The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, AUGUST 15, 1937
The Beggars Libel Helen of The Fair Hair
By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: Cloaked in wit, Cash finds the defenders of the faith of realism lacking among his contemporary critics, on the one extreme of the attack, the dirt-and-grief-and-Marxist-cure-adoring "New Republikers", and on the other, the sentimentalist, dirt-denying Agrarians. In the middle sings purblind, truth-seeking Homer--stuck in a damnably hot dog-day afternoon with a thunderstorm approaching Shelby, and so leaves the rest in ellipsis. Query are we in still short supply of such beggars today? ("Old Doc Shipp" is Cameron Shipp, the editor of the book-page.)
There is a story in Plato's "Phaedrus"concerning Stealchorus of Himera, who for having too-much reviled the lovely Helen--she of the fair hair and the thousand ships--was straightway stricken blind by the gods. Whereupon, being a philosopher as well as a poet, he took counsel with himself, and concluded to write a recantation which began with these words:
"False is that word of mine--the truth is that thou didst not embark in ships, nor ever go to the walls of Troy."
The performance got him his sight back, but it seems to have left the verities in at least as parlous a state as they were to begin with, and into the bargain, it got Homer set down for a liar and a witling. So, on the whole, I cannot say that I admire it. It reminds me too much of the performance of the critics now flourishing among us, or some of them, anyhow.
Stealchorus, indeed, had it to his credit that the original falsehood was his own. And he had for excuse the fact that, after all, the lady was exceedingly fair and it was the gallant thing to do to relieve her of the charge, not only of having been responsible for the party in the Troas but even of having been present at the disgraceful affair at all. Who was Homer to weigh against the good name of a gleam-white little darling? A blind old beggarman who used to whine his songs about the marketplaces of all the white cities along the littoral world of Asia Minor, and probably a pretty dirty one at that. Besides, Stealchorus had the gods on his neck, and probably was decidedly uncomfortable to be literally and physically blind.
But if a kind of case can be made out for Stealchorus, I am unable to think up one for the critics of whom I speak. I am unable to think up even a single mitigating circumstance in their favor, indeed. They haven't even the excuse that they are merely trying to make amends for falsehoods that they themselves, in their proper persons, have propagated. They haven't the excuse that the gods are against them. They haven't the excuse even of dealing with the names of a flesh and blood creature, with, according to all the reports, more than her fair share of S. A. The Helen with which they have to do is simply the truth. It is their business in the world to discover it, and so, far from being constantly engaged in making Homer out a liar and a witling, they ought to be pretty continually in agreement with him.
But will they have it so? Not they. They insist perversely on everlastingly bringing in a report which is as wide of the mark and as completely in disagreement as Stealchorus' alternate claims first, that Helen was a dirty little tart, and secondly, that she was a perfectly nice girl with an airtight alibi. They insist, that is, on dealing in absolutes of black and white, and of course the truth which is always a pretty dreary grey thing, is not to be rendered in terms of absolute blacks and whites.
Take the corps of young men who we may style collectively as the New Republic boys. According to them, the business of the literary artist in this world is to write novels and poems which will illuminate the class struggle. They have it that the greatest artist is the man who carts in the greatest load of grief and dirt, and who holds most militantly that the way to have done with all grief and dirt on this gloomy sphere--the road to paradise,--lies straight through the miry pages of huge and hairy old Karl Marx. Old man Cabell, according to them, is simply a loud laugh, a pansy sort of person with no sense of proper reality, who ought to be booted completely out of any proletarian Utopia, if it were not for the fact that, after all, he does tell a rather good dirty story.
All of which is palpably idiotic, and calls for a deal of adjustment in the direction of truth. But are the adjusters at hand? I fail almost entirely to find them. There are, indeed, whole hordes of lads--and hoary dotards, for that matter--in this teeming land, ready to join the issue with the New Republikers, not to be deterred, in truth, from joining the issue with them. Out of all the possible schools, I name only one, the gentlemen from Vanderbilt University who style themselves the Southern Agrarians.
Well, but do these Agrarians or any of their allies content themselves with pointing out that, while dirt and grief, being actually pretty abundant among us, are clearly and properly fine subject matter for the artist, it might be well to reserve judgment on sure cures for awhile and that certainly there is no reason why the artist is bound to confine himself to dirt and grief and sure-cures--that, after all, reality has many millions of facets, and that it is the artist's business to deal with whichever ones happen to fascinate him? You may lay to it that the Agrarians point to no such things. They will have nothing of dirt and grief. According to them, it is unfit for the artist's attention, and, in truth, doesn't exist. According to them, Faulkner and Caldwell and such fellows are a lot of exhibitionists serving up rank falsehoods. According to them, all proper books have to be written like Mr. Stark Young's "So Red the Rose"--now about forgotten. And there you are.
I might go on, but Old Doc Shipp is finicky about make-up, and so would probably kill it anyhow. Besides, it's hot as damnation and there's a thunder cloud around to alarm my timid soul. And so, trusting I have made myself not unclear to my dear little reader...
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