Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter IV
|Chapter III|| Autobiography
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter IV: How to Be a Lunatic
I deal here with the darkest and most difficult part of my task; the period of youth which is full of doubts and morbidities and temptations; and which, though in my case mainly subjective, has left in my mind for ever a certitude upon the objective solidity of Sin. And before I deal with it in any detail, it is necessary to make a prefatory explanation upon one point. In the matter of religion, I have been much concerned with controversies about rather provocative problems; and have finally adopted a position which to many is itself a provocation. I have grieved my well-wishers, and many of the wise and prudent, by my reckless course in becoming a Christian, an orthodox Christian, and finally a Catholic in the sense of a Roman Catholic. Now in most of the matters of which they chiefly disapprove, I am not in the least ashamed of myself. As an apologist I am the reverse of apologetic. So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity), for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated. I am very proud of what people call priestcraft; since even that accidental term of abuse preserves the mediaeval truth that a priest, like every other man, ought to be a craftsman. I am very proud of what people call Mariolatry; because it introduced into religion in the darkest ages that element of chivalry which is now being belatedly and badly understood in the form of feminism. I am very proud of being orthodox about the mysteries of the Trinity or the Mass; I am proud of believing in the Confessional; I am proud of believing in the Papacy.
But I am not proud of believing in the Devil. To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil. I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led me to devil-worship or the devil knows what. On this doctrine, at least, there is, mingling with my knowledge, no shadow of self-satisfaction any more than of self-deception. On this one matter, a man may well be intellectually right only through being morally wrong. I am not impressed by the ethical airs and graces of sceptics on most of the other subjects. I am not over-awed by a young gentleman saying that he cannot submit his intellect to dogma; because I doubt whether he has even used his intellect enough to define dogma. I am not impressed very seriously by those who call Confession cowardly; for I gravely doubt whether they themselves would have the courage to go through with it. But when they say, "Evil is only relative. Sin is only negative. There is no positive badness; it is only the absence of positive goodness"--then I know that they are talking shallow balderdash only because they are much better men than I; more innocent and more normal and more near to God.
What I may call my period of madness coincided with a period of drifting and doing nothing; in which I could not settle down to any regular work. I dabbled in a number of things; and some of them may have had something to do with the psychology of the affair. I would not for a moment suggest it as a cause, far less as an excuse, but it is a contributory fact that among these dabblings in this dubious time, I dabbled in Spiritualism without having even the decision to be a Spiritualist. Indeed I was, in a rather unusual manner, not only detached but indifferent. My brother and I used to play with planchette, or what the Americans call the ouija board; but we were among the few, I imagine, who played in a mere spirit of play. Nevertheless I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even with hell-fire. In the words that were written for us there was nothing ostensibly degrading, but any amount that was deceiving. I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will. Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide. The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.
I will give one or two examples. We asked planchette, in our usual random fashion, what advice it would give to an acquaintance of ours, a solid and rather dull Member of Parliament who had the misfortune to be an authority on education. Planchette wrote down with brazen promptitude (in these later times it was always very prompt, though not always very clear) the simple words, "Get a divorce." The wife of the politician was so respectable, and I will add so hideous, that the materials of a scandalous romance seemed to be lacking. So we sternly enquired of our familiar spirit what the devil he meant; possibly an appropriate invocation. The result was rather curious. It wrote down very rapidly an immensely and indeed incredibly long word, which was at first quite illegible. It wrote it again; it wrote it four or five times; it was always quite obviously the same word; and towards the end it was apparent that it began with the three letters "0. R. R." I said, "This is all nonsense; there is no word in the English language beginning 0. R. R., let alone a word as long as that." Finally it tried again and wrote the word out quite clearly; and it ran, "Orriblerevelationsinighlife".
If it was our subconsciousness, our subconsciousness at least had a simple sense of humour. But that it was our subconsciousness rather than our consciousness (if it was not something outside both) is proved by the practical fact that we did go on puzzling over the written word, when it was again and again rewritten, and really never had a notion of what it was, until it burst upon us at last. Nobody who knew us, I think, would suppose us capable of playing such a long and solemn and silly deception on each other. We also, like our subconsciousness, had a sense of humour. But cases of this kind fill me with wonder and a faint alarm, when I consider the number of people who seem to be taking spirit communications seriously, and founding religions and moral philosophies upon them. There would indeed have been some Orrible Revelations in Igh Life, and some Orrible Revelations about our own mental state and moral behaviour, if we had trotted off to the M.P. with our little message from the higher sphere.
