As another month rolls round, I reflect on the particular requirements and skills of writing an editorial piece. A quick google tells me that this should be a short piece that reflects the opinion of the paper/publishing house. Not much to go on there then.
This month’s editorial then will give my opinion. And my current opinion as regards the current state of affairs is that I’ve gone into hiding. I’ve been keeping away from ‘news’ fake or otherwise and ‘opinion’ pieces on traditional or social media. The world has just become too dark for me. I know the mood will pass, but looking back on James Leatham’s editorials over the 33 years of the original Gateway I am somewhat heartened by the fact that he had this problem too. Often it’s easy to give your opinion, especially if, like him and me, you have strong ones on most issues. But sometimes, the world just gets overwhelming.
This is one of those times. And perhaps that itself IS the editorial opinion of the month. Heading for the Brexit and with President Trump in the White House (yesterday I allowed myself to wonder for just a moment whether that was actually a whole constructed piece of ‘fake’ news and I will wake up to find that in reality he’s not) I find myself, this February, quite overwhelmed to imagine either where we are or where we are going.
I am stuck in the following conundrum:
What is the value of free speech when no-one is listening?
The price of free speech IS that no one is listening.
I challenge anyone not to find this overwhelming.
The one light touch of the month for me on Social Media (which I have hidden from this month as far as humanly possible in this social media dominated world) was the SNP whistling the European Parliament Anthem ‘ode to joy’ as the voting was going on for triggering Article 50. It was a small and yes, ultimately futile gesture (as I fear all our gestures are at present) against Big Brother world.
Small and futile gestures seem to be the order of the day. I note that fellow McRenegade Cally Phillips is indulging in one of her own – she’s giving away copies of Brand Loyalty free in February. For more information click HERE. This is because the ‘news’ keeps telling us that everyone’s ‘into’ dystopias since Trump took the White House. Reading Cally’s article at McRenegades just reconfirmed to me the complete small futility of the world I (and we all) inhabit.
That’s just my opinion of course.
What can we do? Well, educate ourselves beyond the mainstream. If we can avoid the ‘fake’ news and the hype and the spoon-feeding and critically engage with the world, we may not be able to change it, but we may change ourselves and in the process may find a way to engage with this overwhelming world. The young have hope of course. Those of us who are starting to feel we’ve seen it all before, are less hopeful. And learning to live in the land beyond hope is the journey I am engaged on at present.
So what does Gateway have to offer you this month in form of diversion, or exploration? In most cases: more of the same. We finish the 2 parter on Rabbie Burns, the 3 parter on ‘Is the state the enemy?’ and are in the middle of ‘Marx, Spirit and Matter’.
And in a post-hope world, we offer you Cally Phillips allegorical story A Fishing Line in the hopes that some of you might realise that we do perhaps get the dystopia we deserve. The Orraman girds his loins in the cause of cultural revolution with an exploration on a similar theme.
I leave you with a question. If in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king – who really rules in dystopia? It’s not a rhetorical question, but it is one I feel overwhelmed by this February.
In a capitalist society both culture and creativity are commodified. Is this a problem?
Maybe it’s a bit weighty of a topic for you. It’s certainly something that consumes my thoughts for large spells of time but to wean you in to it gently, I’ll start this stage of the cultural revolution with an exemplar.
Let me ask you to consider another question, and forgive me if you think I’m patronising you because the answer seems so obvious!
If an author wants the most people possible to read his work (and most do) what should he/she do to achieve this?
Simple answer: Make the book available as easily as possible to the widest number of people at the cheapest possible price.
Ignoring the fact that even if you make a book available for free on every current ‘platform’ you aren’t guaranteeing readers - you can lead the reader to the book but you can’t make them read after all – it does seem a bit of a no-brainer that you do what you can to make the book available if you want people to read it.
In a capitalist world of course you have to add on ‘make it appealing’ which takes us down a whole new path of commodification – I will not dwell on this here but return to it at a later date. The point I am trying to make is that if you want people to read books you should price them sensibly and make them easily available.
So. Hold that thought. I wanted to read a book. The process starts:
I have very limited funds and a ‘budget’ for book-buying of £10 a month. Yet I read probably 10 books a month at least including work and pleasure related texts. So where possible I try to find the books I want to read for free. I can rarely get the kind of books I want to read free online (though some use of Project Guthenberg and the online library can bear fruit). When I fail online I try to access the books I’m interested in free via libraries – I have maintained some academic online library privileges over the past decade (mainly by taking a wide range of Open University courses) and more recently the National Library of Scotland has opened up much of its digital archive. But plenty remains stuck behind the academic paywall. I am a life ‘friend’ of an academic library but they won’t let me access their digital collection. So, sometimes, I have to resort to buying books.
I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of R.D.S.Jack’s ‘Myths and the Mythmaker’ for five years. It was published in 2010 but it took me 2 years to find out it even existed (I was busy with other authors and Barrie had slipped off my radar for a time). Perhaps I didn’t try as hard as I might have in 2012– f the eye-watering price of £70 put me off – especially combined with a review that said most of the ground was covered in ‘The Road to Neverland’ (never trust reviews, it’s simply not true!) But since the death late last year of the author R.D.S.Jack who was perhaps Barrie’s greatest living advocate, I have felt increasingly uneasy about who will now carry the torch for Barrie into the future. There is some ‘interest’ in him from a range of quarters, but forgive my cynicism, most of them seem to be trying to shoe-horn Barrie into their own areas of research (feminism, modernism etc) and that does him a great dis-service. Barrie has been kicked enough over the centuries by the ignorant, the lazy and those with an axe to grind. He deserves much, much better.
So I turned again to an attempt to purchase the book. Result:
Myths and the Mythmaker: A Literary Account of J.M. Barrie's Formative Years. (SCROLL: Scottish Cultural Review of Language & Literature)
12 Nov 2010
by R. D. S. Jack
Eligible for FREE UK Delivery
Only 1 left in stock - order soon.
More buying choices
£43.95used & new(9 offers)
(In America it comes in at more than $100!!!)
The publishers are cited as Rodopi, now owned by Brill – whom Google reveals to be large academic publishers of some repute. Their reputation suggests highwayman to me!
And allergic as I am to highway robbery, I felt I had to try to go down the cheaper route ( I use the word ‘cheap’ with something of a sneer.) I discovered I could get a ‘used like new’ one for £45. To me that’s still an obscene amount of money to pay for a book. I could eat for more than a week for that. I would need to eat less well for a number of weeks in order to pay for it.
