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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

Rex Warner

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  • 1 Rex Warner, Men of Stones, London, 1949, p. 91.

There are many signs, good and bad, beautiful and
monstrous. What more do you want?1

1Rex Warner’s political allegories were written in a decade of confusion, war and revolution. Yet they do not convey the tension, the sense of urgency, nor the feeling of anxiety which prevailed when these events occurred; like most novels of ideas, they tend to be abstract and didactic. They are all based on the crucial conflict between totalitarianism and liberalism in the modern world and denounce the amorality which results from the politicization of life. Warner condemns the destruction of natural life by the imposition on it of an artificial order, but he also raises the question of responsibility and shows that the defenders of tradition, who are the victims of the new order, actually help towards the establishment of dictatorship through their moral and spiritual confusion and their inefficiency. The weakness, the ignorance, or the unconcern of those who are accountable for the welfare of the nation serve the cause of tyranny. Liberalism has become too weak to resist new and destructive forces, though it leaves room for improvement and though its values could be made significant again and help men to regeneration. According to Warner, public and private life reflect the eternal conflict between good and evil, but the ultimate predominance of good depends on individuals alone.

  • 2 In the literature of the Thirties the frontier is a frequent symbol of the dividing line between t (...)

2In The Wild Goose Chase (1937) the author describes the inhuman and unnatural conditions of life in a town oppressed by a dictatorial government. The town lies beyond a frontier2 which from time to time young men attempt to reach and to cross in pursuit of an ill-defined ideal. Three brothers set out on this mysterious quest: one is a lover of adventure, the second is an intellectual, and the third, George, is simply a man of common sense and a lover of nature. They are in search of the Wild Goose, apparently a symbol of spiritual and political freedom or of justice and brotherhood. Before he reaches the frontier, George encounters Don Antonio, who, by cultivating pure thought and refinement in pleasure and in vice, has reached an unbelievable state of degeneracy. Don Antonio commits suicide when George makes him realize the emptiness of his life. His brother, a religious convert, has allowed his wife to undergo the worst humiliations rather than use violence, and George understands that his passivity is as destructive as Don Antonio’s self-sufficiency. On the other side of the frontier, George meets Don Antonio’s third brother, Joe, who has spent his life working for the Revolution. Joe is now too old for revolutionary action, and he hopes that a new leader will help the peasants overthrow the tyranny which the town exerts over the country around it. Until he has seen the town, George refuses to stay among the peasants. He is indignant at their inefficiency, their lack of solidarity, their credulity and the submissiveness with which they hand in the product of their labour to the town authorities in exchange for blue beads and cigarettes. For years and years they have been living in dilapidated houses; they have never ceased their revolutionary activities, but they have lost all hope of ever being strong enough to attack the town.

3Warner exposes the fallacy of the fascist ideal by showing how love of order and purposefulness can lead to the destruction of life itself. However, his novel is a rather indiscriminate satire of dictatorial practices and methods and of capitalistic institutions, which to some extent accounts for its vagueness. George comes to know the customs of the town through a series of extravagant but tragic experiences, as when he is asked to referee a football match whose score has been decreed in advance by the government. The losers are all shot by the police, and George is condemned to the Research Department, which he narrowly escapes by appealing to the King. The Research Department foreshadows the infamous medical sections of German concentration camps: scientific experiments are practised on human beings, and the most horrible atrocities take place there. The scientists are obsessed with science for its own sake without being able to account for its purpose. The convent itself is a centre in which intellectuals and artists, who have all undergone an operation and become hermaphrodites, spend their time in useless intellectual pursuit and in the cultivation of their distorted sexual tastes. These people refuse to take any responsibility for what they do and are quite unaware of the nature of their government. They are convinced that they are free to devote themselves to the disinterested work of the spirit, but their achievement is useless; nothing fruitful is taught in the convent, and the students are incapable of personal thought or judgment. The scholars are simply encouraged to indulge in idle speculation or to take an interest in frivolous subjects. Those who thus spend their time in futile intellectual pursuits are shown to renounce their personal integrity out of selfishness or indifference. Warner also satirizes over-specialization and the ignorance shown by scientists about things outside their own field. The lack of coordination between different research departments explains why there is no real progress in the town.

  • 3 John McCormick, op. cit., p. 63.

4Similarly, George detects weaknesses in the political organization of the town and notices the absence of cooperation between the leaders and between important institutions. Like Orwell in 1984, Warner suggests that dictatorship and tyranny are not necessarily efficient, though the deficiencies of the dictatorial system he describes are not always credible. When George, who has reorganized the revolutionary forces of the peasants, attacks the town, he is faced with mechanical giants who throw bombs and whom he soon neutralizes by destroying their mechanism. Men in the flesh, who are alive and use their intelligence, are shown to be more powerful than automata and in the end cannot be annihilated by machines. It is significant that the peasants, who are inadequately armed, succeed in capturing the town, which for so long seemed all-powerful and impregnable. However, rather improbably, George succeeds in conquering the town because the authorities have neglected to train pilots for their aeroplanes and to manufacture enough ammunition. His own adventures are also somewhat unlikely; his success in eluding his enemies or in mastering them makes him almost a chivalrous hero of legend rather than a revolutionary leader facing the realities of modern warfare. As John McCormick rightly remarks,3 his pursuit of the king through a fantastic landscape of caverns, sliding walls and secret passages transforms the last part of the novel into a Gothic romance. This impression is heightened by George’s love affair with Marqueta in a secret underground apartment. Love is sometimes an incentive, sometimes an obstacle, to revolutionary action, while sexual relationships are presented as a factor of regeneration and as a sign of man’s attachment to life.

