Thomas Hardy: The Latest Recipient of the Nobel Prize


[Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling are undoubtedly the greatest living poets in the English language today. Their names are linked again by the fact that Thomas Hardy as Kipling before him has just received the Nobel Prize for literature. The weird cosmic philosophy of Thomas Hardy has never been better interpreted than in the following article.—The Editor.]

THE cycle of the cosmic vision of Thomas Hardy from “Desperate Remedies” to “The Dynasts.” In “Desperate Remedies” he had his vision, but it struggled for a body, like an inexorable, unstanchable Thought groping for utterance on the clavier of the five senses. Through those novels which came to use through the years the Vision, the Thought, was apprehended by the reader through the events and circumstances of the drama, seen as one sees character in a person or the mood in which a picture was painted. In “The Dynasts,” the last work of Thomas Hardy, his vision of the universe, the implacable Thought of years, comes stark into the light, and the great artist who gave to the world “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and “The Return of the Native” sweeps to the Sinai of concrete perception, where he utters not only the final wisdom that is in him but the final wisdom of all time.

Genius is Consciousness magnified to the highest power attainable. The consciousness of all genius is cosmic—that is it sees laws instead of things, it solves every star in a universe, and every universe in a dewdrop, and finally every star, universe and dewdrop in the retort of its own awareness. This cosmic consciousness is the Alsace-Lorraine of the mind, where the Absolute and the Relative dispute possession.

Like the Hindu sages and Jules de Gaultier, he has seen enkernelled in all things the Will-to-error; like Sophocles, he has looked into the vacant stare of the Immanent Will; like Hugo, he has hurried up and down the sidereal systems seeking an Answer to the Question, leaving no mansion in the skies unransacked; like Whitman, he has staged for our eye—in that marvellous prelude in the Overworld in “The Dynasts”—the hopeless tangle of mankind’s oneness and the fatality of each heartbeat; like Spinoza, he has come to the very sills of Unity; like Schopenhauer, he has seen the seals of the Unconscious break and let loose the dazed and light-’wildered butterflies of Intelligence, and asked Why?; like Shakespeare, he has played stage-manager only to his puppets, leaving moral judgments to lesser minds; like Shelley, he has felt the thrill of an almost hopelessly distant Hope; like the author of Ecclesiastes and Goya, he has uttered Nada!; like Maeterlinck, he has looked into the unsoundable abysses that the human, all unweeting, skirts every second.

Matter, mind and life are diaphanous. The characters in the Napoleonic drama of “The Dynasts” are vitreous. One sees through them into the law. They have no more will than the hands on the face of a clock. They are wound up and go for a little time or a long time. Napoleon is of no more importance in the brain of the Immanent Will than the humblest of Hardy’s characters. We are moulded “mumbly as in a dream,” “patterns wrought by rapt, aesthetic rote,” always menaced by the back-fire of the dead.

Hence that sense of the unreality of life, that feeling of perpetual hallucination, deception, cozzening and somnambulism. We seem cloaked in vaporous dreams through which we discern the granite of Reality; but we can never step out of that vapor, which is the gaud of the imagination. Tess and Michael Henchard are real to us, but they must have seen themselves in their last moments as each of us will see himself at the latter second: a myth, a chimeric wraith on the track of moonmotes. At most “artistries in circumstance,” as Hardy says. Napoleon, in “The Dynasts,” acts like an hallucinated being. He listens, listens always at critical moments for the promptings of “his destiny,” which is his magniloquent euphemism for his puppetry, and he is as hopelessly in the grip of his vertiginous dreams as is Saturn in the grip of its rings.

Irony is the logic of contradictions. It is the third eye of the brain. Among all the novelists of the age Thomas Hardy is the supreme ironist. His irony is the irony of the author of “Oedipus Rex” and “Ghosts.” It is implacable, as insistent as death and godless. Yet at the last it is with the great Turgeneff that Thomas Hardy will stand when the history of the literature of the age is written. Both have dreamed Schopenhauer into their characters; both have crushed their creations with feathers—the little mischance, the slight misstep, the almost imperceptible contretemps.

