Wednesday, October 27, 2010

O’Neill’s Pessimism

View of Life
It is a commonplace in O’Neill criticism to call him a pessimist, and by some strange process of reasoning to imply that pessimism is to be condemned in art as well as in life. The following statement by Carl Van Doren is a restrained expression of a point of view that has been repeated almost endlessly :
“O’Neill’s view of life, it now seems clear, is of something which unaccountably frustrates the individual spirit. The fault may lie in life itself, or it may lie in the insufficiency of given individuals ; O’Neill as a playwright does not decide which but proceeds to create dumb, tortured persons who come in the end to worse than naught.” While Van Doren is careful not to pass an ethical judgment, others have implied that since O’Neill is a pessimist, he is therefore false to the truth of life.
Two Types of Pessimism
Before his position as a, pessimist is analyzed, it may be well to distinguish between two types of pessimism that; have flourished in the literature of the last half-century. The one type sees the universe as fundamentally unfavourable to man, and at times even ruled by a conscious power bent on evil. This type of pessimism stems from Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann and the early nineteenth-century pessimists. In so far as the followers of this school, such as Andreyev and Hardy, actually imply a conscious force of evil, they are still children of the anthropomorphic world, against which they so passionately rebelled. They came to look upon the old faiths as false dreams, false beliefs to be abandoned by intelligent men, but in their art they still were unable to view man in the light of an animal in a world of physical forces, but they must continue to treat him against the background of a purposeful universe. Theirs is a queer combination of medieval and modern. In the Life of Man Andreyev is concerned with man and eternity, writing, “Coming from the night he will return to the night. Bereft of thought, bereft of feeling, unknown to all, he will perish utterly, vanishing without trace into infinity.” This may be true, but from a realistic point of view, all that can be said is, “What of it ?” The whole of Andreyev’s position as a pessimist may be summarized in the following quotation from the Life of Man :
                Look and listen, ye who have come hither for mirth and laughter. Lo, there will pass before you all the life of Man, with its dark beginning and its dark end. Hitherto non-existent, mysteriously hidden in infinite time, without thought or feeling, utterly unknown, he will mysteriously break through the barriers of non-existence and with a cry will announce the beginning of his brief life. In the night of non-existence will blaze up a candle, lighted by an unseen hand. This is the life of Man. Behold its flame. It is the life of Man. Irresistibly dragged on by time, he will tread inevitably all the steps of human life, upward to its climax and downward to its end. Limited in vision, he will not see the step to which his unsure foot is already raising him. Limited in knowledge, he will never know what the coming day or hour or moment is bringing to him. And in his blind ignorance, worn by apprehension, harassed by hopes and fears, he will complete submissively the iron round of destiny.
O’Neill’s Pessimism Born of Man
The pessimism of Andreyev is, typical of modern literature, but not of O’Neill. O’Neill is not concerned about man’s ultimate destiny, he is not disturbed by the fact that man and all his works may some day drift into the darkness of space a frozen and unseen monument to the vagaries of the creative process. His pessimism is of man in this world in which he must live, and justify himself if life is to have a meaning. His pessimism is born of man, not of God or the Universe. It is a pessimism that has in it some gleam of hope, for it holds that man’s greatest tragedies are of his own making, and thus it is fair presumption to hope that man may unmake them. Not that O’Neill says that he will do so; he may recognize the persistence of man’s hopeless hope, but even granting all that, there is still a vast difference between the position of O’Neill and that of Schopenhauer.
Definition of Pessimism
In discussing this phase of O’Neill’s pessimism there is a remark from Galsworthy on the subject that may help to make the definition of pessimism as it applies to the subject more clear and understandable. Galsworthy; writes :
                As a man lives and thinks, so will he write. But it is certain, that to the making of good drama, as to the practice of every other art, .there must be brought an almost passionate love of discipline, a white-heat of self-respect, a desire to make the truest, fairest, best thing in one’s power ; and that to these must be added an eye that does not flinch. Such qualities alone will bring to a drama the selfless character which soaks it with inevitability. The word ‘pessimist’ is frequently applied to the few dramatists who have been content to work in this way. It has been; applied, among others, to Euripides, to Shakespeare, to Ibsen ; it will be applied to many in the future. Nothing, however, is more dubious than the way in which these ‘two words ‘pessimist’ and ‘optimist’ are used, for the optimist appears to be he who cannot bear-the world as it is, and is, forced by his nature to picture it as it ought to be, and the pessimist one who cannot only bear the world as it is, but, loves it well enough to draw it faithfully. The true lover of the human race is surely he who can put up with it in all its forms, in vice as well as in virtue, in defeat no less than in victory ; the true seer he who sees not only joy but sorrow, the true painter of human life one who blinks nothing. It may be that he is also, incidentally, its true benefactor.
