LETTERS TO THE PRESS (9)
The Era (25 January, 1890)
TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.
Sir,—I observe that it is stated, in several criticisms of the new opera Marjorie, that I am responsible for all the “new matter” in it, and particularly for the third act. This is not the case. It is true that I was requested to revise the libretto, and that I did so to the best of my ability; but only a very small portion of my work was utilised, and the third act more particularly was constructed and arranged by another hand. I do not say this to deprecate connection with a revision which was admirably and successfully done, though not by me, but to give honour where honour is due. The slight opposition provoked on the first night by one episode was caused by a small minority of not altogether disinterested spectators. The opera, as a whole, was received with generous enthusiasm.
I am, &c., ROBERT BUCHANAN.
The Daily Telegraph (8 February, 1890 - p.3)
TO THE EDITOR OF “THE DAILY TELEGRAPH.”
SIR—A dramatist should perhaps be silent when his work is greeted with such a consensus of eulogy as has been given to my new Vaudeville drama; but in your critic’s glowing and generous criticism there are two points of objection which I should like to explain, particularly as they affect the ethical quality of the entire play. Firstly, it is suggested that I traverse and undo my moral purpose when I allow the dying Lovelace to embrace the outraged girl and die at her feet. This would be absurd, after the previous scene of renunciation, but for the fact that Clarissa has, under the excitement of meeting her betrayer, lost her reason. Her mind goes back to her happy girlhood; the outrage is blotted from her memory; and she sees only an honoured lover leading her to the altar. The whole meaning of my last act is that physical violation and desecration cannot touch the stainless Soul; nor can that last kiss defile it, any more than the previous torture. It is important to remember that, in my play, Clarissa has from the first loved the man who wrecks her honour. Secondly, it is suggested that the reformed and “Christianised” Belford should not have been suffered to “kill” his enemy. In this connection due weight should be given to the morality of the period when the action takes place. Belford meets Lovelace in fair fight, as at that period even a just and good man might do. A modern Belford might possibly have renounced the duello on moral grounds, but my Belford lived one hundred years ago.
Thanking your critic for his sympathetic notice of a work on which I have spent no little thought and trouble, I am, your obedient servant,
Vaudeville Theatre, Feb. 7.
What Is Sentiment?
[Another letter to The Daily Telegraph from February, 1890, reprinted in The Coming Terror.]
From The Coming Terror, and other essays and letters (William Heinemann, 1891 - p.289-297)
WHAT IS SENTIMENT?
IN a recent number of a new publication called The Speaker, there is an article on ‘Sentimentalism,’ in which it is contended very justly that the Aberglaube of hysterical emotion is a sham thing by the side of true pathos; but very falsely, that the air of the present day is overcharged with ‘Sentiment.’ The writer thus confounds what is real with what is true—Sentiment with Sentimentalism; and the confusion is one which has been made from time immemorial. Sentiment, I conceive, is the power which generalizes the experience of mankind, the verification of long centuries, concerning the links which unite members of the human family surely and remorsely to one another, and which thus justifies Poetry (in the words of Novalis) as the only Reality. Sentimentalism, on the other hand, is sentiment perverted and overcharged— in other words, become unscientific. While objecting somewhat 290 to his terminology, I cordially agree with the writer of the article I have named in the distinction he draws between true and false pathos in literature. I fail altogether, however, to follow him in his contention that either Sentiment or Sentimentalism are much in the air at present. I believe, rather, that cheap Science and cheap Cynicism are destroying, or trying to destroy, both the sham and the reality. Men nowadays do not feel too much, but far too little. Thanks partly to the influence of the baser portion of the public Press, the era of completed ethical obtusity seems fast approaching.
The man who endeavours, as I shall endeavour, to treat Sentiment as an exact science, stands at a strange disadvantage in these days of troubled materialism, when the nobler emotions are old-fashioned and unpopular, and even Conscience is likely to suffer from being classed as a complication of brain secretions. I may fairly say, however, that I have never wavered one hair in my doctrine on this subject, from the day when I wrote the ‘Ballad of Judas Iscariot ‘ to the day, only just past, when I dramatized the ‘Clarissa’ of Richardson. The late Lord Houghton said to me many years ago, ‘The English people are practical, they do not care for Sentiment;’ to which I replied by quoting several extraordinary instances of popular success secured entirely by what is conventionally known as Sentiment, and 291 especially the instance of Mr. Gladstone. It was quite clear, however, that Lord Houghton attached the ordinary meaning to the word under discussion, while I attached to it a meaning by no means ordinary. I wish, therefore, to put the question, ‘What is Sentiment?’ Does it mean, as certain scientists and many of the general public contend, a false and distorted, a transcendental and hysterical, conception of the relations of life—a general distribution over thought and feeling of what is known as Sentimentalism; or does it mean, as I have long maintained, the absolute experience of Humanity in the process of reduction to a Science?
