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

Chapter XXVIII

Unexpected Combinations

THE complete artist should not be mystical-moralist any more than the man who “perceives only the visible world” — he should not engage himself with problems in the direct sense any more than he should blind himself to their effect upon others, whom he should study, and under certain conditions represent, though he should not commit himself to any form of zealot faith, yet should he not be, as Lord Tennyson puts it in the Palace of Art:

“As God holding no form of creed,

But contemplating all,”

because his power lies in the broadness of his humanity touched to fine issues whenever there is the seal at once of truth, reality, and passion, and the tragedy bred of their contact and conflict.

All these things are to him real and clamant in the measure that they aid appeal to heart and emotion — in the measure that they may, in his hands, be made to tell for sympathy and general effect. He creates an atmosphere in which each and all may be seen the more effectively, but never seen alone or separate, but only in strict relation to each other that they may heighten the sense of some supreme controlling power in the destinies of men, which with the ancients was figured as Fate, and for which the moderns have hardly yet found an enduring and exhaustive name. Character revealed in reference to that, is the ideal and the aim of all high creative art. Stevenson’s narrowness, allied to a quaint and occasionally just a wee pedantic finickiness, as we may call it — an over- elaborate, almost tricky play with mere words and phrases, was in so far alien to the very highest — he was too often like a man magnetised and moving at the dictates of some outside influence rather than according to his own freewill and as he would.

Action in creative literary art is a SINE QUA NON; keeping all the characters and parts in unison, that a true DENOUEMENT, determined by their own tendencies and temperaments, may appear; dialogue and all asides, if we may call them so, being supererogatory and weak really unless they aid this and are constantly contributory to it. Egotistical predeterminations, however artfully intruded, are, alien to the full result, the unity which is finally craved: Stevenson fails, when he does fail, distinctly from excess of egotistic regards; he is, as Henley has said, in the French sense, too PERSONNEL, and cannot escape from it. And though these personal regards are exceedingly interesting and indeed fascinating from the point of view of autobiographical study, they are, and cannot but be, a drawback on fiction or the disinterested revelation of life and reality. Instead, therefore, of “the visible world,” as the only thing seen, Stevenson’s defect is, that between it and him lies a cloud strictly self-projected, like breath on a mirror, which dims the lines of reality and confuses the character marks, in fact melting them into each other; and in his sympathetic regards, causing them all to become too much alike. Scott had more of the power of healthy self-withdrawal, creating more of a free atmosphere, in which his characters could freely move — though in this, it must be confessed, he failed far more with women than with men. The very defects poor Carlyle found in Scott, and for which he dealt so severely with him, as sounding no depth, are really the basis of his strength, precisely as the absence of them were the defects of Goethe, who invariably ran his characters finally into the mere moods of his own mind and the mould of his errant philosophy, so that they became merely erratic symbols without hold in the common sympathy. Whether WALVERWANDSCHAFTEN, WILHELM MEISTER, or FAUST, it is still the same - the company before all is done are translated into misty shapes that he actually needs to label for our identification and for his own. Even Mr G. H. Lewes saw this and could not help declaring his own lack of interest in the latter parts of Goethe’s greatest efforts. Stevenson, too, tends to run his characters into symbols - his moralist-fabulist determinations are too much for him — he would translate them into a kind of chessmen, moved or moving on a board. The essence of romance strictly is, that as the characters will not submit themselves to the check of reality, the romancer may consciously, if it suits him, touch them at any point with the magic wand of symbol, and if he finds a consistency in mere fanciful invention it is enough. Tieck’s PHANTASUS and George MacDonald’s PHANTASTES are ready instances illustrative of this. But it is very different with the story of real life, where there is a definite check in the common-sense and knowledge of the reader, and where the highest victory always lies in drawing from the reader the admission — “that is life — life exactly as I have seen and known it. Though I could never have put it so, still it only realises my own conception and observation. That is something lovingly remembered and re-presented, and this master makes me lovingly remember too, though ‘twas his to represent and reproduce with such vigor, vividness and truth that he carried me with him, exactly as though I had been looking on real men and women playing their part or their game in the great world.”

Mr Zangwill, in his own style, wrote:

“He seeks to combine the novel of character with the novel of adventure; to develop character through romantic action, and to bring out your hero at the end of the episode, not the fixed character he was at the beginning, as is the way of adventure books, but a modified creature. . . . It is his essays and his personality, rather than his novels, that will count with posterity. On the whole, a great provincial writer. Whether he has that inherent grip which makes a man’s provinciality the very source of his strength . . . only the centuries can show.

The romanticist to the end pursued Stevenson — he could not, wholly or at once, shake off the bonds in which he had bound himself to his first love, and it was the romanticist crossed by the casuist, and the mystic — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Markheim and Will of the Mill, insisted on his acknowledging them in his work up to the end. THE MODIFIED CREATURE at the end of Mr Zangwill was modified too directly by the egotistic element as well as through the romantic action, and this point missed the great defect was missed, and Mr Zangwill spoke only in generals.

M. Schwob, after having related how unreal a real sheep’s heart looked when introduced on the end of Giovanni’s dagger in a French performance of John Ford’s ANNABELLA AND GIOVANNI, and how at the next performance the audience was duly thrilled when Annabella’s bleeding heart, made of a bit of red flannel, was borne upon the stage, goes on to say significantly:

“Il me semble que les personnages de Stevenson ont justement cette espece de realisme irreal. La large figure luisante de Long John, la couleur bleme du crane de Thevenin Pensete s’attachent a la memoire de nos yeux en vertue de leur irrealite meme. Ce sont des fantomes de la verite, hallucinants comme de vrais fantomes. Notez en passant que les traits de John Silver hallucinent Jim Hawkins, et que Francois Villon est hante par l’aspect de Thevenin Pensete.”

Perhaps the most notable fact arising here, and one that well deserves celebration, is this, that Stevenson’s development towards a broader and more natural creation was coincident with a definite return on the religious views which had so powerfully prevailed with his father — a circumstance which it is to be feared did not, any more than some other changes in him, at all commend itself to Mr Henley, though he had deliberately dubbed him even in the times of nursing nigh to the Old Bristo Port in Edinburgh — something of “Shorter Catechist.” Anyway Miss Simpson deliberately wrote:

“Mr Henley takes exception to Stevenson’s later phase in life — what he calls his ‘Shorter Catechism phase.’ It should be remembered that Mr Henley is not a Scotsman, and in some things has little sympathy with Scotch characteristics. Stevenson, in his Samoan days, harked back to the teaching of his youth; the tenets of the Shorter Catechism, which his mother and nurse had dinned into his head, were not forgotten. Mr Henley knew him best, as Stevenson says in the preface to VIRGINIBUS PUERISQUE dedicated to Henley, ‘when he lived his life at twenty-five.’ In these days he had [in some degree] forgotten about the Shorter Catechism, but the ‘solemn pause’ between Saturday and Monday came back in full force to R. L. Stevenson in Samoa.”

Now to me that is a most suggestive and significant fact. It will be the business of future critics to show in how far such falling back would of necessity modify what Mr Baildon has set down as his corner-stone of morality, and how far it was bound to modify the atmosphere — the purely egotistic, hedonistic, and artistic atmosphere, in which, in his earlier life as a novelist, at all events, he had been, on the whole, for long whiles content to work.

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