A QUESTION OF BELIEF
Copyright © 1978-2013 John O'Loughlin
1. A 'Work of Art'
2. War and Peace
3. A Question of Belief
4. Historical Perspectives
A 'WORK OF ART'
MARTIN: (Turns to his host's bookcase) I must say, John, you're certainly in possession of a much smaller collection of books than I would have expected! Why, I'd have thought, by the many works you appear to be familiar with, that you were the possessor of at least five-hundred books, not a mere forty!
JOHN: Oh, I must have collected about five-hundred books over the past six or seven years. But, eventually, I threw most of them away.
MARTIN: (Raises his brows in surprise) Why on earth did you do that?
JOHN: Simply because I had absolutely no intention of re-reading them. It seems to me that unless one is going to re-read one's books - and not just once but a number of times - there is little or no point in one's keeping them. I have no desire, these days, to be a collector for the mere sake of collecting. If I formerly had a tendency in that direction, I outgrew it over a year ago.
MARTIN: Hmm, so these 'favourite' books, which apparently constitute your chief reading material, presumably represent all of your current literary and philosophical tastes, do they?
JOHN: No, but they certainly represent a sort of quintessential distillation of all the books I have ever read. The ones you see there don't necessarily represent all of my tastes. For it occasionally happens that I add a book or two when I have grown tired of re-reading everything, and I also borrow from the local library quite regularly. But they do, at any rate, amount to the bulk of my current tastes. Unlike most book-addicts, I'm not interested in retaining anything that isn't approximately pertinent to my current lifestyle. As I change, so my book collection changes with me. Where I once grew out of toy soldiers, water pistols, Lego bricks, bicycles, and football programmes, I now grow out of particular books. I no longer keep anything that isn't more or less pertinent to my intellectual requirements.
MARTIN: I see! So Joyce's Ulysses and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are both that - more or less pertinent to your intellectual requirements or, as you also said, your current lifestyle?
JOHN: Yes and no. Though, to be honest with you, I would say 'no' more than 'yes', insofar as I make exceptions for what I consider to be the really great books. To my mind, they are above criticism. They deserve to be revered as examples of outstanding creativity. In fact, I keep them in the spirit that someone else might keep a great painting, some expensive jewellery, or a collection of important letters. I have absolutely no desire to part with that which, by dint of its outstanding creative ingenuity and intellectual magnitude, must always remain indisputably great. But there aren't too many such 'classics' in my collection, as you can see for yourself.
MARTIN: (Scans the titles) Yes, aside from The Will to Power by Nietzsche, Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings are the two most voluminous-looking books on your shelf. But I am surprised, all the same, that you should be in possession of only one book by Gide, Hesse, and Sartre! As for Henry Miller, Knut Hamsun, and John Cowper Powys - well, I'd have thought that you would surely be interested in owning more than just one book by each of them?
you see there isn't merely an incomplete selection from these authors but, on
the contrary, my final and complete selection.
The books representative of each author are the only ones that I can now
bear reading. As for the others, yes,
I've been through them all, I have even admired them all at one time or
another. But I wasn't sufficiently
impressed, in the final analysis, to regard them as indispensable. For example, my favourite
MARTIN: And you would regard these as their 'best' books?
JOHN: Well, I would certainly regard them as the
ones which mean the most to me. In
actual fact, I've read about fifteen of
MARTIN: So out they went?
JOHN: Yes. And the same principle was duly applied to all the other authors as well! They served my purposes for a time, but only for a time, since I was heaven-bent on transcending them. Indeed, it was during the course of this 'purge', if I may so call it, that I hit upon the rather unusual idea of my book collection signifying a sort of 'work of art', that's to say, something possessing significance above and beyond the mere presence of a fairly haphazard collection of diverse books. Thus this small assortment before you is, in my eyes, a kind of 'work of art', where everything has its allocated place, its reason for being there, and its link with the other books in the collection. But it is a 'work of art', however, that can be changed or modified from time to time, as occasionally happens when I either remove or incorporate another book.
MARTIN: I must confess, this sounds rather crazy to me! I don't see how any collection of books, no matter how fastidious its collector may be, can possibly be regarded in such a light. Why, a work of art involves skill, beauty, imagination, individuality!
JOHN: Yes, and so, too, believe it or not, does this collection of books, though admittedly to a lesser degree. However, I don't wish to seem pretentious or to be taken too literally here. I don't, by any means, desire to see my bookcase in a public gallery at an exhibition of modern art or anything of the kind, since that would undoubtedly tax the public's imagination and patience to an unacceptable degree - at least from the standpoint of commercial sponsorship. No, I'm merely trying to impress upon you my intention to turn a collection of books into something meaningful, integrated, even thought-provoking. In fact, it's just as important for one to consider what isn't there as to consider what is.
MARTIN: I must say, that sounds frightfully esoteric!
JOHN: Perhaps it does. But for anybody with any knowledge of literature and philosophy, for anybody with a similar taste and temperament to myself, it is bound to provoke certain relevant speculations and thereby mean something.
MARTIN: (Smiles to himself) Well, it was a pretty ingenious, not to say original, idea! But how on earth did you come-up with it in the first place?
JOHN: Tentatively. I had been confined to bed for several weeks with glandular fever. I hadn't been feeling terribly strong, and, being disinclined to read for any length of time, I tentatively hit upon the idea of having a clean-out with regard to my books. Now at that time - November of last year to be precise - they totalled some three-hundred-and-fifty, the bulk of which was shared between famous and highly influential authors like Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Cowper Powys, James Joyce, and Albert Camus. Well, not having much else to do, and feeling rather bored with the painful existence I was then leading, I crawled out of bed, slowly unloaded the shelves of my bookcase, dragged all the books to the bedside, crawled back into bed, and with a certain trepidation, as though I were about to embark on a very momentous undertaking, began flicking through one book after another principally with a view to 'weeding out' what I considered to be the second-rate, the irrelevant, the tedious, and the outmoded. After a few days of this 'weeding out' process, a time during which my health seemed to take a marked turn for the better, I had reduced my collection by about three-hundred books. I had decided to dispose of eighteen by Miller, fourteen by Hesse, eleven by Sartre, six by Powys, four by Joyce, and so on, right the way through the entire range of my collection, which eventually left me with approximately what you see before you today, minus one or two late additions. Admittedly, during the course of this 'purge', this almost pathological compulsion to compensate myself for all the boredom I had suffered at the mercy of my illness, I made a few serious mistakes - namely, by throwing out books which I subsequently, though belatedly, realized I ought to have kept. But they couldn't have amounted to more than about fifteen out of the entire three hundred, so I'm not particularly worried. Besides, if I really felt like it, I could always purchase them again somewhere.
MARTIN: Yes, and at more expense! But which books would they be?
JOHN: Oh, I can't remember them all now ... Joyce's Poems Pennyeach, Camus' Exile and the Kingdom, Cocteau's Opium, Powys' Visions and Revisions, Miller's The Wisdom of the Heart, and a few more like that, I guess. Anyway, most of those I retained are still with me and, fortunately, they're the ones which have brought me so much agreeable literary preoccupation. It is a curious thing, but a majority of authors only manage to write one really good book in their entire career, a work which seems to tower above everything else they've written, and which one can't help regarding, in spite of oneself, as their best book. Now one isn't necessarily justified in regarding it so highly; for such an attitude may often amount to little more than the by-product of personal prejudice or taste. But there is still room for an element of objectivity in these matters. For instance, I sincerely regard The Meaning of Culture as John Cowper Powys' best book. Now I haven't read more than eight or nine of his books altogether, but, even so, those I did read clearly struck me as the ones most worth reading. Perhaps I should qualify that statement by underlining the difference between his fictional and philosophical outputs. The former, from what I've seen of it, doesn't particularly appeal to me. I speak mainly from the standpoint of the latter. And The Meaning of Culture, regarded as a theoretical work, seems to me to fairly dwarf his other philosophical creations. I absolutely revere it for its wonderfully-flowing prose, its imaginative, expansive and skilfully-handled vocabulary, its profound insight into culture, especially literature, and its general outspokenness as, to me, the 'bible' of an important new creed. Take away every other Powys tome if you will, but leave me this one!
MARTIN: (Looking at the shelf upon which the tome in question stands) It appears to be the only one of his works that you've got anyway. How many times have you read it, by the way?
JOHN: About six times in the past two years.
MARTIN: And would that make it your most re-read book, then?
JOHN: No. Being a comparatively recent acquisition, it probably still has a number of re-readings to go. But since I'm only twenty-five, I haven't really had the time-span, as yet, in which to re-read certain adult books all that many times. Still, if memory serves me well, I must have read Sartre's Nausea at least eight times, Wilde's De Profundis and Other Writings seven times, Baudelaire's Intimate Journals six times, Hamsun's Mysteries five times, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer four times, and Bertrand Russell's Unpopular Essays three times. And I dare say that, if I live to be much older, I shall occasionally read them all again! However, the most sensational enthusiasm induced by any book led to my re-reading Montaigne's Essays five times in the space of three months and, scarcely less sensationally, Joyce's Ulysses three times consecutively! I was so disheartened when I first got to the end of these two books that I just had to go back to the beginning and start all over again. And each time I re-read them, I seemed to enjoy them more and more!