I didn’t buy it. I went online. I hunted it down via my online library access. After failing in 3 of my 4 possible options, I hit pay dirt. I was able to break through the paywall and offered the choice to read it online or download for a maximum of 21 days. All well and good. I started reading it online. I hate reading online. I downloaded it. I pretty quickly realised that this is a beezer of a book. One that I would need to refer to time and again. It’s an absolutely vital book for anyone with an interest in Barrie. (Mental note to self, write review on Amazon site to that effect!).
And so, I ‘just clicked’ and bought it at £45. I held back my ire at the capitalist economic models of ‘supply and demand’ and smug comments of the cultural elitists who claim ‘the value of anything is the price anyone is willing to pay’ still ring in my ears. Let me make it clear, I have no reservations regarding the quality or value of the book (priceless) but it still really irks me to have to pay that sort of money. It’s a perfect example of the price of culture. It’s a salutary lesson and it is disgusting that a book so central to our Scottish cultural and literary heritage should be hidden from the general reader. But this is the price of a capitalist, hierarchical, elitist ‘canonical’ structure.
And guess what. That’s kind of the point that Jack makes in the book. (okay he doesn’t mention capitalism but the rest is more or less consistent with his views.)
Does that give you any idea why it is that you just can’t read this book unless you are an academic or pretty well heeled?
Might I suggest there are three obvious reasons why a publisher would put out a book at a ridiculous price (given that there’s no way it can cost them this to publish – or if so, they shouldn’t be in business because Deveron Press can do it a lot cheaper – time to change the business model Brill!). The reasons are:
1) Naked Greed.
2) They don’t want people to read it.
3) They don’t think you should read it.
I suggest it’s a combination of all three reasons. The publishers know the ‘academic’ market will bear the cost. It’s just the other end of the ‘Amazon free’ spectrum. Books are seen as ‘product’ in a ‘marketplace’, so while Brill clearly work on the basis that if you feign exclusivity you can hike up the price, Amazon work on the spread betting principle of hoovering up the odd penny/dime on every single purchase that goes through their site. We are simply cultural sheep disguised as consumers, waiting to be skinned one way or the other.
So. Motive 1: Greed. Motive 3: they don’t want you to read it. There appears to be something of a ‘social cultural contract’ within the elite that says that as long as you are a) rich or b) part of academia and therefore by definition an intellecutal (?) you can gain access suggests that capitalism is at the heart of our academic model. I for one, have issues with this. It’s not enough to offer people ‘free’ tuition at higher education level (you’ll note this is only for undergraduate study not postgraduate study, that is a truly rarified intellectual arena – until which stage you are not considered ‘appropriate’ as a reader of books such as those published by the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature. Unfair, I hear you cry. Undergrads can read those books too. Yes they can. If they are encouraged to. I have this nasty wee ‘impish’ voice in me that suggests that in Scottish academia it is the undergrads who help keep the postgrads and ‘true’ academics in their jobs – the classic hierarchical pyramid structure is alive and well in academia and this trickles down to Scots culture in general ( I will develop this point another time). For now I simply call them out. Shame on you publishers. Shame on you editorial boards (I know, you are simply soldiers following orders) and shame on you the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature. I suggest all the above mentioned ‘they’s’ do not want you to know what Jack thinks about Barrie or Scottish Literature and culture. I suggest that his work doesn’t fit into their created dominant narrative and they don’t want you to read beyond the ‘canon’.
This is the rather unpleasant side effect of the formerly stated motive 2. Even if ‘they’ think that Jack’s book is a good book for ‘them’ to read and write about, somehow ‘they’ don’t think that ‘you’ or ‘I’ or any of us outwith the hallowed halls of academe should have it made available to read. Are we too wee, too poor and too stupid? Did you never realise how political an issue culture is? Or how significant a role publishing and reading plays in our culture?
It seems that our academic establishments and cultural bodies are in danger of selling us a Scotland where the general reader is not considered either capable of understanding or interested in engaging in Scots culture. Give us T2 Trainspotting and leave us to wallow eh? No offence Irvine Welsh, but I personally have more interest in the work of J.M.Barrie – and I’m not afraid to say it.
So what of the ‘book’ itself? Here is the promotional blurb:
J.M. Barrie's critical reputation is unusually problematic. Originally viewed as a genius to rank with Shaw and Wilde, Barrie soon fell victim to damaging psychological theories about his life and his patriotism. The few critics who have commented on Barrie have colluded with dominant myths about a figure who, like his most famous creation, never grew up, who abandoned Scotland and made light of his own people when serious social analyses of the nation's condition were called for, and who scorned the opportunities of University learning when at Edinburgh. Myths and the Mythmaker attempts to challenge these myths and offer a just revaluation of Barrie's genius. Through closely focused textual analyses, it dispels the popular images of Barrie as "escapist" writer and immature, mother-fixated artist. It seeks to replace the narrow prose canon on which the "Oedipal" and "Kailyard" myths are based with a thorough account of his Victorian apprenticeship. New research into Barrie's early work and criticism show the enduring influence of his Edinburgh education on his creative writing, his academic articles, and his own complex views on artistic genius.
This is exactly the kind of book I want to read – and it doesn’t disappoint. I’ve read the downloaded version and I am hanging by the post box waiting for the delivery of my gold-plated paperback copy due for delivery by the time this month’s Gateway goes out. You haven’t heard the last of this book, or of Barrie, from the Orraman believe me!
Oh, the good news is that for those of you who would now like to read some Barrie, even if you can’t afford to read about Barrie) and who are not averse to ereaders – you can pick up the COMPLETE J.M.BARRIE from Delphi Classics HERE for under a fiver. That’s 54 texts for about 9pence each.
Might I suggest that if you want to join the cultural revolution, you start by reading the books they DON’T want you to read, rather than flocking to the ones they are pushing in your face on a daily basis – whatever the price.
Let me end with a 'rif' on what is a currently popular/populist 'theme': Choose Books. Choose cultural freedom. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that Scotland is a pish, crap place where our cultural identity is revealed in any number of Trainspotting Generations. Sure Trainspotting has its place. I’m not suggesting we sanitise our view of our culture and ourselves. I’m just suggesting we don’t allow ourselves to be degraded by a cultural elite for whom we are so much cultural canon-fodder. When undergraduates are ‘taught’ Trainspotting’ over the works of J.M.Barrie I have to question quite where our cultural ‘head’ is at.
