Introduction by Floyd Dell
These Confessions of a Young Man constitute one of the most significant documents of the passionate revolt of English literature against the Victorian tradition. It is significant because it reveals so clearly the sources of that revolt. It is in a sense the history of an epoch — an epoch that is just closing. It represents one of the great discoveries of English literature: a discovery that had been made from time to time before, and that is now being made anew in our own generation — the discovery of human nature.
The reason why this discovery has had to be made so often is that it shocks people. They try to hush it up; and they do succeed in forgetting about it for long periods of time, and pretending that it doesnt exist. They are shocked because human nature is not at all like the pretty pictures we like to draw of ourselves. It is not so sweet, amiable and gentlemanly or ladylike as we wish to believe it. It is much more selfish, brutal and lascivious than we care to admit, and as such, both too terrible and too ridiculous to please us. The Elizabethans understood human nature, and made glorious comedies and tragedies out of its inordinate crimes and cruelties, and its pathetic follies and fatuities. But people didnt like it, and they turned Puritan and closed the theaters. It is true, they repented, and opened them again; but the theater had got a bad name from which it is only now beginning to recover.
In the fields of poetry and fiction a more long-drawn-out contest ensued between, those who wanted to tell the truth and those who wanted to listen to pleasant fibs, the latter generally having the best of it. The contest finally settled down into the Victorian compromise, which was tacitly accepted by even the best of the imaginative writers of the period. The understanding was that brutality, lust and selfishness were to be represented as being qualities only of bad people, plainly labelled as such. Under this compromise some magnificent works were produced. But inasmuch as the compromise involved a suppression of a great and all-important fact about the human soul, it could not endure forever. The only question was, under what influences would the revolt occur?
It occurred, as George Moores quite typical and naïvely illuminating confessions reveal, under French influences. Something of the same sort had been happening in France, and the English rebels found exemplars of revolt ready to their need. These French rebels were of all sorts, and it was naturally the most extreme that attracted the admiration of the English malcontents. Chief among these were Gautier and Baudelaire.
Gautier had written in Mademoiselle de Maupin a lyrical exaltation of the joys of the flesh: he had eloquently and unreservedly pronounced the fleshly pleasures good. Baudelaire had gone farther: he had said that Evil was beautiful, the most beautiful thing in the world — and proved it, to those who were anxious to believe it, by writing beautiful poems about every form of evil that he could think of.
They were still far, it will be observed, from the sane and truly revolutionary conception of life which has begun to obtain acceptance in our day — a conception of life which traverses the old conceptions if good and evil. Baudelaire and Gautier hardly did more than brilliantly champion the unpopular side of a foolish argument. It may seem odd to us today that such a romantic, not to say hysterical, turning-upside-down of current British morality could so deeply impress the best minds of the younger generation in England. Its influence, when mixed with original genius of a high quality, produced the Poems and Ballads of Swinburne. It produced also The Yellow Book, a more characteristic and less happy result. It produced a whole host of freaks and follies. But it did contain a liberating idea — the idea that human nature is a subject to be dealt with, not to be concealed and lied about. And, among others, George Moore was set free — set free to write some of the sincerest fiction in our language.
