Elisabeth Morris

The literary uses of experience

“Did you enjoy it very much?” asked a lady of a little girl whom she met coming away from an entertainment. “Yes,” answered the child, but there was a note of reservation in her voice. Then she threw back her head half defiantly and added, “But don’t you think it’s hard that I can never go to anything with out having to go home and write an account of it afterwards?” Hard, indeed! And yet harder that the tyrant who imposed the requirement happened to be the child’s mother—one of those overtrained and overanxious people who continue to bring the higher education of women into disrepute. Of course, our sympathies are all with the little girl. We recognize that her protest was a sign, not of naughtiness, but of health. There was some thing wrong about this continual exploiting of immediate experience, and she knew it and rebelled against it. The little incident has lain in my mind for years, serving as a nucleus round which ruminating thoughts have gathered regarding the whole subject of the literary uses of experience.

The writer of fiction, if he is at once sensitive and conscientious, must often find himself in a dilemma. He is urged to “write out of his own experience,” since otherwise his work will not ring true. Look at Jane Austen, he is told, sitting quiet and feminine under her lamp and writing her tales of the little every day doings of little everyday folk! Behold her, even refusing to undertake the great historical romance urged upon her by Royalty itself, because it “fell outside her experience.” Here is a model for all young writers. Very well. The obedient artist turns him to the Me about him, and, sure enough, there is indeed plenty of material. Here is an aunt who, considered as a “character,” is ripe to be picked and set in a book. Here is a sister-in-law, whose experiences with her servants, literally set down, would make a most readable and instructive set of papers for some woman’s journal. Or, in sterner vein, here is a brother or a friend whose business experience or whose love-affair offers a tempting subject. Finally, the writer realizes that in his own life he has only to put forth his hand and take what he needs. Yes, for once the general voice is speaking the truth: his material does, indeed, lie close about him.

Suppose, then, he takes it, uses it. We know very well what happens: “Have you read that last thing by young Bellerophon? The one about the Lady and the Cook? Of course we all know who it is he means she simply can’t keep a cook—it’s the scandal of the street, the number she has in a month. But I don$#8217;t think that gives him any right—you know what I mean?” If it is his own experience he has used, the results are different, but no better: “You saw that story of his? Yes—it is interesting. I suppose you knew it was his own experience yes,—he went all through that a few years ago—oh, he’s all right now, but his family felt terribly at the time, and I couldn’t help wondering how they d like to see it all—sort of spread out in print this way.”

Has it then always been so? Did Euripides’s contemporaries look askance at him because, under the thin disguise of Clytemnestra, he had written up a sister-in-law? Did those who listened to Sappho’s lyrics shudder a little and murmur, “Beautiful, of course, but—how could she?” Did Horace’s acquaintance raise their eyebrows over some of the personalities in the odes? And did Catullus’s pretty little lady wish he had not coined her and her pet bird into verse? We cannot tell. Time has wiped out the original material, whatever it was, and left only the artistic rendering.

About our contemporaries, however, one hears persistent rumors: here is one composing a poem on his son’s death even before the burial, and handing it to a friend for possible publication. Here is another using the love-affairs of his friends—quite recognizably—to make his plots. Here is another setting one of our centers of social service aflame with indignation because she had, in their opinion, written them up. Here is a New England town boiling over with resentment because one to whom they had shown hospitality had rewarded them by “putting them into a book.” I saw recently a newspaper notice of a suit brought by a man against his wife be cause, as he alleged, her latest novel made use of their life together in such a way as to reflect unpleasantly on his character.

Whether in these and other cases the complainants are justified, it is neither possible nor necessary to consider. The moral question involved in the use of real life is so complex that each instance would have to be handled separately. It was once, they say, decided that a man might sniff the odors of another man’s dinner without having to pay for it, but whether he may bottle the aroma of another man’s life while it is yet hot, for the purpose of serving it again, perhaps cold or lukewarm, to the general public, is quite an other matter. It is at least clear that the use of experience may be fraught with perplexity for the writer. There is a curiously frank acknowledgment of this in a short story by Mrs. Wharton, called “Copy.” It represents two authors, a man and a woman, who had once been in love with each other, meeting after the lapse of years. Each has the other’s old love-letters, and each suddenly realizes what wonderful “copy” these would make. There is much skillful and intricate fencing between them, but at last, moved by a scarcely acknowledged reverence for the past, by some obscure impulse of loyalty to it, they burn all the letters. The story may serve as a reminder that, whereas we are apt to know the cases where writers have yielded to temptation,—if temptation it be,—we do not know the cases where they have resisted.