THE TREATMENT OF ROBERT BURNS, WHAT IT WAS AND WHAT IT OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN.
First published in the Peterhead Sentinel 1902.
I have said that the public paid Burns almost every species of homage except the practical homage of buying and reading his books. There was caprice in the homage; bit was by no means steadily paid; but paid it was at one time and another. One great hardship and unintentional injustice from which Burns suffered, however, was the lack of fit society. He might be said to have been born in the wrong century. The eighteenth century was, as already said, artificial and what I cannot otherwise describe than as ‘elegant.’ This word, almost out of use to us not save in the speech of drapers and milliners, was in Burns’s day applied to pictures, literature, music and, in short, to all that was best in nature and art. Now ‘beautiful’ we know, ‘handsome’ we know, ‘noble’ we know, ‘grand, sublime, magnificent, superb’ – all of these we know in art and nature; but ‘elegant’ is a word that we now apply only to dress, jewellery and the products of the cabinet-maker and the upholsterer, and not often to these. Yet this was a favourite word of the eighteenth-century critic, and it expressed the favourite conception which he seemed to entertain of what was most admirable in art and nature.
The eighteenth century is indelibly associated in our minds with what is stiff, stately, prim and affected. It was prolific of great inventors and workers in the practical arts of life; but in poetry, in philosophy, and the higher arts generally, in taste , and in the modes and manners of life, it was eminently a snobbish century. It, so to say, put its head in a wig, it carried it’s hat under its arm, it cased its calves in silk stocking and its feed in buckled shoes, and while it thus starved the extremities it sweated the trunk in enormous coats and manifold waistcoats. It was a century of crinolines, fans, farthingales, powder, patches, snuff-taking and general artificiality and perversity of taste. It was a century in which those most at home would be the footman, the confectioner, the landscape gardener, and the dancing master. Its poets were tied up to classic conventions; and cow-herds and milkmaids had to figure in its pastorals as Strephon and Phyllis and Chloris. Its stage was hampered by the absurd rules as to the ‘dramatic unities’ yet allowed the Roman Cato to appear in Court dress, including a full-bottomed wig. Shakespeare was, of course, at a discount. From the middle of the century when 80 per cent of the whole population still lived in the rural districts, a strong tide of migration set in towards the towns; and in turning their backs upon the country, it seemed as if the people had turned their backs upon Nature as a whole.
Burns had the sense and taste to refuse to take on the character of his time. Following the example of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, he scorned the Strephons and Phyllises of Georgian verse and gave us Tams and Jeans and Johnnies and Megs and Maries. For unreal shepherds, ‘piping in the dale,’ he gave us kirns and communion services, crofters with their mattocks and their hoes, and all the real, stirring, throbbing life of a Scots countryside. He does indeed make rhymes about a ‘Chloris’ (whose proper name was Jean Lorimer); and the fascinating grass widow, Mrs Meiklehose, appears as ‘Clarinda, mistress of my soul,’ (he himself writing as Sylvander); while his letters reflect the stilted modes of expression belonging to the time. But in the bulk of his work, and certainly in all the best of it, Burns breaks clear away from the conventional models, the sugar –coated sentiment, and the pinchbeck rhetoric of his day.
But while the poet could break away from the canons of his time, the man could not get away from the small-souled men and the conventions of his time. It is painfully evident that Burns was largely driven to unhappiness, to reckless scorn, and to dissipation by the boycott placed upon him in his later years by the Pharisees of Dumfries. Let us recall some of these incidents. It is right that the world should not be allowed to forget how it has treated the illustrious dead. It may in time be taught to appreciate geniuses in their lifetime.
Because the poet favoured the Americans in the War of Independence, a fire-eating captain challenged him to fight. The immediate occasion of the challenge was the proposing by Burns of the toast ‘may our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause.’ Surely Burns was right when he afterwards described this toast to one ‘that the most outrageous frenzy of loyalty cannot object to.’ Yet Lockhart, prig as he was, defends ‘a gentleman bearing the Kind’s commission in the army’ for desiring to murder the man who proposed it!
The Dumfries Tories looked askance at Burns because he favoured the French Revolution, as all people of liberal sentiment did at the time. Lockhart tells us of how Burns’s friend Mr David M’Culloch, was bitterly grieved when, riding into Dumfries one summer evening he witnessed a sample of this boycotting process. Burns walked alone on the shady side of the street, while on the farther side groups of ladies and gentlemen lounged waiting for the opening of a ball, and none of them ‘appeared willing to recognise him.’ In Lockhart’s own words
‘The horseman dismounted and joined Burns, who, on his proposing to him to cross the street, said; ‘Nay my young friend – that’s all over now’ and quoted, after a pause, some verses of Lady Grizel Bailie’s pathetic ballad:
His bonnet stood ance fu’ fair on his brow
His auld ane looked better than money ane’s new;
But now he lets’s wear ony way it will hing,
And casts himsel’ dowie upon the corn bing.
O were we young as we ance had bee
We suld had been galloping doun on yon green,
And linking it ower the lily-white lee
And wernea my heart light I wad die.
It was little in Burns’s character [continues Lockhart] to let his feelings on certain subjects escape in this fashion. He immediately after citing these verses assumed the sprightliness of his most pleasing manner; and taking his young friend home with him, entertained him with a bowl of his usual potation, and Bonnie Jeans’ singing of some verses which he had recently composed.
The Lethe of forgetfulness was song and whisky punch. Who can say how often in Burns’s case similar slights were forgotten by the same means? Yet doubtless some of these same boycotting Pharisees, who made a difference of political opinion the occasion for a personal quarrel, would attend the poet’s funeral, subscribe to his monument, and profess to honour his genius and mourn at his death.
Burns had next to nothing in common with that company. In fact, for the typical society of that century he could have nothing but scorn and repulsion. With many of those who even today profess to honour his memory he would promptly fall out. Society today would cold-shoulder Burns, not perhaps to the same extent as it did then, but cold-shoulder him more or less it certainly would. For Burns would be a non-conformist now as he was in his own day. We have become somewhat more tolerant in these days; but the odd man out has still to face th cross of suffering, the stake of petty martyrdom. The world is slow to learn – and in fact will probably never recognise in practice – that the truth resides in minorities; that on almost all new questions of great magnitude the majority are tolerably certain to be wrong; that ‘the demons of our sires become the saints whom we adore.’
