Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

them as they were transformed by the great ages into joys. The death of tragedy is, like the death of love, one of those emotional fatalities as the result of which the human as distinguished from the natural world grows more and more a desert.

Poetry, said Santayana in his famous phrase, is "religion which is no longer believed," but it depends, nevertheless, upon its power to revive in us a sort of temporary or provisional credence and the nearer it can come to producing an illusion of belief the greater is its power as poetry. Once the Tragic Spirit was a living faith and out of it tragedies were written. Today these great expressions of a great faith have declined, not merely into poetry, but into a kind of poetry whose premises are so far from any we can really accept that we can only partially and dimly grasp its meaning.

We read but we do not write tragedies. The tragic solution of the problem of existence, the reconciliation to life by means of the tragic spirit is, that is to say, now only a fiction surviving in art. When that art itself has become, as it probably will, completely meaningless, when we have ceased not only to write but to read tragic works, then it will be lost and in all real senses forgotten, since the devolution from Religion to Art to Document will be complete.


CONSTANCE ROURKE: The American*

THE CIVIL WAR has been considered a prime destructive agent in the life of the nation, warping or even destroying a native culture. But the literature of the '50's had never been truly complete. Uncalculating, digressions might have followed even though there had been no catastrophe. In spite of the disruption of the War a determined experiment continued through the '60's, '70's, and '80's. The international scene became a great American scene, even in a sense the great American scene.

Few ideas had disturbed the American mind more acutely than those which had to do with the European relationship. In the '60's the early commentaries of European travelers still rankled: Tuckerman gathered them into a compendious volume, with rejoinders. But the old fable had undergone a change. In its last notable version, Our American Cousin, the nationalistic hero had exhibited his character and enjoyed his adventures in England, and possessed an English heritage. He was in fact one of those "dispossessed princes and wandering heirs" of whom Henry James was to write. In spite of the burlesque the gesture of disseverance had grown less positive in Mark Twain's long skits. The American went abroad, often to stay; sentiment overspread his return to "our old home," and that preoccupation with art which had been satirized in Innocents Abroad became one of his larger preoccupations.

This was mixed with a consideration which had long since been borne in upon the American mind by British criticisms. Culture was an obvious proof of leisure, of long establishment, of half a hundred desirable assurances that had been lacking in American life; it even seemed to resolve the vexing problem of manners. Culture was sought abroad as a tangible emblem. The resultant "pillage of the past" was to mount to monstrous proportions, and to include the play of many unworthy instincts--ostentation, boredom, a morbid inversion of personal desires; often, no doubt, it represented a natural response to the fine accumulations of time. Yet surely on the wide scale it was something more

____________________
*
"The American" first appeared in 1931 in American Humor: A Study of the National Character, by Constance Rourke , copyright 1931, by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. Constance Rourke ( 1885- 1941) was the author of Trumpets of Jubilee ( 1927), Troupers of the Gold Coast ( 1928), Davy Crockett ( 1934), Audubon ( 1936), Charles Sheeler ( 1938), and The Roots of American Culture ( 1942).

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