Kenneth Burke, Prefaces to Towards a Better Life

This page contains the two Prefaces from the 2nd edition of Kenneth Burke’s 1932 novel, Towards a Better Life.

Kenneth Burke, Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations, 2nd ed. (1932; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966); originally published as “A Declamation,” The Dial 85 (August 1928), 121-25.

Preface to Second Edition

The first ten chapters of this novel (or should we rather say, in current cant, "anti-novel" ?) were written and published as "work in progress" during the fatal months that were urgently on the way towards the "traumatic" market crash of 1929. The book was completed in the "traumatic" months immediately following that national crisis. And it was published in 1931, when the outlook was exceptionally bleak. Though several competent critics were friendly to its experimenting, the author found that the figures of its sales (or, more accurately nonsales) were also "traumatic."

Originally I had intended to introduce each chapter by an "argument," but at the time I was not able to write those pieces. They were done eventually and a version of them is included in this edition. Their insertion is advisable because the plot, being told somewhat obliquely, emerges little by little from a background of aphorism, lamentation, invec-

tive, and other such rhetorical modes. Particularly in the early chapters, where the narrative strand is being slowly extricated from this somewhat "sermonizing" or "attitudinizing" context, the brief summaries help to point the arrows of the reader's expectations.

The mention of "expectations" brings up another likelihood. I have found that the title of this work can be misleading, if the words are read without ironic discount. I recall, at the time when the book was first published, being invited by Horace Gregory to read portions of it to a poetry club in which he then officiated. The now-deceased poet, John Brooks Wheelwright, who was in the audience, told me of an elderly lady who sat next him. After a while, she had turned to him and asked: "Young man, just what is the title of that book?" He answered: "Towards a Better Life, Maam." Whereupon she: "Hm! I think it's getting worse and worse." This was a necessary part of the development.

On the other hand, there is also a sense in which an ironic discounting of the title must in turn be discounted. My later study of various literary texts, viewed as modes of "symbolic action," has convinced me that this book is to be classed among the many rituals of rebirth which mark our fiction. And though

I did not think of this possibility at the time, I noticed later how the theme of resurgence is explicitly proclaimed, even at the moments of my plaintive narrator's gravest extremity.

In the last analysis, a work of art is justified only insofar as it can give pleasure. Somehow it must contrive to convert the imitation of ethical liabilities into aesthetic assets. Yet writers often symbolize modes of "purification by excess," designed to "seek Nirvana by burning something out," to call forth a "Phoenix out of the ashes," or to get things entangled in a "withinness of withinness." (I am quoting from one of my later critical books, The Philosophy of Literary Form.) To this end they may utilize "some underlying imagery (or groupings of imagery) through which the agonistic trial [that is a bit pleonastic] takes place, such as: ice, fire, rot, labyrinth, maze, hell, abyss, mountains and valleys, exile, migration, lostness, submergence, silence, sometimes with their antidote, sometimes simply going 'to the end of the line.' "

Often, a closer look at such texts will make it apparent that, however roundabout, they are modes of symbolic action classifiable as rituals of resurgence, transcendence, rebirth. Thus, in a moment of extreme discomfiture, the plaintive narrator (our

"hero," query), tells himself: "The sword of discovery goes before the couch of laughter. One sneers by the modifying of a snarl; one smiles by the modifying of a sneer. You should have lived twice, and smiled the second time."

So perhaps, by the devious devices of the psyche, these solemnly grotesque and wilfully turbulent pages herald (among other things) the enigmatic inception of an author's devout belief that the best possible of worlds would have the Comic Muse for its tutelary deity.

Earlier, as the reader can learn by consulting the preface to the original edition, I proffered a way of placing this ambitious effort. I'd now want to modify my statement somewhat, as follows:

In its nature as a story that speculatively carries things "to the end of the line," TBL could be classed with any work such as The Sorrows of Young Werther. (We are talking of literary kind, not of quality. And even when it is viewed simply as a kind, we necessarily note: It differs from great Goethe's youthful piece in that it by no means called forth a wave of spellbound suicides.) Also, as is most clearly indicated in the chapter, "Despite them all, in their very faces," the book was written by the sort of verbalizer who had taken particular delight

in the "Pamphleteering" style of Léon Bloy, (who was pleased to pose for a photograph of himself among his pigs, and who wrote, as early as 1897: "Que Dieu vous garde du feu, du couteau, de la littérature contemporaine et de la rancune des mauvais morts!"). Nor should we forget, as regards the pleasurable accents of gloom, Ricarda Huch's Erinnerungen von Ludolf Ursleu dem Jüngeren. (I still keep trying to recall books that had somehow got me.) Then add the fact that the tone of the fourth chapter in particular stems directly from the author's love of St. Augustine's Latin, in the Confessions. Later, in The Rhetoric of Religion, I returned to that text by a quite different route—and so it goes.

