Historical Perspectives


STEPHEN: (Looks up from his newspaper) Are you feeling all right, Michael? I must say, you do look somewhat pale today.

MICHAEL: Oh, I'm just feeling a little glum, that's all.

STEPHEN: (Puts the newspaper to one side) Why is that, then?

MICHAEL: I'm not quite sure that I know, to tell you the truth. In fact, I haven't been feeling particularly pleased with myself all week. It probably has something to do with the fact that I've been intellectually barren recently.

STEPHEN: You mean, you haven't been writing very well, these past few days?

MICHAEL: Worse, I haven't written anything whatsoever these past ten days! I have been compelled to spend most of the time reading, which, for a person of my creative disposition, is all rather depressing! If the weather wasn't so cold and damp, I would be able to kill an hour or two out walking every day. But, alas, even that hasn't proved possible!

STEPHEN: Yes, the weather has been rather depressing recently, hasn't it? It makes life somewhat constricting, being confined to one's room all day.

MICHAEL: It certainly does! And you are the first person that I've actually spoken to in over two weeks - a time during which my tongue has remained restricted to the humble role of tasting food and drink. But I don't particularly desire to plague you with my problems. I expect you have enough of your own, anyway.

STEPHEN: Well, at least I have done some work recently. Although I'm not altogether convinced that it's as good as I would like it to be. Composing and performing music is just as difficult as writing prose, you know. In fact, I sometimes think there is nothing more difficult. But, tell me, why haven't you written anything these past ten days?

MICHAEL: I don't honestly know. Ever since I completed that autobiographical sketch about my philosophical development, I have been at a complete loss as to what to do next. It seems as though everything has been said and done already.

STEPHEN: Hmm, I know how you feel. Most artists and thinkers have to go through a similar barren patch at some time in their lives. But, oddly enough, there are times when you are only too glad to take a break from your work, times when you feel in need of a break and have few worries about the future.

MICHAEL: Yes, and there are even times when you can go straight from one work to another, when you're in absolutely no doubt as to what you are doing and where it is leading you. But this, alas, isn't one of them!

STEPHEN: Perhaps you are becoming too much of a scholar in your reclusiveness?

MICHAEL: I shall be, if I'm not careful. You wouldn't think it possible, but every damn book I read only succeeds in further humiliating me, in drawing an air of defeatism around me, in making me painfully conscious of the fact that I'm only reading because I haven't got anything better to do! You can imagine how encouraging it is to wallow in one's own sterility every day! One actually begins to feel sorry for oneself, and not simply because one can't write or is gradually conditioning oneself not to write, but, no less significantly, because one has too much culture around one all the time, because culture becomes one's compulsion, one's prison, one's fate! Yes, one would gladly throw it all away and embark on something different - if only one could!

STEPHEN: But, eventually, you would suffer just as much from whatever else you embarked upon, just as you had previously suffered from your reading.

MICHAEL: Perhaps. But at least it would make a change.

STEPHEN: Naturally, if only for a while. But, tell me, what would you do if you were to abandon writing, if you decided, once and for all, to have done with this 'prison of culture', as you call it?

MICHAEL: What could I do? Obviously there are a number of things that I'm not qualified to do and an even greater number of things that I wouldn't want to do, although I've never bothered to make a definitive list of them all. I suppose, however, that I could get a job of sorts somewhere, even a petty clerking one. But whether I'd be able to stick at it for very long, whether I'd be able to settle down in it, is quite another thing! Still, if by some unusual decree of fate, I could get an ordinary clerical job somewhere, I suppose it would only serve, in the long-run, to induce me to take-up writing again, and to do so, moreover, with renewed zest.

STEPHEN: You mean the poverty of clerking would gradually make you more conscious of the richness of culture?

MICHAEL: That is one way of putting it. Although whether I would then be able to write anything worthwhile ... is a question that affords a wide solution! When one is a clerk one is a clerk, and when one is a writer one is a writer. To cross from the one context to the other is by no means an easy thing to do, as I learnt some time ago.

STEPHEN: Nor a very wise one, Michael! A man of your temperament, background, and sensibility would probably become neurotic in no time. Besides, you have already worked as a clerk and that was hell on earth, as far as you were concerned. At least, that was how you described it to me one evening, when we got to talking about neuroses. You weren't exactly describing the richness of clerking and the poverty of culture then! On the contrary, there was nothing more important to you than the desire to avoid ever doing any such work again.

MICHAEL: Yes, well do I remember! Anyhow, I have absolutely no intention of disobeying my conscience. I don't intend to pack-up writing. I was merely expressing my distaste for the fact that I haven't written anything in ten days, in consequence of which I've been compelled to read the works of various authors instead. Admittedly, ten days is no time at all really, but it has still managed to put me in a monotonously depressed state-of-mind.

