A Quest for Certainty
World Within World. The Autobiography of Stephen Spender.
Harcourt, Brace. 312 pp. $3.50.
The operative word in Stephen Spender’s autobiography is “guilt.” It appears in various contexts in the book and, separately and collectively, the references make clear that his sense of guilt has powerfully conditioned his life and opinions. In this he is rather representative than unique among contemporary Englishmen of “good” birth and small inherited income, the minor rentiers who carry on so much of the intellectual life. (Spender says his inherited income was three hundred pre-devaluation pounds per year.) So common—indeed so universal—is a sense of guilt among these people that Lewis and Maude, in their invaluable book The English Middle Classes, isolate it as a major factor explaining their worsened fortunes today. They trace its genesis back to the 1880’s, a watershed decade in English history, and its history forward to Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club and the victory of the Labor party in 1945.
In Spender’s book, one of the clearest expositions of the meaning he attaches to this guilt is as follows:
From notes which I kept at this time—notes of such urgency that they even interrupt the manuscript sketches of poems—I find that there were two things which incessantly preoccupied me. One was the problem of the freedom of the individual. . . . The other was the problem of the sense of guilt. For if, on the one hand, the Communists told me that my sense of freedom was only a projection of the interest of the bourgeois class, there was also a Freudian argument which told me that I only troubled about these things out of a sense of guilt. Rid myself of guilt, and I would no longer worry about my privileged position in society.
What I gradually came to see is that there is not just one guilt but many guilts, and that we must learn to distinguish between these, discarding useless guilt and making use of that kind of guilt which, so far from inhibiting us, releases us. . . .
Thus although guilt may create for us a kind of stumbling darkness in which we cannot act, it is also the thread leading us out of a labyrinth into places where we accept, instead of being overwhelmed by, the responsibility of action.
Spender’s uncle, J. A. Spender, the distinguished Liberal journalist, was a paragon of traditional Liberalism, and something of a Horrible Example to Stephen; Stephen’s father Harold was the younger brother, and was definitely, in his elder brother’s eyes, an offside Liberal. The father supported Lloyd George whom, with a sound instinct, the uncle regarded as a disaster to the Liberal party. Harold Spender stood for Parliament as a Lloyd-Georgite and lost; the symbolism of the defeat was not lost on his son Stephen. The Liberals were playing out. Stephen, therefore, inherited a deliquescent Liberalism, already eaten at by Laboristic acids which would in time weaken it into the political futility we witness in 1951. It was this deliquescent Liberalism that John Maynard Keynes, insofar as he had a definite political purpose, hoped to stiffen into renewed vitality with his “new economics,” one of the purposes of which was to preserve what was most valuable in the status quo, even if by heterodox techniques. Stephen, with so many of his literary fellows who were on the intellectual march, skipped right over Keynes, and they sublimated their guilt, as Lewis and Maude say, “into acceptance of alien political and social creeds.”
Stephen’s Forward from Liberalism (1936) rejected both his uncle’s orthodox Liberalism and his father’s Lloyd-Georgism to embrace large portions of Communism, enough to get him invited to join the party by Harry Pollitt himself; the book was a Gollancz Left Book Club selection. (Spender’s relations with Communism he tells much better and more fully in The God That Failed.) Nor was the whole business on the intellectual level. Stephen also had the belief in “the freedom and emotionalism which were supposed to characterize proletarian life,” to quote Lewis and Maude again. This comes out very clearly in his account of his relations with his secretary-companion:
I was in love, as it were, with his background, his soldiering, his working-class home. Nothing moved me more than to hear him tell stories of the Cardiff streets of Tiger Bay, of his uncle who was in the Salvation Army. . . . When Jimmy talked of such things, I was perhaps nearer poetry than talking to most of my fellow poets. At such moments, too, I was very close to certain emotions awakened in childhood by the workers, who to us seemed at the same time coarse, unclean, and yet with something about them of forbidden fruit, and also of warm-heartedness which suddenly flashed across the cold gulf of class, secret and unspoken.
