Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

"Enjoying Life"


When I awoke, a glance towards the window told me that outside it had already happened — the sun was up! humming along through a cloudless sky full of bees and skylarks. I shut my eyes and buried my nose in the pillow — awake sufficiently to realize that another great day had dawned for me while I slept.

I lay still for a moment in luxurious anticipation and listened to a tiny joy, singing within like the voice of a girl in the distance, until at last great waves of happiness roared through my heart like sea-horses. I jumped out of bed, flung on my dressing-gown, and went off across the meadow to bathe in the stream. In the water I plunged, and struggled and kicked with a sensuous delight in its coldness and in every contraction of a muscle, glad to be nude and clean and cool among the dragonflies and trout. I clambered to a rock in midstream on which I rested in a moment of expansion, relaxed in every tissue. The current rocked one foot in the water, and the sun made every cell in my body vibrate. Upstream, a dipper sang. . . and surely nothing but happiness could ever enter life again! Neither the past nor the future existed for me any more, but only the glorious and all-absorbing present. I put my whole being into the immediate ticking hour with its sixty minutes of precious life, and catching each pearl drop as it fell, said: “Now my happiness is complete, and now, and now.” I lay thus for I know not how long, centuries perhaps, for down in the silent well of our existence time is not reckoned by the clock, nor our abiding joy in idle, obstinate words. Then I rubbed down with a hard towel — how I loved my cool, pink skin! — and stood a moment in the shade of the pine trees, still unembarrassed by a single demoralizing garment. I was free, immaculate, untouched by anything coarser than the soft morning air around and the moss in the turf that supported the soles of my feet.

In the afternoon, I strode over the hills in a spirit of burning exultation. The moors rolled to the sea infinitely far and the sea to the horizon infinitely wide. I opened both arms and tried to embrace the immensity of that windswept space through sheer love of it. The wind roared past my ears and through my hair. Overhead a herring gull made use of the air currents and soared on motionless wings. Verily, the flight of a gull is as magnificent as the Andes! No other being save myself was in sight. If I had chanced to meet someone I should have greeted him with the question that was stinging the tip of my tongue, “What does it all mean and what do you think?” And he, of course, after a moment’s puzzled reflection, would have answered: “It means nout, tho’ I think us could do with a change of Government.” But so excited as to be heedless of his reply, I should have followed up, in the grand manner, with: “Whence do we come and whither do we go?” or “Tell me where have you lived, what countries have you seen? Which is your favourite mountain? Do you like thunderstorms or sunsets best? How many times have you been in love, and what about God?”

At night, I turned homewards, flushed and excited with the day’s life, going to bed unwillingly at last and even depressed because the day was at an end and I must needs put myself into a state of unconsciousness while the earth itself is never asleep, but always spins along amid the stars with its precious human freightage. To lose a single minute of conscious life in sleep seemed a real loss!


I like all things which are swift or immense — lightning, Popocatapetl, London, Roosevelt!

So, anyhow, I like to think in periods of ebullience when wind and sun beat down upon the face and the blood races along the arteries. We live in an age of hustle and speed. We sweep from one end of the country to the other by rail, ’plane, and motor, and the quidnunc querulously complains, “Too much rushing about nowadays and too little thinking.” Yet does he think we ought to remain at home arranging the Cosmos with Lotze or William James, while Hamel gets into an aeroplane on the neighbouring heath and shows us how to loop the loop? Must I be improving my mind with sociological ruminations while the herring fleet is ready to take me out to the deep sea? The speed, ferocity, and dash of the London street full of cars, and strenuous, sleek, top-hatted gentlemen and raddled women, is most exhilarating. Londoners must enjoy a perpetual exhilaration. Like mountain air, I suspect that the stinks of petrol and horse-dung get into the blood. There may be a little mountain sickness at first, but the system soon adapts itself. On the first day of my arrival in London, as the train moved over the roofs of the squalid tenements in the environs of Waterloo and round about the great dome of St. Paul’s, its cross reaching up into the sky like a great symbolic X, I kept thinking to myself that here was the greatest city in the world, and that here again was I, in it — one of its five millions of inhabitants. I said so to myself aloud and whistled low. Already I was in love with London’s dirt and grandeur, and by the time I had reached the Strand I plunged like a man who cannot swim. After all, only Shakespeare could stand on the top of Mont Blanc and not lose his spiritual equilibrium.


