Between Free and Responsible
Let me start by saying, I’ve got nothing against free books. Obviously, I understand that publishers and authors need recompense in the first case for the physical costs and in the second case for the creative endeavour and input of time. However, the idea of commodifying creativity and especially its centrality in the free market economy, seems, to me, to run counter to what we actually want to achieve with reading (and culture).
So – for example the Book Depository tried to tempt me in with Booksale – up to 50% off last month (though when I looked for Jack’s Barrie book as I was then if you recall, it was a cool £69) I decided not to spend any more time browsing for a ‘bargain’! It’s so so so easy to find cheap books. Everyone is trying to tempt you. But why pay? You can get all the books you could ever read for free. Enter Amazon Free lists. You can get books of all kinds on there, though often they are the province of the indie struggling for visibility.
I say again. I’m not against free books. I’m against being ‘sold’ free books by large corporations who see books primarily as product to be shifted.
That’s the capitalist view of culture. And, I’m afraid, it’s the world we live in.
What price free is an incredibly thorny issue and far too complex a topic to get into one post, so I’m not even going to try. What I am going to look at this month is the consequences of free culture – books specifically – and that mean ebooks specifically. No one gives out totally free print books. Actually that’s almost not true. You can quite easily pick up second hand books online for 1p plus post and packing (usually around £2.80) That’s as close to free as you can imagine.
We’ve been trained to see new and second hand as conceptually different. This is odd because the content is the same (and isn’t it the content that is important?)
Likewise we’re being trained to see Ebooks and paper books as different animals. There is a right royal battle going on between those who put out ebooks for free (because, let’s face it the costs of production are minimal) and those who place a ‘market’ value on the content which can sometimes see you pay more for an ebook version of a text than a paper one. But don’t be fooled for a moment. This is not about culture it’s all about profit.
The arguments for and against price in any and all of these negotiations are different and put together become ridiculously complex. Isn’t this part of the plan. Make things so difficult for people to reason out that they stop bothering and just follow the bouncing ball of hype/market/FREE IN YOUR FACE style purchasing.
Ebooks come in many quantum flavours. Essentially these are: new ‘indie’ or ‘self’ published, new ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ published and re-versioned texts. The rules as they apply today seem to be that no value is (or should be) placed on ‘indie’ or ‘self’ published books. Authors of these works are expected to put them out for free – because they don’t have a ‘name’ that people will buy. They are further encouraged (and expected) to try to ‘develop’ (and that means ‘buy’) their own brand. To sell books you need visibility. You get visibility primarily through buying it. The alternative is to make loads of ‘friends’ and get a ‘fan base’ but this includes expenditure of both time and money. The cards are very heavily stacked against the actual cultural or creative element of the ‘indie’ world. It’s not really any different from music. Who pays for music any more? And what do you think about that?
The difference is that people do still listen to music, (though I’m no expert on what music is actually being listened to) whereas evidence suggests that many of those who download ‘free’ ebooks don’t even bother to read them. It’s more about acquisition, impulse, a sense of ‘ownership’ and the ability to ‘cheat’ a system – though it’s not the system that’s being cheated it’s the author who is being exploited by being forced to ‘give it away’.
A lot of public domain books are also available as ebooks and that’s largely a good thing. Except when the quality of the production is so low as to make the work unreadable. That happens rather too often. Never mind the creative content itself, if the form it’s delivered in is unreadable, that’s disrespectful to both writer and reader.
The above instances seem to suggest that our current cultural system places no value in the creative work itself. It’s a world of brands and product. It’s the ultimate pay to play version of culture. And most people seem quite happy with that. Perhaps it’s time to think about it? When questioned, a lot of people employ the ‘only a soldier following orders’ line of reasoning – it’s out there free, why not take advantage of the offer? Yes, indeed. But who are you taking advantage of? Not Amazon or the online retailers. You are taking advantage of the generosity (or desperation) of another human being. Even if they are offering the ‘gift’ in good faith. To get away from capitalist cultural perspectives one might suggest a rebirth of reciprocity. Picture the scene:
You download a free ebook. Intellectually of course you know its value is more than zero. Someone has put time and effort into this beyond the click it’s taken you to download. Responsibility one – READ IT.
You could even take responsibility earlier than this: Don’t download if you’re not going to read it. Just say no. Why not do some research and work out if you think you will like it first. We seem to think that the digital world doesn’t have ‘waste’ but it does. It’s just a lot more subtle. And it’s all tied up with keeping us like rats in a cage clicking the ‘pleasure’ button.
If you want to be a ‘risk-taker’ then do at least accept that you need to read responsibly. And take responsibility for your risk taking activity. This is someone’s creativity you’re holding in your hands for free. A real, living human being who is trying to communicate with YOU. So do them the courtesy of reading the book. And then leave a review if you’ve enjoyed it.
Should you leave a review if you didn’t enjoy it? Yes, if you feel you have something more significant to say than ‘I picked the wrong book here. I didn’t ‘get’ it and I’m pissed off that I wasted my time so I’m going to blame the author rather than accept that maybe I shouldn’t have grabbed the free bargain simply because it was there.’
But if you did enjoy it, and you got it for free, you really should feel a responsibility to pay it forward. Not just clicking LIKE but actually engaging like a real live human being. Telling other people about it. Giving them a reason to read it. Sharing. Not with one eye on the ‘what will everyone think about me?’ Do not ask yourself the question ‘Am I saying the right/cool/acceptable thing about this or will everyone shun me?’
Remind yourself that you have the power of turning the invisible into the visible –as widely as you can be bothered. You have the same power, by investment of your time and creative engagement, as those who are paid to ‘sell’ things. You are not selling, you are telling. You are not trying to part people from their money for profit, you are engaged in a resistance movement to reclaim cultural creativity for the masses. If you don’t then many voices are silenced. When everyone abdicates responsibility for creating and sharing culture and creativity we get the culture we deserve. Look around you. Are you happy with the way we are offered and consume culture and creativity today? Yes. Fine. No, do something about it.
So much for ebooks. What about paper? There is the obvious cost of production involved in the paper and ink for producing new (or new editions of old) books. However, it is possible to get books for free from libraries, or next to nothing paying only postage. This is in many ways a ‘green’ thing to do. And green is good. Part of me thinks we should have an entire moratorium on cultural production (another part of me thinks we should have a moratorium on human production – births) for a decade or so. I’m not sure how much would be lost if we did this. There are more films, books, songs in the world floating around than anyone could ever even scrape the tip of in a whole lifetime dedicated to consuming cultural offerings. It’s truly a tower of babel.
There are two arguments against such a moratorium. The first is a capitalist one. The ‘creative’ economy is so important – a beast of a machine that keeps on churning out consumer product just to keep itself alive. I don’t like that argument. The other argument is ‘it’s wrong to stifle creativity.’ Yes it is. But the model of cultural creation we have at the moment IS stifling creativity of the many in favour of the creativity of the few for the goal of profit.