MARTIN: I'm certainly surprised to hear that you read Ulysses three times consecutively. Why, I couldn't even get into it once, at least not properly! But being of Joyce's nationality, I suppose you were better able to appreciate it than me.
JOHN: Well, that may or may not be. But I could only really appreciate Ulysses. You won't find any of his other writings on my shelves, though, to some extent, it's basically a question of personal taste again. However, as to what I was saying earlier about a majority of authors only doing one thing really well, it seems to me quite indisputable that the books I have mentioned, i.e. the ones on the shelves, mark a high-point in their respective authors' careers. As long as they've each written at least one work which I can regard as outstanding, then, as far as I'm concerned, they have justified their reputations as great authors. But it's almost inevitable that, no matter how good a man's writings may generally happen to be, there will always be something which stands apart from the bulk of his work and demands our acknowledgement of its greatness. And this exceptional book will fairly dwarf all the rest!
MARTIN: (Briefly scans the shelves) Yes, that may well apply to Hamsun's Mysteries. But as to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, I'm not so sure. But you evidently have your reasons ...
JOHN: One need only compare that with a majority of his subsequent books, to acquire a fairly accurate scale of relative values. Almost everything of any importance after Tropic of Cancer, with the notable exceptions of Quiet Days in Clichy, The Colossus of Maroussi, and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, was based on reminiscence or autobiography appertaining to his pre-Paris years - a thing, you'll doubtless agree, which can't help but 'tone down' a writer's enthusiasm and creative inspiration. But in the first published book, one finds, curiously enough, a level of enthusiasm and creative inspiration - not altogether dissimilar, incidentally, from the qualities to be found in Hamsun's Hunger - which he was never able to equal, let alone surpass, in his later work. Admittedly, he was getting older all the time, so it was only natural that he should increasingly reminisce. But, as far as the literary side of his work is concerned, his greatest literary achievement was consummated in Tropic of Cancer. For me, that epitomizes the genius of Henry Miller!
MARTIN: Hmm, every person is entitled to his views, I suppose. Nevertheless I do sympathize with your choice of Gulliver's Travels for Jonathan Swift. Very few people would disagree with you there!
JOHN: But, then, very few people really know that Swift wrote anything else anyway.
MARTIN: That strikes me as a palpable exaggeration!
JOHN: Well, have you read anything else by him?
MARTIN: No, as a matter of fact I haven't. But I don't see how that can have anything to do with it.
JOHN: On the contrary, it has a lot to do with it! If you haven't read anything else by him, then you don't really know what he wrote. After all, what's in a title? Would you know what Tropic of Cancer was all about just by knowing of the title?
MARTIN: No, I suppose not. Though, in getting back to the subject of Miller's book again, I'm quite surprised that you can apparently appreciate both that and works like The Meaning of Culture, De Profundis ..., and Unpopular Essays. For there would seem to be little or no connection between them.
JOHN: I can assure you, Martin, that there is a very strong connection between them! For a cultured taste doesn't 'beat about the bush' where intimations of creative greatness are concerned. And such greatness has many diverse and apparently contradictory manifestations! To stick to one manifestation for too long would eventually prove insufferable. But each man is quite different. Wilde has his views on art, Powys has his, and so does Miller. Now when you've read them all - and quite a few others besides - you select what is relevant to you, what will augment, corroborate, and clarify your own views - assuming, of course, that you happen to have any. But if you expect the views and technical approach of one man to be exactly the same as another, then you're going to be somewhat disappointed! Similarities, extensions, affinities there will always be. But if one man were to say it all, if one man were to provide a definitively sacrosanct treatise as to what art should or shouldn't be, who on earth would possibly have anything else to contribute after him? It's not for the writer of today to repeat the aesthetic or moral views of the writer of yesterday, still less for the writer of tomorrow to copy those of today! There is no eternal art, no more than there is any eternal science, politics, or religion. Where a theory applicable to the works of a former generation is no longer applicable today, it must be swept aside to make way for the new. Human attitudes change, even if the basic human archetypes remain the same. And although, contrary to Spengler's prognosis, art is unlikely to become entirely obsolete, it's certainly likely to be modified in the course of time.
MARTIN: Yes, I see your point. And I also see that you are more of a thinker than an artist, more conceptual than perceptual. Which is why, I suppose, you can appreciate such seemingly unrelated books as Tropic of Cancer and De Profundis....
JOHN: You are indeed right to say 'seemingly'. For, in reality, there exists a great deal in common between them. It seems to me that you are inclined to allow style, epoch, class, and nationality to override the profounder affinities which exist between such books. Nevertheless, what you say about my being more of a thinker than an artist is really quite true. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I'm not really an artist at all. For my real allegiance is to the philosophers, which is probably the main reason why I now admire the philosophical side of Wilde's work, including such lesser-known writings as The Rise of Historical Criticism and The Critic as Artist, more than any other. But since I don't generally prefer the Hippogriff or the Basilisk to the Truth, so I'm not opposed to a certain amount of crude realism. When, however, I've had enough of Miller and Joyce, I am glad of Tolkien or Wilde. And when I've had enough of them, I am glad of Schopenhauer or Russell. There is nothing odd about oscillating between one type of influence and another, from truth to illusion and back again. But there is certainly something odd about being too wholly partial to one or the other. For man is definitely not meant to live by truth or illusion alone!
MARTIN: Then you must be a philosopher-artist, and not just a philosopher.
JOHN: Maybe, though I don't, as yet, see any strong evidence of art - aside, that is, from the technical considerations which I choose to maintain in my writings. I have absolutely no intention of writing a poem, a play, or a novel - not at this stage in my career, anyway. But if I aspire to recording philosophical truths in my working hours, that doesn't mean to say I can't appreciate aesthetic illusions in my spare time. As can be verified by my collection of books, and not only in the sense that I have endeavoured to turn it into a sort of 'work of art'.
MARTIN: (Scans the bookshelves anew) Hmm, I can see that your little collection is a mixture of fiction and philosophy, so it would appear to confirm your intentions or predilections fairly conclusively. I very much doubt, however, that there are all that many people who would care to read philosophy all the time, even among the philosophers themselves. The four books here by Camus, for instance, provide one with a perfect example of the philosophical artist, even if the four titles by Nietzsche don't.
JOHN: Yes, Camus was more of an artist than Nietzsche, who, by contrast, you might refer to as an artist-philosopher. Still, it's very easy to be misled by what a man does and thinks, considering that some of the time one thinks exactly the opposite of what one is doing, if you will permit me a double paradox. But whether a man dupes himself into believing the contrary or not, we are all dualists, we all live according to the dictates of opposing influences. So if we aspire to the wine of truth in one context, we must pay for it with the bread of illusion in another. The philosophical artist and the artistic philosopher aren't necessarily more dualistic than either the philosopher or the artist, though they may well appear so at face-value. Give a philosopher too many sober truths to deal with, and he will soon turn to illusion for that nepenthe which the truth is denying him. Give an artist too many beautiful illusions to create and he will soon seek oblivion in truth! There is no getting away from that fact, and that is the main reason why Steppenwolf has become one of my favourite novels. For Hesse knew only too well how human nature must forever oscillate between two poles or, rather, numerous antitheses, and that a man shouldn't allow himself to become unduly annoyed or worried by the fact. However, in the Steppenwolf, poor Harry Haller was almost continuously divided against himself and suffered accordingly. Instead of the cultured man and the philistine changing places in a more or less natural fashion, the change-over - to the extent it happened at all - took place against Herr Haller's deepest wishes. For, ideally, he would rather have remained the cultured man. But the philistine, or beast in him, refused to be cheated out of its legitimate influence, and continued to intervene nonetheless. In short, Herr Haller's personality was insufficiently integrated, his dual components rarely worked together as a team; for the one attempted to destroy the other, and the resulting conflict would perhaps have led him to suicide, had he not stumbled upon the courtesan Hermine who, together with Pablo, Maria, and the Magic Theatre, duly brought about his psychological re-integration and self-acceptance as a whole man. All men are dual-natured, but the Steppenwolf signifies the crisis of a man whose dualism has, largely through force of circumstances, lost its 'harmony' and consequently become an insufferable discord. It was indeed necessary, in the end, that Haller's personality, which included his specific obsession with himself through the way he had come to view his plight, be left behind when he entered the 'Magic Theatre' of his unconscious, in order that his instinctive inclinations and archetypes, so long bottled-up, might subsequently manifest themselves in their rightful, albeit duly-distorted, perspective.
MARTIN: How complex! Fortunately for me, my knowledge of dualism is mostly confined to the practical rather than the theoretical sphere. I can certainly recall having seen the film of that novel though, and a very excellent production it was, too! There aren't too many films that I would rate above it.
entirely agree with you. For here was a
film that, with due respect to
MARTIN: It is certainly more contemporary than ... Dorian Gray, not to mention Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is another of those novels treating of the human dilemma in relation to split-personality, or the dualism within the self, and probably remains the all-time classic in the genre, transcending even Goethe's Faust.
JOHN: An enterprising suggestion, but one which, in my opinion, rather exaggerates the literary importance of Stevenson's tale, which lacks the moral and metaphysical sophistication of great philosophical literature. Still, an interesting analogy nevertheless, even if less pertinent than The Picture of Dorian Gray which, on account of the importance I attach to The Steppenwolf, is now absent from my book collection.
MARTIN: (His eyes scanning the shelves again) As I can see.
