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A Commentary Upon Butler Post by :yrrahxob Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :1023

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A Commentary Upon Butler

Mr. Festing Jones has written a large book about his friend, and written it very well.(A) It is candid, and it is sincere; the work of a lover at once of Butler and of truth; it neither extenuates the faults nor magnifies the virtues of its subject so far as the author could perceive them; and it makes it possible to understand why Butler was so underrated in his lifetime, though not at once why he was so overrated after his death. That remains a problem which cannot be resolved by saying that his friends trumpeted him into it, or that posthumous readers enjoyed seeing him belabour his betters, which his contemporaries had not. It is true that The Way of All Flesh did not appear until he was dead, and also true that The Way of All Flesh is a witty and malicious novel, whose malice and wit Mr. Shaw had prepared London to admire. Perhaps it is true, once more, that we are more scornful of the old orthodoxy than our fathers were, and less careful whose feelings are hurt. But I must confess that I should not have expected any age to be so complacent about caricaturing one's father and mother as our own was. However, for those who admire that sort of thing--and there must be many--I doubt if they will find it better done anywhere, with more gusto or more point. Dickens is believed to have put his father into David Copperfield, not, I think, his mother. But one can love Mr. Micawber, and Dickens would not have so drawn him without love. We are led to Butler's favourite distinction between gnosis and agapé. There's no doubt about the gnosis that went to the making of Theobald and Christina. But where was agapé?

(Footnote A: Samuel Butler, Author of "Erewhon" (1835-1902): a Memoir. By Henry Festing Jones. Two Vols. Macmillan, 1919.)

Butler was in many respects a fortunate man, and should have been a happy one. He had a good education, good health, a sufficiency of means. Even when his embarrassments were at their heaviest he could always afford to do as he pleased. He could draw a little, play a little, write more than a little; he loved travel, and covered all Southern Europe in his time; he had good friends, a good mistress, a faithful servant; he had a strong sense of humour, feared nobody, had a hundred interests. Why, then, did he think himself a failure? Why was the sense of it to cloud much of his writing, and much of Mr. Jones's biography?

He had his drawbacks--who has not? He did not get on with his father, criticised his mother; his sisters scraped the edges of his nerves; a man to whom he was extremely generous betrayed him. The like of these things must happen to mortal men. Butler knew that as well as any one. But his books were not read; the great men whom he attacked ignored him. He thought himself to be something, they treated him as nothing, and the public followed them. He knew all about it, and Mr. Jones knows all about it. He had unseated the secure with Erewhon, outraged the orthodox with Fairhaven, flouted the biologists, himself being no biologist, plunged into Homeric criticism without archæology, swum against the current in Shakespearianism, enjoyed himself immensely, playing l'enfant terrible, and treading on every corn he could find--and then he was angry because the sufferers pretended that they had no corns. How could he expect it both ways? If he was serious, why did he write as if he was not? And if he had tender feelings himself--as he obviously had--why should he expect all the people he attacked with his pinpricks to have none? It was not reasonable.

The answer to these questions is to be found in some little weaknesses of his which Mr. Jones's biography, all unconsciously, reveals. Butler, it is clear, was morbidly vain. Many writers are so, but few let their vanity take them so far. Learn from Mr. Jones. In 1879 he and Butler met Edward Lear in an inn at Varese. He told them a little tale about a tipsy man from Manchester--rather a good little tale. "I do not remember that Edward Lear told us anything else particularly amusing, but then neither did we tell him anything particularly amusing. Butler was seldom at his best with a celebrated man. He was not successful himself, and had a sub-aggressive feeling that a celebrated man probably did not deserve his celebrity; if he did deserve it, let him prove it." There is no getting away from that symptom, which is as unreasonable as it is perverse. Celebrated men are not usually so anxious to "prove" their celebrity as all that comes to. It is bad enough to be "celebrated." It was hard lines on old Lear to sulk with him because he would not show off. If he had wanted to do that he would not have gone to Varese. But that is mortified vanity. The same thing happened when he met Mr. Birrell at dinner in 1900. Then it was the celebrity who took pains to save his host and hostess from a frosty dinner party. The same thing is recalled of meetings with Sir George Trevelyan and Lord Morley earlier in the book. It is all pretty stupid; but when a man is ridden by a vanity like that there can be no healthy pleasure to be got out of writing for its own sake. You must have your public flat on its back before your vanity will be soothed.

Another failing of Butler's, shared, I am sorry to say, by Mr. Jones, was a love of little jokes and an inability to see when and where they could be worked off, or perhaps I ought to say when they were worked out. A great many of them were pinpricks rather than jokes; he only made them "to annoy." Well, they did, and they do, annoy--not because they were jokes, but because they were feeble jokes. "If it is thought desirable to have an article on the Odyssey, I have abundant, most aggravating and impudent matter about Penelope and King Menelaus"--so he wrote to Mr. H. Quilter, who naturally jumped at it. Here is another gem which Mr. Jones seems to admire: "There will be no comfortable and safe development of our social arrangements--I mean we shall not get infanticide, and the permission of suicide, nor cheap and easy divorce--till Jesus Christ's ghost has been laid."

