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Orage and the New Age Circle(1960)note

Admirers of the New Age in its palmy days (of at least a decade preceding 1919, when it became infected by the Douglas blight) would naturally look with interest to these “reminiscences and reflections” by a regular contributor from 1911 onwards, but any expectations they had formed of some fresh insight into what must be one of the most amazing performances in the history of journalism would be disappointed. Despite Selver's claim that he is “jotting down a strict minimum of personalia”, his story is largely a record of his own productions, interests, antipathies and attachments; and his devotion to Orage in particular has not enabled him to convey any clear notion of the character and achievement of that interesting figure.note

Thus, while indicating how much he himself was repelled by Major Douglas, Selver is confessedly baffled by the favourable view Orage took both of Douglas's personality and of his doctrine and makes no attempt to show from what weakness of character or intellect his hero's conversion to the “scheme” arose. He is puzzled again on the question of religion; he says, with reference to certain pronouncements of Orage in his later years on the “search for God”, that it would never have occurred to him that the man he had known would be seriously concerned with this—though discussion of the literature of Indian religion in particular had been a regular (and to some of us rather irksome) feature of the New Age, and especially of Orage's own contributions, for most of its “classic” period.

That Orage did not take a conventional or institutional view of religion is clear enough from his remarks, quoted by Selver at the end of

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the book, on the general question of culture and the special problem of “disinterestedness”. “No word in the English language,” says Orage,

is more difficult to define or better worth attempting to define. Somewhere or other in its capacious folds it contains all the ideas of ethics and even, I should say, of religion. The Bhagavad Gita (to name only one classic) can be summed up in the word. Duty is only a pale equivalent of it. I venture to say that whoever has understood the meaning of “disinterestedness” is not far off understanding the goal of human culture.

But while this position could be described as fundamentally secularist, there is no doubt that Orage combined it at all stages with dabblings in mysticism. The main point, however, is that in his “Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art” Orage was upholding the unity of culture; and this is a point that Selver entirely misses when, observing that he regarded many of Orage's followers as bores and cranks, he says that he ought to have borne in mind that literature was only one of the paper's sideshows. Certainly, there were many who read the New Age only for its politics, as others concentrated on its aesthetics; but those of us who read it from cover to cover, while we could hardly swallow Orage's statement that each issue was as carefully composed as a sonnet, emphatically did not regard it as a thing of bits and pieces. Any readers who could not appreciate Hobson on National Guilds or Penty (not mentioned in this book) on medieval history were thereby shown to have no conception of the New Age view of literature as a vital part of a general culture; and the propagandists of the National Guilds League, with the opposite emphasis, equally failed to grasp the interlocking of economico-political and literary-aesthetic criticism. Undoubtedly, there was a certain propagandism in the attitude of the New Age itself—as is illustrated above in Orage's reference to the goal, instead of to the character, of human culture. But, just as what gave its cultural character to “the Socialist movement” was Socialism as a form of social criticism and not as an object of social advocacy, so the positive content of the doctrine of the Guilds was the place of craft in industry or, more generally, of “the producer” in society; it rested on a view of history, a general standpoint of cultural criticism. In this respect, it is to be strongly contrasted both with the State Socialism it attacked and with Douglasism which, apart from its theoretical confusions, merely put up a “scheme” and had nothing to contribute to the understanding of the major departments of social life. It is precisely in such cultural terms that the catastrophic descent to Douglasism from the previous New Age level calls for discussion. But, even at this late date, Selver's personal enthusiasm debars him from the critical appraisement of

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Orage and his work which this would involve.

It was the standpoint of universal criticism that made Orage (while he retained it) a great editor—even if he was not a great thinker or, apart from the forceful “Notes of the Week” which put him in a class by himself as a political commentator, a specially distinguished contributor to his own paper. In this connection Selver compares unfavourably Arnold Bennett's column of literary comment, “Books and Persons”, with Orage's “Readers and Writers” which succeeded it; Orage, it seems, though not so knowing, “was deeper and subtler. Wittier too. Thus, to take only a trifling example, Jacob Tonson [i.e., Arnold Bennett] could never have written this: ‘Apropos of the New Age, I must have told somebody…that its career is that of a rocking-horse, all ups and downs, but never getting any forward.’” Presumably Orage said “forrader”, but the “wit” is unremarkable, and those who have read the selection from “Books and Persons” which Bennett brought out in book form will readily see the much greater vigour and ease of his style than of Orage's in the samples that Selver offers.

It is interesting to compare what Selver says here with Orage's own comment on Bennett's remark that his “Jacob Tonson” articles enlivened the New Age during the years 1908-11; it was that the relation was reciprocal, that Bennett was stimulated by the New Age environment to express himself in an altogether freer and livelier manner than he could have done in contributions to more commercial publications. And this brings up Orage's conception of a “free press”—a press not tied to the requirements of any vested interest and thus not “respecting persons” but following the argument wherever it led. The right, provided by the New Age, of unfettered and disinterested comment had a stimulating effect even on the correspondence columns, which (allowing for a few “bores and cranks”) attracted many first-rate minds and illuminated, often through quite lengthy controversies, many fields of theory. But interesting as this was, the work of regular contributors to the paper was more important and here, while severe comment on loose thinking (and, in reviews particularly, “letting daylight into downright rubbish”) was common, it was not a question of mere slating, but the work was dominated by that conception of systematic and autonomous culture which Orage upheld. Criticism of that sort is lamentably rare today, when spurious productions like The Catcher in the Rye are given general credit for high originality.