These Confessions reveal him in the process of revaluing the values of life and art for himself. It was not an easy or a painless process. Destined for the army, because he wasnt apparently clever enough to go in for the church or the law, he managed, with a kind of instinctive self-protection, to avoid learning enough even to be an officer. He turned first in this direction and then in that, in his efforts to escape. The race-track furnished one diversion for his unhappy energies, books of poetry another. Then he met a painter who painted and loved sumptuous and beautiful blondes, whereupon art and women became the new centers of his life, and Paris, where both might be indulged in, his great ambition. Given permission and an allowance, he set off to study art in Paris — only to find after much effort and heartache that he was a failure as an artist. There remained, however, women — and the cafés, with strange poets and personalities to be cultivated and explored. Modelling himself after his newest friend, in attire, manners and morals, he lived what might have been on the whole an unprofitable and ordinary life, if he had not been able to gild it with the glamour of philosophic immoralism. Finally, because everybody else was writing, he too wrote — a play. Then follows a period of discovery of the newest movement in art. So impressionable is he that his stay of some years in Paris causes him actually to forget how to write English prose, and when he returns to London and has to earn his living at journalism he has to learn his native tongue over again. Nevertheless he has acquired a point of view — on women, on art, on life. He writes — criticism, poetry, fiction. He is obscure, ambitious, full of self-esteem, that is beginning to be soured by failure. He tries to get involved in a duel with a young nobleman, just to get himself before the public. Failing in that, he lives in squalid lodgings — or so they seem to a young man who has lived in Paris on a liberal allowance — and writes, writes, writes, writes ... talking to his fellow lodgers, to the stupid servant who brings him his meals, and getting the materials for future books out of them. A candid record of these incidents, interwoven with eloquent self-analysis, keen and valid criticism of books and pictures, delightful reminiscences and furious dissertations upon morality, the whole story is given a special and, for its time, a rare interest by its utter lack of conventional reticence. He never spares himself. He has undertaken quite honestly to tell the truth. He has learned from Paris not to be ashamed of himself. And this, though he had not realized it, was what he had gone to Paris to learn.
He had put himself instinctively in the way of receiving liberalizing influences. But it was, after all, an accident that he received those influences from France. He might conceivably have stayed at home and read Tolstoi or Walt Whitman! So indeed might the whole English literary revolt have taken its rise under different and perhaps happier influences. But it happened as it happened. And accidents are important. The accident of having to turn to France for moral support colored the whole English literary revolt. And the accident of going to Paris colored vividly the superficial layers of George Moores soul. This book partly represents a flaunting of such borrowed colors. It was the fashion of the Parisian diabolists to gloat over cruelty, by way of showing their superiority to Christian morality. The enjoyment of others suffering was a splendid pagan virtue. So George Moore kept a pet python, and cultivated paganness by watching it devour rabbits alive.
It was the result of the same accident which caused him to conclude — and to preach at some length in this book — that art is aristocratic. It was the proper pagan thing to say, as he does here — "What care I that some millions of wretched Israelites died under Pharaohs lash? They died that I might have the Pyramids to look on" — and other remarks even more shocking and jejune. It was this accident which made him write ineffable silliness in this and other early volumes about virtue and vice, assume a man-about-towns attitude toward women, and fill pages with maudlin phrases about marble, perfumes, palm-trees, blood, lingerie, and moonlight. These were the follies of his teachers, to be faithfully imitated. If he had first heard the news that the body is good from Walt Whitman, or that the human soul contains lust and cruelty from Tolstoi, what canticles we should have had from George Moore on the subject of democracy in life and art!
Deeper down, George Moore was already wiser than his masters. He was to write of the love-life of Evelyn Innes, and the common workaday tragedy of Esther Waters, with a tender and profound sympathy far removed from the sentiments he felt obliged to profess here. This book is a young mans attempt to be sincere. It is the story of a soul struggling to be free from British morality. It is eloquent, beautiful, and at times rather silly. It is a picture of an epoch.
The result of the attempt to introduce diabolism to the English mind is well known. The Island somewhat violently repudiated and denounced the whole proceedings, as might have been expected. The French influence waned, and has now almost died out. But meanwhile another rediscovery of human nature (to which the work of a later Frenchman, Romain Rolland, has contributed its due effect) is slowly re-creating English literature. Under a Russian leadership less romantic than that of Gautier and less frightful than that of Baudelaire, with scientific support from Freud and Jung, and with some extremely able British and American lieutenants, the cause of unashamedness appears to be winning its way in literature. The George Moore of these Confessions stands to view as a reckless and courageous pioneer, a bad strategist but a faithful soldier, in the foolhardy, disastrous and gallant Campaign of the Nineties.
New York, May 26, 1917.