Not a Gloomy Pessimist
This type of pessimism is freed from the tyranny of absolute laws and may lead man to understand that if he is to be happy in this life; he, must reconcile himself to its inevitable limitations. He must realize that it is his show. He is director and actor, and if the performance is rotten he can’t blame and or any other power outside himself. Nor can he be offered irrational as to ask for better materials than life itself has offered him. And this may be taken to be a measure of O’Neill’s pessimism. He does not hold that because we have lost our medieval heritage of an anthropomorphic God with a Hell beneath us and a Heaven above that life is therefore and forever a hopeless tragedy. The deep and all-obliterating gloom that characterizes such a poet as James Thomson has no parallel in O’Neill. When Thomson discovered that he had been tricked into a false faith in the days of his youth, he assumed that nothing but, despair could follow. The same is true of Hardy’s reaction, when he discovered that “What is good for God’s gardener is not good for God’s birds.” This fact made him sure that “Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” And so it was with most of the modern realists. They escaped from one doom only to make themselves another even more terrible than its predecessor. To O’Neill belongs the credit of seeing life more clearly and firmly than did many of those who were his spiritual forefathers. He deals with man’s life here and now. Within the limits of this world he finds his justification for life.
A Lover of Life
But as he looks about him in the world and finds that man has striven artfully and savagely to deprive himself of such transitory happiness as is actually possible to life, surely he cannot be held responsible for that, and, on the basis of his interpretation of this truth, be condemned as a pessimist who has no hope for man. Once in answer to the question would he ever write about happiness, he answered:
                Sure I’ll write about happiness if I can happen to meet up with that luxury, and find it sufficiently dramatic and in harmony with any deep rhythm in life. But happiness is a word. What does it mean ? Exaltation, an intensified feeling of the significant worth of man’s being and becoming? Well, if it means that––and not a mere smirking contentment with one’s lot––I know there is more of it in one real tragedy than in all the happy-ending plays ever written ... It’s mere present-day judgment to think of tragedy as unhappy ! The Greeks and the Elizabethans knew better. They felt the tremendous lift to it. It roused them spiritually to a deeper understanding of life. Through it they found release from the petty considerations of everyday existence. They saw their lives ennobled by it. A work’ of art is always happy ; all else is unhappy... ...I don’t love life because it’s pretty. Prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness.
And if more than this were needed, Barret H. Clark’s own statement which follows the quotation adds the needed touch. He writes
                I called O’Neill an optimist before I had read these words, and by that I meant that he was a militant apostle of life with a capital L. He dares look upon it without passing judgment ; he lays it bare to the best of his ability as an artist and poet.
Being and Becoming
Man’s “being and becoming” is the essence of O’Neill’s pessimism, and this is a theme that from one point of view may be called a kind of optimism. One would not wish to confuse the issue or to make the meaning of the two words in question any more shadowy or meaningless than they already are. It serves the under­standing of O’Neill better to call him a pessimist, but with a difference. He is a pessimist who loves life ; one whose love goes so deep that he cannot remain supine and unmoved by its present failure blocking its potential happiness. He loves life well enough to condemn those who shun it in fear and trembling, and to urge those who can face its reality to make the most of it.