5The society imagined by Warner is more human than the utopia later created by Orwell in so far as he never supposes men could be infallible in their exercise of power. The government is able to hold sway over large numbers of people with machines and propaganda, but the despair and resignation of the peasants and the workers are due to their confusion, to their lack of cooperation and of initiative as much as to the hopelessness of their situation. Once they have a capable leader, they never doubt that they will eventually overthrow the government. When he comes to the skyless town for the first time, George is horrified at its inhuman character. But he also realizes that the enormous power of the government rests on prestige and the submission of most people, who are taken in by the show of authority, rather than on the devotion of the masses or a really strong military force. That is why he trusts an organized mass movement to shake off tyranny. Warner satirizes all those who hope to make a revolution without the support of the masses, military adventurers or people who are more concerned with an ideal than with the welfare of the majority. Leaders who, like Pushkov, are urged to revolt by personal grievances, can never lead their people to victory. Before George helped the peasants, most of their leaders were men who had held posts in the town and had been dismissed:

  • 4 Rex Warner, The Wild Goose Chase, London, 1945, p. 274.

And what surprised me about these men was that instead of speaking plainly about their own grievances, they spoke to us of the abstract ideas of justice and of government, of parliamentary systems and general enfranchisement – words which conveyed very little meaning to us. These leaders, many of whom died bravely, though some of them were traitors, were out of touch with the life of us peasants, and their leadership was thus weaker than it should have been. Some, indeed, were for raising a statue to the Goddess Reason, and others exalted the life of the savage. And these silly sideshows occupied much of their attention which ought to have been given to our bread and butter.4

6The motive which should inspire revolutionaries is love, not love of the masses, not love of men and women, but simply love of life, “love of living, of delicacy and strength. It is the lively, it is the rich body and the candid mind, which are the lovable things. We love the country not because it is oppressed, but because it is alive. We hate the Government, not because it is wicked but because it is dead.” (p. 298) When at last they are victorious, George makes it clear that the Revolution was only a means to an end. “When the king is dead, there will be no Government. We want to live, not to govern.” (p. 404) The people assembled in the Anserium see the building dissipate in the air and a multitude of enormous white geese flying in the blue sky.

7Rather too many things happen in this novel and the narrative lacks unity: the events of the chase, the temptations George rejects, and the obstacles he overcomes do not form a homogeneous whole, while some of them are irrelevant to the main theme. Warner attempts to render the complexity of life and stresses the difficulty of choosing the right course of action. He also tries to express the bewilderment of man subjected to physical and moral torture by a mysterious power. He shows life being cut off from its natural sources: his characters are either reduced to irresponsible and undiscriminating brain-workers or to mechanical units who live in an appalling city of steel and concrete. But Warner does not make real the nightmarish character of life in a dictatorial state; his writing is not compelling enough to move the reader one way or another. Moreover, the allegory is somewhat enigmatic. The narrator comments: “To this day it is impossible for anyone to be quite sure of what [the three brothers] were about when they left us.” (p. 28) Tyranny must be overthrown, and this can only be done with the support of the masses. But what does George mean when he says after the Revolution: “I am uniquely interested in chasing the wild goose”? (p. 405) Is his sole purpose the constant pursuit of liberty and justice? After his victory over the authorities of the town he advocates anarchism and refuses to replace one form of organized society by another. He has overthrown a tyrannical and artificial order of things; he now glorifies the free manifestation of life and denounces all that may restrain it:

What our old leaders most respected we chiefly despise – the frantic assertion of an ego, do nothings, the over-cleanly, deliberate love-making, literary critics, moral philosophers, ball-room dancing, pictures of sunsets, money, the police; and to what they used to despise we attach great value – to comradeship, and to profane love, to hard work, honesty, the sight of the sun, reverence for those who have helped us, animals, flesh and blood. (p. 440)

8The people of the town have overthrown their oppressors and will eventually succeed in restoring the natural order of things. For George, however, this is merely a stage in the quest of his ideal. Though we never know exactly what this ideal is, liberty, equality and justice are no doubt part of it. Yet the man who strives after them is on a wild goose chase. The ideal George tries to achieve is repeatedly threatened with the same kind of dangers; it demands a constant struggle and can never be secured permanently. Warner may also have wished to suggest that liberty and justice, desirable as they are, cannot be man’s final aim but must lead to a higher purpose. George is after a kind of perfection unknown to man, some sort of superhuman knowledge or goodness impossible to attain. What matters is not the ideal itself, which man never reaches, but that he should have an ideal and keep striving after it.

  • 5 Herbert Howarth, “Pieces of History,” Critique, II, 1 (Spring-Summer 1958), 55.

9In an article published in Critique Herbert Howarth interprets The Wild Goose Chase as a quest for a vision of God. According to Howarth, the birds are “at once the Holy Grail and the heavenly father.”5 There may be some ground for this interpretation in a poem which serves as an introduction to the novel:

Wild Goose, I made you a symbol of our Saviour, with your fierce indifference to bye-laws and quiet flying, your unearthly song, your neck, like thunder and lightning, and your mysterious barbaric love.
O missionaries and motor-cyclists!
Let us at daybreak honour the flying host, the yelping hounds of air who, with blood for essence, thrust like live shells through the speedways of heaven above low coasts, over bed of rotting reed.
By light-houses, through showers of ice, listen suddenly for onrush of wings, or from the storm the bell-like note of an outriding voice. (p. 14)

10It is not certain, however, that “our Saviour” stands for God. Nothing in the novel bears out or disproves Howarth’s suggestion, and man’s quest for a superhuman object may be profane as well as religious. It is doubtful that a Christian would call the love of God “barbaric” and that he would make the bird which symbolizes God so elusive. May not “our Saviour” be that natural life which, according to Warner, saves man and makes him one with the living universe? The “yelping hounds or air … with blood for essence” symbolize the force of life. Moreover, it must be remembered that it is George, who believes in nature as opposed to mechanization, who makes possible the overthrow of tyranny and the destruction of mechanized life. It is thanks to his wise leadership that the revolutionaries at last behold the flying geese. Still, George’s experience of the forms of life he rejects is too obviously contrived to exemplify the effects of dictatorship. In addition, the novel ends with a vision of hope, yet the narrator tells us at the beginning that George came back from the chase behaving like a maniac, particularly when the wild goose was mentioned. What relation is there between his lunacy and the chase? Does Warner mean that the man who pursues an impossible ideal is either destroyed – like George’s brothers who never come back from the chase – or that he cannot withstand the strain of his inevitable failure? If this is so, it is hard to believe in the success of the Revolution. Warner makes clear what he criticizes: the destruction of natural life, mechanized civilization, the exercise of power for its own sake, the irresponsibility of intellectuals, their indifference to important issues, the uselessness of much of their work and the easiness with which they allow themselves to be corrupted by the men in power. The meaning of the quest is less obvious, but is it not precisely that liberty and justice are never secured definitely and that the struggle must be carried on forever by successive generations?