Of one thing we may be quite clear, that there was never a period in the world’s history when the mere word Sentiment awakened in the thoughts of the classes called cultivated a fainter sympathy than now. Luxury on the one hand, and materialism on the other, have done their work so completely that large numbers of men can witness without emotion of any sort even the Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins. The Rome of Juvenal is, as I pointed out years ago, reproduced in the London of to-day. The spirit of a spurious and empirical ‘scientific’ philosophy, adopting as its shibboleth a certain specious jargon of experimental ethics, mental culture coincident with moral degradation, the avarice of the rich and the misery of the poor, just as surely contradict the 292 stern old English type of character as the same phenomena contradicted, in the time of Juvenal, the power, the integrity, and the austerity of ancient Rome.
‘Et quando uberior vitiorum copia? quando
Major avaritiæ patuit sinus?’
The parallel might be pursued down to the smallest detail, but to pursue it is not my purpose. I merely desire to remark, en passant, that the present social crisis is not unprecedented, but has occurred more than once, and once phenomenally, in the Evolution of Mankind. The Gospel of Sentiment shook the world eighteen centuries ago. The Science of Sentiment, verifying the instinct of that gospel, will stir it now.
The Science of Sentiment, then, adopts as its cardinal principle that the evolution of human ethics has proceeded in direct ratio with the growth or the suppression of the individual capacities of love and sympathy—sympathy seen dimly in the affinities of the lower organisms, shown largely in the lower animals, evolved wonderfully by human aid in the domesticated animals, notably in the dog, and attaining to the power of self-knowledge in the Mind of Man. The law of this Science, the condition on which it exists, is, like that of all other sciences, that of verification. To verify it completely would be beyond my power. I shall therefore confine myself to one position only, which is a paradox—that Love and 293 Hate, attraction and repulsion, in the human creature, are practically equivalent forces, although divergent, and that the object of the Science of Sentiment is to reconcile and assimilate them.
An illustration comes to my hand in a play from my pen produced at the Vaudeville Theatre. One of my critics has assured me that I stultify my moral teaching by suffering the libertine Lovelace to profane by a touch, even for a moment, in her dying delirium, his victim Clarissa. He has sinned past all pardon, he has isolated himself from all humanity, by a hideous act of violation; and so, indeed, the poor girl tells him, in the supreme Aberglaube of her exaltation. Her last clear words are of eternal renunciation, eternal farewell. He says he will ‘atone.’ ‘You cannot, sir,’ she answers; ‘it were as easy to turn the world upon its course and bring all Eden back.’ This, the critic says, is final. It is so from an unscientific point of view. But the Science of Sentiment instructs us that though individual Man cannot bring back the lost Eden, God can. God, the eternal Law, the loving Force in the heart of physical and moral evolution, completes a miracle of creation in a daily miracle of moral interchange and interaction. Lovelace is lost—that is certain. He is to be saved; but how? By the very act which destroyed him, but made him abject in contrition. The fire which purifies, the punishment which cleanses the conscience of the world, which is irresistible, and 294 the acquired insight of humanity, which is indestructible, leave him linked for ever with the lot of the angel he has wedded in the lurid halls of Hell. There is no escape for him otherwise. Even God cannot save him, except through himself; and thus through her. The moral interchange is thus inevitable.
Another paradox. Next to the man I have blest, the man I have cursed is nearest to me of all human creatures. So surely as I am bound to the man I love am I bound to the man I hate. He has become a part of me; though all the rest of the world may be a blank to me, I am certain of him. Every struggle I make against my enemy, every blow I strike him in the face, brings him closer into my life. This, indeed, is Sentiment, but it is Law. It is a thought for fools to laugh and scoff at, but it is as scientifically verifiable as any law of Selection based upon the fossils of extinct species. And the closer my enemy clings around me, the more I shudder at what seems to me his moral hideousness, the more terrible grows his power upon me. In my despair I curse him, I curse Humanity, I curse the cruel Law of Life. I struggle upward, and he holds me down; and I find that to rise at all I must take him with me. At last, out of my despair, comes insight. I see that he, too, is struggling, downward perhaps, but struggling inevitably in the throes of Evolution. I see my own sorrows, my 295 own meanness, my own misery, reflected in him; nay, I see my own ‘self,’ as in a mirror, looking out of him. There is no other way—I must take him with me or perish utterly. His life has become a part of mine. Then we cling together, and cry for help, for mercy, for Light! Darkly, dimly, I begin to know that he is helping me, that he, too, feels the piteousness of our repulsion for each other. I save him; I have saved myself. The deadlier the wrong that I have done him, or that he has done me, the more inextricable become our thoughts, our conditions. This is the Law of Sentiment which saved Lovelace. This is the Law of God which made the violated and the victim man and wife. This is the paradox which redeems the world.