So what I’m really suggesting is a moratorium on the monetisation of creativity. People want to write. It’s less obvious these days that people want to read. For people who want to write as a mode of communication (rather than, deludedly as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme) these people can, should and most probably will keep writing whether they are being paid or not. We need to get away from the thought that a ‘professional’ writer deserves to be paid. Step away from the capitalist model. I pause here before I head off into a far too long exegesis of what might replace this model. I am trying to stick to the consequences of where we are rather than explore the ‘options for change’ though this is a necessary but difficult conversation.
Removing the financial imperative from the whole writing/reading experience (and reminding ourselves it’s an experience rather than a ‘transaction’ is what I’m talking about. Where someone is trying to ‘sell’ themselves or their ideas via a market driven capitalist business model, you can do as you like. Pay what you will. There are plenty of people making a buck out of the process and you’re keeping loads of people in work – but remember it’s always the folk at the top who benefit the most. Where someone is trying to communicate with you, to share their thoughts, emotions and beliefs, that’s a different matter. For a varied, diverse and vibrant culture of creativity we need to treat people with respect (both writers and readers) rather than as parts of a financial transaction. I feel I’m starting to repeat myself. I should stop. I simply find it so hard to understand why people either don’t see this, or are indifferent to it.
We are all able to take advantage of (and responsibility for) employing a mixed economy attitude towards our cultural consumption (not just for books but for everything). In the context of books I suggest that you take advantage of libraries for the free books they contain. Likewise, seek out public domain works for free (but pay attention to whether they have just been cheaply scanned or actually have some ‘additional value’ such as a modern commentary that makes them worth paying for.) But where you are engaging with a living author, especially if they are not the ‘brand’ or ‘product’ of a large publishing conglomorate, it’s a good idea to act responsibly. Not all authors make themselves into ‘brands’ (some would like to but can’t, others find it an offensive concept) and those who take the path less travelled need all the help they can get.
Codicil on Copyright. It’s another big and thorny issue. At the basic level copyright is important for living authors not least because stealing copyright from another living person is effectively stealing their labour. For dead people the situation is slightly different. Copyright as a ‘legacy’ is a double edged sword. Royalties can help relatives and death is certainly a good thing for publishers these days (it wasn’t always the case) but the downside is that those outside the mainstream financial model are effectively silenced for 70 years. That means that we are all deprived of access to diverse voices and alternative opinions whereas we could benefit from free and unfettered access. These are the sorts of works that should be available free. There are movements and groups seeking to challenge public domain issues. There are those (especially the academic fraternity) who want to hide things behind paywalls and in doing so they act as the gatekeeper to our culture. Are you happy with that? If not, do something about it.
Bringing you your M & S
In this case I’m not talking high street retailers, but Marx and Smith. Karl and Adam to be precise. And why not throw in William Morris to boot.
This month’s Gateway sees the final part of the serialised pamphlet from 1927, ‘Matter, Spirit and Karl Marx.’ I’m not sure whether it’s true that everything in the world is connected in more subtle ways than we usually imagine, or what part we play in making the connections, but this month I’ve found that a lot of my thought strands have come together and this (I hope) is reflected in the Gateway output. What am I talking about? Here goes:
In the modern world, I was irked recently by some social media ‘bigging up’ of Adam Smith. He’s a Scot. As was David Hume. As was Sir Walter Scott. And, according to the intellectual arena of social media (now there’s a contradiction in terms surely?) all of these, it seems, must be revered whether you’ve read their work or not. What particularly irritates me this month is people who praise Adam Smith and yet in the rest of their lives espouse political philosophies that are diametrically opposed to his.
Let’s get one thing clear. Marx and Smith are at opposite ends of a spectrum. One Socialist the other Capitalist. And despite what some folks today would have you believe, these two things are indeed different. The New Labour experiment was an attempt to square this particular circle – or bring these two opposite sides together. It’s a dangerous thing to do with political and or moral philosophies. Other examples are Nationalism and Fascism, and Anarchism and Ayn Rand style ‘objectivism.’
Whereas Smith developed the concept of division of labour, and expounded upon how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity, Marx’s socialist dream of a free association of producers is a completely different animal. Capitalism with its inherent competition harks back to the ‘survival of the fittest’ whereas communism (and socialism) in pure theoretical forms are about a classless, equal society (perhaps utopian) where money is a lot less important than time.
Marx and Smith are ideological opposites. Some modern writers claim that their economic theories have a lot in common. Well, they both deal with labour and the rise of capitalism. But they are on opposite sides of the fence. Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ free market economy is not compatible with Marx’s state ordered communism. Not unless you have a really strange conception of ‘only connect’ as a theory.
There may be a point somewhere if you squint into the theory far enough, where they both say things about individual human beings which could be construed as similar. But Smith is all for the advancement of both individuals and nations in a profit driven economy whereas Marx is about a fundamental moral integrity between a man and his labour.
Smith was writing in the mid-18th century. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Marx was writing in the mid-19th century. Das Kapital was published between 1867-1984. A century is a long time in both economic and political philosophy and maybe it’s not right to compare them at all. Even political theory is subject to cultural relativism after all.
In the late 19th century Leatham couldn’t read Marx because it wasn’t translated from the German. So his socialism developed out of the American version of Marxist philosophy. Now what is interesting to me is that Leatham was soon after Marx’s death (in 1883) - between 1896 and 1945. He thus offers an interesting close contemporary view of an emerging philosophy/political/economic system – after the death of its author. Leatham experienced the ‘birth pangs of a nation’ – though vicariously because the demise of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union was as contemporary (and therefore as ‘hidden’) to him as the current Middle East crisis is to us. Sure, we have our views and opinions, but we do not have hindsight. Our relationship with history, political theory and contemporary issues is something we should really think more closely about.
For example, I venture to offer one shocking revelation for my fellow Scots – The Enlightenment is not the best thing that ever happened to us. It’s inconsistent to praise Enlightenment values and claim to be in favour of egalitarian social justice. Capitalism gets in the way. The free market is not the same as ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.’ Join up the dots folks. Think harder. Think deeper. Think.
This month we also have an article on William Morris. How does he fit into this picture (or jigsaw if we’re going to hold with that analogy). In one sense he’s an interesting example of a man who has been used to serve two incompatible purposes. Morris was (at least later in his life) a Socialist. That presented a problem for himself and his business interests in his own time and its certainly presented a problem for his legacy. Well, not so much of a problem as where it’s not been airbrushed from memory, hidden behind the wallpaper and medieval poetry, it’s been dismissed as a whim or fancy. I recommend you get your hands on both Leatham and Glasier’s works on Morris – something of a wake up call. And while you’re at it, why not delve into some of Morris’s own writing. News from Nowhere is an interesting place to start for those not enamoured of medieval poetry.
While I’m in recommendation mode, I would really recommend that folks read political, economic and philosophical theory in general. Yes it can be hard to wade through – yes you have to adapt to an unfamiliar ‘style’ of writing. Smith isn’t brief (but no 18th century writer was succinct). Marx isn’t for dummies. You do have to employ the grey matter and concentrate. Switch off the smartphone and dedicate some time to it! If you want to understand where we are today and what the issues surrounding the free market – and this one is vitally important to us in the contemporary world of Brexit – then a grounding in political and economic theory from times past will do a lot more to educate you than listening to the news and current affairs offerings we are currently having pumped out at us. It’s time to get out of the gilded cage and put in the hard work. If you want to understand how we are all being manipulated. But maybe you don’t want to know that?
