Is Modern Literature Really a Sewer?


Trousered Apes, by Duncan Williams, New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1972, 169 pp., $6.95.

"There are occasions when a worthless, insignificant book acquires significance as a scrap of litmus paper exposing a culture's intellectual state." (Ayn Rand, THE AYN RAND LETTER, January 17, 1972, p. 1.) Just as occasionally, a worthless, insignificant book acquires significance as a scrap of litmus paper exposing the intellectual state of a culture's critics. Such an occasion was the publication by Arlington House of TROUSERED APES by Duncan Williams.

TROUSERED APES purports to be a detailed analysis of the violence, animality and nihilism of contemporary literature. In fact, it is a tedious, repetitious and illogical diatribe—against a straw man.

Western civilization, Dr. Williams announces, has been built on the classical ideal of the Golden Mean, on the belief that man can effect a kind of compromise between his rational faculty and his instinctive drives, thereby developing the cardinal virtues of restraint, self-control and decorum—in essence, good manners. But restraint is the keynote. Even good manners must be good in moderation: "…even a virtue ceases to be such if it is carried to excess." (TROUSERED APES, p. 128). Clearly this ethic presupposes several more basic philosophical principles, and Dr. Williams happily specifies these as well: Man can only take meaningful action if the universe in which he lives is meaningful, which is to say, only if there is a God looking after it. The existence of this God cannot be rationally proved, but then neither can it be rationally disproved, and in the absence of evidence either way, surely it is preferable, because it leads to the cultivation of better manners, to believe. In any case, man must realize that he is in error if he tries to apply reason to questions of theology, metaphysics and meta-ethics. These are properly the province of "instinct." (p. 124-26). Finally, just as man needs a God to impose order on the universe, so he needs an authoritative government to impose order on society.

These ideas were dominant. Dr. Williams informs us, throughout Western history until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which, by overemphasizing reason at the expense of instinct, spawned the over-emotional reaction of the Romantic period. And it has been all downhill from there. Romanticism, which is roughly synonymous with irrational self-assertiveness, rejection of all authority, even God's, and absolutely execrable manners, has dominated literature ever since. Today we are treated to such spectacles as John Osborne's A PATRIOT FOR ME, in which two males embrace on stage, Pablo Picasso's LE DESIR ATTRAPE PAR LA QUEUE, in which a woman simulates urination on stage, and Jean Genet's THE BALCONY, in which a man castrates himself. Again the keynote is restraint—or lack of it. It is because the Romanticist wants to assert himself and his emotional drives that he rejects God's authority and man's by seeking to shock his fellows with ever more atrocious displays of vulgarity and ill-breeding. These three plays may safely be taken as representative of contemporary literature. Today's literature portrays man as a Trousered Ape.


That all this is pretentious nonsense is clear almost from the start. In the first place, the idea that Western civilization rests on metaphysical supernaturalism and epistemological irrationalism is patently absurd. Something quite like these principles underlay medieval Western civilization, but it was only the fundamentally realistic and rationalistic doctrines of such men as Pierre Abelard and Thomas Aquinas that made a rebirth of progress and prosperity possible during the Renaissance. In the second place, a morality based entirely on the ideal of the Golden Mean, a morality which holds excess as the cardinal evil, can only, by its nature, promote the kind of uniform mediocrity which is impotent to advance the human condition. It can only penalize (and penalize equally) a producer and a destroyer, a saint and a scoundrel. In the third place, even if the Classicist/Romanticist dichotomy could be explained by means of so crude a paradigm as Dr. Williams presents, his reason/emotion paradigm wouldn't do the trick. If the fact of Classicist critical theory's preoccupation with the arousal of passions in the drama weren't embarrassing enough, the fact of such Romantic theorists as Coleridge's interest in developing a rational and dispassionate poetics has to be.[1] Of course, at this point. Dr. Williams might protest that we are quibbling about words. Isn't it the fact, whether we use words like Classic and Romantic to describe it or not, that literature, including the drama, has become increasingly nihilistic and preoccupied with depravity since the turn of the 20th century? The answer, unfortunately for Dr. Williams and for such other critics of the MLIAS (Modern-Literature-Is-A-Sewer) school as Ayn Rand, is: NO.