In any event, the book itself is here born anew, as attested by the brute fact of its being republished, after having languished in an O.P. state for thirty-five long (long!) years. Whereupon the retrospective quality of the author's experience has suggested to him some verses that, though they were composed with different thoughts in mind, can be adapted to this benign occasion:

Heavy, Heavy—What Hangs Over?

at eighty
reading lines
he wrote at twenty

the storm now past
a gust in the big tree
splatters raindrops
on the roof

By paring a decade or so from the top figure, and adding it to the bottom one, you bring the span of years close enough to the present situation.[1] And whether these early stylistic exercises are storm or bluster, they are of a sort that, for better or worse, their author could not now contrive to unfold again. And so it goes . . .

K. B.
Andover, New Jersey

1 The verses will appear in the March, 1966, issue of Poetry.


Preface to First Edition

The first six of these chapters were published in The Dial; the seventh, eighth, and ninth in The Hound and Horn; and the tenth in Pagany. They appeared under the title of Declamations; but though they now have another title, the present version is substantially unchanged. The remaining eight chapters are here printed for the first time.

Originally I had intended to handle this story in the customary manner of the objective, realistic novel. To this end I made a working outline of plot, settings, incidental characters, and the like, before attempting to write any of the chapters in detail. But when I sat down to follow my outline, a most disheartening state of affairs was revealed. Three times the expectant author began, with two men talking in a room, an illicit "dive" in Greenwich Village. These men conversed for a fitting period, telling each other a few things which it was very necessary for the reader to know; a bell rang, the

waiter's steps could be heard going down the hall, a peephole was opened; next the slinging of a bolt, then the unlatching of the iron grate; the newcomer, after low-voiced words at the door, could be heard striding along the hall; he entered the room where the two men were talking; "Hello," he said-and for the third time your author tossed Chapter One into the discard. Thereupon he decided that he had best read the signs. And if, with Chapter One barely started, the thought of the projected venture became appalling, the signs very definitely indicated that some fundamental error in procedure was involved. For I had by now written enough to know that, were this to turn out the most amazing book in the world, it could not, as so written, serve as a vehicle for the kind of literary experience which interested me most and which I was most anxious to get into my pages.

Lamentation, rejoicing, beseechment, admonition, sayings, and invective these seemed to me central matters, while a plot in which they might occur seemed peripheral, little more than a pretext, justifiable not as "a good story," but only insofar as it could bring these six characteristics to the fore. These mark, these six mark, in a heightened manner, the significant features of each day in our secular, yet somewhat biblical, lives—and what I most

wanted to do was to lament, rejoice, beseech, ad monish, aphorize, and inveigh. Yet I found that the technique of the realistic, objective novel enabled one at best to bring in such things "by the ears." Or rather, I found that whereas these characteristics can readily be implicit in the realistic, objective novel, one cannot make them explicit, one can not throw the focus of attention upon them, with out continually doing violence to his framework. Thus a different framework seemed imperative. So I reversed the process, emphasizing the essayistic rather than the narrative, the emotional predicaments of my hero rather than the details by which he arrived at them—the ceremonious, formalized, "declamatory." In form the resultant chapters are somewhat like a sonnet sequence, a progression by stages, by a series of halts; or they might be compared to an old-style opera in which the stress is laid upon the arias whereas the transition from one aria to the next is secondary. However, much emphasis is placed upon the transitions within this static matter itself, as one follows the ebb and flow of a particular sonnet though this sonnet "interrupts" the story in the very act of forwarding it—or, as in the case of the aria, the aria delays the drama, but once the delay is accepted, we may pursue the devel-

opment of the aria's theme into other aspects of itself.

