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

Chapter XX

Egotistic Element and its Effects

FROM these sources now traced out by us — his youthfulness of spirit, his mystical bias, and tendency to dream — symbolisms leading to disregard of common feelings — flows too often the indeterminateness of Stevenson’s work, at the very points where for direct interest there should be decision. In THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE this leads him to try to bring the balances even as regards our interest in the two brothers, in so far justifying from one point of view what Mr Zangwill said in the quotation we have given, or, as Sir Leslie Stephen had it in his second series of the STUDIES OF A BIOGRAPHER:

“The younger brother in THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, who is black- mailed by the utterly reprobate master, ought surely to be interesting instead of being simply sullen and dogged. In the later adventures, we are invited to forgive him on the ground that his brain has been affected: but the impression upon me is that he is sacrificed throughout to the interests of the story [or more strictly for the working out of the problem as originally conceived by the author]. The curious exclusion of women is natural in the purely boyish stories, since to a boy woman is simply an incumbrance upon reasonable modes of life. When in CATRIONA Stevenson introduces a love story, it is still unsatisfactory, because David Balfour is so much the undeveloped animal that his passion is clumsy, and his charm for the girl unintelligible. I cannot feel, to say the truth, that in any of these stories I am really among living human beings with whom, apart from their adventures, I can feel any very lively affection or antipathy.”

In the EBB-TIDE it is, in this respect, yet worse: the three heroes choke each other off all too literally.

In his excess of impartiality he tones down the points and lines that would give the attraction of true individuality to his characters, and instead, would fain have us contented with his liberal, and even over-sympathetic views of them and allowances for them. But instead of thus furthering his object, he sacrifices the whole — and his story becomes, instead of a broad and faithful human record, really a curiosity of autobiographic perversion, and of overweening, if not extravagant egotism of the more refined, but yet over-obtrusive kind.

Mr Baildon thus hits the subjective tendency, out of which mainly this defect — a serious defect in view of interest — arises.

“That we can none of us be sure to what crime we might not descend, if only our temptation were sufficiently acute, lies at the root of his fondness and toleration for wrong-doers (p. 74).

Thus he practically declines to do for us what we are unwilling or unable to do for ourselves. Interest in two characters in fiction can never, in this artificial way, and if they are real characters truly conceived, be made equal, nor can one element of claim be balanced against another, even at the beck of the greatest artist. The common sentiment, as we have seen, resents it even as it resents lack of guidance elsewhere. After all, the novelist is bound to give guidance: he is an authority in his own world, where he is an autocrat indeed; and can work out issues as he pleases, even as the Pope is an authority in the Roman Catholic world: he abdicates his functions when he declines to lead: we depend on him from the human point of view to guide us right, according to the heart, if not according to any conventional notion or opinion. Stevenson’s pause in individual presentation in the desire now to raise our sympathy for the one, and then for the other in THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, admits us too far into Stevenson’s secret or trick of affected self-withdrawal in order to work his problem and to signify his theories, to the loss and utter confusion of his aims from the point of common dramatic and human interest. It is the same in CATRIONA in much of the treatment of James Mohr or More; it is still more so in not a little of the treatment of WEIR OF HERMISTON and his son, though there, happily for him and for us, there were the direct restrictions of known fact and history, and clearly an attempt at a truer and broader human conception unburdened by theory or egotistic conception.

Everywhere the problem due to the desire to be overjust, so to say, emerges; and exactly in the measure it does so the source of true dramatic directness and variety is lost. It is just as though Shakespeare were to invent a chorus to cry out at intervals about Iago — “a villain, bad lot, you see, still there’s a great deal to be said for him — victim of inheritance, this, that and the other; and considering everything how could you really expect anything else now.” Thackeray was often weak from this same tendency — he meant Becky Sharp to be largely excused by the reader on these grounds, as he tries to excuse several others of his characters; but his endeavours in this way to gloss over “wickedness” in a way, do not succeed — the reader does not carry clear in mind as he goes along, the suggestions Thackeray has ineffectually set out and the “healthy hatred of scoundrels” Carlyle talked about has its full play in spite of Thackeray’s suggested excuses and palliations, and all in his own favour, too, as a story-wright.

