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elderly angels hovering over us while we pray, there is nothing to be done.
If we really believe that we migrate out of life into an atmosphere of mild
piety, and lose all our individuality at once, then, of course, the less
said the better. As long as we hold that, then death must remain as the
worst of catastrophes for everyone concerned. The result of it all is that
a bad biography is the worst of books, because it quenches our interest in
life, and makes life insupportably dull. The first point is that the
biographer is infinitely more important than his subject. Look what an
enchanting book Carlyle made out of the Life of Sterling. Sterling was a
man of real charm who could only talk. He couldn't write a line. His
writings are pitiful. Carlyle put them all aside with a delicious irony;
and yet he managed to depict a swift, restless, delicate, radiant creature,
whom one loves and admires. It is one of the loveliest books ever written.
But, on the other hand, there are hundreds of fine creatures who have been
hopelessly buried for ever and ever under their biographies - the sepulchre
made sure, the stone sealed, and the watch set."

"But there are some good biographies?" said Barthrop.

"About a dozen," said Father Payne. "I won't give a list of them, or I
should become like our friend the merchant. I feel it coming on, by Jove - I
feel like accounting for things and talking you all up to my bedroom."

"But what can be done about it all?" I said.

"Nothing whatever, my boy," said Father Payne; "as long as people are not
really interested in life, but in money and committees, there is nothing to
be done. And as long as they hold things sacred, which means a strong
dislike of the plain truth, it's hopeless. If a man is prepared to write a
really veracious biography, he must also be prepared to fly for his life
and to change his name. Public opinion is for sentiment and against truth;
and you must change public opinion. But, oh dear me, when I think of the
fascination of real personality, and the waste of good material, and the
careful way in which the pious biographer strains out all the meat and
leaves nothing but a thin and watery decoction, I could weep over the
futility of mankind. The dread of being interesting or natural, the
adoration of pomposity and full dress, the sickening love of romance, the
hatred of reality - oh, it's a deplorable world!"



XXXVII

OF POSSESSIONS


"I wonder," said Father Payne one day at dinner, "whether any nation's
proverbs are such a disgrace to them as our national proverbs are to us.
Ours are horribly Anglo-Saxon and characteristic. They seem to me to have
been all invented by a shrewd, selfish, complacent, suspicious old farmer,
in a very small way of business, determined that he will not be
over-reached, and equally determined, too, that he will take full advantage
of the weakness of others. 'Charity begins at home,' 'Possession is nine
points of the law,' 'Don't count your chickens before they are hatched,'
'When poverty comes in at the door, love flies out of the window.' They are
all equally disgraceful. They deride all emotion, they despise imagination,
they are unutterably low and hard, and what is called sensible; they are
frankly unchristian as well as ungentlemanly. No wonder we are called a
nation of shopkeepers."

"But aren't we a great deal better than our proverbs?" said Barthrop: "do
they really express anything more than a contempt for weakness and
sentiment?"

"Yes," said Father Payne, "but I don't like them any better for that. Why
should we be ashamed of all our better feelings? I admit that we have a
sense of justice; but that only means that we care for material possessions
so much that we are afraid not to admit that others have the right to do
the same. The real obstacle to socialism in England is the sense of
sanctity about a man's savings. The moment that a man has saved a few
pounds, he agrees to any legislation that allows him to hold on to them."

"But aren't we, behind all that," said Barthrop, "an intensely sentimental
nation?"

"Yes," said Father Payne, "but that's a fault really - we don't believe in
real justice, only in picturesque justice. We are hopeless individualists.
We melt into tears over a child that is lost, or a dog that howls; and we
let all sorts of evil systems and arrangements grow and flourish. We can't
think algebraically, only arithmetically. We can be kind to a single case
of hardship; we can't take in a widespread system of oppression. We are
improving somewhat; but it is always the particular case that affects us,
and not the general principle."

"But to go back to our sense of possession," I said, "is that really much
more than a matter of climate? Does it mean more than this, that we, in a
temperate climate inclining to cold, need more elaborate houses and more
heat-producing food than nations who live in warmer climates? Are not the
nations who live in warmer climates less attached to material things simply
because they are less important?"

