Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy/Preface


The collocation of authors so widely at variance in their moral and artistic aims as are those assembled in this little book may be defended by the safe and simple argument that all of these authors have exerted, each in his own way, an influence of singular range and potency. By fairy general consent they are the foremost literary expositors of important modern tendencies. It is, therefore, of no consequence whether or not their ways of thinking fit into our particular frame of mind; what really matters is that in this small group of writers more clearly perhaps than in any other similarly restricted group the basic issues of the modern struggle for social transformation appear to be clearly and sharply joined. That in viewing them as indicators of contrarious ideal currents due allowance must be made for peculiarities of temperament, both individual and racial, and, correspondingly, for the purely personal equation" in their spiritual attitudes, does not detract to any material degree from their generic significance.

In any case, there are those of us who in the vortical change of the social order through which we are whirling, feel a desire to orient ourselves through an objective interest in letters among the embattled purposes and policies which are now gripped in a final test of strength. In a crisis that makes the very foundations of civilization quake, and at a moment when the salvation of human liberty seems to depend upon the success of a united stand of all the modern forces of life against the destructive impact of the most primitive and savage of all the instincts, would it not be absurdly pedantic for a critical student of literature to resort to any artificial selection and coordination of his material in order to please the prudes and the pedagogues? And is it not natural to seek that material among the largest literary apparitions of the age?

It is my opinion, then, that the four great authors discussed in the following pages stand, respectively, for the determining strains in a great upsetting movement, and that in the aggregate they bring to view the composite mental and moral impulsion of the times. Through such forceful articulations of current movements the more percipient class of readers have for a long time been enabled to foresense, in a manner, the colossal reconstruction of society which needs must follow this monstrous, but presumably final, clash between the irreconcilable elements in the contrasted principles of right and might, the masses and the monarchs.

However, the gathering together of Maeterlinck, Nietzsche, Strindberg, and Tolstoy under the hospitality of a common book-cover permits of a supplementary explanation on the ground of a certain fundamental likeness far stronger than their only too obvious diversities. They are, one and all, radicals in thought, and, with differing strength of intention, reformers of society, inasmuch as their speculations and aspirations are relevant to practical problems of living. And yet what gives them such a durable hold on our attention is not their particular apostolate, but the fact that their artistic impulses ascend from the sublimal regions of the inner life, and that their work somehow brings one into touch with the hidden springs of human action and human fate. This means, in effect, that all of them are mystics by original cast of mind and that notwithstanding any difference, however apparently violent, of views and theories, they follow the same introspective path towards the recognition and interpretation of the law of life. From widely separated ethical premises they thus arrive at an essentially uniform appraisal of personal happiness as a function of living.

To those readers who are not disposed to grant the validity of the explanations I have offered, perhaps equality of rank in artistic importance may seem a sufficient criterion for the association of authors, and, apart from all sociologic and philosophic considerations, they may be willing to accept my somewhat arbitrary selection on this single count.

O. H.
April, 1918.