STEPHEN: Hmm, have you absolutely no idea what to write next? I mean, surely you must have some idea?

MICHAEL: Yes, more philosophy. But that doesn't sell very well, unfortunately.

STEPHEN: Why not try a novel for a change?

MICHAEL: Impossible! If I knew how to set about doing so without pushing it in an overly conceptual direction, I probably would. But to be perfectly honest with you, I don't have a clue. I haven't read a novel for months and, besides, I have absolutely no desire to attempt one. There are quite enough little story-tellers in the world already.

STEPHEN: Why not a play, then?

MICHAEL: A play? Good God, that is the last thing I should want to write! Can you imagine me as another frigging Bernard Shaw?

STEPHEN: Frankly, no!

MICHAEL: I'm sincerely glad to hear it! There are some people who are just not cut-out to write in certain genres, you know. Did Hesse ever write a play? Did Nietzsche? Or Bertrand Russell? No, I can't see myself doing that.

STEPHEN: Well, what else is there - biography, history, criticism?

MICHAEL: Criticism possibly. But biography and history - highly unlikely.

STEPHEN: Ah, but you can write essays, dialogues, and aphorisms, can't you?

MICHAEL: Yes, and that's about all! Whether I shall be able to continue doing so much longer, however, remains to be seen. There was a time, you know, when I wrote poems - short lyric and prose poems after the manner of Baudelaire. Or, more correctly, before it, since I was something of an aesthete who praised the virtues of female beauty like some kind of star-struck devotee of the Blessed Virgin. Well, I stopped doing that a few years ago, and since then I haven't so much as even read a poem, never mind attempted to write one! Will the same thing happen, I wonder, with regard to essays, dialogues, and aphorisms? I can't, of course, be sure, but, if I continue writing, it's quite possible that I shall have to adopt some other genre or medium instead - one that I have hitherto disdained.

STEPHEN: You mean the novel or the play?

MICHAEL: I didn't say that! But it isn't altogether impossible that I may take to something which will allow me to continue expressing my conceptual bent without fear of being misunderstood or censored. These days I tend to avoid poetry. In the future, I may even avoid philosophy. There's no telling what I shall do. Indeed, I may even give-up writing altogether.

STEPHEN: Or writing will give you up?

MICHAEL: Perhaps it already has?

STEPHEN: I would find that difficult to believe. Why, you're completely obsessed by it! You rarely talk of anything else. I mean, has there ever been a day in your professional or vocational life when you haven't had a book in your hands? I would wager anything that, throughout the past three years, you haven't gone a single day without picking up a book.

MICHAEL: Then you would lose the wager, Stephen. There certainly have been days when I haven't read anything.

STEPHEN: Yes, about ten out of a thousand or so! (Michael shakes his head, but Stephen continues) Yes, you needn't pretend otherwise! You are completely obsessed by cultural activities of this nature. And even ten days is being rather generous to you. In reality, there have probably been no more than five, and on those five occasions you wondered how you could possibly manage to get through the day without a book - worse, how you could possibly allow yourself to be drawn away from books because of some tedious social or business engagement!

MICHAEL: I am afraid that you are quite mistaken there! You are quite overlooking the number of days when illness prevented me from reading anything. And there must have been at least twenty of those!

STEPHEN: Well, that is another matter. Although I have little doubt that you read more when you're recovering from an illness than at any other time, as if to make up for lost time. Yet I suppose that is really beside-the-point. I am merely trying to get to the fact that it would be better for both you and culture if you ignored it sometimes, forbade yourself to read anything for a week or two, every few months, in order to be more appreciative of it when you subsequently took-up reading again. Then, with a little luck, you might not feel so sorry for yourself in your 'prison of culture'.

MICHAEL: But even supposing I could give it up, from time to time, what else would I do with myself all day? You know what sort of a withdrawn life I lead. If I didn't read for at least two hours every day, I would be at a complete loss as to how else to fill the time. If I had a few more friends it might be different. But the fact remains that I don't. And I certainly don't see you that often.

STEPHEN: No, that's to be regretted. A professional musician is usually kept very busy. One week I may be in Cardiff, another week in Brussels or Hamburg. Admittedly, it isn't that often that I'm in London. But when I do play here, I usually make an effort to visit you, even though we may not have spoken to each other for several months sometimes. Yet that is one of the misfortunes of modern life, and particularly of such lives as ours. The demands of our respective professions and circumstances ensure that we're not allowed to have many friends or, what's worse, to see those that we have got as often as we would like. There is absolutely nothing we can do about it ... short, that is, of giving up work altogether.

MICHAEL: And what would we do then?

STEPHEN: Sign on the dole, I suppose. However, getting back to what I was saying earlier, I still think it would be better for you to spend at least one day a week away from books. Naturally, one has to do something, but it doesn't always have to be the same damn thing.