"There is something in that, no doubt," said Father Payne. "Of course,
where nature is more hostile to life, men will have to work longer hours to
support life than where 'the spicy breezes blow soft o'er Ceylon's isle.'
But it isn't that of which I complain - it is the awful sense of
respectability attaching to possessions, the hideous way in which we fill
our houses with things which we do not want or use, just because they are a
symbol of respectability. We like hoarding, and we like luxuries, not
because we enjoy them, but because we like other people to know that we can
pay for them. I do not imagine that there is any nation in the world whose
hospitality differs so much from the mode in which people actually live as
ours does. In a sensible society, if we wanted to see our friends, we
should ask them to bring their cold mutton round, and have a picnic. What
we do actually do is to have a meal which we can't afford, and which our
guests know is not in the least like our ordinary meals; and then we expect
to be asked back to a similarly ostentatious banquet."

"But isn't there something," said Barthrop, "in Dr. Johnson's dictum, that
a meal was good enough to eat, but not good enough to ask a man to? Isn't
it a good impulse to put your best before a guest?"

"Oh, no doubt," said Father Payne, "but there's a want of simplicity about
it if you only want to entertain people in order that they may see you do
it, and not because you want to see them. It's vulgar, somehow - that's what
I suspect our nation of being. Our inability to speak frankly of money is
another sign. We do money too much honour by being so reticent about it.
The fact is that it is the one sacred subject among us. People are reticent
about religion and books and art, because they are not sure that other
people are interested in them. But they are reticent about money as a
matter of duty, because they are sure that everyone is deeply interested.
People talk about money with nods and winks and hints - those are all the
signs of a sacred mystery!"

"Well, I wonder," said Barthrop, "whether we are as base as you seem to
think!"

"I will tell you when I will change my mind," said Father Payne; "all the
talk of noble aims and strong purposes will not deceive me. What would
convert me would be if I saw generous giving a custom so common that it
hardly excited remark. You see a few generous _wills_ - but even then a
will which leaves money to public purposes is generally commented upon; and
it almost always means, too, if you look into it, that a man has had no
near relations, and that he has stuck to his money and the power it gives
him during his life. If I could see a few cases of men impoverishing
themselves and their families in their lifetime for public objects; if I
saw evidence of men who have heaped up wealth content to let their children
start again in the race, and determined to support the State rather than
the family; if I could hear of a rich man's children beseeching their
father to endow the State rather than themselves, and being ready to work
for a livelihood rather than to receive an inherited fortune; if I could
hear of a few rich men living simply and handing out their money for
general purposes, - then I would believe! But none of these things is
anything but a rare exception; a man who gives away his fortune, as Ruskin
did, in great handfuls, is generally thought to be slightly crazy; and,
speaking frankly, the worth of a man seems to depend not upon what he has
given to the world, but upon what he has gained from the world. You may say
it is a rough test; - so it is! But when we begin to feel that a man is
foolish in hoarding and wise in lavishing, instead of being foolish in
lavishing and wise in hoarding, then, and not till then, shall I believe
that we are a truly great nation. At present the man whom we honour most is
the man who has been generous to public necessities, and has yet retained a
large fortune for himself. That is the combination which we are not ashamed
to admire."



XXXVIII

OF LONELINESS


We were walking together, Father Payne and I. It was in the early summer - a
still, hot day. The place, as I remember it, was very beautiful. We crossed
the stream by a little foot-bridge, and took a bypath across the meadows;
up the slope you came to a beautiful bit of old forest country, the trees
of all ages, some of them very ancient; there were open glades running into
the heart of the woodland, with thorn thickets and stretches of bracken.
Hidden away in the depth of the woods, and approached only by green rides,
were the ruins of what must have been a big old Jacobean mansion; but
nothing remained of it except some grassy terraces, a bit of a fine fa√Іade
of stone with empty windows, half-hidden in ivy, and some tall stone
chimney-stacks. The forest lay silent and still; and, along one of the
branching rides, you could discern far away a glimpse of blue hills. The
scene was so entirely beautiful that we had gradually ceased to talk, and
had given ourselves up to the sweet and quiet influence of the place.