Here is another example of the same thing. My father, who was present while my brother and I were playing the fool in this fashion, had a curiosity to see whether the oracle could answer a question about something that he knew and we did not. He therefore asked the maiden name of the wife of an uncle of mine in a distant country; a lady whom we of the younger generation had never known. With the lightning decision of infallibility, the spirit pen said, "Manning". With equal decision my father said, "Nonsense". We then reproached our tutelary genius with its lamentable romancing and its still more lamentable rashness. The spirit, never to be beaten, wrote down the defiant explanation, "Married before". And to whom, we asked with some sternness, had our remote but respected aunt been secretly married before. The inspired instrument instantly answered, "Cardinal Manning".
Now I will pause here in passing to ask what exactly would have happened to me and my social circle, what would have ultimately been the state of my mind or my general conception of the world in which I lived, if I had taken these spiritual revelations as some spiritualists seem to take some spiritual revelations; in short, if we had taken them seriously? Whether this sort of thing be the pranks of some Puck or Poltergeist, or the jerks of some subliminal sense, or the mockery of demons or anything else, it obviously is not true in the sense of trustworthy. Anybody who had trusted it as true would have landed very near to a lunatic asylum. And when it comes to selecting a spiritual philosophy, among the sects and schools of the modern world these facts can hardly be entirely forgotten. Curiously enough, as I have already recorded, Cardinal Manning had crossed my path as a sort of flaming wraith even in my childhood. Cardinal Manning's portrait hangs now at the end of my room as a symbol of a spiritual state which many would call my second childhood. But anyone would admit that both states are rather saner than my condition would have been, had I begun to dig up The Crime of the Cardinal, by delving in the distant past of a colonial aunt.
Well, even the guidance of higher and wiser intelligences in a better world did not drive me quite so raving mad as that. But I have sometimes fancied since that this practice, of the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time. I would not dogmatise either way; it is possible that it had nothing to do with it; it is possible that the whole thing was merely mechanical or accidental. I would leave planchette with a playful farewell, giving her the benefit of the doubt; I would allow that she may have been a joke or a fancy or a fairy or anything else; with the proviso that I would not touch her again with a barge-pole. There are other aspects, concerning things much more my own fault, in which a barge-pole would have been useful; but I may as well finish here the trail of my merely trivial and accidental relations to psychical research; as there will be no need to return to that aspect of it; and I should never think of judging it seriously by such trifles. This progress of the preternatural has gone on spreading and strengthening through my whole life. Indeed my life happens to cover the precise period of the real change; not realised by those occupied only with later changes or alternative spiritual solutions. When I was quite a boy, practically no normal person of education thought that a ghost could possibly be anything but a turnip-ghost; a thing believed in by nobody but the village idiot. When I was a young man, practically every person with a large circle had one or two friends with a fancy for what would still have been called mediums and moonshine. When I was middle-aged, great men of science of the first rank like Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge claimed to have studied spirits as they might have studied spiders, and discovered ectoplasm exactly as they discovered protoplasm. At the time I write, the thing has grown into a considerable religious movement, by the activity of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, much less of a scientist, but much more of a journalist. I hope nobody will think me such a fool as to offer these fragments of random experience as affecting the real controversy. In the controversy, indeed, through most of my life, I have defended Spiritualism against scepticism; though I should now naturally defend Catholicism even against Spiritualism. But in the times of which I am writing, little crossed our path except stray stories; and the phantoms were sometimes rather phantasmal. There was some talk of wraiths or presences precipitated into distant places, which included a story about a man seen going into a public house who afterwards testified that he had not been present in the body in any such place or for any such errand. There were plenty of other and more plausible stories, which my brother and I repeated with a sort of vague vicarious excitement, without any definite deduction or doctrine; but my father, whose placid Victorian agnosticism on the point we strove in vain to pierce, would listen to a roll of spiritual revelations and shake his head and say, "Ah, it s all very well to talk about these lights and trumpets and voices; but I pin my faith to the man who said he didn't go into the public-house."
