Nietzsche, Carlyle, and Dickens

In a contemporary [magazine] there appeared a short time ago a prize specimen to which I should like to call attention. One of the “Super-Men” writes a long letter about the splendour of Nietzsche and the contemptibility of common things. He says, with entire solemnity, that the entertaining German sophist must not even be compared with other great men of letters. “To suggest for a moment that he ranks with Dickens or Carlyle is absurd.” So far, I quite agree. Nietzsche could not have pictured anything like Mrs. Wilfer; he had not the imagination. Nietzsche could not have created anybody like Trabb’s boy; he had not the strength. He could not even describe the exaggerated man he did hope for. He certainly could not have described, as Dickens did, a hundred different exaggerated men, who are all too good to hope for. And though I doubt if Carlyle’s reputation will remain as universal and unquestioned as Dickens’, it is certainly more solid and creative than Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche could only hazily describe an imaginary mob which he hated, and had never known. Carlyle (in “The French Revolution”) could very vividly describe an actual historical mob that he knew though he had never seen it.

Nietzsche was a great epigrammatist, and as such deserves praise and perusal. But to compare him to Carlyle or Dickens is like comparing a Chinese pyrotechnist to a Greek sculptor or a Venetian painter. Nietzsche was no more capable of making Dick Swiveller walk and talk — than I am.

So when the writer above mentioned that to compare Nietzsche with Dickens or Carlyle was absurd, I thought he was pointing out the obvious distinction between the fascination of a wild game of logic and the older and stronger fascination of a firm and created thing. What was my astonishment when I found that this writer, seemingly sane and of sufficient education, meant exactly the opposite. He writes,

“Both the latter may have done much for the tribe of mediocres for whom they cater. Dickens may have been the cause of many long-needed reforms, but so was Pitt with the Corn Laws. Carlyle is a fine stylist, but instead of bravely facing the fallacy of a hitherto unrecognized truth, he leaves “darkness yet more dark.” In certain moods Carlyle offers cheerful comfort, and Dickens supplies a delightful recreation.”

To young men who talk like this (for only in young men is it to be excused from the last extremes of contempt) I would offer one very simple test and tonic. You cannot surpass the world until you have passed it — that is, passed through it. You cannot be more than Dickens until you can be Dickens. Let him suppose that his life or honour or admission to the Croydon Culture Club (or whatever he really values) were dependent on his writing one page of creative comedy as original and alive as a page of Dickens. Could he do it? I leave the thought to console him in the watches of the night.

The Illustrated London News, 13 April 1912.

Published in: on November 12, 2014 at 10:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

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