‘Very foolish, very absurd!’ says the young lady, who, my critic tells me, will not go to a theatre unless she is to laugh, not to cry; in fact, as she adds, ‘very sentimental.’ But the theory is not one developed a priori; it is founded on what Professor Huxley terms ‘grovelling among facts.’ No living man has yet struck a blow which did not injure himself more than its object. I myself am ‘indifferent honest,’ fond of tussles with the enemy, but this same Science of Sentiment has instructed me that I have never had one real enemy except myself. But, the young lady perhaps adds, ‘The idea is so impracticable!’ Well, so is the Christianity which it formularizes, and 296 Christianity, apart from the dogmas which disfigure it, is recognised even by modern philosophy as the highest Ideal of the human mind. Very possibly, and often very certainly, I do not love my enemy! Well, as the Yankees express it, I have got to reckon with him. So long as I fail, says the Law, I shall stand still. And putting bad temper and violent passion aside as really ephemeral, the task of recognising the equivalency of Love and Hate is, to a thinking man in his sane moments, fairly easy, after all.
It is difficult, it is often impossible, to live up to our ideals; none of us, I fear, do that, and least of all the present writer. If the issue depended on our own conduct, on our own practical recognition of ethical principles, Sentiment would be vague as the Chimæra. Happily the law of Evolution works independently of human consciousness, and he who thinks all things evil is quite as surely at its mercy as he who thinks all things good. The clearest teaching of this age affirms that the evolution of the race, conditioned universally by the influence of individuals upon each other, is an evolution upward. It is no mere cant of little Bethel, therefore, which tells us that we should love our enemies; we do love them when we most hate them, through the inexorable laws of moral interchange. As the poor fellow said in the story, ‘It all comes reet i’ the end,’ and the transfusion of antagonism into its equivalent affinity, of repulsion 297 into its equivalent attraction, is the moral business of the world. Sentiment, then — the insight which enlarges the area of human sympathy, which reconciles the divergences of human character, which equalizes in the long-run the results of all human effort — is nothing if it is not verifiable or scientific; but since all true Science is another word for Religion, Sentiment is spiritually Sacrament—the crowning Sacrament of daily life.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph (20 February, 1890 - p.3)
MR ROBERT BUCHANAN ON SENTIMENT.
Mr R. Buchanan writes a long letter to the Daily Telegraph on “What is Sentiment?” and concludes it as follows:—“Sentiment—the insight which enlarges the area of human sympathy, which reconciles the divergences of human character, which equalises in the long run the results of all human effort—is nothing if it is not verifiable or scientific; but, since all true science is another word for religion, sentiment is spiritual sacrament—the crowning sacrament of daily life.”
The Taunton Courier (5 March, 1890 - p.4)
What is sentiment? The question is asked by Mr Robert Buchanan, and has recently been answered—no doubt to his own entire satisfaction—by a somewhat savage tirade against this age, with its “luxury on the one hand and materialism on the other.” There is a peril in attempting to follow the high priest of ethical evolution on a subject which abounds in dialectical pitfalls, into which, if anyone have the misfortune to stumble, through innocence or ignorance, straightway the thunders of Mr Buchanan’s didactic contempt will burst over the luckless wretch, and he will look in vain for a friendly hand to pull him on to the terra firma of approved terminology. And yet we do venture to question some of the conclusions which Mr Buchanan has arrived at on this question of sentiment and the quality of it which influences the lives of the present generation of men and women. It is scarcely necessary to say that Mr Buchanan looks down with lofty scorn upon his fellow-men and unhesitatingly describes their “sentimentism” as a mere bastard of the true sentiment. Happily he admits that the confusion of terms shown by a recent writer of equally pessimistic temperament in saying that the air of the present day is overcharged with sentiment has existed from time immemorial. Indeed it is but reasonable to admit that it must have done so, since the poor old world has taken something more than five thousand years to produce a mind with sufficient subtilty and breadth to correct the error. The god-like Robert Buchanan was unknown until the nineteenth century was verging upon maturity, and he is not the least of its wonders. He has learned from studying a few “dudes” and town roughs that chivalry is dead; and he has convinced himself, by observing a few mawkish hypocrites, that the tender compassion for suffering, the loving self-sacrifice of many pure and noble souls, the slow but certain disappearance of harsh social distinctions, and the many other signs of the times which we broadly class under the head of sentiment, are hollow sham—or, to quote his own phrase, “sentiment perverted and overcharged—in other words, become unscientific.” Truly if the fruits are sweet we care very little whether the root of the tree is planted in a scientific soil or not. But we should at least do Mr Buchanan the justice of studying what he has to say on the subject. It may be necessary to preface, in his own words, that “the era of completed ethical imbecility seems fast approaching.”