Most of this happened when I was at the art school; but even when I had left it, this very casual connection was continued, in a queer way, by the coincidence that I worked for a short time in the office of a publisher who rather specialised in spiritualistic and theosophical literature, known under the general title of the occult. It was not entirely my fault, if it was not the fault of the real spiritualists or other real spirits, if I blundered into rather queer and uncomfortable corners of Spiritualism. On my first day in the office I had my first insight into the occult; for I was very vague about the business, as about most other businesses. I knew we had just published a big and vigorously boomed book of the Life and Letters of the late Dr. Anna Kingsford, of whom I had never heard, though many of our customers seemed to have heard of hardly anybody else. My full enlightenment came when a distraught lady darted into the office and began to describe her most complex spiritual symptoms and to demand the books most suited to her complaint, which I was quite incompetent to select. I timidly offered the monumental Life and Letters; but she shrank away with something like a faint shriek. "No, no," she cried, "I mustn't! Anna Kingsford says I mustn't." Then, with more control, "Anna Kingsford told me this morning that I must not read her Life; it would be very bad for me, she said, to read her Life." I ventured to say, or stammer, with all the crudity of common speech, "But Anna Kingsford is dead." "She told me this morning," repeated the lady, "that I must not read the book." "Well," I said, "I hope Dr. Kingsford hasn't been giving that advice to many people; it would be rather bad for the business. It seems rather malicious of Dr. Kingsford."
I soon found that malicious was a mild word for Dr. Anna Kingsford. With all respect to her shade, which is to me the shadow of a shade, I should have said then, and I think I should say now, that the more charitable word was "mad." I mention the matter here because, while it involves no contradiction of the cosmic theory of Spiritualism, it does illustrate the accident by which I bumped into a queer sort of Spiritualist; and it has some relation to a more general view of reason and religion. The lady celebrated in this book was at least queer. Her boast was that she had killed a number of men merely by thinking about them; her excuse was that they were men who defended vivisection. She also had very visionary but very intimate interviews with various eminent public men, apparently in places of torment; I remember one with Mr. Gladstone, in which a discussion about Ireland and the Sudan was interrupted by Mr. Gladstone gradually growing red-hot from inside. "Feeling that he would wish to be alone," said Dr. Anna Kingsford with delicacy, "I passed out"; and she must now, I fear, pass out of this fragmentary narrative. I hope I do her no injustice; I am fairly sure she was full of many generous enthusiasms; but I pin my faith, as my father would say, to that fine tact and sense of social decorum, which told her that turning completely red-hot is what no gentleman would desire to do in the presence of a lady.
On the whole, the jolliest Spiritualist I ever met, at least until long afterwards, and the psychic enquirer for whom I felt the most immediate sympathy, was a man who firmly believed that he had once got a successful tip for the Derby out of some medium somewhere, and was still pursuing mediums for information of the same kind. I suggested to him that he should purchase The Pink 'un and turn it into a paper combining the two interests, and sold at every bookstall under the name of The Sporting and Spiritual Times. This, I said, could not fail to lift bookmakers and jockeys into a loftier sphere of spiritual contemplation, not to mention owners, who probably need it quite as much; while it would give to Spiritualism a sound, shrewd and successful business side, vastly increase its popularity, and give to some of its followers an indefinable air of contact with concrete objective matters and what is coarsely called common sense, which some of them, as I felt at the time, seemed in some fashion to lack. I need not speculate on it here.