I have described my changing of the framework as a decision reached by logical steps, but the process was really much more confused. In the books I had especially admired, I had found many desirable qualities which threatened them as novels-and in liking these qualities unduly I had already betrayed my unfitness to write a novel. I could readily remind myself, by considering the world's arcanum of prose, that the conventions of fiction as developed in the nineteenth century have enjoyed prestige for a very limited stretch of time; and I would not have to look far in search of precedents which gave both a guidance and a sanction for radically different concepts of what constitutes desirable prose. And if I could always, when a writer had contrived some ingenious mechanism of suspense, if I could always, when he had thrown equal suspicion upon nine different people, the heroine among them, if I could always at this point find it quite natural to lay down the cunning volume and never think of it again, what good would it do me to attempt writing in a form wherein this aspect of appeal naturally flourished? I would not dare speak ill of dis-

cipline, but to discipline oneself in a field wherein one was so hopelessly outdistanced not only by lack of ability but even by lack of interest, would have been an absurdity. Clearly, I was entitled to read the signs, confining myself to the club-offer of my Six Biblical Characteristics, the Six Pivotals as I conceived them, and rearranging my work accordingly, always recalling, for my encouragement, the more declamatory manner in which prose was written before (and even after) our first great journalist, Defoe, showed that if one thinks of people enough dying horribly enough in a plague one can get effects enough out of simply saying so.[1]

But there is a further step to be considered. I must impress it upon the reader that many of the statements made in my story with an air of great finality should, as Sir Thomas Browne said even of his pious writings, be taken somewhat "tropically." They are a kind of fictive moralizing wherein, even though the dogmas are prior to the events, these dogmas are not always to be read as absolutely as they are stated.

1. It should be noted, however, that Defoe points in a direction, rather than taking the direction in which he has pointed -and the work of those who learned from him is quite different from his own, which largely retains the formal characteristics of his times.

What is right for a day is wrong for an hour, what is wrong for an hour is right for a moment—so not knowing how often or how long one should believe in the dubious aphorisms of my hero, I should say that there is more sincerity in their manner than in their content. Facit indignatio versus, which I should at some risk translate: "An author may devote his entire energies to rage purely through a preference for long sentences." And if, like a modern painter painting a straight-legged table crooked to make it fit better into his scheme, I had to distort my plot, expanding it or contracting it, accelerating or retarding, giving undue consideration to some minor detail only to elide a major one, and all for the purpose of stressing my Six Pivotals-I had further to select as the most likely vehicle for these outpourings a hero so unpleasant that the reader could not possibly have anything in common with him. He laments, rejoices, beseeches, admonishes, aphorizes, and inveighs, to be sure, but always in a repellent manner—and thus, though he could lay claim to pursuing, in a heightened form, a set of experiences common to many, his way of experiencing them may be too exclusively characteristic of himself alone, particularly as he lacks that saving touch of humour which the reader wisely and deftly summons to

sweeten his own personal dilemmas.[1] He is a very frank, a very earnest, a very conscientious man, in whom one should place slight confidence. He has an enquiring mind, which he converts into a liability, or at best employs industriously to arrive at zero. I can say nothing in his favour except that he is busy, and busy in ways that will add not a single car to our thoroughfares. It is perhaps this predicament he has in mind when referring vaguely to his "insight." I have further chosen, for the purposes of the fiction, to give him a kind of John the Baptist quality, allowing him in his extremity to think of himself as a "fore-runner," though I should be hard put to explain what sort of salvation he fore-runs. He is an outsider, an ingrate, a smell- feast, and who could possibly see the burgeoning of a saviour in such qualities?

By changing the proportions of a very average man, we can obtain a monster. We make him a monster if we minimize, let us say, how he feels when patting his little daughter on her curls or when hurrying to some address with a round of presents, and stress how he feels when fleecing his partner or

1 The reader may summon it here also, as he chooses. For if my hero lacks humour, he does not lack grotesqueness—and the grotesque is but the humourous without its proper adjunct of laughter.

when, like a male mosquito, he cannot eat, so that his only hunger is for the female. That is, a monstrous or inhuman character does not possess qualities not possessed by other men—he simply possesses them to a greater or less extent than other men. Fiction is precisely this altering of proportions. The fictions of science alter them by such classifications as Nordic, capitalistic, agrarian, hyperthyroid, extravert. The fictions of literature alter them by bringing out some trait or constellation of traits, some emotional pattern, and inventing a background to fit. So science and fiction alike make monsters, though adults have agreed not to call an anatomical chart morbid, confining their attacks to the monsters of art. These monsters are constructed partly in the interests of clarity (as is shown in classical drama, where the depiction of violence, disease, excess, coexists with the ideal of clarity, strongly unbalanced characters more readily displaying the mainsprings of conduct). But there is a second factor which leads us, whether scientists or artists, to evolve monsters. A reptile must consume another reptile to become a dragon, says a Latin saying (serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco)—and who would not make himself a dragon?

