Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter XV

Theory of Good and Evil

WE have not hitherto concerned ourselves, in any express sense, with the ethical elements involved in the tendency now dwelt on, though they are, of necessity, of a very vital character. We have shown only as yet the effect of this mood of mind on dramatic intention and effort. The position is simply that there is, broadly speaking, the endeavour to eliminate an element which is essential to successful dramatic presentation. That element is the eternal distinction, speaking broadly, between good and evil — between right and wrong — between the secret consciousness of having done right, and the consciousness of mere strength and force in certain other ways.

Nothing else will make up for vagueness and cloudiness here — no technical skill, no apt dialogue nor concentration, any more than “fine speeches,” as Mr Pinero calls them. Now the dramatic demand and the ethical demand here meet and take each other’s hands, and will not be separated. This is why Mr Stevenson and Mr Henley — young men of great talent, failed — utterly failed — they thought they could make a hero out of a shady and dare-devil yet really cowardly villain generally — and failed.

The spirit of this is of the clever youth type — all too ready to forego the moral for the sake of the fun any day of the week, and the unthinking selfishness and self-enjoyment of youth — whose tender mercies are often cruel, are transcendent in it. As Stevenson himself said, they were young men then and fancied bad- heartedness was strength. Perhaps it was a sense of this that made R. L. Stevenson speak as he did of the EBB-TIDE with Huish the cockney in it, after he was powerless to recall it; which made him say, as we have seen, that the closing chapters of THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE “SHAME, AND PERHAPS DEGRADE, THE BEGINNING.” He himself came to see then the great error; but, alas! it was too late to remedy it — he could but go forward to essay new tales, not backward to put right errors in what was done.

Did Mr William Archer have anything of this in his mind and the far-reaching effects on this side, when he wrote the following:

“Let me add that the omission with which, in 1885, I mildly reproached him — the omission to tell what he knew to be an essential part of the truth about life — was abundantly made good in his later writings. It is true that even in his final philosophy he still seems to me to underrate, or rather to shirk, the significance of that most compendious parable which he thus relates in a letter to Mr Henry James:- ‘Do you know the story of the man who found a button in his hash, and called the waiter? “What do you call that?” says he. “Well,” said the waiter, “what d’you expect? Expect to find a gold watch and chain?” Heavenly apologue, is it not?’ Heavenly, by all means; but I think Stevenson relished the humour of it so much that he ‘smiling passed the moral by.’ In his enjoyment of the waiter’s effrontery, he forgot to sympathise with the man (even though it was himself) who had broken his teeth upon the harmful, unnecessary button. He forgot that all the apologetics in the world are based upon just this audacious paralogism.”

Many writers have done the same — and not a few critics have hinted at this: I do not think any writer has got at the radical truth of it more directly, decisively, and clearly than “J. F. M.,” in a monthly magazine, about the time of Stevenson’s death; and the whole is so good and clear that I must quote it — the writer was not thinking of the drama specially; only of prose fiction, and this but makes the passage the more effective and apt to my point.

“In the outburst of regret which followed the death of Robert Louis Stevenson, one leading journal dwelt on his too early removal in middle life ‘with only half his message delivered.’ Such a phrase may have been used in the mere cant of modern journalism. Still it set one questioning what was Stevenson’s message, or at least that part of it which we had time given us to hear.

“Wonderful as was the popularity of the dead author, we are inclined to doubt whether the right appreciation of him was half as wide. To a certain section of the public he seemed a successful writer of boys’ books, which yet held captive older people. Now, undoubtedly there was an element (not the highest) in his work which fascinated boys. It gratified their yearning for adventure. To too large a number of his readers, we suspect, this remains Stevenson’s chief charm; though even of those there were many able to recognise and be thankful for the literary power and grace which could serve up their sanguinary diet so daintily.

“Most of Stevenson’s titles, too, like TREASURE ISLAND, KIDNAPPED, and THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, tended to foster delusion in this direction. The books were largely bought for gifts by maiden aunts, and bestowed as school prizes, when it might not have been so had their titles given more indication of their real scope and tendency.

“All this, it seems to us, has somewhat obscured Stevenson’s true power, which is surely that of an arch-delineator of ‘human nature’ and of the devious ways of men. As we read him we feel that we have our finger on the pulse of the cruel politics of the world. He has the Shakespearean gift which makes us recognise that his pirates and his statesmen, with their violence and their murders and their perversions of justice, are swayed by the same interests and are pulling the same strings and playing on the same passions which are at work in quieter methods around ourselves. The vast crimes and the reckless bloodshed are nothing more nor less than stage effects used to accentuate for the common eye what the seer can detect without them.

“And reading him from this standpoint, Stevenson’s ‘message’ (so far as it was delivered) appears to be that of utter gloom — the creed that good is always overcome by evil. We do not mean in the sense that good always suffers through evil and is frequently crucified by evil. That is only the sowing of the martyr’s blood, which is, we know, the seed of the Church. We should not have marvelled in the least that a genius like Stevenson should rebel against mere external ‘happy endings,’ which, being in flat contradiction to the ordinary ways of Providence, are little short of thoughtless blasphemy against Providence. But the terrible thing about the Stevenson philosophy of life is that it seems to make evil overcome good in the sense of absorbing it, or perverting it, or at best lowering it. When good and evil come in conflict in one person, Dr Jekyll vanishes into Mr Hyde. The awful Master of Ballantrae drags down his brother, though he seems to fight for his soul at every step. The sequel to KIDNAPPED shows David Balfour ready at last to be hail-fellow-well-met with the supple Prestongrange and the other intriguers, even though they had forcibly made him a partner to their shedding of innocent blood.

