Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

The Insulation of the Ego

December 10, 1914

Day after day, month after month throughout the year in dizzy revolutions I go on meeting the same people doing the same thing at the same time — the same lukewarm railway official like some huge mechanical doll clipping tickets as the silent procession of suburban dummies carrying newspapers and despatch cases files past the barrier to catch the 9.1; there is always the same loquacious newsvendor with the same parrot-cry, “Mr. Cook is always ready to serve you, Sir"; and just within the Museum itself stands the same slit-eyed policeman — a monster figure that supports the arch and touches its hat with a movement of the right hand. Every day all these and a hundred others are doing the same thing in the same spot almost to a square inch, and it is difficult to believe that they are ever away or that they ever do anything else. I forget that they are human beings and have stomachs and opinions. Routine induces a sort of somnambulism. The incessant revolution of days — daylight and darkness, daylight and darkness like the opening and closing of a camera’s shutter worked continuously — hypnotizes the mind into a dull, glassy intentness on the private business in hand. The world is a machine and spins like a governor; all these people are just so many automata.

One day the policeman said to me, “Good news, Sir, this morning.” I was so surprised I hardly knew what to answer for a moment. It pulled me out of my stupor for a day or so, and set me wondering at the extraordinary aloofness and insulation of my life. I must certainly invite these automata to a rendezvous one day at the nearest hotel, just to see if their clockwork can swallow beer.

The fact of the matter is we have no intelligent curiosity. Provided other folk do their duty by us, that is all we care. To the employer, employees are merely “hands"; to the General, soldiers are so many “rifles.”

February 22, 1915

Every man is an island. I sit awhile in Hyde Park and watch the folk — rich Jews, peers, guardsmen, Beau Brummels — see how they pass, self absorbed, ego centric. No one interests them save themselves. Everyone else is looked through or looked over or not seen at all. They all sweep past with an arrogant self-sufficiency without curiosity and without observation. It makes me feel I am an apparition, visible to only a few.

I spend the whole morning passing in and out among this crowd, seizing snippets of conversation, staring for as long as I dare, determined for at least one day in seven to shake off my hypnosis. I should like to have a psychological jemmy to prise open the minds of some of these strange, secretive men and women flowing along, to rifle the caskets of their innermost consciousness of all its wealth of personality and life history. If I were a millionaire (so I fancy — for to-day I am devoured by curiosity) I would hire an army of private detectives merely to satisfy my curiosity about some of the people I see in the streets of London. It would be so jolly on observing a face or an incident to be able to turn to the detective accompanying me and say “Please follow this up and let me have your report by Monday next.” No crumb of information about some folk is too small to be contemned. It would be interesting to know if that man uses “Baffo” for his moustache or why he calls his dog “Tiddly-Winks.” I should be grateful for that woman’s Christian name (it is surely Cynthia, or Cecilia?). I should like to be able to put a penny in each one’s slot and draw out the story of his life in a long tape.

Englishmen are difficult to get to know. Within the circle of their own collars, trespassers will be prosecuted. They have a splendid aristocratic reticence about themselves. And if you seem too curious, the healthy-minded, English stalwart shakes his fist at the intruder and warns him that an Englishman’s home is his castle. Warm and comfortable within his own fur-lined coat of self-esteem, securely veiled by this impenetrable cloth he gazes out upon the candid man, who casts his clouts — even the napkin about his loins — as if he were a shivering lunatic. Ah! you furtive gentleman! it is pleasant to play the detective with you! In spite of your precautionary measures, many of your secrets are easily found out and even some of your solid caskets rifled upon a little careful scrutiny. You all have a naked body I know. And you all have a naked soul behind those barricades and bastions with which you face the world. Why not confess? Why this studied insulation. Why cut yourself off from your fellows? Have you never a desire to strip the body bare — as a sacrament, to rend the veil of every temple — out of curiosity, to dynamite every cabal, to shout into every silence and reveal all that lies hid anywhere? — Aye and to scorn that crawling hypocrisy I read just now in the newspaper — “She led a certain life,” meaning she was a whore.

* * * * *

Confession is good for the soul, and is the only foundation for a perfect union of the heart. It indicates, at any rate, a desire to have the light of day upon dark places; it invites consideration and investigation, although it does not mean that we shall thereby win the sympathy and understanding of others. . . . “Is there any person in the whole wide world,” asked I, Henry Rycroft in the Private Papers, “on whom I could invariably rely for perfect sympathy?” Do two souls ever fit absolutely slick into one another? It seems rather that there is always some rub that has to be eased, some little piece of behaviour or some opinion that will never be understood even by our dearest friend. And a single misunderstanding bars the way to perfect sympathy. As between the most intimately blended friends — Patroclus and Achilles, Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias — there are some matters always held carefully in reserve — the heart of everyone contains secrets he dare never communicate. As for marriage, intellectual honesty between husband and wife is ever a dangerous experiment and one which few could practise if they would. For love is a fog and most marriages are built on inaccuracies if not on lies. Yet how can anyone be perfectly loved if he cannot be perfectly understood. Had Leander lived, Hero may have had a very different tale to tell of him. And we have yet to learn the subsequent history of King Cophetua and his beggar-maid — probably a very ill-assorted couple indeed.

