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More by this Author
Now, it is this great gap in modern ethics, the absence of vivid
pictures of purity and spiritual triumph, which lies at the back
of the real objection felt by so many sane men to the realistic
literature of the nineteenth century. If any ordinary man ever
said that he was horrified by the subjects discussed in Ibsen
or Maupassant, or by the plain language in which they are spoken of,
that ordinary man was lying. The average conversation of average
men throughout the whole of modern civilization in every class
or trade is such as Zola would never dream of printing.
Nor is the habit of writing thus of these things a new habit.
On the contrary, it is the Victorian prudery and silence which is
new still, though it is already dying. The tradition of calling
a spade a spade starts very early in our literature and comes
down very late. But the truth is that the ordinary honest man,
whatever vague account he may have given of his feelings, was not
either disgusted or even annoyed at the candour of the moderns.
What disgusted him, and very justly, was not the presence
of a clear realism, but the absence of a clear idealism.
Strong and genuine religious sentiment has never had any objection
to realism; on the contrary, religion was the realistic thing,
the brutal thing, the thing that called names. This is the great
difference between some recent developments of Nonconformity and
the great Puritanism of the seventeenth century. It was the whole
point of the Puritans that they cared nothing for decency.
Modern Nonconformist newspapers distinguish themselves by suppressing
precisely those nouns and adjectives which the founders of Nonconformity
distinguished themselves by flinging at kings and queens.
But if it was a chief claim of religion that it spoke plainly about evil,
it was the chief claim of all that it spoke plainly about good.
The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented,
in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical,
is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things
increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees
what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment,
till it goes almost blind with doubt. If we compare, let us say,
the morality of the DIVINE COMEDY with the morality of Ibsen's GHOSTS,
we shall see all that modern ethics have really done.
No one, I imagine, will accuse the author of the INFERNO
of an Early Victorian prudishness or a Podsnapian optimism.
But Dante describes three moral instruments--Heaven, Purgatory,
and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement,
and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one--Hell.
It is often said, and with perfect truth, that no one could read
a play like GHOSTS and remain indifferent to the necessity of an
ethical self-command. That is quite true, and the same is to be said
of the most monstrous and material descriptions of the eternal fire.
It is quite certain the realists like Zola do in one sense promote
morality--they promote it in the sense in which the hangman
promotes it, in the sense in which the devil promotes it.
But they only affect that small minority which will accept
any virtue of courage. Most healthy people dismiss these moral
dangers as they dismiss the possibility of bombs or microbes.
Modern realists are indeed Terrorists, like the dynamiters;
and they fail just as much in their effort to create a thrill.
Both realists and dynamiters are well-meaning people engaged
in the task, so obviously ultimately hopeless, of using science
to promote morality.