Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

The Passion for Perpetuation

Just as the ancient hunter shot a fish with a spear, so we may imagine the ancient philosopher separated the Thing, caught it up out of the Heracleitean flux and transfixed it with a name. With this first great preservative came the first great museum of language and logical thought. Ever since, we have been feverishly busy collecting, recording, and preserving the universe, or as much of it as is accessible. Perpetuation has become an all-absorbing passion.

It is only recently that certain interesting, not to say remarkable, refinements in the technique of the art have been developed and come into common use, such being, for example, the museum, the printing-press, the camera, the cinema film, the gramophone record. By the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans, the desire to collect, and above all to conserve, the moveable furniture of the Earth was only indistinctly felt. As storehouses, museums were almost unknown. Small collections were made, but merely as the mementos of a soldier’s campaign, or a mariner’s curiosities, like the “gorilla” skins brought home from Africa by Hanno.

The assembling of curiosities, drawing-room curios, bric-à-brac, and objets de vertu, was still the immature purpose of the conservator, even so late as the days of Sir Hans Sloanc, Elias Ashmole, and John Hunter. Ashmole’s gift to the University of Oxford was laconically described as “twelve cartloads of curios.” Hunter’s Museum, as everyone knows, was a gorgeous miscellany of stuffed birds, mammals, reptiles, fossils, plants, corals, shells, insects, bones, anatomical preparations, injected vascular preparations, preparations of hollow viscera, mercurial injections, injections in vermilion, minerals, coins, pictures, weapons, coats of mail. It is obvious that in those days the collector had not passed beyond the miscellany stage. According to his pleasure, he selected say a Japanese midzuire, a Scarab of Rameses II., a porpentine’s quill, a hair from the Grand Cham’s beard, and saw the world as an inexhaustible Bagdad Bazaar. Now he sees it as exhaustible, and is grimly determined to exhaust it as soon as may be.

To-day everything is changed. Mankind is astride the globe from pole to pole, like Arion on the dolphin’s back. With all the departments of human knowledge clearly mapped out in the likeness of his own mind, man now occupies himself with collecting and filling in the details. He ransacks heaven and earth, armies of collectors, brigaded under the different sciences and arts, labour incessantly for the salvation of the globe. All objects are being named, labelled, and kept in museums; all the facts are being enshrined in the libraries of books. We are embarked on an amazing undertaking. A well-equipped modern expedition apparently leaves nothing behind in the territory traversed save its broad physical features; and as Mont Blanc or the Andes cannot be moved even by scientific Mahomets, the geologist’s hammer deftly breaks off a chip, and the fragment is carried off in triumph to the cabinet as a sample.

It is estimated that there are about seven millions of distinct species of insects, and naturalists the world over have entered upon a solemn league and covenant to catch at least one specimen of every kind which shall be pinned and preserved in perpetuity for as long as one stone shall stand upon another in the kingdom of man. There are already an enormous number of such types, as they are professionally called, not only of insects, but of all classes of animals and plants, jealously guarded and conserved by the zealous officials of the British Museum.

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When I was a small boy I greedily saved up the names of naval vessels and inscribed each with a fair round hand in a MS. book specially kept for the purpose. Now the financial or aesthetic motives that may be said to govern the boy collector of postage stamps, birds’ eggs, cigarette cards must here be ruled out of court. For if half-a-dozen of the rarest unused surcharged Mauritius, a complete -set of Wills’ “Cathedrals” or Players’ “Inventions,” or a single blood alley of acknowledged virtue minister to the tingling acquisitiveness of the average schoolboy, it is difficult to say the same of the hunting down in newspapers and books of battle-ships, cruisers, and T.B.D.’s. At least I am inclined to think that my subconscious motive was a fear lest any of His Majesty’s ships should be overlooked or lost, that it was indeed a good example of the instinct for simple conservation uncomplicated by the usual motives of the collector.