It is here, when TROUSERED APES is considered as a document in the MLIAS tradition, that its significance becomes clear. That contemporary literature is depraved, that it presents man as an animal or worse, is a notion which should have floated away because of insubstantiality years ago. Instead it has become dogma for thousands of people who behave rationally enough in other intellectual spheres. And, if the publication and British success of TROUSERED APES may be taken as symptomatic, it is a notion which is gaining adherents. Yet if one takes a close look at the literary situation of the Western world in the 20th century, one can only conclude that the MLIAS critics and their supporters are spending more time condemning the literature in question than they are spending reading it! For not only is it not the case that most contemporary fiction and poetry projects this view of man, but it is also not the case that certain of the specific works these critics cite as examples project this view.

What authors do they cite? Whether one is reading Williams or Rand, the lists are monotonously predictable: Beckett (especially WAITING FOR GODOT), Nabokov (especially LOLITA), Genet, Edward Albee, William Burroughs, Kafka, Joyce, Gunter Grass, John Osborne, Norman Mailer, the Theatre of the Absurd, Henry Miller. But is it really necessary to point out that these names do not exhaust contemporary literature? Or that there are contemporary writers (and just as many of them) who project other views of man? Of course, Rand and Williams are not in complete accord about the sort of alternative they would like. Both reject the idea that depravity is any more realistic than anything else, but while Rand is asking, "…if heroes and geniuses are not to be regarded as representative of mankind, by reason of their numerical rarity, why are freaks and monsters to be regarded as representative? Why are the problems of a bearded lady of greater universal significance than the problems of a genius? Why is the soul of a murderer worth studying, but not the soul of a hero?"[2], Williams is declaring, "There is nothing fundamentally more realistic or more 'natural' about a public urinal, or a kitchen-sink, or a paranoid-schizophrenic than there is about a tranquil lawn, or a cultivated household, or a balanced mind." (p. 129.) The fact is, though, that both can be satisfied: if Ms. Rand wants the problems of a genius and the soul of a hero, let her examine the novels of Alfred Bester and Rafael Sabatini and J.R.R. Tolkien, or, on a lighter level, the "science-fiction" novels of such writers as Poul Anderson and Robert A. Heinlein. If she can be contented with stories of the near-heroic, let her sample the later novels of Mervyn Peake or the earlier ones of James Branch Cabell. If Dr. Williams wants a tranquil lawn, a cultivated household and a balanced mind, let him become acquainted with Ray Bradbury's DANDELION WINE, Ross Lockridge's RAINTREE COUNTY and the later novels of George Moore, to say nothing (as Dr. Williams himself does for the entirety of his book) of the works of Ayn Rand. Let him examine some of the work even of writers he condemns (Henry Miller's SMILE AT THE FOOT OF THE LADDER is an apt example). And let both of them (Ms. Rand does to an extent) note the wide availability and phenomenal success of heroic, life-affirming light fiction from such authors as Donald Hamilton, Ross MacDonald, Ira Levin, John D. MacDonald, Alastair MacLean, Arthur C. Clarke and Jack Schaeffer.