11In his next novel Warner takes up again a familiar theme, namely the responsibility of everyone for tyranny as a result of the growing assertion of man’s worst instincts. The Professor (1938) is a novel of ideas: most characters are not even known by name: they have little life of their own, though they are sensitive to the moral pressures to which everyone was subject in the Thirties and which led to political action. The book describes the annexation of a small state in Central Europe by a powerful fascist neighbour; it is an almost faithful account of the Austrian Anschluss. The government of the country is made up of incompetent politicians who have no idea of the dangers run by the nation and are less concerned with its welfare than with their personal problems or with the prestige of the party they represent. They appeal to the professor to head a national coalition; the latter is well known for his integrity and his adherence to democratic ideals. The old liberal politicians hope that he will rally the people round him because he is committed to no political party, while the intriguers believe that he will be an easy prey, as indeed he turns out to be. As soon as he comes to power, he is caught in a net of intrigues; he refuses to adopt strict measures on the ground that he wants to act on a democratic basis. In spite of two attempts on his life, he remains blind to the real threat of the National Legion and does his best to maintain a stricly neutral attitude. Even when his son’s fiancée is raped and tortured by legionaries and commits suicide, he denies his son’s request to arm the workers. Shortly afterwards he is overthrown by the chief of police, a man whom he trusted but who was actually his main opponent. The latter surrenders the country to the enemy, who invade it in hords of droning aeroplanes. The professor escapes with the help of Sergeant Jinkerman, a communist police officer, who had warned him all the time against the police. However, he refuses to leave the country with Jinkerman and his son because he doesn’t want to escape without Clara, the woman he loves. When he comes to her place, he loses his last illusion; she is a spy and has betrayed him. He is arrested and tortured, but the chief of police offers to let him live provided he signs a declaration that he approves of the new government. He refuses and is shot “while attempting to escape.”

  • 6 Rex Warner, The Professor, London, 1946, p. 167.

12Instead of saving his country, as he thought himself fit to do, the professor leads it to catastrophe, mainly because he deals with problems in the abstract and is neither aware of political realities nor of human motives. He is guided by principles which he has never had the opportunity to test; he is bewildered when he is made to face the complexity of human nature and discovers in man an inclination to evil, which he had never suspected or had ignored. His innocence is the innocence of the man who has never suffered and never come into contact with suffering humanity. “If you had eyes,” Jinkerman tells him, “you might see who your real supporters are. It is a whole class whose existence and life you may theorize about but have never understood. You talk pedantically of the state as though it were a sum of individuals. You have no comprehension of the mass and force represented by these individuals in their collective groups.”6 The professor is indeed convinced that his countrymen are enlightened individuals, and he goes so far as to give the fascists arguments in favour of their nationalism. “The polis,” he tells his students, “was an enclosure, a safety zone, or outpost against what to the Greeks (and in a very real sense their view was correct) was actually the barbarism of others who were outside this on the whole liberal organization.” (p. 20) But there is no enclosed space in Europe, his son tells him. “The enemies of democracy are in control of our democracies, the enemies of the people rule, flatter and bribe the people; our barbarians are both inside and outside our imagined defences. And you, my father, with all your wisdom, sympathy and culture are, however little you may like the idea, helping to destroy us.” (p. 22) However, the professor is determined to show the same tolerance and equanimity towards all political parties. “He believed firmly in the maxim that complete understanding would imply complete forgiveness.” (p. 30) When he is in the wood with Clara, he overhears a conversation between his son and the latter’s fiancée; he does not understand their despair, his son’s assertion that it is impossible to love wholeheartedly when one is forced to desperate political action to preserve the dignity of life. “Our job is to destroy before we are destroyed ourselves,” the son says, “and we must hate so that there may be a world for love.” (pp. 87-88) Though intelligent and full of good will, the professor is as incompetent as the other members of the government, because he has always lived in a world of ideas and is unaware of evil. Moreover, his ideals are the product of a stable and secure civilization, but they are unattainable in a confused and troubled society in which the will to evil predominates; they cannot be understood by people who are either afraid or angry and find them irrelevant. The novel illustrates the collapse of liberalism and its failure to offer a definite and uncompromising solution in a period of crisis. Above all, it emphasizes the incapacity of well-meaning liberal statesmen, who, blinded by their traditions or their abstract notion of humanity, refuse to grasp the real significance of the symptoms of violence they witness. It seems that everyone in the country except the professor knows what they signify: even when Julius Vander, who used to be a humanist like himself and has become a leader of the National Legion, makes clear to him the real aims of fascism, the professor is unable to visualize the consequences of a fascist coup d’état. He disregards Jinkerman’s warning against his devotion to abstract justice and ruins the country for the sake of a principle which has lost all meaning in the face of ruthless violence.

13Julius Vander’s explanation of fascism throws light on the motives which impel men to use violence and to destroy life in a frantic fit of self-assertion; it suggests that evil coexists with good in human nature and sometimes gets the upper hand when man is hopeless and can foresee no alleviation of his misery. When the professor tells Julius that the fascists claim to form a party that will restore the old morality in its original purity, the latter impatiently points to the bare facts of fascism:

Perhaps it has escaped your notice … that their morality, ‘in its practical application,’ … consists in beating or other-wise torturing to death people whom they happen, for one reason or another, to dislike; in deliberately distorting the truth; in burning books and pictures; and – what is more important – in doing all this with a profound sense of spiritual exaltation. … Your philosophical apparatus is too rigid, your practical experience is too narrow for you to be able to grasp the exceedingly important fact that, although the man in the street pays lip service to your ethical ideals and even shows a hangdog respect for your classical scholarship, in his real being he hates, fears, despises, and detests the one and the other. (pp. 108-9)