But such recognition by authors themselves of the moral problems involved seems to be rather rare. In general, though readers may question or condemn, the writer himself is likely to be unconscious of offense. I met an instance of this once when I was thrown for a short time with a writer of stories. She had told me a good deal about her life at a certain period several years before, and among other matters had mentioned a teapot of delicate workmanship, and how it happened to get broken. Later, reading her newest book, I came upon the incident of the teapot. As I went on, I noticed other correspondences with what I knew to be fact. I was interested, and one day I brought the thing up. “It gives a good deal of your life in Rouen that winter, doesn’t it?” I said, innocent of offense. Instantly her color flamed and her eyes showed deep annoyance. She took me up quickly: “It has nothing whatever to do with my life there. How could you have supposed that?” Naturally, I dropped the matter, but, that being my first close encounter with the artistic temperament, I was very much puzzled. There was no doubting her sincerity, but there was also no doubting the fact that her life of that winter had got into her book.

Again, a young girl, just out of college, wrote her first novel. Her college friends read it with consternation. “But,” they exclaimed, “this is Anna herself! This is Anna’s step-mother! This is just what did happen that time when her father died! This is not a novel, it is a diary! Anna is going too far.” But two years later Anna wrote another novel, containing more shocks for her friends. Here, they claimed, was Anna’s engagement and marriage. Here was Anna’s husband. Here were her experiences at the birth of her child. They approached her about it. What satisfaction did they get? Just as little as I got in the teapot incident. Anna absolutely denied any connection between her novel and her own life, and Anna was truth itself. At the same time, Anna, speaking as an artist, ex cathedra, said firmly, that if anything in her life should be needed for the artistic completeness of her literary work, she would not hesitate to use it, art being in a realm so much higher than one’s personal feelings.

From all this, it is obvious enough that something happens to the artist, while he is artist, which imposes on him standards different from ours—different even from his own when he is not in the artistic mood. So that although as ordinary man in ordinary intercourse he may, for example, be a most reserved person, who would find it easier to cut out his own heart and slice it up for his friends than to cull out bits of his deepest life and serve them up in conversation, yet on the printed page we may find him doing something very much like this exploiting in luminous paragraphs moods and feelings which to most of us seem too deep-lying to be touched upon, save by allusive implication, even with our most beloved friends. I have read articles in the magazines that made me uncomfortable, not because they were shocking on the few lines along which one is conventionally supposed to be shocked, but because they seemed to me to involve such crude exposure of the soul as nothing but hysteria could excuse. A friend of mine, trying to read a certain essay—if one may apply the term to a ten-page prose lyric expressing the author’s personal mood—suddenly threw it down, exclaiming, “This is too painful—it’s raw! It’s bleeding!” At first glance, one is inclined to put such writers in the class with a certain little girl I knew, who climbed up into her mother’s lap and said, with more than a suggestion of gloating anticipation, “Now, mother, let’s talk about my faults!” But is it perhaps we who are wrong? Is our vaunted New Eng land reserve, after all, at fault? Are these writers showing us the way, and is there in the future to be no reserve in life as there is, apparently, for them, none in art? Or are we trying to reconcile two different worlds when we allow ourselves to be troubled by the artist’s intimacy of revelation? Are we shrinking from the spiritual nude in art as some people still shrink from the physical nude, merely because our artistic perceptions have been incompletely developed? These are questions which I am better prepared to ask than to answer, yet a sidelight on them has seemed to come through my meditations on memory. For years it has beset me, this thought of the magic possessed by memory. Where it touches it transforms. Nearly everybody’s memory is artistic, or at any rate more nearly artistic than his immediate perceptions. Children are following a true instinct when they beg for a story “about something you remember, that happened a long time ago,” for the things that we thus remember have a way of gathering into themselves any flavor of poetic feeling that may be in our nature. What is it, then, that memory does?

For one thing, it selects. In our immediate perceptions we often cannot see the woods for the trees. Memory knows no such trouble. Its trees are often blurred, but its woods stretch far and blue, dark-shadowed and full of meanings. For another, it distances. Through it we escape from the importunity of practical issues. Memory knows no practical issues; things are clear but we cannot alter them, they are real but we can neither seize nor avoid them. The light of memory is a light that never was on sea or land—mellow and soft, full of tender interpretations, of delicate emphases, of exquisite withdrawals.

If memory, then, is a kind of art, art is a kind of memory. Like memory it selects, like memory it interprets. It, too, has its emphases and its withdrawals, and like memory it creates its own remoteness. For to see beauty, or, more broadly, to see the world with our perceptions alert to its aesthetic significance, we must withdraw from it, we must hold it away from us. While we are seeing the beauty of the lion who crouches in the jungle grass, we do, in that instant of perception, ignore the necessity for killing him, the danger of his killing us. Wandering in a white sea-fog over the marshes, we may, in a realization of its weird loveliness, entirely lose our sense of the menace it holds for us. These things take upon themselves, for the moment, something of the quality of memories. Was it, as Gilbert Murray suggests, an acknowledgment of this kinship between memory and art, that the Greeks wove into the fiber of their philosophic myth, when they made Memory the mother of the Muses?