We stood for awhile upon one of the terraces, looking at the old house, and
Father Payne said, "I'm not sure that I approve of the taste for ruins;
there is something to be said for a deserted castle, because it is a
reminder that we do not need to safeguard ourselves so much against each
others' ill-will; but a roofless church or a crumbling house - there's
something sad about them. It seems to me a little like leaving a man
unburied in order that we may come and sentimentalise over his bones. It
means, this house, the decay of an old centre of life - there's nothing evil
or cruel about it, as there is about a castle; and I am not sure that it
ought not to be either repaired or removed -

"'And doorways where a bridegroom trode
Stand open to the peering air.'"

"I don't know," I said; "I'm sure that this is somehow beautiful. Can't one
feel that nature is half-tender, half-indifferent to our broken designs?"

"Perhaps," said Father Payne, "but I don't like being reminded of death and
waste - I don't want to think that they can end by being charming - the
vanity of human wishes is more sad than picturesque. I think Dr. Johnson
was right when he said, 'After all, it is a sad thing that a man should lie
down and die.'"

A little while afterwards he said, "How strange it is that the loneliness
of this place should be so delightful! I like my fellow-beings on the
whole - I don't want to avoid them or to abolish them - but yet it is one of
the greatest luxuries in the world to find a place where one is pretty sure
of not meeting one of them."

"Yes," I said, "it is very odd! I have been feeling to-day that I should
like time to stand still this summer afternoon, and to spend whole days in
rambling about here. I won't say," I said with a smile, "that I should
prefer to be quite alone; but I shouldn't mind even that in a place like
this. I never feel like that in a big town - there is always a sense of
hostile currents there. To be alone in a town is always rather melancholy;
but here it is just the reverse."

"Indeed, yes," said Father Payne, "and it is one of the great mysteries of
all to me what we really want with company. It does not actually take away
from us our sense of loneliness at all. You can't look into my mind, nor
can I look into yours; whatever we do or say to break down the veil between
us, we can't do it. And I have often been happier when alone than I have
ever been in any company."

"Isn't it a sense of security?" I said; "I suppose that it is an instinct
derived from old savage days which makes us dread other human beings. The
further back you go, the more hatred and mistrust you find; and I suppose
that the presence of a friend, or rather of someone with whom one has a
kind of understanding, gives a feeling of comparative safety against
attack."

"That's it, no doubt," said Father Payne; "but if I had to choose between
spending the rest of my life in solitude, or in spending it without a
chance of solitude, I should be in a great difficulty. I am afraid that I
regard company rather as a wholesome medicine against the evils of solitude
than I regard solitude as a relief from company. After all, what is it that
we want with each other? - what do we expect to get from each other? I
remember," he said, smiling, "a witty old lady saying to me once that
eternity was a nightmare to her. - 'For instance,' she said, 'I enjoy
sitting here and talking to you very much; but if I thought it was going on
to all eternity, I shouldn't like it at all.' Do we really want the company
of any one for ever and ever? And if so, why? Do we want to agree or to
disagree? Is the point of it that we want similarity or difference? Do we
want to hear about other people's experiences, or do we simply want to tell
our own? Is the desire, I mean, for congenial company anything more than
the pleasure of seeing our own thoughts and ideas reflected in the minds of
others; or is it a real desire to alter our own thoughts and ideas by
comparing them with the experiences of others? Why do we like books, for
instance? Isn't it more because we recognise our own feelings than because
we make acquaintance with unfamiliar feelings? It comes to this? Can we
really ever gain an idea, or can we only recognise our own ideas?"

"It is very difficult," I said; "if I answered hastily, I should say that I
liked being with you because you give me many new ideas; but if I think
about it, it seems to me that it is only because you make me recognise my
own thoughts."

