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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

L.H. Myers

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  • 1 L.H. MYERS, The Near and the Far, containing The Root and the Flower and The Pool of Vishnu, Londo (...)

The gulf lies not between those who affirm and those
who deny, but between those who affirm and those
who ignore.1

  • 2 The Near and the Far, preface to the 1940 edition, p. 5.

1To leave Gerhardie for Myers is to become aware of two opposite trends in the English novel between the Wars: the first is the expression of a frustrated sensibility turned upon itself and heedless of traditional moral values; the second is represented by writers who are concerned with ethical values and criticize the lack of moral discrimination shown by the intellectual élite who cultivate all forms of sensibility for their own sake. L.H. Myers, who belongs to this second trend, makes no concession at all to what he calls “artistic snobbery.” He is out to explore the attitudes of his contemporaries and the principles which inspire them. Searching for truth with tireless patience, he exposes forms of thought and conduct generally assumed to be good, but which lead to corruption, and he shows how certain philosophies and ideologies which appear to have nothing in common are conducive to a similar deterioration of spiritual values. All his characters are wealthy or powerful people who are completely cut off from the ordinary circumstances of contemporary life. In The Orissers (1922) Eamor is completely isolated, and its inhabitants have little contact with the outside world. The Clio (1925) takes place on a yacht which sails up the Amazon. Strange Glory (1936) is set in the Louisiana swamp and The Near and the Far (1935 and 1940) in sixteenth-century India. However, neither the remoteness in space or time nor the social class to which the characters belong are obstacles to Myers’s exploration of contemporary attitudes. On the contrary, they allow him to concentrate dispassionately on the essence of the problems he deals with. “My intention,” Myers writes, “was not to set aside the social and ethical problems that force themselves upon us at the present time. On the contrary, my hope has been that we might view them better from the vantage-ground of an imaginary world.”2

2“Civilization” is an important word in Myers’s vision of society. It is associated with fastidiousness, also a key-word, which describes a highly developed moral sensibility and spiritual refinement. Fastidiousness is opposed to triviality and vulgarity, which denote unawareness of spiritual values. The basic conflict illustrated in Myers’s work is between what makes for refinement and civilization on the one hand and for materialism on the other, or between the spirit and the world. By “the world” Myers means a society which is at bottom materialistic whatever ideals it pretends to pursue. “The world,” says Tali in The Pool of Vishnu, “is an organized system of mean second thoughts,” (p. 720) in which men check what generous impulse they have and give in to a spirit of competitiveness. The motives which underlie people’s reactions in “the world” are pride and fear: pride in their social position and in the scrupulousness with which they live up to it, and fear of other people’s opinion. Even when they belong to the traditional upper classes, their refinement is all on the surface; they are not really cultured or fastidious. In fact, they always behave according to type because this is the only way which makes them feel secure. “The world” is a society which “glorifies itself” and considers its own organization as an end in itself. It exacts from its members unconditional respect for its institutions and conformity to conventional standards of behaviour. It ignores man’s deeper instincts and individual tastes and sets up a cult of appearances. Fashion and public opinion are all-important criteria.

3In his first two novels Myers examines two fundamental and irreconcilable attitudes to life and draws attention to their limitations. In The Orissers civilization and refinement are symbolized by Eamor, the estate which has belonged to the Orissers for five hundred years and which Lilian Orisser wants to keep for her stepson Nicholas. Among the “fastidious” are also Cosmo, Sir Charles’s elder son, and Allen Allen, his former secretary now in love with Lilian. Eamor is mortgaged in favour of John Mayne, Lilian’s second husband. With his nieces, Madeline and Nina, and Walter Standish, his secretary, John Mayne represents “the world” at its worst. The fight between the Maynes ant the Orissers over Eamor symbolizes the antagonism between their attitudes to life. Indeed, neither John Mayne nor Madeline really intends to deprive Lilian of Eamor, but they both want to humiliate her and to make her recognize the superiority of their values over hers.

  • 3 L.H. MYERS, The Orissers, London, 1923, p. 274.

4Lilian draws strength to fight the Maynes from “the idea that she is not only handing down a tradition but purchasing the conditions necessary to its continuance.”3 The tradition she wants to preserve is one of culture, intellectual achievement and striving after spiritual ends. To abandon Eamor would entail “spiritual impoverishment” and surrender to a materialistic society. Thanks to Lilian, life at Eamor remains an “elegant ritual,” and distinction withstands the intrusion of “modern barbarism” chiefly represented by Madeline. In the isolation and “dreadful peace” of Eamor Lilian cultivates in Nicholas a taste for intellectual speculation and self-consciousness. At nineteen he is an intelligent and cultivated man, but he clearly develops towards spiritual death instead of spiritual fulfilment. As Allen explains to Lilian, his spirit is “turned back upon itself. He has no energy to apply to battling with the world, because all his energies are consumed in conflict with himself.” (p. 306) The fact is that Nicholas doesn’t even battle with the world; Lilian and Allen do this for him. He refuses to leave Eamor and has no experience of the world at all. If his life becomes merely sterile and not destructive like Cosmo’s, it is because he has few opportunities and no personal reason to vent his hatred of the world in destructive action. On the whole, the tameness of his behaviour contrasts unfavourably with the feverish restless-ness of Cosmo, whose vision of the world derives from personal experience. In this respect, Lilian and Nicholas resemble Sir Charles, who was never tempted to come into contact with his fellow-beings. Nicholas is “interested in ideas rather than in people.” (p. 67) He doesn’t want experience, and he thinks that the world of action is “a perpetual temptation to the dissipating of one’s energies.” (p. 206) To him life is either animalism or pure intelligence, and he adheres unreservedly to the latter. “To be alive is to offer resistance to the flux, to contract out of the general fluidity into a hard discreteness, to curdle into independent self-consciousness.” (p. 236) His dualistic conception of man makes him think that “sex [is] the vulgarest of all vulgar lures in life’s whole bag of tricks.” (p. 255) His affair with Isabel soon comes to an end because his senses are gratified but he refuses to treat her as a person and to communicate with her spiritually as he does with Lilian.

5Like the Orissers, Allen values the spiritual life: his attraction to Cosmo, his sympathy for Nicholas, for whom he also deems it essential to secure Eamor, show that he is himself fascinated by the Ideal. However, he is aware of the danger of an exclusive devotion to the spirit and warns Nicholas that “the Ideal that is not discoverable beneath the forms of the Actual is a chimera.” (p. 340) He thinks that the dualism “between the animal life of the race and the volition of the individual” is the result of man’s loss of “that immediate unity with the life of the race which was so spontaneous in the minds of our ancestors.” (p. 440) Allen believes in the continuity of life and in the participation of all human beings in it. Incomplete men and women “are in dire need of larger personalities, in which the individual elements of the mind, such as reason and will, shall be harmonized with the deeper instincts of race, to form one living whole.” (p. 442) Yet in spite of his conviction that the dualistic elements in human nature can be reconciled, he doesn’t reach fulfilment. He and Lilian love each other, but he has no fundamental need of her. “All that he needed, fundamentally, was his work. He had never been – he never would be – dependent on human relationships.” (p. 534) Consequently, none of the Orissers is gratified by their victory over the Maynes, a victory supposedly gained by spiritual values. Allen feels the incompleteness of his life; Lilian achieves serenity, but it is “the serenity of a mock life.” As to Nicholas, his obstinate isolation at Eamor is death-in-life. “Civilization” is far superior to the trivial existence of the world, but it is not without short-comings. Among the Orissers it is definitely sterile, though Allen’s outlook is more positive than Nicholas’s. Myers makes a shrewd distinction between the spiritual development of Allen and that of Nicholas, but on the whole he doesn’t seem to have realized how negative the attitude of the Orissers actually was.

6The real superiority of the Orissers over the Maynes lies in their honesty towards themselves. For instance, Cosmo’s standard of sincerity is so extravagant that he is taken for a madman. In their determination to be true to their inner being they refuse to submit to the moral standards of the community and recognize no other sanction than that of their own conscience. That is why Lilian feels justified in becoming Allen’s mistress and why she refuses to play on John Mayne’s feelings, which she would consider as a self-betrayal. That is also why Allen feels he has a right to kill Cosmo, who threatens to thwart Lilian’s claim to Eamor. Admittedly, Cosmo’s hatred of the world is destructive. His resentment against Lilian, whom he holds responsible for his failure in life, could have been as harmful as the jealousy of the Maynes and even become the instrument of their revenge. Still, his murder by Allen is a serious flaw in the novel for it destroys the Orissers’ claim to being the keepers of spiritual values; it is not merely an offence against conventional morality but also an outrage against the very spirit they are trying to preserve and of which Cosmo was after all a fanatical upholder. This spirit, as Allen himself suggests when he talks of unity with the life of the race, originates in the cosmos and partakes of its life. Wentworth expresses this clearly in Strange Glory:

  • 4 L.H. MYERS, Strange Glory, New York, 1936, p. 145.

