Edgell Rickword on James Joyce & Modernism

But for the middle class particularly, the putting the blame for deficiency in their emotional lives on to psychology serves a very definite purpose in canalising discontent into channels which avoid criticism of the social conditions which mould our thoughts. In literature it is not merely the technical superiority of such writers as Joyce, Eliot, Huxley or Virginia Woolf, which ensures that they shall be treated as “representative” writers. Their various degrees of pessimism, of confusion, the very skill with which they represent life as a skein of infinitely interwoven sensations, and motives and emotions whose ‘meaning’ can no more be consciously grasped than the exact colour of a mist at sunrise, suggest to the reader a feeling of impotence faced with the complexity of life, and leave him, if with any certainty, then the certainty that no line of behaviour is any better than any other. Because there is nothing we can point to as absolute truth, then no statement is more true than another; because no action is entirely disinterested, then no action is more admirable than another; because the reason cannot classify the whole of experience, then irrationality is the key to understanding; these are some of the sophistries to which the best-intentioned minds must fall victim when they live in an atmosphere where the basic reasons of existence, food and shelter and love, are no longer realised in their origin as solely the emanations of human labour.

SOURCE: Rickword, Edgell. “Culture, Progress, and English Tradition,” in The Mind in Chains: Socialism and the Cultural Revolution, edited by C. Day Lewis (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1937), pp. 235-256. This excerpt, p. 250. Table of contents.

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