14According to Julius, only self-preservation, lust for life, fear and hatred are real to most people, while the ethical ideals advocated by the professor constitute an artificial morality designed to keep people in their right places. The morality upheld by fascism is older and more vital; it appeals to emotions and dark forces which the artificial morality has hypocritically oppressed:

For we appeal not to the intellect or even to immediate self-interest, but to the dark, unsatisfied and raging impulses of the real man. It is we who are, in a psychological sense, the liberators. The only freedom that you offer is economic freedom, a barren and dusty slogan which no one who is not an intellectual even understands. (p. 119)

15His arguments are presented so convincingly that the whole passage almost sounds like an apology of fascism. In fact, it discloses an aspect of human nature which the supporters of liberalism or democracy, who naturally believe in man, are afraid to acknowledge. It is this aspect which Julius cynically extols when he defiantly formulates their ends: “For the leaders adventure, pride and power: for the slaves what they most want, and what you have denied them, absolute certainty, the demand for complete obedience, and the hope of booty.” (p. 121)

16The fiancée of the professor’s son commits suicide not only because she is humiliated at the treatment she has received, but because she finds that the son is right, that normal human relationships are impossible in a world torn by violence and hatred:

My dreams were all the time false and by dreaming them so constantly, I have made myself unfit for life. … The point is that in the midst of so much evil there can be no good. Even to dream of love in such a world is guilty. What is needed is a surgeon and, if not that, a destroyer. (pp. 155-6)

17As the son points out to his father, two worlds are at war, a party of hatred and a party of love, but the professor still believes in the native goodness of man and asserts that the idea of democracy, of justice and legality is more important than emotions. He witnesses the rapid and complete collapse of the country’s democratic defences, the destruction of its cultural inheritance, and he finds that he is himself thrown upon his own resources, confronted with a catastrophe whose full consequences he does not yet grasp. “The historical parallels failed to stir his mind: the actual process of life differed too remarkably from recorded history, and no imaginative insight could bridge the gulf between the living and the dead.” (p. 202) When he comes to the cobbler’s, Jinkerman’s father, the latter reproaches him with arrogating to himself a detachment of which only God is capable. “For you, in your detachment, endeavour to legislate for the abstract man. What a terrible insult to the real living tortured men and women! What a denial of God! What a mutilation of yourself!” (p. 225) Julius had told the professor that men only unite and feel like brothers when they are threatened from the outside. Now the cobbler tells him that love is what we feel for our fellow-men in misery and in terror. He also believes in the reality of evil, but to him it is a necessary condition to attain God. Evil and pain spring from the soul of man, and it is wrong to pretend detachment from them: “[Damnation] is the attempt to gloss over the truth that man’s life is infinitely wretched.” (p. 224) Life is a constant struggle between good and evil, and only by suffering does one feel part of the living world. The cobbler really loved his wife for the first time when he saw in her what is common to all men, “what [is] mortal, corruptible, full of pain and evil.” Now he exalts suffering and death, and shortly before he dies, he appeals to God to make men fully realize that their misery is inevitable and that life only breeds sin and death:

Teach us, Love, not to shrink back in horror from the full beastliness of man. His body made to rot and stink, his soul tortured by unrecognized fears, mistaken ambitions, envies, and delusive lusts, help us none the less, Love, to see him as the most abject thing in nature, and most abject, most truly pitiable, when most proud. Let the sufferers to-day exult in the communion of their sufferings, in the startling revelation of their instability. (p. 235)

18The novel is very pessimistic. The professor is made to experience the evil and pain which in their different ways Julius Vander, the son’s fiancée and the cobbler have described, the first by exalting them, the second in despair, and the third by making them incentives to the pity and love of God. The professor revolts against the exaltation of suffering as well as against the resigned acceptance of it. He is forced to acknowledge the reality of evil and eventually sees his son, Jinkerman and their organization “as the only possible defenders not only of his own safety but of the idea of humanity and of the text of Homer.” (p. 268) Though he has always regarded the Revolution with the utmost distaste, he becomes convinced that this is the only way for his country to recover its political independence. His own imprisonment and death symbolize the destruction of his liberal ideals. Love, which in Warner’s novels is an essential means of assuring the continuity of “natural life,” is violated by the rape of the son’s fiancée and by the betrayal of Clara. Man sins against it in his craving for power, when he derives a sense of elation from the manipulation of powerful machines which subdue great masses of men. When the fascists invade the country in an interminable and deafening procession of aeroplanes, the professor thinks of this mass of metal tyrannizing over flesh and blood. He reflects that they were made by men and are controlled by human hands, and he sees them “as though they were the fierce spots of some immense disease, studding the sky and infecting the earth with fever.” (p. 240)

19The anonymity of the characters, the little we know about them, the mass of powerless human beings crushed by a minority determined to impose its rule by force and cruelty, sharpen Warner’s vision of an impersonal, mechanical and pitiless world suddenly immersed in a long and oppressive night. The novel is an answer to the well-meaning and over-confident people who wonder how such disaster can ever come to pass; it is also a warning to the supporters of democracy who are so intent on serving an idea that they become blind to the irrational and unforseeable urges which sometimes arise in men and impel them to act without regard for other human beings. The most dangerous failing of humanistic idealists is their unawareness of the real nature of life, of its mixture of good and evil, as well as a sort of complacent conviction that because they strive after lofty ideals, no evil can occur through them. In fact, their ignorance of evil or their indifference to it so long as they are not made personally to feel its impact, and their estrangement from suffering men and women, make them partly responsible for the destruction of the very ideals they mean to uphold.

  • 7 My italics.
  • 8 My italics.