I live here, not in order to be alone, but to feel connected. It so happens that in this place I feel particularly aware of the intertwining of our spiritual roots. That feeling comes up, I think, from the earth. We all have our feet upon a common earth, our bodies are all built up out of a common mould, we all spring from similar ancestors, we all have similar memories through them, it is in the feel of the earth that we get the feel of humanity.4

7Allen’s thoughts on this subject are confused. This adds to the impression that Myers hasn’t worked out satisfactorily the belief, more clearly defined in his later novels, that the transcendental and the concrete should meet and that men should come together in a living relationship through their connection with the universe. It also draws attention to the fact that spiritual values are more talked about than reflected in the behaviour of the characters. Lilian’s attitude towards John Mayne may be due to her determination to remain herself, but it also lacks generosity. Again, this shows that the Orissers are chiefly concerned with themselves and that their spirituality is devoid of compassion. Moreover, it is never tested in the world, and it is not at all certain that the Orissers would come out well if it were. These failings make their claim to moral superiority unconvincing. After all, they are not much bothered by the fact that Eamor is preserved for them thanks to the material values they so much despise and in spite of the fact that Lilian doesn’t keep her side of the bargain with John Mayne. The discrepancy between their principles and their behaviour partly accounts for Myers’s failure to put the case for civilization convincingly.

8Myers is more subtle in his analysis of the values and ways of life which make for materialism and in the distinction he makes between John Mayne and his niece. John Mayne is the exact counterpart of Lilian: he knows exactly what he lives for and is as determined to get it as she is. His personality is nowhere better revealed to Lilian than at the beginning of their marriage: he takes her to huge hotels, where they always occupy the “Royal suite” and where she is “shown off as a trophy – as a piece of bric-à-brac for her husband’s friends to admire leeringly, as though they actually held her between finger and thumb.” (p. 109) Lilian has “the revelation of an existence more barren than she had been able to imagine.” (p. 109) Life for John Mayne “dotes on variety, with plenty of movement, plenty of scope for the emotions, plenty of what is commonly called ‘action’ and ‘character.’” (p. 386) Through contact with the Orissers, he is made aware of “realms beyond his ken,” whose existence he had suspected without ever trying to discover what they were. The light in his eyes after the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, a light which “must often have appeared in them at the conclusion of a successful business deal,” (p. 108) shows that his attitude to Lilian is one of domination. He feels that by his generosity towards the Orissers, a proof in his eyes that he is also capable of a non-materialistic attitude, he has won a right to Lilian’s gratitude and affection. He is soon made aware that it is folly to count on “a reciprocation between material and spiritual values,” (p. 122) and his life becomes embittered. Success in the world has always been his main purpose; by entering into conflict with the Orissers, he is made to face an aspect of life which he is unable to master. His failure “corrupts his spirit” by making him lose the “spiritual obtuseness” which is “the saving grace” of the men of his kind and which Walter Standish so successfully retains. When Lilian resists him, John Mayne realizes that her values are not so negligible in “the real game of life” as he had imagined; his humiliation makes him hate himself, his life is poisoned, and he loses his self-satisfaction. Eventually, he gives her Eamor and implicitly recognizes the superiority of her standards. He is vanquished in the spiritual conflict which she has forced upon him, and he dies without recovering his equanimity.

9At one stage in the contest between the Maynes and the Orissers, Lilian’s husband feels that although he has been contaminated, he will yet be avenged by Walter and Madeline. He watches them go for a ride and sees in them “an expression of life’s willingness to dispense with spiritual significance … a brutal exposition of the self-sufficingness of the flesh.” (p. 119) When they come back from their ride and commit an unprecedented outrage by riding over the lawn, John Mayne understands that he has found a perfect successor in Madeline:

He felt sure that Madeline’s feminity and Walter’s obtuse-ness would serve them both well…. Superbly from their vantage-point, would they carry on the feud against the other kind, the enemy, and perhaps without ever clearly understanding what they were doing. Yes, there was the beauty of it! There was the triumph! Long might they preserve their innocence! To do that which you will, that which you are fashioned to do, in all innocence there was the secret of life! (p. 128)

10The innocence of Walter and Madeline is unawareness, the capacity to ignore, as Gokal says in The Near and the Far, the inability to discriminate between good and evil, which for Myers is more dangerous because more misleading than the deliberate choice of evil. Walter’s ignorance is partly due to his refusal to recognize the real nature of things or of people and to take responsibilities. He is “what passes in the world for an honourable man; but he [sees] to it that his honour [shall] not lie along too difficult a road.” (p. 224) Walter’s honour is dictated to him by his fear of public opinion. His policy in life consists in avoiding making mistakes which might endanger his position as John Mayne’s collaborator and Madeline’s future husband. According to Nicholas, his life is utterly futile, for its sole object is to conform to the requirements of social morality and institutions. His dishonesty towards himself can be fully appraised through the efforts he makes to remain ignorant of Madeline’s dealings and of her true nature. Both Walter and Madeline represent society as defined by Went-worth and Stephen in Strange Glory:

  • 5 Strange Glory, p. 378.

Society encourages the spirit of competitiveness and the cult of appearances – and it is these that make men cruel, trivial-minded and self-deceiving.5

11Madeline’s capacity for self-deception is greater than Walter’s, and it is chiefly in her attitude to life that Myers denounces the harmful influence of false idealism. She is Lilian’s most bitter enemy because she is humiliated by the latter’s rejection of her friendship. But she is not even aware that her offer is not sincere, that her kindness is a means of gaining ascendency over the person to whom she makes herself agreeable. She considers Lilian’s refusal to idealize as positively wicked and cynical. She herself keeps true to her motto, “One must idealize or one will cease to struggle,” (p. 161) and she finds a justification for all her emotions and actions however wicked. The romanticism and false idealism indulged in by Madeline are for Myers a real source of evil, all the more dangerous as they are not recognized for what they are and entail the degeneration of man by making him submit to a mechanistic code of behaviour that has no root in his inner being. Nicholas diagnoses the disease of modern society as it manifests itself in Walter and Madeline: “We are entering upon a new age of materialism … [which] is coming like an anti-Christ, in the semblance of its opposite. It offers a pseudo-idealism, which is typified in its male and female aspects by Walter and Madeline.” (p. 345) The latter sets up an ideal of self-sacrifice which she uses as emotional blackmail. She represents the “Great Mother,” “generative nature” increasingly powerful in modern society. As to Walter, his need to idealize is turned towards society, which he invests with “all the dignity and authority of religion.” (p. 349) Since he doesn’t even have the vitality of a John Mayne nor the self-awareness which makes the latter a more complex character, all his energies go towards developing a public figure. In Walter

intelligence is being progressively brought under the shackles of convention, custom and the social instinct. In the future millions and millions of Walters in happy collaboration with their Madelines, and animated by nothing but an over-powering instinct for self-perpetuation and comfort, will apply themselves, undisturbed, to the soulless task of ordered social living. Saturated through and through with the spirit of the Hive, the Walters will dignify their crass materialism with the title of Humanism, apt name for a religion as proper to despiritualized man as Apianism to bees and Porcinism to pigs. (p. 350)

12In all his novels Myers criticizes humanism and condemns it as a “pseudo-religion” which originates in a spurious idealism: it reveres society as an end in itself and refuses to acknowledge the transcendental. Humanism is altruistic but denies the spirit in which all men share, which is the true basis of their equality. It exalts the ideal of social duty at the expense of self-illumination. As we shall see, Myers believes that society can only be regenerated through individual integrity. He condemns the kind of humanism which deifies “Humanity” yet shows little concern for the moral and spiritual life of individuals. Humanists like Walter and Made-line believe in “progress,” by which they mean the improvement of material conditions. They only think of humanity in the abstract, not of individuals; they fail to see that individual behaviour can determine the character of society and don’t realize that their want of “fastidiousness” in matters of personal integrity cannot be compensated for by humanitarian works. It is characteristic that Walter’s main activity should be philanthropy; when he is married to Madeline, they vie with each other in supporting the humanitarian cause and in showing public spirit. In relation to this subject one may compare Myers’s condemnation of love as an end in itself and the relation he sees between idealism and materialism with Lawrence’s discussion of these topics in Fantasia of the Uncon-scious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. However, the word “Ideal” does not have the same meaning for the two writers: for Lawrence, the “Ideal” is that which is derived from the mind; for Myers, the “Ideal” is the transcendental, and it is only “false idealism” that he associates with materialism. “Idealism” in Lawrence and “false idealism” in Myers differ in that the former is a conscious attitude whereas the latter is unconscious. However, they are equally dangerous because they are cultivated by people who are always talking about spirituality and are convinced of the moral superiority of their attitude to life.

  • 6 L.H. MYERS, The Clio, Penguin Books, 1945, p. 137.