The wild lawlessness of ‘The Jolly Beggars’ is Burns’s strenuous and perhaps exaggerated protest against the social conventions of his time; and we may be sure that the main reason why he sometimes kept company that was not gravely respectable was because in that sort of company he got away from the veneer and flunkeyism of polite society. He fretted away his ardent soul and ran into dissipation very largely because he found ordinary respectable society, especially in his day, so unspeakably dull and priggish. Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and many another still pass the same verdict upon society.
The hankering of Burns for strong feelings frankly and warmly expressed, his desire for naturalness and the recognition of his powers, led him to associate with his inferiors in character and his equals in social station, because from these was he most likely to receive adequate respect. With these alone would his intercourse be free from the misgivings, the patronage, and the paltry controversial opposition which the Podsnaps of society must always show to the man of genius. In almost any large city today Burns would meet with hundreds of people who would sympathise with him and upon occasion ‘go one better.’ In provincial Scotland in the eighteenth century Burns very likely had not a single thoroughly kindly spirit.
When we hear of prosy noblemen monopolising the conversation in a company where Burns was present, we are moved to disgust. On one such occasion Burns, glad to be rid of a noble bore, proposed ‘the health of the waiter who called his lordship from the room.’ When will people recognise in practice that it is the right of the wise to teach and the duty of the foolish to listen and learn? Yet how often must Burns, a man of genius in a humble social position, have had to put up with the prosy condescension of affluent nonentities and the slights of men who ought to have known better!
We find him writing thus of his friend the Earl of Glencairn:
There are few of the sore evils under the sun give me more uneasiness and chagrin, than the comparison of how a man of genius, nay of avowed worth is received everywhere with the reception which a mere ordinary character decorated with the trappings and futile distinctions of fortune meets. I imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving honour to whom honour is due. He meets at a great man’s table a Squire Somebody; he knows the noble landlord, at least, gives the Bard, or whatever he is, a share of his good wished, beyond, perhaps anyone at table; yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eightpenny tailor, and whose heart is not worthy three farthings, meet with attention and notice that are withheld from the son of genius and poverty? The noble Glencairn has wounded me to the soul her, because I dearly esteem, respect, and love him. He showed so much attention – engrossing attention – one day, to the only blockhead at table (the whole company consisted of his Lordship, dunderpate, and myself) that I was within half a point of throwing down my gage of contemptuous defiance.
Burns was quite at his ease in whatever company he was; but while he could deal with overweening condescension, and assert his dignity without effort, his sensitive nature suffered many hurts. It was inevitable that it should. Jesus Christ, if he returned to the world, would not be able to secure respect in many companies of profession Christians if he did not wear broadcloth and a starched shirt. The sensitive man of genius gets tired of defending his dignity and of having his opinions discounted because of his social position. Conscious that he is worth listening to and learning from, he turns with scorn from men who gauge a man’s right to be heard by his acres, his bank account, the loudness of his tone, or the assertiveness of his manner. Burns, as we have seen, had his experience both of slights and patronage. We have him complaining; ‘I find I can win liking but not respect.’ The probability is that he was too free and perfervid in his conversation, wearing his heart too much on his sleeve, laying bare his mind too readily. It is to his credit that that which was thus laid bare was in the long-run thought so highly of. Competent observers declare that Burns’s conversation was the most remarkable thing about him, and one lady went so far as to declare that, in her opinion, poetry actually was not his strong point. On this head Carlyle, with his great gift of picturesque language, says :-
High duchesses, and ostlers of inns, gather round the Scottish rustic, Burns – a strange feeling dwelling in each that they never heard a man like this; that, on the whole, this is the man! In the secret heart of these people it still dimly reveals itself, though there is no accredited way of uttering it at present, that this rustic with his black brows and flashing sun-eyes, and strange words moving laughter and tears, is of a dignity far beyond all others, incommensurable with all others.’
Yes; but all this was too often forgotten. The ‘superior persons’ who wanted to mangle Burns’s poetry by ridiculous alterations, treated him with increasing coldness in his later Edinburgh days. That a ploughman should want to hold his own in conversation with them was permitted and even relished so long as the ploughman was a novelty; but when the original curiosity to hear him died out, his conversation appears to have more and more evoked the usual manifestations of ‘society’ disapproval. This would arise, not from his manners – though he could upon occasion be aggressive enough – but partly from the circumstance of his position, and still more from his opinions which were necessarily quite diverse from the drawing room sentiments of his day. Dr Lawrie said of Burns’s politics, for one thing, that they ‘always smelt of the smithy.’ But the legislation and the altered sentiment of posterity have proved that Burns’s politics were nearer right than Dr Lawrie’s.
The result of this cooling in the reception accorded to Burns in ‘society’ was to make him turn from the Blairs and Stewarts and Lawries to men like William Nicol and Robert Heron, the former a reckless teacher who appropriately comes down to us as the Willie who brewed a peck o’ maut. Heron, himself neither prudent nor fortunate, testifies that Burns often resisted temptations to indulge in convivial excesses; and from this, as from other recorded circumstances in the poet’s career, it is evident that his indiscretions arose, as already claimed, not from love of drink – as might well have been, considering his physical infirmity – but from love of fellowship, and repulsion from the disfavour and stiffness of polite society. Had the right kind of associates fallen to his choice, or had Respectability worn an attractive face, Burns would undoubtedly have lived in greater happiness and dies in greater honour and prosperity.
Looking over the poet’s career as a whole, one is obliged to conclude that all that was best in Burns he owned to his own inherent qualities, and that most of what was regrettable he owed to the society of his own day and its thoughtless treatment of him. It is a saddening thought that the public still does not know how to treat its great men; does not even recognise their greatness till the man himself is dead; till the ears that would have rejoiced at praise no longer hear either praise or blame; till regrets and honours and substantial rewards are alike unavailing. Socrates, Jesus, the Gracchi, Bruno, Gallileo, Savonarola, the De Wittes, Milton, Robert Burns – all raise in history their mute yet eloquent protest against the cruelty, neglect, or crass misunderstanding of the generations in which they lived and died. Even in our own day our Steads and Zolas cannot speak out for Truth and Justice but they must go to prison or fly their country to avoid the penalty of courage, integrity, and clearness of vision.