Defiant Characters
The characters of his plays bear out this interpretation of his philosophy of life. Whatever else may be said of them, they do not cringe. They are above all else courageous and defiant. It is this quality in them which gives exhilaration to the grimmest tragedy of O’Neill. They may and they do go down to defeat and death, but they never ask to be forgiven. They are game to the end. Sometimes they realize the reason for their failure, as did. Ponce de Leon, but they always accept it bravely. If O’Neill has given us a true picture of the world of man, then in spite of all its disaster it is still a good world in which to live, for it is peopled with men and women. in whom the undying fire of rebellion is a living flame, and as long as that is true there is still hope that something may yet happen to solve the riddle of man’s inherent tragedy before that final’ sunset and the eternal darkness settle over the world.
Indomitable Will-to-Life
There is the fire of an indomitable will-to-life in the world of O’Neill. To grasp its full significance one must be ready to look upon life as an adventure in a grim world, or the result will be failure to comprehend his meaning. The person whose scope of criticism is limited by his ability to add up the number of times O’Neill writes “damn”, or the numbers of murders committed in the sum of his works, or the number of neurotic characters he introduces, may arrive at certain facts interesting in themselves, but surely a trifle strange as a measure of the artist’s worth. Arithmetic must forever remain a distant cousin of the true critic.
An Impoverished World
T. K. Whipple finds O’Neill’s world as “thoroughly hostile to human life”. He writes :
                To read O’Neill, then, or to witness his plays is to live temporarily in an intense but a simplified and impoverished world, a world narrow in range and meagre in substance. Scanty to begin with, this world has been further stripped and denuded by its creator’s preoccupation with primal forces only. And not only is it so to speak an emaciated skeleton world, but also one which by subordinating man and making him the helpless victim of larger forces, and by depicting him as always undergoing a spiritual defeat, is thoroughly hostile to human life. In fact, in spite of the violent forms in which life manifests itself, the ruling principle of his world is death, not life. It crushes and kills.
Life : Its Own Reason For Being
If one neglects the real spirit of O’Neill’s tragedies then this judgment of his world might be true, but O’Neill has a great deal more to say than Whipple has been able to concede. In order to understand and appreciate the life force, of O’Neill’s world it must be remembered that he does not think that death means the negation of living, or that the fear of death should destroy the value of life. He says yea to death with the same enthusiasm that he greets life. He does not bow before any aspect of life in humility, for life to him is its own reason, for being and not the servant of supernatural forces.
Boldly Defiant Protagonists
The men and women that move in the world of O’Neill’s are boldly defiant. They realize defeat, but scorn it––even cursing it. This world of O’Neill is a world of bitter struggle and tragic lives, but to those who accept its reality it is a world rich in experience, adventure and daring, where men and women demand that life give them some positive value. In spite of destruction which stalks on every highway in the world of O’Neill, as it does also in the world of the Greek tragedy, it is still a good world to live in, because it is a world where brave, charming, complex and interesting men and women are present at every turn. They are in a sense sick, that is, they are not fat, happy, contented and resigned to a gospel of prosperity and good business opportunities. By being sick is meant that they are civilized. They have awakened to the realization of what it means to be human. They are aware that to be human means to desire from life more than food, clothing and shelter. They yearn for happiness as the ultimate good, and. when their struggle nears the end they are more defiant than submissive. Living in the world of O’Neill is not an easy task, but it is interesting. It is a world that demands courage, that is intense with experience, and that above all is not supine. It is a world in which we are not allowed to “delude ourselves with some tawdry substitute”. To O’Neill “Life doesn’t end. One experience is but the birth of another.”
Idealistic, Sensitive Rebels
O’Neill’s characters are all of one family in that they are all rebels against the world in which they live. They are all nervous, high-strung, impetuous, and they are also determined that life shall give them more than it is willing to give. In this sense they are idealists, for they are not reconciled to the inevitable limitations of their world. In the end they discover their limitations, and accept their doom, but not quietly or without protest. Like Lavinia they may retire behind the closed doors and barred windows, but they will not do it humbly. They protest even after they have realized the futility of the struggle. This may or may not be the way of wisdom, and surely it is not the way of peace and resignation. There is no promise of a sunrise after the shadows’ and storms of night have passed in the world of O’Neill does not open a haven to the weary and heavy-laden, but for those to whom there is charm and beauty in the turbulence of life itself, this world of O’Neill is  interesting and is intense. There is in it the Nietzschean will to power–the glorification of life.

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