To make things just that little bit easier for you, I’ve given you some handy links:
Leatham’s Marx is HERE for free as a PDF.
Leatham’s work on Morris is HERE and Glasier’s is HERE
You can get the entirety of Marx’s output as one ebook collection for under a fiver HERE.
You can download Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as a free ebook HERE (Is there an irony there for the father of the free market?)
And HERE from my own recent trawl round t’internet, is an interesting essay on your M&S. Many other offerings are available. It’s good to read opinion, but can I remind you that sooner or later, a trip to the primary sources is a very good idea.
I’ve just had a thought. Maybe Orwell’s Winston Smith was named after Winston Churchill and Adam Smith. How does that impact upon your understanding of 1984? Answers on a postcard please.
March is the birth month of William Morris. Born 24th March 1834 in the 180+ years since his birth and the 121 years since his death he has become a perfect example of the commodified artist – known and loved by all and sundry. Can there really be any more to say? Any side unexplored? Well, two new editions by Deveron Press suggest so.
The first official biographer of William Morris was Mackail. Writing the ‘official’ version soon after his death, this has become the standard – but it is, as all ‘official’ accounts, somewhat partial and does not give full credence to Morris the Socialist. Morris’s Socialist convictions were often found embarrassing to his contemporaries and seen as a ‘phase’ or fancy. Without an insight into this part of his later life however, the a rounded picture of the man who has become a myth, cannot be given.
James Leatham can actually claim to have published the first biographical account of Morris since his William Morris, Master of Many Crafts came out before Mackail’s in 1897. It is a slight tome, a personal take on a real man, no myth making, no ‘official’ story and it is all the better for that.
Leatham, does not benefit from the fulsome Wikipedia entry allotted to Morris though he has plenty to add to this description.
Why don’t we find Leatham on Wikipedia? It is always worth remembering that ubiquitous as it seems, Wikipedia is constructed – by people of course – who are able to work out the editing protocols. It’s knowledge Jim, but not as we used to know it. It is broader, looser and a bit more egalitarian than encyclopedias of old, but it does not hold all the useful, interesting or important information in the world.
Nor does Google. Search engines are not there to support socialism after all. Profit is the bottom line. This is somewhat off our topic, but the heads up is that if you want to find out about James Leatham via Google you have to put in James Leatham Socialist to stand any kind of chance. Therefore, some knowledge is required before you can begin. By the same token, instead of just hitting Wikipedia, try William Morris Socialist in Google and it’ll take you to a load of places just typing William Morris won’t.
That’s a good analogy for the Deveron Press republications. They will show you a different side to William Morris (perhaps even a different William Morris) to the official biographers.
James Leatham’s tribute shows a young man looking at an older one. There is an element of hero worship, perhaps even of awe, but Leatham is too grounded to let this vision run away with him. And so in William Morris, Master of Many Crafts we learn a lot about Morris (and in the process a fair amount about the young Leatham)
In the book Leatham says of Morris his ‘memory must be a lifelong inspiration to all who have known him and felt the spirit of his influence.’
It’s easy to experience Morris fatigue, reading modern biographies and critical works about him. He seems less man and more myth, but Leatham, for all his personal take, brings us back to the heart and spirit of the man. Leatham covers Morris’s poetry, Prose, his Arts Craftsmanship (including print/publishing – a topic close to Leatham’s own heart) his Socialism and personal belief system. It is the immediate response of a friend who grieves a loss. It is this freshness, honesty and immediacy which still touches the reader today and offers a unique and different perspective to the Morris we all think we know and love.
Leatham wrote his Morris tribute in his early 30s. But Morris and his ideas would not let him go. Thus nearly quarter of a century later when the opportunity arose for him to publish another biography of Morris – this time by John Bruce Glasier – he took it.
Glasier is another overlooked figure in the early history of Socialism. Who today has heard of him? He does have a brief Wikipedia entry as ‘Scottish Politician.’ Even the Google trick of John Bruce Glasier Socialist doesn’t take you far. So the best way to find out about him is directly from his own writing.
William Morris and the early days of the Socialist Movement was essentially Glasier’s death bed project, written we might feel, to pay proper tribute not just to a friend but to a political comrade. Glasier’s portrait offers a picture of the older Morris as a committed Socialist. Thus contextualised it is possible to make sense of Morris in a way the ‘official’ biographies do not tend either to aim for or achieve.
Mackail’s biography is about ‘praising great men’ whereas Glasier and Leatham’s are about personal friendship and exploring and explaining Morris’s moral commitment – which was not divorced from, but may be seen at times in conflict with his artistic commitment. Both Leatham and Glasier try to resolve this conflict, exploring Morris from the perspective of their own experiences of him. As Glasier writes ‘Morris was a Socialist by reason of his whole intellectual and moral construction, and whatever circumstances eventually led him to realise and proclaim himself a Socialist – and there were doubtless many – his Socialism was none the less a necessary expression of his whole nature.’
It is a very interesting context in which to view Morris – for those happy to step beyond the wallpaper.
Glasier’s volume has an introduction by Morris’s daughter May (after whom Leatham named one of his own daughters) and features a series of letters written between Morris and Glasier. Both books are available in paperback from www.unco.scot.
Leatham Morris comes in at £3.99 (+ £2 p&p)
Glasier Morris is £7.99 (+ £2.80 p&p)
And there’s a special offer. Buy both books and Leatham’s own Socialism and Character and get free UK p&p. (A saving of £5.20) Just enter the coupon code MORRIS at checkout to get the special offer – available during March. The offer applies to UK purchases only.
Make March the time you get to know William Morris – or get to know him all over again, differently.
A leaf from the diary of a walking tour.
First published Sept 1897
It was at Saussay-les-Ecuis, in the dead, accursed centre of the Norman plain, that we first saw the Impartial Hand. It had been a tiring day, and the wind of March, charged with dry and dessicated dust from a hundred miles of ploughland, had been pressing against our temples and aridly choking our throats till, as my companion the Monk expressed it, he did not think that all the Ganges and old Nile could ever make him feel moist inside again.
Along miles and miles of straight and pitiless road we had trudged dourly and sullenly. In the morning it was our custom to say wonderful things concerning the artistic value of the wide plain lying edgeways to our eyes, with its ploughlands alternately emerald and Venetian red – spotted here and there with the keen viridian of the springing flax, and over all the great flamboyant sky springing illimitably aloft. At least, that was how I put it in my note-book, while the Monk (whose line of business was other) took out his porte-crayon and jotted the whole effect down in the manner of an ancient illumination
‘Right patiently in cloister nook y-wrought.’
For the Monk is no friar of orders, grey, but a young brush-man of name and repute, presently (and till he can reach the Associateship) at Sturm and Drang with the Academy and all its works. Only since with his physiognomy the cowl and quarterstaff of Friar Tuck would mightily accord, for love and euphony the Monk we name him.