In literary terms, this appears in Spender’s admiration for D. H. Lawrence, who was of proletarian origin even if hardly, to anyone not suffering delusions about the working class, a spokesman for proletarian ideas, ideals, and personal characteristics. But at least Lawrence spoke up for spontaneous feelings, warm-hearted personal relationships, and all the proletarian qualities as Spender imagined them. And Lawrence’s dislike for Bloomsbury, in which Spender was himself deeply involved, did not disturb Spender, for he himself judged Bloomsbury to be radically incomplete on those political grounds which had led him around to sympathy for Lawrence in the first place.
If this book is a document of primary importance to students of the middle class in its most recent phases, it is a major literary document as well, and a superior example of the autobiographer’s art. As Spender sees it, his story is a contribution to understanding the English literary generation of the 30’s: Spender himself, W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, Rex Warner and so on, even a litterateur manqué like R. H. S. Crossman. From Spender’s narrative it appears that W. H. Auden stage-managed this whole generation. To Spender he said one day “[that] he had changed his mind about my work. I should not write poetry, but autobiographical prose narrative.” Well, here is an installment of it. The God That Failed story is another, European Witness still another, while Forward from Liberalism is a document-along-the-way, as also is The Destructive Element. The poems which Spender has disobediently written fit in here and there most appositely and may be forgiven!
If guilt has served Spender (in Auden’s words) as an “intolerable neural itch” that set him off and kept him going, his self-confessed weakness for publicity and his unappeasable gregariousness have fed the autobiographer most efficiently. The names that spangle this book—from Virginia Woolf to Lady Ottoline Morrell, W. B. Yeats, Hemingway, and Malraux: the list is endless—are sufficient testimony to the fact that he gets around socially. He writes most interestingly about them, and is himself a most interesting person, the basic necessity in an autobiographer.
Where, we must ask, does Spender seem to be going? Considering the state of the world and Spender’s deep involvement in public affairs, it would be easy to say cynically that he is going to end up as a permanent committeeman on the Permanent Committee on Cataclysmic Emergencies—PCCE to you. As I write this he is attending a session in India. But his case is far more fundamental than that. Here is a statement of his predicament as he sees it:
I had a longing for eternity. . . . I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of judgment; for on a certain level of my mind it seemed impossible not to believe that everything we do is judged, and that life is a kind of sum which has meaning because good is related to bad. . . .
So I had a thirst for moral knowledge, combined with a perpetual fear of the moral sum with which I myself would be one day confronted. Yet in the end I wanted to know the answer of good and evil. What was unbearable was to think that there is no moral awakening, that we creep from moment to moment, deceiving ourselves, sometimes guilty and remorseful, sometimes happy, but never knowing the answer, never seeing things as a whole. . . .
At bottom Spender’s problem is a religious one. His search is for certainty. On this showing he really belongs, not in the tradition of a decayed political party, but in the far older English tradition of religio-social protest which started, perhaps we can say, with John Wycliffe and the Lollards and which has intermittently shown its face in England ever since, even in a nonconformist-chapel form in the Labor party. Because we live in a politico-economic age, Spender has tried to find his answers in politics and economics; because he is a writer, he has also sought answers in literature: but in the end he will seek it in religion.
Spender writes in World Within World: “Nothing, indeed, could be more different than the world of the 1930’s, which I have defined here as the period of Intervention and Nonintervention, from that of the rising 1940’s. The 1930’s saw the last of the idea that the individual, accepting his responsibilities, could alter the history of the time. From now on, the individual could only conform to or protest against events which were outside his control.”
Impaled today on the dilemma of action versus quietism, Spender’s mind is, on his own account of it, moving along with the dilemma unresolved—hence the feverish committee work, toward some as yet undiscovered certainty. He must have it to live. He has not the skeptical but the believing temperament.
As so many have, Spender harks back to the response of Wordsworth and his fellows to the French Revolution to get some light on these unhappy days. Will Spender, then, end up a Wordsworth type, repudiating his past entirely in the end, stultifying his present and future, but still a poet? There are no signs of this in this book. His “problem” he has still preserved, far more unresolved than circa 1937. Will he eventually relapse even further and become a frigid conservative of the Southey type? Or will he be the unrepentant offsider to the bitter end, like William Hazlitt? Committed as he is to the role of autobiographer, Spender is sure in due course to let us know.