Of course, the usual lament of MLIAS critics is that the authors of positive, humanistic literature are ignored by the intellectual world, while the extollers of nihilism and depravity dominate the culture. But consider the reading list for the average university course in 20th century American fiction: Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Salinger, and an assortment of such post-War figures as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John Updike and Ken Kesey. Dreiser, Faulkner, Malamud and Joyce Carol Oates are the only members of this company who could possibly be accused of depicting "trousered apes" in their work, and even they could not be convicted of doing so consistently. A list of the critically acclaimed British writers of this century is similarly lacking in depraved nihilists: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, George Moore, Aldous Huxley, Ronald Firbank, George Orwell, Grahame Greene, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles. And for every Kafka and Grass on the continent, there is a Thomas Mann or a Hermann Hesse. The fact is that writers like Beckett who do present man in nihilistic terms are not in a majority in contemporary letters. Most contemporary writers do not present heroes and tranquil lawns, true enough; but neither do they present subhuman monsters. They present human characters trying (and not always failing) to cope with human problems.

But perhaps most important among the facts which MLIAS critics ignore is the style of much contemporary literature. As Ayn Rand has herself pointed out: "Two distinct, but interrelated, elements of a work of art are the crucial means of projecting its sense of life: the subject and the style—what an artist chooses to present and how he presents it. The subject of an art work expresses a view of man's existence, while the style expresses a view of man's consciousness. The subject reveals an artist's metaphysics, the style reveals his psycho-epistemology."[3] Style is as important a determinant of sense-of-life in a literary work as subject. A novel which presents heroic individuals overcoming obstacles to their success in the style of the average comic book—a style which projects the unsophisticated, concrete-bound, largely indiscriminate psychoepistemology of a child—is no more a pro-human, pro-life novel than is the detailed portrait of a madman in a style which projects the integrative and discriminatory control of a human consciousness at the height of its powers. As emotional fuel for the rational person, both books are half-measures. The first says that human existence can be dramatic and exciting but that human consciousness is little better than that of an intelligent collie. The second says that human consciousness can be extraordinarily disciplined and subtle and virtually invincible in the solution of problems but that human existence is a nightmare of pain and frustration. To accept the first as a portrait of heroism, one would have to be profoundly anti-intellectual. To accept the second as a portrait of genius, one would have to inhabit an ivory tower and totally disdain the translation of theory into practice. To the extent that contemporary writers portray man as a subhuman monster, they do so in a style which portrays human consciousness as a magnificent tool for the most intense awareness of reality. If Nabokov's PALE FIRE is the portrait of an insane genius helplessly trapped in his own elaborate self-delusions, it is also one of the greatest hymns to the integrative power of the human mind that has ever been published. If Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT is the portrait of man as the helpless inhabitant of an incomprehensible world, it is also a paean to the economy and precision which the human mind can achieve in its apprehension of a scene, a character, a chain of events. If Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER is the portrait of man as a sewer rat crawling through slime, it is also a tribute to the introspective power of human consciousness, a portrait of the vividness and intensity which self awareness can attain. These works are not depraved and nihilistic; they are almost exactly even mixtures of the depraved with the exalted, of the nihilistic with the life-affirming.

So much, then, for contemporary literature and for the MLIAS view of its meaning and value. One fact remains to be stressed: in all of literary history, there has been only one writer who has offered a thoroughly rational portrait of man with respect to both existence and consciousness—Ayn Rand. All other writers, all other works, are mixtures of the heroic and the commonplace, of the insightful and the mundane, of the rational and the irrational.

Twentieth century literature is no exception to this rule, and neither are those specific works of 20th century literature which are so often singled out for damnation by MLIAS critics. They have something, most of them, to offer the rational person, if he will read them carefully and critically. If he will not, he should refrain from discussing them.

Jeff Riggenbach did his undergraduate work in Literature and Philosophy at the University of Houston. He has contributed articles and reviews to VOLITION, INVICTUS, BOOK NEWS, BOOKS FOR LIBERTARIANS and REASON. He is presently pursuing a career in broadcast journalism in Los Angeles, and is engaged in writing a book on literary theory.

[1] For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Brian Eenigenburg, "The Romantic-Classic Dichotomy," VOLITION, June-July 1972, pp. 3-8.
[2] Ayn Rand, THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO (World, 1969), p. 116.
[3] Ibid, p. 50.