For the rest, while I am on the topic, I may assure the reader that I have never experienced anything called psychical, which might be a desperate excuse for my subsequent belief in the things called spiritual. I have hardly happened to strike even the queer psychic coincidences that strike almost anybody; unless we count the story treasured in my household as that of the Wraith of Sarolea. Dr. Sarolea, that fiery Flemish Professor of French, is certainly one of the most striking men I have known; but he never struck my path till long afterwards; but it is undoubtedly the fact that we were expecting him to dinner and my wife beheld the unmistakable long figure and pointed beard from a window; after which he vanished utterly from the landscape. What made the story really creepy was that just afterwards a very young Scotsman appeared at the door, asking for Dr. Sarolea. The Scotsman remained to dinner; but not the wraith. He was to have come down with the wraith; who (as it turned out afterwards) had awaited him with some irritation at the National Liberal Club. One theory was that his rage had precipitated his astral body down to Beaconsfield, but was spent just before he reached the house. Another obvious theory, which my more materialistic mind naturally preferred, was that he had been murdered by the young man and hidden in the pond in my garden; but subsequent detective search found this to be unsound. I only mention my alternative theory, which I very much prefer, because it is impossible to mention Dr. Sarolea, even at this premature stage of the story, without saying something about him. Dr. Sarolea is one of the most learned linguists in Europe; he learns a new language every week or so. His library is one of the wonders of the world, not to say the monstrosities of the world. When last I saw him he gave me the impression of buying the neighbouring houses right and left to find room for his library. What, I asked myself, what is more probable than that a man of this sort should find himself in later life in the exact position of Faust? And what is more reasonable, what more probable, than that Mephistopheles should have met him at the corner of the road as he came up from Beaconsfield station; and propounded the old contract, by which, with a single blast of magic, he should be turned into the handsome young man who a moment later was knocking at my door? This psychic theory would be supported by the fact that the young man is now doing well in politics; and quite unshaken, of course, by the fact that Dr. Sarolea (I am happy to say) is still alive and active in Edinburgh. The only difficulty about it is one which also affects my triumphant theory that Shakespeare wrote Bacon (controversially far stronger than the converse), which paralysed my father's faith in the story of the public-house; and leads me to suspect that this rather odd incident was one of those fairly ordinary oddities; as when we mistake a stranger for a friend; and then meet the friend afterwards. In short, the only objection to my complete and convincing psychic theory is that I do not believe a word of it.
All this, of course, happened ages afterwards: I only mention it here in order to disclaim any intention of taking my psychic experience seriously. But touching that early period directly described in this chapter, I have the same reason for alluding to the topic. I merely begin with this example of amateur psychical research, because the very fact that I indulged in it without reason and without result, that I did not come to any conclusion, or really even try to come to any conclusion, illustrates the fact that this is a period of life in which the mind is merely dreaming and drifting; and often drifting onto very dangerous rocks.
In this chapter, the period covered is roughly that of my going to an art school and is doubtless also coloured by the conditions of such a place. There is nothing harder to learn than painting and nothing which most people take less trouble about learning. An art school is a place where about three people work with feverish energy and everybody else idles to a degree that I should have conceived unattainable by human nature. Moreover those who work are, I will not say the least intelligent, but, by the very nature of the case, for the moment the most narrow; those whose keen intelligence is for the time narrowed to a strictly technical problem. They do not want to be discursive and philosophical; because the trick they are trying to learn is at once incommunicable and practical; like playing the violin Thus philosophy is generally left to the idle; and it is generally a very idle philosophy. In the time of which I write it was also a very negative and even nihilistic philosophy. And though I never accepted it altogether, it threw a shadow over my mind and made me feel that the most profitable and worthy ideas were, as it were on the defensive. I shall have more to say of this aspect of the matter later on; the point is for the moment that an art school can be a very idle place and that I was then a very idle person.
Art may be long but schools of art are short and very fleeting, and there have been five or six since I attended an art school. Mine was the time of Impressionism; and nobody dared to dream there could be such a thing as Post-Impressionism or Post-Post-Impressionism. The very latest thing was to keep abreast of Whistler and take him by the white forelock, as if he were Time himself. Since then that conspicuous white forelock has rather faded into a harmony of white and grey and what was once so young has in its turn grown hoary. But 1 think there was a spiritual significance in Impressionism, in connection with this age as the age of scepticism. I mean that it illustrated scepticism in the sense of subjectivism. Its principal was that if all that could be seen of a cow was a white line and a purple shadow, we should only render the line and the shadow; in a sense we should only believe in the line and the shadow, rather than in the cow. In one sense the Impressionist sceptic contradicted the poet who said he had never seen a purple cow. He tended rather to say that he had only seen a purple cow; or rather that he had not seen the cow but only the purple. Whatever may be the merits of this method of art, there is obviously something highly subjective and sceptical about it as a method of thought. It naturally lends itself to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all. The philosophy of Impressionism is necessarily close to the philosophy of Illusion. And this atmosphere also tended to contribute, however indirectly, to a certain mood of unreality and sterile isolation that settled at this time upon me; and I think upon many others.