13As a novel, The Orissers is not quite satisfactory: its main fault lies in Myers’s inability to present the characters and their conduct in concrete terms. Everything is discussed or described instead of being conveyed directly; although we are made to perceive fully the characters’ mental activity, we have doubts about their actual comportment in ordinary life; they are seldom tested in the world, and when they are, they do not come out well. There is also a discrepancy between the importance of the issue fought by the characters and its concrete symbol, Eamor. The intrigues for its possession involve on both sides pettiness and doubtful transactions, which are not more admirable because the Orissers take full responsibility for what they do. Another shortcoming in the novel is the inadequate rendering of the relation between man and the universe. Allen discusses it in the abstract; we are still a long way off from The Near and the Far when, in the garden surrounding the palace of Agra, Jali feels the dreadfulness and the terror which the world holds for him. What the novel makes clear is the thoughts and motives which actuate human conduct, the confusion which underlies the morality based on public opinion and the self-deception which many are prepared to resort to in order to comply with it. Myers points to the void or the turpitude which can be detected behind the cult of appearances or in an existence exclusively focused upon the world. He contrasts them with the spiritual strength and graciousness which spring from a rich and self-exacting inner life. His denunciation of humanism implies that enthusiasm for reform and the welfare of humanity is too often the expression of motives which are at bottom selfish or the outcome of a personal sense of frustration. People like Mr. Wilkinson in The Clio “erect love into a principle” because “they don’t love by instinct.”6 As Lady Oswestry says, “perhaps working for the good of humanity has a parching effect.” (p. 137) On the other hand, a spirituality which has nothing to feed upon but intellectual speculation is also desiccating. Myers associates refinement and culture with moral fastidiousness; his aristocrats advocate a morality of the heart and are above conventional modes of behaviour. This can be a dangerous position, and it is difficult to say to what extent Myers is aware of its limitations in The Orissers.

14In The Clio “civilization” is not tested in a fight against evil but in its own capacity to offer the characters a way of life which gratifies their deeper needs. Civilization can be associated with mere worldliness or conduce to a higher form of being depending on the characters’ “triviality” or their “fastidiousness.” Civilization, one of them says, “is the best thing in the world” and the Clio is “the fine flower of civilization.” Lady Oswestry’s guests “[are] aware of themselves as a social group with certain standards to keep up,” and each “[feels] he has to hold his own in the group.” (p. 16) But on the whole, they are not too exacting with themselves and merely try to keep up appearances. Sir James has achieved a certain poise in life by ignoring its main conflicts and by avoiding responsibilities. Lady Oswestry’s chief concern is to find the right face cream. Olga wants a husband, and Mary is so engrossed in her love for Gerald that she is indifferent to everything that happens on the yacht. The emptiness of civilized life is revealed through the triviality of Angela and Francis. The former is cold and calculating, because early in life she saw that the main thing was to display the right manners and clothes as well as the right tastes and opinions. Francis’s life is a tissue of gossip and truly illustrates Harry’s saying: “It is not sin but triviality that hideth us from God.” (p. 151) The inadequacy of civilization as mere form is best illustrated in Stella, Harry and Hugo, who are dissatisfied with the futility of life however refined and civilized. Stella is a “sentimental revolutionary” who takes refuge in romanticism. At the end of the novel she stays with Harry in South America in order to help him in his revolutionary enterprise. The latter rejects civilized living and can only express contempt for those who submit to its standards. He finds an outlet for his restlessness in revolutionary politics and is successful with the natives because, as Sir James explains, he has the cunning, the practical imagination, the impatience and the passion for burlesque which so well serve the modern politician. Hugo has something in common with the early Huxleyan hero, particularly with Denis in Crome Yellow. He finds that “human beings and forests and sunsets [are] all part of a sad and insoluble mystery,” (p. 69) but he is strongly influenced by Sir James in his search for the right life, and he eventually finds his way.

15Civilized standards are put to the test in the jungle, where the Clio is held up for several weeks. The boredom of the passengers brings to light their purposelessness. Contact with primitive nature forces the more sensitive characters to reconsider their attitude to life. Mary realizes how trivial Gerald is and becomes aware that she doesn’t really love him. Hugo puts an end to his meaningless affair with Stella. Mary finds him sitting in the forest, terrified because he has been bitten by a serpent, and her genuine compassion gives him an intuition of another reality. They suddenly see each other with new eyes and are carried by their love upon another plane of being. Hugo thinks now that “what really [matters is] the emotional intensity with which one [lives].” (p. 138) His relationship with Mary foreshadows that of Mohan and Damayanti in The Pool of Vishnu; it is a relationship which requires an equal amount of “fastidiousness” and “candour” on both sides. Hugo feels the validity and the necessity of attitudes impelled by the “heart” and recognizes the fundamental dryness of Mr. Wilkinson, the humanist. He discovers l’homme de cœur beneath the worldly exterior of Sir James and realizes that the latter’s “materialism [is] impregnated with idealism, while the concealed foundations of Mr. Wilkinson’s idealism [are] … materialistic.” (p. 123) For that reason he thinks that “the honour of the human race [is] safer in that man’s [Sir James’s] hands, his selfishness, hardness and cynicism notwithstanding.” (p. 123) Sir James is devoid of humanitarian principles; he believes “in government by the rich for the preservation of our existing culture and civilization.” (p. 67) Yet one finds in him more warmth and sympathy than in Mr. Wilkinson, who worries about a sailor because he is ill and poor but has no compassion to spare for Sir James on his death-bed. The saving grace of Sir James is the dignity with which he keeps up his civilized standards to the last, “renouncing even the relief of an occasional groan” and never “[permitting] an expression of suffering to be seen upon his face.” (p. 120) Civilized living is still the best form of existence, above all when contrasted with the natives’ incompetence and repulsiveness.

16The Clio is a slight novel, and the characters have even less opportunity than in The Orissers to exemplify by their behaviour the attitudes they discuss. Yet there is a greater emphasis on the concrete; the impact of nature on men, particularly on Sir James, is more strongly felt, although some characters remain impervious to the heavy and pervasive effect of the jungle. Myers shows here that with trivial people civilization can degenerate into mere worldliness. But the self-awareness and dignity of Sir James, the real courage of Lady Oswestry and her refusal to take herself too seriously, and the genuineness of Mary and Hugo’s love also suggest that there is something to be said for civilized living even in its worldly form. Indeed, civilization also includes inherited qualities which the individual can develop if he wants to. This implies that civilized people can respond in a positive manner when put to the test, though in ordinary circumstances the positive character of civilization is limited. Still, when opposed to primitive-ness, civilization becomes attractive. According to Myers, it is still the best we have in modern life. That is why its forms should be regenerated by qualities of the heart.

  • 7 G.H. BANTOCK, “The Novels of L.H. Myers,” in The Novelist as Thinker, ed. by b. rajan, London, 194 (...)

17In The Clio civilization is almost a makeshift, although Myers also makes it clear that its value depends much on the individual’s willingness to live up to its standards. In Strange Glory, which was written after The Root and the Flower before the completion of The Near and the Far, Myers achieves a more satisfactory union between the external and the internal, and is more successful in presenting an attitude to life inspired by “the heart.” In the Thirties Myers adhered to communism, a doctrine of which he “knew nothing from first-hand experience and one which served him chiefly to provide him with an emotional stopgap.”7 His conversion to communism did not make him deny the merits of civilization as he understood it; the characters of Strange Glory do not reject it:

‘Let us give the devil his due, ‘Stephen says,’ competitive-ness, snobbishness, vanity and pride have done more for civilization than all the virtues put altogether. It is they that have lifted men out of savagery. … But now I truly believe, unless there comes a spiritual change, we shall be carried over a precipice. (p. 139)

18Though living in Russia most of the time, Stephen cannot become a communist: “I know I am quite unpardonably influenced by the ugliness of life over there, by the absence of all graciousness and grace. I cannot stand the crudity of thought or the bad manners.” (p. 139) He only stays in Russia because he feels that communism will lead men towards regeneration. He and Wentworth agree that they should not allow themselves to be deceived by the fact that the new spirit appears to be materialistic, “should indeed believe itself to be materialistic. … The new civilization misunderstands itself and its own spirit, and yet the force that is carrying it along testifies for it.” (pp. 243-4) The Russian communists have achieved the long desired brotherhood of men; if the spiritual values that inspire it are not immediately apparent, it is because they are still fighting against the social order they have replaced, and because such drastic changes as took place in Russia often seem cruel. Wentworth thinks that “the ideal of self-illumination and the ideal of social duty are not incompatible.” (p. 137) Stephen is supposed to carry out through action what he, Wentworth, achieves through contemplation. However, Myers’s opinion that communism is not opposed to the spirit remains purely theoretical. As always, he treats the problem honestly and does not conceal the fact that communism is not wholly reconcilable with standards that he deems it essential to preserve. However, he is not convincing because communism as he presents it here is purely idealistic and takes no account of reality, and because his position is not worked out in the novel.

