Appraisal — September 24, 2013, 7:55 am

“Knight, Poet, Anarchist”

A new introduction to The Green Child, by Herbert Read

The Green ChildThe introduction to The Green Child, a novel by Herbert Read, first published in 1948 and released in a new edition on September 23 by New Directions. 

In Yorkshire, where Herbert Read was born in 1893 on a remote farm at the western end of the Vale of Pickering, south of the moors and north of the wolds, young girls would pin ivy leaves together and throw them into wishing wells, and supernatural hares could only be killed with pellets of pure silver. Two sisters, nuns in the convent of Beverley, vanished into the moonlight on Christmas Eve and were found asleep at the convent door in May. A white horse would appear, hovering over the river, on the day someone would drown, and at night the bargest, the spectral hound, dragged its large and clanking chain. The images of two veiled women in white and a small child would flit from window to window in the Trinity Church, and the bells en route to St Hilda’s abbey, lost in a shipwreck, could still be heard from under the waters. There, the hapless cowherd Caedmon was instructed in a dream how to sing the origin of things and the dying William the Hermit performed his own burial; seven witches, in the shape of black cats and crows, possessed the daughters of Edward Fairfax, the translator of Tasso. It was said that a village — no one remembered its name — suddenly sank under a lake because it had refused hospitality to a poor beggar. The rivers were inhabited by kelpies, who claimed one human victim every year, and fairies played in Craven Dales among the Druid rocks of Almas Cliffe and the ancient burial mounds of Willy Houe.

At the age of ten, following the accidental death of his father, Read was torn from his enchanted pastorale and sent to the city of Halifax and the regimented hell of the Crossley & Porter Orphan Home & School, its walls black from the smoke of the surrounding factories. From the orphanage he moved into the vaster industrial desolation of Leeds to attend the university, and from there into the trenches of the First World War, where he was a decorated hero who carried a copy of Walden in his rucksack. Innocence and experience became lifelong themes in his work.

Masked by reticence and cloaked in tweeds, Read was the unexpectedly ardent and frighteningly prolific champion of nearly everything that was radical in the first half of the twentieth century: Imagism, Surrealism, abstraction, the Bauhaus, Marxism, anarchism, Freud and Jung, progressive education, Gandhian nonviolent resistance. Though now somewhat dimly remembered, he was, for decades, the Victoria Station of the arts, England’s primary explainer of the modern.

The Meaning of Art, Art Now, Art and Industry, Art and Society, The Philosophy of Modern Art, Art and the Evolution of Man, A Concise History of Modern Painting, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, to name only a few. . . . A curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, author of monographs on stained glass and Staffordshire pottery, he became in the 1930s the leading exponent of the new British artists (Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash, Naum Gabo), most of them his neighbors in a colony in Hampstead, and ultimately wrote books on each of them. His predilection was for the new abstraction, but he was equally enthusiastic for abstraction’s sworn enemy and mischievous twin: Surrealism. He organized, with Roland Penrose, the famous Surrealist exhibition of 1936, where Dalí lectured wearing a diving helmet, Dylan Thomas served boiled string in a teacup, the press went wild over Madame Breton’s green fingernails, and T. S. Eliot obsessed over Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Cup as the “super-objective correlative of the female sex.” Read opened the proceedings with the words, “Do not judge this movement kindly. It is defiant — the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilization to want to save a shred of respectability.” But it was said that he was mortified at a party when the fabulous Lee Miller danced naked around him.

Inspired by the Bauhaus and the first years of the Soviet Union, he believed that a new society required a revolution in industrial design. He founded the Design Research Unit, a kind of informal academy of design, whose most unlikely project was a Jowett car designed by Gabo. His own minimalist flat in Hampstead was furnished with pieces by Alvar Aalto and Mies van der Rohe, and the 1933 Art Now was among the first books printed entirely in sans-serif type. The following year, Art and Industry, designed by Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus with photos selected by Moholy-Nagy, was itself both a description and an icon of the new design.

In the 1940s, he founded the Institute of Contemporary Art, Britain’s first museum space for the modern, while devoting much of his time to the idea that education could be transformed by emphasizing the creative arts. Education Through Art in 1943 was his best-selling book, and possibly most influential on the society at large: a manifesto that led to reimagined curricula in the traditional schools and the founding of experimental schools both for children and artists. Curator, juror, gallerist, publicist, columnist: when a new generation of art critics rose in revolt in the 1950s, Read was their primary target. As Lawrence Alloway explained, “There was nobody much else to attack. . . . Herbert was really all there was.”

