Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains


March 8, 1915

On the top of an empty omnibus to-day I cast my eye for a second at a little heap of dirty used-up ’bus tickets collected by chance up in one corner. The sight of them unnerved me. For a moment I felt almost physically sick. This feeling was so instantaneous that it was some time later that I discovered the cause of it, when I began to reflect upon all the implications which the little heap of tickets sent ramifying through the eye to the brain — the number of persons, for example, that daily boarded this vehicle, each one bent on his little project, making use of the ’bus, then passing out of it again; the number ot miles the ’bus traversed each day, the number of ’buses “honking” through the streets and all this cataract of London life. My nerves throbbed with the ache of it all. In London even the names over the shop windows scuffle and fight with one another and with you as you pass; advertisements on hoardings, walls, windows, scream at you, wheedle you, interrogate, advise, suggest. At all times the ear catches fragments of conversation as the crowds pass along the streets, or the trample of their footsteps as they rush up and down wooden stairways to the trains — both above ground and below ground — a maelstrom of activity.

After a long ride on the top of an omnibus along the main arteries of traffic I always experience that dazed muddled sensation which comes from looking too long into the Milky Way. Consecutive thought or reflection become impossible — by the end of the journey I am merely a mechanical registering instrument ticking off such fatuous impressions as — “What a funny name over that shop,” or “That is a nice house,” or “How funnily that man walks.” It is appalling to reflect that each church passed attracts its little group of worshippers and is familiar to them alone, that every Town Hall or municipal building knows its familiar councillors and officials, that every square with its library or polytechnic is a vortex of endeavour which I know nothing about, for people I have never met and shall never see. How strange is the fact that every public-house is an evening Mecca to its habitués, who are intimate with all the furniture, the pictures on the walls, the figures on the mugs, and that in every public-house it is the same, and yet that all of this is absolutely nothing to me.

I dart across thoroughfares and rattle down through others — buildings and houses everywhere, in tvery building people, in every private house a family circle, and yet I do not know them, and I do not seem to care. Millions of callous persons living together in the same great city and not speaking to one another — persons in the same street, nay, in the same house, and not speaking! How I hate you all! For you are too many and I am too small. I gaze down on you — you prodigious quantities of tiny men — emmets — passing swiftly by and feel sick of my own mortality and finiteness. I should like to be a god methinks. . . . To love merely one’s own children or one’s own parents, how ridiculous that seems, how puny, how stifling! To be interested only in one’s own life or profession, to know and remain satisfied merely with one’s own circumscribed experiences — how contemptible! It is necessary to be unselfish — even extravagantly selfless — quite as much for the sake of one’s intellect and understanding as for the good of one’s heart and soul. “But the most terrible thing of all was that in all the houses there lived human beings and about all the streets were moving human beings. There was a multitude of them and all unknown to him — strangers — and all of them lived their own separate life hidden from the eyes of others; they were without interruption, being born and dying, and there was no beginning nor end to the stream. . . . There was a stout gentleman at whom Petrov glanced, disappearing around the corner — and never would Petrov see him again. Even if he wished to find him he would search for him all his life and never succeed.” — From Andreyev’s story, “The City” (which I read since making this entry).

* * * * *

I think I should love Russians if I knew them. I believe I have most in common with the Russian temperament. How else explain that in Russian books — in Lermontov, in Turgenev, in Dostoievsky, in Tchekov, Poushkin, Goncharov, and others — I so frequently find almost exact transcripts of my own life and character. It is like seeing oneself constantly in a portrait gallery, and naturally flatters a reader’s vanity.

March 15, 1915

All this morning I have been floating aimlessly along the tideways of human souls down by the London docks, in Commercial Road, Whitechapel, Fleet Street, eddying round Piccadilly Circus, and so homewards into quiet waters, like a battered ship into port. I sought a little rest in the afternoon in the public library and picked up the Bookman, my customary fare. Then I observed for a. while my fellow-loungers and next, casually picked up the Performer, which happened to lie ready to hand.