JOHN: Well, I should think that you are fairly tired of this subject by now. We haven't been in each-other's company all that long and all we have discussed, aside from 'Steppenwolfian' dualism, is my collection of books!
MARTIN: On the contrary, it is a subject that deeply interests me. When I return home, this evening, I shall wade through my own books and duly dispose of those which I consider to be superfluous to my needs or designs. Then I shall be able to create my own 'quintessential distillation' or, to quote you again, 'work of art' for future discussion with somebody else. This is an approach to collecting which is rather appealing, you know!
JOHN: I only wish it would appeal to more people. For I'm pretty sick and tired of wading through other book-collectors' mounds of mostly third-rate works!
WAR AND PEACE
MARK: (Quotes aloud from a letter by a female correspondent in a newspaper which he has just taken from the pocket of his jacket) 'This is yet another example of the cloud of violence that has invaded the modern screen and turned cinema into a den of vice. It would be better for everyone if such disgusting films were banned and their respective writers, directors, producers, and actors/actresses either imprisoned or made to pay a heavy fine. Then we might have more peace in the world and less unrest on the streets of our major cities.' - Well, what do you make of that? It certainly sounds as though the correspondent was deeply offended by what she saw at the cinema the other week, doesn't it?
PHILIP: I suppose she is one of those elderly spinsters who, in lacking a family of her own, imagines that it's her duty to protect the welfare of society instead. Either that, or she's one of those happily married mothers who, in condemning cinema, imagines she is protecting the welfare of her family by inoculating them against the celluloid iniquities of the contemporary world!
MARK: She has signed herself a Miss Edith Connors, so she might well be one of those elderly spinsters. But whoever she is, her moral squeamishness and sense of social responsibility evidently got the better of her that time! (He resumes quoting aloud from her letter) 'The film authorities should be condemned for not having banned it, and the censor condemned for not having been fastidious enough in his application to the spiritual welfare of the public at large.' - So she argues towards the end of her bad-tempered and slightly irrational letter, which must have upset or angered, not to say bemused, quite a few people, not least those who have seen or intend to see what she calls this 'Callous, brutal, and highly immoral film'!
PHILIP: I pity the censor. For he is often torn between those, on the one hand, who criticize him for censoring too much and those, on the other hand, who criticize him for censoring too little, so that he is rarely popular with anyone. To some extent, he is a sort of Christ-like figure who must bear the 'sins of the world' on his shoulders, in order that others may go free of them. For he is periodically subjected to both the wrath of the public and the writers, directors, actors, et cetera, whose hard work he may occasionally be obliged to censor. In addition, he is a sort of psychic sewer and/or drainage system through whom all the accumulated pictorial and aural filth of the human mind must pass before a film can be deemed eligible for public consumption. However, it's well-worth drawing attention to the fact that one sometimes experiences far worse scenes in one's nightmares than ever one is likely to see at the cinema, and that one's dream life, far from respecting moral scruples, will not hesitate to inflict pictorial atrocities upon one which would almost certainly be censored if shown on film! One need only bear in mind the horrific nature of certain of one's past nightmares, and the rather sobering effect they had on one, to realize that nothing shown on film can really compete with them, not even in the sometimes more lurid context of video. For one very rarely breaks out into a cold sweat after having just viewed a horror film, the way one frequently does after having just woken-up or, more probably, woken oneself up from a spine-chilling nightmare! Even that seemingly responsible correspondent whose letter you have just quoted, has probably witnessed far worse scenes in her minuscule dream-life than anything she saw at the cinema the other week. Indeed, there are certain dreams which are so ugly, so monstrous, so merciless to both oneself and those within the dream sequence, that one is ashamed of having dreamt them, dreams of which the day-time censor in us is obliged to quash the memory in the interests of one's self-respect. And there can't be a person on earth who could pretend to not having had occasional experience of those kinds of dreams!
MARK: A statement which leads me to understand that, since we don't have a censor in our dreams, there would seem to be no reason why we should have one in connection with films.
PHILIP: No, I don't think you ought to construe that idea from my words. For the world of dreams is an entirely private affair, against which the individual is virtually powerless to intervene, whereas the world of films is an entirely public affair for which, as with all such affairs, society must take some responsibility. Hence it's only proper that some form of censorship should be imposed, where thought necessary, on that which may influence the collective psyche of a people in a detrimental manner. And not only for the benefit of those to whom a film is shown but, no less importantly, for the benefit of those who made it, since without the threat of censorship, their work might well degenerate into something unspeakably banal, tedious, and predictable, while the actors might be exploited more ruthlessly and shamelessly than would otherwise be the case. But, even so, modern censorship is by no means over-conservative or over-fastidious in its attitude to what should or shouldn't be shown and, as the example of that irate letter-writer will attest, it is sometimes sharply criticized by those who somehow feel that it should be more stringent and discriminating than currently seems to be the case. However, no matter what one does or says, one can't please everyone, and it's highly probable that if a majority of violent films were made less violent for the sake of those who belong to Miss Connors' disapproving class, you would then encounter a whole barrage of accusative letters from people who were either bored or offended by the absence of suitable excitement. So, in the long run, it's up to the film industry to do what it is in a position to do, irrespective of the hostile criticisms it may receive from those who think they know better! As Baudelaire so well expressed it in his Intimate Journals: 'The world only goes round by misunderstanding. It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill-luck, people understood each other, they would never agree'.
MARK: Yes, that quotation is certainly apposite in the context under discussion, isn't it? Still, there seems to be an increasing number of letters in this and other papers from people who are sincerely offended by all the violence, sex, foul language, and crime portrayed both at the cinema and on television/video these days. Now, although I can't entirely sympathize with them, I believe that in some cases they have a fairly valid point. After all, is there anyone who hasn't been offended by a film or part of a film at some time in his life, even if not very deeply? And is a person necessarily a wimp or an old-fashioned prig simply because he finds a particular film unduly offensive and subsequently complains about it in the press? It appears absolutely indisputable to me that immorality of one kind or another has become, over the past two or three decades, increasingly prevalent in society, in consequence of which the world, and the Western part of it not least, is now subjected to the contemplation of more intentionally brutal, vulgar, sensationalist films than at any time since the dawn of cinema.
PHILIP: Yes, it's undoubtedly true that the West is being subjected to the spectacle of increasingly violent films these days. But I think you must also remember that modern society isn't fundamentally the most exciting of societies and that, to a certain extent, violent films help compensate for a lack of excitement in other contexts by providing a surrogate excitement of their own.
MARK: In other words, without a steady barrage of brutal films, society would be more boring than at present?
PHILIP: No, without a steady barrage of brutal films it would probably be more violent than at present. The film industry isn't an isolated phenomenon which has little or no effect on society as a whole, but a highly integrated part of it, something that helps make contemporary society what it is. Consequently its removal would not mean that, deprived of this sublimated species of entertainment, society would necessarily become more boring, but that it would have to find an alternative mode of excitement elsewhere. And one can only assume that such an alternative mode would take the form of actual rather than simulated violence. After all, you mustn't forget that we still live, if only just, in a humanistic age, and that film provides a catharsis for pressures which might otherwise be vented on actual people, and probably in the most brutal fashion. For man is neither an angel nor a demon, but a paradoxical combination of both!
MARK: Yes, that may be, but I'm not at all convinced that the cinema does in fact provide a viable catharsis, or that simulated violence, insofar as it is simulated, is as psychologically convincing as would be the bloody spectacle of an actual gladiatorial combat between well-armed men in a specially-designed arena. I am quite confident that the ancient Romans would have obtained more excitement or satisfaction from watching suitably-trained men actually killing one another, than a modern cinema audience can ever hope to obtain from watching a film with suitably-trained actors pretending to kill one another. Consequently I'm strongly inclined to believe that the psychological inadequacy of the spectacle of simulated violence on screen only serves to perpetuate real violence off it, because too many people, instead of being appeased by the gruesome spectacle before them, only have their appetite for violence whetted all the more, with the unfortunate outcome that they foolishly strive to emulate and even surpass their favourite actors.
PHILIP: I think that is one of the most misguided notions in existence, and one, moreover, which seems to imply that actual gladiatorial combats would be more psychologically beneficial to the public than the contemplation of simulated violence on the screen! But we still live, to repeat, in an age of humanism, not of paganism, and so it's therefore unthinkable that people should revert to killing one another on a regular basis, just for the sake of entertaining somebody else!
MARK: Naturally, I didn't intend to imply that society should literally revert to gladiatorial murder in such pagan fashion, but simply that, as a vehicle for authentic catharsis and the attendant sublimation of certain violent impulses in man, film is ultimately an inadequate device which only serves to encourage actual violence by setting a bad example. This fact has been demonstrated time and time again!
PHILIP: True, there are people who endeavour to imitate their film heroes or who are sadly influenced by various sordid aspects of the world portrayed on screen, whether big or small, but, in all fairness, I would hesitate to number them among the majority of regular film-viewers, or, for that matter, to credit them with very much intelligence. They are fundamentally the type of people who, if they weren't encouraged to indulge in violence by the latest brutal film, would find some other pretext for indulging it instead! But I can tell you that not one of the war films I have ever seen has made it imperative for me to start a war with somebody as soon as I left the cinema or, alternatively, to plan a war with somebody during the subsequent weeks. And if that sounds a little too fantastic, then let me bring the context nearer the realms of plausibility by informing you that, after viewing the first Death Wish movie and certain other similar portrayals of urban terrorism, I had not the slightest desire to either mug or rape anyone, but only a strong desire to forget about most of what I had seen! And, in saying this, I'm by no means speaking from a minority viewpoint.