But what is sentiment, he says:—“Does it mean, as certain scientists and many of the general public contend, a false and distorted, a transcendental and hysterical conception of the relations of life—a general distribution over thought and feeling of what is known as Sentimentalism; or does it mean, as I have long maintained, the absolute experience of humanity in the process of reduction to a science?” Of course the reply is that it must mean exactly what Mr Buchanan pleases to say it does, and if what we have known as sentiment for the greater part of our lives is only a “false and distorted, a transcendental and hysterical conception of the relations of life,” we consign it without a sigh to the darkest ethical Gehenna which Mr Buchanan’s genius can construct. But terminology apart, we certainly do not believe that “there never was a period in the world’s history when the mere word sentiment awakened in the thoughts of the classes called cultivated a fainter sympathy than now.” Charles Kingsley was at least as close an observer of class relations as Mr Buchanan, and in the later prefaces to some of his popular works we find candid admissions of a change in the attitude of the classes to the masses. Belgravia is not now unfamiliar with the horrors of the Seven Dials, as it used to be. Call it sentiment or sentimentalism—we little care for the mere name—there certainly has been growing up in recent years an ardent, earnest desire to mitigate misery and distress from whatever causes they spring, and wherever they are found. Vast charitable and humanising agencies are at work. The Church, once somewhat lukewarm in such matters, is distinguished for good works in every parish. It is not true that “the Rome of Juvenal is reproduced in the London of to-day,” nor that “the spirit of a spurious and empirical ‘scientific’ philosophy, adopting as its shibboleth a certain specious jargon of experiential ethics, mental culture coincident with rural degradation, the avarice of the rich and the misery of the poor, just as surely contradict the stern old English type of character as the same phenomena contradicted, in the time of Juvenal, the power, the integrity, and the austerity of ancient Rome.” The “stern old English type of character” sounds pretty enough, and we have cause to regret the loss of it in more than one respect, but it is not the specious jargon of Mr Buchanan’s ethics of sentiment that will restore that stern type. His views seem best fitted to destroy the true, generous, disinterested earnestness to do good and to increase happiness which abounds in modern society. The rich feel for the miseries of the poor, and endeavour in a thousand ways, many of which do more credit, we confess, to the heart than to the head, to mitigate the sufferings of poverty. But what of the “Science of Sentiment” which is going to save the world now as “the Gospel of Sentiment saved it eighteen centuries ago!” This science of sentiment, Mr Buchanan tells us, “adopts as its cardinal principle that the evolution of human ethics has proceeded in direct ratio with the growth of the suppression of the individual capacities of love and sympathy—sympathy seen dimly in the affinities of the lower organisms, shown largely in the lower animals, evolved wonderfully by human aid in the domesticated animals, notably in the dog, and attaining to the profundity of insight in the mind of man.”
Verily it is a somewhat appalling prescription for the saving revivification of a besotted humanity. Nor are we more reconciled to a dose of it by the assurance that “the law of this science, the condition on which it exists, is, like that of all other sciences, that of verification.” Mr Buchanan makes an experiment at verification by endeavouring to rationalise the paradox “that Love and Hate, attraction and repulsion, in the human creature are practically equivalent forces, although divergent, and that the object of the Science of Sentiment is to reconcile and assimilate them.” He does so in a fashion that is peculiarly his own. Lovelace, the reprobate ravisher of Clarissa Harlowe, is “saved by the very act which destroyed him, but made him abject in contrition. The fire which purifies the punishment, which cleanses the conscience of the world, which is irresistible, and the acquired insight of humanity, which is indestructible, leaves him linked for ever with the lot of the angel he has wedded in the lurid halls of hell. There is no escape for him otherwise.” And so Mr Buchanan proceeds to show, by a power of imagination which it pleases him to call a science, that “Next to the man I have blest the man I have wronged is nearest to me of all human creatures,” and that each struggle draws the enemies nearer until they recognise that “the transfusion of antagonism into its equivalent affinity, if repulsive, into its equivalent attraction, is the moral business of the world.” Mr Buchanan and those who think just as he does may accuse us of inability to grasp the why and wherefore of this ethical empiricism. But it is not difficult to analyse it, nor to declare the proportions of science, superstition, poetic fervour, and mere intellectual conceit which it contains. The latter bears to the rest the proportion that “aqua” does to the other substances in a bottle of cure-all cordial. And certainly we should not in the least object to any pleasure which the professors of a science of sentiment might derive from their intellectual gymnastics, if only they would let those of their fellow men alone who place no dialectical portcullis over their hearts, and who are ever ready to speak a kind word or perform a generous act without a thought of whether its scientific definition would be sentiment of sentimentalism. That there is much hysterical emotion abroad we may frankly admit. We object only to a diatribe against society which ends in the “lurid halls” where Lovelace seems to have been purified.
