Recent Developments in European Thought
Author: Various
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And to the list we may add, I think, the modern passion for history and for science. We study history not merely to be warned by failures or inspired by shining examples: at bottom we have a belief that somehow the lives and struggles of those men in the distant past are still quite as important as our own. We follow the discoveries of science not only for their commercial value or because we share the excitement of the chase, but because, deeper than all, we suspect that the universe is a glorious thing.

And there is another matter, perhaps the most important of all, on which I would dwell as I draw to a close, where Meredith leads directly to the dominant thought of the present day. I mean his feeling that, if the universe is to be proved acceptable to man's conscience, it will be through the effort of man himself struggling towards his own ideal. It is as though the world itself had to be redeemed by man. This hope is the real hope of our time. So far as the modern world believes the doctrine of the Incarnation, it is in this sense that it believes.

And this belief we find everywhere in all hopeful writers, great or small. It gives dignity to the latest writings of H.G. Wells, this faith in a spirit moving in man greater than man himself, worthy to fight and fit to overcome all that is wrong in the universe. Bernard Shaw's creed is just the same, sometimes thinly disguised under respect for 'the Life-Force', sometimes coming boldly forward in audacious, profound assertions that God needs Man to accomplish His own will and is helpless without him. 'There is something I want to do,' Shaw imagines his God as saying, 'and I don't know what it is; I must make a brain, the human brain, to find it out.' Rodin modelled a mighty hand, the Hand of God, holding within it Man and Woman. Shaw, it is reported, asked the sculptor: 'I suppose you meant your own hand after all?' 'Yes,' said Rodin, 'as the tool.'

The same idea is at the base of what is most stimulating in Bergson, the idea of what he calls Creative Evolution, an undefined splendour not yet fully existing, but, as it were, crying out to be born, and only to be born through the struggle of man's spirit with matter. This is one function of matter, perhaps the supreme function, to be the material through which alone man's vague ideal can become definite and actual, just as an artist can only get close to his own conception through the effort to embody it in visible form or audible sound.

From this point of view, the world is conceived as anything but ready-made, rather it is in the process of making, and we ourselves are among the makers. Or, to take a metaphor that perhaps appeals more to the modern world, it is a fight, and an unfinished fight. To quote William James, 'It feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.' He goes on to confess that he himself does not know, and certainly cannot prove scientifically, that the redemption will surely be accomplished. Such proof, he admits, 'may not be clear before the day of judgement (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize)'. 'But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great battle had been gained:

"Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there!"'[75]

Thus, if the idea of the splendour and perfection of the universe has sunk into the background, if the sense of worship and the feeling of ecstasy have been dimmed (and I think they have), at least the reverence for heroism and for tenderness has not been impaired, and there after all lies the root of human majesty. There is deep pathos in the change, but maybe, paradoxical as it sounds, deep hope as well. The world may grow the stronger for having to live now by what Carlyle called 'desperate hope' as distinct from 'hoping hope'. The triumphant harmony that seemed attained a century ago by certain poets and thinkers may have been, after all, too cheap and easy, if not for their own large spirits, at least for us, their lesser readers. Mystics have spoken of 'The Dark Night of the Soul' as the stage inevitable before the crowning glory, and to-day some of those who call to us out of great darkness are among our greatest leaders.

Of such certainly is a living writer, now beginning to be acclaimed as he deserves, the writer Conrad. In some ways this noble novelist might stand as the special representative of modern feeling. A Pole by birth and more than half an Englishman by sympathy, his view of life is as wide as it is profound and grave. It has all the sternness of temper of which I have spoken, the determination to look facts in the face whatever the consequences. Conrad would echo Sartor's noble cry for Truth—'Truth! though the Heavens crush me for following her;—no Falsehood! though a whole celestial Lubberland were the price of Apostasy!' This determination is fierce enough to be taken for cynicism, but Conrad is far too tender ever to be a cynic. So also does his pitifulness prevent him from ever falling into the errors of a Nietzsche, but none the less he has all Nietzsche's ardour for heroism. That to him is the core of life:—'to face it.' 'Keep on facing it,' so the old skipper tells the young mate in Typhoon. And facing the mysterious universe, peering into the Darkness with steady alert eyes, Conrad has at once an endless wistfulness and, or so it seems to me, a secret unquenchable hope. Doubt certainly he has in plenty. The sea of which he is always dreaming is terrible and cruel in his eyes as well as august and ennobling.

But he is sure of one thing: it is through the struggle with it and such as it that man alone can become Man. It is through facing the horrors of a dead calm, with a sick crew on board and no medicine, that the young master of the sailing-vessel in the Pacific crosses successfully the Shadow Line that divides youth from manhood. And it is through facing the unleashed fury of the tornado that the old captain of the 'full-powered steam-ship' in Typhoon shows what he has in him, compassion and kindness as well as shrewd knowledge of men, expert seamanship, and indomitable heroism. The whole thing is driven home with a power, an incisiveness, and a delicate irradiating humour which I should despair of conveying by mere criticism. The book must be read for itself, and read again and again. It is told, in one way, simply as a sailor's yarn, but it awakes in us the feeling that the struggle is a symbol of man's life.

Threatened by the advancing cyclone, Captain MacWhirr, 'the stupid man' of no imagination, decides, almost instinctively, that the only thing to be done is to keep up steam and face the wind. By sheer force of personality he holds the crew together and carries the ship through. And in the desperate struggle, every nerve on the strain for hours that seem unending, MacWhirr finds time to care for the miserable pack of terrified coolies on board, who have given way to panic and are fighting madly in the hold. MacWhirr stops this, brings about order and a chance for the Chinese, when the rest of his men, fine men as most of them are, can think of nothing but the safety of the ship. 'Had to do what's fair for all,' he mumbles stolidly to his clever grumbling mate, Jukes, during a dead lull in the storm—'they are only Chinamen. Give them the same chance with ourselves' ... 'Couldn't let that go on in my ship, if I knew she hadn't five minutes to live. Couldn't bear it, Mr. Jukes.' He does not know whether the ship will be lost or not—(and we do not know whether mankind will be lost or not)—what he does know is how he must act. But also he never loses hope. 'She may come out of it yet': that is the kind of answer the taciturn man gives when driven to speech. The chief mate, locked in his captain's arms to brace himself against the hurricane, scarcely able to make the other hear in the terrific gale though he shouts close to his head, gets back such answers, and with them the power to endure. He tells him the boats are gone: the captain yells back sensibly, 'Can't be helped.'

And so noble is the power with which Conrad uses our tongue, the tongue he has made his own by adoption and genius, that I must let him speak for himself, and can find no better close for my own lame words. Jukes has been shouting to his captain again:

'And again he heard that voice, forced and ringing feebly, but with a penetrating effect of quietness in the enormous discord of noises, as if sent out from some remote spot of peace beyond the black wastes of the gale; again he heard a man's voice—the frail and indomitable sound that can be made to carry an infinity of thought, resolution, and purpose, that shall be pronouncing confident words on the last day, when heavens fall and justice is done—again he heard it, and it was crying to him, as if from very, very far—"All right."'


[Footnote 72: Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre, Bk. 8, c. 5.]

[Footnote 73: By M.P. Follett (Longmans).]

[Footnote 74: Professor A.C. Bradley, to whom also is due the passage about Schubert and the parallel drawn between Beethoven, Hegel, and Wordsworth.]

[Footnote 75: From The Will to Believe, quoted in Bridges' The Spirit of Man, No. 425.]


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