But it is not always possible to be living in the heights. And life in the plains is often equally furious. We can climb to peaks in Darien without ever leaving our armchair. We may be swimming the Hellespont as we light a cigarette. Some of the tiniest outward incidents in life, in appearance as harmless as cricket balls, may be actually as explosive as bombs. That little, scarcely audible thing — a kiss — may shatter the fortress of the heart with the force of a 15-inch gun. A melody in music — one of Bach’s fugues or the “Unfinished Symphony” of Schubert — may, in a few bars, create a bouleversement, sweep us out into the high seas past all our usual anchorages and leave us there alone to struggle with a new destiny. And who cannot recall — some there be, I think, who, with delightful preciosity, collect them in the memory — those silent, instantaneous flashes of collusion with beauty, of which even the memory so electrifies the emotions that no mental analysis of them is ever made. The intellect is knocked out in the first round. We can simply catalogue them without comment — e.g., a girl leaping and running into the sea to bathe; those blue butterflies and thyme flowers (which Richard Jefferies loved with an almost feminine tenderness); the nude body of a child of four; a young red-topped larch cone; a certain smile, a pressure of the hand, an unresolved inflexion of a voice.


Life pursues me like a fury. Everywhere, at all times, I am feeling, thinking, hoping, hating, loving, cheering. It is impossible to escape.

I once sought refuge in a deserted country churchyard, where the gravestones stood higgledy-piggledy among the long grass, their inscriptions almost obliterated by moss and time. “Here,” said I, “it will be cold and lifeless and I can rest.” I wanted to be miserable, dull, and unresponsive. With difficulty I read an inscription expressing the sorrow of a father and mother in 1701 for the loss of their beautiful daughter Joan, aged 21. I read others, but the most pathetic barely amused me. I was satisfactorily indifferent. These people, I said sardonically, had lived and suffered so long ago that even their sorrows were petrified. Parents’ grief in 1701 is simply a piece of palaeontology. So I passed on, content to be unmolested, thinking I had escaped. But beside the old graves were a few recent ones with fresh flowers upon them; across the road in the schoolroom the children began to sing, and up at the farm, I then recalled, the old folk, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, were waiting for the call; all of them beneath the shadow of the church tower whose clock-face watched the generations come and go and come again to lie beneath the shadow of the yews. I saw the procession of human life, generation after generation, pass through the village down through the ages, and though all had been silent before, I heard now the roar of existence sweeping through the churchyard as loudly as in Piccadilly. I jumped from peak to peak of thought — from human life on the planet to the planet itself; the earth fell away from my feet, and far below was the round world whole — a sphere among other spheres in the planetary system bound up by the laws of evolution and motion. As I hung aloft at so great a height and in an atmosphere, so cold and rare, I shivered at the immensity of the universe of which I formed a part: for the moment a colossal stage fright seized me, I longed to cease to be, to vanish in complete self-annihilation. But only for a moment: then gathering the forces of the soul as every man must and does at times of crisis, I leapt upon the rear of the great occasion before it was too late, crying: The world is a ship, on an unknown and dangerous commission. But I for my part, as a silly shipboy, will stand on the ratlines and cheer. I left the churchyard almost hilarious!


“Dans littérature,” said M. Taine, “j’aime tout.” I would shake his hand for saying that and add: “In life, Monsieur, as well.” All things attract me equally. I cannot concentrate. I am ready to do anything, go anywhere, think anything, read anything. Wherever I hitch my waggon I am confident of an adventurous ride. Somebody says, “Come and hear some Wagner.” I am ready to go. Another, “I say, they are going to ring the bull” — and who wants to complete his masterpiece or count his money when they are going to ring the bull? I will go with you to Norway, Switzerland, Jericho, Timbuctoo. Talk to me about the Rosicrucians or the stomach of a flea and I will listen to you. Tell me that the Chelsea Power Station is as beautiful as the Parthenon at Athens and I’ll believe you. Everything is beautiful, even the ugly — why did Whistler paint the squalor of the London streets, or Brangwyn the gloom of a steam-crane? To subscribe to any one particular profession, mode of life, doctrine, philo- sophy, opinion, or enthusiasm, is to cut oneself off from all the rest — I subscribe to all. With the whole world before you, beware lest the machinery of education seizes hold of the equipotential of your youth and grinds you out the finished product! You were a human being to start with — now, you are only a soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor. Leonardo da Vinci, racked with frustrate passion after the universal, is reported to have declared that only to do one thing and only to know one thing was a disgrace, no less. “We should not be able to say of a man, ‘He is a mathematician,’ or a ‘preacher,’ or ‘eloquent’; but that he is ‘a gentleman.’ That universal quality alone pleases me.” (Pascal.)

“The works of man don’t interest me much,” an enthusiast in Natural History once said to me, “I prefer the works of God.” Unctuous wretch! He was one of those forlorn creatures with a carefully ordered mind, his information and opinions written out in indelible ink, and pigeon-holed for easy reference. He had never shrunk to realize all he did not know — he knew all the things worth knowing. He never shuddered to reflect upon the limitations of a single point of view — other folk were simply wrong. He was scarcely one to understand the magnanimous phrase of the French, “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” Other folk were either good or bad.