[Another letter from The Daily Telegraph which seems to have been printed in full in The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser. Although the letter was not included in The Coming Terror, it does seem to be the inspiration for the opening essay in that collection.]
The Times (23 May, 1890 - p.3)
At BOW-STREET, before Sir John Bridge, Mr. Costelloe, barrister, attended on behalf of the National Vigilance Association and made an application for process against Messrs. Partington, the advertising agents, under the 3d section, 52 and 53 Vict., c. 18, which provides for the infliction of a maximum penalty of 40s. for “whoever affixes to any house, building, &c., or any other thing whatsoever, any picture or printed or written matter which is of an indecent nature.” Mr. Costelloe said the Act was known as “The Act to suppress indecent advertisements,” and the particular case to which he referred had already become notorious to the public. The attention of the society had been drawn to the advertisement of a performance by “Zæo” at the Royal Aquarium, and, according to the views of the society, this advertisement, which they alleged to represent a woman in almost a state of nudity, fell within the provisions of the Act regulating public advertisements. He might at once state that the object of obtaining process was to ascertain who was responsible, submitting that the true object of the Act was to stop advertisements of the kind mentioned. He thought the terms of the Police Act would not meet the case. Sir John Bridge, referring to the effect of the fifth section of the Police Act, observed that it related to every person who should offer for sale or distribute or offer to public view to the annoyance of people an indecent or obscene picture. That would be an offence. In this particular case he understood the advertisement related to a young lady without much clothing on. The police were the proper persons to take proceedings, and he advised that an application should be made to them. They would no doubt make a representation to the authorities at the Aquarium, and no doubt they would immediately suppress the advertisements. Mr. Costelloe was much obliged for the suggestion, but those instructing him were anxious to have a construction put on the terms of the recent Act which could be used for the purpose of dealing with public advertisements.
Sir John Bridge.—The fine in the Police Act is the same—“not exceeding 40s.” It is provided for London. The proper course is for the police to take it up.
Mr. Costelloe.—If it is a case for the police, then a fortiori it is a case under the Advertisements Act.
Sir John Bridge.—If it is shown that your client is a householder and has been annoyed by the exhibition of these advertisements.
Mr. Costelloe said this would be done. Sir John Bridge agreed that this sort of thing ought to be stopped. If the inspector of police went down to the Aquarium they would no doubt take the necessary steps. Mr. Costelloe explained that the reason of his attendance was because attention had been called to existing things, and the society had taken this case up deliberately. Sir John Bridge was no doubt familiar with the matter with which they were dealing. Attention had been called to various advertisements of the kind, and the society was desirous of taking an opportunity of making known to the public that the Legislature had made provisions to prevent objectionable advertisements. Sir John Bridge said this had been done before, as by the provisions of the Metropolitan Police Act all indecency in reference to London was included. He thought the advertisement ought not to be allowed in any place in London. Inspector Miles was despatched to the Aquarium authorities to convey an expression of the magistrate’s opinion.
The Times (24 May, 1890 - p.6)
At BOW-STREET, yesterday, before Mr. Lushington, Mr. Doveton Smyth, solicitor, attended and referred to the application made on behalf of the National Vigilance Association (reported yesterday) in connexion with the advertisement relating to the performance of an artiste named “Zæo,” at the Westminster Aquarium. Mr. Smyth explained that he had received an intimation from Sir John Bridge that he could make the present application to the presiding magistrate, and proceeded to explain the circumstances under which the society had applied for process under the Indecent Advertisements Act. This Act, he contended, was levelled principally against quack doctors for publishing indecent bills. The application had reference to a lady performing at the Royal Aquarium. She went through wonderful performances—walked on a wire, was fired out of a machine, and subsequently made a dive from the roof of the building into a net. Such a performance, Mr. Doveton Smyth explained, could not be gone through in ordinary female attire. The artiste accordingly appeared in tights, and the whole of her body was covered with the exception of her arms. He was instructed to say that the Aquarium Company were prepared, if the society thought fit to try this question, to answer any process that might be settled. Mr. Byfield, solicitor, on behalf of Messrs. Partington, the advertising agents, said the firm expended thousands yearly in securing spaces in which they could exhibit their advertisements, and the suggestion that they were parties to the publication of indecency was calculated to do them widespread harm. It was a most serious imputation, and he, on behalf of his clients, desired process to issue in order that they might obtain an expression of opinion on the Act. Mr. Lushington asked whether he was to understand that the parties were desirous of action being taken. Mr. Doveton Smyth and Mr. Byfield both assented on behalf of their clients. Mr. Lushington said that any further application on the point should be made to Sir John Bridge.