MICHAEL: Don't be so sure about it! If I could do so, I would; but it is only too clear to me that I am dependent on the company of books - indeed, I'm probably as dependent on their company as you are on the company of music scores. And to turn the conversation around, are there ever any days when you don't have a violin in your hands?


MICHAEL: Precisely! But you wouldn't take me seriously if I advised you to take a break from it more often, and neither can I take you very seriously when you advise me, against my better judgement, to stop reading every so often. Besides, I hardly wish to give you the impression that books are always a torture to me. On the contrary, they are one of the greatest pleasures in my life, although I don't generally feel that to be the case when I'm compelled to read because I can't think of anything to write. Yet there are some books which I've read time and time again, books which it was almost fitting to learn by heart, so great an impression did they make on me. And yet, one can still have too much of them, one can still feel sorry for oneself because one is compelled to have too much of them. As you well know, some people think that money is the source of all happiness. They acquire a lot of it, only to discover that it isn't. Others think that sex is the source of all happiness. They likewise acquire a lot of that, only to discover that it isn't. And exactly the same thing applies to culture, any culture. It is a fine thing, but like money, sex, and a lot of other fine things, it's by no means everything! Try to make it so and you will soon perish.

STEPHEN: Indeed, too much culture is as bad as too little, or maybe even worse. For when one has too little, one can always wish one had more, whereas when one has too much, one can only wish for less, which must be somewhat demoralizing. But one should beware of taking oneself too seriously, since it almost invariably leads other people to take one too seriously as well.

MICHAEL: Perhaps. Although I'm not altogether convinced that some people are able to avoid taking themselves too seriously. It often seems to me that those who do so are generally unable to do anything else, since they have had it thrust upon them by fate, destiny, responsibility, age, health, et cetera. But that is another story, and usually not a very pleasant one either! I hardly think myself enough of a story-teller to enlarge upon it.

STEPHEN: You could always turn it into a work of philosophy.

MICHAEL: I could. But then very few people would read it.

STEPHEN: Maybe that would be just as well!

MICHAEL: Yes, though not for me. After all, it's always encouraging to earn some money from one's work, particularly when one hasn't got that much in the first place. Philosophy can be fine if you are the worthy recipient of a large patrimony or a state pension. But if you intend to earn a decent living from it, you might as well take to poetry instead. You will remain just as poor, only more romantically so.

STEPHEN: Hardly any more encouraging, since this isn't the ideal century for romantics!

MICHAEL: Neither is it the ideal century for metaphysical philosophers. However, I'm not so sure that any previous century was, either.

STEPHEN: What, exactly, do you mean by that?

MICHAEL: Precisely that it isn't easy to be a deeply conceptual writer in any age. Whatever century you choose to study, you will always find a plentiful supply of similar complaints. Anyway, it's always easy for people who have to live through the hardships of their time to imagine that things were easier in earlier times - and by 'things' I don't just mean literature or philosophy - even when a close study of the past would indicate the contrary. People always have had to struggle for a living and probably always will have to, no matter what the century, and it's perfectly natural that they should do so. For what do you suppose would happen to them if they didn't have to struggle?

STEPHEN: You tell me.

MICHAEL: They would die of boredom. Nobody would be able to tolerate living. For, ridiculous as it may seem, struggling makes life easier, human beings are so well-adapted to struggle, in various contexts, that they would be unable to survive without continuing to do so. People actually go out of their way to complicate things for themselves, to make life harder in order to make it more interesting or less boring, as the case may be. And even the most timid of them regularly read their gruesome newspapers and watch their even more gruesome films, because such experiences add another dimension to their lives, a dimension without which a majority of them would be unable to live. Take away all the disagreeable facts of life, and the world would become a very dull place in no time! Naturally, you may not like many of the things which are currently happening in it, but does that necessarily imply that things which happened in the past were any better or that they shouldn't have happened? No, you won't find the atrocities and plagues of the past to be any better, or less lethal, than more recent ones, and I very much doubt whether you would ever be qualified to construct a worthwhile argument based on the supposition that they shouldn't have happened. Everything happens for a reason, and usually for a damn good reason too!

STEPHEN: That may be, but surely you would agree that many of the atrocities which happened this century were much worse than anything that took place in earlier centuries. Why, they were much more widespread, much bigger, far beyond the scope of previous times.