MARK: Well, maybe that is true as far as the more sensible people are concerned. But it is still a fact that the minority to whom it doesn't apply are more numerous than you might care to believe. And, of course, it's also true to say that, even with the formidable presence of the film industry and its possible cathartic overtones, there is still a lot of actual violence in contemporary society, such as can be found, for example, at football matches, nightclubs, and political demonstrations, not to mention the racial tensions, the expanding crime figures in certain fields, the regular terrorist activities which cloud our age and against which the so-called cathartic effects of film are virtually powerless.
PHILIP: Indeed. But it is also worth remembering that a majority of people aren't regular cinema-goers, since contemporary populations are so large and varied, in their interests, that the excitement afforded certain people by one species of commitment or entertainment would be largely irrelevant to the needs of those tens of thousands, if not millions of people who are regularly entertained or preoccupied by another. So it would be quite foolish to blame the cinema for the violence traditionally associated with football matches or, alternatively, to blame footballers or even football hooligans for the violence commonly associated with certain political demonstrations, or, again, to blame political demonstrations for the violence which sometimes occurs at nightclubs, and so on. All one can be certain of is that there are worlds within worlds, and that each of these worlds has its own specific brand of violence and, doubtless, its own incentive for indulging in it. But violence of one form or another there will probably always be, and it is quite silly of anyone to presume that society is imperfect in consequence. After all, we are men, not angels or machines, and so a certain degree of violence is always legitimate, even though it may take numerous guises and sometimes give one the impression, when viewed subjectively, that society is a mess. But one ought to be thankful, during peace time, that there is really so little serious damage done through violence. For a majority of people somehow manage to survive from one day to another, and the violence which does occur is usually - exceptions to the rule notwithstanding - of a relatively superficial nature. Of course, I don't wish to give you the impression that things are better than they really are or, for that matter, to condone the violence which sometimes takes place, even these days, at or around certain football matches. But I'm fully aware that things could be much worse than they are, so that to exaggerate such sporadic outbursts of brutal activity as do occur is to turn one's back on human nature and expect the impossible - namely no violence whatsoever, which can only be described as a gross self-deception! Thus whilst I can understand that society should take certain measures to curb football hooliganism, it seems utterly preposterous to me that it should endeavour to stamp-out violence altogether, since if the will to brutality is successfully thwarted in one context, it will sooner or later break-out with redoubled might and quickly establish itself in another - a situation which will eventually give rise to worse problems. But football hooliganism isn't, by any means, the only kind of violence to which contemporary society has been subjected, though, on account of the general popularity that football enjoys amongst a large proportion of the male population in most countries, we needn't be surprised if it should traditionally have been one of the principal kinds, especially in the days before all-seater stadia became a mandatory requirement for the top clubs and people were packed together like sardines. However that may be, we should distinguish between legitimate violence, which is approved by the State, and what one might call illegitimate violence, which isn't approved by it. Now in football it's the players who, up to a point, enjoy the former, while the more unruly elements of the opposing supporters engender the latter. And such is the case right the way through society, with legitimate and illegitimate types of violence accompanying each other to the alternating response of approval and disapproval, acceptance and rejection, encouragement and discouragement.
MARK: So you evidently believe that there will never come a time when violence is entirely stamped out of human society?
PHILIP: Yes, as long as we remain men and don't turn into lopsided monsters or mechanized automatons, there will always be some kind of violence, even if only in the context of computer games. For an over-peaceful society would be a danger to both itself and the coming generations, who would inherit the accumulated repressions of their forebears and thereby be at risk of becoming more violent than they might otherwise have been. A man who aspires to being more good or placid or kind or whatever than he ought legitimately to be, is really behaving irresponsibly, since responsibility has close connections with the extent to which one faces-up to the human condition and accepts human nature for what it is, i.e. for the dualism it is, instead of foolishly endeavouring to impose one's own rather perverted criterion upon it, to the detriment of both oneself and the society in which one lives. You might know that the expression 'to run amok' was derived from an historical situation in Malaysia where men who had been highly respected, peaceful, and law-abiding citizens until their middle years suddenly 'ran amok', with dagger or cleaver in hand, and murdered as many people as possible, to the utter astonishment of all those who had known of their previous exemplary conduct! Yet this strange phenomenon could be regarded as the inevitable penalty such men seemingly had to pay for having denied themselves as human beings, for having been much too one-sided, much too partial in their attitude to morality, and thus for having gradually created too many repressions fatally contradictory to human nature. And so, in order to restore a balance and thereby safeguard what little sanity they still possessed, an immutable law of their being coerced them into committing a major evil which, paradoxically, would somehow atone for all the minor evils they had hitherto avoided or repressed.
MARK: Thus the men who mistakenly thought they ought to be angels were ultimately compelled to become demons, before they could recover their basic humanity and thereby exist, no matter how briefly, as a combination of both?
PHILIP: Yes, that is probably the case. And so it's a profound lesson to us that we should acknowledge the irresponsibility of a man who either despises or lacks the courage to face-up to human nature, and is subsequently compelled to accept it the hard way - through direct participation in some monstrous outrage! But that is only one way of looking at the problem, since it could also be caused by the fact that the society in which such a man lives imposes far too many social constraints upon him, and thereby forces him into an unnaturally one-sided, over-placid role. In fact, I am strongly inclined to believe that this was the main reason behind such sporadic outbursts of violence as that to which I have just alluded, because the Orient, through the traditional influence of its major religions, has hitherto put more emphasis, in general terms, on placidity and gentleness than the Occident, and such an inclination has often led to fatal consequences not only in Malaysia but in India, Burma, and Tibet, where the accumulated repressions brought about by years of dedicated service to Buddhist, Hindu, or similar ideals ultimately broke through the façade of gentleness, in various ostensibly righteous citizens, and subsequently led to mass murder and/or rape. Indeed, you may remember from the history books concerning India and its British rulers that the latter often had a difficult task in controlling the periodic outbreaks of violence which took place within the indigenous population under the guise of religious sectarianism but which, on a profounder evaluation, were probably the result of the ethical constraints that had been imposed upon them from time immemorial and could no longer be maintained with any great success. And so religion served as a useful pretext for the shedding of innocent blood, much as though a blood sacrifice was the price that had to be paid by the long-term devotees of such ethical constraints.
MARK: True, and if it is not religion it's politics, equality, or freedom - something, in other words, that will provide an adequate excuse for brutality and thus justify its continuance.
PHILIP: Precisely! And not without reason. For society is just as entitled to the use of a collective persona, or mask, as its individual members to the use of a personal one, and so must it always be! Our cynicism in the face of such collective pretexts as religion, politics, sport, et cetera, does little to undermine their basic validity. For our self-respect is not geared to violence for the sake of violence but to violence with a cause and, except in those comparatively rare instances of people who are the victim of some form of pathological derangement, it will always prevent us from acting contrary to our self-interest. Hence it is not surprising, as Eugene Ionesco noted in his Journal en Miettes, loosely translatable as 'Fragments of a Journal', that people will never entirely 'demystify' themselves, even though many of them may pretend to have done so. But, as far as the overall psychic hygiene of a nation is concerned, there can be no pretext so efficacious as war, since it is the ultimate pretext for enabling various peoples to murder one another with a relatively clear conscience, and to do so, moreover, in the interests of a future peace.
MARK: So you are evidently not a pacifist?
PHILIP: No, because I don't see how human beings can possibly circumvent the basic dualistic drives to which they are eternally subject, by dint of their common human nature. It's as difficult to imagine a life without war as to imagine one without nightmares, diseases, deaths, or crimes. Now although we may loathe the prospect of war as much as if not more than the prospect of one or another of these alternative evils, we are ultimately as powerless to prevent its occurrence as to prevent their occurrence - certainly while things remain in an open-society framework, at any rate! We may make as many resolutions and plans as we like, but sooner or later the Law of Averages will swing back towards us and engulf us in its inexorable logic. Yet it is as logical that people should become inordinately idealistic just after the conclusion of a major war - and thereupon make brazen statements about eternal peace or a war to end all wars, et cetera - as that they should become inordinately realistic or, more correctly, naturalistic just before the beginning of one. For, in the former case, the demon in man has been temporarily placated and the angel has come to the fore, whereas, in the latter case, the demon has been temporarily repressed and the angel has become oppressive, thus creating a tension which can only be relieved through violence.
MARK: Then you're suggesting that too much war and peace would be equally detrimental to man's psychic equilibrium, and would amount, eventually, to a caricature of both?