The Times (26 May, 1890 - p.5)
At BOW-STREET, on Saturday, before Sir John Bridge, Mr. William Doveton Smyth, solicitor, again referred to the contemplated action by the National Vigilance Society in connexion with the “Zæo” posters issued by the Royal Aquarium. Mr. Smyth urged that the Indecent Advertisements Act did not apply, but was levelled at quack doctors’ advertisements. He, however, invited the society to take proceedings and make it a test case. Sir John Bridge said it was absurd to talk about a test case. It was impossible to say that a case of this nature was a test case, because every case differed. He felt strongly that great mischief was done by the ventilation of cases of this kind in a public court, and was of opinion that in cases so near the line it would be the conduct of well-disposed men wishing to do what was right to at once withdraw what was objected to. It would be a right and kindly thing not to continue the advertisement. The discussion would also be injurious to the company’s interests, and another reason was that they could get rid of the difficulty by withdrawing the advertisement. He suggested that the police should be consulted and another advertisement submitted to them.
The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (29 May, 1890 - p.6)
MR. BUCHANAN ON PURITANISM.
Writing to the Daily Telegraph with reference to a case which recently came before Sir John Bridge at the Bow-street Police-court, Mr. Robert Buchanan enters the following vigorous protest:—
It is time, I think, for some individual citizen to protest, when the new Providence made Easy, to use a term coined by me during my correspondence in your columns with Professor Huxley, is spreading from our legislative assemblies to our police-courts, and attempting to arbitrate even in matters of good taste. Your report of the proceedings at Bow-street Police-court, à propos of a so-called “indecent” poster exhibited by Messrs. Partington, contains matter so amazing that I have again and again rubbed my eyes and asked myself if I am dreaming? Most extraordinary of all is the remark of the sitting magistrate, Sir John Bridge, that “well-disposed men, wishing to do what was right where there was any doubt in the minds of respectable people, should at once withdraw what was objected to;” that is to say, because respectable persons objected to a harmless picture of a beautiful female acrobat—or, say, to the Venus of Milo and the Aphrodite of Calderon—any such picture or statue should be at once destroyed. We have all seen the poster complained of. Many of us also have seen the lady herself, who, with exquisite grace and charm, wears the light yet modest costume of the picture. Every sane and right-thinking man who has seen either the picture or the original knows that the complaints so loudly heard can only have emanated from Little Bethel or Colney Hatch. Yet, in face of common decency and common sense, Sir John Bridge asserted that the picture should be “suppressed,” since it might be supposed to appeal to persons of sensual minds.
Now, sir, I wish, as briefly as possible, to point out that this last indignity offered to human nature, this last inference that the human body is in itself a thing abominable, and that some two-thirds of all art and literature are indecencies, to be summarily buried out of sight, is only, as it were, a straw on the rising tide. Under the present adverse lunar influences at work in life—in politics, in science, and in art—we are witnessing the submergence of all individual freedom of opinion under the waves of an anarchic plebiscite. These are some of the portents ensuing and to ensue:
1. Political tyranny of majorities, culminating in providence made easy, or so-called “beneficent” legislation.
2. The destruction of personal rewards and punishments, and general paralysis of individual effort.
3. Espionage in all the affairs of life, public and private.
4. Trades Unionisms, expressing the despotism of the corporate will, with ever-increasing protection of the unfittest.
5. The New Socialism, organising to destroy all free action in matters of contract and personal activity (e.g., the Eight Hours Bill).
6. A New Journalism, flaunting on the grave of literature, and clothed in completed ignorance.
7. The New Jurisprudence, practically confounding the empirical laws of expedience with the absolute laws of ethics.
8. Moral Sanitation, extending from things civic to things ethic and personal, and placing written books, painted pictures, and dramatic entertainments in the same category as works of drainage and lighting.
9. The New Ethics, scientific, saturnine, and cynical, yet Puritanical; and
10. The New Priesthood of Empiricism, regulating the growth of the species, the freedom and activity of natural evolution, by the arbitrary laws of materialistic discovery.
It would be impossible in this letter to traverse all the issues covered by the above enumeration; but no sane man can doubt what the result is bound to be; the result of the plebiscite in France, of military nationalisation in Germany, of legislative tyranny all over the world. No man will be a free agent; every man will find his life’s work done for him by imperious legislation; he will multiply or decrease, under legislative enactments; he will be fed, clothed, protected, made clean and moral, not by his own hands, but through the public purse. While the iron bands of Convention will be drawn tighter and tighter, so that neither man nor woman can breathe freely, both morality and immorality will be licensed equally. There will be no books, and there will be no book readers. England will be well-lighted, well-drained, conventionalised, Haussmannised, an excellently regulated machine. Prostitution, of course, will remain, and war since the new Empiricism recognises them as disagreeable necessities; but they will also be providentally superintended. Everywhere, in fact, we shall find an indifference to all sanctions save the arbitrary will of the majority. Already, as I write, the enormous increase of taxation, the ever-increasing transference of responsibilities to the shoulders of the ratepayer, the rapid growth of State prerogatives, the fetters forging for intellectual and moral liberty, the growing censorship of literature and all the arts, are portentous signs that humanity will rend itself, while Demiurgus, mob opinion, mob morality, mob Providence, will prevail.