Time, the winged snail, has its say, and each one shall be that which he wished to be or did not wish to be—it makes little difference; there will be tragic disillusion in either case. In the great Mime, where each one masks his guilt of living Irony speaks the epilogue from the stage. We have acted with the precision of the sweep of the spheres. Everything has been plotted; we are allowed our ideals in order to trip over them, for this tragic Puck that Hardy names It is thinking out, maybe, a problem and we are only thought-cells in Its monstrous brain. What has It to do with our avocations—our personal ambitions and desires? Irony is born of the sightlessness of It in regard to us and our ignorance in regard to It. “So the Will heaves through space and moulds the times with mortals for its fingers,” says the Chorus of the Years. Hence, so long as the illusion of free will continues there will be sport beneath the zodiaque for Spirits Ironic and Spirits Sinister.

If the irony of the novels may be compared to the work of Turgeneff, his mysticism finds a parallel in the dramas of Maeterlinck. In Hardy as in the Belgian dramatist backgrounds are immeasurable. Against the canvas of the visible and invisible worlds his figures stand out for a second like bas-reliefs, infinitely small and inconsequent, and then disappear in the dark. All the characters in the plays of Maeterlinck and the novels of Hardy are marionettes gliding over the thin thread of consciousness which cuts the Unknown like a chain of fireflies at the summit of the night. Each one walks in an aura of darkness, sinisterly luminous.

The description of Egdon Heath, in “The Return of the Native,” with its [21] two human beings—man and woman—appearing on the horizon is a chapter that is an epic in itself. Man versus his Eternal Enemy, which is the subject of the Greek drama and of the Maeterlinck plays, is the subject of this chapter, mystical, subtle, allegorical—and tremendously real. For that is the supreme magic of Thomas Hardy: he conveys the abstract through the concrete, makes us feel the mysterious in the folds of the known, and puts a ghost at the very centre of the familiar. In Maeterlinck we feel the reality of the mysterious. But Thomas Hardy has accomplished a greater miracle: he makes us feel the mystery and the terror of the real and familiar. The vision of the world in which his mind welters flows subtly from his pages and his characters into the unconscious depths of the reader and mounts and suffuses his nerves till he feels what Hardy has felt all his life—the eerie drama of the soul and the remoteness of man from the Great IT. Materlinck has given us the same feeling, but his characters are placed out of time and out of space. In Hardy’s world, even in his great Napoleonic drama, we are at the very dugs of ourselves, at the very elbows of Everyday and Matter-of-Fact.

In Hardy’s vision the dramaturge of existence is the Unconscious. It is the Uconscious as expounded by Arthur Schopenhauer (the Columbus of modern thought) and Eduard von Hartman. Plato had compared the world to a vast, lumbering, unknowable animal. It is something like this, too, that Thomas Hardy has conceived the Unconscious. In “The Dynasts” he makes it almost a visible entity. It resembles some cosmic mastadon that has the power of dreaming strange dreams. Or it is like a Sphinx that dreams chimeras into a kind of semblance of reality, only to strike them dead with its mighty, clumsy paws. In the novels, the Unconscious is a Stream whose currents are directed by the débris of pasts without measure, a Stream cumbered with sunken wrecks and floating forests and drowsing dead, a Stream on which consciousness, intelligence, are only air-bubbles and phosphor spots. The Unconscious is the sediment and silt of Time—and each generation of man is no other than that.

It is in the great ages of pessimism that the greatest wisdom comes from the human heart and brain. The seer and the optimist are contradictions in terms. So long as man is dominated by the Will-to-Power and the Will-to-Illusion the tragi-comedy will go on throughout the universe. But the artist comes to interpret the Play to the players themselves. And among all the artists within the memory of man none has seen deeper into life, none has been more fearless, inexorable or sincerer than Thomas Hardy. He has glanced at life with a super-human, satiric eye over which has hung the mist of perpetual tear. And that mystical Hope that has fed the world for ages still dwells in his heart. The last words in “The Dynasts” are

“Consciousness the Will informing, till It fashion all things fair!”

He, too, has his dream—of a metaphysical Messiah!


Source: The International, Jan. 1914, Vol. VIII No. 1, pp. 20-21