PHILIP: Yes, which is why society becomes increasingly violent just prior to a major war and increasingly peaceful just after one, as can be verified by a study of recent history. But, controversial though some of what we're saying may be, I don't seriously believe that there will ever be a complete cessation of war, whatever its subsequent transmutations, not even if and when the people of this planet join together under the protection of a central administrative body with a monopoly on armed force, because the world in only a tiny part of the Galaxy, of which the Sun is but a minor star, and the Galaxy itself is only a tiny part of the Universe, about which our knowledge is, as yet, comparatively limited. So it seems probable to me that, after the cessation of world wars, mankind will then enter an epoch of interplanetary wars, from which epoch they may well proceed to one of galactic wars, after which, assuming mankind survives in any recognizable form, they might even proceed to an epoch of intergalactic wars, and finally to one of universal wars, the greatest of them all! But even if this last hypothetical development isn't liable to occur for several centuries, if ever it does, there is no reason for us to assume that, with the cessation of world wars, this planet will be immune to the influence of other solar systems, the nearest of which probably being the first to produce a planet on which the life forms of another species may well wage martial conflict with the earth.
MARK: But what reason or reasons would the inhabitants of a nearby solar system possibly have for waging war with future generations of people here on earth?
PHILIP: As many reasons, I dare say, as people on earth have hitherto had for waging war between themselves, the most important doubtless being the need to placate a dualism which requires unremitting fidelity from its multitudinous subjects, and has little or no use for a lopsided pacifism. After all, it's as impossible to conceive of advanced life-forms who aren't dualistic but can still exist ... as to conceive of advanced life-forms who are dualistic but can't exist. One can only assume that if advanced beings do exist on various other planets in different solar systems, then their existence would be on a similar basis to that which makes it possible for us to exist here, and with similar metaphysical obligations. However, in attempting to answer your question more concretely, I can quite imagine an interplanetary war being sparked off by such things as a mutual or unilateral fear of the other planet's power, a dispute over territorial rights in space, the need of one planet to colonize another in order to secure more land for its teeming populations, or because it is being threatened with extinction through the cooling or gradual disintegration of its sun, or because it has run out of suitable natural or other resources and is thereby threatened with widespread disease and starvation, or because a future Helen of Troy is abducted by a 'foreign' power, to the great dismay of the 'robbed' power, or because both powers are competing for similar galactic spoils, and so on. Hence the patterns that we have seen emerge between two or more countries on earth, over the centuries, could quite conceivably be repeated on a larger scale between two or more planets in this galaxy, with similarly violent consequences for the opposing sides. Yet war isn't a thing that one can depend upon to occur at such-and-such a date, but is something which usually strikes peoples 'out of the blue', as though triggered by the most unlikely event. For, with the best will in the world, the precautions which a group of nations may take to prevent its occurrence may only serve, in the long run, to provoke it or, at any rate, prove an inadequate safeguard against the wheel of chance and the blow of fate which suddenly beleaguer them from unexpected quarters.
MARK: Yes, that wheel of chance and blow of fate could well strike our divided world at any time now, particularly if the leading nations continue to amass weapons and missiles with the same intensity as they have shown over the past three or more decades! For one can't help feeling that, sooner or later, the vast stockpiles amassed by each side will coerce the powers concerned into justifying their military expenditure, technology, training, development, et cetera, by making use of the infernal means at their disposal. In other words, a representative conscience of the peoples concerned will make it perfectly clear to their national vanity that they're not amassing warheads, say, for the mere sake of it, since that would be sheer insanity, but in order to protect themselves against external encroachments, should they suddenly find their country hurled into a nuclear conflict. And so it is virtually inevitable, if the peoples concerned aren't to go completely mad, that such a war will eventually come to pass. Otherwise, they'll have so many weapons and missiles at their disposal that they won't know where to put them all, and the workers who manufacture them will be coerced into assuming that their hard work is entirely gratuitous, and may well end-up becoming neurotic or going mad. Then, of course, the tax payer will be angered by the fact that so much of his hard-earned money is being continually wasted on superfluous military considerations and that many of the formerly important warheads for which he had paid through the nose are regularly being rendered obsolete by the invention and development of still better ones, so that, with a little prompting from his unconscious, he will rebel in some way against the existing regime and thereby bring about a state of internal crisis, which would not be the best thing for national security!
PHILIP: Indeed, I entirely agree with much of what you are saying, especially with regard to the virtual inevitability of another major war. For I don't see how the major nations can possibly refrain, eventually, from justifying their military expenditure, et cetera, in the usual fashion. Like Bertrand Russell, whose essay The Future of Mankind is most relevant in this context, I don't see how the peoples directly afflicted by the tensions engendered by ideological division can possibly tolerate the perpetuation of such tensions for ever - tensions which can only worsen with the passing of time. So much as I may abhor the prospect of a nuclear war, I can no more convince myself that it will never happen ... than I can convince myself that a divided earth would successfully be able to defend itself against a strong alien aggressor should the armies of a hostile planet subsequently decide to invade it, since a divided planet, much as it may be adequately prepared for a world war, would certainly be ill-equipped to deal with an interplanetary one.
MARK: Because it would refuse to become an integrated whole in the face of alien opposition?
PHILIP: No, not entirely. For even with the best intentions in the world it would be unable to become an integrated whole in that event, since an ideological confrontation between capitalism and socialism, or liberalism and some form of communism, no matter how democratized, would still exist even then. But, more importantly, because its current warheads are not programmed and designed for an interplanetary war, i.e. to repel an attack from outer space, but only for a war fought solely on this earth. So it's inconceivable that it would be able to adequately defend itself, should such a situation arise in the foreseeable future. Only once a world war had been fought and the victorious side duly brought the losers under the rule of a central administration, could the surviving people of this planet begin to turn their attention towards the creation and development of interplanetary warheads, in order that they may be equipped to deal with an attack from outer space. Admittedly, such speculation may seem a trifle farfetched, if not unrealistic, at present, but it is of the utmost importance to the future security of this planet that it should evolve to a point where, with the cessation of world wars, such seemingly farfetched speculation will subsequently become fact, and the world be obliged to establish an ideological polarity not within itself, but in relation to the inhabitants of a nearby solar system.
MARK: You seem highly optimistic, I must say, not only about the probable establishment of a future world administration but, no less incredibly, about the prospects of people surviving a nuclear war - the worst possible kind of war? Surely there is every reason to believe that Western civilization will be entirely destroyed, should the worst come to the worst and the most powerful nations on earth release their pent-up barrage of nuclear warheads!
PHILIP: Admittedly, I may appear highly optimistic, but I can assure you that I'm doing my utmost to be highly realistic! Whether a world administration could be established after a nuclear war, is open to debate. For we cannot be sure that any future world war would be conclusive, or that it wouldn't lead to yet other such wars. But with modern technological advances pushing ahead as quickly as at present, both on earth and in space, coupled to the increasing pace of man's psychic evolution these days, it seems rather unlikely that a world administration will be all that long in coming. However, as to the survival of the human kind should such a war come to pass, I know for a fact that some peoples, including the Swiss and the Swedes, have taken extensive precautions to ensure that as many of their citizens as possible are safeguarded by the use of underground shelters, shelters which are equipped with every convenience and stored with sufficient provisions to last their inhabitants several years. And in these elaborate shelters, people will be almost completely immune to the physical shocks and deprivations of the outside world.
MARK: But those protected by such ingenious underground shelters won't really amount to a very large percentage of the human race, will they?
PHILIP: No, that is perfectly true. But, even so, the world is so large that it is by no means inconceivable that a large percentage of the human and animal populations would in any case escape death or injury by dint of living in fairly remote regions of the earth or, alternatively, in fairly densely-populated countries not directly implicated in the conflict, countries which could only be peripheral targets, if at all, to the main adversaries. But even in countries most directly involved in our hypothetical conflict, it's quite probable that a significant percentage of their populations would also escape death or injury, for reasons similar to those already mentioned.
MARK: But even if people living in the less densely-populated areas of, say, the United States aren't directly or immediately affected by enemy missiles, isn't it likely that they would eventually succumb if not to economic chaos then almost certainly to radioactive pollution of the atmosphere, to the large-scale spread of nuclear fallout?
PHILIP: Yes, of course it is likely that many people would become a victim to spreading radiation. But it's just as likely that radiation wouldn't spread everywhere and that, with the accelerated pace of evolution usually induced by the exigencies of modern warfare, a viable technique would be devised for countering its spread and simultaneously neutralizing its effect. After all, one of the most advantageous consequences to emerge from the Second World War was the development of rockets, which have since enabled man to reach the moon and discover important things about his planetary environment, things which may well play a far more important role in the affairs of the earth than we are yet prepared to acknowledge. So it is as well to bear in mind that 'out of evil cometh good'. For when it is a matter of life-and-death, the human kind can be forced into developing technological possibilities which they would never have thought themselves capable of in peace time. However, the extent of man's ingenuity or resourcefulness would certainly be called into play again if the nature and duration of the conflict so demanded. Hence it is not altogether impossible that better systems of defence would be evolved during the conflict than had existed in peace time. But it could well be that, in the event of a nuclear war actually taking place, a majority of the opposing missiles would be so effectively intercepted before they had hit their targets, that something along the lines of a conventional war would consequently be imposed upon the main combatants, with a further consequence that less people would be detrimentally affected by it than might otherwise be the case. However, speculation aside, it is my firm conviction that there would be survivors, and that they would witness the dawn of a new age.
MARK: An utterance, if I may say so, which makes it seem as though war is an ultimate necessity, with a definite place in the evolution of civilization and a beneficial consequence to those who survive it!