The joy of possession, the greed, vanity and self-aggrandizernent of the collector proper, are deftly subverted to the use of the explorer and conservator of knowledge who, having a weak proprietorial sense — bloodless, anæmic it must seem to the enthusiastic connoisseur — is satisfied so long as somewhere by someone Things are securely saved. The purpose of the archconservator — his whole design and the rationale of his art — is to redeem, embalm, dry, cure, salt, pickle, pot every animal, vegetable and mineral, every stage in the history of the universe from nebular gas or planetismals down to the latest and most insignificant event reported in the newspapers. He would like to treat the globe as the experimental embryologist treats an egg — to preserve it whole in every hour of its development and then section it with a microtome.

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People who are not in the habit of visiting or considering Museums fail to realize how prodigiously within recent times the zeal for conservation, or as Sir Thomas Browne puts it — the diuturnity of relics has increased all over the world in every centre of civilization. A constant stream of objects flows into the great treasuries of human inheritance — about 400,000 separate objects per annum being received into the British Museum in Bloomsbury, and there is scarcely a capital in Europe or a big town in America in which congestion is not already being felt.

In a Museum you shall find not only the loin cloth or feathers of the savage, but an almost perfect series of costumes worn by man down through the ages in any country. Man’s past in particular. is preserved with the tenderest care. It is possible to go and, with the utmost pride and self-satisfaction, observe the milestones of man’s progress from the arrowhead to the modern rifle, from the Sedan-chair and hobbyhorse to the motor cycle and aeroplane, from the spinning-wheel to the modern loom, from the Caxton printing-press to the linotype, from Stephenson’s Rocket to the railway express engine, from the coracle to the latest ocean greyhound in miniature. It is all there: china, tobacco pipes, door handles, iron railings, bedsteads, clavichords, buttons, lamps, vases, sherds, bones, Babylonian and Hittite tablets, the Moabite stone, the autographs and MSS. of everyone who was anybody since writing came into common practice, scarabs and coins, scarabs of the Rameses and Amenheteps, coins of Greece and Rome, coins of Arabia, coins of Cyrenaica, coins from Colophon, Tyre, Sidon,— Nineveh’s Winged Bulls.

I knew a police inspector who saved and docketed the cigar ashes of Royalties, and I once heard of a distinguished chiropodist who saved their nail parings. Mr. Pierpont Morgan owns the largest collection of watches in the world, and another American is the proud possessor of the only complete collection of “Crusoes” in existence — i.e., the editions of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

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But not only is the past retrieved in fragments; in some Museums and Exhibitions and to a certain extent in historical plays, it is actually reconstructed: in London is displayed the interior of an apothecary’s shop in the seventeenth century with its crocodile and bunches of herbs, or the shop of a barber surgeon, or a reconstruction of the laboratory used by Liebig, or the Bromley Room, or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in exact facsimile, or Solomon’s Temple, while for the purposes of illustration, Madam Tussaud’s must for the moment be classed with the Pantheon. The cinema is going to keep alive the persons and events of the present generation within the most sluggish imaginations of the next — for the benefit of those who perhaps don’t read history or visit Museums. This need not mean the gradual atrophy of the imagination as some Solomon Eagles portend — to discuss which would mean a digression. In any case, I fancy the most lively imagination would scarcely ignore the opportunity of seeing Dr. Johnson, let us say, walk down Fleet Street tapping each lamp-post with his stick, if an authentic film of him were in existence, or of listening to a gramophone record of Rachel or Edmund Burke.

Wherever one turns, it is easy to see this thriving instinct of the human heart. There are enthusiastic leagues for preserving woods, forests, footpaths, commons, trees, plants, animals, ancient buildings, historical sites. In times to come, nearly every private house in London will have historical connections and bear a commemorative tablet. In anticipation of its extinction the hansom cab has already been lodged behind the portals of its last depository. Everywhere enthusiasts- are expending a vast amount of energy in inducing people to stick to the old — pedants will have, you use the old idioms and spellings, the language must be preserved in its original beauty; no ancient rite or custom can be allowed to lapse into desuetude but some cry of reprobation goes up to Heaven in righteous anger. There are anniversaries, centenaries, bicentenaries, tercentenaries — glutinoustercentenaries!