In face of the station of Saussay-les-Ecuis there cowers the Hotel de la Gare. Now it has been my lot to tramp the brown earth in many countries, and to note the invariable badness of Hotels de la Gare, but never – no, never – was it my ill fortune to strike a worse hotel than the Railway Restaurant of Saussay-les-Ecuis. Humbly we asked for coffee; we suggested bread; we craved butter as a boon. Coffee we could have; bread, perhaps; as for butter! The tired, draggled woman only laughed. Messieurs must have come from a richer country than Normandy. There was not so much as a pat of butter nearer than Etrépagny. Well, then, coffee let it be! I fell to dreaming over my note-book, but the Monk, who from an art-student had made his own coffee, sat erect with arched nostril and supercilious eyebrow on the cock to detect any malfeasance in the manufacture of his beloved beverage.
Suddenly I looked up and found him on his feet.
‘Coffee Extract – as I’m a living sinner! I’m off! He cried. And withal he was out.
I rose more slowly, and, being thus deserted, I quailed before the indignant gaze of the tired woman, who came to the door with the bottle of syrupy extract in her fingers, holding it open and unashamed. The scowl of the hulking landlord also was upon me.
I hastily pulled out a piece of ten sous, and, laying it on the counter, I explained that my friend had long been subject to these attacks, and that it was best for all parties that I should make the best of my way up the road after him.
When I reached him, the Monk turned sternly upon me, quite suddenly and when I was least expecting it.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘did it run to a franc this time?’
‘No,’ I replied, strong in my conscious innocence, ‘it did not run to a franc.’
‘Half of it then, I suppose. You are a ninny!’ were the uncalled for words he used. But as I did not know what a ninny was, my feelings were less hurt than might have been anticipated.
Then we looked for a place to sit down and hunt the stray crumblings of the morning’s bread out of our knapsacks. But of all the inhospitable places in the world, commend me to Saussay-les-Ecuis. There was not so much as a green bank to sit down upon. Straight, irreconcilable, dusty walls bounded everything. A farmer came truculently towards us as we stood peeping cautiously in, and shut the high wooden doors of his yard in our faces – like one who would say, ‘Move on! No tramps allowed here.’
And indeed as I looked at the Monk, I did not greatly wonder. For from cap to boots the dust had covered all. It was hanging like cobwebs from eyebrow and moustache. It lurked in hitherto unsuspecting wrinkles of check and chin. I have seldom looked upon a more disgraceful spectacle than the Monk.
I found that he also had been regarding me with a long and rapt attention, and when finally he finished at my shoes, he made a remark.
‘Lord,’ he said, ‘after all I don’t wonder that old Jacques Bonhomme back there shut his gate.’
We were therefore in a humble frame of mind when we set out to seek a resting-place for our weary feet. I thought that if only we could have a wash, we might manage to dry ourselves on the inside of our coats, as indeed we had been doing for the past week.
‘Ha, a bridge!’ I cried as glad as if it had been the Grand Hotel of the City of Paris. ‘We can rest on it, at least, even if we cannot get a wash!’
‘You may,’ said the Monk, who was a little in front, ‘but as it is a bridge over a common drain, I am going on.
Finally, after many disappointments, all meekly we sat down back to back for mutual support on a mound of earth raked together by the art of the district cantonier, the guardian angel of the roads of France. Sadly I jotted down moralizings upon the transient state of man in my note-book, while the more cheerful Monk commenced a sketch of the rear works of a calf which was leaning too exhausted to stand upon its legs, against an apple tree on the other side of the road. Just as he was putting in the sweep of the tail, the calf whisked a fly off its left hind foot and walked away out of sight. At this point the Monk made a remark, but as he spoke with a pencil in his mouth, I cannot say that I could more than guess the general sense of his observation. It appeared to be an invocation to the calf in the Phonecian manner, ‘O calf, live for ever!’ or something to that effect.
But I am forgetting the Impartial Hand. By this time we were ready to fall into his clutches. Affliction and the scorning of rude men had chastened the Monk, and as for me, I am meek by nature.
A gendarme on his rural rounds was coming up the road. We did not doubt that he had called upon our inhospitable but wholly excusable Jacques Bonhomme and had imbibed his suspicions. The Monk did not share my idea that it migth be productive of good copy to be arrested. He intimated, in a language peculiar to him, that he was not taking any in his.
So, shutting up the unfinished sketch of the right hind quarter of the fickle Norman calf, we trudged down the road, keeping well ahead of the gendarme, and before we had gone far we were rewarded for our pertinacity.
For there proved to be another café in Saussay, blessed be the keeper thereof – and a douce and agreeable old lady is Madame Lavenue. At first I fear it must be confessed that Madame did not like us; but, thrusting the Monk behind me, I smiled and volunteered explanations. We were gentlemen of Scotland travelling for our pleasure. This we stuck to wherever we went, and to our profit. For the memory of the Auld Alliance is not yet dead in French hearts, and at least anything is better than to proclaim oneself English. ‘Could we have a meal of any sort?’ we asked Madame.
She stole a look round my defences and eyed the Monk, who was looking with desire upon the ranged bottles on the shining little bar.
She shook her head a little sadly. ‘But no,’ she said, ‘this is only a café – I do not serve meals. There is a restaurant at the Gare. You will be served there.’
I heard the irony in her tones, and in a moment I knew that I had her.
‘Ah, Madame, ‘I went on, shrugging my shoulders as best I could, ‘but we have been there. And that is the reason we come to Madame to cast ourselves on her mercies – an omelette, sardines, bread, a little wine, anything, but not the Restaurant de la Gare any more.
At this Madame Lavenue smiled. I looked about the shining tables. I praised the pretty crimson window blinds, the clean sanded tiles. I even looked the admiration I could not speak for the snowy goffered cap which became Madame so admirably.
‘Monsieur is very agreeable. I shall be pleased to do my best for Monsieur,’ she said at last – ‘and for his friend!’
So to obviate delays we were served with a bottle of her best wine at tenpence a bottle, which we paid for on the spot, just to let her see the colour of our money. Then at a pump in the yard we removed as much as possible of the caked Norman dust. We had scarcely returned to our wine when the door opened and the Impartial Hand came in. He sat down at a table and rapped sharply in the manner of a habitué with the heel of a tumbler. He was a brigand of a man, lean, haggard, disreputable, and from the moment of his entry he eyed us openly with much interest. The Monk and I were talking about our several boyhoods. And from what he told me I am glad I did not happen to be a master in any of the schools which the Monk adorned during the chequered period of his novitiate. While we sipped the red wine, he recalled incidents of fire and flood and barring out, and I jotted them down in my note-book, for one never knows what may come to be useful.
The Impartial Hand watched us keenly, dripping the water over the sugar into his absinthe till the green imp winked up at him from the bottom of the tumbler.
Then, having achieved this, the Impartial Hand spoke.
‘You are speaking English!’ he said, but in his native tongue.
‘We are- perhaps you speak English yourself, sir!’ I answered.
‘But no,’ he protested in haste: ‘yet because I have so very much travelled, I understand the English very well. You have been speaking to your brother of the places you have visited – Le Havre, Rouen, Paris. You have been entering in your book of expenses how much each shall pay. You have been writing down the things you have seen, in order to send the account of the voyage to those at home. Aha! Am I not right?’
