Escape and Other Essays by Arthur Christopher Benson

Escape and Other Essays by Arthur Christopher Benson

I

ESCAPE

All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality—the story of an escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times—how to escape. The stories of Joseph, of Odysseus, of the prodigal son, of the Pilgrim’s Progress, of the “Ugly Duckling,” of Sintram, to name only a few out of a great number, they are all stories of escapes. It is the same with all love- stories. “The course of true love never can run smooth,” says the old proverb, and love-stories are but tales of a man or a woman’s escape from the desert of lovelessness into the citadel of love. Even tragedies like those of OEdipus and Hamlet have the same thought in the background. In the tale of OEdipus, the old blind king in his tattered robe, who had committed in ignorance such nameless crimes, leaves his two daughters and the attendants standing below the old pear-tree and the marble tomb by the sacred fountain; he says the last faint words of love, till the voice of the god comes thrilling upon the air:

“OEdipus, why delayest thou?”

Then he walks away at once in silence, leaning on the arm of Theseus, and when at last the watchers dare to look, they see Theseus afar off, alone, screening his eyes with his hand, as if some sight too dreadful for mortal eyes had passed before him; but OEdipus is gone, and not with lamentation, but in hope and wonder. Even when Hamlet dies, and the peal of ordnance is shot off, it is to congratulate him upon his escape from unbearable woe; and that is the same in life. If our eye falls on the sad stories of men and women who have died by their own hand, how seldom do they speak in the scrawled messages they leave behind them as though they were going to silence and nothingness! It is just the other way. The unhappy fathers and mothers who, maddened by disaster, kill their children are hoping to escape with those they love best out of miseries they cannot bear; they mean to fly together, as Lot fled with his daughters from the city of the plain. The man who slays himself is not the man who hates life; he only hates the sorrow and the shame which make unbearable that life which he loves only too well. He is trying to migrate to other conditions; he desires to live, but he cannot live so. It is the imagination of man that makes him seek death; only the animal endures, but man hurries away in the hope of finding something better.

It is, however, strange to reflect how weak man’s imagination is when it comes to deal with what is beyond him, how little able he is to devise anything that he desires to do when he has escaped from life. The unsubstantial heaven of a Buddhist, with its unthinkable Nirvana, is merely the depriving life of all its attributes; the dull sensuality of the Mohammedan paradise, with its ugly multiplication of gross delights; the tedious outcries of the saints in light which make the medieval scheme of heaven into one protracted canticle—these are all deeply unattractive, and have no power at all over the vigorous spirit. Even the vision of Socrates, the hope of unrestricted converse with great minds, is a very unsatisfying thought, because it yields so little material to work upon.

The fact, of course, is that it is just the variety of experience which makes life interesting,—toil and rest, pain and relief, hope and satisfaction, danger and security,—and if we once remove the idea of vicissitude from life, it all becomes an indolent and uninspiring affair. It is the process of change which is delightful, the finding out what we can do and what we cannot, going from ignorance to knowledge, from clumsiness to skill; even our relations with those whom we love are all bound up with the discoveries we make about them and the degree in which we can help them and affect them. What the mind instinctively dislikes is stationariness; and an existence in which there was nothing to escape from, nothing more to hope for, to learn, to desire, would be frankly unendurable.

The reason why we dread death is because it seems to be a suspension of all our familiar activities. It would be terrible to have nothing but memory to depend upon. The only use of memory is that it distracts us a little from present conditions if they are dull, and it is only too true that the recollection in sorrow of happy things is torture of the worst kind.

Once when Tennyson was suffering from a dangerous illness, his friend Jowett wrote to Lady Tennyson to suggest that the poet might find comfort in thinking of all the good he had done. But that is not the kind of comfort that a sufferer desires; we may envy a good man his retrospect of activity, but we cannot really suppose that to meditate complacently upon what one has been enabled to do is the final thought that a good man is likely to indulge. He is far more likely to torment himself over all that he might have done.