20The Professor describes the breakdown of liberalism and the dilemma of those liberal statesmen who, between the Wars, were caught between the pressures of Left-wing and Right-wing politics and reduced to powerlessness by their inability to realize that the circumstances called for an uncompromising attitude. In the name of liberty and tolerance they opposed a Left-wing Revolution and refused to take effective measures to check the rise of fascism. Like Orwell, Warner does not question the integrity of the liberal upper classes but shows them giving in to fascism, not because they are traitors, but because they are unaware of its real nature. Liberalism, Warner suggests, cannot cope with the political crises of the decade, because it deliberately ignores aspects of human nature which fascist and Nazi movements exalt. The professor is always talking of the idea7 of Democracy, the idea8 of Justice and Legality, but he is powerless to make them prevail in actual life. That is why the fascist, Julius Vander, sounds more convincing than the professor, because the former talks about men in the flesh and knows how to appeal to the worst in them. The cobbler tells the professor: “I believe that you and your philosophy are in the long run more dangerous and more devastating than either war or poverty.” (p. 213) This turns out to be true, if only because, by acting in accordance with his philosophy, the professor is partly responsible for war, poverty and tyranny. To his theoretical and so ineffectual humanism, Warner opposes a form of humanism based on a more realistic conception of man, on awareness of good and evil in human nature, and on the belief that each individual is part of the living world. He does not countenance the cobbler’s assertion that “suffering is our atmosphere, and death is what we were born for,” (p. 226) but he agrees that one must fear “the incapacity to feel compassion for the infinite suffering of the living … to lose the sense of one’s unity with the living, to lose the power of love, how terrible that is!” (pp. 225-6) The professor merges into the living world when he refuses to support a regime of evil and death. Evil triumphs, and he knows that he has no chance of being saved, but he is confident that, for all its imperfections, life is always worth living.

21Warner never makes one nation or one group of people responsible for fascism, and he refuses to assert with righteous indignation that “It can’t happen here”:

  • 9 Rex Warner, The Cult of Power, London, 1946, p. 142.

We have no right to disown our own shame in the up-bringing of the beast from whom we have so lately been delivered. There was no country in Europe without its fascist party, and this at a time before the label appeared likely to prove safe or profitable.9

22Two forces stimulate men to action: will-to-power and love. When the former is glorified, it is usually at the expense of the latter, which is then sinned against and forgotten. Between the Wars some countries seemed more directly guilty of crimes against humanity, but all the nations which became involved in the Second World War tended to justify violence and destruction. In The Aerodrome (1941) Warner shows that this state of mind could take root even in a country like Britain with its tradition of gentle-ness and respect for the individual. The novel is purposely set in peace-time England in order to emphasize the dangers of an attitude to life which exercised such powerful attraction on many people. Why were men so fascinated by a doctrine of action and force which made them willing to sacrifice all personal relationships to it and even to destroy life? Warner attempts to throw light on the mood which gave rise to fascism, again stressing the failure of traditional authorities to realize that men were threatened with destruction and to provide them with a reliable alternative.

  • 10 Rex Warner, The Aerodome, London, 1946, p. 196.

23A military aerodrome is established near a small village. The pilots are encouraged to behave irresponsibly when they are off duty, but they are required to be efficient and precise in their work. They are advised to be cynical in their dealings with the villagers and to disregard the traditional institutions of village life; religion must be considered as mere superstition; they are asked to break off with their parents “who have served in most cases as channels or conduits through which [they] have all in varying degrees been infected with the stupidity, the ugliness, and the servility of historical tradition.”10 Love is reduced to physical pleasure without tenderness or sense of responsibility towards the woman. Above all “No airman is to be the father of a child,” (p. 198) and “marriage” is, like “parenthood,” “ownership” and “locality,” a word used by “those who stick in the mud of the past to form the fresh deposit of the future.” (p. 195) Sexual intercourse is encouraged, but the airman should see to it that he is not the one who suffers from his relationship with a woman. The purpose of this liberation from traditional morality and of the strict discipline imposed on the airmen in their work, is to form “a new and more adequate race of men. … This discipline has one aim, the acquisition of power, and by power – freedom.” (pp. 206-7) The pilots completely disrupt the life of the village:

There had been a time … when the authority of squire and parson in the village had been absolute, and had been wisely and tenderly exercised. … Now the very presence of the Aerodrome on the hill, the very sound and sight of the machines crossing and recrossing our valley, seemed somehow to have dissipated the cohesion of our village and to have set up a standing threat to our regime. (p. 82)

24A flight-lieutenant, who has become the friend of the Rector’s son and has always behaved with the utmost irresponsibility and disrespect for the rules of life in the village, kills the Rector accidentally and remains quite indifferent to his deed. He is appointed by the Air Vice-Marshal to officiate in place of the dead Rector. The Air Vice-Marshal attends the funeral and announces in church that the village is requisitioned by the Air Force and that the villagers who are competent enough will be employed at the Aerodrome. The house and land of the Squire are also forfeited to the government, which hastens the Squire’s death. But although their lives are so much upset, and though most of them cannot adapt themselves to the kind of work the Aerodrome has to offer, the villagers do not protest, not even when the Air Vice-Marshal kills the Squire’s sister in church to prevent her from provoking a riot. The villagers are dissatisfied with the dictatorship exercised by the Air Vice-Marshal, but they have “no sense of direction, no confidence, no initiative.” (p. 219) The younger and more ambitious among them show a rather unhealthy admiration for the display of force and organization of the airmen. To the latter, “the action of the Air Vice-Marshal in shooting a woman was a source of considerable amusement.” (p. 26)