What surprises me in looking back on youth, and even on boyhood, is the extreme rapidity with which it can think its way back to fundamental things; and even to the denial of fundamental things. At a very early age I had thought my way back to thought itself. It is a very dreadful thing to do; for it may lead to thinking that there is nothing but thought. At this time I did not very clearly distinguish between dreaming and waking; not only as a mood but as a metaphysical doubt, I felt as if everything might be a dream. It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad. Yet I was not mad, in any medical or physical sense; I was simply carrying the scepticism of my time as far as it would go. And I soon found it would go a great deal further than most of the sceptics went. While dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind. I have always felt that there was something thin and third-rate about materialists and materialism ever since. The atheist told me so pompously that he did not believe there was any God; and there were moments when I did not even believe there was any atheist.
And as with mental, so with moral extremes. There is something truly menacing in the thought of how quickly I could imagine the maddest, when I had never committed the mildest crime. Something may have been due to the atmosphere of the Decadents, and their perpetual hints of the luxurious horrors of paganism; but I am not disposed to dwell much on that defence; I suspect I manufactured most of my morbidities for myself. But anyhow, it is true that there was a time when I had reached that condition of moral anarchy within, in which a man says, in the words of Wilde, that "Atys with the blood-stained knife were better than the thing I am". I have never indeed felt the faintest temptation to the particular madness of Wilde; but I could at this time imagine the worst and wildest disproportions and distortions of more normal passion; the point is that the whole mood was overpowered and oppressed with a sort of congestion of imagination. As Bunyan, in his morbid period, described himself as prompted to utter blasphemies, I had an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible ideas and images; plunging in deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide. I had never heard of Confession, in any serious sense, in those days; but that is what is really needed in such cases. I fancy they are not uncommon cases. Anyhow, the point is here that I dug quite low enough to discover the devil; and even in some dim way to recognise the devil. At least I never, even in this first vague and sceptical stage, indulged very much in the current arguments about the relativity of evil or the unreality of sin. Perhaps, when I eventually emerged as a sort of theorist, and was described as an Optimist, it was because I was one of the few people in that world of diabolism who really believed in devils.
In truth, the story of what was called my Optimism was rather odd. When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare. The mere fact that one could wave one's arms and legs about (or those dubious external objects in the landscape which were called one's arms and legs) showed that it had not the mere paralysis of a nightmare. Or if it was a nightmare, it was an enjoyable nightmare. In fact, I had wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation if he were a lost soul. I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered. This way of looking at things, with a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude, was of course, to some extent assisted by those few of the fashionable writers who were not pessimists; especially by Walt Whitman, by Browning and by Stevenson; Browning's "God must be glad one loves his world so much", or Stevenson's "belief in the ultimate decency of things". But I do not think it is too much to say that I took it in a way of my own; even if it was a way I could not see clearly or make very clear. What I meant, whether or no I managed to say it, was this; that no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. There were other aspects of this feeling, and other arguments about it, to which I shall have to return. Here it is only a necessary part of the narrative; as it involves the fact that, when I did begin to write, I was full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.
Thus, among the juvenile verses I began to write about this time was one called "The Babe Unborn", which imagined the uncreated creature crying out for existence and promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life. Another conceived the scoffer as begging God to give him eyes and lips and a tongue that he might mock the giver of them; a more angry version of the same fancy. And I think it was about this time that I thought of the notion afterwards introduced into a tale called Manalive; of a benevolent being who went about with a pistol, which he would suddenly point at a pessimist, when that philosopher said that life was not worth living. This was not printed until long afterwards; but the verses were collected into a little volume; and my father was so imprudent as to help me to get them published under the title of The Wild Knight. And this is an important part of the story, in so far as any part of the story is important, because it did involve my introduction to literature and even to literary men.