It is true, I think, that old and tired people pass into a quiet serenity; but it is the serenity of the old dog who sleeps in the sun, wags his tail if he is invited to bestir himself, but does not leave his place; and if one reaches that condition, it is but a dumb gratitude at the thought that nothing more is expected of the worn-out frame and fatigued mind. But no one, I should imagine, really hopes to step into immortality so tired and worn out that the highest hope that he can frame is that he will be let alone for ever. We must not trust the drowsiness of the outworn spirit to frame the real hopes of humanity. If we believe that the next experience ahead of us is like that of the mariners,

     In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon,

then we acquiesce in a dreamless sort of sleep as the best hope of man.

No, we must rather trust the desires of the spirit at its healthiest and most vigorous, and these are all knit up with the adventure of escape, as I have said. There is something hostile on our track: the copse that closes in upon the road is thick with spears; presences that do not wish us well move darkly in the wood and keep pace with us, and the only explanation we can give is that we need to be spurred on by fear if we are not drawn forward by desire or hope. We have to keep moving, and if we will not run to the goal, we must at least flee, with backward glances at something which threatens us.

There is an old and strange Eastern allegory of a man wandering in the desert; he draws near to a grove of trees, when he suddenly becomes aware that there is a lion on his track, hurrying and bounding along on the scent of his steps. The man flees for safety into the grove; he sees there a roughly built water-tank of stone, excavated in the ground, and built up of masonry much fringed with plants. He climbs swiftly down to where he sees a ledge close on the water; as he does this, he sees that in the water lies a great lizard, with open jaws, watching him with wicked eyes. He stops short, and he can just support himself among the stones by holding on to the branches of a plant which grows from a ledge above him. While he thus holds on, with death behind him and before, he feels the branches quivering, and sees above, out of reach, two mice, one black and one white, which are nibbling at the stems he holds and will soon sever them. He waits despairingly, and while he does so, he sees that there are drops of honey on the leaves which he holds; he puts his lips to them, licks them off, and finds them very sweet.

The mice stand, no doubt, for night and day, and the honey is the sweetness of life, which it is possible to taste and relish even when death is before and behind; and it is true that the utter precariousness of life does not, as a matter of fact, distract us from the pleasure of it, even though the strands to which we hold are slowly parting. It is all, then, an adventure and an escape; but even in the worst insecurity, we may often be surprised to find that it is somehow sweet.

It is not in the least a question of the apparent and outward adventurousness of one’s life. Foolish people sometimes write and think as though one could not have had adventures unless one has hung about at bar-room doors and in billiard-saloons, worked one’s passage before the mast in a sailing-ship, dug for gold among the mountains, explored savage lands, shot strange animals, fared hardly among deep-drinking and loud-swearing men. It is possible, of course, to have adventures of this kind, and, indeed, I had a near relative whose life was fuller of vicissitudes than any life I have ever known: he was a sailor, a clerk, a policeman, a soldier, a clergyman, a farmer, a verger. But the mere unsettledness of it suited him: he was an easy comrade, brave, reckless, restless; he did not mind roughness, and the one thing he could not do was to settle down to anything regular and quiet. He did not dislike life at all, even when he stood half-naked, as he once told me he did, on a board slung from the side of a ship, and dipped up pails of water to swab it, the water freezing as he flung it on the timbers. But with all this variety of life he did not learn anything particular from it all; he was much the same always, good-natured, talkative, childishly absorbed, not looking backward or forward, and fondest of telling stories with sailors in an inn. He learned to be content in most companies and to fare roughly; but he gained neither wisdom nor humour, and he was not either happy or independent, though he despised with all his heart the stay-at- home, stick-in-the-mud life.

But we are not all made like this, and it is only possible for a few people to live so by the fact that most people prefer to stay at home and do the work of the world. My cousin was not a worker, and, indeed, did no work except under compulsion and in order to live; but such people seem to belong to an older order, and are more like children playing about, and at leisure to play because others work to feed and clothe them. The world would be a wretched and miserable place if all tried to live life on those lines.