I confess it interested me, and induced me to have a look at several other periodicals I had never examined before. I read in succession the Gentlewoman, the Grocer, the Builder, the Horological Journal, the Musical Times, the Bird Fancier, the Herald of Health, the Bible Student. What began as a whim now developed into a solemn passion. I ransacked the whole room for the various professional journals, trade organs, periodicals devoted to special movements, societies, enthusiasms. It was an extraordinary experiment to make in that dirty, quiet room among those few dirty, dejected, sprawling loafers by turning over the leaves of periodicals to conjure up and review the whole of contemporary civilization. I enjoyed one long delicious eavesdropping; I was an invisible man moving freely about unobserved among my fellow-creatures and listening to all their tattle. Each journal was a window through which I, outside in the dark, could gaze in at brilliantly lighted interiors and watch all that was going on — it was a masque, a harlequinade, every performer delightfully unconscious of curious observation. Through the cold print of a paragraph, behind the lines of some stilted announcement in an obituary notice, a competition or an advertisement, I traversed all modern society in a series of long kangaroo leaps. It is easy to sit comfortably at a table of periodicals and, like an omnipotent magician, wand in hand, call up at will, Park Lane or Whitechapel, the study of canaries or the Bible, order to appear in succession the licensing trade, all Band of Hope Unions, the Navy League, the theatrical world. You can call up for personal interview musicians, grocers, duchesses, trichologists, princes, pastry cooks. They told me everything. I searched their inmost natures and with perfect ingenuousness they surrendered all. It was pleasant to feel the shock of transition from, say, the Gentlewoman to the Shop-assistant, or from the Free-thinker to the Bible-student. It made my sceptical mind a little gleeful to note how many pairs of antagonisms there are: the Suffragette and the Anti-Suffragette, the vaccinators and the anti-vaccinators, Stephen Paget and Stephen Coleridge, the Labour Leader and the Saturday Review. I felt the same sardonic humour as a cinema film provokes, showing you, say, the Houses of Parliament with a “fade-through” of Guy Fawkes in the cellars underneath.

In the Gentlewoman I read an article entitled, “What Gentlewomen are doing in the War.” In the Shop-assistant poor Kipps is fighting for a living wage “against the callous indifference of the upper classes never more emphasized than at the present time.” The Bird-fanciers are thinking of reviving the Roller fancy in the Grimsby district, the trichologists are commenting on the grave dangers to health arising from neglected scalps; an anxious inquirer in the Bible-student wants to know if “Holy Spirit” means “A number of angels” and, if so, how explain Matt. i. 20. Mr. J. Tripp, vice-president of the Horological Institute, has been indisposed, and his condition is causing anxiety to fellow horologists. Musicians call for a comic opera revival, and a general practitioner urges treatment for fracture by mobilization.

My most interesting peep, however, was at the vegetarians through an exceptionally transparent window called The Herald of Health, devoted, so it informed me, to the “Physical Regeneration of Mankind.” Its first item was the photograph of a very cheerful old gentleman — “the late Mr. William Harrison showing a very fine brain development and philanthropic characteristics” — as if he were a prize beast at a fat stock show. His obituary notice was so curious that I copied it out in full. Here, however, I give only a few extracts. After referring to Mr. Harrison’s “indefatigable and self-sacrificing labours on behalf of the vegetarian propaganda of which he was a pioneer,” the writer proceeded to comment upon the significant circumstance that Mr. Harrison’s father was a butcher, a fact which may have played no unimportant part in directing his attention to vegetables. “Early impressed by Bible truths, from his youth up he carried as his constant pocket companions, the New Testament and Ben Johnson’s Dictionary.” (Sic.) “In conclusion this self-taught Lancashire man over a long career preached and practised, taught and demonstrated undying human truths and scientific principles which 99 per cent. of the costly collegiates of this and other civilized countries do not know. Early in life Mr. Harrison signed Dr. Smudge’s ‘Long Pledge’ to abstain from tobacco, snuff-taking, and alcohol. Subsequently it was his pride and privilege to add to the ‘Long Pledge’ the following additional pledges: Never to be a butcher, never to be a pawnbroker, never to sell tobacco or snuff, never to convert friendship into merchandise. I hope,” comments the writer, “that similar men will arise as examples of this human, health-giving, life-saving cult and that our propaganda will spread further and faster to enlighten and bless this, our rising, war-stained, inoculated, be-drugged, deceived, and deluded generation, so that it may warn by the fruits of its experience a new and coming race.”

