Literature Going to the Dogs

Arnheim passes harsh judgement on the poets of the day, so inferior to his idol, Heine.

This poet’s portentous idealism corresponded to those big deep brass instruments in the orchestra that resemble upended locomotive boilers and produce an unwieldy grunting and rumbling. With a single note they muffle a thousand possibilities. They huff and puff out huge bales of timeless emotions. Anyone capable of trumpeting poetry on such a scale–Arnheim thought, not without bitterness–is nowadays rated by us as a poet, as compared with a mere literary man. They why not rate him as a general as well? Such people after all live on the best of terms with death and constantly need several thousand dead to make them enjoy their brief moment of life with dignity.

But just then someone had made the point that even the General’s dog, howling at the moon some rose-scented night, might if challenged defend himself by saying: “So what, it’s the moon, isn’t it? I am expressing the timeless emotions of my race!” quite like one of those gentlemen so famous for doing the very same. The dog might even add that his emotion was unquestionably a powerful experience, his expression richly moving, and yet so simple that his public could understand him perfectly, and as for his ideas playing second fiddle to his feelings, that was entirely in keeping with prevailing standards and had never yet been regarded as a drawback in literature.

Arnheim, discomfited by this echoing of his thoughts, again held back the cigar smoke between lips that for a moment remained half open, as a token barrier between himself and his surroundings. He had praised some of these especially pure poets on every occasion, because it was the thing to do, and had sometimes even supported them and their inflated verses. “These heraldic figures who can’t even support themselves,” he thought, “really belong in a game preserve, together with the last of the bison and eagles.” And since, as this evening had proved, it was not in keeping with the times to support them, Arnheim’s reflections ended not without some profit for himself. (I,440-441)

 Nor can poets of the day understand the looming disaster and attempt to direct the spirit in a new direction.

Had Arnheim been able to see only a few years into the future, he would have seen that 1920 years of Christian morality, millions of dead men in the wake of a shattering war, and a whole German forest of poetry rustling in homage to the modesty of Woman could not hold back the day when women’s skirts and hair began to grow shorter and the young girls of Europe slipped off eons of taboos to emerge for a while naked, like peeled bananas. (I,442)

Even the General’s dog, which Arnheim now kindly remembered, would never have understood any other line of development, for this loyal friend of man’s character had still been formed by the stable, docile man of the previous century, in that man’s image; but its cousin the prairie rooster, would have understood readily enough. When that wild fowl, dancing for hours on end, plumes itself and claws the ground, there is probably more soul generated than by a scholar linking one thought to another at his desk. For in the last analysis, all thoughts come out of the joints, muscles, glands, eyes , and ears, and from the shadowy general impressions that the bag of skin to which they belong has of itself as a whole. (I,443)

We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when , unfortunately they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon, like the General’s much cited fox terrier. (I,445)

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