Good Stories Spoilt by Great Authors

UNDER the title “Good Stories Spoilt by Great Authors” a considerable essay might be written. In fact, it shall be written. It shall be written now. The mere fact that some fable has passed through a master mind does not imply by any means that it must have been improved. Eminent men have misappropriated public stories, as they have misappropriated public stores. It is always supposed (apparently) that anyone who borrows from the original brotherhood of men is not bound to pay back. It is supposed that if Shakespeare took the legend of King Lear, or Goethe the legend of Faust, or Wagner the legend of Tannhäuser, they must have been very right and the legends ought to be grateful to them. My own impression is that they were sometimes very wrong and that the legends might sue them for slander. Briefly, it is always assumed that the poem that somebody made is vastly superior to the ballad that everybody made. For my part I take the other view. I prefer the gossip of the many to the scandal of the few. I distrust the narrow individualism of the artist, trusting rather the natural communism of the craftsmen. I think there is one thing more important than the man of genius—and that is the genius of man.

Let me promptly, in a parenthetical paragraph, confess that I cannot get Shakespeare into this theory of mine. As far as I can see, Shakespeare made all his stories better; and as far as I can see, he hardly could have made them worse. He seems to have specialised in making good plays out of bad novels. If Shakespeare were alive now I suppose he would make a sweet springtime comedy out of an anecdote in a sporting paper. I suppose he would make a starry and awful tragedy out of one of the penny novelettes. But as Shakespeare does not support my argument I propose to leave him out of my article.

In the instances of Milton, however, I think my case can be stoutly maintained; only that Milton’s story, being Scriptural, is not perhaps so safe to dogmatise about. In one sense Milton spoiled Eden as much as the snake did. He made a magnificent poem and yet missed the poetical point. For in “Paradise Lost” (if I remember right) Milton substitutes for the primal appetite for a strange fruit an elaborate psychological and sentimental motive. He makes Adam eat the fruit deliberately, “not deceived”, with the object of sharing Eve’s misfortune. In other words, he makes all human wickedness originate in an act of essential goodness, or, at the worst, of a very excusable romanticism. Now all our meannesses did not begin in magnanimity; if we are cads and blackguards (as we are) it is not because our first ancestor behaved like a husband and a gentleman. The story, as it stands in the Bible, is infinitely more sublime and delicate. There all evil is traced to that ultimate unreasoning insolence which will not accept even the kindest conditions; that profoundly inartistic anarchy that objects to a limit as such. It is not indicated that the fruit was of attractive hue or taste; its attraction was that it was forbidden. In Eden there was a maximum of liberty and a minimum of veto; but some veto is essential even to the enjoyment of liberty. The finest thing about a free meadow is the hedge at the end of it. The moment the hedge is abolished it is no longer a meadow but a waste, as Eden was after its one limitation was lost. This Bible idea that all sins and sorrows spring from a certain fever of pride, which cannot enjoy unless it controls, is a much deeper and more piercing truth than Milton’s mere suggestion that a gentleman got entangled by his chivalry to a lady. Genesis, with sounder commonsense, makes Adam after the Fall lose his chivalry in a rather marked and startling manner.

The same theory of deterioration might be urged in the case of Goethe and the Faust legend. I do not speak, of course, of the poetry in detail, which is above any criticism. I speak of the outline of Goethe’s Faust—or, rather, of the outline of the first part; the second part has no outline, like Mr. Mantalini’s Countesses. Now the actual story of Faust, Mephistopheles and Margaret seems to me infinitely less exalted and beautiful than the old story of Faust, Mephistopheles and Helen. I had the pleasure of seeing in Yorkshire the old wooden puppet play Faustus that has since been performed in London; and the Yorkshire dolls were much more living than some of the London actors. The marionettes were trying to express themselves as men; there were times, alas! When eminent actors tried to express themselves as marionettes; but that is not the true objection. The true objection is this: that, in the medieval play Faust is damned for doing a great sin; swearing loyalty to eternal evil that he may possess Helen of Troy, the supreme bodily beauty. The old Faust is damned for doing a great sin; but the new Faust is saved for doing a small sin; Goethe’s Faust is not intoxicated and swept away by the intolerable sweetness of some supernatural lady. Goethe’s Faust, so soon as he is made a young man, promptly and really becomes a young rascal. He gets at once into a local intrigue—I will not say into a local entanglement because (as in most similar cases) only the woman is entangled. But surely there is something of the bad side of Germany, there is something of the vulgar sentimentalist, in this hotch-potch of seduction and salvation! The man ruins the woman; the woman, therefore saves the man; and that is the moral, die ewige Weiblichkeit. Somebody who else has had the pain; and so his cruelty shall finally be the same as his kindness. Personally, I prefer the puppet play; where Faustus is finally torn by clack devils and dragged down to hell. I find it less depressing.

Again, the same principle, as far as I can make out, marks Wagner’s version of Tannhäuser—or rather, his perversion of Tannhäuser. This great legend of the early Middle Ages, plainly and properly told, is one of the most tremendous things in human history or fable. Tannhäuser, a great knight, committed a terrible transcendental sin that cut him off from all the fellowship of sinners. He became the lover of Venus herself, the incarnation of pagan sensuality. Coming out of those evil caverns to the sun, he strayed to Rome and asked the Pope if such as he could repent and be saved. The Pope answered in substance, that there are limits to everything. A man so cut off from Christina sanity (he said) could no more repent than the Pope’s stick cut from a tree could grow leaves again. Tannhäuser went away in despair and descended again into the caverns of eternal death, only after he had gone the Pope looked at his stick one fine morning and saw that it was sprouting leaves. To me that tale is one terrific clash of Agnosticism and Catholicism. Wagner, I believe, made Tannhäuser return repentant for the second time. If that is not spoiling a story, I do not know what is.

Lastly (to take a much smaller case), I have noticed all over Europe discussions about the morals of the play Salome which Wilde wrote in French. I do not see anything practically immoral about the play, though much that is morbid and turgid. What strikes me most about Wilde’s Salome is that it is startling inartistic. It spoils the whole point of a particularly artistic incident. The brilliant bitterness of the old Bible story consists in the complete innocence and indifference of the dancing girl. A subtle despot was plotting a statesmanlike clemency; a secretive Queen was plotting savage vengeance. A dancer (a mere child, I always fancied) was the daughter of the vengeful Queen and danced before the diplomatic despot. In riotous relaxation he asked the little girl to name any present she liked. Bewildered with such a fairy-tale benevolence, the girl ran to ask her mother what she should choose; the patient and pitiless Queen saw her chance and asked for the death of her enemy. In place of this strong, ironic tale of a butterfly used as a hornet, Salome has some sickly and vulgar business of the dancer being in love with the Prophet. I am not sure about its being bad morality; for its morality is its effect on mankind. But I know it is bad art; for its art is its effect on me.

~G.K. Chesterton: in Lunacy & Letters