MICHAEL: But that doesn't necessarily prove that they were any worse. On the contrary, the global population has become much greater than ever before, and thus the atrocities of the century are relevant to the people of this century, to the capacities of the nations of this century. Can you say, for instance, that a man who slaughtered a hundred village people in, say, 1850 because there were only a hundred people available for slaughter, was any more humane or righteous than the man who slaughtered a thousand village people in 1950 because there were a thousand people available for slaughter? No, of course not! The principle of killing whatever was available to be killed remains the same in both cases. Consequently it's a serious mistake to measure recent atrocities by the standards of past ones. People who do this usually have little sense of history. Indeed, they are quite often more interested in proving to both themselves and others that their age is undeniably worse than any previous age. Although, had they lived through a previous age, they would probably have thought just as poorly of that! But as soon as one begins to measure the present by the standards of the past or vice versa, one does a grave disservice to both past and present alike. For example, the repressive activities of the Spanish Inquisition may appear relatively tame when compared to some of the repressive activities conducted by the Nazis, but that by no means proves they were tame for the people who had to live through them. On the contrary, they couldn't have conceived of anything worse! For if the Inquisition didn't put millions of people to death in Extermination Camps, it wasn't because they were any better than those who did but, oddly enough, because such camps hadn't been invented then, because it wouldn't have served their purposes to put so many people to death, because their powers were mainly restricted to a smaller area, because the nature of their creed imposed certain definite restrictions as to the total numbers of people affected by it, and so on and so forth. No, things of that kind have always been relevant to the times and, as such, they become the double and equal of the times, to paraphrase Baudelaire. If particular aspects of modern life seem difficult to live with, you should remember that there have always been aspects of every age which were no less difficult for the people concerned to live with. In certain respects life never changes.

STEPHEN: I agree with you there. Although I'm not altogether convinced that it wouldn't have been better living in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or even nineteenth centuries than at present. Why, there were no such horrors as the atom bomb, concentration camps, nuclear missiles, and widespread industrial or commercial pollution of the atmosphere then!

MICHAEL: No, but there were certainly a lot of other horrors which various people would have preferred not to exist. Besides, whether or not life was better then would have depended, to a considerable extent, upon who or where you were; whether, for instance, you were rich or poor, soldier or sailor, Englishman or Irishman, European or African, oppressor or oppressed, Protestant or Catholic, slave owner or slave, et cetera. For some people life in those centuries had everything to offer. For others, by contrast, it had next to nothing. You probably wouldn't have enjoyed being an African slave in the Southern States of America, a member of an oppressed or threatened tribe of Red Indians, a victim of the Thirty Years War between France and Germany, a child factory-worker in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, an Irish peasant at the time of the Great Potato Famine, a hounded noble during the French Revolution, an ex-convict labouring in the wilds of Australia, a defeated Royalist in the English Civil War, or one of India's numerous untouchables. Indeed, I could continue the list almost indefinitely, if I really wanted to shake your confidence in the alleged superiority of those times. And then we could take an even closer look at the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, at all the known misfortunes which befell various peoples and categories of persons during those times, like, for instance, the Bubonic Plague. Then we could go even further back, back to the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and so on, to the barbarous beginnings of Western civilization. I dare say that you would be more than willing to give the present century a second chance, after we had travelled through all the previous ages in such an analytical fashion.

STEPHEN: Heaven forbid! I have heard quite enough about them already, and am almost relieved to be alive in an age of widespread traffic pollution, rather than widespread cholera or the Black Death. If we continue to dwell on the past and, in particular, its atrocities much longer, I shall be compelled to believe in progress, in the progress which has thus far culminated in the atom bomb, concentration camps, nuclear warheads, and all the rest of it!

MICHAEL: It would be a good thing if you did believe in progress, for it's certainly a fact of life. But it would be an even better thing if you also came to believe in regress, and in the fact that there can't be any meaningful progress without it.

STEPHEN: No progress without regress? Surely that's a contradiction in terms! How can you both progress and regress at the same time or in the same place?

MICHAEL: You can't. What actually happens is that society progresses in one sphere of life and regresses in another. As Emerson remarked in one of his essays: 'There is no straightforward amelioration'. What you gain on the roundabout, you lose on the swings.

STEPHEN: But surely that is most unfortunate?

MICHAEL: Quite the contrary, it is most just! It's the only way that society can function. Take away the many examples of regress and you would thereby deprive it of its ability to progress. I need hardly remind you that motorized transportation is, in the main, a noteworthy improvement on the horse-and-carriage system of transportation, and even on the horse itself. But one also has to admit that it has given rise to a number of serious regressions, not the least of which being the widespread traffic pollution you mentioned a short while ago. Of course, there is a great deal of pollution which has nothing whatsoever to do with cars, trucks, vans, buses, motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, or whatever. But the fact nonetheless remains that they are responsible for a great deal of it, and will doubtless continue to remain so until such time as either we're all poisoned by it or, hopefully, find an effective way of minimizing it. Although this latter possibility does seem somewhat unlikely when one considers the ever-increasing amount of traffic on the roads these days! However, it isn't altogether impossible that the petrol engine will soon be rendered as obsolete as the horse-and-carriage system, and that we shall then enter a new and hopefully safer era - namely that of the electric car or the water car or some other such fumeless vehicle. But, assuming we do, there will of course be drawbacks to that development too, just as there were drawbacks to the formerly-esteemed horse-and-carriage system. Drawbacks, I might add, which neither you nor I, with all our detestation of traffic pollution, congested roads, high petrol prices, traffic noise, road accidents, parking fines, and the like, would care to experience, even if we knew exactly what they were.