Perhaps too great an enthusiasm exhausts the spirit. Love kills. I know it. The love of one’s art or profession, passion for another’s soul, for one’s children, sap the life blood and hurry us on to the grave. I know a man who killed himself with a passion for dragon-flies — a passion ending in debauchery: and debauchery of books, lust of knowledge is as fatal as any other kind.

I know it. But I don’t care. Your minatory forefinger is of no avail. Already I am too far gone. Those days are ancient history now when I endured the torture of an attempt to reclaim myself. I even reduced myself to so little as a grain a day by reading Kant and talking to entomologists. But no permanent cure was ever effected.

Once, I recall, I sat down to study zoology, because I thought it would be sober and dull. How foolish! Rousseau said he cooled his brain by dissecting a moss. But I know of few more blood-curdling achievements than the thoroughly successful completion of a difficult dissection.

Then I immersed myself in old books and forgotten learning. I had the idea that a big enough tumulus of dust and parchments over my head would be a big enough stopper for the joy of life. I became an habitué of the British Museum Reading Room and rummaged among the dead books as Lord Rosebery calls them, but only to find that they were buried alive. Any unfortunate devil received the cataract of superlatives I poured upon him at the discovery of some lively memoirs of 1601. One of my favourite books became the “Encyclopædia Britannica.” I read its learned articles till my eyes ached and my head swam. The sight of those huge tomes made me tremble with a lover’s impatience. I could have wept in thinking of all the facts I should never know and of all those I had forgotten! I grew to love facts and learning with the same passion as I had loved life. My enthusiasm was not quenched. It was only diverted. I tried to laugh myself out of it. But it was no use being cynical. For I found that no fact, no piece of information about this world, is greater or less than another, but that all are equal as the angels. So with the utmost seriousness I looked up any word I thought upon — pins, nutmegs, Wallaby — it’s a terrible game! — and gorged! I winced at nothing. I rejected nothing. I raked over even the filth, determined that no nastiness should escape my mind: I studied syphilis and politics, parasitology and crime, and, like Sir Thomas Browne, soon discovered that I could digest a salad gathered in a churchyard as easily as one in a garden.


I have long since given up this idea of hiding away from life in a museum or a library. Life seeks you out wherever you are. For the diarist, the most commonplace things of daily life are of absorbing interest. Each day, the diarist finds himself born into a world as strange and beautiful as the dead world of the day before. The diarist lives on the globe for all the world as if he lodged on the slopes of a mountain, and unlike most mountain dwellers, he never loses his sense of awe at his situation. Life is vivid to him. “And so to bed,” writes Mr. Secretary Fepys, a hundred times in his diary, and we may be sure that each time he joined Mrs. Pepys beneath the coverlet he felt that the moment which marked the end of his wonderful day was one deserving careful record.

A man, shut up in a dark room, can still be living a tense and eager life. Cut off from sight and sound, he still can sit in his chair and listen to the beating of his own heart — that wonderful muscle inside the cage of the thorax, working and moving like some independent entity, some other person, upon whom the favour of our daily life depends. The human body, what a wonderful mechanism it is! It never ceases to astonish me that anyone — on waking up in this world and finding himself in possession of a body — his only bit of real property — should be satisfied when he has clothed and fed it. One would think that the infant’s first articulated request would be for a primer of physiology.

I have often wondered how a beautiful woman regards her body. The loveliness which I must seek outside myself sleeps on “the ivories of her pure members.” She carries the incommunicable secret in herself, in the texture of her own skin, and the contour of her own breasts. She is a guardian of the hidden treasure which fills the flowers and lives in the sunset. How must it be to possess so burning a secret hidden even to the possessor? What must she think on looking into the glass?

I look into the glass, and am baffled by the intolerable strangeness that that face is mine, that I am I, that my name is Barbellion. It is easy, too fatally easy, to continue exploring the recesses of one’s own life and mind day by day, making fresh discoveries, opening up new tracts, and on occasion getting a sight of blue mountain ranges in the distance whither we endeavour to arrive.


