In fact this desire for consonance in the apocalyptic data, and our tendency to be derisive about it, seem to me equally interesting. Each manifests itself, in the presence of the other, in most of our minds. We are all ready to be sceptical about Father Marystone, but we are most of us given to some form of 'centurial mysticism,' and even to more extravagant apocalyptic practices: a point I shall be taking up in my fourth talk. What it seems to come to is this. Men in the middest make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle. That is why the image of the end can never be permanently falsified. But they also, when awake and sane, feel the need to show a marked respect for things as they are; so that there is a recurring need for adjustments in the interest of reality as well as of control. This has relevance to literary plots, images of the grand temporal consonance; and we may notice that there is the same co-existence of naïve acceptance and scepticism here as there is in apocalyptic. Broadly speaking, it is the popular story that sticks most closely to established conventions; novels the clerisy calls 'major' tend to vary them, and to vary them more and more as time goes by. I shall be talking about this in some detail later, but a few brief illustrations might be useful now. I shall refer chiefly to one aspect of the matter, the falsification of one's expectation of the end. The story that proceeded very simply to its obviously predestined end would be nearer myth than novel or drama. Peripeteia, which has been called the equivalent, in narrative, of irony in rhetoric, is present in every story of the least structural sophistication. Now peripeteia depends on our confidence of the end; it is a disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach the discovery or recognition by an unexpected and instructive route. It has nothing whatever to do with any reluctance on our part to get there at all. So that in assimilating the peripeteia we are enacting that readjustment of expectations in regard to an end which is so notable a feature of naïve apocalyptic. And we are doing rather more than that; we are, to look at the matter in another way, re-enacting the familiar dialogue between credulity and scepticism. The more daring the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work respects our sense of reality; and the more certainly we shall feel that the fiction under consideration is one of those which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations, is finding something out for us, something real. The falsification of an expectation can be terrible, as in the death of Cordelia; it is a way of finding something out that we should, on our more conventional way to the end, have closed our eyes to. Obviously it could not work if there were not a certain rigidity in the set of our expectations.
Nearly all our older poetry was written and read by men to whom the distinction between poetry and rhetoric, in its modern form, would have been meaningless. The 'beauties' which they chiefly regarded in every composition were those which we either dislike or simply do not notice. This change of taste makes an invisible wall between us and them.
Some think it the historian's business to penetrate beyond this apparent confusion and heterogeneity, and to grasp in a single intuition the 'spirit' or 'meaning' of his period. With some hesitation, and with much respect for the great men who have thought otherwise, I submit that this is exactly what we must refrain from doing.
What is vital and healthy does not necessarily survive.. An art, a whole civilization, may at any time slip through men's fingers in a very few years and be gone beyond recovery. If we are alive when such a thing is happening we shall hardly notice it until too late; and it is most unlikely that we shall know its causes.
Two literary figures bridge the gap between the mediaeval age and the Renaissance. They are Sir Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte D'Arthur, and the first 'poet-laureate', John Skelton. In their entirely separate ways, they made distinctive contributions to the history of literature and to the growth of English as a literary language. Le Morte D'Arthur is, in a way, the climax of a tradition of writing, bringing together myth and history, with an emphasis on chivalry as a kind of moral code of honour. The supernatural and fantastic aspects of the story, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are played down, and the more political aspects, of firm government and virtue, emphasised. It was a book for the times. The Wars of the Roses ended in the same year as Le Morte D'Arthur was published. Its values were to influence a wide readership for many years to come. There is sadness, rather than heroism, in Arthur's final battle. John Skelton is one of the unjustly neglected figures of literature. His reputation suffered at the hands of one of the earliest critics of poetry, George Puttenham, and he is not easily categorised in terms of historical period, since he falls between clearly identified periods like 'mediaeval' and 'Renaissance'. He does not fit in easily either because of the kinds of poetry he wrote. But he is one of the great experimenters, and one of the funniest poets in English.