We did not contradict him, and the Impartial Hand smiled and nodded. He had never been out of France himself, but he knew all other countries, and we were great travellers and had much voyaged. As for him, he was a dealer in pork, and had come to Saussay to buy pigs. But he had had the misfortune to leave his purse behind him, and such were the inhospitable habits of the country that even for this paltry glass of absinthe Madame might refuse to credit his explanation, and so place him in a painful dilemma. Could we – in fact, strictly a loan.
The Monk kicked me severely under the table, but I thought a franc might be worse spent than on the Impartial Hand. So with great pomp and circumstance he first of all pocketed the coin and then transcribed my address into a very dirty pocket-book. Then, with a bow worthy of a court, he informed me that I had rendered him one of the services which bind the hearts of men of the world together, and which do credit to our common humanity.
At this moment our modest repast was announced. Madame Lavenue appeared carrying a large dish with an omelette curving a noble bulk across it. Her little grand-daughter held the door of the kitchen open in order that the procession might approach with due dignity; then she herself followed with the salad. Madame set it down before us with a flourish, and then stood smiling and rubbing her hands, expectant of compliments.
But before we could express our gratification, the Impartial Hand interrupted. Never, it appeared, had he been more surprised. These very viands spread before us were the nutriment which had regaled his innocent childhood. Scarcely could he look upon the omelette of Madame Lavenue without being reminded of his own mother. He was moved in the tenderest emotions by the sardines, for his father had been a fisherman, and often in his unconscious infancy he had been cradled among the boxes of the silvery spoil. When he uttered the words, ‘Sardines in oil!’ emotion choked his utterance. We must pardon him.
We did. But it became a very evident necessity to invite this bright orphan waif to share these dainties, and this, in spite of the Monk’s warning, I did.
Then it was that the Impartial Hand justified himself, and showed his quality. Madame Lavenue could not produce those souveniers of his early youth quick enough. She ran out of eggs, and was compelled to fall back upon a kind of pancake locally flavoured with a conserve of apples. But this, it appeared, was equally one of the cherished reminiscences of our guest’s various childhood. And all the time he kept hard at work, shovelling the tear-stained mementoes into his mouth with the blade of his knife, and pursuing them down his throat with the red wine of Madame Lavenue.
Meanwhile the Monk, with a countenance like a stone wall, continued his geographical gazetteer, to which the Impartial Hand kept nodding as often as he discerned the names of towns or countries of which he had heard.
‘I haven’t been in Africa – no more have I dwelt in the marble halls of Timbuctoo’ thus the Monk with the air of one who furnishes important and deeply serious information – ‘but not in Chicago nor Pekin, not in Constantinople, in Algiers, nor yet in Regent’s Park or the Kyles of Bute, could I have found so complete an ass as this nodding Jerusalem cuckoo!’
And the Impartial Hand, who understood English, bowed in approval of the sentiment he was so far from comprehending. And all the while the Monk looked into his countenance with a smile, calm and bland and beneficent.
As Madame’s wine mounted to his brain and the absinthe mingled with it, the Impartial Hand gave us an account of his life and pursuits. He was a piano tuner by profession, and came from Marseilles. He had long been a wanderer without house or home. He had a beautiful mansion at Etrépagny, to which he was returning that night. He had (he just remembered) a wife and four children. But they would welcome us, if we would only favour him by accepting his hospitality. Then he put his head on his hand and sighed. In five minutes he had forgotten his many occupations and nativities. Once more he was an orphan. His father was a large landed proprietor in Alsace. For this reason he was able to speak excellent German, although for the present (owing to some strange mischance connected with the watercress not agreeing with him) he had forgotten the German word for bread and water, and considered that I was complimenting him when I called him a ‘dummer Kalbskopf.’ But this all had been swept away by the war. The Prussian hordes had killed his little brother of two years old, and carried the corpse off on one of their lances; his sister – but here again the emotions of the Impartial Hand proved too much for him, and he had to retreat upon the second bottle of Madame Lavenue’s red win, in order to express his deadly intentions with regard to every German in the Fatherland.
It was dusking to a quiet, ruddy dusk when at last we shouldered our knapsacks and set forward on the way to the town of Les Ecuis. The wind had fallen after the arid and vexing day. Right cheerfully we paid our bill, which amounted to less than five francs, and included three bottles of excellent wine, and all that the early recollections of the Impartial Hand had induced him to secrete in the inside of his blouse when he supposed that we were not looking.
But he could not think of deserting us. He would accompany us at least as far as the restaurant of the Gare, and there we should drink – at his expense.
But as soon as our feet touched the roadway the Monk and I fell with one accord into a clean heel-and-toe five mile gait, which in a trice left the Impartial Hand so far behind that he soon became no more than a voice crying tearfully in an unseen dusky wilderness behind.
Still, he was the Child of Misfortune. Had he not drunk with us? Had he not clasped our hands as comrades? And now we were deserting him. We would have none of his hospitality. And yet his family was noble – his own career, before the evil demon crossed it, far from undistinguished. Marshall MacMahon had on one occasion said of him – If we would only tarry he would tell us a tale worth telling.
But Les Ecuis lay before us far down that dusky road, which cut straight as a lance –shaft across the plain towards the Seine. Saussay dropped swiftly behind us, and so we had looked our last, please the deities, upon our friend and guest, the Impartial Hand.
‘Do you know,’ said the Monk, after a pause, ‘I don’t want to be censorious, but I shouldn’t be surprised if that fellow was a liar!’
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Mind Your Own Business.
Or, ARE YOU A ROBOT?
'And stab my spirit broad awake!'
R. L. STEVENSON: The Celestial Surgeon.
'Just the same fine sort of fellows they were, agreeably dull-witted, as sent hundreds of thousands of Englishmen to cruel and useless deaths in France.' - H. G. WELLS.
What is your business? All business is your business. You may produce only one thing; but you buy many things. Food, clothing, houseroom, fuel, light, streets and roads, the means of locomotion and transport - they are all your business. That you should work hard at one thing by which you make a livelihood, and then allow yourself to be robbed at every turn, not so much by any glaring individual turpitude as by the faults and costs of chaotic and wasteful methods of production and supply, is a fool’s game. Yet that is the position of the man who myopically gives his attention to making money, and takes no heed of how his life is wasted in earning the wherewithal merely to pay his way, so that the end comes to most of us before we have given ourselves a chance to live.
The Main Chance.
If you are a man who mind ‘your own business’ according to current standards, you will probably scoff more or less at politicians of all schools, and you will give your thoughts to what you consider ‘the main chance.’ You will plume yourself upon the fact that you are not ‘deceived’ by either Stanley Baldwin, or Lloyd George, or Ramsay MacDonald; and as regards local politics, you will have an easy contempt for the members of your town council, county council, and education authority.
What will ‘They’ Do?