Phases of English Poetry, Form in Modern Poetry, In Defense of Shelley, Wordsworth, The True Voice of Feeling, Poetry and Experience, to name a few. . . . Read’s campaign as a literary and art critic was a reconciliation of — or at least an equal enthusiasm for — warring camps, which he declared both essential to the modern. On the one side, the “geometric”: the ahistorical beauty of abstract art and the literary classicism promoted by his lifelong friend T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and the New Critics. On the other, the “organic”: the personal, “vital” art represented by the English Romantics (who were dismissed by Pound and Eliot) and the new Surrealism. A Freudian, and later an even more committed Jungian, he was the first English critic to apply both versions of psychoanalytic theory to literature and the arts, was the general editor of Jung’s collected writings in the great Bollingen edition and a regular at the Eranos conferences. As an editor at Routledge, he introduced Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (which had been rejected by forty-two publishers), Simone Weil, and Martin Buber, among many others, and was responsible for the Bollingen editions of Coleridge and Valéry.

The Philosophy of Anarchism; The Education of Free Men; Anarchy and Order; To Hell With Culture; Freedom: Is It a Crime?; The Politics of the Unpolitical; Existentialism, Marxism and Anarchism, to name a few. . . . Read converted from Marxism to anarchism during the Spanish Civil War, worked closely with Emma Goldman during her London years, edited an anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, and was a leading light in the various anarchist groups, from the Freedom Press to the Committee of 100. He loathed Churchill, and dreamed that the ruins of the Blitz would lead to the building of an entirely new, socially just, community-based society. As the years went by, Gandhi remained the only political leader he admired and his pacifism hardened into an absolute, leading him to condemn even groups whose aims he otherwise supported, such as the Hungarian resistance and the anti-nuclear bomb demonstrators. His letters and writings on the corruption of capitalism, the oppression of communism, and the ugliness, soullessness, and environmental degradation of modern life were increasingly strident. Spending most of his time in cities, he detested cities.

In 1953, his surprising decision to accept a knighthood led to ridicule and ostracism from the anarchist and leftist ranks, but no wavering in his beliefs. Visiting communes in China in 1959, Sir Herbert mistook them for Kropotkin’s complete decentralization of industry; visiting an American supermarket, he thought it would be the model of Kropotkin’s anarchist distribution of goods, if only the cash registers were removed. Of Americans he observed:

One of the most curious characteristics of this people is their complete misunderstanding of democracy. They do not believe in equality, but in “equality of opportunity.” They confess that again & again, with pride, without realizing that “equality of opportunity” is merely the law of the jungle, that they are not egalitarians, but opportunists . . .

In 1949, he moved back to Yorkshire, a few miles from his childhood home. He wrote: “In spite of my intellectual pretensions, I am by birth and tradition a peasant. I remain essentially a peasant. . . . The only class in the community for which I feel any real sympathy is the agricultural class . . .” Yet he was in London as often as he could, and his seemingly far-fetched peasantness was quite real in the English caste system: Edith Sitwell, who plagiarized him, found him a “crashing bore.” Virginia Woolf thought he looked like a “shop assistant.” Entering Read’s house for the first time, she asked loudly, “Is this a stable?” At a dinner for Read and his wife’s relatives, Eliot, though he admired Read’s mind, fed them chocolates made of soap.

He died from cancer in 1968; his gravestone reads KNIGHT, POET, ANARCHIST, two of which seem like odd choices from the possible list of accomplishments. He did indeed write poetry throughout his life, but most of the poems tend toward vagueness and imitation; they had few enthusiasts. Richard Aldington told him that he was writing too much criticism to be a poet; T. E. Lawrence told him to stop complaining that he was writing too much criticism. Stephen Spender, in a review, was nastier: “There is a romantic side of Mr. Read’s nature which seems to believe that, given slightly different circumstances, entirely different and much better poems and books would have emerged from his study, like rabbits from a hat.” Eliot only recognized him as a critic. Pound liked him personally, but found his poetry “bloody dull.”