PHILIP: Indeed, in the final analysis, war is ultimately necessary, as can be seen from a close study of history and the fundamentals of human nature. For it always takes place for a definite, valid reason, and to suppose that there will ever be an age when, no matter what transmutations it may subsequently undergo, progress will have rendered it entirely obsolete, is as fatuous, short-sighted, and irresponsible as to suppose that there will ever be an age when nightmares, diseases, worries, accidents, pains, and physical deformities will likewise have been rendered obsolete. No matter how far we men evolve, over the coming centuries, we shall always be subject to a dual integrity, to good and evil in relative doses, since it's just as impossible for us to be wholly good as to be wholly evil. Progress may do a lot to change our various lifestyles, but it will never change our fundamental nature, which is entirely beyond its power. Admittedly, science fiction may show us a world whose inhabitants know nothing of war, violence, sickness, hatred, et cetera, because science fiction is more of an art than a science and therefore has a right to create imaginary worlds beyond the realms of plausibility. But although it points the way to the future in some respects, it by no means does so in every respect, with a consequence that many of the so-called 'advanced' civilizations you read about or watch on television aren't as indicative of ethical and social progress as might at first appear. On the contrary, they're usually the imaginative presentation of their author's conscious or unconscious idealism. For I don't seriously believe that one would ever encounter a civilization anywhere in the Universe that had no regular experience of evil and no grammatical equivalent, in consequence, for the word 'vicissitude'.
MARK: Yes, you are probably right, although it would be untrue to imagine that all sci-fi authors indulge in that kind of utopian portrayal, because one also encounters so-called 'advanced' civilizations which have been warring on one another for years and know every conceivable vicissitude. But you're undoubtedly right to assume that one could occasionally be misled by such authors into taking something for a perfect society which, in reality, would be anything but perfect. Or, alternatively, into taking something for progress which, in reality, would be anything but progressive. I suppose that is the danger inherent in the kind of idealism which imagines itself the nearest thing to perfection when, in reality, it is really a lopsided, crack-brained, highly-dubious concept that would undoubtedly bring ruination upon anyone who was foolish or naive enough to seriously believe in it! Indeed, it's the old story of the perfect society always being somehow vastly different from the society in which normal circumstances oblige one to live - a utopia that, if one could ever experience it for any length of time, would prove to be a hundred times worse than everyday reality.
PHILIP: And just as many people fail to understand in the concepts of Heaven and Hell that, from a human point of view, eternal bliss and eternal torment would be equally execrable in the similarity of their respective extremities, so a large number of them fail to appreciate that, strange as it may seem, life isn't being ruined by the intermittent prevalence of nightmares, wars, floods, hardships, diseases, brutalities, storms, frustrations, fears, doubts, angers, earthquakes, et cetera, but protected from the ruination that would otherwise befall it if, by some remote chance, it were to become too one-sided.
MARK: An utterance, if I may say so, which has all the wisdom of a Montaigne behind it and all the insight of a Nietzsche in front of it!
PHILIP: A very flattering remark, Mark, but one which your incomparable charm compels me to accept, and partly on account of the fact that I have recently been reading The Maxims of François de la Rochefoucauld, that great seventeenth-century French moralist, and encountered one which read: 'Though we believe on occasion that we detest flattery, it is only the flatterer's manner that we find detestable.'
MARK: Well, it's not often that I indulge in flattery, particularly with you!
PHILIP: No, and I, for one, very rarely grant you the opportunity to flatter me! However, in returning to what I was saying about science fiction, I didn't intend to give you the impression that all sci-fi authors indulge in a sort of bogus utopian speculation which, did they but know it, does a disservice to the concept of progress, but simply that one can encounter rather unconvincing portrayals of social progress within the realm of science fiction. Yet, in some respects, society never changes. There is, to cite Nietzsche, an 'eternal recurrence' which grants a given pattern of vicissitude to every age, and which always recurs so long as organized societies continue to exist. Of course, man has often dreamed, in his hard-pressed life, of a millennial utopia, a time when all the obstacles to his ultimate happiness will have been finally overcome and he will wallow thereafter in a sort of earthly paradise, where nothing can ever go wrong and no external evil assail him. But such a paradisiacal utopia is never likely to come about, not even after the world has been unified under a central administration and the possibility of subsequent world wars been averted. For it's not man's fate to inherit the bliss of an earthly paradise, but to recognize the truth of his dual nature. Now just as modern man has overcome many problems to which his ancestors succumbed, only to find himself beset by problems of which they never even dreamed, so future man will overcome many of our problems, only to find himself beset by problems unknown to us, since this is the eternal law of vicissitude, so to speak, which makes every age to some extent the double and equal of every other. Naturally, life can be very cruel. But if it were all kindness, none of us would be able to tolerate living it. Yet that is really idle conjecture, because none of us will ever be eligible to sample a life that was all kindness anyway since, by its one-sided nature, it would run completely contrary to life. But if we persist in imagining that an eternal peace on earth will bring us the Utopian Millennium, and thereby constitute the ideal human society, we shall only have ourselves to blame when we eventually discover, to our considerable dismay, that our souls are suffering more from the effects of the extended peace than they would otherwise have suffered from the experience of periodic wars. Or, put another way, when we eventually discover that the so-called peace we are living through isn't as peaceful as it should be, due to the fact that the immutable dualism of our deepest selves is re-channelling our aggression, frustration, discontent, hatred, et cetera, into everyday society on a level which virtually turns that society into a battleground, and gives to our various relationships, both private and public, the overtones of a civil war.
MARK: You mean that no amount of self-deception can prevent our fundamental nature from being itself and somehow finding an approximate balance within the confines of a given context, because an extended peace eventually has the effect of engendering a subterranean civil war and, conversely, an extended war the effect of engendering a subterranean military peace?
PHILIP: Yes, the subterranean civil-war aspect of those populous societies which haven't experienced an official war for some time can be seen, all too poignantly, in the recent increase of civil disquiet - the proliferation of terrorism, assassination, kidnapping, football hooliganism, vandalism, racial tension, rape, industrial unrest, political instability, unemployment, et cetera, all of which can only reach a sickening level in an age when the lengthy absence of a tangible external enemy - or the difficulty of creating one - makes it virtually imperative for a nation to turn its bellicose attitude inwards and to find its chief enemies or scapegoats within itself, with the unfortunate consequence that, instead of pulling itself together for its own good, such a nation is gradually compelled to tear itself apart, thereby creating serious social, economic, and political hardships. Hence you can see why too much peace, i.e. too long a period without a tangible external enemy, is inevitably detrimental to the internal security and integrity of a densely populated nation. Just as too much solitude is likewise detrimental to the internal security and integrity of certain individuals, who may well implode. For, in the one case, the object of hatred has to be found within itself, whilst, in the other case, it has to be found within the self, both cases ultimately leading to a very unhealthy situation! It remains to be seen, thereafter, how long the nations concerned can persist in tolerating their respective internal conflicts, both in an economic and a social sense, before circumstances eventually compel them to avert the prospect of either wholesale anarchy and revolution or, worse again, civil war, by provoking hostilities with a foreign power. Then perhaps they will have every reason to direct their attentions away from their domestic squabbles and towards issues of a far wider and more consequential import, thereby diverting aggression outwards. So, strange as it may seem, there is no reason to believe that it is war which is the real threat to the survival of organized society so much its long-term absence, and that one shouldn't be misled by the peaceful examples of small countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg into imagining that their traditional neutrality in the face of European war has brought them greater sanity. For with a small and thinly-populated country it isn't so much unparalleled wisdom that keeps them neutral ... as the fact that their comparative military weakness virtually precludes them from declaring hostilities. And one would do well to bear in mind that they doubtless suffer from their neutrality in a way which it would be difficult for those who have experience of a major war to understand. However, nationality aside, some men are much more outwardly placid than others and are thereby deceived by their condition into assuming that war is unnecessary, into taking what may be their own highly cultured viewpoint for the norm, and thus entirely overlooking the fact that, for a majority of men, matters are really quite otherwise. Such placid types have often got into trouble with the state for their pacifism, and more than a few have even been imprisoned in times of war, when their persistent peace propaganda threatened the overall security of the nation far more than enemy bombs or guns ever did. But peace propaganda, in any age and in whatever form, only serves to make it perfectly clear that, broadly speaking, it isn't natural for human beings to be perpetually at peace, since, if it were so, they wouldn't require such propaganda in the first place. In fact, they wouldn't require anything of the kind at all.
MARK: So anti-war propaganda is superfluous?
PHILIP: On the contrary, it is highly useful, because it helps to create a pro-peace psychology in people which, up to a point, is by no means a bad idea. But, like everything else, it has a time and a place, and there are times and places when it becomes more of a hindrance to society than an aid. Such as, for example, during the course of a major war, when the untimely use of such propaganda could contribute towards bringing about a capitulation which would inevitably prove detrimental to the future interests of the country concerned. However, there is a species of anti-war propaganda available today which is perfectly valid in light of what could happen to the world, should the major powers subsequently decide to use the nuclear weapons at their disposal. For, in that event, there would hardly be a war at all but, rather, an instantaneous elimination of vast populations. Paradoxical though it may appear, we must differentiate between war as something that breaks-up peace and, in the final analysis, authenticates it, and a foolhardy launching of nuclear missiles at vast populations of civilian life, to the ultimate detriment not only of the millions of innocent people who would be killed or maimed, but also to the ultimate detriment of the opposing armies, whose millions of well-armed, well-trained men would then become utterly superfluous. I mean, what is the point of the capitalist/socialist, or liberal/communist, opponents having vast armies equipped with the best possible weapons, if their nuclear warheads are going to do all or most of the damage, and thereby render the technology, military expertise, and 'art' of soldiering largely if not entirely superfluous? For, when all's said and done, nuclear weapons could become the greatest possible danger to both war and peace alike!