Life is beautiful and strange. Too beautiful, too strange. I sometimes envy those folk whom I see daily accepting life without question or wonderment as a homely fireside affair — except of course for some unusual places like the Niagara Falls only to be visited on a holiday, or for some unpleasant tragedies they read about in the newspapers. It would be useless to put to them the ultimate and staggering question why anything exists at all — “Why not sheer negation?” — to the folk who find their circumstances so dull that they have to play with bat and ball to fend off ennui, who are always in search of what is known as a “pastime,” or who invite children to stay with them “to keep them alive” as they explain — as if there were not enough weeping, wondering, and laughing to be done in this blessed world to keep us all alive and throbbing! Life has ceased to be an intoxication for them. It is just a mild illusion in which they attend to the slugs in the strawberry beds and get in that extra hundredweight of coal, accepting the bountiful flow of still, calm, happy days as their due, and like spoilt children feeling bored with them. Yet confront these dormice with a slice of life and they will blink and scamper off. Show them a woman suckling a baby or a dirty man drinking beer, and they will raise their eyebrows or blanch. There is no limit to their fear of living. They are nervous of their appetites and instincts — they will not eat themselves into a bilious attack nor smoke themselves into a weak heart. They fear either to love or to hate unreservedly. Men like Baudelaire and Villon terrify them, liner disasters and earth- quakes send them trembling to their knees and books of devotion. They will not brazen life out. Let them come out of their houses and seek courage in the thunder of the surf on the seashore, or amid the tall majestic columns of the strong Scots pines, whose lower branches spread down and outwards graciously like friendly hands to frightened children. How many times have I sought sanctuary among the tall Scots pines!


Courage, I know, is necessary. Let us pray for courage, if we are to regard without flinching our amazing situation on this island planet where we are marooned. Amid the island’s noise and rapture, struggle, and vicissitude, we must wrestle with the forces of Nature for our happiness. True happiness is the spoils of conquest seized out of the clutches of furious life. We must pay for it with a price. That which is given away contains no value. Tall cliffs, a dancing sea and the sun glorious perhaps. Yes, but simple enjoyment of that kind is a Pyrrhic victory. The real victor must exult in the menace of two hundred feet of sheer, perpendicular rock surface; and when he bathes, remember that the sea has talons and that the glorious sun itself, what is it? — a globe of incandescent heat, compared with which the blast furnaces of Sheffield are only warm, and around which our earth ever keeps on its dizzy mothlike circle.

I am far from believing that the world is a paradise of sea-bathing and horse-exercise as R.L.S. said. That is a piece of typical Stevensonian bravura. It is a rare gymnasium to be sure. But it is also a blood-spattered abattoir, a theatre of pain, an anabasis of travail, a Calvary and a Crucifixion. But therein lies its extraordinary fascination — in those strange antitheses of comedy and tragedy, joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness. It is the sock one day and the buskin the next. Marriage sheet and shroud are inextricably interwoven. Like a beautiful and terrible mistress, the world holds me its devoted slave. She flouts me, but I love her still. She is cruel, but still I love her. My love for her is a guilty love — for the voluptuous curves of the Devonshire moors, for the bland benignity of the sun smiling alike on the just and on the unjust, for the sea which washes in a beautiful shell or a corpse with the same meditative indifference.

There are many things I ought to scowl upon. But I cannot. The spell is too great. I surprise myself sometimes with my callous exuberation at the triumph of brute force, at some of the grotesque melodramas engineered by Fate (for in spite of Thomas Hardy and Greek tragedy, Fate is often but a sorry artist), at the splendid hypocrisy of many persons even in high places or when I learn that a whole army has been “cut to pieces,” I rub my hands murmuring in ironical delight, “It is simply colossal.” Marlowe, I believe, drew Barrabas out of sheer love of his wickedness. Shakespeare surely exulted in the unspeakable tragedy of King Lear.

I have been too long now in love with this wicked old earth to wish to change one jot or one tittle of it. I am loath to surrender even the Putumayo atrocities. Let me have Crippen as well as Father Damien, Heliogabalus as well as Marcus Aurelius. Liars and vagabonds are the salt of the earth. Who wants Benvenuto Cellini to tell the truth? What missionary spirit feels tempted to reclaim Aretino or Laurence Sterne? The man who wrote of “the pitiful end” of Marlowe killed in a tavern brawl bores me, with his peevishness. It is silly to repine because Keats died young or because Poe drank himself to death. This kind of jejune lament from the people who live in garden cities soon becomes very monotonous indeed. Tragedy and comedy, I thought we were all agreed, are the warp and woof of life, and if we have agreed to accept life and accept it fully, let us stand by our compact and whoop like cowboys on the plains. Who wants to be pampered with divine or miraculous intervention? We are too proud. Let the world run on. We can manage. If you suffer at least you live, said Balzac. So Heine and Schubert out of their great sorrows wrote their little songs, and out of Amiel’s life of wasted opportunity came the Journal to give the lie to those who do not hold it to be as much a triumph to fail as to succeed, to despair as to win through with joy.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.