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Perhaps the most valuable instrument for perpetuation is the printing-press. No sooner is an event over, than it is reported in the daily press, and the newspaper preserved in the British Museum for all time. In future there will be no historical lacunæ. In virtue of our elaborate precautions it is improbable that London will ever become a second Nineveh. Immediately a discovery is made or a research brought to its conclusion the world is copiously informed. In the present era of publicity, we need never fear that a man’s secrets will die with him. It were safe to prophesy that there will never be another Mrs. Stopes, for the good reason that his contemporaries will never let a second Shakespeare slip through their fingers so to speak. A lament like the scholar’s over the loss of the Diakosmos of Demokritus will probably never be heard again. Within the sacred rotunda of the British Museum Reading Room may be perused the novels of Charles Garvice as well as the great Chinese Encyclopaedia prepared for the Emperor K’ang-hi in 5,020 volumes.

In books our knowledge to date is rounded up and displayed: you can read a book on a lump of coal, a grass blade, a sea worm, on hair combs, carpets, ships, sticks, sealing wax, cabbages, kings, cosmetics, Kant. A very thick volume indeed was published last year upon the anatomy of the thorax of the field cricket. It would require a learned man to catalogue the literature that deals with such comparatively trivial subjects as the History of the Punch and Judy Show, or the History of Playing Cards.

At the present rapid rate of accumulation, the time must come when the British Museum, thousands of years hence, will occupy an area as large as London and the “Encyclopædia Britannica” be housed in a building as big as the Crystal Palace: an accumulation of learning to make Aristotle and Scaliger turn pale.

For let us not forget that man is only at the beginning of things. The first Egyptian dynasty began 7000 B.C. and we are now only in A.D. 1916. Every day sees the birth of entirely new things that must be collected and preserved, new babies, new wars, new books, new discoveries, so that — to take a moderate figure — by 3000 A.D. we shall have saved up such a prodigious quantity of the relics and minutiæ of the past that only a relatively small fraction of it will be contained in the united consciousness of the men of that time. Everything will be there and accessible, but for reference only. Knowledge will be an amazing organization (let us hope it will be done better than the Poor Law System), and battalions of men of the intellectual lineage of Diderot and D’Alembert will be continuously occupied in sifting and arranging our stores of information, whereby the curious, by handing a query over the counter, will be given all the knowledge in existence in any particular subject. Yet for the most part human knowledge will be left stranded high and dry in books: entombed, embalmed, labelled, and clean forgotten — unless the human brain becomes hypertrophied.

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Conservation is a natural tendency of the mind. One might lay down a certain law of the conservation of consciousness to indicate our extreme repugnance to the idea of anything passing clean away into the void. What insinuating comfort in those words that every hair of our heads is numbered!

True, the chain of causation is unbroken, and in a sense every effect is the collection and preservation of all its past causes; and if to live can be said to exist in results, then no man ever dies, and no thought can perish, and every act is infinite in its consequences. Yet I fancy this transcendental flourish will not satisfy the brotherhood of Salvationists, who desire to possess something more than the means embodied abstractly in the result; no consideration will ever cause them to abate one jot their feverish labours to forestall their common enemies: Cormorant devouring Time, man’s own leaky memory, Death’s abhorred shears, the Futurist, the Hun, the Vandal, the Carrion worm or the Devil.

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The instinct for conservation in different men has different origins. To the scientific man, Nature is higgledy-piggledy, until she is collected, classified, stored, and explained according to his own scheme; every phenomenon, unobserved or imperfectly comprehended, escapes and flows past him, defeating his will to understand. In politics conservatism means a distrust of the unknown future suited to a comfortable habituation to current customs and current statecraft, or — to quote Fluellen — the ceremonies of it and the cares of it and the forms of it and the sobriety of it and the modesty of it. In still another direction, the desire to conserve is simply a sentiment for the old, for the old unhappy, far-off things. The flight of time, its likeness to a running stream, the great world spinning down the grooves of change, endless change and decay, have been food for the melancholy ruminations of philosophers and poets from the earliest times. “Tout ce qui fut un jour et n’est plus aujourd’hui incline à la tristesse surtout ce qui fut très beau et très heureux,” says Maeterlinck.

