The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 17, 1937
Talent Owes a Debt:
Sources of Genius
--An Explanation, by W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: There are hints in the latter part of this article,as with several other articles he wrote in the late thirties, that Cash was collecting over time the same sort of input on Germany's "mind" which he had on the Southern mind during the previous decade. Had he lived, would he have gone on in 1942 to have begun "The Mind of Germany"? Was the selection of the Mexican locus for the writing of his novel about the South performed deliberately to enable him to get as close as possible in the world of 1941 to the Nazi-mindset? Did he get too close?
I BELIEVE it may be set down as an absolute rule that the higher the genius of a writer, the more absolutely is he dependent upon stimulation from without himself for the production of his best work. That flies straight into the faces of various definitions of genius which have sometimes been coined, I know. But it has the backing of the historical facts in regards to the greatest writers who have ever lived.
Who was Homer? Nobody knows. But it is so plain that the materials contained in the vast epic which goes under his name come from many sources and have been played upon by many different hands, that along back to the nineteenth century century scholars cooked up a theory whereunder there had never been any single Homer at all but only a lot of ballad-makers--the Homeridae--whose works had been collected by the wandering bards of Greece and patched summarily together. The very name of Homer, they said, meant no more than a singer--any singer at all. That theory has since been pretty well abandoned, and rightly, I believe, in favor of one whereunder a single man, the Homer, took the ballads of many men and out of them and out of his superlative genius wove the epic as we know it. But it is just this last case which bears upon my point, of course.
But What Of Goethe?
It might be argued, however, that, after all, the makers of literature in seventh century B.C. were pretty well bound to a rigid tradition--that all of them had to use the material either of the Argive cycle or the Theban cycle, and that under other circumstances the man who was called Homer might have produced literature out of himself quite independently of the ballad-fashioners who had gone before him. Maybe so.
But what are you going to do with the case of a Goethe? Everyone knows that he was inspired by the writing of "The Sorrows of Werther" by the writings of Frenchmen, beginning with Jean Jacques Rousseau and passing on to Chateaubriand. And everyone knows, too, that all his later work, with the exception of Faust, were inspired either by the French, the English, or the classic authors of antiquity. Even for Faust he had the inspiration, not only of the medieval legend itself, but of many literary attempts with the legend, of which the most notable, of course, was Kit Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus."
No Self-Starter, This Bard
And--there was Shakespeare. The greatest genius of his time and of English literature, and the least self-starting of them all. None of his plays, as is common knowledge, was created completely out of his own head. Always he found his inspiration in some tale that already existed, and all his best plays are, so far as plot goes, simply rehashes of the plays of other men who had gone before him. Sometimes, indeed, he even picks up whole passages from such men. Hamlet is probably such a rehash of an older Hamlet by Thomas Kyd, which was itself only a sort of translation of a still older German play based on a sort of translation of a still older German play based on a tale in Saxo Grammaticus. The genius resides wholly in the treatment. Nor can this case of Shakespeare be explained by the fact that it was quite common to do this sort of thing in his time--that historical plays, in particular, were in fashion. All the lesser geniuses of the period, including Ben Jonson, wrote strictly original plays. And since the competitive spirit was clearly not lacking in him, I believe the Bard would have done so also had he been able.
It is interesting to observe, too, that something very like the same thing is true also of nationalities. That is, the great surges in national literature are inherently produced by influences from without. The whole attempt to make nationalism the single idea about which man revolves which is now going forward in Italy and above all in Germany is, I think, the grossest sort of nonsense. Nationalism has been a very useful idea in binding men into large groups with more or less common culture patterns, but I suspect that it is only a stage in the development of civilization and that it is destined in time to give way to others. But whatever the truth of that, it is ridiculous to attempt to make it the sole dominating idea of peoples. And above all, it is ridiculous to attempt to make the idea about which the arts revolve.
No German Literature
What I said a moment ago about Goethe's inspiration will hold for German literature at large. The country, as all readers of literary history are aware, had no literature to speak of until the end of the eighteenth century. And when it got one, it got one precisely because of the intrusion of French ideas and French example. And every movement of any importance in German literature since has come from the further intrusion of French ideas, classic ideas, English, Italian, or Russian ideas. That is not to low-rate German literature. For German ideas, on the other hand, had a very great influence on other literatures. So long ago as Carlyle, the English were being decisively influenced by them. And in more recent times, French literature has been more than half German.
Remy de Gourmont once said that if immigration were cut off to the United States, this country would be reduced to utter stagnation in literature. And that he was right is pretty plain. At least, we are greatly dependent on the immigration of ideas and of models if not on immigrant persons. In the early days of the republic, we had a little galaxy of writers of prose and poetry, all deriving strictly from English models and ideas. Afterwards, we had Twain and Whitman, both more strictly in a native tradition but both owing a great deal, in fact, to European models and ideas. Henry James went abroad to live. And in the twentieth century, all our writers, becoming in one sense more strictly native than ever before, have nevertheless been enormously indebted to European ideas and models. The whole so-called Middle Western school of realism springs from Dreiser, the son of a German immigrant, and draws its inspiration from the Frenchmen, Balzac and Zola. And to complete the picture, our new Southern literature is primarily the child of that Middle Western school of realism.
Literary History For Hitler
Somebody should make it his business to try to teach the former housepainter who sits in Barbarossa's chair a little literary history. Germany still has a living literature, fortunately, for Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Remarque, still live. But it is purely a literature in exile. Unless you are a professor of comparative literature, you never heard the name of a single one of the new "nationalist" writers in Germany--and you won't.
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