MARK: You mean that whilst a conventional war might not be a bad thing for the world as we know it, an indiscriminate nuclear war would render conventional war obsolete, turning the civilian populations into corpses even before their armies had reached their respective battle lines?
PHILIP: No, I mean that an indiscriminate nuclear war would hardly be war at all but, rather, an experiment in clearing this planet of life in the quickest possible time! Now while war, as I understand it, may ultimately be of some use to mankind, the threat of total extinction certainly isn't! So it's of the utmost importance to differentiate between them and to hope, in the honourable names of evolution, progress, civilization, culture, humanity, et cetera, that, in the event of a third world war, the belligerent nations will have enough sense to keep their most lethal weapons safely under lock-and-key in honour not only of their respective armies, navies, and air forces, but, more importantly, of all life on this planet, no matter what its shape, colour, or size, which isn't directly or even indirectly involved in the conflict, and which may one day rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a divided world. So whilst I'm not entirely opposed to war, I am certainly opposed to that which would put an end to both war and peace for ever!
MARK: Yes, so am I. Though, despite what you said earlier about the possibility of survivors, I still don't see how the world could escape such a dreadful fate, in the event of another world war. For even if the main parties to it initially made a pact not to use their most lethal weapons, or only to target enemy military installations and troop concentrations with comparatively less-lethal ones, it's highly doubtful that they would honour such a pact as the war became more bitter and their respective losses and grudges against one another mounted, with the passing of time.
PHILIP: Quite so! Since it is natural for the main combatants to become increasingly unreasonable as they suffer more from each other's aggression, their strategic positions perhaps even deteriorating to a point where anything is deemed permissible. But, as I also remarked earlier, it isn't altogether impossible, in the event of a nuclear escalation, that most of the opposing missiles would be successfully intercepted before they reached their targets and, furthermore, that anything approximating to a large bomber would be shot down before it could do any serious damage over enemy territory, thus making the dropping of large bombs a much more difficult and hazardous task than the firing of large missiles. But war of one kind or another there will probably always be, and if the world population isn't to become so large that it becomes more of a danger to the survival of homo sapiens than anything else, then it is important that it should be periodically checked or reduced by what can only be described as the fairest means available, since personal grudges are set aside with the indiscriminate elimination of enemy strangers who happen to belong to a different race, creed, or ideology.
MARK: Indeed, I agree that human population must be periodically reduced or, at any rate, controlled. But, all the same, there is a vast difference between reducing it for its own good and almost entirely eliminating it! For, whatever the means employed, there would certainly be far more people killed in a third world war than had ever been killed in any previous one.
PHILIP: Yes, that is probably true. But you mustn't forget that there are far more human beings in the world today than at any earlier time in history, and that if they continue to multiply over the next thirty years as they have been doing over the past thirty, then not only will they be the chief danger to themselves, but the chief danger to every other species of life on this planet as well! So, difficult as it may seem to us, it's virtually imperative that a future war should cause more fatalities than any previous one did, if it isn't to become a mere caricature of them. Nature, remember, is greater than we, it works through and above us, and usually it ensures that its various offspring are kept within reasonable population bounds, that the inter-predatory principles of the animal kingdom apply equally well in other kingdoms, too! Now although our vanity as men may occasionally lead us to imagine that we are not subject to it, our nature as men mostly proves the contrary. For we can no more ignore its influence than can those species who commit mass suicide when their numbers become too great, or those species who regularly prey upon certain other species in the interests of both their own survival and the maintenance of an ecological balance.
MARK: But surely the recent fall in the birth rate in this and various other densely-populated countries throughout the world is sufficient proof that nature has devised a way of reducing human populations in a peaceful way at last?
PHILIP: Perhaps. But in such a way as to render modern life a sterile thing, to make us aware that it has other ways of overcoming us and proving to us that, for all our material benefits, our lives aren't as healthy as they could be or, indeed, should be. For it indicates that the will to expansion, the will to greater life, is gradually atrophying, and that the lives of a majority of its younger adults can't be worth much when they are either disinclined or unable to propagate at a steadily and slowly increasing rate. It's almost as though many young couples were secretly afraid to have children these days, and not only because the cost of raising a family would, under current economic conditions, prove too high, but also because they sense that the world is overcrowded enough already, and that their offspring would only necessitate the feeding of yet more 'superfluous' mouths. But you know what the times are like, how expensive everything is, what economic difficulties there are, how much unemployment there is, what housing shortages there are, what uncertainty about the future there is, how overcrowded our cities are, and consequently what a lack of incentive there is for so many would-be parents to start a family. So it's hardly surprising that the average birth rate should have fallen in recent years. However, in getting to the point of your question, this social trend is, after all, nothing to be particularly pleased about. For it's not a way that nature has devised of overcoming war and thereby bringing about a more peaceful and stable society. On the contrary, it is a way that nature has devised for bringing home to us the inadequacies of our existing society, with its dreadful overcrowding and the detrimental consequences this problem inevitably engenders. We began, if you recall, by discussing domestic violence, i.e. violence on the cinema screen, football hooliganism, vandalism, et cetera, and since then we have digressed to discussing war, human nature, society, and population, which, believe it or not, brings us back to where we began ... with that irate woman's letter in the newspaper, complaining about a film she had seen, one that was evidently too immoral for her ostensibly altruistic sensibilities to stomach. And yet a great deal of the alleged immorality of modern society is, in all its various guises, a direct consequence of the size of that society. As has been pointed out many times in the recent past, not least of all by Carl Jung in a brilliant essay entitled The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, the larger the society the greater the amount of immorality to be found in it. For morality mainly depends upon the moral sense of the individual, and where there are too many people living in close proximity, the immorality of the herd mentality comes to play an increasingly pervasive role, as can be seen in football hooliganism and vandalism, to name but two manifestations of contemporary anti-social behaviour. Thus the greater the crowd, organization, city, et cetera, the smaller becomes the individual, who simultaneously experiences a reduction of self-respect, personal responsibility, and self-determination, to the detriment of both himself and, often enough, the society in which he lives.
MARK: Which is presumably to say that if the largest cities are always the most immoral places on earth mainly on account of their size, of the anti-social behaviouristic influence they exert on different people in different ways, depending on their intelligence or temperament, then it's incredibly stupid of people to expect them to be otherwise, to imagine that their inhabitants could become more moral and less violent if only they tried a little harder?
PHILIP: Exactly! That's just it! For it is as stupid of one to completely overlook the behaviouristic influence of a large city - and to thereupon imagine that a majority of people could be other and better than they are if only they wanted to be - as it would be to expect a man who had been thrown to the sharks to escape being eaten alive! In fact, the point you made about different people, different temperaments and types of people, being influenced in different ways, only goes to prove that the woman who was annoyed by the film she saw is just as much a victim of anti-social behaviour as anyone else, since the letter in question was anything but pleasant and shows, once again, how ostensibly moral, self-righteous people can indulge in evil without even realizing it, simply because they imagine the thing they're complaining about to be worse than themselves! But when you really come to think about it, a person who is annoyed by a given film, and consequently provoked into writing an abusive letter about it to the newspapers, is little different from a person who is annoyed by a football supporter of an opposing club, and consequently provoked into abusing him in his own rather more brutal or vulgar fashion. The former, as an old woman with middle-class prejudices, is simply not in a position to act like a hooligan, whereas the latter, as a young man with working-class prejudices, is simply not in a position to act like a prig! But in both cases - and needless to say in countless others as well - there is an object which provokes hatred and, as might be expected, an angry subjective response to it.
MARK: Hence the usual misunderstandings between the different types of people as to the exact nature of right and wrong, and consequently the usual kinds of social hypocrisy as a result of it.
PHILIP: Ahem! More like the usual kinds of social self-deception as a result of it! For, whether we like it or not, it's regularly the case that people are duped by their behaviour into sincerely believing themselves to be in the right, and that, in considering the apparent evils of others, they completely overlook their own evils, with the inevitable consequence that 'they know not what they do'. But we needn't get ourselves unduly annoyed about it as this juncture, nor pretend that we are necessarily any better. For we are not here, after all, to make ourselves better but to realize what we are, and thus to live according to the essential dualistic law of our being. And if this law demands that we occasionally be deceived as to the nature and extent of our respective moral inclinations, well then, we have no real option but to obey it and be deceived, since it isn't in our powers to entirely escape it. However, let's not talk any more about this truth or, for that matter, about any other truth, since it's as impossible for man to live by truth alone as to ignore truth too long and live, and we are both in need of a lengthy reprieve from its rather stern features! Come, let us listen to some music instead! It gives one wonderful illusions. Or, should I say, delusions of self-moralizing grandeur?
MARK: More like a reprieve from the Devil's advocate, if you ask me!
A QUESTION OF BELIEF
DAVID: (Picks up a book from his friend's desk) Good God, I didn't know that you were into astrology! How long have you been studying it?
