things, and the difference between the stories we tell, whereat romance yawns loudly, and the simpler tales and songs of more rural people.

Romance is so inseparable from life that all we need to obtain romantic drama is for the dramatist to find any age and any country where life is not too thickly veiled and cloaked with puzzles and conventions, in fact to find a people that is not in the agonies of self consciousness. For myself I think that it is simpler to imagine such a people, as it saves the trouble of reading to find a romantic age, or the trouble of making a journey to lands where there is no press.

It is easy for a philanthropist to endow a hospital, and easy for a benevolent man to work for the sake of the poor, their goal is near to them, logic supports them and reasonable men applaud them upon the way. But the way of the poet is the way of the martyr. The greater his work the more infinite his goal. His own eyes cannot assess it. There is little logic in a lyric, and notoriously little money. How can an age which values all things in gold understand so unvalued a thing as a romantic fancy?
"The Collectivist experiment is thoroughly suited (in appearance at least) to the Capitalist society which it proposes to replace. It works with the existing machinery of Capitalism, talks and thinks in the existing terms of Capitalism, appeals to just those appetites which Capitalism has aroused, and ridicules as fantastic and unheard-of just those things in society the memory of which Capitalism has killed among men wherever the blight of it has spread."
- Hilaire Belloc -
Skepsikyma
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4/30/2016 9:51:58 AM
Posted: 7 months ago
The kind of drama that we most need to-day seems to me to be the kind that will build new worlds for the fancy, for the spirit as much as the body sometimes needs a change of scene.

Every morning railway trains, telegraphs, and motors await to spread the latest information everywhere. Even were this information of value there would be more than men's minds could digest. I do not object to detailed accounts of murder trials, life is at a high tension in a court where a man is on trial for his life; what does the harm is meaningless reports of cricket matches spun out with insipid phrases and newly invented sham slang, which fill a people's mind with nothingness, and are widely read by men who no longer die, but pass away at their residence. Phrases are parasites in the fur of thought and in time they destroy the thing upon which they feed. Many and many an erstwhile clever head pours forth phrase after phrase picked up from today and yesterday, behind which thought is dead, and only the parasites left. Too much information about the fads and fashions of empty lives is stealing year by year the traditions and simplicity even of rural people. Yet places remain unaffected by all these things, these are the hunting ground of the dramatist. Then there is the other world -- the world of fancy. It seems to me that a play that is true to fancy is as true as one that is true to modern times, for fancy is quite as real as more solid things and every bit as necessary to a man. A fancy of some sort is the mainspring and end of every human ambition, and a writer who turns away from conventions and problems to build with no other bricks than fancy and beauty is doing no trivial work, his raw material is the dreams, and whims, and shadowy impulses in the soul of man, out of which all else ariseth.
"The Collectivist experiment is thoroughly suited (in appearance at least) to the Capitalist society which it proposes to replace. It works with the existing machinery of Capitalism, talks and thinks in the existing terms of Capitalism, appeals to just those appetites which Capitalism has aroused, and ridicules as fantastic and unheard-of just those things in society the memory of which Capitalism has killed among men wherever the blight of it has spread."
- Hilaire Belloc -