Stevenson’s constant habit of putting himself in the place of another, and asking himself how would I have borne myself here or there, thus limited his field of dramatic interest, where the subject should have been made pre-eminently in aid of this effect. Even in Long John Silver we see it, as in various others of his characters, though there, owing to the demand for adventure, and action contributory to it, the defect is not so emphasised. The sense as of a projection of certain features of the writer into all and sundry of his important characters, thus imparts, if not an air of egotism, then most certainly a somewhat constrained, if not somewhat artificial, autobiographical air — in the very midst of action, questions of ethical or casuistical character arise, all contributing to submerging individual character and its dramatic interests under a wave of but half-disguised autobiography. Let Stevenson do his very best — let him adopt all the artificial disguises he may, as writing narrative in the first person, etc., as in KIDNAPPED and CATRIONA, nevertheless, the attentive reader’s mind is constantly called off to the man who is actually writing the story. It is as though, after all, all the artistic or artificial disguises were a mere mask, as more than once Thackeray represented himself, the mask partially moved aside, just enough to show a chubby, childish kind of transformed Thackeray face below. This belongs, after all, to the order of self-revelation though under many disguises: it is creation only in its manner of work, not in its essential being — the spirit does not so to us go clean forth of itself, it stops at home, and, as if from a remote and shadowy cave or recess, projects its own colour on all on which it looks.

This is essentially the character of the MYSTIC; and hence the justification for this word as applied expressly to Stevenson by Mr Chesterton and others.

“The inner life like rings of light

Goes forth of us, transfiguring all we see.”

The effect of these early days, with the peculiar tint due to the questionings raised by religious stress and strain, persists with Stevenson; he grows, but he never escapes from that peculiar something which tells of childish influences — of boyish perversions and troubled self-examinations due to Shorter Catechism - any one who would view Stevenson without thought of this, would view him only from the outside — see him merely in dress and outer oddities. Here I see definite and clear heredity. Much as he differed from his worthy father in many things, he was like him in this — the old man like the son, bore on him the marks of early excesses of wistful self-questionings and painful wrestlings with religious problems, that perpetuated themselves in a quaint kind of self-revelation often masked by an assumed self-withdrawal or indifference which to the keen eye only the more revealed the real case. Stevenson never, any more than his father, ceased to be interested in the religious questions for which Scotland has always had a PENCHANT— and so much is this the case that I could wish Professor Sidney Colvin would even yet attempt to show the bearing of certain things in that ADDRESS TO THE SCOTTISH CLERGY written when Stevenson was yet but a young man, on all that he afterwards said and did. It starts in the EDINBURGH EDITION without any note, comment, or explanation whatever, but in that respect the EDINBURGH EDITION is not quite so complete as it might have been made. In view of the point now before us, it is far more important than many of the other trifles there given, and wants explanation and its relation to much in the novels brought out and illustrated. Were this adequately done, only new ground would be got for holding that Stevenson, instead of, as has been said, “seeing only the visible world,” was, in truth, a mystical moralist, once and always, whose thoughts ran all too easily into parable and fable, and who, indeed, never escaped wholly from that atmosphere, even when writing of things and characters that seemed of themselves to be wholly outside that sphere. This was the tendency, indeed, that militated against the complete detachment in his case from moral problems and mystical thought, so as to enable him to paint, as it were, with a free hand exactly as he saw; and most certainly not that he saw only the visible world. The mystical element is not directly favourable to creative art. You see in Tolstoy how it arrests and perplexes — how it lays a disturbing check on real presentation — hindering the action, and is not favourable to the loving and faithful representation, which, as Goethe said, all true and high art should be. To some extent you see exactly the same thing in Nathaniel Hawthorne as in Tolstoy. Hawthorne’s preoccupations in this way militated against his character-power; his healthy characters who would never have been influenced as he describes by morbid ones yet are not only influenced according to him, but suffer sadly. Phoebe Pyncheon in THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, gives sunshine to poor Hepzibah Clifford, but is herself never merry again, though joyousness was her natural element. So, doubtless, it would have been with Pansie in DOCTOR DOLLIVER, as indeed it was with Zenobia and with the hero in the MARBLE FAUN. “We all go wrong,” said Hawthorne, “by a too strenuous resolution to go right.” Lady Byron was to him an intolerably irreproachable person, just as Stevenson felt a little of the same towards Thoreau; notwithstanding that he was the “sunnily-ascetic,” the asceticism and its corollary, as he puts it: the passion for individual self-improvement was alien in a way to Stevenson. This is the position of the casuistic mystic moralist and not of the man who sees only the visible world.