It would be impossible to me to live so, though I dare say I should be a better man if I had had a little more hardship of that kind; but I have worked hard in my own way, and though I have had few hairbreadth escapes, yet I have had sharp troubles and slow anxieties. I have been like the man in the story, between the lion and the lizard for many months together; and I have had more to bear, by temperament and fortune, than my roving cousin ever had to endure; so that because a life seems both sheltered and prosperous, it need not therefore have been without its adventures and escapes and its haunting fears.

The more one examines into life and the motives of it, the more does one perceive that the imagination, concerning itself with hopes of escape from any conditions which hamper and confine us, is the dynamic force that is transmuting the world. The child is for ever planning what it will do when it is older, and dreams of an irresponsible choice of food and an unrestrained use of money; the girl schemes to escape from the constraints of home by independence or marriage; the professional man plans to make a fortune and retire; the mother dreams ambitious dreams for her children; the politician craves for power; the writer hopes to gain the ear of the world—these are only a few casual instances of the desire that is always at work within us, projecting us into a larger and freer future out of the limited and restricted present. That is the real current of the world, and though there are sedate people who are contented with life as they see it, yet in most minds there is a fluttering of little tremulous hopes forecasting ease and freedom; and there are also many tired and dispirited people who are not content with life as they have it, but acquiesce in its dreariness; yet all who have any part in the world’s development are full of schemes for themselves and others by which the clogging and detaining elements are somehow to be improved away. Sensitive people want to find life more harmonious and beautiful, healthy people desire a more continuous sort of holiday than they can attain, religious people long for a secret ecstasy of peace; there is, in fact, a constant desire at work to realise perfection.

And yet, despite it all, there is a vast preponderance of evidence which shows us that the attainment of our little dreams is not a thing to be desired, and that satisfied desire is the least contented of moods. If we realise our programme, if we succeed, marry the woman we love, make a fortune, win leisure, gain power, a whole host of further desires instantly come in sight. I once congratulated a statesman on a triumphant speech.

“Yes,” he said, “I do not deny that it is a pleasure to have had for once the exact effect that one intended to have; but the shadow of it is the fear that having once reached that standard, one may not be able to keep it up.”

The awful penalty of success is the haunting dread of subsequent failure, and even sadder still is the fact that in striving eagerly to attain an end, we are apt to lose the sense of the purpose which inspired us. This is more drearily true of the pursuit of money than of anything else. I could name several friends of my own who started in business with the perfectly definite and avowed intention of making a competence in order that they might live as they desired to live; that they might travel, read, write, enjoy a secure leisure. But when they had done exactly what they meant to do, the desires were all atrophied. They could not give up their work; they felt it would be safer to have a larger margin, they feared they might be bored, they had made friends, and did not wish to sever the connection, they must provide a little more for their families: the whole programme had insensibly altered. Even so they were still planning to escape from something—from some boredom or anxiety or dread.

And yet it seems very difficult for any person to realise what is the philosophical conclusion, namely, that the work of each of us matters very little to the world, but that it matters very much to ourselves that we should have some work to do. We seem to be a very feeble-minded race in this respect, that we require to be constantly bribed and tempted by illusions. I have known men of force and vigour both in youth and middle life who had a strong sense of the value and significance of their work; as age came upon them, the value of their work gradually disappeared; they were deferred to, consulted, outwardly reverenced, and perhaps all the more scrupulously and compassionately in order that they might not guess the lamentable fact that their work was done and that the forces and influences were in younger hands. But the men themselves never lost the sense of their importance. I knew an octogenarian clergyman who declared once in my presence that it was ridiculous to say that old men lost their faculty of dealing with affairs.

“Why,” he said, “it is only quite in the last few years that I feel I have really mastered my work. It takes me far less time than it used to do; it is just promptly and methodically executed.” The old man obviously did not know that his impression that his work consumed less time was only too correct, because it was, as a matter of fact, almost wholly performed by his colleagues, and nothing was referred to him except purely formal business.

It seems rather pitiful that we should not be able to face the truth, and that we cannot be content with discerning the principle of it all, which is that our work is given to us to do not for its intrinsic value, but because it is good for us to do it.