I shall shortly, in another quarter, deal with these questions in detail. Meantime, may I emphasise, in addition to the police case cited above, the present anarchic condition of a large portion of the public press. Sending its mouchards into every dwelling, imposing its espionage on every individual, judging every thing and every man by the hastily-erected standard of the moment, the journalism of Demiurgus is destroying free thought and free literature all over the world. The man who used to think for himself now takes his thoughts from the printed cackle of the day. The man who used to read now confines his attention to the surface of current news. Conceive the condition of affairs when so-called plebiscites are actually being taken to determine the moral and intellectual qualities of the “best books,” “the best men.” Could the completed sinfulness of ignorance go further? Literary and artistic truth and honour are to be gauged by the clamour of the general reader, who in nine cases out of ten has really read nothing, or has merely read in quotations or at second-hand. In due course, possibly, plebiscites will be taken as to what pictures should be exhibited, what books should be read, what dramas are in keeping with the moral sense of majorities. Literature will be a department of the Home Office, art will be superintended by the Commissioners of Sewers, the drama will be under the beneficent direction of the County Council.
Perhaps, sir, you may think I exaggerate these dangers, for I notice, indeed, with you occasionally and other publicists generally, a tone of cheery optimism. I think you will agree with me, however, that Cynicism and Puritanism are just now legislating hand in hand; that the Cynic who scoffs at all forms of beauty is leagued with the Puritan who thinks all beauty carnal. Suffer mer, then, to remind you of Heine’s last poem, “Fur die Mouche,” written just before his death. There we have described what is taking place to-day in England under our beneficent legislative enactments. The Gods of Olympus, the fair forms of Eve and Adam, the heroes and the heroines of Greece and Judæa, Israel with its ox, the Temple with its Divine Child, all graceful forms of dream or fable; the last Gods, the last Poets, Pan and Moses, the free Christ, and the free Hellene, are vanishing like phantoms before the creature which brays down Gods and Saints—the Ass of Baalam. That he is a wise ass, and a moral; that he is an ass elected by the plebiscite, and legislating for everything respectable, only deepens the despair of those who plead for intellectual freedom and who hold that without such freedom nothing good or beautiful can grow.
IN connection with a statement that the London County Council were contemplating steps for their suppression, attention was recently directed in these columns to the subject of the objectionable character of some theatrical and other street posters. A case has since come before the police-courts in which the prosecutors seek to suppress what they consider an improper street advertisement. Sir JOHN BRIDGE was of opinion that it would be the desire of well-disposed people wishing to do what was right to at once withdraw what was objected to. This expression of opinion has drawn Mr. ROBERT BUCHANAN, who, in a letter to a contemporary, indignantly protests against what he styles “beneficent” legislation. Mr. BUCHANAN, besides being a versatile dramatic author, has won a deserved popularity as a writer of verse and prose. He has also earned a less desirable reputation as a critic, the value of whose comments is not a little discounted by their cynicism and intolerance. What he calls “Beneficent legislation” is a case in point. He discovers from the proceedings in question that we are witnessing the “submergence of all individual freedom of opinion under the waves of an anarchic plebiscite.” A state of matters which, he argues, portends amongst other things moral sanitation, extending from things civic to things ethic and personal, and placing written books, painted pictures, and dramatic entertainments in the same category as works of drainage and lighting. And he supposes that in due course plebiscites will be taken as to what pictures should be exhibited, what books should be read, what dramas are in keeping with the moral sense of majorities. Literature, he adds, will be a department of the Home Office, Art will be superintended by the Commissioners of Sewers, and the Drama will be under the beneficent direction of the County Council. That there is grave reason to fear some of Mr. BUCHANAN’S predictions are in a fair way to fulfilment will be readily conceded. At any rate, the letter, which will be found in another column, will be read with interest; though, when considered by the light of the mild proceedings to which it refers, it will very likely be considered extravagant, and not quite in the best taste.
The Sheffield Evening Telegraph and Star (29 May, 1890 - p.4)
The dirty-minded zealots who scent impurity in the Zæo posters are neatly rapped across the knuckles in two letters which are published, one from Mr. Robert Buchanan, who has seen the performing original, and testifies to “the exquisite grace and charm with which she wears the light but modest costume of the picture;” the other from Captain Molesworth (of the Aquarium), who offers to have the lower limbs enveloped in artistically designed coverings—at the charges of the National Vigilance Society. He adds his regret that the legal proceedings are not to be continued, as he should like to have shown up “the purveyors of filthy literature” who applied for process against the advertisers who posted a harmless placard. That is carrying the war into the enemy’s country; we wonder that the Vigilants were foolish enough to tackle Captain Molesworth. They have had a brush with him before, and the result was a very neat exposure of the “card trick” as performed by a reverend agitator.