If you are a working man you will perhaps belong to your trade union because it is sometimes easier to belong to a union than not, and you are the kind of man who takes the line of least resistance. To be sure, you may be shrewd enough to see that it is the best organised callings that have the best wages (such as the close corporations of lawyers and doctors, where the non-unionist is not allowed); and in order to preserve the position won, you may realise the necessity of keeping up your union membership. But if you are an average man you will not be a trade union official. And if you are not, the chances are you will refer to the executive of your union as ‘they,’ as if the men you have elected had become a class apart, whom you expected to get things done for you without any co-operation or assistance on your part. You do not even regard them as particularly competent, while, as regards motives, you view them as just men like yourself, studying the main chance, and accepting official position for the sake of the salary, which is the one consideration that would tempt you to accept it. You will not for a moment believe that they are actuated by any large or disinterested desire to serve their fellow men in general and the members of their craft in particular. I have myself been a trade union branch secretary for a salary that was neither here nor there, and I know that the few pounds a-year was the least thing that appealed to me in doing work for which the salary was a ridiculously inadequate return. Even you know in your mind of minds that a trade union secretary who still continues to work at his trade is a more or less marked man, and that that of itself would be the chief reason why you would not have taken the job even in the unlikely event of its having been offered you. I say ‘the unlikely event,’ because I assume that you would not be particularly forward in matters affecting the general wellbeing.
Public Work, Valuable but Unvalued.
As regards politicians and members of local boards, you know that these are needed and wanted; that the community and the nation have to be run and that men are needed to do it. But as a reason for not being forward in politics, you contrive to persuade yourself that the men who take office do so because they like public work. And as you don’t; you assume the account is squared when you give them your vote and turn to your private amusements or money-making. You have no gratitude to the men who serve you in unsalaried office, and the reason must be that you set store by the ‘honour’ you confer upon them, and persuade yourself that they do the same.
It is an honour - a moral honour. Whoever gives the public his time, and therefore his money, for nothing acquires the double honour of conferring a disinterested service and taking part in work which, if well done, is more important than any kind of work for self, since the man who works for the public is working disinterestedly for the many, while the man who works for himself and his family is working self-regardingly. To borrow a simile from trade, the former is a disinterested wholesaler, the latter an interested retailer.
The public business is your business. You are one of the public. You have no moral right to expect service for nothing if you are not prepared to render such service yourself. You may not have the ability; but are you sure you have the will? The one so often depends on the other. Do not lay the consolatory unction to your soul that the public man finds public business pay him. There are men with good businesses who take part in public work; but their business, believe me, always suffers. If they retain their clientèle it will be in spite of their public work.
The Cost of Public Spirit.
Lord Asquith, who had a splendid practice at the bar before he took up politics, has just had to have a pension made up for him by his admirers. But he gave the old folk a pension as a matter of right from the State. Richard Cobden failed in business, and John Bright’s firm is reputed to have been more than once in difficulties. But Bright and Cobden did more between them to reduce the cost of living than all the rest of the nation together. Mr. Stanley Baldwin said he was living on his capital; and while I think he is a slack and dear servant at £5000 a-year, I recognise that the many years he has given to public work may have something to do with the fact that his business does not pay. Gladstone married the heiress of an encumbered property, and for all his financial ability, the estate continued to be encumbered; for his financial ability was displayed in the public service and not in the concerns of the Hawarden estate. Earl Balfour inherited a fortune: he never would have made it. Disraeli married money made by obscure people who neither wrote books nor governed a State, as he did. When William Pitt could not pay his coachbuilder’s account he ordered a new carriage. Burke was a poor man all his life.
Sheridan was both bankrupt and had a fire - Drury Lane Theatre no less. When, on seeking to draw near the burning building, he was pushed back by a soldier, he said, ‘You might let a man warm himself at his own fire!’
Charles Stewart Parnell, as leader of the Irish Nationalists, was a party to the promulgation of the Plan of Campaign, which included a No-Rent Manifesto, although he was a landlord. Asked by a reporter how the Plan was going, he answered that he did not know how it was going generally, but that his own tenants had, to a man, refused to pay their rents.
So that if you think men go into politics for money, there would seem to be plenty of reason why you should alter your opinion and consider whether there may not be motives of social service and public-spiritedness which are none the less real because they never exactly inspired you. Everybody can and ought to help. In the palmy days of Greece the person who took no part in public affairs was called idiotees, original of our word ‘idiot.’ With the inevitable increase of civic work, the number of public representatives must be immensely increased, and even now the quality is not even reasonably good.
Social Progress Hangs Fire.
I dwell on this matter of public spirit because it is the highest virtue and the rarest. Social adjustment in the interests of the general community everywhere hangs fire because the average man is an Individualist in practice, even when he has declared for the principles of the Labour Party. He is what he calls a rank-and-file member. It is easy to secure Parliamentary candidates, because there is both a salary and a recognised social status. The work of local government, however, goes a-begging, because it takes much time, has no pecuniary rewards, and carries no particular social status with it. Seats in the local bodies are largely left to shopkeepers and members of the building trades, whose motives tend to be reactionary rather than progressive.
There are now many centres which are represented in Parliament by Labour members returned with substantial majorities; but in the same constituencies it is rare to find, as might reasonably be expected, that Labour has a majority on the local bodies. Even Glasgow, which in imperial politics votes overwhelmingly Labour, does not return a Labour majority to the City Council. The reason is that men can be induced to take imperial politics seriously and equip themselves for public work, because Parliamentary membership is regarded as a career, while the at least equally important business of local government offers no corresponding temptation.
The Great Shoal.
This lack of good citizenship is the shoal upon which the Collectivist movement tends to be stranded. I write to claim that the public business is every man’s business, and that there can be no efficient social organization unless and until we can inspire the average man with the idea that local civic business is worthy of the best attention of the best minds among us. One is glad to think that Lord Rosebery did not disdain to be the first chairman of the London County Council, and that John Burns, Sidney Webb, and George Bernard Shaw have all taken part in local government.
We have to get out of our heads the idea that Collectivist representation must needs be a professional career, followed only by men who make a whole-time job of it. Parliament may pass any amount of legislation granting optional powers to local authorities; but if these remain constituted as at present that legislation will not be applied.
We see this particularly in regard to housing. England spent last year on subsidised house-building some 22½ millions, whereas Scotland, whose building arrears were much heavier, spent only 1½ millions. I am not in favour of subsidies; but if subsidies are going, communities are not doing themselves justice if they do not spend their quota, since they will have to find the money in taxation all the same. The fault of the Dutch was in giving too little and asking too much, but Scotland’s lethargy places her in fault in the opposite way. Her share of imperial taxation is roughly an eighth; but for housing she took about a fifteenth, and this is typical of the proportion of public money she secures for local purposes.
The elections are once again at hand, and nothing is so necessary as to point out that municipally Scotland is asleep. She sends her very full proportion of Labour legislators to Westminster. Indeed there is such a scarcity of good municipal candidates that it looks as if she had made too many M.P.s and drained off too much talent. England has also her leeway to make up; but it is nothing like so big as that of Scotland. Municipally Scotland is relatively stagnant. There is, for one thing, nothing in the north here resembling the English Municipal Sunday. Since ever I can remember, moreover, housing has always been a fairly live issue in English municipal politics; but it is only since the war that Scotland has taken any interest in housing, and it is very much of a minus quantity still. It is disgraceful to find numbers of well-to-do people here who do not even now understand anything about the subsidies. People who buy from a speculative builder a house on which £1oo of subsidy has been paid are greatly astonished when they are told that the general community has helped to pay part of the purchase price of their house.