I want to give just a slight indication of the influence the book has had. I knew that, in his second novel,, published in 1935, had borrowed from for his nighttime scene in Trafalgar Square, where Deafie and Charlie and Snouter and Mr. Tallboys and The Kike and Mrs. Bendigo and the rest of the bums and losers keep up a barrage of song snatches, fractured prayers, curses, and crackpot reminiscences. But only on my most recent reading of did I discover, in the middle of the long and intricate mock-Shakespeare scene at the National Library, the line 'Go to! You spent most of it in Georgina Johnson's bed, clergyman's daughter.' So now I think Orwell quarried his title from there, too.
We have to look at the figures of speech a writer uses, his images and symbols, to realize that underneath all the complexity of human life that uneasy stare at an alien nature is still haunting us, and the problem of surmounting it still with us. Above all, we have to look at the total design of a writer's work, the title he gives to it, and the his main theme, which means his point in writing it, to understand that literature is still doing the same job that mythology did earlier, but filling in its huge cloudy shapes with sharper lights and deeper shadows. [p.32]
Offered a job as book critic for magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he'd replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right. More interesting was the related question: What if he'd that job?
It might be useful here to say a word about Beckett, as a link between the two stages, and as illustrating the shift towards schism. He wrote for transition, an apocalyptic magazine (renovation out of decadence, a Joachite indication in the title), and has often shown a flair for apocalyptic variations, the funniest of which is the frustrated millennialism of the Lynch family in Watt, and the most telling, perhaps, the conclusion of Comment c'est. He is the perverse theologian of a world which has suffered a Fall, experienced an Incarnation which changes all relations of past, present, and future, but which will not be redeemed. Time is an endless transition from one condition of misery to another, 'a passion without form or stations,' to be ended by no parousia. It is a world crying out for forms and stations, and for apocalypse; all it gets is vain temporality, mad, multiform antithetical influx. It would be wrong to think that the negatives of Beckett are a denial of the paradigm in favour of reality in all its poverty. In Proust, whom Beckett so admires, the order, the forms of the passion, all derive from the last book; they are positive. In Beckett, the signs of order and form are more or less continuously presented, but always with a sign of cancellation; they are resources not to be believed in, cheques which will bounce. Order, the Christian paradigm, he suggests, is no longer usable except as an irony; that is why the Rooneys collapse in laughter when they read on the Wayside Pulpit that the Lord will uphold all that fall. But of course it is this order, however ironized, this continuously transmitted idea of order, that makes Beckett's point, and provides his books with the structural and linguistic features which enable us to make sense of them. In his progress he has presumed upon our familiarity with his habits of language and structure to make the relation between the occulted forms and the narrative surface more and more tenuous; in Comment c'est he mimes a virtually schismatic breakdown of this relation, and of his language. This is perfectly possible to reach a point along this line where nothing whatever is communicated, but of course Beckett has not reached it by a long way; and whatever preserves intelligibility is what prevents schism. This is, I think, a point to be remembered whenever one considers extremely novel, avant-garde writing. Schism is meaningless without reference to some prior condition; the absolutely New is simply unintelligible, even as novelty. It may, of course, be asked: unintelligible to whom? --the inference being that a minority public, perhaps very small--members of a circle in a square world--do understand the terms in which the new thing speaks. And certainly the minority public is a recognized feature of modern literature, and certainly conditions are such that there may be many small minorities instead of one large one; and certainly this is in itself schismatic. The history of European literature, from the time the imagination's Latin first made an accommodation with the lingua franca, is in part the history of the education of a public--cultivated but not necessarily learned, as Auerbach says, made up of what he calls la cour et la ville. That this public should break up into specialized schools, and their language grow scholastic, would only be surprising if one thought that the existence of excellent mechanical means of communication implied excellent communications, and we know it does not, McLuhan's 'the medium is the message' notwithstanding. But it is still true that novelty of itself implies the existence of what is not novel, a past. The smaller the circle, and the more ambitious its schemes of renovation, the less useful, on the whole, its past will be. And the shorter. I will return to these points in a moment.