My little volume of verse was reviewed with warm and almost overwhelming generosity by Mr. James Douglas, then almost entirely known as a leading literary critic. Impetuosity as well as generosity was always one of Mr. Douglas's most attractive qualities. And he insisted, for some reason, on affirming positively that there was no such person as G. K. Chesterton; that the name was obviously a nom de plume; that the work was obviously not that of a novice but a successful writer; and finally that it could be none other than Mr. John Davidson. This naturally brought an indignant denial from Mr. John Davidson. That spirited poet very legitimately thanked the Lord that he had never written such nonsense; and I for one very heartily sympathised with him. Not very long afterwards, when Mr. John Lane had accepted the manuscript of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I was lunching with that publisher and fell into a very pleasant conversation with a fair-haired young man on my left, a little older than myself. A more odd-looking man, a little like an elf, bald, black-haired and with a Mephistophelean tuft and monocle, joined in the conversation across the table; and we found that we agreed on a large number of literary subjects and formed, I think I may say, a lasting liking for each other. It was only afterwards that I discovered that the first man was Mr. James Douglas and the second man was Mr. John Davidson.
I am here advancing my story along the literary line, to a point which I have not yet reached on other lines that were rather political or social; but, for the sake of convenience, I may as well complete this part of my rather erratic development here. Perhaps the next most important accident that favoured me, and brought me into relation with the world of letters, was the fact that I wrote a long review on a book about Stevenson; perhaps the first of the rather stupid books written to belittle Stevenson. I defended Stevenson with so much vehemence, not to say violence, that I had the good fortune to attract the attention of very distinguished writers who, though themselves certainly neither violent nor vehement, were very specially Stevensonian. I received a charming letter, and later a great deal of hospitality and encouragement, from Sir Sidney Colvin; to whose house I often went, where I had the pleasure of meeting the lady who was afterwards Lady Colvin, and where I heard Stephen Phillips read aloud his play of "Ulysses". Nobody could have been more magnanimous and considerate than Colvin always was to me; but I think we could never have been at one, as he was at one with Stevenson or even Stephen Phillips. For, except on the subject of Stevenson, we differed upon every subject in earth and heaven; he was both Imperialist in politics and Rationalist in religion; and with all his frigid refinement, he was whatever he was with an unquenchable pertinacity. He hated Radicals and Christian mystics and romantic sympathisers with small nationalities, and in fact everything that I had any tendency to be. But the same link of the love of Stevenson attached me a little later to another very eminent man of letters; Sir Edmund Gosse. In some way I always felt far more at home with Sir Edmund Gosse; because he despised all opinions and not merely my opinions. He had an extraordinary depth of geniality in his impartial cynicism. He had the art of snubbing without sneering. We always felt that he had not enjoyed snubbing but the snub itself, as a sort of art for art's sake, a million miles from any personal malice. It was all the more artistic because of the courtly and silken manner that he commonly assumed. I was very fond of him; and it gives me great happiness to think that one of the last things he must have done was to write me a letter thanking me for another and much later vindication of Stevenson, in a book I wrote long afterwards, indeed only a few years ago. In this letter he said of Stevenson, with a very powerful simplicity coming from such a man, "I loved him; I love him still." I have no right to use such strong terms in my case; but I feel something like that about Gosse.
About this time I discovered the secret of amiability in another person with a rather misleading reputation for acidity. Mr. Max Beerbohm asked me to lunch; and I have ever since known that he is himself the most subtle of his paradoxes. A man with his reputation might well find offence in the phrase amiability; I can only explain to so scholarly a wit that I put it in Latin or French because I dare not put it in English. Max played in the masquerade of his time, which he has described so brilliantly; and he dressed or overdressed the part. His name was supposed to be a synonym for Impudence; for the undergraduate who exhibited the cheek of a guttersnipe in the garb of a dandy. He was supposed to blow his own trumpet with every flourish of self-praise; countless stories were told about the brazen placidity of his egoism. How, when he had hardly written anything more than a few schoolboy essays, he bound them under the stately title of "The Works of Max Beerbohm." How he projected a series of biographies called "Brothers of Great Men;" the first volume being "Herbert Beerbohm Tree." And the first moment I heard his voice, or caught sight of the expression of his eyes, I knew that all this was the flat contrary of the truth. Max was and is a remarkably humble man, for a man of his gifts and his period. I have never known him, by a single phrase or intonation, claim to know more or judge better than he does; or indeed half so much or so well as he does. Most men spread themselves a little in conversation, and have their unreal victories and vanities; but he seems to me more moderate and realistic about himself than about anything else. He is more sceptical about everything than I am, by temper; but certainly he does not indulge in the base idolatry of believing in himself. On this point I wish I were so good a Christian as he. I hope, for the sake of his official or public personality, that he will manage to live down this last affront. But the people who could not see this fact, because an intelligent undergraduate enjoyed an intellectual rag, have something to learn about the possible combination of humility and humour.