In financial straits for most of his life, he wrote, every week, book reviews, film reviews, art reviews, and reviews of mystery novels, and was on a never-ending loop of lecture tours, committee meetings, and social functions. Graham Greene was the godfather of his daughter. J. R. Ackerley stored scandalous letters from E. M. Forster in his safe. Eliot, with whom he lunched fortnightly, sang “Frankie and Johnny” at a party in his Hampstead house. The teenaged Denise Levertov used to invent excuses to come over to stare at his paintings and books. Just before the Second World War, George Orwell wanted the two of them to buy a printing press in order to publish anti- government pamphlets under the inevitable censorship. Stravinsky was a friend, and Picasso, and Man Ray, and Dag Hammarskjöld, and nearly everyone else on the peaks of Western civilization. His unlikely friendship with the maniacally bitter Edward Dahlberg — who said that Ford Madox Ford and Read were the only “men of letters” who defended him — led to an odd book of epistolary exchanges on modern writers, Truth Is More Sacred, with Dahlberg, at his most hyperbolic, doing most of the writing. In Havana, at a Cultural Congress a few months before he died, weak from radiation therapy, Read was met with silence when he declared: “I shall say only one sentence. The revolutionary ideal of the nineteenth century was internationalist; in the twentieth century it became enclosed in nationalism and the only internationalists left are the artists.”

Ford Madox Ford had told Read, in 1920, to get out of cultural journalism and become a novelist: “You may not like novel writing but it would be a good thing to stick to it as to avoid turning your soul into a squirrel in a revolving cage.” Though he had often imagined himself as a novelist in the manner of Henry James or his friend Edith Wharton, it was not until the summer of 1934 that he spent six weeks in a tiny, six-by- four-foot wooden hut he had built in his garden, writing his one, short novel.

It was queer how the book wrote itself; I had nothing much to invent — only the local color. The details of the myth were waiting in my mind. And it was only afterwards that I began to see their significance.

It was originally called Inland Far, from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (“Though inland far we be, / Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea / Which brought us hither.”) Luckily this was quickly changed to The Green Child. (The abstraction Read favored in the visual arts often had a way of undermining his own writing, particularly in the poetry.) The surviving manuscript has a mysterious and completely misleading epigraph from Kierkegaard: “Reminiscence” — “Self” is crossed out, then “The power of reflection” is crossed out — “is the condition of all productivity.”

Faber and Faber rejected the book; the editor Frank Morley writing Read — it’s hard to believe this is Eliot’s Faber — that it needed some “some belly . . . some drink somewhere, some honest fucking.” Heinemann published it the next year at Richard Aldington’s urging. New Directions brought out the American edition in 1948 and has kept it in print since — proving, perhaps, that it is the one book of Read’s that will continue to be read. Graham Greene loved it and wrote an introduction to a later edition, though Read complained that it was too Catholic; Jung said that he couldn’t sleep after reading it; Spender charged that Read was a mediocre writer because he had “no sense of evil” (a strange charge, as one of the characters, Kneeshaw, would seem to embody what later would be called the “banality of evil”). In the daily New York Times, Orville Prescott called it “ridiculous as well as vexatious”; a few days later, in the Sunday Book Review, Robert Gorham Davis (father of Lydia) found it “chilling,” “beautifully imagined and beautifully written,” but thought that it seemed “an emotional and symbolic reaction against everything that Read stands for intellectually.”

It is a novel best read in complete ignorance of its contents. Even to know that it is full of surprises leads to the expectation of surprise. Many readers will be hooked in the first paragraph, the rest, most probably, on the thirteenth page. Scholars have found bits inspired by, or lifted from, Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology (1833), W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions (Rima the bird girl) and his utopian novel The Crystal Age, John and William Robertson’s Letters on Paraguay (1838–1839), H. Rider Haggard’s Montezuma’s Daughter, and Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Phaedo (1893). Perhaps he had also read O. Henry’s one novel, Cabbages and Kings, which, though utterly different, opens with a similar plot device. In certain ways, just beyond the grasp of analysis, The Green Child belongs alongside two later short novels, set in villages, somewhat surrealist, inexplicably allegorical, and continually haunting: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.

Late in his life, Read wrote:

That I can combine anarchism with order, a philosophy of strife with pacifism, an orderly life with romanticism and revolt in art and literature — all this is inevitably scandalous to the conventional philosopher. This principle of flux, the Keatsian notion of “negative capability,” justifies everything I have written, every attack and defense. I hate all monolithic systems, all logical categories, all pretenses to truth and inevitability. The sun is new every day.

At the end, he was still in the trenches, and still carrying a copy of Thoreau.

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is the author of several books including, most recently, Wildlife, a collection of essays on animals published by Giramondo in Australia, and, with Lydia Davis, Two American Scenes, published by New Directions. His “Oranges and Peanuts For Sale” appeared in the June 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Eliot Weinberger:

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