The Living Age – Volume 282 (1914)
An Apology for Puritans
By ROBERT LYND
It is difficult in these days to take exception to even the meanest-moralled picture or book or music-hall turn without being reproached with the name of Puritan. It is as if even to be suspected of Puritanism ought to overwhelm one with shame and to send one into hiding as a sinner against the arts. Puritanism, I admit, is not an easy charge against which to defend oneself. But that is not because it is so terrible, but because it is so vague, a charge. Some men, when they call you a Puritan, mean that you keep the Sabbath and speak through your nose and do not allow your children to read fairy tales. Other men regard you as a Puritan if you venture to criticize the home life of Bluebeard. Puritanism may mean anything from the most fanatical teetotalism to the mildest disapproval of Nero. Roughly, however, it may be regarded as a kind of censorship of pleasures—not censorship of other people’s pleasures necessarily, but a censorship of one’s own. It is an assertion of the belief that the right to pleasure is only a right within limits, which may easily degenerate into the right of a man to be a pig. Personally, I think that there is a good deal to be said for the right of a man to be a pig without interference from the police provided he does not set about turning the world at large into a sty; but I hold—and this is where I differ from most of the anti-Puritans I have known—that to other people must equally be conceded the right of dissent from his ideals. To dissent from a man on moral grounds seems to many anti-Puritans to be an inartistic relic of seventeenth-century intolerance. But this usually means that they themselves are intolerant of any disagreement with their own moral code of eating, drinking, and general merriment.
A great deal of the anti-Puritanism of to-day, indeed, is merely intolerance (in an ugly phrase) “up to date.”You have only to hear the ordinary anti-Puritan pronounce the word “Nonconformist” to appreciate this. Anti-Puritanism at its best, however, is concerned not with attacking this or that form of religion, but with the defence of the arts. It is an affirmation that beauty is the supreme law of life, and a denial of the right of the moralist or the vestryman to criticize beauty in accordance with his own irrelevant standards. It demands that, if a poem be beautifully written or a picture beautifully painted, we shall be silent with everything but our praise. This is a point of view for which there is something to be said. One wonders at times whether there is not, after all, a morality of good writing and good painting which, even from the Puritan standpoint, makes a poem by Baudelaire a chaster piece of work than a badly written novelette. It is usually, however, in regard to some inessential work of art or literature that the anti-Puritans raise the banner of their ideal. They are less likely to quarrel with the Puritans about “Hamlet” or Sir Thomas Browne than about Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” or Nijinsky’s dancing. They are more likely still to attack the Puritans on the score of some book or drawing which is deliberately intended to shock, like Mr. George Moore’s “Hail and Farewell!” or some of those distorted anatomies which pass for works of art among the Futurists and their followers. The Puritan contends that art, like every other human activity, should have its decencies, and that exhibitionism is a disease and not a conceivable artistic ideal. The anti-Puritan replies that the artist must have perfect liberty to choose his own subject and to treat it in his own way without reference to other people’s ideas of decency and morals. One would not mind this very much if one could trust the artist to treat his subject with a divine indifference as to its moral or immoral significance. But artists are only human, and if they choose indecent subjects it is ten to one that they do so not because they are splendidly impartial, but because they are apostles and propagandists of indecency. They are as fervent moralists as anybody; only their morality is phallic rather than Puritanical.
They preach a sexualism which seems to me to be the enemy both of life and of art. It is a sexualism the logic of which is seen in the Lock Hospital and in the aesthetics of decadence. Great art can arise only through the defeat of the endless missionaries of sexualism. Shakespeare, though he was obviously no Puritan in the everyday sense of the word, simply could not have written his plays as we know them if he had taken the same view of chastity as the Restoration dramatists did. It was, one is told, during two centuries of passionate Puritanism that the Hebrews produced their great prophetic literature. The relationship between Puritanism and great art could not be better suggested, I think, than by such a fact as that Savonarola of the Bonfire of Vanities had as his devoted followers men like Michelangelo and Botticelli. Personally, I think that Savonarola’s Bonfire of Vanities was an infinitely more beautiful thing than any picture or jewel that was destroyed in it.
Puritanism, then, is not the enemy of beauty as is commonly supposed. In its extreme form it may be a theory of salvation through negation—negation of love and wine and song. It may look on virtue as mainly a matter of groans. But I cannot help suspecting that the groaning kind of Puritan would have made as miserable a job of it, no matter what his creed had been. After all, the anti-Puritans are not such a cheerful crowd that they can afford to boast. I have heard it said that martyrs being burned at the stake were a far merrier-looking company than the anti-Puritan gamblers of Monte Carlo. As a matter of fact, when the anti-Puritan wants to make a strong case against the Puritans he usually does so not on the ground that their Puritanism is wrong, but on the ground that their Puritanism is only a pretence. He accuses them of secret drinking, of gluttony, of making eyes at their neighbors’ wives. He denounces them not for their ideal, but for their failure to live up to it. Hypocrisy, of course, is fair game for the satirist, and so is the blighting sort of virtue. In regard to the former, however, there is as much Pharisaism of vice as of virtue in these days, and Puritanism does not involve the abolition, but merely the subordination and selection, of pleasures.
Puritans, I believe, are perfectly right in their theory that abstinence of a sort is necessary to the sort of happiness most worth having. One cannot be drunk with beer and with art at the same time; one cannot be drunk with beer and with any spiritual thing at the same time. Puritanism is abstinence from the ecstasies of the sensations as a means of making possible the ecstasies of the spirit. It is not a more dangerous form of abstinence than the abstinence of the anti-Puritans, who abstain so freely from the decencies and the graces. It is a glorious fastidiousness, a preference of the natural to the artificial, an acceptance of Nature with all her modesties. It has more regard for the technique of conduct than for the technique of the drawing-school—and I think this is good even for the drawing-school. It is the view that only out of serious life can the greatest art spring, and that art which is not an expression of serious living is prone to be mere ornament and of no more imaginative significance than lilies in a hearse.