Richard Aldington

Knowledge and the Novelist 
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The following essay appeared in
The Times Literary Supplement
Saturday, July 2, 1938. Page 448

We read books for two different purposes: for knowledge and for entertainment. The quality of the knowledge sought our acquired may naturally vary extremely, from a rigorous demonstration of some fact or generalization in metaphysics, down to such evident absurdities as Pyramid prophecies, astrology and What Modern Girls are Thinking. In the same way, the quality of entertainment varies from the greatest achievements of poetry and narrative to the most wretched production of the fictioneer and article-mechanic -- from Shakespeare and Montaigne, shall we say, to the crudest and silliest girl's tale and vulgarest column.

This rough-and-ready, but not altogether arbitrary, distinction assumes that literature meets the two great needs of the human mind -- to know and to feel, to experience. Science and Art, in fact. It might be argued that there are some types of book which are incapable of giving either knowledge or entertainment. I don't mean merely bad books which have attempted and failed in either purpose, but books on such subjects as fanciful occultism or morbid mysticism. I can imagine others beside cold-fibred Rationalists arguing that neither knowledge nor entertainment can come from such books. But obviously the writers believed they were conveying knowledge, perhaps of the greatest importance; while the unconverted my be greatly entertained by observing what seems to them queer mental antics as pointless as the play of monkeys.


It is the business of scientific criticism to test the validity of knowledge. The criticism of science is very rigorous indeed, and a scientist who makes a mistake or publishes false data is ruined. (This does not apply, or course, to scientists philosophizing or predicting the future -- otherwise there would be a holocaust.) The business of aesthetic criticism is, or might be, or should be, to do something very different and far less exact; to point out the best and most vital achievements in entertainment. This is very much harder than pointing out real or imaginary shortcomings, which is why it is so seldom done. Aesthetic criticism can never be rigorously scientific, because there is not just one set of objective facts to be verified. But art (or entertainment) is a collaboration, and the quality of the experience depends as much on the receiving as the giving mind A scientist can perform an experiment and demonstrate the truth of some fact or principle to any audience of rational persons. But you may read and expound a poem to exactly the same audience and get the most diverse responses and opinions. In art you can never dispense with the collaborator, and appeal to some abstract intelligence. Hence Whitman's saying that to have great poets you must have great audiences.

I foresee that there may be objections to my using the word "entertainment" for art. I shall be told that I fail to appreciate art's higher functions, immortal destiny and so on. But the word "entertain" means "to take in" and "to interest" as well as "to amuse." By using the word "entertainment" I didn't mean to imply that art is merely amusing (though I don't see why it shouldn't be amusing), but that it is an experience to which we must be receptive (our experience depending in part on our sensitiveness), an experience which involves our whole nature and not merely the abstract intelligence. That's a lot to make one word mean, said Alice. No doubt I have overpacked the portmanteau, but these meanings are in the word. I wanted to get away from the false sacrosanct attitude to art.


I think the belief in the "sacredness" and "immortality" of art comes immediately from the propaganda of the Romantics, with their fulsome talk of "holy poets" and "sublime genius" and "divine artists" -- altogether exaggerated claims which the world has rightly refused to accept. But, more remotely, this idea of "sacredness" comes from the fact that early art of all kinds is inextricably mixed up with magic and, in more developed civilizations, with religion. There is no need to labour this point, which will be confirmed by even the most superficial study of ancient art and literature. And, of course, such science as then existed was also included in magic or religion.

In yet more developed civilizations all these activities tend to split asunder and to become autonomous. Something of the sort happened in Athens and Ionia, but was only temporary. In our own complex life, science has fully achieved independence; religion still persists, and probably will long persist; while magic has dropped into mere superstition and faddism/ Art also persists, not because there is anything "sacred" or "immortal" about it, but simply because it corresponds to a human need. A good deal of nonsense about the obsolescence of art is written by the less responsible fuglemen of science -- communist science, bien entendu. Mr. Langdon Davies, for instance, dismisses art, and more specifically the art of literature, to oblivion, because an elaborate and expensive education is needed to enjoy James Joyce and Proust. Well, I enjoy them without having had an elaborate and expensive education, certainly nothing like so much as would have been needed for me to comprehend properly such commonplaces of modern science as Einstein's general theory of relativity, Planck's quantum theory, the structure of the atom, and Morgan's discoveries in genetics.

It is not a question of deciding whether either Michelangelo painting the Sistine chapel or Galileo dropping weights off the campanile at Pisa was engaged in a futile occupation. The point is that, if you fail to perceive the significance of either or both of these activities, you are undeveloped. And some of the self-appointed apostles of science in England are very undeveloped indeed.

