February 5, 2013

Chapman: Life is ugly and necessary

The book, Practical Agitation, was described by its author as "an attempt to follow the track of personal influence upon society." The author, John Jay Chapman, wrote his preface on February 5, 1900 and believed "we can always do more for mankind by following the good in a straight line than we can by making concessions to evil." The New York born author, a scholar of Dante, a classicist generally who also studied the transcendentalists and had very real beliefs in good versus evil and the nature of sin.

To Chapman, an "agitator" is one who urges positive change through peaceful protest. He writes, for example, that an agitator uses "the machinery of government to make men more unselfish." Nevertheless, Chapman sees the potential danger of being an agitator: "Reform may have a thousand meanings, and be used to cover a thousand projects of doubtful utility." His own interests in reform range from the role of politics and the character of politicians to the educational system. His idealism, however, was tainted by his concern that the country was "full of maimed human beings, of cynics and feeble good men, and outside of this no form of life except the diabolical intelligence of pure business." His focus in this book was mostly politics and the government, but Chapman believed that we had to look to literature for reform, which was only possible if we removed our cynicism:

In our ordinary moods we regard the conclusions of the poets as both true and untrue, — true to feeling, untrue to fact; true as intimations of the next world or of some lost world; untrue here, because detached from those portions of society that are perennially visible. Most men have a duplicate philosophy which enables them to love the arts and the wit of mankind, at the same time that they conveniently despise them. Life is ugly and necessary; art is beautiful and impossible. "The farther you go from the facts of life, the nearer you get to poetry. The practical problem is to keep them in separate spheres, and to enjoy both." The hypothesis of a duplicity in the universe explains everything, and staves off all claims and questionings.

Some saw Chapman's criticism as a "Civil Disobedience" for a new generation. William James wrote that Practical Agitation was "a gospel for our rising generation. — I hope it will have its effect."

1 comment:

  1. As a writer, I thank you for your quote. I believe that Gore Vidal said John Jay Chapman is one of the great forgotten essayists of American literature.