STEPHEN: Well, we should have to consult the history books to find out more about that sort of travel.

MICHAEL: Yes, but whatever we learnt from them would be inadequate compared with what we might have learnt, had we been obliged to make use of a horse and carriage every day or, what is probably worse, avoid getting in the way of a horse and carriage every day. We may have to put-up with a daily dose of petrol fumes and exhaust gas, but we don't have to put-up with a daily dose of horse manure!

STEPHEN: More's the pity! For I am sure it would be more tolerable than this other stench.

MICHAEL: You might find it an agreeable alternative to begin with, but when you had to live with it every day, and not simply to smell it but to see it as well, you would probably have a different opinion altogether. Anyway, if for the sake of argument, mankind suddenly adopted the horse and carriage again, there would be a much greater number of them on the roads today than ever there had been in Victorian or earlier times. And that would naturally mean a much greater amount of horse manure as well!

STEPHEN: Well, it doesn't look as though mankind will be reverting to that primitive state-of-affairs in the near future, so we shall just have to persevere with exhaust fumes a while longer. It seems that every age has its problems.

MICHAEL: Indeed, and no sooner does an age rid itself of one problem than it acquires another, which is exactly what happens to people. We will never have a life without problems, my friend, and neither will we ever have one without change. In the final analysis all we can do, and all nations and epochs can do, is change from one problem to another.

STEPHEN: Hmm, it rather looks as though I shall have to accept the twentieth century after all, considering that I am a product of it who wouldn't be better off in an earlier time.

MICHAEL: I didn't say that you wouldn't be better off in an earlier time. I said it would depend on who or where you were. Some people led a fine life in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and, between you and I, it's just as well that they did. For it is always better to lead a fine life than to lead an impoverished, harried, or disease-ridden one. Admittedly, if you had been a member of the suffering classes, you might not have agreed, even when priests went on about the moral virtue of suffering in an attempt to reach an ecclesiastical accommodation with the poor. But that is no reason to suppose a good, healthy, adventurous, and productive life is necessarily immoral. We may disapprove of many of the things which happened in former times, but that is by no means a sufficient reason to assume that such things shouldn't have happened or, alternatively, to pride ourselves on the supposition that we wouldn't have done exactly the same things ourselves in similar circumstances. History will always appear diabolical to people who can only view it with a contemporary eye, to people who make no effort to see it in the perspective of its time. If we wouldn't commit similar atrocities, these days, to the kinds of atrocities committed by certain persons or peoples in the past, that is only because we have no need to, not necessarily because we're any better or have grown more humane in the meantime. Everything that happens does so for a good reason. Naturally, you may consider yourself fortunate or even superior for not being as brutal as people in the past often were. But have you ever bothered to consider whether a majority of those 'brutal' people really enjoyed being brutal, whether they didn't occasionally feel sorry for themselves on account of the fact that survival forced such brutality upon them, as well as cognizant of the fact that they would have been quite prepared to leave other people or creatures alone, had circumstances permitted them to do so without too great a financial or physical cost to themselves? Undoubtedly there must have been times when even the most brutal people were disgusted with their behaviour, just as I may occasionally feel disgusted with the prison of thought and letters in which I'm obliged to live, and you may likewise feel disgusted with the world of music and travel in which you're obliged to live. How can we be sure, for instance, that there weren't slave owners in the Southern States of America who would have willingly, even gladly, managed without slaves if they thought they could have done so, or who occasionally felt disgusted with the whole trend of their barbarous lives, despite the knowledge that a majority of them quite understandably regarded slaves as inferior creatures who had been put on earth to serve their ends, much as though they were a two-legged variety of cow, sheep, ox, or horse?

STEPHEN: I don't quite understand what you mean by slave owners 'understandably' regarding their slaves as inferiors. If you mean that slaves of any race are normally regarded as inferiors by their masters ...

MICHAEL: Ah, I meant more than that! The majority of slave owners were, by today's standards, somewhat ignorant men. They were mostly farmers and landowners with business worries, not highly cultivated or educated men-of-the-world. Consequently, one needn't be particularly surprised if their basic attitude to the Negro should have been such as to suggest him - hitherto relatively unknown to most white men - a subhuman creature or, at any rate, racially inferior to themselves. What reason did they have to assume otherwise? Other white men had overpowered the Negro in his native land, transported him to North America, and sold him to the descendants of a people who were still in the process of overpowering the Red Indian. Was it any wonder, therefore, that the slave owners considered themselves members of a superior race? No, they were entirely justified in acting the way they did, if through no other reason than ignorance and the need to survive.