"Yes," said Father Payne, "I think that is so. If I see another man
behaving well where I should behave ill, I recognise that I have all the
elements in my own mind for doing the same, but that I have given undue
weight to some of them and not enough weight to others. I don't think, on
the whole, that anyone can give one a new idea; he can only help one to a
sense of proportion. But I want to get deeper than that. You and I are
friends - at least I think so; but what exactly do we give each other? How
do you affect my solitude, or I yours? I'm blessed if I know. It looks to
me, indeed, as if you and I might be parts of one great force, one great
spirit, and that we recognise our unity, through some material condition
which keeps us apart. I am not sure that it isn't only the body that
divides us, and that we are a part of the same thing behind it all."

"But why, if that is so," said I, "do we feel a sense of unity with some
people, and not at all with others? There are people, I mean, with whom I
feel that I have simply nothing in common, and that our spirits could not
possibly mix or blend. With you, to speak frankly, it is different. I feel
as though I had known you far longer than a few months, and should never be
in any real doubt about you. I recognise myself in you and yourself in me.
But there are many people in whom I don't recognise myself at all."

Father Payne put his arm through mine, "Well, old man," he said, "we must
be content to have found each other, but we mustn't give up trying to find
other people too. I think that is what civilisation means - a mutual
recognition - we're only just at the start of it, you know. I'm in no doubt
as to what you give me - it's a sense of trust. When I think about you, I
feel, 'Come, there is someone at all events who will try to understand me
and to forgive me and to share his best with me' - but even so, my boy, I
shall enjoy being alone sometimes. I shall want to get away from everyone,
even from you! There are thoughts I cannot share with you, because I want
you to think better of me than I do of myself. I suppose that is
vanity - but still old Wordsworth was right when he wrote:

"'And many love me; but by none
Am I enough beloved.'"



XXXIX

OF THE WRITER'S LIFE


I was walking once with Father Payne in the fields, and he was talking
about the difficulties of the writer's life. He said that the great problem
for all industrious writers was how to work in such a way as not to be a
nuisance to the people they lived with. "Of course men vary very much in
their habits," he said; "but if you look at the lives of authors, they
often seem tiresome people to get on with. The difficulty is mostly this,"
he went on, "that a writer can't write to any purpose for more than about
three hours a day - if he works really hard, even that is quite enough to
tire him out. Think what the brain is doing - it is concentrated on some
idea, some scene, some situation. Take a novelist: he has to have a picture
in his mind all the time - a clear visualisation of a place - a room, a
garden, a wood; then he must know how his people move and look and speak,
and he has to fly backwards and forwards from one to another; then he has
the talk to create, and he has to be always rejecting thoughts and
impressions and words, good enough in themselves, but not characteristic.
It is a fearful strain on imagination and emotion, on phrase-making and
word-finding. The real wonder is not that a few people can do it better
than others, but that anyone can do it at all. The difference between the
worst novelist and the best is much less than the difference between the
worst novelist and the person who can't write at all.

"Well, then, there is such a thing as inspiration; most creative writers
get a book in their minds, and can think of nothing else, day and night,
while it is on. The difficulty is to know what a writer is to do in the
intervals between his books, and in the hours in which he is not writing.
He has got to take it easy somehow, and the question is what is he to do.
He can't, as a rule, do much in the way of hard exercise. Violent exercise
in the open air is pleasant enough, but it leaves the brain torpid and
stagnant. A man who really makes a business of writing has got to live
through ten or twelve hours of a day when he isn't writing. He can't afford
to read very much - at least he can't afford to read authors whom he
admires, because they affect his style. There is something horribly
contagious about style, because it is often much easier to do a thing in
someone else's way than to do it in one's own. Pater was asked once if he
had read Stevenson or Kipling, I forget which - 'Oh no, I daren't!' he said,
'I have peeped into him occasionally, but I can't afford to read him. I
have learnt exactly how I can approach and develop a subject, and if I
looked to see how he does it, I should soon lose my power. The man with a
style is debarred from reading fine books unless they are on lines entirely
apart from his own.' That is perfectly true, I expect. There is nothing so
dreadful as reading a writer whom one likes, and seeing that he has got
deflected from his manner by reading some other craftsman. The effect is a
very subtle one. If you really want to see that sort of sympathy at work,
you should look at Ruskin's letters - his letters are deeply affected by the
correspondent to whom he is writing. If he wrote to Carlyle or to Browning,
he wrote like Carlyle and Browning, because, as he wrote, they were
strongly in his mind.