But the relation is one of kinship only, not of identity. For whereas the remoteness of memory is unalterable and eternal, the remoteness of our art-perceptions is apt to be momentary, and in part at least a matter of our own choice. While memory gently but insistently urges us into something much like the aesthetic attitude toward the treasures it offers us, real life, with its lions, and its fog, makes a more complex appeal. There is only one way to take memory, but there are two ways of taking life, the aesthetic and the practical. Between these two there is a plenteous lack of understanding. “What right,” says the practical man, “have you to stand around just looking at lions and fog, when there is so much that is really important to be done about them?” He views everything in one of two aspects: it is either a thing that he can do something to, or it is a thing that can do something to him. He thinks of things, not as they are, but with reference to what he would like to do with them or to them. Perception for its own sake, expression for its own sake, makes no appeal to him. Even memory he forces into practical service, and allows its other powers to atrophy.

At the other extreme is the aesthete, who lives to taste the flavors of his perceptions and to express them. “Lions and fog are so wonderful,” he cries, “Look at them! Only look!” And while the practical man calls him a dreamer and a trifler and a shirk, he calls the practical man a barbarian and a prude, who is afraid to look at life as it really is. He undergoes experience as all men must, but almost in the moment of its occurrence it be comes something apart from him, delicately valued in the withdrawal of the aesthetic mood. Thus life for him is continually under going such a transmutation as for most of us only the magic of memory can bring about. While he is yet white with indignation, he may say to himself, “This is anger.” While he loves, he realizes, “This is indeed passion.” Probably the two moods, of emotion and appreciation, are not really simultaneous, they may alternate with lightning-like interplay. But they seem to the observer, and even, perhaps, to the possessor, like two streams flowing on together, like two runners racing abreast, one oblivious of all but the mad motion, the other with eyes, not on the goal, not blind with the rush of it, but turned, deeply observant, on the face of his companion.

It is, then, this capacity for immediate aloofness from experience, this power of withdrawal into a realm closely resembling that of memory, which makes possible for the artist some of the things that shock us. But though it may to some extent explain his state of mind, it does not perhaps make us approve of it any more heartily. For there is something repellent to us in the ability thus to distance experience, either one’s own or another’s. It seems not quite warmly human. When memory, through its distancing power, gradually and gently loosens the bonds of reserve, we permit it, we even love it, because it is a universal experience. But when the aesthetic mood loosens these bonds, not gradually but at once, by merely, as it were, taking a step to one side, we shrink a little. An old man, we feel, may say things of his youth that his youth could not have said of itself even if it had known them.

What we probably do not realize is that people differ enormously in their rate of re action to life. An experience which in one person may after its occurrence not come to full fruition in consciousness for months or years, may in another pass through the same phases in a few hours or even minutes. Yet the lower rate is so much commoner that there is a presumption against the immediate coining of experience into artistic expression. If, after a great bereavement, a man sits down at once and embodies it in a poem, if, when an overwhelming passion has barely burned itself out, he proceeds to set it forth in a novel, we find ourselves suspecting, even before we examine the case, that either the bereavement and the passion will prove to have been not so overwhelming after all, or else that their artistic rendering will prove not really artistic.

This last point is one which needs some attention. So far I have been considering the use of experience chiefly in its ethical aspects. It is clear that the use of other people as material for art often exposes writers to sharp and persistent criticism. I have suggested that there are reasons grounded in the processes of the artistic temperament, why this criticism is often not in the least understood by the writers themselves. But, aside from this question of the moral right of an artist to make use of another’s life, there is a second question, namely, what is the effect of the immediate use of experience on the art-product itself? Morals aside, does it tend to pro duce good art? In the case of one’s own life, for instance, where it may be argued that one has the moral right to use whatever one likes, it might be of interest to inquire whether, purely from the effect on the art-product, it is not often a mistake to hurry forward into expression. The continual tasting and labeling of sensation tends to make sensation itself a little thin, or at least not quite true. And it is conceivable that lions and fog can never be completely grasped, even aesthetically, save by one who has first, in complete abandonment to practical needs, fought the lions and groped through the fog. Experience, entered upon with a conscious aesthetic purpose, may be thus deprived of its last, keenest quality, and even when not thus taken, it may, if too hastily garnered into expression, never reach, even as pure expression, the mellowness of maturity that might otherwise have been attained.