25The deterioration of public life in the village has its counterpart in the life of individuals. The village authorities, who have always stood as symbols of the traditions they upheld, have all had a confused and unhappy life. At first the disclosure of their inefficiency and helplessness contrasts unfavourably with the purpo-siveness of the airmen. On Roy’s twenty-first birthday the Rector tells him that he is not really his son, without saying who his real parents are. Coming home late that night, Roy overhears the Rector’s confession and gathers that the latter hasn’t told him the whole truth about his birth. He also hears that before his marriage the Rector killed his best friend by cutting the rope that was holding him when they were ascending a mountain together. The friend was in love with the Rector’s future wife. He didn’t die, however, – actually, he is the Air Vice-Marshal – though the Rector never knew this and spent the rest of his life torturing himself with useless reproach and deceiving everyone around him. When the Squire dies, Roy witnesses a scene of hatred between him and his sister; yet he had always thought they were united by a strong mutual affection. “They had been symbols to me of security and peace; but I had learnt that they could represent neither of these qualities. What I had thought to be solid, rounded, and entire, now seemed to melt into frightful shapes of mist, to dissolve into intricacies wherein I was lost as though I had never been.” (p. 135) Confused by what he has learned and disappointed by the irresolute attitude of the villagers, Roy decides to enlist in the Air Force. The rest of the novel is full of revelations, coincidences, coups de théâtre, which convince Roy that the people he used to admire and love are corrupt. He marries a girl who is supposed to be his sister. She deceives him with the flight-lieutenant, who soon abandons her. She becomes very ill when she hears that Roy is her brother, which in fact he isn’t; they hear later that he is really the son of the Air Vice-Marshal. Meanwhile, the flight-lieutenant starts taking his role as a clergyman seriously. He falls in love with Eustasia, who prefers Roy and has an affair with him. When she is pregnant, he realizes that his career is at an end. But she runs aways with the flight-lieutenant, who happens to be Roy’s half-brother, the son of the Squire’s sister and of the Air Vice-Marshal. They are killed in an accident provoked by the police acting on the orders of the Air Vice-Marshal, who in this way hopes to save Roy’s career. But the latter is now horrified at the inhumanity of the Air Vice-Marshal’s aims and determined to leave the Air Force, although he knows that his father will kill him rather than let him resign. Roy is saved by the Air Vice-Marshal’s death; the latter is killed by accident in an aeroplane which the flight-lieutenant had sabotaged before attempting to escape.

26These events are described with deliberate coldness as the ineluctable consequences of the characters’ confusion, weakness and helplessness. The latter lead frustrated lives and make people around them unhappy because of their unflinching respect for conventions which, in view of their conduct, are necessarily meaningless. In contrast with their hypocrisy and unreliability the Air Vice-Marshal appears to Roy as a liberator who could regenerate life and infuse it with a new spirit:

‘I should like you to understand, ‘he would say,’ that it is by no means sufficient to blame society for its inefficiency, its waste, its stupidity. These are merely symptoms. It is against the souls of the people themselves that we are fighting. It is each and every one of their ideas that we must detest. Think of them as earthbound, grovelling from one piece of mud to another, and feebly imagining distinctions between the two, incapable of envisaging a distant objective, tied up for ever in their miserable and unimportant histories, indeed in the whole wretched and blind history of man on earth.’ (pp. 246-7)

27Soon, Roy looks upon all those who do not belong to their organization as aimless people unfit for rule. To his guardians, who have broken down his sense of security by raising doubts in his mind as to his own identity, and have proved the futility of their standards by disclosing the muddle of their life, he opposes the Air Vice-Marshal, who seems so well equipped to take over the direction of the country and purge it of inefficiency and stupidity. In the Air Force are people who enjoy a sense of power because they manipulate the most powerful machines invented by man and feel that, because of their discipline, their efficiency, and their will, they are entitled to assume power over people whom they think incompetent and corrupt, and from whom they feel completely cut off. They find it natural to aim at nothing less than “to assume the whole authority by which men [live].” (p. 248) Yet, the hard and masterly structure of their institution is not without flaws. Whereas the airmen are proud of the supremacy of their organization as a whole, they are made to doubt their own superiority when they watch a demonstration of aeroplanes which are not piloted by men but controlled by wireless, and they realize the limitations of their own usefulness. Moreover, some of them, Roy and the flight-lieutenant in particular, start questioning the value of their aims when they see that these also entail the perpetration of crimes and cold-hearted personal relationships. Roy, who really loves Bess, becomes sorry for the wrong he has done to Eustasia and for the irresponsibility with which he has treated her:

Now I began for the first time to wonder what was the point of our tremendous programme, what lasting satisfaction was to be obtained from the acquisition of power over men’s lives, what were the precise qualities of the new race of men which we designed to promote and for which we were asked to sacrifice what had already begun to appear to me something of importance. (p. 275)

28In the end, Roy becomes convinced that their organization is inhuman and stifles life, that far from being an expression of its nobility and grandeur, it denies life and its complexity, and confines it to the single endeavour to achieve the Air Vice-Marshal’s ambition. He sees that there is more life in the despair, perplexity, and disappointment of some villagers than in the efficiency and self-confidence of the airmen, that the very vagueness of the villagers’ life leaves room for opportunity and adventure and is only a sign of its immensity.

The fumbling conventions that had centred around church, manor, and public-house had been the efforts of generations of the dead to establish some basis of security in the middle of a mystery which to many of them had been delightful as well as startling. We in the Air Force had escaped from but not solved the mystery. We had secured ease for ourselves, discipline, and satisfaction. We had abolished inefficiency, hypocrisy, and the fortunes of the irresolute or the remorseful mind; but we had destroyed also the spirit of adventure, inquiry, the sweet and terrifying sympathy of love that can acknowledge mystery, danger, and dependence. (p. 289)

29To the Air Vice-Marshal’s will-to-power Warner opposes tolerance and the fullness of an existence lived in harmony with man’s nature. The Vice-Marshal himself is not above the motives which disturb ordinary men and sometimes make their life so distressing. His strength springs as much from his determination to revenge himself on men as from a desire to reform the world; these degenerate into blind obstinacy, cruelty and crime when he meets with obstacles. His personal ambition, which arrogantly thrives on other people’s unhappiness, is not more admirable than the Rector’s sense of guilt concealed under a veil of extreme respectability. When he dies, the organization which he had built up and to which he had devoted his life, becomes ineffectual, at least as an institution capable of assuming the direction of the country, because its former efficiency was not the result of a disinterested concern for the welfare of the people but rested entirely on discipline, callousness and pride. With the death of their leader, the airmen lose their ultimate purpose, for they were to be mere instruments in the fulfilment of his mission.