19Myers is more successful in presenting Wentworth’s philosophy. The latter has retired from the world because he is naturally inclined to contemplation, and he thinks that “at his age, what you think, and what you are, become more important than ‘good works.’” (p. 137) Paulina Charlesworth, a rich young woman dissatisfied with her futile way of life, meets him in his place of retirement and gradually comes under his influence. In spite of Wentworth’s advice, she marries a conventional young man but regrets it when she becomes aware that her husband is deeply attached to the old social order and to his own privileges. The fact that Myers criticizes Paulina’s husband for insisting that “they keep up their position” in London and Bridgnorth, their country seat, shows how he has developed since The Orissers. In his first novel Eamor is a symbol of spiritual values; in Strange Glory Bridgnorth is made a symbol of convention and empty sociability and used as a warning against attachment to tradition as such. “History, tradition, culture are all very well in their way; but they are not enough.” (p. 208) What Myers is now after is expressed by Wentworth: “I want the fulness of life. … Yes, to throw off the shams and trivialities that cramp and stifle life – that is what we need…. I want a vision of Man.” (p. 209) Wentworth is a mystic who looks upon the forest as an expression of the transcendental and believes that man must enter into a living relationship with other individuals and with the earth. He believes in a spiritual force which “holds us earth-creatures together to form an earth-spirit as compact and distinct and unique as the globe of the material earth.” (p. 159) Wentworth brings peace to Paulina and acts as her guide in her discovery of spiritual values, but only in her relationship with Stephen does she learn to be completely herself and to fully apprehend “the wonder of the living Now.” Although we are made aware of the enriching value of their relationship, it has none of the regenerative power that it would assume in a novel by Lawrence, for instance. Moreover, however admirable the relations between Paulina, Wentworth and Stephen, it is difficult to see what their equivalent would be if they lived in society, for these relations seem to depend on the peace and atmosphere of the forest. Only the personality of Wentworth, his self-fulfilment and serenity are fully convincing. They are more salutary to Paulina than any theory. Wentworth foreshadows the Guru, though he is not only a teacher but remains a searcher after the true life until his death. As his personality takes shape, one perceives his warmth and understanding and realizes that he is laying a new basis for life and for action, an attitude in which “the heart” plays as important a part as the mind. “The intellectual is only a little part of the spiritual man; there is no good or bad but feeling makes it so – not thinking but feeling.” (p. 221)

20The Root and the Flower (1935) is the best of Myers’s works. It consists of three short novels, The Near and the Far, Prince Jali and Rajah Amar. In spite of numerous arguments, this work comes closer to real life because each character is seen acting in accordance with what he believes. Also, the background is more substantial and the characters are not isolated, so that the relation between individual behaviour and the nature of society appears much more clearly. Myers’s theme is still the search for the good life, i.e., the search after truth. Truth, Jali hopes when the novel opens, will enable him to reconcile the “Near” with the “Far,” the concrete with the transcendental. The different ways of life examined by Myers are tested by Jali, who approaches them with a fresh and unprejudiced mind, sufficiently sensitive and pliable to be influenced. Our impression of him is less of a child than of a neophyte who is being initiated into the ways of the world, because learning from experience as he does requires a maturity of judgment beyond his age. He first comes into contact with the world at Agra, where he has been taken by his parents to attend festivities in honour of Emperor Akbar. Myers examines from an ethical point of view the impression made on him by the people he meets. The Emperor is expected to choose a successor between his sons Salim and Daniyal. Salim has revolted against his father and is in disgrace. Daniyal is the more in favour with his father as he becomes converted to the Din Ilahi, the new religion by which Akbar hopes to unify the empire and to unite Church and State under one sceptre. The cause which the rajahs choose to support, the reasons for which they do so, and the possible consequences of their commitment provide the basis for Myers’s analysis of the forces at work in society.

21The rajahs tend to support Daniyal because he is more “civilized” than Salim. Amar, Jali’s father, whose pride is rooted in “ideas of racial, cultural and intellectual superiority” regards Akbar as the descendant of “barbarians without tradition, culture or understanding.” Amar intends to retire from the world and to spend the rest of his life in contemplation. Before he retires, he wants to make sure that he is committing Sita, his wife, and Jali to the right cause. He knows it is useless to advise Sita to follow a course of which she cannot wholly approve because she can only follow her heart and is not even prepared “to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” Sita is a Christian, and to her the visible world is “a garment of God.” (p. 94) She finds in its beauty a proof of the meaning she ascribes to it, for in her eyes the visible world reflects the transcendental. For Amar, on the contrary, “the Path [guides] you away from the sensuous world altogether, away from yourself, away from the ardours of earth even at their keenest and purest.” (p. 94) Sita does not criticize his intention to retire from society, but she is pained at his refusal to hope that they will come together in another world: “It argued, if not a weakness in his love, a complete absence of faith in the determining power of love.” (p. 100) Indeed, Amar distrusts feelings and emotions and only believes in the reasoning power of the mind. His views are the exact opposite of his brother-in-law’s, Hari Khan, who lets his life “flow as unreasoning Nature wills,” (p. 120) gives in to his emotions and intuitions and knows but one command: “Live!” Sita, who suffers from the growing estrange-ment and tension which their different attitudes to life develop between herself and Amar, is attracted to Hari. At first, she resists her love for him, then, like Lilian Orisser and Paulina, she comes to feel that she must be truly herself and reject conventional morality. She and Hari dislike Daniyal instinctively and feel that he is a source of evil, whereas Amar cannot bring himself to believe that Daniyal is important enough to be really bad. Yet when he meets the prince, he has “an immediate impression of vulgarity … it was a defect of spirit, of the innermost spirit – something that betrayed itself primarily to the moral sense.” (p. 134) This only bears out his impression that Daniyal’s trivial-mindedness is such that he is a nonentity and therefore not dangerous. However, Amar condemns his half-sister Srilata because she is too lenient with Daniyal and overlooks moral standards. Srilata is also alive to spiritual values, but in her enthusiasm for culture and wit she is apt to disregard “triviality.” Myers condemns her tolerance and lack of moral taste because they contribute to the dissemination of evil. But he also shows that Amar, who is acutely conscious that he must discriminate morally, runs the danger of making the same mistake: engrossed in his pursuit of spiritual ends and paralysed by his belief that all is illusion, he is inclined to avoid commitment altogether.

22Amar hopes that when he retires from the world, his friend, the Brahmin Gokal, will help Sita and Jali to govern his small state until the latter’s majority. But Gokal makes it clear to him that he must not count on either of them to approve of Daniyal as an emperor. Gokal insists that Amar must follow his intuition in judging Daniyal and shows him in what way his refusal to oppose Daniyal can be harmful. He explains to Amar that his indifference to the prince is similar in practice to Mobarek’s approval of him or to the enthusiasm of the humanist Smith for him. Mobarek believes in the fundamental inequality of men and looks upon society as a “systematizing of natural inequalities.” As a Buddhist, Amar ought to condemn this outlook, but he is himself too attached to tradition and too conscious of the superiority of his class to disagree. What he objects to are the “worldly” criteria by which Mobarek judges human beings. The chief difference between them is that Mobarek is attached to tradition as such and hardly feels it necessary to account for his determination to keep the hierarchical order as it is, whereas Amar thinks that a hierarchical society must reflect a scale of spiritual worth. Mobarek naturally sees in the Din Ilahi a means of maintaining a rigid hierarchy; that is why he supports Daniyal, but also because he sees in the young man’s revolt against nature something that makes for civilization. Curiously, the humanist Smith, who is bitterly and indignantly opposed to Mobarek’s convictions, approves of Daniyal for the same reason. However, whereas Mobarek thinks that civilization can be achieved through a cult of the conventionalized and the artificial, Smith sees in the aesthetic experience an ideal which brings men together. He believes in “goodwill guided by reason.” (p. 429) Amar perceives that the agnosticism of Smith generates materialism because he cannot relate his life on earth to a higher purpose; reason is to him what “art” is to Daniyal, i.e., an ideal which makes him blind to “the immensities in which men live” and to the spiritual order of the universe. Amar is struck by Smith’s unfastidiousness and asserts that it is more important to show moral than aesthetic taste. Gokal points out to him the relation between humanism and homosexuality and explains them as “kindred manifestations of an arrested and distorted spiritual life”; it is not by chance that Plato is the chosen teacher of both humanists and homosexuals. Gokal is convinced that when Daniyal has secured power with the help of Mobarek, he will discard him in favour of Smith. In spite of his growing insight into Daniyal’s real character, Amar still cannot see anything positively evil in him because he is too detached to realize the power of evil. When he declares (in much the same spirit as Charles Orisser) that “there is no current of human sympathy flowing between myself and the rest of mankind,” (p. 505) he acknowledges his aloofness and his unsuitability to decide what is good for mankind. Moreover, since he believes that the achievement of spiritual ends must free man from the ties of ordinary living, he undervalues life. The yogi tells him that “those who do not live in contact with reality can do nothing – nothing to promote either evil or good.” (p. 511) Only when he sees Daniyal crush the head of a cat with his foot out of sheer cruelty, does Amar realize the power of evil in the prince. Then he commits himself to action, but he is struck by one of Daniyal’s bodyguards before he can draw his sword.