STEPHEN: But to us they appear evil and unjust. We cannot help but view them with a contemporary eye, one conditioned to look upon any form of racial discrimination with disapproval.

MICHAEL: Yes, they certainly appear wrong by the estimation of contemporary values. For the negro has long since been emancipated from the shackles of slavery and has progressed as far as, if not further than, a majority of white men, thus removing any serious grounds for considering him to belong to an inferior race. At one time a particular class of people always put a hand to their mouth when they yawned, in the assumption - quite apart from its utilitarian value vis--vis the possibility if not likelihood of bad breath - that such a gesture would prevent the entry of evil spirits. At another time a particular class of people assumed the Negro biologically inferior to the white man. Such is life! However, nowadays we have little or nothing to do with either assumption, being the victims of certain other superstitions and delusions instead. But if we desire to see how mistaken, stupid, or unjust these earlier people were, we view them with a contemporary eye. And if we desire to try and understand what motivated them to behave the way they did, we use a little imagination, a little patience, a little knowledge, and endeavour to view them in the perspective of their time. Then we may comprehend something of why they were justified in doing what they did and in being what they were. Why it was virtually inevitable that a black man should then appear inferior.

STEPHEN: Thus, in a sense, it is we who are being unjust when we accuse them of injustice and evil ways. For we are trying to measure the standards of the past according to those of the present, which, as you said earlier, is a serious mistake.

MICHAEL: Actually I said it was a serious mistake to measure recent atrocities by the standards of past ones. Although one might also reverse the idea, like you, by contending that it is an equally serious mistake to measure what we assume to be the atrocities of the past against the atrocities, real or imaginary, of the present.

STEPHEN: Ah, but I didn't say 'atrocities', I said 'standards'.

MICHAEL: One needn't always differentiate too strictly between them! However, what you say is quite correct. We are being unjust to the slave owners, or for that matter to any other historical category of men, when we evaluate them according to the measure of contemporary society, instead of attempting to understand them in the context of their age. By turning them into villains, we become more villainous ourselves due to a lack of imagination. A fair number of the alleged injustices of the slave trade are creations of the contemporary mind. They spring from the fact that we are either unable or unwilling to see things from their point of view, in consequence of which we're only too ready to do them a disservice in the light of our own standards. One can understand it, but one can't reasonably condone it. A lack of historical perspective is nothing to be especially proud about!

STEPHEN: I suppose not, although I somehow suspect that the past will always be tinged with a dash of romanticism for someone marooned in the materialistic present.

MICHAEL: True, but we must also be grateful for what we have got in this day and age. There is something dreadfully pathological about being out-of-joint with one's age, particularly when one bears in mind that we were meant for this age, are children of it, and can't entirely divorce ourselves from its influence. We may play at being in another century, decorate our rooms with its trappings, and generally act as though we were unaware of space travel, nuclear submarines, industrial computers, and colour televisions. But we will still do so with the consciousness of twentieth-century men, we will always be dilettantes, outsiders, and play-actors. Let us cherish our little dreams and delusions, by all means! But let us not forget that they owe their existence to the twentieth century, because it's always pleasant to dream oneself into a 'better age'. God knows, there are enough things to condemn in this age, but, in that respect, no other age is really any different. Life is always vicissitudinous, and if you treat the 'downs' as superfluous impositions which one would be better off without, then you will always be unjust to it. Admittedly, we could both of us be a lot better off in this age, we could be more successful and fulfilled than at present, thus making speculation concerning the alleged superiority of life in a previous century appear quite superfluous, not to say ridiculous. Whether or not we shall ever become better off, remains to be seen. Though, to be frank with you, I'm usually somewhat sceptical about other people's good fortune. It seems to me that one is only too ready to overlook the misfortunes of certain people when one dwells on their good fortune, and that one merely distorts their image in consequence. After all, everyone has his problems, and while there is nothing unusual about assuming others to be luckier than oneself, one can easily allow such assumptions to cloud one's judgement to a degree whereby the people concerned appear much luckier than they actually are. Besides, no matter how fortunate a person may seem to be, there will always be other people whom he will regard as more fortunate than himself. For, as a human being, one is subject to certain immutable emotions, drives, and attitudes, regardless of whether one is rich or poor, a beggar or a millionaire. There is absolutely no getting away from that fact. And strange though it may seem, there are even people who think that we're more fortunate than them, that being a writer or a musician must be a great life, irrespective of the fact that relatively few writers or musicians actually convey that impression through their works! Yet if some of these envious people were to try their hand at serious creative work for once, and sacrifice part of their dream world in the process, they might become a little more realistic. However, if you and I know perfectly well that the creative life isn't all pleasure, we also know that it's by no means all pain either. We have our ups and downs as much as anyone else.