Mr Baildon says:

“Stevenson has many of the things that are wanting or defective in Scott. He has his philosophy of life; he is beyond remedy a moralist, even when his morality is of the kind which he happily calls ‘tail foremost,’ or as we may say, inverted morality. Stevenson is, in fact, much more of a thinker than Scott, and he is also much more of the conscious artist, questionable advantage as that sometimes is. He has also a much cleverer, acuter mind than Scott, also a questionable advantage, as genius has no greater enemy than cleverness, and there is really no greater descent than to fall from the style of genius to that of cleverness. But Stevenson was too critical and alive to misuse his cleverness, and it is generally employed with great effect as in the diabolical ingenuities of a John Silver, or a Master of Ballantrae. In one sense Stevenson does not even belong to the school of Scott, but rather to that of Poe, Hawthorne, and the Brontes, in that he aims more at concentration and intensity, than at the easy, quiet breadth of Scott.”

If, indeed, it should not here have been added that Stevenson’s theory of life and conduct was not seldom too insistent for free creativeness, for dramatic freedom, breadth and reality.

Now here I humbly think Mr Baldion errs about the cleverness when he criticises Stevenson for the FAUX PAS artistically of resorting to the piratic filibustering and the treasure-seeking at the close of THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, he only tells and tells plainly how cleverness took the place of genius there; as indeed it did in not a few cases — certainly in some points in the Dutch escapade in CATRIONA and in not a few in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. The fault of that last story is simply that we seem to hear Stevenson chuckling to himself, “Ah, now, won’t they all say at last how clever I am.” That too mars the MERRY MEN, whoever wrote them or part wrote them, and PRINCE OTTO would have been irretrievably spoiled by this self- conscious sense of cleverness had it not been for style and artifice. In this incessant “see how clever I am,” we have another proof of the abounding youthfulness of R. L. Stevenson. If, as Mr Baildon says (p. 30), he had true child’s horror of being put in fine clothes in which one must sit still and be good, PRINCE OTTO remains attractive in spite of some things and because of his fine clothes. Neither Poe nor Hawthorne could have fallen to the piracy, and treasure-hunting of THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE.

“Far behind Scott in the power of instinctive, irreflective, spontaneous creation of character, Stevenson tells his story with more art and with a firmer grip on his reader.” And that is exactly what I, wishing to do all I dutifully can for Stevenson, cannot see. His genius is in nearly all cases pulled up or spoiled by his all too conscious cleverness, and at last we say, “Oh Heavens! if he could and would but let himself go or forget himself what he might achieve.” But he doesn’t — never does, and therefore remains but a second-rate creator though more and more the stylist and the artist. This is more especially the case at the very points where writers like Scott would have risen and roused all the readers’ interest. When Stevenson reaches such points, he is always as though saying “See now how cleverly I’ll clear that old and stereotyped style of thing and do something NEW.” But there are things in life and human nature, which though they are old are yet ever new, and the true greatness of a writer can never come from evading or looking askance at them or trying to make them out something else than what they really are. No artistic aim or ambition can suffice to stand instead of them or to refine them away. That way lies only cold artifice and frigid lacework, and sometimes Stevenson did go a little too much on this line.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848zj/chapter20.html

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