Somebody asks: ‘When the true poet comes, how shall we know him?’ By reading his verse with what modicum of wit we possess, I would suggest. And having settled that your poet is indeed a true poet, I would further suggest that, for your own sake as for his, you make the most of him. It is a never increasing marvel that poetry should be discounted as a form of sentimental trifling. True poetry, dealing with the more universal things of life, is, if nothing else, one of the swiftest and most powerful forms of utterance. Would you have your speech emphatic, noble, or graceful; study your Shakespeare, Milton and Burns. Would you master epigrammatic brevity, blistering sarcasm, biting and sweeping invective, or the lip-labour and word passion of intense feeling; assimilate the verse of Swinburne, Clough, and Tennyson. Would you be subtly speculative or pensively reminiscent, read the poetry of Arnold, Browning and Keats. Would you see Nature throb with active life, would you penetrate somewhat of the innermost arcana of the problems of time, turn to your Shelley, your Morris, and again your Shakespeare.
A true poet is one of the greatest gifts Nature can bestow upon a prosaic world. Her influence is more lasting than the hills. Since Homer and Solomon and David sang their songs, thousands of years have run their course and continents have changed their place. Yet to each succeeding generation their message is and will continue to be renewed. Kings, statesmen and warriors have lived and died, and all their work is as if it had not been. But the great poets of the world are in good sooth immortal. The winds and snows of winter do not more purify earth and air than the great poems purify and rejuvenate the races of men who receive and pay heed to them. Do not, then, our duty and our interest alike dictate that of our great poets we should make the most, thankful to receive so much where we had neither claims nor expectations?
The great poet makes of himself – or is already fashioned and ordained to be – one great nerve, sensitised to respond to every impact and monition of the true and the beautiful in the life around him. He sees for us with his eyes, hears for us with his ears; he thinks and feels as creatures of a coarser clay cannot do, he communicates his thoughts and feelings in unforgettable language that gives to truth a new beauty and to beauty a new truth. If to acquire a language beyond our mother tongue be as the addition of another sense to those we already possess, them to know the poets is to refine and intensify all the senses. Poetry at its best is the highest wisdom in the best form of words. If the ape and tiger die out in man and he ascends higher in the scale or reason, feeling and grace, I know of no human agency that has more to do with the ascent than those who teach us in song what they have learned in the experience which is too often suffering. Of those who have suffered and sung, and, singing, taught, none deserves more at our Scottish hands than him who has seen the halo of poetry and the glamour of perennial human interest around our bare and sterile land; him who take him all in all, has shown our Scottish manhood at its supremest development.
This article can be downloaded for free as an ebook On Burns – To see Oursel’s from www.unco.scot
Matter, Spirit, and Karl Marx
Is our Science all wrong?
Startling Claims from a Spiritualist Angle
The Rally of an Expelled Communist
(first published July 1927)
An Unbridged Gulf.
Let us be quite frank and say that there is no explanation of how matter thinks. We know what neurosis is, but we do not know how it becomes psychosis. We touch hot iron and instantaneously the contact is telegraphed along the nerves to the brain. But how that neurotic process, which is physical, should become a psychological experience, we do not know. Consciousness has yet to find its Newton. All that we know is that spirit has an ‘invariable and concomitant’ relationship with matter, the matter being first as the basis of spirit. There is no thought without a material thinker. And, testing the relationship, there may be a dead thinker without thought. The young thinker has youthful thoughts, indicating a soul no older than his body. The dependence thus meets the test by being exclusive, inclusive, and conditional. A live brain thinks, a dead body does not think, a youthful body thinks youthfully in accordance with lack of long training and experience. The Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls. In their view the ego of Shakespeare existed before his body was born and still exists in some lowlier incarnation. This seems wildly unthinkable; but granted the independent, separable, eternal life of the soul, what more feasible, if the soul must function through a body? Spiritualism seeks to dispose of the necessity for transmigration by asserting the existence of an astral body for us all. There is no evidence of the existence of anything so unlikely, and there would need to be the best. Attendance at séances is the best way of finding out how little is to be seen, and how trivial and inept is all that is to be heard.
I have no pleasure in discussing the obvious; but one further remark on these definitions may be made.
Spirit in the Universe.
Of ‘spirit in the universe’ we have no knowledge. All talk of final causes is jargon. If every effect can be related to its natural antecedent causes, does it not seem obscurantism to posit a final cause behind the natural, obvious antecedents pursued as far back as science, assisted by telescope and microscope, can go? It is a law of the mind, the basis of all reasoning whatever, that there must be an Absolute, independent of time and destruction, and comprehending, rather than existing throughout, infinite space. Why object to regard the Universe itself as this Absolute? Is it not big enough, grand, varied, beautiful, majestic, powerful enough? The teleological craving is so strong with some, and especially with people who are not busy with any kind of finite work, that if by searching they could find out god, they would want to question him as to his antecedents, and would probably, if put off, wax scornful over the idea that he should not have an origin like everything else. Logic is satisfied with one infinity and incapable of conceiving two - an infinite God and an infinite Universe as well. There must be one sole entity that, unlike all finite things, had no origin. A Roman Catholic casuist said ‘ God and the Universe are co-existent eternities.’ That is as good a theory as any other theological doctrine. We would not expect a theologian to explain how the creation was as old as its creator. Theology is essentially concerned with a mystery; though, happily, religion itself is plain and simple and entirely concerned with the known and the knowable – with love and kindness and fair dealing between man and man.
The attitude if not the expressed question, of the wise workaday man will be: Why drag in God? The Cosmos is equal to all its work. One thinks of it as the only system of perpetual motion, self-sufficing, kept going by its own momentum, with a complete circle of conservation in all its forces and elements, the only system that repairs its own waste in one part by building up another, that has had no conceivable beginning and can have no conceivable end. To posit intelligence behind it – the old exploded Design Argument of Paley – is a poor finite craving born of incapacity to apprehend the infinite. This persistent discounting of the Universe is not so much ungrateful blasphemy as just the cry of a distressed child for its mother even when it knows that Mother is not there. For the sake of truth and humanity, let jus recognise that after Nature has done her best, man takes up the tale, and, acting as his own Adjunct Providence, makes good her absence of design, correcting her extremes of cold and heat, her crudeness, the unintentional cruelty of the machine, the imperfections of structural forms – as in eye, ear, throat, stomach and teeth – the disabilities of rudimentary organs and vestigial remains, the perverse distribution of plant life which placed the medicinal cinchona on the inaccessible heights of the Andes, though it has been found to thrive on the low grounds where it is wanted, and the maleficent palmella or ague plant where it could communicate the maximum of contagion; and lastly to correct the wildness and awkwardness of the natural man himself.
The Materialist Conception of History.