Mr. Buchanan is less polemical and more philosophical. He believes that all beauty is not carnal; but if Zæo’s pictures are to be marked indecent, he does not see where the process is to stop; the Gods of Olympus, the fair forms of Adam and Eve, the Temple with its Divine Child, the graceful forms of dream and fable—all must go, in order to guard the morbid fancy of the Puritans who look for dirt as pigs hunt for truffles. And Mr. Buchanan hits the right nail on the head when he suggests that if the nude form is dangerous for men it is not safe for women. Amongst other things which must be removed from the public gaze is the Achilles figure in Hyde Park—not to mention the statues in the British Museum. And that is not all—or nearly all. What about the undraped figure which personifies an enterprising evening paper, and which is believed by many of his admirers to be a portrait of an accomplished editor? And what about the conduct of another patriot who refused to don the small clothes offered by the Vigilants of an Irish prison—at the charges of a modest country.—St. James’s Gazette.
Local Government Gazette (29 May, 1890)
The portrait of a female performer at the Aquarium, who calls herself Zæo, has been posted about the metropolis rather freely, and as the lady is not clothed in accordance with the ideas of the National Vigilance Society, the secretary of that body has been endeavouring to suppress this artistic production. Zæo has found defenders in Captain Molesworth, manager of the Aquarium, and Mr. Robert Buchanan. The former offers to withdraw the poster if the Vigilance Society will put up another one more to their taste, and the latter testifies to the “exquisite grace and charm with which the gymnast wears the light but modest costume of the picture.” Meantime more attention is now directed to the poster than formerly, and it is now studied as a work of art by many who had not previously been entranced by its “exquisite charm.”
The Belfast News-Letter (31 May, 1890 - p.7)
ECHOES OF THE WEEK.
MAY 28, 1890.
. . .
To aggravate the accumulation of horrors on Horror’s head the lunatics at the asylum at Bicêtre near Paris, have broken loose, assaulted their keepers, and straddled upon walls, hurling brickbats, brandishing hammers, knives, and razors the while, and yelling fearfully. ...
What was the cause of the outbreak, I wonder. Are the patients in Bicêtre allowed to read the newspapers? If such be the case the “New Journalism” may have had something to do with this rebellion of lunatics. I see that clever Mr. Robert Buchanan, in a wonderful letter to a contemporary all about the political tyranny of majorities, espionage, trades unionism, socialism, moral sanitation, Shakespeare, the musical glasses, and other cognate topics, denounces the new journalism as “flaunting on the grave of literature, and clothed in complete ignorance.” The sentence, perhaps, would have read more trippingly had Mr. Buchanan further accused the new journalism of “revealing its cui bono in all its revolting deformity.”
Perfervid Mr. Buchanan, have you forgotten your Charles Lamb? Turn to the essay by “Elia” entitled “Newspapers Five-and-Thirty years ago,” and you will find what is dubbed the “new journalism” is a matter of very ancient history, socially speaking. “In those days,” wrote “Elia”—speaking of about the year 1795, I should say—“every morning paper, as an essential retainer to its establishment, kept an author who was bound to furnish daily a quantum of witty paragraphs. Sixpence a joke—and it was thought pretty high too—was Dan Stuart’s settled remuneration in these cases. The chat of the day, scandal, and, above all, dress, furnished the material. The length of no paragraph was to exceed seven lines; shorter they might be, but they must be poignant.” The “new journalism,” quotha! Why, there were new journalists on the London Press nearly a hundred years ago.
. . .
George Augustus Sala.
The Morning Post (6 June, 1890 - p.2)
HOUSE OF COMMONS.—THURSDAY.
. . .
Mr. J. KELLY asked the Home Secretary whether his attention had been called to the opinion expressed by Sir John Bridge, at Bow-street, on the 22d ult., to the effect that the Aquarium advertisement known as “Zæo” was more or less indecent and ought not to be exhibited in London, and that, in such a case, the proper course was for the police authorities to take action under the Metropolitan Police Acts or the Indecent Advertisements Act, 1889; whether the Chief Commissioner of Police had taken or intended to take any, and, if so, what, action in the matter; and, if not, whether he himself intended to see that steps were at once taken to prevent the further exhibition in the streets of the advertisement in question.
Mr. MATTHEWS replied that he had seen the statement referred to. He understood that the advice finally given by Sir J. Bridge was that the matter should be allowed to drop. (Hear, hear.) The Commissioner of Police concurred in that view of the matter and did not intend to take action. (Hear, hear.) He himself did not intend to take any steps in the matter. (Cheers.)