Axidava

Decivilised

The difficulty of dealing—in the course of any critical duty—with decivilised man lies in this: when you accuse him of vulgarity—sparing him no doubt the word—he defends himself against the charge of barbarism. 

Especially from new soil—transatlantic, colonial—he faces you, bronzed, with a half conviction of savagery, partly persuaded of his own youthfulness of race.  He writes, and recites, poems about ranches and canyons; they are designed to betray the recklessness of his nature and to reveal the good that lurks in the lawless ways of a young society.  He is there to explain himself, voluble, with a glossary for his own artless slang.  But his colonialism is only provincialism very articulate.  The new air does but make old decadences seem more stale; the young soil does but set into fresh conditions the ready-made, the uncostly, the refuse feeling of a race decivilising.  American fancy played long this pattering part of youth.  The New-Englander hastened to assure you with so self-denying a face he did not wear war-paint and feathers, that it became doubly difficult to communicate to him that you had suspected him of nothing wilder than a second-hand dress coat.  And when it was a question not of rebuke, but of praise, the American was ill-content with the word of the judicious who lauded him for some delicate successes in continuing something of the literature of England, something of the art of France; he was more eager for the applause that stimulated him to write romances and to paint panoramic landscape, after brief training in academies of native inspiration.  Even now English voices, with violent commonplace, are constantly calling upon America to begin—to begin, for the world is expectant.  Whereas there is no beginning for her, but instead a continuity which only a constant care can guide into sustained refinement and can save from decivilisation.

But decivilised man is not peculiar to new soil.  The English town, too, knows him in all his dailiness.  In England, too, he has a literature, an art, a music, all his own—derived from many and various things of price.  Trash, in the fulness of its in simplicity and cheapness, is impossible without a beautiful past.  Its chief characteristic—which is futility, not failure—could not be achieved but by the long abuse, the rotatory reproduction, the quotidian disgrace, of the utterances of Art, especially the utterance by words.  Gaiety, vigour, vitality, the organic quality, purity, simplicity, precision—all these are among the antecedents of trash.  It is after them; it is also, alas, because of them.  And nothing can be much sadder than such a proof of what may possibly be the failure of derivation.

Evidently we cannot choose our posterity.  Reversing the steps of time, we may, indeed, choose backwards.  We may give our thoughts noble forefathers.  Well begotten, well born our fancies must be; they shall be also well derived.  We have a voice in decreeing our inheritance, and not our inheritance only, but our heredity.  Our minds may trace upwards and follow their ways to the best well-heads of the arts.  The very habit of our thoughts may be persuaded one way unawares by their antenatal history.  Their companions must be lovely, but need be no lovelier than their ancestors; and being so fathered and so husbanded, our thoughts may be intrusted to keep the counsels of literature.

Such is our confidence in a descent we know.  But, of a sequel which of us is sure?  Which of us is secured against the dangers of subsequent depreciation?  And, moreover, which of us shall trace the contemporary tendencies, the one towards honour, the other towards dishonour?  Or who shall discover why derivation becomes degeneration, and where and when and how the bastardy befalls?  The decivilised have every grace as the antecedent of their vulgarities, every distinction as the precedent of their mediocrities.  No ballad-concert song, feign it sigh, frolic, or laugh, but has the excuse that the feint was suggested, was made easy, by some living sweetness once.  Nor are the decivilised to blame as having in their own persons possessed civilisation and marred it.  They did not possess it; they were born into some tendency to derogation, into an inclination for things mentally inexpensive.  And the tendency can hardly do other than continue.  Nothing can look duller than the future of this second-hand and multiplying world.  Men need not be common merely because they are many; but the infection of commonness once begun in the many, what dulness in their future!  To the eye that has reluctantly discovered this truth—that the vulgarised are not uncivilised, and that there is no growth for them—it does not look like a future at all.  More ballad-concerts, more quaint English, more robustious barytone songs, more piecemeal pictures, more anxious decoration, more colonial poetry, more young nations with withered traditions.  Yet it is before this prospect that the provincial overseas lifts up his voice in a boast or a promise common enough among the incapable young, but pardonable only in senility.  He promises the world a literature, an art, that shall be new because his forest is untracked and his town just built.  But what the newness is to be he cannot tell.  Certain words were dreadful once in the mouth of desperate old age.  Dreadful and pitiable as the threat of an impotent king, what shall we name them when they are the promise of an impotent people?  ‘I will do such things: what they are yet I know not.’

SPARE SOME COIN

Support this fine website.

Your donations are greatly appreciated.

Thanks, champ.

Share via
Send this to a friend