By ROBERT McALMON.
CIVILIZATION, NEVER MORE than a system for handling group needs has now given up all pretense of an autocratic organization, or any organization, and is an economically accumulated society in which various sophistications of ideas combat for supremacy.
Art, the source of which was impulses akin to the religious, and which intellectualized refined into a search for life justification other than self- and specie-preserving ones, has degenerated into a profession, into which all artists enlist to compete, or remain unknown.
Here, too, the warfare between sophistications of ideas is waged. More information and less knowledge about art and its impulses and elements are abroad today than less industrialized areas could permit. Art, particularly literature, has developed professionally two ways: one the way of popular appeal, which we are not concerned; the other the way of schools, the product of which member’s depend largely upon were erudition and information for appreciation, and which possesses little significance to sensitive and informed beings who do not possess specified information. As with Jules LaForgue in France, whose literature has keen irony and beauty, but whose force is decreased for all readers who have not read the literature of writers whom he satirizes – such as Flaubert. There can be only acceptance of any style, however mannered, provided the insight and other content of the matter is sufficient to justify its existence. No literature, however, dependent upon information that is literary alone, rather than of deified parodism, and its basic element is cleverness about ideas, rather than poignant feeling, or penetrating perception.
Such writing as Cabell displays in “Jurgen” has nothing to do with literature. This collection of literary grandiloquencies, rejuvenated philosophies, and derived stylisms, mixed with cosmic thinking such as men who step seldom from their libraries always indulge in, is second hand literary furniture, upholstered. Cabell’s progress as a writer is indicative of the information provincialism which so dulls the sensitivities, while informing the mind, of the average “cultured” American. It is regrettable that in America, a county of young energies and unused resource such work should be foisted upon a public soul-burdened with unassimulated knowledge.
T.S.Eliot, who before he was twenty one, had written as fine poetry as this generation has produced, is a victim of the culture via ideas regime, more insistently the autocrat of the English mind than it is of the American. A being of acute and sensitive abilities as an observer, he was at one time sufficiently active cerebrally, and artist enough, to understand within himself the impulses of art, and to discern its quality. Having however written some fine poetry, and having gained acclaim as a critic because of this, and his evident erudition, he got stagefright, and whether it be because he fears not to equal his youthful poetry in quality, has produced no poetry for several years, and has fallen to writing catalogues of literary ratings, and academic essays on “Second Rate Minds” – itself a third rate pastime.
In a frantic effort not to be caught misinformed by the English, he spends his days and nights reading, failing to realize that information is so abundant, so personally perceived and prejudiced, that the process of selection is more difficult and confusing to an impressionable being, and at the same time permits less personal conviction, than the location of judgments through one’s own psychologic processes. Eliot, who once studied philosophy with Bergson, should discern that in literature as in philosophy, fashion places ephemeral judgments upon all things; and that in a world where all information is old, all discovery old or predicted, the one quality that gives any art a reason for being is the exhuberance and impact behind it, of a personality discovering reality for itself, reaffirming, with the force of experience giving added conviction, if it has known, or stating with the joy of invention, if it has not known, each discovery.
T.S.Eliot will not be a critic in any worthy sense, as was Taine, or Ruskin, or even Remy de Gourmont, for he continually relates literature to literature, and largely overlooks the relation of literature to reality – age, age-qualities, and environment. He remains too long within his library, dependent overmuch upon other men’s philosophies of art, which no artist needs more than to recognize in passing; His array in all art discussion is that of erudition, which is, after all, easily penetrable. Still Eliot was — and if acclaim has not ruined him is — as incisive a perceiver and less a literary “clever man” than the LaForgue whose influence he wrote his best poetry under, which had quite as clutching a quality as any of LaForgue’s. (In France, La Forgue’s forte, ideas and brilliant satires upon ideas and literary manners have the background of the country whose only evident reality has been idea and manners for the last few generations. There a tired spirited, weary-bodied culture has accepted the futility of existence with whimsical cynicism. Eliot, an American, is less a genuine being dealing with these materials.)
La Forgue, who died at twenty seven, remains a big figure in the literary world – somewhat for what he might have done; Eliot at an age a few years in advance of twenty seven? — Has he died a literary death? or is he slowly comitting a literary suicide smothering fine sensitivities by being a professional litterateur?
Robert McAlmon and William Carlos Williams co-founded Contact, a little magazine published under an address at the GPO, New York City. The magazine ran for only a handful of issues before folding in 1923. Williams attempted a relaunch in 1932, with Nathaniel West as a co-editor. The essay presented here appeared in the December 1920 issue and has been manually transcribed by The Fortnightly Review. The original contained a substantial number of typographical, grammatical and other errors; many of these have been preserved here, except where a correction has been necessary as an aide to readers.
In his 1930 survey of “Small Magazines,” Pound observed that McAlmon was “the one very important American writer whom no American publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole.” As the founder of Contact Publishing Co., he was also a perceptive first publisher of many Modernist writers. A lengthy editor’s note (p. 406ff) by Robin Schulze in Becoming Marianne Moore (2002) contains a lively comment on Moore and her involvement with both Williams and McAlmon, but his own account (later augmented by Kay Boyle) is in Being Geniuses Together. Biographical notes are online at Peter Crisp’s blogsite, as “Paris Memoirs: Robert McAlmon” and at “Robert McAlmon: A Lost Voice of the Lost Generation,” by Chase Dimock, who also includes a small collection of McAlmon’s poetry. Cabell’s Jurgen was the target of a censorious mob led by the infamous New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.