STEPHEN: And sometimes more downs than ups!

MICHAEL: So it would seem. Although it is no small secret that artists are regularly inclined to exaggerate their misfortunes, being inclined, by temperament and vocation, to the grandiose, to exciting the public's imagination.

STEPHEN: Hmm, that applies mainly to literary men, especially to poets.

MICHAEL: Be that as it may, one shouldn't be led to overlook the rhetorical pathos and self-pity of the great composers, nor of the great musicians. They are inclined to exaggerate their misfortunes, too.

STEPHEN: The prerogative of great minds, who see everything larger than life.

MICHAEL: Maybe, but one can't always take it very seriously. However, I have no desire to attack the vanity of artists, whatever their medium. One must judge the standards of art by the standards of art, not by those of life.

STEPHEN: And I suspect that one should never judge the standards of contemporary art by the standards of the past or vice versa - not, anyway, if one wishes to retain an 'historical perspective'.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. For one can no more expect the contemporary artist to go back in time, than one can expect the classical artist to be modern. The Pre-Raphaelite Movement may have adopted a sort of pre-Raphael approach and attitude to art, but they certainly didn't detach themselves from the technical expertise of their day. No artist before Raphael could possibly have done the work of Bourne-Jones, Waterhouse, Rossetti, Millais, et al, no matter how advanced his technique may have been for the time. And these great artists would have been quite unable to so much as envisage the subsequent developments of artists like Chagall, Picasso, Dali, and Kandinsky, to name but a handful of twentieth-century masters, and a handful, moreover, who are hardly representative of the most avant-garde developments! No, modern art is a world unto itself, and can never be measured according to the aesthetic criteria of the past. None of the old masters can ever come back to life, and none of the moderns should be expected to continue their work for them. They have their own lives to lead, and we should judge them accordingly.

STEPHEN: You mean according to what they do with them.

MICHAEL: Yes, according to the extent of their creative originality and technical ability, of how much they remain loyal to themselves and provide us with a glimpse of their own world rather than someone else's. There is no art without individuality, just as there is no science with it. And what applies to art applies equally well to literature and music. We may not like some of the most recent developments in music, but that isn't to say they're bogus or futile. One can't reasonably expect modern composers to write like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven when their primary concern is to discover themselves and to write in a manner which best portrays that discovery. There was only one Beethoven and he died in 1827. His music is of course still with us, but every major composer since then has created his own style and forged a different sound. People who take Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven as the standard of what music should be are invariably deluded. It's as though one should take Swift, Goethe, or Rousseau for the standard of what literature should be, quite overlooking the fact that literature isn't something that remains the same from generation to generation but, on the contrary, continuously changes, in accordance with the dictates of the age. Naturally, one may have a marked predilection for certain twentieth-century works, but that by no means justifies one in believing the works concerned to be necessarily any better or worse than those of an earlier century. It is as foolish to judge modern works by the standards of past ones as to judge modern atrocities by the standards of past atrocities. For an age is a law unto itself, with every age possessing its own laws. Indeed, just as Mozart extended the range of music in his day largely by turning his back on the past, so Beethoven extended the range of music in his own day largely by turning his back on Mozart. Yet we moderns are so accustomed to Mozart and Beethoven that we quite forget that a majority of their contemporaries looked upon their compositions with anything but a sympathetic eye and listened to them with either contempt or ironic amusement. After all, these two men were breaking many of the rules that had been carefully and thoughtfully laid down by their predecessors; they were far from immediately intelligible when judged by conventional standards, and, as such, neither of them were to be trusted! Nowadays most people acquainted with classical music think differently, and even if they don't make a regular point of listening to their compositions, at least they are prepared to acknowledge that Mozart and Beethoven had genius. But how many of them would be prepared to acknowledge the genius of the foremost contemporary composers, those who are currently regarded with the same sort of contempt or derision as was meted out to Mozart and Beethoven, not to mention to a host of more recent composers, in former times? You will find that, in this respect, human nature has changed very little over the centuries, even if music has!

STEPHEN: That is probably so, although, despite the well-known fact that I'm a musician myself, I know damned well that one can scarcely blame the public for its hostile attitude to some of the more recent composers, who are anything but accessible and, at times, downright obscure! However, it could well transpire that many of the composers whom we are still prepared to perform today will be completely ignored in the not-too-distant future, and that Beethoven and various other composers of his stature will simply fade into the limbo of musical history where, to all intents and purposes, they already belong. It's extremely difficult to foresee the course of compositional priorities, but I have little doubt that many of our long-cherished idols are going to be smashed, if you'll pardon me a Nietzschean hyperbole.