23The point which Gokal tries to make clear to Amar is that it is more wicked to ignore good and evil, which is what the trivial-minded do, than to do evil purposely, which at least implies a recognition and defiance of God. To Gokal evil is the highest degree of wickedness; it is an offense against God and the Spirit of the universe. It manifests itself in acts of pure cruelty against creatures of God, chiefly through the infliction of mental sufferings and the pleasure derived from it. Gokal first became aware of evil when he was poisoned by Gunevati; it made him see that evil is inherent in human nature and in life itself. His affair with Gunevati made him realize that, while absorbed in his spiritual and intellectual pursuits, he had ignored the beauty of the phenomenal world and had been unaware of innocence and naturalness, but it also made him perceive the weakness of human nature. Though scandalous in the eyes of his friends, his passion for Gunevati humanizes him. Even after she has left him, he does not withdraw into a life of exclusive spiritual and intellectual speculation but remains aware of the phenomenal world, whose significance he now sees as “a feature of the Absolute.” In this he is influenced by Sita, who also makes him perceive the value of loving-kindness, not as an incentive to social duty, which would make it a humanistic, and therefore materialistic, and sentimental attitude, but as a power which gives form and significance to life. Gokal comes to recognize the creative power of “the heart.”

24Until he comes into contact with the Guru, Jali’s initiation into life consists mainly in a discovery of the many aspects of evil, which strengthens his conviction that the world is a place of suffering and horror. This conviction is related to his acute consciousness of the loneliness and separateness of each human being. Jali shares his uncle Hari’s awareness of evil and his fear of the universe and of life. The latter tells Jali that “not to be afraid of this world, you must belong to it. … Pretend to yourself that you are like others. … Everyone is doing it.” (p. 17) He also looks for certainty and truth, but he tries to ignore his own self by living intensely and dangerously. “Your true self is isolated – behind a barrier of pretences,” the Guru tells him, “You want to live as a type, but you are not one of those who can.” (p. 652) Hari remains in conflict with himself until he is killed by his enemies. Even Sita has only brought him temporary peace. Jali, who is young and more open to what life can teach him, keeps trying to answer the question with which he had met his uncle’s advice: “If everyone is pretending to be like others, who is like himself?” (p. 17) He first comes into contact with the world through Gunevati, whose assurance and serenity derive from her instinctive knowledge of what lies at the heart of things. She lives mainly physically, and to her, religion and sex are one. Tali is struck by the fact that religion permeates her whole existence while leaving her impervious to morality. She simply combines a mindless animalism with an awareness of the mystery of the universe. She takes social differences for granted, but all men are males to her, and it is by teaching Tali that the sexual impulse is common to all men that she offers him a means of overcoming his loneliness. For a short time he loses his sense of separateness by living as a young rake, soon to realize, however, that sexuality does not dispel his essential loneliness. He still yields to Gunevati, but his spirit shrinks form her, particularly when he understands that there is something evil in her mindlessness: it is the kind of evil which manifests itself among the masses, who mostly belong to religious sects addicted to orgies and human sacrifices. These sects are severely condemned by Akbar, and its members, when caught, are thrown to the elephants. Tali comes to look upon Gunevati as “an incarnation of a dark and dreadful power.” (p. 256) Her perversity and triviality stand in his eyes for the animalism and corruption of the world. It is also her presence in Daniyal’s Camp which crystallizes his vague impression that there is something wrong with the Pleasance of the Arts.

25Jali is introduced into the Camp by his cousin Ali. His first reaction is one of unreserved admiration, though he can’t help being surprised at Ali’s new sophistication and interest in the arts. He finds that the artificiality cultivated at the Camp is a means of freeing oneself from the tyranny of Nature, but he is also forced to acknowledge that the Camp is the last place in the world where one can be truly oneself:

The Camp taught that thinking for oneself consisted in nothing more than in reversing established opinions, that the newest thing was necessarily superior to the one that came before, and that the ultimate test of the worth of an idea was its capacity to startle the Philistine and annoy him. .. . The Camp had its own inverted orthodoxy, and was as bigoted as any of the old schools; opinions changed often, but always unanimously; they changed as fashions change, on the stroke of the bell. (p. 306)

26The elegant and sophisticated frivolity of the Pleasance of the Arts becomes despicable in Jali’s eyes when he understands that “the pleasure which the Camp took in regarding itself as scandalous was actually the chief source of its inspiration.” (p. 340) When Gunevati explains that most people at the Camp are homosexuals, Jali looks upon them as monsters and feels only hatred and contempt for the corruption which Daniyal and his followers spread in the world.

27There is little doubt that the Pleasance of the Arts is a satire on the artistic and intellectual coteries of the Twenties. Myers, who had been introduced to them, found the snobbery and self-regard of Chelsea and Bloomsbury intellectuals repellent. Above all, he criticized their preference for artistic, rather than moral, discrimination. In The Near and the Far all the fastidious characters who come into contact with Daniyal’s coterie are repulsed by the unwholesomeness of this aestheticism. Amar shrinks from the spiritual vulgarity of Daniyal and asserts that “art becomes great in the measure that it makes itself the vehicle of spiritual truth.” (p. 443) Attending a dinner at Daniyal’s invitation Hari finds the experience nauseating: “that chatter, those finicking manners. … The sniggering delight they took in one another’s mean little immoralities.” (p. 149) Yet the prince’s vileness endows him with charm in Gunevati’s eyes; when she talks of him to Jali, “her stories [are] of meanness, trickeries, and deceits, all of a most contemptible pettiness.” (p. 346) Jali perceives the corrupting power of Daniyal when he realizes that Gunevati, who had been impervious to Gokal’s teaching, is so quick to conform to the spirit of the Camp. It shows that the masses become more readily corrupted than converted to goodness, though in Jali’s mind the comment is more damaging to Gunevati’s superiors than to herself. Jali’s insight into the nature of life at the Camp and its power to degrade makes him furious at the blindness of his father and the complicity of honourable men like Mobarek. His rage and hopelessness turn to despair and horror when he discovers that Gunevati has had her tongue cut out: the world is a place of evil, and those who serve it are punished according to its own standards. Jali knows that Gunevati deserves her punishment, but he feels compassion and is only aware of “the darkness of the whole long night of humanity’s suffering and evil-doing.” (p. 383)

28In spite of the historical setting of The Near and the Far the attitudes to life presented and discussed apply to contemporary society. Myers defines evil as a refusal to take an interest in any but trivial things; it is also a desire to inflict suffering on the “fastidious,” in other words, to debase life in those who are aware of its spiritual significance. “Trivial-mindedness in individuals or communities is practically the whole of what I mean by evil”; (p. 542) the trivial-minded are “incapable of an emotional response to the universe in its august or divine aspect.” (p. 541) Myers denounces trivial-mindedness in the lovers of art for art’s sake and the lovers of mankind “in and for itself.” Aesthetes and humanists are “haters of God,” and their broad-mindedness springs from their ignorance of good and evil; the former adopt a superior attitude towards morality, while the latter, who are supposedly animated by humanitarian principles, often draw their energy from “envy, jealousy and disguised self-interest.” As in The Orissers, Myers describes humanism as a materialistic philosophy which degrades life instead of exalting it. On the whole, his analysis of the attitudes he presents is more perceptive than in his former novels. This appears from the limitations of Amar’s spirituality: he is indeed the most fastidious character, and it is he who points out the shortcomings of Mobarek’s or of Smith’s position. But he is himself criticized for carrying the Buddhist belief that all is illusion to such extremes that it leads to unawareness of evil or even acquiescence in it. He is warned that a spiritual quest of a purely intellectual character can lead to sterility and error, while the intelligence of the heart can be a reliable means of discovering truth, particularly when it comes to judging men. The scope of Myers’s insight into human motives is also manifest in the discrimination he makes between apparently similar attitudes and in his arguing that very different attitudes ultimately lead to the same kind of corruption. The ambition of the righteous Ambissa, the dilettantism and worldliness of the refined but too tolerant Srilata, the frivolity of Ranee Jagashri, and the authoritarianism of Mobarek, are all spiritually akin to Daniyal’s “triviality.” In their ignorance of good and evil these “civilized” people are surprisingly like Gunevati, which shows that if the masses are unable to grasp the meaning of moral values, the élite do not hesitate to offend against them.