I amused myself next with the comparison between this and the Performer, which described in no unmeasured terms the feats of “The great Jaskoe,” the most daring hand and foot balancer in the world, of the celebrated Elsie Finney, now considering engagements for revues, water productions, and swimming displays, and of a hundred other famous men and women. Jack Straw claims, “I run the gamut from laughter to tears. I speak the King’s English. I get laughter cleanly. The audience quote me long after I have left your town.” Mexico’s most beautiful siffleur says, “I will make your town talk. Don’t miss this. Book right now. Can work any stage. Have featured every hall including the London Coliseum.”

After attentively reading the short accounts of the current transactions of all the learned societies, published regularly in the Athenæum, with a mind a perfect jumble of “Half-crowns of Charles I.” (exhibited by the numismatists), of the “integrals of a certain Riccati equation connected with Halphen’s transformation” (which have been charming mathematicians), of an ivory comb of the eleventh century sent by Pope Gregory to Bertha, Queen of Kent (and now exhibited by Sir Hercules Reed to the Antiquaries), I picked up a halfpenny evening newspaper, seeking relief. But I was cursed with the mood, and at once proceeded to observe cynically what “went to the post,” and “whether the filly stayed well.” It made me feel deliciously satirical to read in another column that amateur gardeners must “at once arrange for the imminent planting of spring bedders.” And here in a little backwater, out of the way of the cataract, in a corner devoted to the Home, advice to knitters: “Purl one, plain one.” In many respects it seems to be beneath God’s dignity to be omniscient.

* * * * *

I staggered out into the open air in time to see a very fine sunset. I was sick of the infinity of separate Things and just wanted to be Man looking at the Sunset. It was a distinct relief to my congested brain to observe the one Sun simply — that at least seemed an immense and irreducible Unity.

April 10, 1915

“O Seigneur donnez-moi la force el la courage
De contempler mon corps et mon coeur sans dégoût.”

Could anything be more ridiculous than our means of progression — I implore you to watch the two legs, calliper-like, measuring out the ground so slow and infinitely laborious. My self-esteem requires at least a pair of wings or even a pair of smooth-running automatic wheels. As for sitting down, that seems indecent — particularly according to the method of certain old gentlemen who with great deliberation catch up their coat tails and carefully deposit the gluteal mass into some close fitting armchair.

But why do I trouble to write when to hold this pen is so irksome — a single pen in a single hand tracing each single letter of every single word, all so slow, so laborious, so painfully human. I want all the pens that ever poets held. I would be Hydra-headed and Argus-eyed, I desire to possess as many hands as Briareus, to be multiple, legion, a Kosmos. I desire to wave a wand, and then at the crash of drums and cymbals to have everything achieved. What a simple man he must be who takes pride in his own work, in that inconsiderable contribution to the world’s output, even after a life of toil. How commonly a man who can do one thing well goes on doing it again and again as unreflectively as Old Father William, or a squirrel in a wheel. There seems to me no satisfaction in achieving those things of which we know we are already capable. If I had written the Æneid there would still be the Iliad. . . .