PART TWO NEXT MONTH
Marx and Faith.
But the essential difference between Karl Marx and all prophets and the orthodox economists as well, is that he was a Social-Democrat first, and an economist only as a means of making an end of capitalism. The orthodox economists might deprecate the excessive share taken by capital; but they were not concerned with anything beyond the ‘moralisation’ less or more of a relationship which Marx held to be fundamentally immoral and which could be moralised only by extinction. Marx was so much of a moralist that, unlike the commercial economists, he believed the evil thing could be ended.
The commercial economist, moreover, is usually a man of the study; but Marx was a man of action as well. Hunted out of Germany, hunted out of France, resident for a time in Brussels, but, returning to Germany and expelled once more, finally making London his home; dominating the strongest and inspiring some of the best men with whom he came into contact; leader and teacher of the International; watching events and in touch with revolutionists everywhere; opportunist man of affairs; London correspondent of the New York Tribune (at a guinea a week!); friend of trades unionists and of co-operators, Marx was an insurgent politician working for remote but inevitable ends.
Despite the careful analyses in the first volume of the ‘Capital’ – analyses which the historical student will best appreciate as marvels of generalization – Marx, with all his deductiveness, was full of preconceived ideas passionately held and promulgated. He had faith that a system motived on reaping without sowing, to which Adam Smith made placid reference, must end. The expropriators would themselves be expropriated. He had faith that the progress made in the class stuggles of the past would result in the conquest of the means of life by the proletariate and the ending of classes and class struggles alike. The historical process which had seen the end of chattel slavery and of serfdom, why should it not witness the end of wage servitude, under which the proletarian must ‘beg a brother of the earth,’ to give him the means of living upon it?
Marx a Politician.
Unlike some of his doctrinaire followers today, he did not wait for the great change to work itself out, looking for ‘the inevitable to function inevitably.’ He believed that social order could not be secured without social organization by the individual units who desired and required it.
His opportunism was shown by the way in which, in ‘Value, Price and Profit,’ he downed Weston for attacking trades unionism by maintaining that the policy of strikes was, what we know it to be, a see-saw of prices and wages, wages and prices, a chasing by the dog of its own tail. He may have realised that, even so, trades unionism could not, under capitalism, give up its powers to resist and to attack, just as today we cannot give up the idea of the right to strike even if strikes fail oftener than they succeed, and hit the striker and his dependents first and most heavily. The trade union can standardise conditions and preserve a minimum. In periods of expansion it may advance the standard, and resist retrogression in times of slump. Finally, and most hopeful of all, the trade union is a political force even more potent than the employers’ federation, since it controls more votes.
Marx gave the revolt against exploitation a political turn. He said ‘Workers of the world, unite! You have a whole world to win and nothing to lose but your chains.’ He left no definite scheme whereby the expropriators were to be expropriated, and his early followers in all lands looked to barricades and a cataclysmic revolution. It may come to that as a result of the lack of class-consciousness and of political aptitude on the part of the proletariate. The present attempt to make the House of Lords supreme in Britain is the counterpart of Fascism in Italy and dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Turkey etc. If the gradual socialization of industry and commerce are to be frustrated by the janissaries of the established order, it is possible that there might be fighting in Britain. A few swashbucklers like Galloper Smith and Birkenhead might easily precipitate civil war.
But it should not be, it need not be, and we hope it will not be. Russia had proved, what never was in doubt, that a change of government is one thing and a change of social structure is something very different and a much more prolonged process. Mrs Kingsley rejects Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s theory of gradualism, as based on the slow course of organic transformation. We need not, indeed, make love to gradualism. Quite the reverse. Let us, if anything, make love to speed. But even speed has its laws, and furious driving is apt to end in a smash. In the commandeering of socially-created wealth for public purposes, Britain, with its hundreds of millions of taxation extracted from the rich for education, water-supply, streets and roads, poor relief, unemployment and maternity benefit, art galleries and museums, public libraries, public health, street-lighting, traffic control, and research, is more communistic than Russia is after ten years of Maximalist government. So that gradualism has it as against ‘Mutations’ so far.
Mrs Kingsley, however, believes in miracles, as we have seen, and she would fain shift the onus probandi to those who question the occurrence of miracles. She says it is an ‘example of the loose and unscientific statements so often made by rationalists’ that ‘science on its own data cannot explain miracles, but it does not refute them.’ But the onus of proof rests with those who assert that miracles have happened. Science does not need to refute what it does not believe. The proofs of the universal reign of unbroken law form a categorical refutation of miracles. A miracle requires an abrogation of natural law, and Mrs Kingsley, who pins her faith in a general way to the transcendentalism of Emerson, would do well to recall Emerson’s dictum that ‘Nothing is that errs from law.’
I seem to be emphasising my points of difference with Mrs Kingsley more than my points of agreement; but I hope all my denials have really an affirmative upshot. I should not write of her pamphlet if I did not find it, as I have said, arrestive and tending to make us review the grounds of our beliefs. As a Socialist and a public administrator I am at present busy with schemes of housing and of road-making byt direct labour because in a small community there is little else that one can do that is anything like so important. These schemes are all of the very essence of gradualism, and when a critic comes along and tells us in effect that all this is neither here nor there, and that the Social Revolution is to be carried by a Mutation, one is naturally pulled up sharp and nettled into meeting views that may very well be held by thousands besides this lady. Her pamphlet abounds in the signs of wide reading and she can state her extraordinary case very pointedly.
The Two Materialisms.
Philosophical materialism we accept. The vulgar materialism of ‘wealth, material comfort, and sensuous pleasure’ we reject. That is to say, philosophical materialists mostly reject it. And be it said, also, a great many spiritists, including most conventional Christians, are very much fonder of the fleshpots than are the philosophical materialists. No one could be less of a vulgar materialist than was Heinrich Karl Marx, born to middle-class comfort, but choosing the rugged service of the Social Revolution; grinding microscopic lenses and writing to the press for a living; not unfamiliar with the pawnbroker’s shop, and losing several of his children by death; consecrating his great powers to the service of an event in any case remote from his time – surely none was ever less of a materialist in the vulgar sense. He is but one in a noble company, living and dead, who have seen man’s life conditioned by circumstances over which man himself had potentially real control, with neither gods above nor devils below to prevent his being master of his fate collectively. The one condition was that he should learn the laws of social life, should realise and perform its civic duties, should above all things believe that the strong shall bear rule, and that the great mass of the exploited were in their numbers and the justice of their cause immensely the strongest and socially most important of all.
Sir Thomas Harrison, the amiable old-time author of ‘Oceana’ believed that ‘The highest earthly felicity that people can ask or God can give is an equal and well-ordered commonwealth.’ But to Mrs Kingsley this does not seem enough. ‘No Communist’ she says, ‘can think that by merely getting enough food and clothes and better houses the workers are going to be happy and virtuous; look at the rich!’
