On Personality in Literature

Every student of literary evolution is, of course, aware that very early literature, even when it assumes what seems to be a lyrical form, is not in our sense of the term a literature of self-expression. This is because the emergence of the indivi­dual unit from the mass is a relatively late result of advan­cing social life.

The common view, set forth by Victor Hugo with characteristic energy in his famous preface to Cromwell, that the “primitive” age of the world were ages of “colossal” individualism, is grotesquely unhistorical. They were, on the con­trary, ages in which group-life and group-consciousness were in the ascendant ; while it is only “in the movement of civilisation— a movement by no means regular, but often spasmodic, back and forward, forward and back, though on the whole forward”—that “personal character comes to stand out more and more distinctly from the general crowd.” The importance of these considerations in the study of early literatures is seldom recognised by general readers. One of the most fertile sources of error in our common interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, of the Old Testament, is our habit of reading back into it ideas derived from our modern highly developed individualism and entirely out of keeping with its own real spirit and bearings. The centre of interest in most surviving Hebrew literature is, in fact, not the individual but the family or the community, and no true understanding of that litera­ture is possible unless this is kept always in mind. I have already noted that the greater part of Hebrew lyrical poetry is communal and not personal in character (pp. 97, 98, 100). The entire Hebrew attitude towards life, Hebrew patriarchal notions of family conti­nuity as against personal immortality, and early Hebrew moral theories concerning corporate and hereditary responsibility and vicarious suffering, were also based upon the conception of the community as the centre of life and the point of departure. In other early literatures, also, the origin of the lyric must be sought in efforts to express the emotion of the group, not that of the individual singer. “In the rude beginnings of literature among loosely federated clans, we find,” as Mr. Posnett says, “the communal ‘lyric’ reflecting the corporate organism and ideas of contemporary life. Even in Pindar, the communal, as opposed to the individual characteristics of the ‘lyric,’ are still visible, the victor of the games being often merely a centre round which the   achievements of his clan or city are grouped.” The very conception of personal authorship arose only with the change from communal to personal life, and so little indeed, during the earlier stages of literary evolution, was the integrity of any com­position regarded, that every new generation felt free to deal with it as it chose. Hence a piece of early literature may best be likened to a mediaeval church, which grew gradually into the shap in which we know it under a succession of master-build­ers, and now bears little distinctive trace of any one mind. In later times a backward movement in civilisation has occasionally brought about a repression of individuality, with the result that personality has again almost disappeared from literature. I have lately had reason to lay stress on this in dealing with the effect of mediaeval conditions on literature and art. Having shown how all these conditions were “fatal to the free development of indi­viduality,” I have said:—”One curious result which followed in the domain of literature and art is worth attention—the almost complete want of individuality in the works produced, the absence of the distinctively personal note. Everywhere we meet with what Brunetiere calls the spirit of anonymity. There is nothing in poem or painting to reveal the character of the poet or artist behind it. One roman is just like another roman ; one mystery-play just like another mystery-play ; one trouvere or minnesinger just like another trouvère or minnesinger ; one Madonna or Crucifixion just like another Madonna or Crucifixion. Individual genius had been swamped by tradition and convention.”

The points upon which I have above touched were neither forgotton nor intentionally ignored by me when I wrote the pages in the text to which this note refers. I passed them over simply because I did not wish to burden my exposition with what might seem to most of my readers somewhat extra­neous matter. Their bearings upon the general principles of literary interpretation will, I think, be fairly obvious. Where the purely individual element does not exist in literature it will be idle of course to look for it ; and it would, therefore, be correct to say that in our study of an early lyric poem or lay, or of a mediæval romance or miracle-play, we cannot be concerned about the factor of individuality, as individuality is understood to-day. Yet the lyric, lay, romance, or miracleplay, as the case may be, is still the product of human energy seeking the channels of lite­rary form ; it still stands for human thought and feeling ; and behind it necessarily lies, if not the power of the individual unit, at any rate, that of what we may call generalised or communai personality. In such circumstances, then, it is with generalised or communal personality that we have to get into touch. What I have said on pp. 17 and 18 of the text may thus, with slight change of wording, be applied to the study of the literature which expresses group-consciousness rather than the mind of the individual maker. That in analysing such group-consciousness we are in fact inquiring into the significance of literature as a revelation of race and age (see pp. 31-33) will be equally apparent. Moreover, as “the progressive deepening and widening of personality” is, as Mr. Posnett rightly insists, the central fact in the evolution of litera­ture, the development of personality is manifestly a problem of capital importance in the study of literature on the historical side.

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