April 11, 1915

To live is a continuous humiliation. Man was born with the desire to be free, yet everywhere he is in the hopeless shackles of mortality and of iron natural law. If Lucifer was proud, he was not so proud as I: it wounds my self-esteem not to be able to perform miracles, to move mountains, to play fast and loose with base clay, to be in direct telepathic rapport with the universe and its beauty. No one more than I could be readier to listen eagerly and encouragingly to the claims of Spiritualists and Christian Scientists. These claims do not surprise me. What does surprise me is that, as touching miracles, the evidence still seems to be on the side of David Hume. I ask myself, “What is the secret of the universe?” and I am staggered to find that I do not know. What an amazing thing it is that no one knows. “Avid of all dominion and all mightiness,” yet is man “successive unto nothing but patrimony of a little mould and entail of four planks.” That bumble-bee in the fox-glove yonder — how can I be about my human business until I know? Who is going to be busied over anything at all so long as overhead the sun shines unmolested and underneath his feet, secure in mystery, grows a single blade of grass? To be alive is so incredible that I can no more than lie still on my back between the immense vertical heights of my ignorance like a newborn babe sunk in the grand canon of Colorado. In the embrace of this mother Sphinx the earth, my own individuality shrinks to vanishing-point, I see myself through the wrong end of a telescope — a tiny speck crawling on a great hill.

“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?” (Pascal.)

April 26, 1915

In the spirit of pious resignation Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Meddle not with things that be too high for thee, but study such things as yield compunction to the heart rather than elevation to the head.” I like to put alongside this the delightful passage from Sir Thomas Browne’s “Religio": “I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ’Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection.” Recreation is great!

Like Sir Thomas Browne I have always meddled with things that are too high for me, not, certainly, as a recreation, but as a result of intense intellectual discomfort. I find a sulky delight in pulverizing the intellect by thinking on the time for example it takes for light to travel from the sun to the earth, upon the number of stars in the Milky Way, upon the infinite divisibility of matter, upon Sir Oliver Lodge’s dictum that there are more atoms in a thimble-full of water than there are thimble-fulls of water in the Atlantic Ocean. When a geologist speaks of the Cambrian, I want to cross myself; when great formulas like “intrastellar space” or “secular time” thunder in my ears, I want to crawl away like a rat into a hole and die.

I have always meddled with things that are too high for me, my first adventure being Berkeley at the age of fifteen, a philosopher who captured my amazement over a period of many months. Like a little London gamin, I run about the great city of the mind and hang on behind the big motor lorries of thought. “Looked at from the point of view of multiplicity, duration disintegrates into a powder of moments, none of which endures, each being an instantaneity.” No matter if I do not understand Bergson: in a sentence like that I catch at least the rumour of some tremendous thought. Again under the heading “Wall Street": “Some securities showed the effects of distribution under cover of an advance in volatile issues.” It is like putting one’s ear to a telegraph pole on top of a wind-swept heath. . . . Then there is William James and Schiller, Pragmatism and Humanism, those other grand peut-êtres.

* * * * *

It may be that ultimately all speculation and belief will become extinguished by one universal certainty. Man’s mind that animates this globe may continue to ripen and develop into complete knowledge able to wing its way throughout the universe. Mental telepathy will dispense with our present clumsy means of intercourse; the Spiritualists perhaps, will investigate the next world as exactly as the scientific men will have done this; all disease be vanquished and all perfection attained by easy miracles (vide the Christian Scientists), and even God Himself a familiar figure walking abroad upon the earth, the well-pleased captain of the planet. In other words, a cosmic enterprise brought to a thoroughly successful conclusion by the triumph of infinite mind over matter.

February 20, 1917

Here is a passage I have just hit upon. It is an O altitudo that would have pleased old Browne: “For ever, for all eternity. . . . Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. . . . How many of those tiny grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, . . . and a million miles broad . . . and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain; how many æons upon æons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity can be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had all been carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again, grain by grain; and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings, not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then at the end of such a period, after that æon of time, the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.” (From a sermon on eternal damnation by a Jesuit father, in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.")

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.