30Warner looks at fascism from the inside; he presents it as a state of mind which develops in the individual who is disgusted at the chaos of his social environment, moved by insecurity and fear, and determined to remedy the disintegration of the group and the collapse of individual certainty. As he explains in The Cult of Power, the fascist is to begin with a social anarchist “asserting himself against general standards that seem too weak to be able to restrain him.” (p. 11) He becomes so far involved in his process of destruction, and is so elated by the sense of power it gives him, that when all the old values are destroyed, there is no way out for him but to declare that the self-assertion, violence and brutality he has shown through the process are the normal attributes of the superhuman power he arrogates to himself in order to replace the power of God, which he has discredited. Characteristically, Warner never refers to economic reasons in describing fascism: it is advocated by power-hungry individuals and supported by large numbers of people because “it [attempts] at a low level to reconstruct a general system of belief to replace the vagueness and uncertainties of unregulated liberalism.” (p. 131) The Aerodrome takes place in a small village whose social structure is far from representative of modern society; it is the last place where one would expect fascism to take root. By thus dissociating fascism from the particular circumstances which gave rise to it on the Continent, Warner concentrates on the essence of what is to him a moral disease. Moreover, it is in a small English village that one is most likely to find the values with which this moral disease can be contrasted. These values sound commonplace enough. Yet, they have kept men going for generations, and the denial of them has usually led to catastrophe: they are faith, love, hope, and above all acceptance of life as it is with its joys and sufferings.

31In Men of Stones (1949) as in The Aerodrome Warner attempts to account for the insane ambition of modern political leaders. They are usually deeply disillusioned with human nature, then urged to improve it and to transcend other men because they feel different from the crowd and superior to it. Warner’s heroes are also obsessed with a desire to escape from the bondage of time and to be free of the feelings and emotions which bind ordinary human beings to one another. Even in his first novel, The Wild Goose Chase, George finds on coming to the city that he cannot rely on the ordinary notions of time and space. In the country people still go by the sun, but in the city time depends on each individual, because the natural order of things has been abolished and man is left to choose his own order. In The Aerodrome this is what the Air Vice-Marshal aims at: to be free from time, from the past and its paralysing influence and to be powerful and independent enough to shape his own future. Urging Roy to follow him to the end, he draws his attention to the mess the Squire and the Rector have made of their lives:

  • 11 The Aerodrome, pp. 327-8.

What a record of confusion, deception, rankling hatred, low aims, indecision! One is stained by any contact with such people. Can you not see … what I mean when I urge you to escape from all this, to escape from time and its bondage, to construct around you in your brief existence something that is guided by your own will, not forced upon you by past accidents, something of clarity, independence and beauty?11

32In Men of Stones the governor of the prison, who wants nothing less than to be God, kills his father to make sure that he has severed all links with the past: “Fundamentally, the killing of the father symbolizes absolute responsibility and the ambition towards the superhuman. By dissolving the most obvious links between oneself and the generations which have gone before, one is, as it were, asserting one’s free and chosen existence. One is creating oneself again.” (p. 125) Dictators are often idealists to begin with, individuals who want to set up a perfect organization through which they hope to govern men for their own good, even against their will. But they are inevitably corrupted by the sense of power they derive from governing with the efficient means science puts at their disposal. Very soon they seek power for its own sake.

The leader of today must appear to his followers to be something superhuman. That is not the end of it. He must actually be superhuman … I, who in these modern days, with much greater material resources than have been avail-able before, aim at dominating and redeeming the world, shall be worshipped as a God. (pp. 121-2)

33However, in the end the leaders become the victims of their own inhumanity. Unlike Orwell’s dictator, Warner’s leaders are usually punished by death. He does not imagine a world in which tyranny could go on forever, because no man is infallible, because there always comes a time when the masses revolt against oppression, and because there is a kind of immanent justice which ultimately defeats those who want to be gods.

34Men of Stones is Warner’s most pessimistic work: for all his wish to express faith in life and in the reality of good, he suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that evil is stronger. In his previous novels man’s lust for power did not exceed certain limits and was partly explained by the confusion which had given rise to it. But the Governor of the prison is stimulated by an insane and arrogant desire to be God; he doesn’t feel it necessary to justify his ambition, though, like the Air Vice-Marshal, he wants men to believe that they are weak and insecure, because if they are sufficiently aware of their abasement and their isolation, they will want the peace and security that come from a higher will and accept him as their Redeemer. In order to prove to his subordinates that his power is equal to God’s, he grants special privileges to some of them and tells them that “it is by grace not by personal merit that the highest happiness is won.” (p. 178) When he dies, a new civil war breaks out, and the novel ends with a vision of endless war and destruction. The difference between Marcus, the young survivor, and Warner’s other heroes is that the former can never recover a sense of security: whether he lives in a free state or under a system of oppression, he will always feel at the mercy of evil:

My happiness now comes from believing in good, not from disbelieving in evil. And whichever way one looks, one can never believe in security.… We are really at the mercy of powers beyond our control and it is good for us to realize this. … Wherever I was I should feel the oppression and suffering of which I am a part, and I should also feel my intense happiness in knowing from experience that what is good exists. I should never feel safe. (p. 195)

35In spite of Warner’s assertion that “love and pity … really do exist and, in themselves, cannot be touched at all,” (p. 194) the book ends in hopelessness and despair. Warner’s rendering of the modern man’s sense of isolation, of his uncertainty and bewilderment in the face of a mysterious authority brings Kafka to mind. However, though most critics insist on his debt to Kafka, I think that, on the whole, Warner has little in common with him. There is something of Kafka’s allegorical manner in The Wild Goose Chase and The Aerodrome. But this is not enough to justify a comparison which may give rise to a misinterpretation of Warner’s attitude to life. If Kafka’s works have any social or political significance, we must ascribe it to his extraordinary intuition and gift of prophecy; Warner’s allegories were written after the events he describes had actually taken place, and he deals with social and political realities. The relationship between the villagers and the town in The Wild Goose Chase shows a certain likeness to the relations between the villagers and the officials in Kafka’s The Castle. However, though George faces in the city powerful and mysterious authorities, who recall these officials, he does not long remain uncertain of their identity. He soon grasps the nature of the king’s authority, the limitations of the power exercised by the policemen, and he understands enough of the weakness of the government to devise a plan to overthrow it. A similar comparison has been made between the attitude of the villagers towards authority in The Aerodrome and their counterpart in The Castle. But contrary to what happens in Kafka’s novel, the men in power, i.e., the airmen, are judged and criticized, and many villagers refuse to work at the aerodrome, either because they are not capable of it, or because they disapprove of the institution.