Confession, moreover, is a difficult duty, for it implies self-knowledge, and accurate self-knowledge is as rare as a blue moon. Yet, if we do not know ourselves, how can we expect our friends to know us?

Truth to tell we are so completely insulated that no soul ever comes into actual contact with another. We may stand in the apposition of friendship or be bracketed together for life in holy wedlock. But true contact is never established. “I love you ” — how the words have goaded the inarticulate lover to despairing parrot-like repetition. Whenever one ego purposes to hold communication with another, the concentric barriers of matter can scarcely be overcome by em- ploying human vocables — crude, hefty, obstinate words. That is why comfortable philosophers like Maeterlinck (and Thoreau before him) have so many seductive remarks on silence. Maeterlinck knows that man is only half articulate, so he consoles himself with extolling the wonder and magic of silence! That is so like the adaptable human being! Self-expression is an impossible ideal — our warmest emotions must be impounded in cold brute words — even the best and most beautiful are merely verbiage so long as we are under the influence of a great experience. So we pretend that silence is all in all.

June 6, 1915

There are times when nothing satisfies. This evening I looked at the sunset with clouds piled up like the Halls of Valhalla. But I wanted more. My mind restlessly ran over the facts: clouds — suspended moisture; colour — atmospheric dust. I scoffed. How humiliating that seemed. Sheer physical beauty was not enough. I wanted to be more intimate with the beauty I watched from the outside — a spectator only. I would enter into the sunset completely in some perfect and beautiful Atonement.

I am tired of being fended off, tired of my insulation; I want to touch beauty, or actually to touch some other person. In such a mood I could listen, say, to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and laugh at it derisively. How futile even for that great soul to attempt to escape out of his mortality in self expression by a vehicle so coarse and so inadequate. “Is it not a strange thing,” asks Benedick, “that sheep’s guts should hale men’s souls out of their bodies?” It is indeed strange — and humiliating.

In these moments of icy exaltation, I spurn the instrument of every art. I read through the Ode on a Grecian Urn and under an overwhelming conviction of clairvoyance, for a moment or two perceive the coarseness and ineptitude of an art that uses queer looking written symbols to represent certain curious sounds. Then I look down through “La Belle Dame sans Merci” in a purely quizzical way and feel piqued at it — that is all. Generation after generation is lured towards this marvellous work of art, but no one as yet has succeeded in laying sacrilegious hands upon its Holy Grail. Those few verses of the apothecary youth will always remain as much a mystery as the Trinity, He did not understand himself what it was he had written. They were just a few lines stuck into a letter to a friend one day. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a taunt, an aggressive, bristling enigma, an impudent conundrum.

Artists must be the most miserable of men: for they are men with human capacities and yet with God Almighty’s passion to create. That is why some artists seem mad or gradually become unintelligible. Inside or behind every masterpiece may be heard the faint rumour of a soul in travail going round and round in vain endeavour to escape. In his passionate endeavour to break his bonds the great artist strains his art to breaking point: pictures become unintelligible daubs, music becomes cacophony and poetry hysteria. And the wise man comes to speak in unintelligible riddles. Insane artists! — what glimpses they may have had! Mad Blake! What did he see? — Mad philosophers! — blinded perhaps in an explosion of light.

February 27, 1916

Man is so securely cut off and surrounded, so perfectly insulated, that he cannot get out into the life beyond himself nor can anything beyond get into him. Nothing ever actually touches him. He has buffers, fenders, bastions.

Should any experience, any emotion, whether grief or joy, of powerful voltage really establish a contact, death would be instantaneous from electrocution. Mankind knows this and therefore takes the necessary precautions, meeting the assaults of the world with every kind of safeguard. He patches grief with proverbs and makes misfortune drunk with candle wasters. “Afflictions induce callosities,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us.” He drugs himself with the anodyne of Christian consolations, shirking the poignancy of a grief that should electrocute, with some glib quotation from the New Testament. Man shuffles out of his miseries by self-indulgence in casuistical ethics, anointing his despair with talk about patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national duty.

Man is a pitifully adaptable creature. He works in coal mines and sewers, he lives on fifteen shillings a week, he volunteers for the prospect of dismemberment by a German shell, when before, perhaps, he would complain bitterly of a scratch from a briar. Even this terrible agony of war, Time and the newspapers’ chatter are helping us to reduce to the level of Parliamentary News or “City Gossip.” It may seem a mocking remark to make at this time, but few, if any, realize the accumulated horrors of the war. Such suffering is beyond the capacity of the human soul to experience. We are too small, too insulated, too egoistic. We may weep for our own sorrows or those of immediate friends, and even (if we have the good-will) try in imagination to multiply that grief by millions (as if grief were arithmetic!), yet we should still be far from even a crude realization of the collec- tive horrors of the war — our souls are too small, too circumscribed and petty. If man had what Shelley called the Creative Faculty to imagine what they know — wars would cease.