"With a painter or a musician it is different - a lot of hand-work comes in
which relieves the brain, so that they can work longer hours. But a writer,
as a rule, while he is writing, can't even afford to talk very much to
interesting people, because talking is hard work too.

"Well, then, a writer, as an artistic person, is rather easily bored. He
likes vivid sensations and emphatic preferences - and it is not really good
for him to be bored; a man may read the paper, write a few letters, stroll,
garden, chatter - but if he takes his writing seriously, he must somehow be
fresh for it. It isn't easy to combine writing with any other occupation,
and it leaves many hours unoccupied.

"Carlyle is a terrible instance, because he was wretched and depressed when
he was not writing; he was melancholy, peevish, physically unwell; and when
he was writing, he was wholly absorbed very impatient of his labour, and
most intolerable. Indeed, it does not look as if the home lives of writers
have generally been very happy - there is too often a patent conspiracy to
keep the great irritable babyish giant amused - and that's a bad atmosphere
for anyone to live in - an unreal, a royal sort of atmosphere, of
deferential scheming."

I said something about Walter Scott. "Ah yes," said Father Payne, "but
Scott's work was amazing - it just seemed to overflow from a gigantic
reservoir of vitality. He could do his day's work in the early hours, and
then tramp about all day, chattering, farming, planting,
entertaining - endlessly good-humoured. Of course he wore himself out at
last by perfectly ghastly work - most of it very poor stuff. Browning and
Thackeray were men of the same sort, sociable, genial, exuberant. They
overflowed too - they didn't batter things out.

"But, as a rule, most men who want to do good work, must be content to
potter about, and seem lazy and even self-indulgent. And one of the reasons
why many men who start as promising writers come to nothing is because they
can't be inert, acquiescent, easy-going. I have often thought that a good
novel might be written about the wife of a great writer, who marries him,
dazzled by his brilliance and then finds him to be a petty, suspicious,
wayward sort of child, with all his force lying in one supreme faculty of
vision and expression. It must be a fiery trial to see deep, wise,
beautiful things produced by a man who can't _live_ his thoughts - can
only write them."

"But what should a man _do_?" I said.

"Well," said Father Payne, "I think, as a practical matter, it would be a
good thing to cultivate a hobby of a manual kind - and also, above all, the
power of genial loafing. Of course, the real pity is that we are not all
taught to do some house-work as a matter of course - we depend too much on
servants, and house-work is the natural and amusing outlet of our physical
energies; as it is, we specialise too much, and half of our maladies and
discomforts and miseries are due to that - that we work a part of ourselves
too hard, and the other parts not hard enough. The thing to aim at is
equanimity, and the existence of unsatisfied instincts in us is what
poisons life for many people."

He was silent for a little, and then he said, "And then, too, there is the
great danger of all writers - the feeling that he has the power of giving
people what they want, when he ought to remember that he has only the good
fortune of expressing what people feel. Art oughtn't to be a thing
sprinkled on life, as you shake sugar out on to a pudding - it is just a
power of disentangling things; we suffer most of us from finding life too
complicated - we don't understand it - it's a mass of confused impressions.
Well, the artist puts it all in order, isolates the important things, makes
the values distinct - he helps people to feel clearly - that's his only use.
And then, if he succeeds, there come silly flatteries and adorations - until
he gets to feel as if he were handing down pots of jam and bottles of wine
from a high shelf out of reach - until he grows to believe that he put them
there, when he only found them there. It's a dreadful thing for an artist
never to succeed at all, because then his life appears the most useless
business conceivable; but it is almost a worse thing to get to depend upon
success - and it is undeniably pleasant to be a personage, to cause a little
stir when you enter a room, to find that people know all about you and like


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Online LibraryArthur Christopher BensonFather Payne → online text (page 13 of 26)