29An important object of Myers’s criticism is the declining sense of responsibility of the élite, obvious in their indifference to the moral values a ruling class is expected to uphold. Their sexual behaviour, clearly illustrative of the moral laxity of the post-war generation in England, brings them down to the level of the masses. But the association between religion and sex among the people in Akbar’s kingdom argues at least for an instinctive perception of the forces at work in the universe, whereas the distorted sexual tastes of Daniyal and his friends are sheer perversity. However, Myers distinguishes between intuition, which is of the heart, and the animalism and irrationality of the masses. Another distinction he makes is between personality and type. One develops a personality by being true to the spirit in oneself, which makes it possible to commune with the spirit in others and in the world. Characteristically, the people who, like Sita, commune with the phenomenal world never feel lonely, whereas Hari and Jali find it difficult to overcome their separateness. Alienation results from behaving according to type, i.e., from cultivating appearances. Social types are of course most numerous among Daniyal’s followers, but they are also to be found among people who revere traditions in them-selves, like Mobarek, or Bhoj and Lakshmi in The Pool of Vishnu. On the whole, the distinction between personality and type is the same as between “fastidious” and “trivial,” or spiritual refinement on the one hand and vulgarity and shallowness on the other. Whether one acts as a person or as a type determines the nature of human relationships and, ultimately, of society.

30The Root and the Flower explores the motives and principles which underlie human behaviour. Myers’s own “fastidiousness” in his search after truth entails a slowness in the development of the narrative which sometimes makes it tedious. But through his uncompromising exposure of insincerity, frivolity, corruption in social relationships, through his analysis of evil in a decaying social order, he is a moralist of the same stamp as Lawrence. He is not a novelist of the same stature. He doesn’t leave his characters much scope for development; they represent moral attitudes and illustrates his views but they have little life of their own. Moreover, the spirituality on which Myers so much insists is too ill-defined to serve as an antithesis to the immorality he denounces. A spirituality without God or some other absolute, which merely posits the transcendental, can hardly be shown operating at the social level. Myers must have felt its inadequacy in the face of the evil he describes and this perhaps accounts for the pervading pessimism of the novel. On the other hand, it blossoms into moral superiority when illustrated in individual advancement towards self-knowledge such as Amar’s or Gokal’s. Amar’s path finally leads him to the contemplative life but not before he acknowledges that withdrawal from the world cannot in any way palliate the evil in it. He is first compelled to recognize that action is necessary. Contemplation is a condition to right action and should issue in action. By finally reconciling speculation with action, Amar, though separated from those he loves, will appear to them as a spiritual guide. Through him the novel reaches its inescapable conclusion: “Man is under an obligation to act. … And somehow in his action he must reconcile the pursuit of his own small, definite, and rightful ends with the working out of an inscrutable purpose.” (p. 549)

31The Pool of Vishnu is a sequence to The Root and the Flower. In the earlier novel most of the fastidious characters were in conflict with themselves. In spite of their willingness to help each other their quest for truth was lonely. They were engaged in rejecting unsuitable or negative attitudes rather than in accepting positive ones. In The Pool of Vishnu human beings who are not distorted by a corrupt social environment attempt to lead a harmonious and rewarding community life. The novel centres on Tali. It opens with a reference to the civil war provoked by Salim’s revolt against Akbar. This brings about a dispersion of Amar’s family: Amar withdraws from the world, Sita and Gokal are left in an old castle while Hari takes Tali to Daulatpur, where he will be safe. Hari becomes reconciled with the Emperor, but he is stabbed by his enemies before he has had the opportunity to work out a satisfactory relationship with Sita.

32A new period of initiation starts for Jali at Daulatpur, where he stays with Bhoj and Lakshmi. After his confusing and nauseating experience in the Pleasance of the Arts he finds the palace of Bhoj a dream-like place with its refined and elegant life and its display of good manners. Living as an equal with so civilized people, he acquires at last self-possession and self-esteem. Yet he is uneasy when he compares his hosts’ standards with those of his parents and when he realizes that these standards run counter to the Guru’s teaching. Like all the rajahs, Bhoj is attached to tradition and despises the Emperor for his lack of manners. Formality guides him in all circumstances and checks all his feelings. Jali sees that although “there is nothing slack, nothing gross, nothing tasteless in Bhoj and Lakshmi, although they [have] courage, self-control, energy and pride,” (p. 693) there is some-thing fundamentally wrong in their attitude. This he discovers to be an absence of freedom for spontaneous movements of the mind and heart. “Everyone laboured under an unceasing self-conscious-ness, self-constraint, and strain. These people were the slaves of their own social standards, and their slavishness was so ingrained that not one of them recognized it for what it was.” (p. 693) Bhoj and Lakshmi stand for the cult of appearances, which Myers considers as a major social evil. It is a cult of “first-rateness”; people are afraid of appearing second-rate and they are afraid of each other. Bhoj and Lakshmi are motivated by self-esteem, for they feel they owe it to themselves to be first-rate in everything by strictly conforming to the traditional values of the community. But, as Damayanti remarks, “all those graces are worthless – become tainted – in the absence of a certain saving grace which they lack.” (p. 735) Jali is soon disappointed with their spiritual obtuseness and the fundamental hypocrisy of their attitude to life discernible in the so-called authority of the men, who, in reality, always defer to feminine standards and values. When Randhir dies “for the sake of a fine gesture,” simply because his mother and his wife believe in fine gestures, it seems to Jali that the god of conventional people is one that calls for human sacrifice. This may be intended as a criticism of the chivalrous spirit so murderous among the upper classes until the First World War. It is interesting to compare it with Lawrence’s much sharper criticism of the notion of duty. Nor can Myers’s frequent allusions to the predominance of women in society compare with Lawrence’s treatment of this subject.

33Bhoj’s idea of a hierarchical society is similar to Mobarek’s. “For all time there should be a few very wise and rich and cultured men at the top of society, and progressively less wisdom, and less wealth, and less culture as you go down the social scale.” (p. 731) Mobarek reasserts his theories to the Guru, whom he accuses of doing great harm by going against tradition. The guiding hand of God is most clearly discernible in the traditions, the institutions and the very structure of society; each man has his naturally appointed place in the social hierarchy, he is a mere unit in the machine of civilization, and it is for the leaders of men to keep a glorious goal in view. The Guru does not deny the inequality of men, but he believes that society should be built on what men have in common instead of what differentiates them:

Spirit, which must stream through the individual man, if he is to preserve a sane and living soul, must stream through society as well. Every civilization, every culture, that has ever existed has owed its life to this. When the stream tarries the body politic stiffens into a prison-house; forms and institutions become manacles, and the State turns into a monstrous slave-driver. Demoniac forces have taken control. With the leaders there is only a semblance of leadership. As a monster the State moves on to a ruinous destiny. The leaders will tell you that they are acting under divine inspiration, or that they are obeying inexorable laws; and always they will dangle before the multitude the vulgar emblems of an impossible glory. But there is death in their hearts. Your priests, too, will pretend to enclose the Spirit in Churches. But those churches will be empty. Spirit is waiting in the market-place – waiting to be re-awakened and re-awakening man. (p. 794)

34The Guru’s objection to Mobarek’s strict allegiance to the caste-system is that every man has a right to be treated as a person and not merely as “a member of a category or class,” (p. 791) for “where there is no faith in human nature the government must always depend ultimately upon the maintaining of ignorance and the telling of lies.” (p. 794) Lack of faith and lack of candour are at the root of much trouble and misunderstanding in personal relationships and in political affairs. Hari’s reluctance to confide in Sita, Damayanti’s belief that her father cannot possibly under-stand her or do without her, her secret dealings with the peasants, which denote a lack of trust in Mohan, all these attitudes are sources of conflict; just as the courtiers’ treatment of Akbar as an emperor and not as a person gives rise to political conflicts. The Guru believes “in the essential goodness of human nature” (p. 791); he also thinks that however much a person behaves according to type, “the person always survives – living a hidden subterranean life – which can be revived.” (p. 935) He appeals to Akbar as a person whom one can trust and obtains edicts favourable to the peasants; these edicts are a profession of faith and a token of Akbar’s belief in the Rights of Man.