It is because I think that Mrs Kingsley has a good case against the Materialist Conception of History that I regret she should fall back upon Spiritism, which at best is occult, to justify beliefs which may be demonstrated by simple proofs of every day. What, for example, could be less materialistic than the love of a mother for a child? An infant is a cause of expense and trouble in the present and of anxiety for its future. The lucky parent may rejoice in the credit that a clever or prosperous son or daughter may bring, and there are parents who batten on their children; but as a rule the most that a good parent can hope for is that the boy or girl will do well and not be either a burden or a heartbreak in after life. Or what could be more disintegrated, what could be less materialistic, than the love of a wife for an ailing and slowly dying husband whom perhaps she may have to work to maintain?
I shall not traverse ground I have covered in these pages on previous occasions to point out the disinterestedness of patriotic surrender of life, martyrdom for a cause, the zeal of crusaders, Mahometan and Pagan as well as Christian, the love of country which induces men not only to die for it, but to go on living in it in spite of disastrous earthquakes as in Japan, or volcanic devastation as in Italy. Nay, the falsity of the materialistic conception is shown even by the persecuting sovereigns who by Bartholomew massacres and Jewish pogroms have decimated their own subjects and cess-payers in their zeal for what they regarded as religion. If vulgar materialism moves men to set store chiefly by whatever increases their wealth and comfort, who could be less materialistic than a doctor who poisoned his paying patients, or a merchant who murdered his customers? Yet Charles IX of France and the last Nicholas of Russia did the like in their zeal for a form of theology.
Marx Primarily a Moralist.
Mrs Kingsley is very right and says what needed to be said when she points out that Marx was stating ‘a moral ideal’ when he claimed that ‘the value of the commodities produced by labour is equal to the quantity of labour socially necessary to produce them.’ The same idea was promulgated by Adam Smith in 1775 as an application of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. He wrote (Ch v of The Wealth of Nations)
Labour is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. The real price of everything… is the toil and trouble of acquiring it, Labour… is the only universal as well as the only accurate measure of value, or the only standard by which we can compare the values of different commodities at all times and at all places
In Chapter VI he re-states with interesting variants: -
In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them one for another… In this state of things the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer; and the quantity of labour commonly employed in acquiring or producing any commodity is the only circumstance which can regulate the quantity of labour which it ought commonly to purchase, command, and exchange for.
Adam Smith was professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow University, and it was a part of his duties that he expounded in extempore lectures the views afterwards written down for the ‘Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.’ The idea of labour being the basis of wealth is so obvious that one is surprised it should be regarded as in any way notable. That it is an ethical as well as a merely factual claim is equally clear. Why should the work of a man’s hands belong to him? Why should it not belong to the idler? Because that is ethically unjust. Rent, profit, and interest, as taken, are robbery. Adam Smith (chap vi) says:-
As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.
The cool ‘like all other men’ there embodies the difference between Smith and Marx. It is customary to speak of Marx’s science; but Marx was not typically scientific. He was a master of irony and invective, which do not belong to the scientist. Marx, says Mrs Kingsley, was ‘a sharply indignant moralist,’ and his book is a ‘passionate indictment of expropriation.’ The ‘Capital’ is, indeed, not at all ‘the Bible of Socialism,’ as it has been called.
The Jewish Bible contains the law, the Commandments, and the Beatitudes (The Beatitudes are in the New Testament, but they were spoken by a Jew and the New Testament is itself a Jewish Book); but Marx’s book is ‘A Criticism of Political Economy’ without any pretence of constructive teaching. Laurence Gronlund’s ‘Co-operative Commonwealth,’ which used to be referred to as the New Testament of Socialism, is constructive.
About Marx’s moral indignation there can be no question. Among other phrases quoted by Mrs Kingsley are:
The thing that you represent has no heart in its breast (which is certainly not the language of mental science) the capitalist is a national miser.
To Marx the defender-exponents of capitalism are ‘fish-blooded doctrinaires.’ Capitalism itself is ‘as merciless vandalism’ and ‘comes into the world dripping from head to foot and from every pore with blood and dirt.’ The capitalist himself is a ‘vampire.’
The Class War in the Bible.
This moral indignation against the taking of surplus value was not a new thing. There is a Chinese proverb, doubtless thousands of years old, that ‘If one man lives in laziness another will die of hunger.’
Isaiah said to the rich of his day: ‘Ye have eaten up the vineyards; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.’ He also said of the exploited class, referring to a golden time still ahead: ‘They shall build houses and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat.’
The apostle James wrote: ‘Behold the hire of the labourers which … is of you kept back by fraud.’ ‘Woe unto you that are rich,’ Jesus said. ‘It is as easy for a camel to go through the eye of a needle as for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’; and in the parable of Lazarus there is nothing against the rich man except his riches to warrant him being consigned to the pit.
Paul said: ‘Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands.’ This is a recognition that the only alternative to stealing a livelihood is to work for it. He did not even contemplate the third way, namely begging it. He himself worked at his calling of tent-maker, even when on a mission.
The Fathers Also.
The Fathers of the Church were violently anti-capitalist,
Opulence (says St Jerome) is always the product of theft committed, if not by the actual possesor, then by his ancestors. Some persons imagine that usury obtains only in money, but the Scriptures, foreseeing this, have exploded every increase, so that you cannot receive more than you gave.
And St Ambrose said: -
It is the bread of the hungry thou keepest; it is the clothing of the naked thou lockest up; the money thou buriest is the redemption of the wretched.
St. Basil, St Chrysostom, Origen, Tertullian are all emphatic in condemning the rentier, without having anything to suggest an alternative to private-enterprise methods.
John Ball, one of Wickliffe’s russet priests, had got his cue from the newly translated Bible when in 1381 he said:
They are clothed in velvet, and warm in their furs and ermine, while we are covered with rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread, and we oatcake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the rain and wind in the fields. And yet it is of us and our toil that these men hold their state.
Dr Barrow, the seventeenth century divine, said: -
A noble heart will disdain to subsist like a drone upon other’s labours, like a vermin to filch his food out of the public granaries, or like a shark to prey upon the lesser fry.
No Communist ever delivered a more vehement ‘class war’ diatribe than Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, who in the long indignant conclusion of ‘Utopia’ found the contemporary State just ‘a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the common wealth.’
The final part will be published in next month’s Gateway.
The Twentieth Century Puzzle.
That the principle underlying all this beneficent work should be systematically repudiated and scorned, and that associations should exist to combat and resist its further application, is, indeed, the record political anomaly of the twentieth century.