The secret government of the world seems, indeed, to be penetrated by a good-natured irony; it is as if the Power controlling us saw that, like children, we must be tenderly wooed into doing things which we should otherwise neglect, by a sense of high importance, as a kindly father who is doing accounts keeps his children quiet by letting one hold the blotting-paper and another the ink, so that they believe that they are helping when they are merely being kept from hindering.

And this strange sense of escape which drives us into activity and energy seems given us not that we may realise our aims, which turn out hollow and vapid enough when they are realised, but that we may drink deep of experience for the sake of its beneficent effect upon us. The failure of almost all Utopias and ideal states, designed and planned by writers and artists, lies in the absence of all power to suggest how the happy folk who have conquered all the ills and difficulties of life are to employ themselves reasonably and eagerly when there is nothing left to improve. William Morris, indeed, in his News from Nowhere, confessed through the mouth of one of his characters that there would be hardly enough pleasant work, like hay-making and bridge-building and carpentering and paving, left to go round; and the picture of life which he draws, with its total lack of privacy, the shops where you may ask for anything that you want without having to pay, the guest-houses, with their straw-coloured wine in quaint carafes, the rich stews served in grey earthenware dishes streaked with blue, the dancing, the caressing, the singular absence of all elderly women, strikes on the mind with a quite peculiar sense of boredom and vacuity, because Morris seems to have eliminated so many sources of human interest, and to have conformed every one to a type, which is refreshing enough as a contrast, but very tiresome in the mass. It will not be enough to have got rid of the combative and sordid and vulgar elements of the world unless a very active spirit of some kind has taken its place. Morris himself intended that art should supply the missing force; but art is not a sociable thing; it is apt to be a lonely affair, and few artists have either leisure or inclination to admire one another’s work.

Still more dreary was the dream of the philosopher J. S. Mill, who was asked upon one occasion what would be left for men to do when they had been perfected on the lines which he desired. He replied, after a long and painful hesitation, that they might find satisfaction in reading the poems of Wordsworth. But Wordsworth’s poems are useful in the fact that they supply a refreshing contrast to the normal thought of the world, and nothing but the fact that many took a different view of life was potent enough to produce them.

So, for the present at all events, we must be content to feel that our imagination provides us with a motive rather than with a goal; and though it is very important that we should strive with all our might to eliminate the baser elements of life, yet we must be brave and wise enough to confess how much of our best happiness is born of the fact that we have these elements to contend with.

Edward FitzGerald once said that a fault of modern writing was that it tried to compress too many good things into a page, and aimed too much at omitting the homelier interspaces. We must not try to make our lives into a perpetual feast; at least we must try to do so, but it must be by conquest rather than by inglorious flight; we must face the fact that the stuff of life is both homely and indeed amiss, and realise, if we can, that our happiness is bound up with energetically trying to escape from conditions which we cannot avoid. When we are young and fiery-hearted, we think that a tame counsel; but, like all great truths, it dawns on us slowly. Not until we begin to ascend the hill do we grasp how huge, how complicated, how intricate the plain, with all its fields, woods, hamlets, and streams is; we are happy men and women if in middle age we even faintly grasp that the actual truth about life is vastly larger and finer than any impatient youthful fancies about it are, though it is good to have indulged our splendid fancies in youth, if only for the delight of learning how much more magnificent is the real design.

In the Pilgrim’s Progress, at the very outset of the journey,
Evangelist asks Christian why he is standing still. He replies:

“Because I know not whither to go.”

Evangelist, with a certain grimness of humour, thereupon hands him a parchment roll. One supposes that it will be a map or a paper of directions, but all that it has written in it is, “Fly from the wrath to come!”

Well, it is no longer that of which we are afraid, a rain of fire and brimstone, storm and tempest! The Power behind the world has better gifts than these; but we still have to fly, where we can and as fast as we can; and when we have traversed the dim leagues, and have seen things wonderful at every turn, and have passed through the bitter flood, we shall find—at least this is my hope—no guarded city of God from which we shall go no more out, but another road passing into wider fields and dimmer uplands, and to things more and more wonderful and strange and unknown.

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Categories: English Literature

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