35The relation between the personal and the public is stressed throughout the novel. “Every action is personal at its root.” (p. 753) whether it is the action of a simple citizen or of an emperor; by making one’s personal life satisfactory, one makes one’s public life satisfactory too. “The personal alone is universal,” (p. 900) the Guru says; it is so because “Spirit in its human manifestations resides in persons.” (p. 900) Unfortunately, most people ignore the spirit and behave according to type, and, as already suggested in The Root and the Flower, this is one of the main sources of evil in society: “When a man surrenders to the typical, he joins a small artificial body of men, entering in contact with them on a superficial level in order to lead a shallow life. He is afraid of entering into contact with humanity, which can only be reached upon a deep level – the level of the personal life.” (p. 900) Men are afraid of the personal because it contains demonic forces from which they run away instead of trying to control them. This, we know, has been Hari’s plight throughout his life; it also endangers for a time the relationship between Mohan and Damayanti. But true personal contact on equal terms and on a basis of trust allows men to enter into a living relationship because they partake of the same spirit: “Spiritual separation alone is what the soul has to fear” (pp. 941-2); corruption and decay result from man’s rejection or ignorance of his divine essence. “All communion is through the Centre. When the relation of man with man is not through the Centre, it corrupts and destroys itself.” (p. 942)

36The Guru persuades Jali that the evil which develops in society as a result of fear, ignorance of the self and the cult of appearances can be overcome. Like Nicholas in The Orissers, Jali cannot refrain from venting his hatred of the world, which appears to him coarse in spirit, heartless and trivial. “Yes! the world instinctively hates everything that has delicacy, fineness or magnanimity.” (p. 747) When he goes to Agra with the Guru, he finds that “there is something in the air that turns people into play-actors,” (p. 758) that he is in a world “ruled by a kind of arbitrary insanity … a vast and complex piece of machinery in which human beings [have] ceased to be human beings.” (p. 756) But under the influence of the Guru he becomes convinced that it is society which corrupts men and that he need not be afraid of them as if evil were inherent in their nature. The typical is not more powerful than the personal, and it changes as men’s fashions and conventions change. Observing Mohan and Damayanti’s experiment he realizes that men are capable of solidarity. Mohan and Damayanti had to come to terms with each other before they could come to terms with the peasants among whom they live. Before she accepted Mohan, Damayanti had to learn to act according to her heart and to reject the ideal of self-sacrifice which had encouraged her father to resort to emotional blackmail in order to keep her with him. She and Mohan had to learn to trust each other, to treat each other as equals and above all to approach each other without the least reservation of feeling or thought. The same is true of their relations with the peasants. But at the social level everything is more complex. Mohan has given up the throne because “he likes to be on terms of true equality and friendship with other men.” (p. 700) When he receives his allowance from Bhoj, he calls a meeting of the peasants, who decide together how the money shall be spent. They leave a generous amount of it to Mohan and divide the rest among themselves according to their needs. Mohan gives another example of his generosity by bringing to Daulatpur a tribe of Gujars who once saved his life. His attitude provokes the wrath of Bhoj, who thinks that Mohan’s methods are dangerous and wicked. The peasants outside Mohan’s district are jealous and create difficulties for their own rajahs, who protest to Bhoj against Mohan. Bhoj’s chancellor stirs up the baniya class, the rich townsmen and shopkeepers, against the peasants, or the peasants against a settlement of outcasts or against the Gujars. Villages are burnt and people killed; the rumour is spread that the Guru and his teachings are responsible for all the trouble and that he should be expelled.

  • 8 D.W. HARDING, “A Statement of Positives,” Scrutiny, IX, 2 (September 1940), 164.

37The relations between Mohan and the peasants are based on friendliness. Mohan believes that friendship and religion are one, and his communism is founded on the assumption that men partake of the spirit. However, although Mohan believes in equality, he is not prepared to accept all consequences. When a peasant suggests that his allowance should be reduced, he is hurt in his pride and withdraws, leaving the peasants to discuss the matter. The latter are ashamed of their suggestion, and it is clear that Myers thinks they should be. With the honesty that characterizes him Myers tackles the subject of money and shows that the actual sharing of it gives rise to difficulties which mere theories on equality are apt to leave out. It is possible, as D.W. Harding suggests, that “Myers is not committed to the belief that the sharing of money is in itself a virtue or the solution of social problems, and his novel is not a tract for economic communism.”8 Nevertheless, there is a discrepancy between Mohan’s principles and his actions. The Guru is quick to point out that Mohan’s withdrawal from the meeting was an assertion of pride, though he calls the peasants offenders. When he says that “in his relations with the peasants [Mohan] still finds it difficult to prevent his habits of mind from frustrating his intentions,” (p. 894) he implicitly avows that a person of culture and refinement cannot in practice give up his social superiority. For all Myers’s assertions that all men are equal in so far as they partake of the spirit, his novels testify to his recognition of a natural hierarchy. In The Root and the Flower the masses are only represented by the mindlessness and animalism of Gunevati, and anyone who approaches them finds them nauseating and repulsive. Even Amar finds a poor excuse for his contempt: “Iama Buddhist certainly; but why should I offend my sense of cleanliness?” (p. 502) In The Pool of Vishnu it is significant that not one among the peasants is spiritually emancipated and able to discuss with Mohan as an equal. The latter’s communism is no doubt an expression of his generosity, but it remains tainted with charity. What is even more significant is that Damayanti herself thinks that their experiment will fail; when she says this, she is not only thinking of their enemies in the leading class but also of the inefficiency of the peasants. Actually, their community can never be truly equalitarian, not because of the unequal distribution of money but because the peasants do not share their ideals. They may believe in the equality of men but they do not understand the Guru’s theories. All this shows that for Myers communism was less a reality than an ideal still untainted by human wickedness; in his eyes Mohan’s experiment was a Utopia or a dream which answered his need to believe in men as the Guru does:

If someone tells me that men in the mass are selfish, lazy and stupid, I am ready to grant him that. But I will add that they have all the opposite qualities as well. No one who knows the lives of simple men can fail to be astonished and to marvel. With what incredible fortitude do men bear up against long-drawn hardships and miseries! With what astonishing heroism and self-sacrifice they confront every pain and every danger! … Men are by nature adventurous, generous and gentle. These are the natural graces of mankind. (p. 935)

38Myers’s admiration for the lives of simple men is theoretical, which partly accounts for the contradictions in the novel. He never shows the simple lives he says he admires, though he is never sentimental about the poor. Obviously, they were outside his own experience, and he could not deal with them imaginatively. This is the real flaw in the novel; the sincerity of the Guru is not to be doubted, but his message sounds false all the same.

39Jali’s stay with Bhoj and Lakshmi is the last phase in his experience of worldliness and triviality. When he leaves them to stay with Mohan and Damayanti and is brought into frequent contact with the Guru, he enters a period of positive learning at the end of which he is ready to face his own responsibilities as Rajah of Vidyapur. He has shed his illusions one by one and he is conscious of the difficulties which await him when he puts the teachings of the Guru into practice. Above all, Jali has lost his fear of the world; he has learned to master his sense of separateness by recognizing the spirit in other men and by communing with them through the divine essence of which they partake. This, he knows, is not an achievement; it is simply the ground on which he must learn “to think and feel and act,” a process which must be renewed in each new situation and arouse a fresh response to life instead of a conventional one. The Guru’s answer to his misgivings is similar to the knowledge attained by his father: “One must remember and one must act. The knowledge gained in communion and ripened in solitude must pour its life into the world through action.” (p.941) It is characteristic that Jali should keep a pessimistic vision of the world in spite of his acquired conviction that man is naturally good but corrupted by society. This seems to indicate that for all his willingness to find a way towards regeneration Myers could not dispel his view of society as an organization in which “an extraordinary crudity of feeling and vulgarity of aim were displayed.” (p. 908)

40The Pool of Vishnu is inferior to The Root and the Flower because it is too didactic. In the earlier novel Myers criticized philosophies and attitudes to life which he knew well and whose effects he had had the opportunity to observe; he could thus interpret them more easily in concrete terms. True, The Root and the Flower is full of philosophical disquisitions, and events are sometimes told instead of being rendered in their immediacy; still, the sense of discovery, though of a moral nature, is kept all through, because the complexity of the plot, the great number of characters and the suspense created by withholding parts of the story or the issue of conflicts, keep up the interest in the development of the plot and its moral implications. In The Pool of Vishnu, however, Jali discovers life mainly through other people’s experience: through the story of Mohan and Damayanti, or by observing the behaviour of Bhoj and Lakshmi. Otherwise, he listens to the Guru and acquiesces in his teaching. The latter’s ideas are exemplified in actions, but these tend to be mere illustrations instead of lifelike occurrences from which significance arises. The story lacks a compelling force which would make it develop according to its own inner necessity. The Guru comments on what happens and gives advice, and although his comments are Myers’s positive contribution to social criticism, they are not perfectly integrated. They testify to his awareness of the complexity of life and of human beings. Yet, paradoxically, Myers advocates free play for the “intelligence of the heart” and does so almost exclusively in intellectual terms. One feels the tenderness and understanding between Mohan and Damayanti, and the Guru is a gentle figure, but these impressions derive from what is said about the characters rather than from what they are. The Pool of Vishnu suggests that, like Nicholas Orisser, Myers is more interested in ideas than in people. His vision of community life somewhat simplifies the issues and is not free of inconsistencies. But this is irrelevant to the significance of his plea for spiritual regeneration and for personal relationships of a high-minded and utterly sincere nature.

  • 9 L.H. MYERS to Olaf STAPLEDON, October 19, 1934, quoted by G.H. BANTOCK in L.H. Myers, A Critical S (...)