Rivers of blood have flowed in the name of religion. Applied science, the practical arts, social changes, even impalpable thought itself have all been repressed and thwarted in the name of religion. But no life has been taken by persecuting Socialists. Unlike the Protestant Church, we have the blood of no mild Servetus on our hands. Unlike the Catholic Church, we have martyred no Bruno, threatened no Galileo, we have on our conscience no Vanini with his tongue torn out, in the name of God, before his body was reduced to ashes. No inventor or discoverer has been overawed with the stake or the hangman’s cord by Socialists. Socialism has had no Alva, no Torquemada, no Bartholomew nights, no pogroms. To the very limited extent that it has been adopted, Collectivism has been as manifest a blessing as most organised religions have been curses. And it is only one of the world’s sorry jests to ignore, condemn, or anathematise this blessed recreating principle, which alone can keep the world sweet.
Socialism is not employers’ liability. It is the abolition of employers and the socialising of industry. It is not the taxation of fleecings, but the stoppage of theft at the fountain head. It is not heavy death duties upon successful, law-abiding exploiters, but ‘Catch ’em alive 0.’ It is not an elaborate system of insurance premiums paid by State, employer, and worker, but automatic provision for contingencies by the State or the Municipality as the sole employer. Socialism is not After-Care Committees or the feeding of necessitous children; it is paying the parent and guardian the full value of his labour and breeding a race of men and women with whom parental feeling and care will be as natural and spontaneous as they are with birds, beasts, and insects. Socialism is not the propping of an inverted social pyramid with laws and regulations and committees and bureaux and inspectors; it is the up-ending of the pyramid so that it shall stand, not upon an apex of rank, idleness, luxury, and robbery, with a King of the Robbers at the end of all, but upon the broad base of labour and service; a base composed of useful, industrious, free, self-respecting manhood and womanhood.
As Guiding Principle.
It is the glory of Socialism that its great central principal of public control of the means of life serves as a guiding star by which the Socialist can steer amid the rocks and shoals and maelstroms of current politics. We are with the Forwards every time.
Is a cowardly and useless war forced upon two little Republics in South Africa? The Socialist Party everywhere protests, and all who recognise the necessity for fair-dealing between nations as between individuals, all who put justice above false patriotism, know that wherever the Socialists are gathered together there they will have sympathisers and temporary allies.
The Health Reformer knows that the Socialists are everywhere with him. And with the Socialist, health reform is not merely an affair of open windows, Condy’s fluid, and efficient sewer traps, but better houses, the abatement of the smoke nuisance, more and better food, more intelligent cooking, shorter hours of work, dental attention, more and longer holidays, and the wherewithal to travel and enjoy these.
The Educational Reformer knows that whoever may palter with the question of expense, the Socialist puts educational efficiency first, regardless of rates and vested interests.
The Housing Reformer knows that he has no more thorough-paced supporters than the Socialists, who are so anxious to secure the best homes that they will not trust landlordism to provide them, but have all along put the responsibility on the county councils and municipalities.
The Home Ruler knows that Socialism stands for Home Rule All Round, and that we advocated Irish Home Rule while Gladstone was still a passionate Coercionist.
The Radical who is jealous of the power of the House of Lords knows that the Socialist Party stands alone for the abolition of the hereditary principle in Government, this applying to the Monarchy as well.
The Co-operator knows that we believe in the Co-operation, not only of the Store, but of the State.
The Humanitarian knows that we are opposed to the cruel treatment of the lower animals and that we alone among politicians recognise that the overworking of the noblest of animals, the horse, will continue so long as the overworking of the horse’s driver continues.
The Democrat knows that there are no more complete and consistent Democrats than the SOCIAL-Democrats.
The well-informed Vegetarian knows that so long as men work beyond their strength, breathe impure air, and work dismally long hours, the devitalised worker will have recourse to stimulants in his food and drink.
The Temperance Reformer knows that the best corrective of drinking habits is that raising of the standard of comfort, and that brightening of the whole outl000k upon life, for which Socialism stands more than any other political system.
The advocates of national and municipal theatres who look and long for a vast improvement of this potentially great medium of popular culture, like all other reformers who are very much in earnest, turn to the Socialists as being inevitably and by virtue of their principles sound upon this also.
When a Liberal or Tory member of Parliament is enraged at the gross and shameless sale of ‘honours,’ it is in Socialist quarters alone that he expects to have a sympathetic hearing.
No Fashions in Socialist Politics.
The true Socialist is not a man of fashion in politics. He is not a Republican or Home Ruler to-day, and a mere Minimum-Wage or Prevention-of-Destitution Man tomorrow. He is ready for every chance that comes along of affirming and, if possible, advancing his principles.
Socialism is, of course, republican. It is true, the direct pecuniary results of the abolition of the monarchy would mean a saving of only sixpence a-head of the population per annum. But the indirect benefits must needs be incalculably great. The monarchy keeps all the abuses of caste in countenance. We cannot consistently object to factory inspectors being taken from Oxford so long as the Head of the State is selected merely because he is his father’s son. We cannot consistently object to the minor lords so long as we adulate and crown a ‘lord’ who has not even the prestige attaching to ability and services rendered as Proconsul or as Minister of State. We cannot consistently object to hardened and experienced soldiers being led by lisping lieutenants just from school so long as the affairs of the nation are in any way subject to the caprice of an ex-lieutenant of the navy of no particular brains and of no particular service. ‘Set the feet above the brain’ says Tennyson, ‘and swear the brain is in the feet.’ That is what we do when we put George Wettin over the leaders of ‘the elect of the people.’
In bygone days a whole generation regarded that heartless scoundrel George the Fourth as ‘the glass of fashion and the mould of form,’ and students of history know the result. Sir Walter Scott was no small man; but the poison of loyalism so worked in him that on one occasion he pocketted the glass out of which George had drunk. The incident had an appropriate ending in respect that Sir Walter sat down upon the glass and broke it; but just imagine the mental attitude expressed in such an act!
To the good Social-Democrat every proposal holds the field till it is carried, and every passing incident which may seem to offer an opportunity will be used by him in order to impress his view upon the thoughts and the actions of his fellows. In such ways only can his great and many-sided social philosophy find currency and furtherance.
One More Instance.
With respect to the latest scheme for keeping the people on the land, the Socialist method would not be to entrust a Government bureau or commissioners with the duty of seeing that farmers all over the country paid not less than a fixed minimum wage, but to have agriculture, like all other industries, gradually organised under the local governing bodies, who would have no interest in sweating the labourer. The immediate method of approach to a revival of agriculture would be through Control, high farming, guaranteed prices and wages, to be secured, as during the War, by the Government purchase of imported food and the regulation of prices in the interest of the public.
