The Critic as Pessimist
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Critic as Pessimist is an article published in The Speaker on 19 august 1893.
The Critic as Pessimist
In his picturesque lecture at Lucerne, Dr. Conan Doyle complained of the pessimism of literary critics. They are prone, he said, to "whine forth pessimistic lamentations over the decay of literature," and to depreciate the literary talent of the days in which they live. Dr. Doyle certainly offers a vigorous counterblast to this depressing practice. Possibly the habit of criticism is largely due to the atmosphere in which so much of it is written. If we could always sit down to review our books on the shores of the loveliest lake in Europe, we might acquire an exhilarating optimism. The point of view in Fleet Street, with the thermometer at eighty in the shade, is necessarily less stimulating than the outlook at Lucerne in the middle of August. That exquisite spot is no place for the pessimist. If it generates a belief in the ultimate reunion of all the sections of Christianity, it has a comparatively easy task in persuading Dr. Doyle that in fiction, and especially English fiction, will be consolidated the empire of the human mind. It may be said, perhaps, on behalf of the critic that something in the nature of his craft debars him from the enjoyments of a sanguine temperament. Dr. Doyle remarked of Mr. Rudyard Kipling that he "evidently lacked the faculty of judging his own work." It is not an exceptional defect in an imaginative writer, in whom a particular vision is usually stronger than a reflective judgment. If this were not so, the general output of fiction would probably be restricted, and the business of the literary critic would decline. As it is, he finds the unhandsome duties of the Devil's Advocate somewhat laborious, and he turns from them with a pang of envy to the raptures of Dr. Doyle. For it is a mistake to suppose that the critic has any relish for his own spleen. He suffers from a morbid perception of shortcomings. His mind tosses in a perpetual nightmare of discrimination. He settles down to the perusal of a favourite writer, and vainly strives to stifle the demon who whispers in his ear : "Don't pretend that you are blind to the faults of this. Don't tell me the construction is without a flaw, the philosophy is unimpeachable, the facts of life are frankly faced. Do you suppose the author is writing exactly what he thinks, or what he thinks his public think? Look at the situation ; mark what the woman says. Is it what she would say, or what an eminently decorous purveyor of family reading believes she ought to say?" When this has lasted some time, the critic will put down the book in despair, and by summoning all the charms he has ever found in the writer, will try to vanquish the Mephistophelian familiar who is tormenting him. The result is a review which strikes a novelist as frigid, as pervaded by a subtle depreciation, as evidence that the critic cannot do justice to the imaginative talent of his own time.
This is why it is a positive pleasure to the literary critic to find himself in Dr. Doyle's company. He feels like a hypochondriac with a poor circulation in the presence of a full-blooded athlete. Here is a man who reviews his distinguished contemporaries in fiction and finds them very good. They and he may be as the poles asunder in respect of method and subject matter, but Dr. Doyle hails them all with equal enthusiasm. To him they represent a cause. They carry a banner with the strange device, "Excelsior." They lead the great march of fiction to that pinnacle on which it will be acclaimed as the "most certain and permanent part of England's glory, and will last in the memory and appreciation of the people after the labours of the statesman and the soldier have crumbled away." When that time comes we shall pride ourselves as a nation, not on the magnitude of that material Empire which state-craft has projected and blood has cemented, but upon the mighty realm of our romances, that truly Imperial Federation of our race, administered by a department of State in which Mr. Mudie, we trust, will not be a permanent official. This is Dr. Doyle's dream, and its fascination is undeniable. It makes the critic feel that he has spent his life in making tribunals out of limitations and dislikes, that he has ignored that large view with which Mr. Kipling in the East and Mr. Stevenson in the South Seas are federating mankind by a cosmopolitan literature, and which, for instance, has done more to unite England and India than the Suez Canal. When Australasia produces a novelist of equal rank and repute with Mr. Kipling and Mr. Stevenson, we shall see the centre of Imperial Government removed from Downing Street to Paternoster Row. Statesmen will be forestalled by the romancers, and will have no further utility than to arrange merely executive details. America, of course, must join in this enterprise, though we are afraid that a certain separatist tendency in the writings of Mr. W. D. Howells will have to be combated; and Mr. Dudley Warner must not remind us in Harper's Magazine that the diction of Americans is, by official proclamation of Congress, not English, but "the language of the United States." Into this speculation the literary critic follows Dr. Doyle with genuine interest. Such a conception is worthy of the hand that wrote "The Refugees," and welded together in that delightful tale some of the most striking qualities of Saxon, Celt, and Red Man. Dr. Doyle's fervent belief in the exalted mission of the novel is worthy of all respect, and it is only the incorrigible pessimism of the critic which prevents him from becoming a proselyte. The familiar demon murmurs in his ear again : "This is very fine, but do you take it quite seriously? Can you see the novel — especially the English novel — monopolising the judgment-seat, dictating to philosophy and statesmanship, superseding international courts of arbitration? Rudyard Kipling has written a story about seal fishery. Do you think that might have settled the Behring Sea dispute, or that short stories will eventually prevent religious riots in Bombay, or that a three-volumed novel will ever put a girdle of amity round the earth? And is it your business henceforward to judge fiction not by its purely artistic quality, but by its capacity to federate the Empire?"
Yet such is the charm of Dr. Doyle's idea that the critic feels a new burden on his soul. When he reads any of the living English authors cited at Lucerne, he will strive to perceive some new distinction which has hitherto escaped him. He will look for that cosmopolitan element which has long been a recognised attribute of the French novel, but has not hitherto been generally accorded to the English romance — at any rate during the last thirty years. Mr. Andrew Lang remarks somewhere that criticism is only talk, more or less agreeable and readable, about our private tastes. That being the narrow, petty range in which we move, it is not surprising that we cannot all rise to the OEcumenical fervour of Lucerne. But even the coldest critic may be warmed by Dr. Doyle's eloquence, and may cherish the hope that it will stimulate the production of fiction not unworthy of the ambition which he proclaims. "Pessimistic lamentations" may still be heard from critics who are unable to agree with Dr. Doyle that English fiction to-day is notable for its "breadth of view." But, even if they never come to see that through the light literature which is heaped on their tables every week one increasing purpose runs, and that the thoughts of men are widened by such studies of humanity as our social code permits the British novelist to make, they may acknowledge and respect the spirit in which Dr. Doyle seeks to invest his calling with the dual dignity of political philosophy and high priesthood.