36The important difference between Warner and Kafka is that in the latter’s novels the holders of authority are indifferent about man, unwilling to assist him or to show him that he is on the right way. Man is alone, and even when he meets people who are prepared to help him, he is sure neither of their motives nor of their sincerity. Supposing even that they are sincere, it doesn’t make much difference because they are just as powerless as he is. In Warner’s novels man is seldom isolated, or only momentarily so, for Warner insists again and again on the importance of solidarity in human relationships. He also differs from Kafka in his determination to give life a definite meaning. One sometimes gets the impression, particularly in Why Was I Killed? (1943) and in Men of Stones, that he wants to reassure man at all costs. The source of the Kafkaesque anguish is that man forever faces an unknown power whose favour he seeks or which he tries to escape, that he never knows what to expect until the finally submits to the arbitrary and is no longer surprised at what happens to him. On the contrary, Warner’s heroes fight against an enemy whom they either know or learn to know, and they are also sure of what they must do in order to destroy him. Warner describes a world in process of losing its stability, disintegrating through man’s fault. But precisely because men are responsible for the state of the world, it can always be saved by love and compassion. Warner does not merely voice the anguish of modern man; he condemns him for his indiscriminate acceptance of evil.

37The message of Warner’s political allegories is a moral one: men have the government they deserve and are individually answerable for the kind of leadership they get, for the attitude of their leaders is strongly influenced by their own tolerance, acceptance, or rejection of tyranny. To lack judgment or a sense of responsibility is to contribute to the political confusion of one’s country and to encourage an evil form of government. Unfortunately, the individuals who, through their profession or their position in society, can be expected to judge a situation soundly and enlighten the masses are too often blind to the real consequences of political action. In this respect, Warner strongly criticizes liberalism because its supporters defend principles which the majority of people cannot even understand. They defend ideals which to workless and hungry men seem abstract and irrelevant. More-over, their conviction that men will aways answer the call of reason prevents them from realizing the power of evil. In Warner’s novels the masses alone can overthrow tyranny. But they are also the brainless multitude, who need absolute certainty and a master whom they can obey.

38Ambitious politicians argue that the majority of men need the strong guiding hand of a despot. But Warner’s own attitude is ambiguous, for the contempt of these politicians for the masses often seems justified. He warns against the evil nature of their thirst for power and of their desire to transcend the ordinary laws of life in order to replace God, whose prestige they first undermine by calling attention to the confused state of the world. But he also seems to be fascinated by these men, divided between his admiration for their strength, self-discipline and efficiency, and his horror of their sinister aims and of the means they use to reach them. This ambiguity is most strongly felt in The Aerodrome and in Men of Stones, for both the Air Vice-Marshal and the Governor are the most intelligent and efficient characters in these novels, and Warner explains only too well why they are fascinated by the exercise of a superhuman power and in their turn fascinate men in search of an ideal. He does not completely destroy the myths they create.

39Though Warner insists that the individual shares in the responsibility for the state of the world, he also presents him as a victim of something beyond his control. Indeed, the decline in personal and social morals which indirectly gave rise to fascism, as well as fascism itself, are manifestations of evil as a powerful natural force. Man’s dual nature is but a minor expression of a universal dualism: evil and good, power and love, tyranny and compassion, strive for predominance in the world and triumph alternately. That is why there is a certain fatalism in Warner’s work in spite of his assertion in his later work that God reassuringly presides over all life and that the vast community of men can bring about the triumph of good. In this respect, the priest’s comment in Why Was I Killed? is fairly typical:

  • 12 Rex WARNER, Why Was I Killed?, London, 1945. pp. 187-8.

I can only say that not the simplest question can be fully answered without referring it to the whole visible and invisible world; and this none of us can do. It is impossible for us, with our limited understanding, to justify any evil; and the evils, both of peace and war, are many. We can trace, no doubt, in politics and in economics and in sociology, many of the evils which cause war, and to trace them and cure them is of the utmost importance. But this we can only do with a horizon before our eyes much vaster than men have had hitherto and (though in a sense, it is the same thing) with an attention to detail much more accurate and loving than has been known previously.
If all men could see themselves as this unknown soldier of whom we are speaking, and who has been killed, if they could be aware of the perplexity which he would naturally feel, then they might become conscious of his need and of what I believe to be the will of God.12

40Warner urges man to accept life as it is on the ground that all that happens is the will of God and cannot always be understood. Evil belongs to the natural order of things, and it is up to man to yield to it or to reject it. But he can never escape from the natural order, and his attempts to transcend it can only conduce to worse evil and self-destruction. Whatever its shortcomings, life is noble and a source of joy for those who open their eyes to its potential richness and beauty. This is somewhat contradicted by his depressing portrayal of man’s behaviour in contemporary society. Moreover, his philosophy of life is not implicit in his novels but expressed in a theoretical manner; his characters seem cold and insensitive, and many of them are also lifeless. We seldom think of them as real human beings, and that is why their inconsistencies, their weaknesses and their failures are hardly acceptable. There is enough action in the novels, but it is too often a substitute for the natural development of life. Warner renders the complexity of existence through a series of entangled and sometimes unlikely situations; he never conveys the subtleties of man’s inner life, the diversity of his motives, the intricate interplay of good and evil in his behaviour. His characters are the embodiment of ideas; that is why, however much he may talk about life, he fails to create it.


1 Rex Warner, Men of Stones, London, 1949, p. 91.

2 In the literature of the Thirties the frontier is a frequent symbol of the dividing line between the real and the ideal. For other examples see Wyndham LEWIS, The Human Age, Christopher Irherwood, Lions and Shadows, AUDEN and ISHERWOOD, The Dog Beneath the Skin.

3 John McCormick, op. cit., p. 63.

4 Rex Warner, The Wild Goose Chase, London, 1945, p. 274.

5 Herbert Howarth, “Pieces of History,” Critique, II, 1 (Spring-Summer 1958), 55.

6 Rex Warner, The Professor, London, 1946, p. 167.

7 My italics.

8 My italics.

9 Rex Warner, The Cult of Power, London, 1946, p. 142.

10 Rex Warner, The Aerodome, London, 1946, p. 196.

11 The Aerodrome, pp. 327-8.

12 Rex WARNER, Why Was I Killed?, London, 1945. pp. 187-8.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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