All that can be said for that is that it is vivacious, and that it has helped Mr. Shaw, who has certainly bettered the instruction. There are others which are a good deal more annoying than that. Jokes about infanticide and Jesus Christ defeat themselves, and always will. They are on a level with jokes about death or one's mother; they recoil and smite the smiter on the nose. I confess that I find the joke about Charles Lamb irritating. Butler said that he could not read Lamb because Canon Ainger went to tea with his (Butler's) sisters. His gibes at Dante are as bad--in fact they are worse, aggravated by the fact that, having never read (he assures us) a word of him, he puts him down as one of the seven humbugs of Christendom. He would not read Dante because he had liked Virgil, nor Virgil because Tennyson liked him. "We are not amused," as Queen Victoria said of another little joke.

The correspondence with Miss Savage, again, does not reveal a pleasant personality. Indeed, the discomfort one gets from it is at times painful. Mr. Jones says that she bored Butler, and I don't wonder at it. The wonder would rather be that she did not set his teeth on edge if it were not that he was nearly as bad as she was. It is not a matter of facetiousness--I dare say he never tired of that; and perhaps the thinness of the jokes--little misreadings of hymns, things about the Mammon of Righteousness, and so on--in a kind of way added to the fun of them. It is their subject matter which offends. They commonly turn upon the health of the respective parents and the chances of an attack carrying them off. Queste cose, as the hero said of the suicide, non si fanno. But I suppose that if you could put your mother's death-bed into a novel, you could do almost anything in that kind.

I am myself singularly moved, with Coventry Patmore, to love the lovely who are not beloved--but not the unlovely. Those little jokes, and many others, are by no means lovely, and if Butler repeated them as often as Mr. Jones does, it is not surprising that he was avoided by many who missed or dreaded the point. His lecture on the Humour of Homer made Mr. Garnett unhappy and Miss Jane Harrison cross, Mr. Jones says. I don't doubt it. It is very cheap humour indeed, and no more Homer's than mine is. It is entirely Butler's humour about Homer, a very different thing. Its impudence did not mitigate the aggravation, but made it more acute. If he had picked out a fairy-tale, rather than two glorious poems--Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, Rumpelstiltskin, for example--he could have been as facetious as he pleased. But that would not suit him. There would have been no darts to fling. Butler was a banderillero. All right; but then don't complain that the Miss Harrisons, Darwins, and others shake off your darts and go about their business, which, oddly enough, is not to gore and trample the banderillero; don't be huffed because you are held for a gamin. Butler wanted it both ways.

The conclusion is irresistible that Butler's controversial books were not primarily written to discover truth, but because he was vain and wished at once to be sensational and annoying. He resented the greatness of the great, or the celebrity of the celebrated; his vanity was wounded. He sought, then, for "most aggravating and impudent matter" to wound them in turn who had vicariously wounded him. He "learned" them to be toads, or celebrities, or tried to. But his love of little jokes betrayed him. He, a sort of minnow, thought to trouble the pool where the great fish were oaring at ease by flirting the surface with his tail. It seemed to him that he was throwing up a fine volume of water; but the great fish held their way unconscious in the deep. Chiefly, therefore, he failed with all his cleverness. Brain he had, logic he had; the heart was a-wanting and the intention faltered. Gnosis again and agapé!

Brain he had, logic he had; but brain must follow upon emotional intention if it is to create; and logic must follow upon sound premisses if it is to convince. Now if his prime intention was to annoy, or, if you granted him his premisses, Butler would never miss the mark. But is that intention worthy of more than it earned? I don't think so. And can you grant him his premisses? I don't think that you can. He argued a priori, apparently always. I am not a biologist, nor was he, but if I know enough of scientific method to be sure that biologists cannot argue that way, so undoubtedly did he. What should Darwin, who had spent years in patient accumulation of fact, have to say to him? In Homeric criticism--a priori again. He had an instinct--he owns it was no more--that the Odyssey was written by a woman. Then he studied the Odyssey to prove that it was. Perhaps a woman did write it, and perhaps it will one day be proved. The Odyssey, as Butler used it, will never prove it. So also with the Sicilian origin of the poem. He got his idea, and went to Trapani to fit it in. It does not seem to have occurred to him that all the things he found there are to be found also in the Ionian Islands and might be found in half a hundred other places in a sea pullulating with islands or a coast-line cut about like a jigsaw puzzle. But it won't do, of course. No one knew that better than he.

Mr. Jones says that "Butler's judgments were arrived at by thinking the matter out for himself." I don't know what judgments he means: in the context he is talking about "other writers." Among such he would not, perhaps, include Dante, Virgil or Charles Lamb. If he includes Homer and Shakespeare there would be a good deal to say. I don't believe he had thought about the authorship of the Odyssey at all until he had assumed what he afterwards spent his time and pains in supporting. As to Shakespeare's age when he wrote his Sonnets, I don't myself find that the Sonnets support him. Those which he quotes in particular show that W.H. was a youth, but not that the author was. But there, again, he was arguing a priori. He desired to prove what he set out to prove, and the scholars disregarded him. Mr. Bridges, in a letter which Mr. Jones has the candour to quote, puts the matter as neatly as may be. "I am very sorry indeed that you have been so clever as to make up so good (or bad) a story: but I willingly recognise that no one has brought the matter into so clear a light as you have done. You are always perspicuous, and nothing but good can come of such conscientious work as yours. Still, you must remember that you proved Darwin to be an arch-impostor; and there was no fault in your logic. It is not the logic that fails in this book." No. It was not the logic.

(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Commentary Upon Butler

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