Painting: Disintegration of Adam by Darwin Leon
Internet forums for writers, such as the private Roundtable at Authorsden.com, stimulate the creative imagination. They provide professional information and a place to write live and to critically examine styles and sketches of various subjects of interest in “threads.” They are certainly a valuable source of ideas, just as were the salons of old; however, virtual forums lack the physical presence of everyone involved as well as the personal skills of a brilliant and beautiful hostess
When Socrates did most of the talking at forums, his intention was usually didactic. He proved the oracle true when he learned that he was the wisest man of all the men he questioned because by that questioning he discovered he alone was ignorant of the absolute truth about anything at all. That is not to say we should preach ignorance as a virtue, but that we should encourage the continuance of the great conversation of humankind.
Conversations in ancient fictional plays provided a high cultural education for all who attended. The ancient Greeks are famous for their dialogues. However, didactic dialogue among two or more people is not much admired in non-fiction today; direct statements by a collective “we” if not by a single speaker are preferred—a gentleman said he did not believe an exposition of mine because I used to many “I”s. Nor is didactic dialogue cared for in fiction except to explain the setting, subject matter, or what is transpiring.
Nowadays people want action. They do not care for long-winded conversations, especially those of the moral sort. Of course long conversations were the main and sometimes the only attraction prior to the invention of motion pictures and televisions. Periodicals included fictional stories as well as conversational essays in nonfiction to make content more lively.
Religious and political writing was passionate and often downright vicious in the expressive days. Still, the purpose of such famous eighteenth century publications as the Tatler and the Spectator of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison were edited for the moral edification of their readers. Vice, cynicism, greediness, and infidelity were held in contempt as unbefitting to man's true self. Indeed, the purpose of a genuine essay was believed to be the uplifting of moral virtue and the teaching of science.
Fictitious characters, such as Mr. Spectator of the Spectator's Club, were used to present ideas through polite conversations. The Spectator agenda included popularizing science "as a reinforcement of religions faith": the evolutionary adaptation of animals was presented as demonstrative of God's beneficience. The Tatler’s Trumpet Club was headed by Sir Roger de Coverley, a kind and elderly country squire. Tatler endeavored bring philosophy out "to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses." By 'philosophy' was meant comprehensive knowledge and wisdom.
Tatler and Spectator and the like had quite a civilizing effect on their readers. But people eventually tired of the pious moralizing. Didactic fictions became terribly boring to most people. They wanted entertainment, not sermons. But the form did not disappear.
H.G. Wells, who thought of himself as teacher, was a master of didactic novels. He is known best for War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, but we barely known him. He considered himself to be a journalist rather than a novelist. Indeed, he could not restrain himself from writing about current topics, the interest in which was bound to rapidly fade in time, as opposed to artful novels which might attain to immortal fame.
Wells was criticized for writing non-fiction and didactic novels. Virginia Woolf said his Joan and Peter was too didactic for fiction. On the other hand, Thomas Hardy loved the novel so much he read it aloud to his wife, and claimed Wells had a "preternatural knowledge of what people do" in their houses. And Sir E. Ray Lankester, an English biologist who was Chairman of the Committee on the Neglect of Science, and was involved in educational reform for the purpose of making better people and better governments, told Wells to ignore the petty and jealous critics "making their puny efforts to crab the book declaring it to be all schoolmaster and no story...."
H.L. Mencken took Wells to task in his inimitably caustic fashion, for heaving larger and larger doses of theory into his work. In an essay dated 1918, Mencken, uncomfortable with Wells' "Flabby Socialism", that of the English lower class, had this to say in regards to a few of his didactic novels:
“(But it) was not enough to display the life of his time with accuracy and understanding; it was not enough to criticize it with a penetrating humor and sagacity. From the depths of his being, like some foul miasma, there arose the old, fatuous yearning to change it, to improve it, to set it right where it was wrong, to make it over according to some pattern superior to the one followed by Lord God Jehovah. With this sinister impulse, as aberrant in an artist as a taste for legs in an archbishop....And under all the rumble-bumble of bad ideas is the imbecile assumption of the jitney messiah at all times and everywhere: that human beings may be made over by changes the rules under which they live, that progress is a matter of intent and foresight.... "
We shall better understand the didactic mode if we read from H.G. Wells' Undying Fire (1919).
The protagonist therein, a progressive schoolmaster named Job Huss, suffers trials similar to those endured biblical Job, thanks to the traditionalists who want to close his progressive school and return to the old educational ways that inculcate going along with an "all-wise and amiable" Providence, like a "trustful child which need only not to pester the Higher Powers" while doing "its simple congenial duties," or to teach that the "Process is utterly beyond control and knowledge... It has scrawled our race across the black emptiness of space, and it may wipe us out again. Such is the quality of Fate."
Huss, while sitting with his interlocutors, Mr. Dad, Sir Eliphaz, and Dr. Barrack, claims that the two approaches have the same effect in practical matters. The naive attitude of Eliphaz and the fatalistic attitude of Barrack amount to submitting to the status quo: the former, "gladly and trustfully", the latter, "grimly—in the modern style."
For some moments Mr. Huss sat with compressed lips, as though he listened to the pain within him. Then he said: "I don't submit. I rebel not in my own strength or by my own impulse. I rebel by the spirit of God in me.... I am a rebel of pride—I am full of the pride of God in my heart. I am the servant of a rebellious and adventurous God who may yet bring order into this cruel and frightful chaos.... I differ from you all. You see that the spirit of my life and of my teaching... is a fight against that Dark Being of the universe who seeks to crush us all.... It is a fight against disorder, a refusal of that very submission you have made, a repudiation altogether of that same voluntary death in life..."
He moistened his lips and resumed.
"The end and substance of all real education is to teach men and women of the Battle of God, to teach them of the beginnings of life.... to show them how man has arisen... to draw men together out of themselves into one common life and effort with God....”
Huss continues at length. He repudiates the gentlemen's claims that the world has learned a lesson from the war, and that setting up League of Nations will put an end to war.
"But on what foundations have you made in the last four years but ruins?" Huss asks. "Is there any common idea, any common understanding yet in the minds of men?" No, because the traditional schools are failures. "What common thought is there in the world? A loud bawling of base newspapers, a posturing of politicians. You can see chaos coming again...." He provides the analogy of French and American forces battling back and forth with the Germans: "Which side may first drop exhausted now, will hardly change the fact. The supreme fact is exhaustion..."
"What's the good of such despair?" asked Mr. Dad.
"I do not despair. No. But what is the good of lying about hope and success in the midst of failure and gathering disasters? What is the good of saying that mankind wins—automatically—against the spirit of evil, when mankind is visibly losing point after point, is visibly losing heart. What is the good of pretending that there is order and benevolence or some sort of splendid and incomprehensible process in this festering waste, this windy desolation of tremendous things? There is no reason anywhere, there is no creation anywhere, except the undying fire, the spirit of God in the hearts of men... which may fail... which may fail... which seems to me to fail."
He paused. Dr. Barrack cleared his throat. "I don't want to seem obdurate," said Dr. Barrack. "I want to respect deep feeling. One must respect deep feeling... But for the life of me I can't put much meaning into this phrase, the spirit of God in the hearts of men.... I would like to ask you, Mr. Huss—frankly—is there anything very much to it, than a phrase?"