Cosmic Marionettes

The Critic

August 1904, Vol. 45 No. 2, pp. 159-161


All the great novelists are fatalists. Admission or denial on their part is beside the question. Men are not what they believe they are; they are what they are. The man who believes in free will is a fatalist. He is temperamentally what he is. He is fated to believe in uncaused causes. Beliefs flow from the biliary duct. A fat man is an optimist; a thin man is a pessimist; a red-haired man is full-blooded, and his ideas are vascular. A thin-haired man is an anæmic’s mode of looking at things. Fate is mental squint; it is the angle of vision, a viewpoint, physical compulsion.

After all, men carry their fate in their faces. Blue eyes we trust; gray eyes we fear; in brown eyes we trace the poet, the ecstatic. The soul etches itself somewhere on the pulpy flesh, and it may be said of men, By their faces shall ye know them.

Balzac called himself the “Secretary of Society,” and his books are but an inventory of its forces. These forces he incarnated and called human beings. He thought the human soul could be identified with electricity, and conferred on it about as much free will as he would have accorded any other kind of battery. From his Jovian heights he surveyed the movements of these [160] galvanized figures; recorded their attractions and repulsions; pulled them apart and showed us their insides; and made you feel when he had finished his task that his brain was the House of Life, and we the wunderkind of his creation. His men and women drift hither and thither on the soundless sea of Being, while the viewless gods of the deep are the masters of the currents.

Thackeray is always taking you aside and explaining the way he does the trick. He brings each of his characters into life with a drag on him—the drag of having to be himself. All of Thackeray’s creations carry this air of compulsion with them. They are hand-me-down human beings, and wear the look of long ill-usage. In the nature of things Beatrix Esmond must become the Baroness Bernstein. She seems to expect some such destiny, and accepts it with delicious sang-froid. Foker is—just Foker; he could n’t possibly be anybody else, and Dobbin we know has been Dobbin from all eternity. Thackeray’s belief in an overruling Destiny was so profound that his gentle soul, half-frightened at his conclusions, was always casting around for ways and means to let the old Gorgon down easily.

Turgenief’s characters are gripped in a vise. They go through life like somnambulists. Bazaroff is an arsenal of tendencies. Liza is a medieval nun that by some curious freak has been revamped for nineteenth-century consumption. Her soul, shocked by the secular and buffeted by the trivial, sought again the cloistral glooms of nunnery. Hardy’s and Meredith’s characters are of a piece. The searing breath of life blows with equal force in their pages. Spiritual resistance is fate working from the other side. Chloe was blasted from within; Tess was blasted from without.

Zola’s fatalism is more pronounced than any of these masters of fiction. This is because of the stress he lays on heredity and environment. His mission was to assort our souls and pigeonhole them. He was, indeed, the Claude Bernard of imaginative literature. Blood, nerve, cell—there you are. Pick out good forebears, for you are the wraith of a dead man. You are integrated matter in the process of redistribution. The history of your atoms is the history of your soul. You elect to lead a drab life; but your resolution counts for nothing; some day it shall melt like wax in the fires of suddenly enkindled desire. The future is an ogre; it is the past that slays.

Zola’s microscopic eye, his piercing glances into the subsoil of life, are nowhere better exemplified than in his masterwork, “L’Assommoir.” It is a fine study of the subtle laws that damn. The connection between an injured foot and a drunkard’s death—where is it? That’s the art of it. Moral logic there is none; but there is an intellectual logic. The links in the chain of causation—the connection between Coupeau’s physical and mental fall—were forged by a cunning Fate. Our lives are steeped in these subtleties. Each moment is big with fell purpose. Our characters are pieced together by trifles that escape observation, and the way of our degradation is downy.

Focus the mind for one moment on this world of the great novelists. What a piecemeal pageant! What a carnival of marionettes! What cosmic mummery! Tentative men and women; alleged lives; souls barely basted to a body; suggestions; thin pipings; clarion-voiced gods with tin-can attachments; the involved elemental; stumps, and ends, and shreds, and butts of beings.

Here in this bogus earth-world, in this slimy Malebolge, everything is planned; nothing is completed. These children, tethered to the Iron Ring of Necessity, eat the cake of hope; the brown bread of the tangible is thrown into the street. We are starving today, but it will always rain manna tomorrow.

Are these mighty creations aught but somnambulists who walk in the brains of their creators; and are we of flush and blood aught but somnambulists who walk in the dream cells of a hidden god? These master-dreamers, these wraith-workers—will they wake at the cock-crow of eternity? Nay, they were [161] bubble-blowers as we are bubble-blown; they are not voices, they are voiced; and Charles Bovary was as real as Napoleon Bonaparte.

These men who sketch life are used. They submit their souls to the Spirit, and their characters move in the grooves of inexorable law. No man knows what he does; no great novelist ever knew what he was writing. His fingers clutch the pen, but the writing is mere copying, the original is in the nature of things; his brain is nothing more than a phonograph; he is a notary of the Spirit, a transcriber of the Law, a scrivener of the gods, an arranger of junk. Destiny works through the intellect, and the seers of life are but subalterns. They sail under sealed orders. They live with the Great Camerado, but not on equal terms. He is hidden—behind a pebble it may be. You may kick it, but He smiles—for He is the kick. The author of “Madame Bovary” was Madame Bovary. Flaubert was her secretary.