The pressure upon the artist urging him to serve green fruit instead of waiting for it to ripen, has, of course, never been so great as now. But there is, I believe, pressure of another sort, far stronger and far more respect able, arising naturally and inevitably out of our present habits of thought. With the enormous growth of scientific interest—interest in facts, and faith in what they may lead us to—we have developed a reverence for accuracy, patience, thoroughness, and discrimination. “Study your own thumb-nail enough,” Agassiz used to say, “and you will find enough to occupy you for a lifetime.” And he was fond of testing young students by giving them a cross-section of a broom-handle and seeing what they made of it. This was excellent. Applied to coral islands and earth worms and infusoria and sea-urchins, it is producing stupendous results. And now attention is being turned inward upon the human spirit itself—not, indeed, for the first time, but for the first time with just these methods. Man himself, as Walter Bagehot pointed out a generation ago, has become an antiquity—that is, a subject for scientific investigation. And the artist as well as the scientist has caught the habit of thumb-nail study and inspection of broom-handle sections. This too is excellent. It is compelling writers to an honesty of aim, a meticulous precision in technique, of a kind that has never been equaled. The scientist who would sit in his study and write about the processes of nature “out of his head” is now in disrepute. Similarly, the journalist who would write about the poor without first having “done the slums” would be very much behind the times. We may swing back again to a love for the fantastic and fanciful, but at present we are lost in admiration of the obviously truthful.

These things go by waves. For there is always a tendency, when we have become impressed with the excellence of some quality, to see that quality everywhere, to the exclusion of all others. If we love blue, we see blue in everything. If we have been deeply moved by the excellence of courage, or of honesty, or of kindness, we translate all the moral virtues into terms of sincerity or honesty or kindness. There are reasons, in the underlying unity of the world, why this can rather easily be done, both with colors and with moral qualities, but it has to be done carefully.

So with theories of art. Sometimes it is attempted to state all the aesthetic virtues in terms of morality. Ruskin did this very appealingly but not quite satisfyingly. Often they have been stated in terms of beauty, and this also has its pitfalls. Just now, in the flush of our enthusiasm for the ideals which science seems to have set up, we are stating them in terms of sincerity. This disposes of certain problems, for instance, the problem of ugliness; but it leads to other difficulties. For even in the scientific observation of fact there is such a thing as losing the significance of detail through absorption in its immediate aspects, and this is yet more easily possible in the realm of art. There may have been a time when artists needed to be called sharply to account for the sincerity of their intention and the accuracy of their work, but at present they are much more apt to offer us these in place of something else that would be of still greater value. We are all of us in danger of falling into two fallacies: first, of assuming that accuracy of detail in the art-product is the most necessary condition of its high quality as art, and second—granting that such accuracy is very desirable—the fallacy of assuming that it will necessarily be attained in the highest degree through sincere study and immediately faithful rendering of detail. If our theory makes these two assumptions, it becomes very difficult to explain why a monument of honest and masterly self-analysis like Amiel’s “Journal” is not, as a work of art, greater than “Hamlet.” The truth of art has never, perhaps, been successfully defined; but we must see, when we really face the question, that it is something different from sincerity in the artist or accuracy in his product. For we have to cover the truth of Shakespeare with half his detail wrong, the truth of Conrad, with all his detail right, the truth of Euripides, with whose detail we have now simply nothing to do, the truth of Rodin, who never works from a single pose but expresses an understanding born of fused impressions. It must be clear that this truth can never be expressed, either objectively in terms of accuracy, or subjectively in terms of sincerity, except by wrenching these terms away from all their usual connotations. It must rather be conceived as a kind of vision that requires, indeed, an atmosphere of sincerity and is fed by experience—any experience, it hardly matters what,—but which requires also a certain remoteness and detachment of spirit. I sometimes wonder whether we should not be gainers if our writers, like the Greeks, did a life-work first—a good chunk of hard, practically serviceable living—as farmers or manufacturers or administrators or teachers, and only after this were permitted to fall upon their task as artists. De Morgan and Conrad among the moderns are shining examples of the possibilities of this programme; and with them we might class the literary men who have most of their lives swung a definite business, carrying on their artistic labors, as it were, “with their left hand”—Matthew Arnold and Lamb, for example. It is, indeed, only rather recently that writing has become lucrative enough to permit of its being chosen early as a profession.

Probably we should lose something. Doubtless we should gain something. Doubtless we should be spared much of the hasty mongering of experience to which I have been referring. In thinking of this, one is tempted to use the neat phrase of that prince of dreamers who was also in his lighter moments the prince of teases: “You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal.”


MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “The literary uses of experience.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/literary_uses_experience/>.

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