“Is it possible that this was what Stevenson’s experience of real life had brought him? Fortunate himself in so many respects, he was yet one of those who turn aside from the smooth and sunny paths of life, to enter into brotherly sympathy and fellowship with the disinherited. Is this, then, what he found on those darker levels? Did he discover that triumphant hypocrisy treads down souls as well as lives?

“We cannot doubt that it often does so; and it is well that we should see this sometimes, to make us strong to contend with evil before it works out this, its worst mischief, and to rouse us from the easy optimist laziness which sits idle while others are being wronged, and bids them believe ‘that all will come right in the end,’ when it is our direct duty to do our utmost to make it ‘come right’ to-day.

“But to show us nothing but the gloomy side, nothing but the weakness of good, nothing but the strength of evil, does not inspire us to contend for the right, does not inform us of the powers and weapons with which we might so contend. To gaze at unqualified and inevitable moral defeat will but leave us to the still worse laziness of pessimism, uttering its discouraging and blasphemous cry, ‘It does not matter; nothing will ever come right!’

“Shakespeare has shown us — and never so nobly as in his last great creation of THE TEMPEST— that a man has one stronghold which none but himself can deliver over to the enemy — that citadel of his own conduct and character, from which he can smile supreme upon the foe, who may have conquered all down the line, but must finally make pause there.

“We must remember that THE TEMPEST was Shakespeare’s last work. The genuine consciousness of the possible triumph of the moral nature against every assault is probably reserved for the later years of life, when, somewhat withdrawn from the passions of its struggle, we become those lookers-on who see most of the game. Strange fate is it that so much of our genius vanishes into the great silence before those later years are reached!”

Stevenson was too late in awakening fully to the tragic error to which short-sighted youth is apt to wander that “bad-heartedness is strength.” And so, from this point of view, to our sorrow, he too much verified Goethe’s saw that “simplicity (not artifice) and repose are the acme of art, and therefore no youth can be a master.” In fact, he might very well from another side, have taken one of Goethe’s fine sayings as a motto for himself:

“Greatest saints were ever most kindly-hearted to sinners;

Here I’m a saint with the best; sinners I never could hate.” 7

Stevenson’s own verdict on DEACON BRODIE given to a NEW YORK HERALD reporter on the author’s arrival in New York in September 1887, on the LUDGATE HILL, is thus very near the precise truth: “The piece has been all overhauled, and though I have no idea whether it will please an audience, I don’t think either Mr Henley or I are ashamed of it. BUT WE WERE BOTH YOUNG MEN WHEN WE DID THAT, AND I THINK WE HAD AN IDEA THAT BAD-HEARTEDNESS WAS STRENGTH.”

If Mr Henley in any way confirmed R. L. Stevenson in this perversion, as I much fear he did, no true admirer of Stevenson has much to thank him for, whatever claims he may have fancied he had to Stevenson’s eternal gratitude. He did Stevenson about the very worst turn he could have done, and aided and abetted in robbing us and the world of yet greater works than we have had from his hands. He was but condemning himself when he wrote some of the detractory things he did in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE about the EDINBURGH EDITION, etc. Men are mirrors in which they see each other: Henley, after all, painted himself much more effectively in that now notorious PALL MALL MAGAZINE article than he did R. L. Stevenson. Such is the penalty men too often pay for wreaking paltry revenges — writing under morbid memories and narrow and petty grievances — they not only fail in truth and impartiality, but inscribe a kind of grotesque parody of themselves in their effort to make their subject ridiculous, as he did, for example, about the name Lewis=Louis, and various other things.

R. L. Stevenson’s fate was to be a casuistic and mystic moralist at bottom, and could not help it; while, owing to some kink or twist, due, perhaps, mainly to his earlier sufferings, and the teachings he then received, he could not help giving it always a turn to what he himself called “tail-foremost” or inverted morality; and it was not till near the close that he fully awakened to the fact that here he was false to the truest canons at once of morality and life and art, and that if he pursued this course his doom was, and would be, to make his endings “disgrace, or perhaps, degrade his beginnings,” and that no true and effective dramatic unity and effect and climax was to be gained. Pity that he did so much on this perverted view of life and world and art: and well it is that he came to perceive it, even though almost too late:- certainly too late for that full presentment of that awful yet gladdening presence of a God’s power and equity in this seeming tangled web of a world, the idea which inspired Robert Browning as well as Wordsworth, when he wrote, and gathered it up into a few lines in PIPPA PASSES:

“The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hillsides dew-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn:

God’s in His heaven,

All’s right with the world.

. . . . . . .  . . . . .

“All service ranks the same with God,

If now, as formerly he trod

Paradise, His presence fills

Our earth, each only as God wills

Can work — God’s puppets best and worst,

Are we; there is no last or first.”

It shows what he might have accomplished, had longer life been but allowed him.

7 WISDOM OF GOETHE, p. 38.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30