MICHAEL: As a devotee of rock classical, that is not something I would personally regret very much. In fact, I have often found myself beguiled into listening to music by certain 'great composers' who weren't as great as I had previously been led to believe. It seemed evident to me that the name and reputation of the composer had a stronger grip on life than his music. Now I'm not trying to insinuate that his music wasn't good, for that would be highly presumptuous of me, but am simply trying to point out that it was much more pertinent to the age in which it was composed than to the modern one. When I compared it to some of the more recent compositions I had heard, works by men like Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Martinu, it seemed indisputably stilted, tedious, predictable, pompous, unadventurous, constrained by manneristic convention, and so on, in consequence of which I felt obliged to dismiss it as comparatively inferior, outmoded, pretentious, overrated. Yet when I endeavoured to forget about those more recent works and concentrated, instead, on listening to a piece of music composed, say, in 1784 or 1821, and on listening to it, as far as possible, within the context of those dates - ah! then it was possible for me to appreciate its beauty as in fact it should be appreciated. Instead of foolishly comparing it to modern works and then deriding it for its obvious limitations, I let it speak to me from its own day, let it represent history, let the then-advanced attitudes and techniques of its composer enlighten me concerning the development of music in late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century man, of man in his finest creative capacity at that time. And, you see, I learnt there and then that it's futile to match the standards of the past against those of the present, to do a disservice to both past and present by so comparing them. This work by Mozart, or whoever it may have been, was of course great music. It may not have sounded that great when compared with, say, Tchaikovsky's second piano concerto or Brahms' first symphony. But it was unquestionably great for its time, and that, believe it or not, is the important thing. However, I'm not really cut-out to be a musical antiquarian. For although I may be prepared to listen to a classical composition in its rightful historical perspective, I would much rather listen to a modern one, to one which spoke directly to me. And there is much about modern music, especially rock classical, which makes me if not exactly grateful, then at least resigned to being alive in the present century rather than in some earlier and more primitive time, despite nuclear warheads, oppressive news bulletins, cultural anachronisms, hyperbolic advertisements, political confusions, ideological conflicts, economic disparities, racial tensions, industrial pollutions, and the thousand-and-one other things which constitute such an integral element of modern life. It seems almost axiomatic that the better things become in one context, the worse they get in another.... Which brings us back, if you remember, to what we were discussing earlier, about progress and regress. No matter what century you lived in, you would be able to draw up a formidable list of like-phenomena - of divine creations that scale the heights and diabolic creations that plumb the depths; of beautiful and ugly, good and evil, strong and weak, true and false things continuously co-existing in different guises, continuously influencing and spurring one another on to the establishment of new manifestations of their respective types, whether for better or worse. Reject the horrible and questionable as much as you like, but attempt to get rid of it and you will have nothing wonderful or pleasurable to fall back on. I, for one, am only too relieved to be living in an age when it is possible for a person of my temperament to witness the creative ingenuity and share in the intellectual richness of such minds as Carl Jung, Bertrand Russell, Oswald Spengler, John Cowper Powys, Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse, and Jean-Paul Sartre, to name but a handful of the truly great writers of the twentieth century. In this respect, we are more fortunate than people who lived in any previous century. No, I wouldn't wish to go back in time for anything! If it meant losing out on the experience of reading and studying writers like these - writers, by the way, who have had a seminal influence on contemporary civilization - then any other century would be anathema to me. To be sure, there were a number of great minds at work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but whether you could have got a hand on their works, whether you would have been in a position to do so, is quite a debatable, not to say doubtful, point. It often takes a number of years for the finest works to be recognized and appreciated as such, years during which they may lie neglected or slandered, mixed-up with a number of second-rate works or left to rot in a bottom draw somewhere. But even if this is still the case, even if there are still such underrated or unrecognized masterpieces in both literature and music today, at least we have the opportunity of appreciating more of what has been recognized and acclaimed for its true worth than was ever possible in the past. The modern world may be afflicted with economic recessions, but as far as culture is concerned, it has never been richer! There are more worthwhile works of genuine artistic merit available in the world today than at any earlier time, works, I need hardly remind you, which not even the most creative of the ancient Greeks could have conceived of. Indeed, when unjustly put under the scrutiny of the modern eye, they appear comparatively poverty-stricken.

STEPHEN: Well, by now I'm quite willing to believe that we are better off living today than at any former time. Even if both of us could be a lot better off in this age, it is also sufficiently evident to me that we could both be a lot worse off. No, I don't desire to dream of being a seventeenth-century nobleman or an eighteenth-century composer any more, for such dreams have worn thin on me. If I daydream about anything else, I shall remember that it's just a dream and that I'm really a product of the twentieth century who owes the pleasure of his dreaming to the fact that he occasionally rebels against it. The important thing is the dream itself, not the dubious possibility of its ever being realized.

MICHAEL: How true!