Coming direct from these general considerations to the art of literature to-day I think we may, or even must, turn to the novel as the form which provides entertainment, both in the narrow sense of amusement and in the wider since I give the word. I am not going to start on any rosy prophecies or dart jeremiads; all I point to is the self-evident fact that the novel is a form -- or medium, if you prefer -- which does secure the indispensable collaboration of audiences. It may be the decadence of literary art, but there it is. And so exceedingly fertile that no single one of us knows more than a fraction of what it has achieved or failed to achieve.

By speaking of the novel as entertainment, I have, on my own definition, put it in the category of art; and most obviously the quality varies extremely, from "Sons and Lovers" and "Point Counter Point" to this week's flops. Strictly speaking, the novel is no more "knowledge" than any other kind of art. But here we come at once on a difficulty. We argue that art, even the art of the novel, is not the pure knowledge like that of science, but the experience of feeling (or of the sensibility, if you prefer); but does the art of pure feeling, pure unintellectual sensibility, exist? Perhaps to some extent in primitive and folk art; Perhaps in some music, like that of Mozart and Debussy, or in some of the poems of Mallarmé and Edgar Poe and Verlaine, or the painting of Giorgione and El Greco. Perhaps, if you happen to admire it, you might include the sculpture of Brancusi. But generally it is always accompanied by or contaminated by some kind of knowledge, often a great deal of knowledge.


I have left out architecture because I do not think that even the most Baroque building or the most fantastic production of contemporary "originality" can claim to be pure sensibility. Some knowledge, often a great deal of highly organized knowledge, is needed to produce a stature, a picture or a poem. Even a novel cannot exist without knowledge; even Lawrence had far more knowledge than the average working man or politician.

Here I arrive a the very core of this little meditation, by asking myself what sort of knowledge it is that a novelist possesses or should posses? Apart, I mean from the mere rhetorical knowledge of the use of words, which is not an uncommon gift and may be developed at any university? Is there indeed, such a thing as a novelist's knowledge? In the case of Mr. Huxley, much of the knowledge is plainly irrelevant, for he is also a poet, an érudit, and essayist, a publicist, a moralist, almost, in his most recent phase a religious reformer. And to some extent, this is true of Lawrence also, for he had a great passion for advising the world. That is almost inevitable; it has so long been our substitute for subtler enjoyments and aspirations.

Has the novelist then any special knowledge of his own to convey? Cutting out the novels about animals, utopians and detectives, you might say that the novelist at any rate tries to impart a special knowledge of human nature. But there he bumps up against the psychologist. Coming at it from another point of view, you might say that his special knowledge consists in knowing how to tell a story; but there again he bumps up against the historian, the biographer, the good journalist, the old woman at the fireside and the village liar. Probably there must be a little or a lot of all these in the successful novelist. Certainly there is now a good deal of the journalist in him -- the distinguishing line to me at any rate is invisible. Even the great Stendhal took the story of "Le Rouge et le Noir" from a newspaper, and the plot of "Madame Bovary" was a piece of local scandal.

I do very much doubt whether the novelist can claim a special knowledge of human nature. From one point of view you may hear much shrewder comments on human nature from alert old ladies who have lived and been loved a lot. From another you may hear much more from the professional psychologist. And how many more promising novels are spoiled by too much formal psychology? And to say that the novelist has some special intuition into human nature is claiming rather a lot. Some do seem to have it, but it is not common. Lawrence, to cite him again, had a special sort of intuition with regard to the non-human world, but that is extremely rare.


As to knowledge of "life," by which I mean what goes on in the world, I really believe any intelligent Fleet Street journalist knows far more than the most up-stage novelists. I have sometimes amused myself by setting a general knowledge paper for novelists on these lines. Here are some of the questions I should set: -- Describe the training of a metropolitan policeman and give your ideas of what he does with his leisure when (a) unmarried, (b) married. How does an East End greengrocer run his business? What are the duties of a barrister's clerk? Describe a typical day in the lives of (a) a racehorse trainer, (b) a jockey, (c) a stableboy. What are the functions of the Lord Chancellor? What do you know about the industries of (a) Middlesbrough, (b) the Clyde, (c) Manchester, (d) Slough? Suppose you had to take over the organization of Lyons Corner House, how would you set about it? Describe accurately the thoughts and actions of (a) the commander of a torpedo boat going into action, (a) an engineer ordered to construct a reservoir in North Wales, (a) a London stockbroker on hearing of another Wall Street crash.

No wonder most novelists prefer to write about love.

When you come to sum it up, I think you may say reasonably that the average novelist has no special knowledge. Special knowledge, like that of Dublin life thirty yeas ago in Joyce's "Ulysses," is rare. Even the so-called well-informed novelist is generally a sciolist -- i.e., one who knows many things but knows them all badly. The average successful novelist is a more receptive and probably more exhibitionist specimen to the average man with the gift of the gab on paper. That is why he is in "Who's Who," when -- shameful to relate -- so many reviewers are absent. The reason may be, too, that the novelist often entertains, and the reviewer can seldom afford it.

The Richard Aldington web site, revised April 1, 2003. Address comments to Paul Hernandez,