But regard for the old is not always vague sentiment alone. In one of his essays, Emerson remarks that Nature often turns to ornament what she once employed for use, illustrating his suggestion with certain sea shells, in which the parts which have for a time formed the mouth are at the next whorl of growth left behind as decorative nodes and spines. Subsequently, Herbert Spencer applied the idea to human beings, remarking how the material exuviæ of past social states become the ornaments of the present — for example, ruined castles, old rites and ceremonies, old earthenware water-jars. The explanation of this metamorphosis simply is that so long as a thing is useful, its beauty goes for the most part unobserved. Beauty is the pursuit of leisure, and it was probably in those rhythmic periods of relaxation when the primitive potter or stone carver paused from his labour that the æsthetic sense according to some was given birth.

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Now it is certain that there be some to whom the perpetuation of Stonehenge or the Diplodocus is a matter of large indifference, in whom arises no joy in the fruits of the conservator’s art upon handling say a Syracusan tetradrachm or a folio of Shakespeare with “the excessively rare title-page ‘for Richard Meighen.’” Yet over the question of self-perpetuation these same men will be as desirous as others. Few men save Buddhists relish the idea of self-extinction. No one likes the thought of the carrion worm in the seat of intellect. The Egyptians bravely fought the course of Nature and gained some solace we may assume by embalming. Christians if they resign themselves to the decay of the body, labour in its stead to save the soul. On his death, every man at least claims a tombstone. The surface of the earth is stippled with crosses (especially in France), with monuments, obelisks, mausoleums, pyramids, cenotaphs, tombs, tumuli, barrows, cairns designed to keep evergreen the memory of the dead, to forestall oblivion lurking like a ghoul in the background. Look at Keats’s naive preoccupation with his future fame, his passionate desire to be grouped among the heirs of all eternity. If we are to believe Shakespeare and the Elizabethan sonneteers their common obsession was to combat brass and stone with their own immortal lines.

No doubt there are a few apparently sincere, high-minded gentlemen ("Rocky Mountain toughs” William James calls them) who emphatically declare that when they die they will, after cremation, have their ashes scattered to the winds of heaven,* who scoff at the salvation of their souls and quote Haeckel’s jibe about God as “a gaseous vertebrate,” who are indifferent to fame and spurn monuments that live no longer than the bell rings and the widow weeps. In short, since conservation must always be o’erswayed by sad mortality in the long run, they will have nothing of it. “Give me my scallop shell of quiet,” they would say — and let the world pass on its primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.

But conservation cannot be so summarily set aside. Every man, willy-nilly, collects and preserves, his consciousness is of itself an automatic collecting instrument. The alert mind collects observations and impressions without being conscious of them. Then, later, when the note is struck, to our surprise they rise up into vision as if from nowhere. The memory is a preservative. After a life of it a man’s mind is a Museum, a palimpsest, a hold-all. In the heyday of manhood we may perhaps go adventuring on in lavish expenditure of life, nomads, careless of the day as soon as it is over. Yet he must be a very rare bird indeed, the veteran who when all the wheels are run down does not choose to write his memoirs or even to relate reminiscences around the fireside, the broken soldier who never shoulders his crutch, the barrister who never recalls his first brief. Two old men will haggle with one another over the fixation of a date, they will pull up a conversation and everyone must wait on account of a forgotten name. . . . This morning I was delighted to hear myself burst out whistling a nocturne of Chopin, which I have not heard for twelve months, and then for the first time. I confess it was pleasant to think I had been enter- taining an angel unawares all these months, and I like to believe that in the all too swift trajectory of one’s career through life, nothing is really left behind, that all the phantasmagoria of our life which seems to be passing us by on each side for ever falls into line behind with the rest and follows on like a comet’s tail. Much may be forgotten, yet nothing perhaps is ever lost; no impression once photographed upon the mind ever becomes obliterated — comfortable words, I apprehend, for the benefit of any diarist whose eyes these lines may catch. According to William James’s attractive “world-memory” idea, the whole history of the Earth actually exists and some occultists indeed claim to have tapped such inaccessible material as life on the extinct continent of Atlantis or in Knossos.

