The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MARCH 28, 1937
Lush Confusion In:
This Sentimental Cult
--Art Note, By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: A favorite theme of Cash which he often explored is here tackled again--the artists's responbsibility to report reality with all its worts to enable better understanding and the constant thwart of those wishful thinkers who believe in the "cult of the little girl". See also in this regard, "What Is Decency?" - March 25, 1928, "Bad Mr. Lewis: He Writes of Hotels" - April 26, 1936, "Criticism of Criticism" - July 5, 1936, "Old Maids And Satyrs" - August 16, 1936, "Censor's Lewd Eye Scans Gypsy Rose Lee" - May 23, 1937, and "Beggars Libel Helen of the Fair Hair" - August 15, 1937 .
The viewpoint set forth by Professor Bagby and the gentleman from Lincolnton who was writing to Cameron Shipp last week--the viewpoint which has it that William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and Tom Wolfe and all the so-called realists at present in practice among us are simply "nasty little purveyors of filth and depravity"--is a common enough viewpoint. Indeed in nine letters out of every ten that one encounters a Southerner sufficiently literate to have heard of these writers at all, one also encounters this notion that they are dirty fellows, full of hate and spite and out to smear the best of all possible worlds for a lot of nice people with perfectly beautiful minds.
But, of course, it isn't peculiar to the South. I haven't a doubt that it was common enough when the columns of the great temple of Karnak were being hauled into place, and even that, in its essence, it was widely prevalent when the wall paintings were going up in the cave of Altamira. It is exactly the same viewpoint at bottom, which was common enough in ancient Greece to have got itself embodied in the myth of Pygmalion. It is exactly the same viewpoint which moved Pius V to get hack painters to put pants on the new figures in Michaelangelo's "Last Judgment"--and which just now is moving the present Pope to carry that extraordinary sort of blasphemy to even further length. And it is exactly the same viewpoint which led the celebrated Dr. Bowdler to "cleanse" Shakespeare, and which in various times and places has actually produced "expurgated" Bibles.
Fundamentally, in short, it flourishes whereever sentimentality and confusion flourish. And if it flourishes with most unparalleled lushness in the South, it is because sentimentality and the failure to make distinctions are two of our capital vices--two vices which are developed here as they have rarely been developed elsewhere.
The particular kind of sentimentality which lies at the root of this viewpoint is what Remy du Gourmont called "the cult of the young girl." It proceeds from the dictum that no book or painting or marble or what have you must contain anything likely to shock or "soil" the mind of a given young person of about 17 who is supposed to believe that babies are found in old fields or hatched out of rabbit eggs, who hasn't the faintest notion that everything is not just perfectly lovely on this dizzy old planet, and whose days are wholly given over to beautiful thoughts and good works. Actually, of course, the little beast never existed anywhere on land or sea. But from time immemorial, there have been thousands of people to insist that she did exist and there are thousands to insist on it yet.
Fundamentally, I think she is a projection from a vast hatred of life--from a hatred of a world with floods and earthquakes and gas explosions and wars and jungles and microbes and invincible death--a world with slaves and poor-whites and rape-fiends and psychopathic wards--a world in which men are imperiously driven toward women and women are imperiously driven to carry on the race. When people set her up and rush to arms to defend her from being shocked or soiled, what they are really about is escape--the assertion of the demand that they shall be allowed to shut out from their eyes everything which they did not fancy and dwell soft in a warm world of their own making--a world of rosy, Pollyannish illusion. It is not any little white lamb of a little wench they are sweating for when they cry out upon the Faulkners and the Caldwells and the Lewises, but the precious little white lamb of their own too-tender egoes. It is not the little maidie they are really worried about when they demand pants for the saints on the Vatican ceiling and walls, but their own terror before sex and its ineluctable dangers.
Such being the case, they are necessarily incurable. But we can at least point out the confusion in the logic of their contentions. One of these confusions is the assumption that sex or any mention of sex is in its very nature filthy. Another is the assumption that it is the business of the artist to be a sort of preacher to bolster up and flatter their so-called ideal world--their world wherein husbands are always faithful and poor-whites never say goddam--the denial of the ugly.
But if sex is filthy, then all human life is filthy. And what is more, yet, it was filthy to begin with. And as for the mention of sex, the bringing of sex into the artist's account of the world--it is filthy precisely when it is calculated to excite in the mind of a reasonably normal person morbid or anti-social sexual impulses. A French postcard is filthy. The novels of Tiffany Thayer and Maurice de Kobra are filthy. And the murals on the walls of the secret museums at Pompeii and Herculeaneum are filthy. But an anatomical chart of generative organs is not filthy. The Venus de Milo and the Apollo Belvedere are not filthy. And can anybody seriously contend that the novels of Faulkner, Caldwell, Lewis, and company could conceivably titillate even the worst sex maniac?
But they are dark, these novels. They deal with terrible themes, quite often. They are filled with appalling people who use appalling language. Of course. But nobody, so far as I know, has proposed to abolish Ecclesiastes, the gloomiest book ever written by man on earth. And there are appalling words in that Bible too, appalling characters, and appalling deeds. The business of the artist is not to play Pollyana. It is his business to show the world to us, to anatomize, to concentrate, and reveal. And he is entitled to the use of every tool which serves his purpose--to concentrate upon whatever aspect of reality fascinates him. If Sinclair Lewis did not get down all of Babbitt, is it not still true that the fellow is infinitely better understood because of Lewis? And if Faulkner and Caldwell have given no portrait of the whole South, will anybody deny that the Southern poor-white is better and more actually known than before?
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