Finally, a crown of what I can only call respectability came to me from the firm of Macmillan; in the form of a very flattering invitation to write the study of Browning for the English Men of Letters Series. It had just arrived when I was lunching with Max Beerbohm, and he said to me in a pensive way: "A man ought to write on Browning while he is young." No man knows he is young while he is young. I did not know what Max meant at the time; but I see now that he was right; as he generally is. Anyhow, I need not say that I accepted the invitation to write a book on Browning. I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong. But there is something buried somewhere in the book; though I think it is rather my boyhood than Browning's biography.
I have pursued this literary part of my own biography in advance of the rest. But long before this it was apparent that the centre of gravity in my existence had shifted from what we will (for the sake of courtesy) call Art to what we will (for the sake of courtesy) call Literature. The agent in this change of intention was, in the first instance, my friend Ernest Hodder Williams, afterwards the head of the well-known publishing firm. He was attending Latin and English lectures at University College while I was attending, or not attending, to the art instructions of the Slade School. I joined him in following the English course; and for this reason I am able to boast myself among the many pupils who are grateful to the extraordinarily lively and stimulating learning of Professor W.P. Ker. Most of the other students were studying for examinations; but I had not even that object in this objectless period of my life. The result was that I gained an entirely undeserved reputation for disinterested devotion to culture for its own sake; and I once had the honour of constituting the whole of Professor Ker's audience. But he gave as thorough and thoughtful a lecture as I have ever heard given, in a slightly more colloquial style; asked me some questions about my reading; and, on my mentioning something from the poetry of Pope, said with great satisfaction, "Ah, I see you have been well brought up." Pope had much less than justice from that generation of the admirers of Shelley and Swinburne. Hodder Williams and I often talked about literature, following on these literary lectures; and he conceived a fixed notion that I could write; a delusion which he retained to the day of his death. In consequence of this, and in connection with my art studies, he gave me some books on art to review for the Bookman, the famous organ of his firm and family. I need not say that having entirely failed to learn how to draw or paint, I tossed off easily enough some criticisms of the weaker points of Rubens or the misdirected talents of Tintoretto. I had discovered the easiest of all professions; which I have pursued ever since.
When I look back on these things, and indeed on my life generally, the thing that strikes me most is my extraordinary luck. I have already pleaded for the merits of the Moral Tale; but it is against all the proper principles that even any such measure of good fortune should have come to the Idle Apprentice. In the case of my association with Hodder Williams, it was against all reason that so unbusinesslike a person should have so businesslike a friend. In the case of the choice of a trade, it was outrageously unjust that a man should succeed in becoming a journalist merely by failing to become an artist. I say a trade and not a profession; for the only thing I can say for myself, in connection with both trades, is that I was never pompous about them. If I have had a profession, at least I have never been a professor. But in another sense there was about these first stages an element of luck, and even of accident. I mean that my mind remained very much abstracted and almost stunned; and these opportunities were merely things that happened to me, almost like calamities. To say that I was not ambitious makes it sound far too like a virtue, when it really was a not very disgraceful defect; it was that curious blindness of youth which we can observe in others and yet never explain in ourselves. But, above all, I mention it here also because it was connected with the continuity of that unresolved riddle of the mind, which I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. The essential reason was that my eyes were turned inwards rather than outwards; giving my moral personality, I should imagine, a very unattractive squint. I was still oppressed with the metaphysical nightmare of negations about mind and matter, with the morbid imagery of evil, with the burden of my own mysterious brain and body; but by this time I was in revolt against them; and trying to construct a healthier conception of cosmic life, even if it were one that should err on the side of health. I even called myself an optimist, because I was so horribly near to being a pessimist. It is the only excuse I can offer. All this part of the process was afterwards thrown up in the very formless form of a piece of fiction called The Man Who Was Thursday. The title attracted some attention at the time; and there were many journalistic jokes about it. Some, referring to my supposed festive views, affected to mistake it for "The Man Who Was Thirsty." Others naturally supposed that Man Thursday was the black brother of Man Friday. Others again, with more penetration, treated it as a mere title out of topsy-turveydom; as if it had been "The Woman Who Was Half-past Eight," or "The Cow Who Was Tomorrow Evening." But what interests me about it was this; that hardly anybody who looked at the title ever seems to have looked at the sub-title; which was "A Nightmare," and the answer to a good many critical questions.