* In accordance with his wishes, the body of Samuel Butler (of “Erewhon") was cremated and the ashes buried near some shrubs in the garden of the crematorium with nothing to mark the spot. Sir Thomas Browne said that at his death he meant to take a total adieu of the world, “not caring for a Monument, Historie, or Epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found anywhere but in the universal Register ot God.” But, as a matter of fact, he was given a brass coffin-plate (with a curious inscription that has afforded matter for antiquarian controversy) as well as a mural monument.
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In 1768, Fanny Burney made this entry in her Journal: “I cannot express the pleasure I have in writing down my thoughts at the very moment . . . and I am much deceived in my foresight if I shall not have very great delight in reading this living proof of my manner of passing my time . . . there is something to me very unsatisfactory in passing year after year without even a memorandum of what you did, etc.” This is the true spirit of the habitual diarist speaking. At heart, everyone is a diarist. There is no child who has not kept a diary at some time or another, and there is no one who having given it up has not regretted it later on. The confirmed journal writer, however, possesses a psychology not altogether common, being one of those few persons who truly appraise the beauty, interest, and value of the present without having to wait until memory has lent the past its chromatic fringe.

When his youth died, wrote George Moore about his “Confessions of a Young Man,” the soul of the ancient Egyptians awoke in him. He had the idea of conserving his dead past in a work of art, embalming it with pious care in a memorial, he hoped, as durable as the pyramids of Rameses II.! Poor George Moore!

It is strange that so many gallant knights clad in the armour of steely determination should fight on, unthinking, against such overwhelming odds. For the conservators in trying to dam back time, in resisting change and decay wrestle with the stars in their courses and dispute the very constitution of the universe. But the imperative instinct must be obeyed. The ominous warnings of Sir Thomas Browne are unavailing. “There is no antidote for the opium of time.” “Gravestones tell truth but a year.” “We might just as well be content with six feet as with the moles of Adrianus.” And “to subsist but in bones and be but pyramidally extant is a fallacy in duration.” To erect a monument is like trying to fix a stick into the bed of the Niagara. No memorial as large and wonderful as the Taj Mahal can stay the passage of a grief, no pen can preserve an emotion held for a while in the sweet shackles of a sonnet’s rules. Neither pen nor brush nor chisel knows the art of perpetuation.

As the torrent races past, frantic hands stretch out to snatch some memento from the flood — a faded letter, an old concert programme, a bullet, the railway labels jealously preserved on travellers’ portmanteaux, a lock of hair. “Only a woman’s hair,” said Swift in the bitterness of his heart as he handled Stella’s tress.

There are some things we can never hope to recall, even so long as the world lasts, except by divination or Black Magic. The hopeless science of Palæontology offers its students no tiniest ray of comfort — a Pterodactyl, a Dinosaur or an Archaeopteryx will never be disclosed to us in the flesh. There are many things lost for ever: Who was the Man in the iron mask? or the author of the Letters of Junius? or Mr. W. H.? — the precious library burnt at Louvain? And so on by the score.

“All is vanity, feeding the wind and folly. Mummy is become merchandize, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams” — to borrow once more from Sir Thomas Browne’s organ music.

“Tarry awhile lean earth!
Rabble of Pharaohs and Arsacidas
Keep their cold court within thee; thou hast sucked down
How many Ninevehs and Hecatompyloi
And perished cities whose great phantasmata
O’erbrow the silent citizens of Dis.”

Life is expenditure. We must always be paying away. It is sad to behold the conservators — ecstatic hearts — following like eager camp followers in the trail of the whirlwind, collecting and saving the fragments so as to work them up into some pitiful history, poem, biography, monograph, or memorial.

Why pursue this hopeless task? What is the use in being precious and saving? Nature wastes a thousand seeds, experiments lightly with whole civilizations, and has abandoned a thousand planets that cycle in space forgotten and cold. Both collection and recollection are insufficient. The only perfect preservation is re-creation. Surely our zeal for conservation betokens a miserly close-fisted nature in us. It cannot be very magnanimous on our part to be so precious, since God and Nature are on the side of waste. Let us squander our life and energy in desire, love, experience. And, since so it is to be, let us without vain regrets watch the universe itself be squandered on the passing years, on earthquakes, and on wars. The world is an adventurer, and we try to keep him at home — in a Museum. Let us not be niggardly over our planet nor over ourselves.

Yet it is easy but fatuous to sit at a writing desk and make suggestions for the alteration of human nature. Conservation is as deeply rooted as original sin.

1916. Reprinted from Science Progress.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.