It was his recognition and encouragement of a critical power which became creative that made Orage a great editor, his personal contributions being of much less value, though detailed examination of some of them (e.g., his “Tales for Men Only”) might be illuminating.

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Selver, however, backs his vague laudations of Orage by depreciation of other contributors. A. E. Randall, for example, Orage's lieutenant in the production of the paper, is described by Selver as having a cantankerous outlook which was “peculiarly suited to the needs of the New Age and which enabled him to ring the changes, with a caustic effectiveness on his rather scanty stock of ideas”. But in fact, even apart from Randall's informed comments on plays and players in his “Drama” notes (signed John Francis Hope), any serious student of his “Views and Reviews” could recognise him to have, in addition to his critical power, a wide range of knowledge, illustrated in his treatment of legal and constitutional questions—of questions of politics, medicine, psychology—of the major subjects of strong public interest and weak public criticism. He was the first New Age writer to show an appreciation of the work of Freud, and his detailed textual account of Jones's theory of Hamlet contrasted notably with Orage's feeble rejoinders in terms of the vague conception of “spiritual shock”. And though naturally, in contributing to a paper with standards, he condemned more than he commended, he praised certain books, plays and actors just as decisively as he “slated” or “trounced” others.

Another main contributor to the New Age to whom Selver does much less than justice is Beatrice Hastings. His resentment at her attack on Orage in a pamphlet published in 1936 is understandable enough, though some of her contentions are certainly not refuted; but any weakness in her later writings that he is able to bring out in this penultimate section of his book does not entitle him to brush aside her work for the New Age as merely “clever” or as exhibiting “hit-or-miss” methods of criticism. His only other reference to her is the remark on an early page that she “sometimes made her appearance” in the Chancery Lane ABC where the New Age circle foregathered. It would never appear from this that she wrote regularly and copiously for the paper throughout the time of which Selver is speaking. He commits himself to the statement that “at a rough estimate” Orage, Randall and J. M. Kennedy (principal writer on Foreign Affairs) “between them wrote more than half the contents of the New Age each week”—a claim which probably could not be substantiated for any week and which, for a good many issues, can be shown up by reference to the real signatures (not pseudonyms) attached to most of the contributions. But there were, in particular, many weeks when the contributions of Mrs Hastings (taking pseudonyms into account) were fully as extensive as those of more than one of Selver's triumvirate; essays, in general literary criticism as well as in its special form of parody, poems and stories distinctly more forceful on the whole than the “Impressions of Paris” which Selver singles out

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for lukewarm commendation. She also took a leading part in the presentation of the New Age's anti-feminist case and, in this connection, was the protagonist in its campaign against the “White Slave” legislation (“flog the brutes,” etc.) of late 1912. Discounting so prominent a figure is no way in which to tell the story of the New Age.

Comment may finally be made on Selver's treatment of Ezra Pound. Though he made extensive, if somewhat irregular, contributions over a long period, Pound could not be classed as one of the New Age writers, but his position was sufficiently close to theirs to give it a useful impact on the paper's general contents. It is interesting to learn from Selver that, as some of us had strongly suspected, the “Music” notes signed William Atheling—a particularly stimulating feature of the paper for several years—were by Pound; but it is astonishing to find Selver saying that they were signed “Edgar Aethling”, and the impression created by this and other errors is that he did not, in writing this book, refer to a New Age file. Besides this, the version of such musical criticism which Selver digs up from his novel Schooling is crude caricature, and the same may he said of the representations given there (but not quoted here) of the work of Randall and of Orage himself; they give the impression that the leading characteristic of New Age writing was cheap smartness and convey no sense of its content. (Incidentally, it is also misrepresentation to say that “Ezra much disliked the piano”; Atheling's line was that the piano was a percussion instrument and was misused as a substitute for orchestra and badly played by many executants of considerable reputation, but he gave high praise to a number of performers who realised its possibilities as well as its limitations.)

It is mainly on poetry, however, that Selver is at odds with Pound and here, while his main quotation is of a passage he thinks ridiculous from Pound's later work, he makes no reference at all to the large body of writing in which Pound discusses the poet's craft and defends the standpoint of certain schools. There is no such discussion from Selver, but, while saying that this has not warped his literary judgement, he goes out of his way to condemn Pound's Italian broadcasts on the typically egotistical ground that “I am bound to consider what would have happened to myself and to others like me, if the cause which he served had proved triumphant.” It is rather curious that he should speak of Pound as approving of the translations from a Czech poet which were Selver's first contributions to the New Age, since these differ little in poetic character from his translation of a poem by a Polish writer which, he says, was badly received by Pound's circle. What Pound upheld was direct treatment of the object, as against mere narration or

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the issuing of manifestos like that of the “rebellious coal-miner” who, in the work of the Czech poet, predicted a “day of reckoning” for his masters. To call this “revolutionary” poetry, as Selver does, is to show oneself limited to prose content. And it would seem that Beatrice Hastings was so far right, in taking Orage to be opposed to creative work, that he also had this prosaic outlook and expected poetry to have “lessons”.

However, in emphasising Selver's inability to bring out Orage's weaknesses, I would affirm just as strongly that he has little sense of the New Age's solid achievements under Orage's guidance, of its great contributions to politics and aesthetics and to the critical treatment of human problems generally. The New Age in its great period remains a source of stimulation for the student of culture, a mine from which material of the greatest value to scholarship can still be extracted. It is unfortunate that Selver's “reminiscences” should be discouraging rather than encouraging to such potentially fruitful labours.

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