The Socialist method would not be to hand the land over to peasant cultivators as has been done in Ireland, where a hundred small landlords, who are serfs of the soil, have been created in place of one large landlord. The Socialist does not believe in individual ownership of land, nor in peasant proprietorship, nor even in capitalist farming on the small scale. For the so-called ‘magic of ownership’ he would substitute communal ownership and communal farming under expert management, with the best implements, seeds, fertilisers, and marketing. By all means let the agricultural workers have fixity of tenure in their houses, and liberal gardens attached to those houses; but the communal fields worked by gangs of cheery workers, ploughing, sowing, mowing, reaping sociably - that is the true line of evolution so far as rural work is concerned.
Many benevolent measures forced upon local communities by the central government represent, not democracy, but bureaucracy, whereas Socialism is not bureaucratic, but democratic, and Socialists recognise that social-democracy can exist and flourish only with the hearty co-operation of a majority of the citizens in a given locality. The object of the Socialist party is, not to shower upon localities a succession of compulsory benefits for which they have not asked, but to carry the evangel of communal control of the means of life to every corner of the land, so that the people may gradually and eagerly take charge of what is really their own business, ousting the landlord and capitalist steadily from the field, where they have always failed anyhow. The limits of even benevolent compulsion are soon reached; but the possibilities of intelligent, active citizenship are as boundless as they are attractive. Democracy in practice is only at its beginnings as yet.
The Last Friend.
Is the State the enemy of the people? Ask the old age pensioner who besides the State would have given him a pension. Ask the bedridden pauper who besides the State would give him the airy home, the clean bed, the good plain food, the institutional care in general that he receives in the poorhouse. Ask the man, innocent or guilty, meritorious or vile, surrounded by a mob that thirsts to do him violence, who besides the State will or can protect him. When all other friends have given you up, or when you, for reason good, scorn to appeal to your friends, you know that there is one friend that will not fail you, be you good or evil, deserving or a scallywag. The only friend that sticketh closer than a brother is the State. All else may be inhumane; but with the State humanity is a standing principle to the end.
A man was walking on a remote beach. He came across a girl cooking fish on an open fire. The fish smelt beautiful and he was overcome with desire to taste it. The girl, seeing his longing, offered him a bowl of the fish. It was moist and tender and quite unlike any fish he had ever tasted before, even though he had eaten at all the best restaurants and could afford all the most expensive dishes. When his bowl was empty he said to the girl, ‘I have never tasted fish like that before.
’She smiled and said nothing.
From that moment on, the man could think of nothing else but tasting the fish again.
The next day he woke with an intense hunger. It was less a hunger of the belly than a hunger of the spirit. His hunger was for the fish, cooked by the girl over an open fire. He walked down to the beach and in the distance he saw the girl fishing. He stood and watched as she cast and played the large sea-rod. His anticipation grew along with her struggle, as she reeled the fish in. He watched her deftly gut and fillet the fish and place it on the fire to cook. His nostrils were filled once more with the delicious aroma. His whole body craved to taste the fish again. He sat beside the girl as the fish cooked. ‘I would love to taste your fish again,’ he said. ‘What can I pay you for it?’
The girl smiled. ‘I do not pay the sea,’ she said and handed him a bowl of the freshly cooked fish.
Meal after meal the man came back to taste the wonderful fish, cooked over an open fire by the strangely beautiful girl who seemed to spend all her time fishing, cooking and tending her fire. No matter how many times he ate the fish, his hunger never abated and his thirst grew for understanding of the girl. He wanted to find a way to repay her, but he did not know how to.
One day as they ate their fish together he said, ‘Your fish is so delicious I am sure it would fetch the highest price at the markets and would grace the tables of all the fashionable restaurants throughout the world. If you caught twenty or thirty a day instead of two or three.’
‘Why would I want to catch twenty or thirty fish a day?’ she asked.
‘With the money that you made from catching the fish you could buy things to make your life easier,’ he continued.
The girl looked at the man and smiled.
‘Two or three fish a day,’ she said, ‘is all I need. You suggest I should spend all my days fishing. How would that make life easier?’
‘Ah,’ the man replied, ‘but with the money you made you could employ other people to catch the fish for you. You wouldn’t have to work. You could take it easy, enjoy life.’
‘And how should I enjoy life?’ she asked.
‘Money buys freedom,’ he said. ‘You could go to the city, travel, do whatever you wanted.’
She smiled. ‘Eat fish at one of your expensive restaurants?’
The man felt that she was laughing at him. He was trying to help her and she did not seem to appreciate his advice. He looked at her, saddened. Then he noticed that her face had lost its smile and had become serious.
‘So your advice is that I catch more fish, make money by selling the fish, with the money I make employ other people to do the fishing for me, leaving myself enough time to do whatever I want to with my life?’
‘Exactly,’ he replied. Finally, she had understood him.
‘But I do what I want now,’ she said. ‘I catch fish, I cook fish, I tend my fire. I can sit all day thinking, and all night looking at the stars. I do not have to bother with money or employees or profit, or whether I can afford to eat fish in a fancy restaurant. If I do all the things you say I will only end up where I already am. At best with more effort at worst less happy. What is the point of that?’
The man had no answer to her question. As he licked the rest of the fish from his fingers he realised that far from showing the girl a way that she could improve her life, she had perhaps shown him a way to improve his. He looked around the beach.
‘Let me stay here with you,’ he said. ‘Teach me to catch fish so that I too can sit by the fire and live as you do.’
The girl held silence for a time.
‘I catch fish, I cook fish and I eat fish,’ she said. ‘That is enough for me. But you crave fish, you dream of tasting fish, you want more and more and more. It is not the same. You would not be happy with this life.’
As she spoke, the aftertaste of the fish turned sour in the man’s mouth and he realised that she spoke the truth. As long as he stayed on the beach he would have an obsession, a craving which he could not fulfil. He would never be able to taste enough of the delicious fish and his life would become more and more miserable. He realised that the only thing for him to do was to leave the beach, leave the girl and never taste the fish again. He stood up, sad but somewhat wiser.
‘Think of me when you eat fish in one of your fancy restaurants,’ the girl said.
‘I will never eat fish in a restaurant again,’ he replied. ‘But I will think of you all the same.’ The man left the beach and only when the fire was a speck in the distance did he turn round to allow himself a last look at the girl with the perfect life.
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