If one could pay homage to a living master with-

out implicating the master to whom one pays homage, I should pay homage to Thomas Mann, whose work has always and in many ways astonished and gratified me. Whereas Milton was concerned with passion as tempered by reason, perhaps we could say that a basic dichotomy of Mann's work is hypochondria as tempered by reason, hypochondria serving as the impulse to discovery, and reason as the means of revising hypochondria's first excessive statement of the discovery. In this, it seems to me, the author of Der Tod in Venedig and Der Zauberberg offers a very profound modernization, or secularization, of Milton's theology-encumbered pair. It is a naive habit of some critics, when noting that an author's hero ends in bewilderment, to complain that this author has only bewilderment to offer—but the works of Thomas Mann stand as a sturdy refutation of their claims. His works end ever in a hero's bewilderment (may the critic's deathbed be uniquely otherwise), yet the stages by which the author brings his hero to this point offer something very different from bewilderment. He charts a process, and in the charting of this process there is "understanding."

Each sentence of this short work may strike the reader as an error—and I can make no answer. But

should he question the "aesthetic" behind it, I dare protest. Whatever the failures may be, they cannot be attributed to the underlying "aesthetic," but only to my ways of exemplifying it. In considering the past of English prose, and in realizing by comparison with the present how much of the "eventfulness" of a prose sentence is omitted from our prevalent newspaper and narrative styles, we are furnished with authority enough for a "return" to more formalized modes of writing. There is no reason why prose should continue to be judged good prose purely because it trails along somewhat like the line left by the passage of a caterpillar. Why should an author spend a year or more on a single book, and end by talking as he would talk on the spur of the moment? Or why should he feel impelled to accept as the "norm" of his elucubrations that style so admirably fitted for giving the details of a murder swiftly over the telephone and rushing them somehow into copy in time for the next edition of the news? The two billion such words that are printed daily in the United States (to say nothing of the thousands of billions that are uttered) would seem to provide the public with enough of them-and if only through modesty, an author might seek to appeal by provid ing something else. As for what this "something

else" might be, the and stretches of monosyllabic words and monosyllabic perceptions which, partially engaging a sluggish comer of the mind, pass today as the major concern of fiction, would seem to justify anything unlike them, even to the extent of that Zopfstil, that "periwig style," that incredible jargon of non-speech, which the German scribes once so zealously cultivated in their legal documents. Quintilian warns us against orators who, in quest of inspiration, rock back and forth with great assertiveness though they have nothing to assert. By striking such postures as would befit a weighty message, he says, they hope to conjure up a message weighty enough to befit their postures (corporis motuum non enuntiandis sed quaerendis verbis accommodant). The risk of absurdity here is obvious. But is not the contrary practice of today as ripe for distrust-that easy wording, that running style beloved of evaders, a method without risk, since it is imperceptible, like a building ordered by a merchant, who wants it de void of character, knowing that any trait, if too pronounced, might earn it enemies and thus alienate his customers, so the modem precept is to write as one would write a laundry list, shunning any construction likely to force the mind into a choice where there need be no choice. On the virtues of my method

I can insist, since the method is not mine; and I should like to be more emphatic in defence of it, but I cannot without embarrassment grow very militant in behalf of a neglected cause which I have only too fragmentarily embraced (having taken too few steps towards the re erection of the "structural" sentence, the "Johnsonese" if you will, as opposed to the "conversational" style which enjoys current favour). I must be content simply to offer the present volume as practical evidence of my faith in the forthcoming "turn," away from the impromptu towards the studied, while we leave the impromptu to our barroom discussions and our accidental bumping of shins, where it most delightfully belongs.

Andover, New Jersey,
September 9, 1931

I. "My converse became a monologue"3
II. "If life moves with sufficient slowness"13
III. "This day I spent with Florence"23
IV. "My vengeance lay in complaint"33
V. "Unintended colleague"42
VI. "The twitter of many unrelated bird notes"54

I. "I am to Genevieve permanently grateful"63
II. "How different, Anthony, are the nights now"72
III. "My exile had unmade itself"84
IV. "Let this be a song"93
V. "Despite them all, in their very faces"103
VI. "A weary trudging homeward in cold dawn"115