But why ‘merely’? Could such a good change come without being accomplished by other good changes? The appeal does not hold. The rich do not work and can have none of the satisfactions discipline, and self-respect of the worker. Those who have no work have no leisure. Robert Burns was a good judge, and he saw the rich as those who ‘By evendown want o’ wark are curst.’ Patmore sang ‘Who pleasure follows pleasure slays.’ And Matthew Arnold saw the idle rich of decadent Rome sated and disgusted with the hell of a life in which there was nothing to enjoy because there was nothing to do. Look at the rich indeed! With their cars and their tennis racquets, their golf clubs and their jazz, their night clubs and revues and bawdy plays, their Blue Train and their attempts to fly from themselves and the boredom of their empty lives, they are indeed a warning rather than an example.
Mrs Kingsley apparently seeks to make out that even lawful pleasure, comfort, and the highest mundane endeavour are not enough. She cites the longing of Morris’s wayfarers for the Earthly Paradise, the Acre of the Undying, and their ‘half-shame at having undertaken the quest and their regret that it has been all in vain.’ The poet’s excuse for their quest is that they ‘Had need of Life, to right the blindness and the wrong.’ But the blindness and the wrong are not to be righted by quitting the field. That was written before Morris had fully learned the great secret of the happy life, which is to be found in service and the immortality of fellowship as pictured by him in the ‘Dream of John Bull’
And the deeds that you do upon the earth, it is for fellowship sake that ye do them, and the life that is in it, that shall live on and on for ever, and each one of you a part of it, while many a man’s life upon the earth from the earth shall wane.
The Craving for Unending.
When he wrote of the old-time traditional quest of ‘a land where death is not’ he was still ‘the idle singer of an empty day,’ content that other people and not he should bear a hand with the slaying of the social monsters. The hatefulness of death as a mere deprivation of life and all its legitimate satisfactions was the most outstanding feature in Morris’s reflective life. The intensest pleasure made him in the last resort, ‘only the more mindful that the sweet days die.’ All this meant that he enjoyed life so much that death would be the greatest imaginable evil. Very evidently it did not mean that he had any hope of a reincarnation. Perhaps, also, Morris had an idea that he would not live long enough to be willing to take the final rest. He was but sixty-two when he was cut off in the full tide of his happy craftsmanship, with the latest of his great experiments, the Kelmscott Press, still in its infancy. In private he dwelt sometimes on the shortness of life and the possibility of lengthening it: but, unlike Shaw, whose thoughts tend the same way, he neither husbanded his great strength nor denied himself ‘pig,’ latakia, nor many cups of tea. Even so, he lasted longer than his father. We mostly do. Every generation extends the span of life by living less unhygenically.
The remedy for the craving for unending life lies, not alone in the great extension of the life-span, but, above all, in the recognition of the quite plain fact that life is not to be reckoned in terms of the individual. The philosophy of Socialism leads in its ultimate interpretation to the frank recognition that man at his best is only a unit in the social scheme, a link in the endless chain of eternal life, not a complete being with a godlike claim to eternal life himself. In times of national stress this unitary character of man is recognised. Man, the lower animals, even ants, give their lives automatically, under stress of strong social feeling, for the good of the nation, herd, or colony. Humble people of socialised instincts risk their lives any day to save a fellow-creature.
The poet Swinburne payed that he might be saved ‘from too much love of living’ and when we hear very ordinary people objecting strenuously to being ‘snuffed out’ as they indignantly say, and see them holding ‘circles’ and prying into the possibilities of a continued life for them on another plane, we cannot help regarding it as a greed of life which no achievement of theirs has ever justified in the past or is likely to justify in such a future as they picture. All that we learn from Spiritualists as to life on the astral plane shows it to be such a dull, stagnant, trivial affair that it would add a new terror to death if we believed that a life of that kind lay beyond.
At one time I worked as a printer on The Two Worlds, the Spiritualist weekly, and saw a good deal of the Spiritualist fraternity at close quarters in that way and otherwise. Of their messages from the other world the general impression is of paltryness, the most outstanding memory being of repeated assurances to ‘take car of yourself’ and to ‘be sure you wear flannels next your skin.’
Carlyle somewhere tells of an old man who spoke to his (Carlyle’s) father in rapturous terms of the joys of heaven. And the old Scots mason retorted: ‘Who wants a stinking of clog like you in heaven? Don’t you think that seventy years of you is enough?’ It was brutal; but Carlyle manifestly tells the story with a chuckle as if he agreed with the rough justice of it. What we think about life on an alleged astral plane will not alter the fact whatever the fact may be; but in the absence of adequate proof it seems an overweening claim that the human mite, marvellous as he is, should seek to live for ever, or otherwise viewed, should, like the idiot Struldbrugs of Gulliver, have sentence of eternal life passed upon him.
The good we do lives after us, and if that is sometimes very little, our claim to continued life on another plane is surely all the less, unless, indeed, we are to be taught there to be less self-centred, to have more of the spirit of comradeship and service.
Already we have more pity than is needed for our own sorrows, more laughter than is warranted by our own joys, even when we know nothing of its cause, and we often worry over the troubles of others more than they do themselves. This altruism, which is by no means overdone, cannot but be greatly strengthened in the more socialised life of the future.
In a letter to me Mrs Kingsley says there are no moral sanctions today. She means, I take it, that the law and the commandments have lost their Divine authority and that no authoritative taboos have taken their place. But there are surely more taboos than ever, while law and public opinion are more strongly operative than ever. Morals are always ahead of theology. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not bear false witness – the public opinion behind these existed long before Moses formulated it as Divine law. All these taboos and many others have more force than ever they had; and they are reinforced by a thousand acquired instincts that are more potent than any old priestly taboo. In spite of a very much extended penal code, with vastly more efficient policing, the prison population is less and less.
In spite of the coarsening effects of war, the increased decency of average social feeling is manifested in various ways. The war itself actually helped. Profiteering was never generally condemned till the word was coined for it, and till, with our backs to the wall it was felt to be the dirty game which it is, whether peace or war. The ‘slacker’ was one who wangled out of his duty as a citizen in time of national danger, but it stands in time of peace, also, for the two million men in Britain who were not ashamed to return themselves to the census-takers as ‘of no occupation.’
Homes for heroes, self-determination, direct labour, direct action, camouflage for that which needs to be disguised, C3 as a deplorable category – all are hopeful, illuminating verbal facets augmenting the vocabulary of a more socialised world.
Mrs Kingsley, quoting Bertrand Russel says: ‘The whole solidity of matter has gone,’ En avent! That does but make it the more plastic and potent. The trouble with the grey matter up to now has been stodginess. That its solidity has gone is good news. It is still material despite its fluidity.
By a natural dialectical tendency, I have dwelt upon the controversial aspects of Mrs Kingsley’s thesis, passing by much of which it is possible heartily to approve. The production of marvels – such as spirit-writing, ‘precipitation’ of letters from the ceiling, and ‘materialisations’ – has been so often shown to be mere trickery that it is depressing to think of fine minds being deflected from open forthright pursuit of the open forthright business of the world to such jugglery. There is no particular mystery about the things that really matter.
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