I pause upon the point here, because it is of some importance to the understanding of that time. I have often been asked what I mean by the monstrous pantomime ogre who was called Sunday in that story; and some have suggested, and in one sense not untruly, that he was meant for a blasphemous version of the Creator. But the point is that the whole story is a nightmare of things, not as they are, but as they seemed to the young half-pessimist of the '90s; and the ogre who appears brutal but is also cryptically benevolent is not so much God, in the sense of religion or irreligion, but rather Nature as it appears to the pantheist, whose pantheism is struggling out of pessimism. So far as the story had any sense in it, it was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was not so black as it was already painted. I explained that the whole thing was thrown out in the nihilism of the '90s in the dedicatory lines which I wrote to my friend Bentley, who had been through the same period and problems; asking rhetorically: "Who shall understand but you?" In reply to which a book-reviewer very sensibly remarked that if nobody understood the book except Mr. Bentley, it seemed unreasonable to ask other people to read it.
But I speak of it here because, though it came at the beginning of the story, it was destined to take on another meaning before the end of it. Without that distant sequel, the memory may appear as meaningless as the book; but for the moment I can only leave on record here the two facts to which I managed somehow and in some sense to testify. First, I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good. I did not so much mind the pessimist who complained that there was so little good. But I was furious, even to slaying, with the pessimist who asked what was the good of good. And second, even in the earliest days and even for the worst reasons, I already knew too much to pretend to get rid of evil. I introduced at the end one figure who really does, with a full understanding, deny and defy the good. Long afterwards Father Ronald Knox told me, in his whimsical manner, that he was sure that the rest of the book would be used to prove that I was a Pantheist and a Pagan, and that the Higher Critics of the future would easily show that the episode of the Accuser was an interpolation by priests.
This was not the case; in fact it was quite the other way. At this time I should have been quite as annoyed as anybody else for miles round, if I had found a priest interfering with my affairs or interpolating things in my manuscript. I put that statement into that story, testifying to the extreme evil (which is merely the unpardonable sin of not wishing to be pardoned), not because I had learned it from any of the million priests whom I had never met, but because I had learned it from myself. I was already quite certain that I could if I chose cut myself off from the whole life of the universe. My wife, when asked who converted her to Catholicism, always answers, "the devil".
But all that was so long afterwards, that it has no relation to the groping and guesswork philosophy of the story in question. I would much rather quote a tribute from a totally different type of man, who was nevertheless one of the very few men who, for some reason or other, have ever made head or tail of this unfortunate romance of my youth. He was a distinguished psychoanalyst, of the most modern and scientific sort. He was not a priest; far from it; we might say, like the Frenchman asked if he had lunched on the boat, "au contraire". He did not believe in the Devil; God forbid, if there was any God to forbid. But he was a very keen and eager student of his own subject; and he made my hair stand on end by saying that he had found my very juvenile story useful as a corrective among his morbid patients; especially the process by which each of the diabolical anarchs turns out to be a good citizen in disguise. "I know a number of men who nearly went mad," he said quite gravely, "but were saved because they had really understood The Man Who Was Thursday." He must have been rather generously exaggerative; he may have been mad himself, of course; but then so was I. But I confess it flatters me to think that, in this my period of lunacy, I may have been a little useful to other lunatics.