To be candid, man is ineradicably commonplace. No sooner is he the fortunate possessor of some beautiful grief that should be inconsolable, than maybe a fortnight, a month, a year later, his consciousness, working industriously upon it, has reduced it to more comfortable proportions. If he wrings his hands, he will soon be ringing the bells. Time heals, we say. But there is something about Time’s irresistible therapeutic properties that in result is almost ridiculous. My happiness this year makes my grief two years ago childish, impertinent. Yet, if I had possessed the decent steadfastness of feeling to continue to grieve, my friends would have said I was morbid and silly. Last month I was in despair. To-day my circumstances are absolutely unchanged, except that Time has applied his balsam and I am cheerful once more.

Nothing breaks a man. He will brag about his misfortunes as loudly as about his successes. Nq shock penetrates behind his insulation. He is jolted, perhaps, but not killed. Grief is often a luxury. To restore the limb to a beggar with a wooden leg would be almost his displeasure.

It is impossible to circumvent the human soul — that precious quiddity that triumphs over all things, suffereth all things, is not easily provoked. But the psychological truth is that the so-called conquests of the soul are usually only strategical retreats dictated by the instinct for preservation of self. My own “conquest “was only a retreat. From a crisis in which I should have fought to the death I shrewdly retired; in a prolonged and almost continuous period of the most revolting ill-health, instead of becoming rebel and paying the last penalty for it, I developed the shameless endurance of a beast of burden — meekly shouldered my cross, and was even cheerful about it — that is what disgusts me. Me and men like me no amount of chastisement would ever correct. We just go on calling out “The Devil a bit! Cheero!” like the Parrot in the thunderstorm, poor foolish ridiculous bird.

By withdrawing here, giving ground there, and in general retreating along all my line of life, I have fended off the enemy armed with the scythe, and saved remnants of my forces such as they are, where, in a similar case, a man of courage would have joined battle and overcome him, for it is “great to do that thing that ends all other deeds, which shackles accidents and bolts up change.”

And as with his pains, so also with his pleasures. No joy sends a man crazy. He is ecstatic for a morning perhaps, but he soon settles down. He has not the strength of soul to keep long at the top of his compass or at the bottom. And in our inmost heart, with what superlative self-contempt do we watch our joy or sorrow die down and disappear!

No wonder bowls us out. To all the marvellous things of the universe — the sun overhead, the little blue flowers at our feet, to birds and aeroplanes travelling through the air — we extend an oily, vulgar familiarity. Where we should stand hat in hand at a respectful distance we advance, and with a careless jerk of the head signify acquaintance. As Carlyle said: the average man regards the making of a world with about as much wonder as the baking of an apple dumpling.

The consciousness is like some baneful atmosphere. As soon as they enter it, our emotions, at first like glorious white-hot stars, rapidly cool down to finish up often as cold as the moon.

Poor human frailty! We are only children, with new toys, and broken toys and old familiar toys. Our greatest experiences are only nursery episodes and our greatest emotions only a little less fleeting than the tears of childhood. Even Job lived to the age of 140, and became happy in the possession of beautiful daughters, and God knows how many valuable she-asses. Yet this was the fellow who cursed the day he was born.

Perfect dignity is denied us. For if we persisted in grief we are morbid, and if we sweep on with the tide our memories are ridiculously short and — out of sight, out of mind. So wags the world.

March 10, 1916

It is a nauseating fact which must nevertheless be owned, that however miserable or despairing a man may be he loves himself ever. No lunge from the sharpest rapier penetrates his self-esteem. Right in there in the centre of his being, he keeps his lonely court. In sickness, in health, in sorrow, joy, failure, or success, in every conceivable set of circumstances, the ego sits enthroned, surrounded only by the bodyguard of his own self- consciousness, self-pity, self-admiration, self-love, and from these not even the anarchy of self-hate can drive him forth, for he will still love himself in hating himself for his own self-love. If I claim to be inconsolable, you know I am already sucking consolation from the very fact of my being inconsolable. Consciousness of self shadows us all. As soon as I have a generous impulse or do a generous deed, my poll clerk and shadow registers it, and the virtue goes out of me. If I make a witty remark, a bell rings within me — and I can scarcely conceal my confusion. Some of the emotion at Swift’s Epitaph:

Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor ulterius lacerare nequit

leaves us when we find he wrote it himself; and when Mr. H. G. Wells remarks that all sound, sober, and sane-minded men are hopeful of progress, you know he is thinking of Mr. H. G. Wells. The automatic self-approval of the self-consciousness is like some ridiculous chorus pursuing a man across the stage of life and turning it into opéra-bouffe. It is a strange thing that man so small should be so full of self. Is there anything more contemptible to the looker-on than the egotism of a tiny Ego. What, then, must God think? How laughable it is that every one, however impoverished in soul or intellect, insists on clinging to his own identity, and would not exchange himself even with Shakespeare!

The Ego is a monarch, and, like a monarch, unapproachable. In every one of us our insulation is complete.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.