The White Radiance

Are We Now Peculiarly Liable to Form Mistaken Literary Judgments?

It is a well-known fact, and one that has furnished vast comfort [?] many a misguided literary aspirant, that contemporaneous literary criticism has very often proven ridiculously inadequate. Re[?] there has been published a volume entitled Famous Literary [?], in which are gathered together a few choice vials of criti- [?] poured upon the heads of those whom now we view as [?]. It is a rather portly book; yet it is only one of many [?] that could be compiled. Also, if the compiler’s appetite for [?] mistaken literary judgments were not appeased after so [?] a feast of futile ire, he might prepare an equally imposing [?] of ill-fated eulogies.

Many an alleged immortal has succumbed to the inclement social weather of our world; and many an apparently puny infant has [?] the croups of cultural autumns and the colics of new [?] in the green.

Such a library of misconceived union as has been suggested here [?] make jocose reading for those of us who share the curious and fairly prevalent delusion that [?] the first moderns, stand triumphantly unbunkable upon our [?] of time. But there are reasons for suspecting that we are now living in a time peculiarly liable to gross errors in literary judgment.

Literature is merely one of many social phenomena, and the literary [?] of any age are to be concerned first of all with reference to the prevailing social background. [?] in society proceeds, like any other growth, by alternate periods of increasing strain — which [?] seem almost static in their peacefulness — and periods of aud-[?] release and unfoldment. Slow moving pictures of a developing past have been seen by almost everyone, no doubt, and will be remembered in this connection. The period of release and violent unfoldment which we are not experiencing may be viewed as having begun with the French Revolution which was broadly speaking, the triumph of the individualistic idea over the monarchical idea. The extreme of concentration had been reached in the reign of Louis XIV [?] the centrifugal, so called democratic movement began. Its infin-[?] was apparent in the fundamental realm of economics long before it began to affect what we call the higher values — those of literature, the arts, philosophy, religion, ethics. It was not until about [?] years ago that individualism [?] triumphant in industry, struck the realm of higher values like a whirlwind. Whether or not the [?] has attained or is about to attain its maximum violence, who can say? We know that many very respectable old signboards are flying all over the place and that many a private window, once [?] serenely upon a world of [?] seemed eternal certainties has been broken in by chilling blasts of doubt.

To realize the change that has [?] place in literary attitudes, as a result of individualism worked [?] to its logical conclusions, one [?] only to consider the rigid rules that were laid down by absolute [?] authority for the writers of pre-Revolutionary France. The [ ? archic] idea, long established in [?] lower realms of human activity has penetrated to the realm of art. Then tradition was every-[?] [?] practically [?]

[?] patient of all restraints, we are certain to overestimate the essential value of those works that most violently express the antisocial mood: and yet all of our genuine values are in their very nature social.

Doubtless Shelley had no thought of literary criticism when he wrote the strangely luminous lines:

Life like a dome of many colored glass
Stains the white radiance of eternity,

but he expressed a truth that is applicable here. The light of understanding and persuasion by which men live is constantly changing. New generations develop new social moods within which, as in a colored atmosphere, all views are colored. When the light of the time is red, as we may say, most men will think the truth is of that color; and the blues and yellows of other generations may seem absurd or pathetic or merely curious.

Yet what is any color but a fragment of some single white radiance? And what is the white radiance in our special application of the figure, but a vision of the larger truth about men and the human adventure in general, as opposed to the merely fragmentary view in keeping with the bias of the moment?

Eternity is a long, long stretch, and we can not follow our poet so far. Human literary history is much briefer, and here and there, throughout the whole length of it, finishes of the white radiance may be noted by those who have the eyes to see. Even in our own confused time of stormy red the white ray breaks in many a single line or passage: and now and then a whole book may glow with it. But it is the red that wakes the loudest clamor.

To scorn the red is to have no sympathetic understanding of one’s own time — and that is a pitiful disaster. To seek the larger human values in that one necessarily transient key, is to miss the larger values.

More than once has the restless general consciousness of men passed through all the shades and colors of the social spectrum from the naïve germinating violet on through the slowly maturing blues, the flowering greens, the mellowly fruiting yellows and the tempestous revolting reds.

But the truth about the light was never to be perceived by the split [?]. — J. G. N.