41Myers’s novels are, to use his own words “a compromise between philosophy and fiction.”9 Unfortunately, the philosophy does not always harmonize with the fiction: his approach is too analytical, too slow, and often too didactic to allow for much vitality. A novel by Myers is a carefully elaborated whole, but, like his more fastidious characters, Myers sometimes gives the impression that there is no current of sympathy between himself and the rest of mankind. Nevertheless, he is an absorbing novelist, and his descriptions of rich natural scenery, the South American jungle, the Louisiana Swamp, India – though he never visited these places – blend with his rendering of the richness and variety of human nature to suggest the immense possibilities of life. Integrity, high-mindedness, and a capacity for discrimination are terms of excellence that come to mind with reference to Myers’s writing. The search for the good life he describes is not an easy one: it is a difficult journey towards self-conquest which demands an uncompromising attachment to truth and respect for the Spirit in man.

  • 10 Some of these letters are included in G.H. Bantock’s L.H. Myers, A Critical Study.
  • 11 See Morabek in The Root and the Flower: “To the religious-minded there is nothing more odious than (...)

42It is superfluous to insist on the relevance of Myers’s criticism to contemporary Western society. He did so himself in several letters,10 and it is sufficiently apparent from his novels even if their setting is remote in time or place. He dealt exclusively with the rich and the powerful because they were the people he knew, people who played a leading role in the life of society. He held them responsible for the corruption which he observed in upper-class life in the Twenties and which, gaining all classes of society, were leading to disintegration. Significantly, even in his early novels there is both a negative and a constructive side to his criticism. The negative shows in his contempt for trivial-mindedness, for traditions and institutions which are but the desiccated remains of a civilization built on the highest moral and spiritual values. The “civilized” have lost sight of the real meaning of their customs and ignore the duties which their privileged position involves. Unlike some of his contemporaries who ascribed the triviality of the post-war generation to disillusion, Myers saw in this triviality the hollowness and selfishness of men turned in upon themselves and often proud of their cynicism. He attributed their futility to a loss of insight into the hierarchy of values, which entailed a general tolerance more destructive of the moral standards of civilized life than the deliberate choice of evil. For Myers this attitude was the outcome of the combined influence of aestheticism and of a man-centered humanism. An exclusive preoccupation with art went with a delight in sensations or states of mind for their own sake regardless of their moral nature. The kind of humanism that made man the centre of the world betrayed unawareness of the mysterious forces at work in the universe. It made progress and material welfare the be-all of life but blunted man’s craving for a spiritual life and in the end produced a new sort of fanaticism: that of the staunch rationalist who dismisses all religious experience as superstition or prejudice. Myers’s insistence on spiritual values resembles Lawrence’s exaltation of the religious spirit. He recognized that most people in modern society believe in God, but he interpreted their tepid faith as a form of deism which ultimately is void of spirituality. He himself adhered to the Eastern view that any religion is better than no religion at all.11 The constructive aspect of his novels is based on the assumption that the universe is a manifestation of the Absolute. That is why Gokal in The Root and the Flower approves of the association by the people of religion with sex: they see the relation between human beings and the transcendental. But a hierarchical order should reflect a scale of spiritual worth. Aesthetes and humanists have generated nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy. Men must now recognize that they partake of the same universal Spirit. They must trust the “intelligence of the heart” and probe into their deeper intuitions. Only self-knowledge and complete sincerity will lead to a regenerated community life.

  • 12 The Pool ot Vishnu, p. 611.

43Myers’s development between the Wars was fairly typical: he was first a witness of social decay and merely felt the need for a regeneration of civilized values; then he committed himself to a political ideal. Myers was a very rich man who felt nothing but hatred for the conventions and insincerities of upper-class life. Like many writers of his generation, he was moved by a sense of guilt and by a deeply felt necessity to resist what he saw as the forces of evil. Just as he thought there was a hierarchy of values, so he believed there were many degrees of evil. In his early novels he defined evil as trivial-mindedness and denial of the Spirit, and as a refusal to assess the moral value of human behaviour. Then, he saw evil as a will to inflict suffering particularly on the “fastidious.” In The Root and the Flower he showed evil at its worst, as an act of pure cruelty against a creature of God. Amar’s change of attitude towards Daniyal and his subsequent change of heart present in a masterly way the conversion undergone by many “fastidious” persons in the Thirties. Some who, like Amar, had been solely concerned with their own spiritual progress and salvation in a frivolous and degenerate world were compelled to act by the sudden revelation of evil as a purely gratuitous will to destroy. From then on detachment was impossible; the pressure of events was such that it was either commitment or death, not only physical death but spiritual death as well, the collapse of the whole fabric of civilization. Characteristically, for Myers action did not mean social or political militancy. He was too distrustful of social or political institutions and of their power to destroy or dry up the most generous impulses to believe that they could contribute to the moral regeneration of society. Action was the concrete manifestation of spiritual progress in a community of enlightened men. It was, as Amar experiences for the first time when he becomes a pilgrim, “the power to mix with his fellow-men without pride, without pretence, without concealments and without shame.”12

  • 13 The God that Failed, Six Studies in Communism by Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, André Gide, Rich (...)
  • 14 Stephen SPENDER, Forward from Liberalism, London, 1937, p. 23. See also Christianity and the Socia (...)

44The writer’s dilemma in the Thirties is most dramatically illustrated in The Pool of Vishnu. Again, Lawrence comes to mind when we think of Mohan’s community of persons, though Lawrence would have loathed the self-conscious “stripping” of souls that Myers demanded of his characters. The communism he advocated was based on spiritual awareness and the Christian gospel of love; it demanded generosity and friendliness. An important point in the novel is that good can outweigh evil and that there is a dignity in human life which too many people in contemporary society are inclined to deny. For Myers, so strongly opposed to materialism, communism did not mean struggle for better living conditions but for the recognition of spiritual values. This is the way presented to Jali, the young man who feels so keenly the insanity and wickedness of the world and who complains that he has no standards to live by. Myers’s communism was of course unorthodox, and it is obvious from Mohan’s experiment that he was aware of the difficulties that must arise in attempting to reach his ideal. He was not alone in associating the generous impulse he discovered behind Russian communism with his religious view of the universe. The ex-communist writers who contributed to The God that Failed13 explain that they committed themselves because they were convinced of the generous and disinterested nature of Russian Communism. Stephen Spender writes that “the property-less nature of the classless society is a political fact at the very centre of communist life, shared by the whole people. This gives the communist faith a significance which so far has only derived from the ways of life laid down by religion.”14 The belief that Christian ethics and the communist doctrine could be reconciled was soon to cause disappointment among Left-wing intellectuals. It is interesting to compare their self-deluding enthusiasm for communism with Orwell’s non-conformist obstinacy in keeping to his personal judgment and in maintaining his intellectual independence in the Thirties. There is nevertheless a common element between the socialism of Orwell and the communism of Myers: both are inspired by the ideal of human brotherhood and animated by a Christian spirit. Moreover, for all his enthusiasm as a convert, Myers may have felt the incompatibility between his faith and the complete, but impossible, surrender it demanded. Mohan’s behaviour is full of unresolved tension. He is clear-sighted enough to realize that though a classless society is the ideal, it is clearly Utopian. He rejects his own class, yet he cannot adhere to another. Mohan is truly a hero of our time: striving to belong with the whole of mankind but hopelessly alienated.


1 L.H. MYERS, The Near and the Far, containing The Root and the Flower and The Pool of Vishnu, London, 1946, p. 91.

2 The Near and the Far, preface to the 1940 edition, p. 5.

3 L.H. MYERS, The Orissers, London, 1923, p. 274.

4 L.H. MYERS, Strange Glory, New York, 1936, p. 145.

5 Strange Glory, p. 378.

6 L.H. MYERS, The Clio, Penguin Books, 1945, p. 137.

7 G.H. BANTOCK, “The Novels of L.H. Myers,” in The Novelist as Thinker, ed. by b. rajan, London, 1947, p. 59.

8 D.W. HARDING, “A Statement of Positives,” Scrutiny, IX, 2 (September 1940), 164.

9 L.H. MYERS to Olaf STAPLEDON, October 19, 1934, quoted by G.H. BANTOCK in L.H. Myers, A Critical Study, London, 1956, p. 133.

10 Some of these letters are included in G.H. Bantock’s L.H. Myers, A Critical Study.

11 See Morabek in The Root and the Flower: “To the religious-minded there is nothing more odious than irreligion.” (p. 434)

12 The Pool ot Vishnu, p. 611.

13 The God that Failed, Six Studies in Communism by Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, André Gide, Richard Wright, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender, ed. by Richard Crossman, London, 1949.

14 Stephen SPENDER, Forward from Liberalism, London, 1937, p. 23. See also Christianity and the Social Revolution, ed. by J. Lewis, K. Polanyi and D. Kitchin, a book of essays published by the Left Book Club in 1935. The contributors describe the communist experiments made by Christians since the early days of Christianity. They draw a parallel between communism and Christianity and finally demonstrate that twentieth-century communism is heir to the Christian tradition.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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