“Commercialism has destroyed literature… Criticism has been eliminated, for who will pay for it? The publisher, and the newspaper which lives on his advertisements, wants every book to sell…” — Aleister Crowley, 1923
With today’s further commercial leveling down of ideas in mind, I offer this parable from the foreword to James Branch Cabell’s, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, 1919:
“The Judging of Jurgen
Now a court was held by the Philistines to decide whether or no King Jurgen should be relegated to limbo. And when the judges were prepared… there came into the court a great tumblebug… With the creature came pages, in black and white, bearing a sword, a staff and a lance.
This insect looked at Jurgen, and its pincers rose erect in horror. The bug cried… “Now, by St. Anthony! this Jurgen must forthwith be relegated to limbo, for he is offensive and lewd and lascivious and indecent.”
“And how can that be?” says Jurgen.
“You are offensive,” the bug replied, “because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword…. lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance… lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff. And finally, you are indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal…”
“Well, that sounds logical,” says Jurgen, “but still… it would be no worse for an admixture of common sense. For you gentlemen can see for yourselves, by considering these pages fairly and as a whole, that these pages bear a sword, a lance and a staff, and nothing else whatever; and you will deduce, I hope, that all the lewdness is in the insectival mind of him who itches to be calling these things by other names.”
The judges said nothing… But they that guarded Jurgen, and all the other Philistines, stood to this side and to that side with their eyes shut tight, and… said: “We decline to look at the pages fairly and as a whole, because to look might… imply a doubt of what the tumblebug has decreed… as long as the tumblebug has reasons which he declines to reveal, his reasons stay unanswerable and you are plainly a prurient rascal who are making trouble for yourself.”
“To the contrary,” says Jurgen, “I am a poet, and I make literature.”
“But in Philistia to make literature and… trouble for yourself are synonymous… I know, for already we… have been pestered by three of these makers of literature. Yes, there was Edgar, whom I starved and hunted until I was tired of it: then I chased him up a back alley one night, and knocked out those annoying brains of his. And there was Walt whom I… battered from place to place, and made a paralytic of him: and him, too, I labelled offensive and lewd and lascivious and indecent. And then later there was Mark, whom I frightened into disguising himself in a clown’s suit so that nobody might suspect him of being a maker of literature. I frightened him so that he hid away the greater part of what he had made until after he was dead, and I could not get at him. That was a disgusting trick to play on me, I consider…”
“Now, but these three,” cried Jurgen, “are the glory of Philistia: and of all that Philistia has produced, it is these three alone, whom living ye made least of, that to-day are honored wherever art is honored…”
“What is art to me and my way of living?” replied the tumblebug, wearily. “I have no concern with art and letters and the other lewd idols of foreign nations. I have in charge the moral welfare of my young… and trust with St. Anthony’s aid to raise them to be God-fearing tumblebugs like me… For the rest, I have never minded dead men being well-spoken-of. No, no, my lad: once whatever I may do means nothing to you, and once you are really rotten, you will find the tumblebug friendly enough. Meanwhile I am paid to protest that living persons are offensive and lewd and lascivious and indecent…”
Then the Philistines who stood to this side and to that side said in indignant unison: “And we… are not at all in sympathy with those who would take any protest against the tumblebug as a justification of what they are pleased to call art. The harm done by the tumblebug seems to us very slight, whereas the harm done by the self-styled artist may be very great.”
Jurgen now looked more attentively at this queer creature: and he saw that the tumblebug was malodorous, certainly, but at bottom honest and well-meaning; and this seemed to Jurgen the saddest thing he had found among the Philistines. For the tumblebug was sincere in his insane doings, and all Philistia honored him sincerely, so that there was nowhere any hope for these people.
Therefore King Jurgen addressed himself… to submit to the strange customs of the Philistines. “Now do you judge me fairly,” cried Jurgen to his judges, “if there be any justice in this mad country. And if there be none, do you relegate me to limbo or to any other place, so long as in that place this tumblebug is not omnipotent and sincere and insane.”
And Jurgen waited….”
Times may have changed somewhat between then and now, but one thing is certain: the tension between individual and culture is at the core of creative conflict. It’s what separates us from animals. Will we be animals with human potential or only egos with animal desires?