KELVIN: Only a few weeks, I'm afraid. Although, with certain reservations, I've been fairly interested in the subject for some time now. In fact, I borrowed that Modern Textbook of Astrology from the local library. It's a most informative and charming work by Margaret E. Hone.
DAVID: It certainly looks detailed. In fact, much more so than the few books that I have bothered to read on astrology. However, I must confess that I wasn't convinced. There is something about astrology and astrological supposition which leaves me cold. Perhaps I have other superstitions?
KELVIN: What makes you so sure that it's a superstition?
DAVID: Well, it isn't exactly a science, is it? There seem to be so many vague conjectures involved with the interpretation of planets and signs that one is left with scarcely anything concrete to stand on. Why, for instance, should one believe that a planet called Mars necessarily has any direct connection with war? Or that a planet called Mercury should likewise have any direct connection with communication? If the ancients chose to honour the then-known planets with such fancy names, that by no means proves that those planets actually possessed the qualities or attributes usually associated with them! How can a mass of inert matter possibly have anything to do with love or war or communication or whatever? One might just as well re-name the planets and give them quite different attributes, as believe in the authenticity of the traditional ones! What difference would it make to Mars, for example, if I were to rename it Gold, and thereupon declare that, henceforth, all those people born under its influence would have a marked predilection for collecting precious things and/or making money? Doubtless the planet would continue on its way as before, but astrologers would be compelled to alter their predictions, assumptions, and solicitations in accordance with the symbolic attributes of its new name. Now if I were to extend this re-naming to all the other known planets as well, then astrologers would be obliged to abandon virtually everything they had formerly believed about them. They would be forced into adopting an entirely new approach to their interpretations.
KELVIN: Yes, your argument sounds quite feasible if one merely assumes that the planets only received their names in a rather arbitrary manner, i.e. that an ancient astronomer thought he might as well call the second planet from the sun Venus as anything else, or that he might as well call the fourth planet from it Mars as anything else, and then add the respective attributes of the Roman gods to them. But it is quite inadequate if one also considers the possibility that the planets only received their names after the general tendencies of their respective influences, or 'principles', had been taken into account. In other words, it seems more than likely that people born under the sway of a given pattern of planetary influence were later found to possess certain basic character-traits which somehow corresponded to this periodically recurrent pattern and which, on deeper investigation, could be assumed to derive from one planet in particular - namely, the one most prominent at the time of their birth. Hence a name and attendant quality were then given to that planet which accorded with what was believed to be its general influence, and some of the people subsequently born under a similar pattern were later analysed in the same light, in order that budding astrologers and established astronomers might confirm the reappearance of certain basic character traits peculiar to them.
DAVID: What makes you so confident that the ancients actually bothered to study the behaviour of such people or, for that matter, to name the planets only after they had investigated what they believed to be their respective influences?
KELVIN: The realization, I suppose, that one shouldn't underestimate the ability and ingenuity of the ancients! Admittedly, one cannot be absolutely certain, in the absence of proper historical data, that this was what actually transpired. But where such men as Thales, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Maternus are concerned, one can be quite certain that an arbitrary or superficial appreciation of the heavenly bodies wouldn't have satisfied them!
DAVID: So you evidently believe that astrology isn't just a superstition but something that, although officially not a science, nevertheless aspires to the truth?
KELVIN: Yes, I would certainly say that there is some truth in it. As you know, I'm not the easiest person to convince where religious, extraterrestrial, or occult phenomena are concerned, and I certainly make no claims to a special esoteric knowledge of such matters! But even though I may regard astrological investigations, contentions, and suppositions with a critical eye and a sceptical detachment, I'm by no means dogmatically opposed to them! Quite the contrary, it appears more than evident to me that many of those who are such are either partisan specialists too busy furthering their own cause to have much sympathy or time to spare on other causes or, alternatively, ordinary people who desire to have their ignorance of astrological practice regarded as profundity, and who are only too ready, in consequence, to participate in or listen to the first argument against it which vindicates their ignorance and bolsters their self-esteem. But a dogmatic denial founded on either partisanship or ignorance is hardly sufficient to convince one of its legitimacy and validity - not, anyway, from an astrologer's viewpoint! Ultimately, it is only the astrologers themselves whom one can take seriously, just as, with regard to medical science, it's only the doctors one can take seriously. It would be a fine thing if the validity of medical practice depended upon the judgements of painters, clerks, builders, or bus drivers, wouldn't it?
DAVID: Maybe, but I have a distinct recollection of disappointment in mind concerning a time when I once paid a visit to an astrologer and was duly informed that certain 'events' would occur to me in the near future, events concerning money, companionship, business, health, travel, et cetera, of an optimistic, not to say extremely promising, nature, which, not surprisingly, I was only too pleased to hear about. But do you know what happened? Nothing! None of them came true. My position in life remained almost exactly the same as before and, except for the appearance of my wife just over a year ago, it still hasn't changed very much to this day. So I have a fairly good reason, I would think, to be highly sceptical about the validity and authenticity of astrology!
KELVIN: Strange to say, the same kind of thing happened to me too. But even so, it doesn't necessarily mean that astrology is a hoax. For all we know, it could simply mean that one was hoaxed by a quack astrologer, just as one can be hoaxed by a quack doctor. There are doubtless a fair number of such people in the world, especially now that - partly on account of the decline of belief in Christianity - spiritualism, mysticism, occultism, and other kindred subjects are on the rise, and the metaphysical need or capacity in man is consequently being channelled into various esoteric, tangential, and traditionally 'unapproved' spheres. But the word 'quack' is, in itself, somewhat misleading. For it could just as easily have been the case that the astrologers whom we visited were relatively inexperienced, that they hadn't acquired a thorough knowledge or grasp of their craft, and consequently made some serious mistakes in their calculations. After all, even a highly-trained and long-experienced astrologer can occasionally make a mistake with regard to his computation, charting, aspects, progressions, interpretations, and the like, considering that no-one is infallible. Of course, a conscientious astrologer probably realizes that the reputation of his somewhat maligned profession is further jeopardized if he makes a mistake. But, there again, we lay people have no reason to believe that astrology is a hoax if, in fact, he does make a mistake. Let us rather assume, to begin with, that he was simply at fault, and then try our luck elsewhere. Besides, I'm only too well-aware, at present, of how easy it would be for a relatively inexperienced person to make miscalculations, and I dare say that if you bothered to investigate the astrological textbook you're still holding in your hands, you, too, would be quite amazed by the number of complex technical considerations which have to be taken into account. Even with a D.F.Astrol.S., the official diploma of astrology, one is little more than a beginner if one hasn't also had regular professional experience in the matter.
DAVID: Yes, there are certainly a lot more mathematical, geometrical, geographical, and planetary things to consider than I had previously imagined. The few books I have read on the subject were much more popular and correspondingly much less technical than this! They merely gave one the general theoretical outlines of each sign and planet, and then drew-up a number of fairly commonplace remarks as to the supposedly fundamental nature of Librans, Taureans, Scorpios, Virgos, Capricorns, and so on, without bothering to inform one exactly why it was believed that these signs signified particular inclinations. Fortunately, I can never be convinced of anything unless I'm given ample proof of the reasons behind such-and-such a conclusion, and, as it happened, these books required much too much faith or trust for my liking. By the way, what is your sign?
KELVIN: Libra, I am afraid. Like Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
DAVID: Good God! Don't tell me you actually make a point of knowing the signs of famous writers?
KELVIN: I'm afraid so!
DAVID: (Going across to Kelvin's bookcase) Then what was James Joyce?
KELVIN: Aquarius, like Stendhal and Schopenhauer - men of an intensely independent, original, perverse, and freedom-loving turn of mind!
DAVID: And Emerson?
KELVIN: Gemini, like de Sade.
DAVID: And Camus?
KELVIN: Scorpio, like Gide, his early idol.
DAVID: Really? That is interesting! And what about Carlyle?
KELVIN: Sagittarius, the expansive ones. Like Jim Morrison, author of The Lords and The New Creatures and lead singer with The Doors.
DAVID: I see. And do they each correspond to their respective signs as, apparently, they ought to?
KELVIN: Yes, by and large, although with some reservations. I don't know the exact times of their respective births, so it would be quite impossible for me to give you an accurate interpretation, even if I were qualified to do so, which, as you're probably aware, I'm most certainly not! But, taking their respective signs into account, and using such knowledge of astrology as I have acquired these past few weeks, I would certainly say that each of them corresponds to the general attributes of his sign as much as one might expect him to do. For instance, I said of Joyce, Stendhal, and Schopenhauer that they were all Aquarians, didn't I?
DAVID: You did.
without going into details which you won't understand, they are of the 'Air Triplicity', i.e. Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius, and may thus be regarded as belonging to the predominantly
intellectual and communicative group. In
addition, they are of the 'Fixed Quadruplicity', i.e.
Taurus, Scorpio, Leo, and Aquarius, and may
accordingly be regarded as belonging to the group most resistant to
change. Lastly, Aquarius is a 'Positive
Sign', as are all the alternate signs from Aries to Pisces, and is thus associated
with self-expression rather than self-repression. Now, without complicating the issue any
further, one can see that Joyce, particularly in light of his two major works Ulysses and
Finnegans Wake, was of an intensely
independent, original, perverse, and freedom-loving turn of mind - four
qualities, remember, which are inextricably bound-up with the psychology of the
typical Aquarian. As indicated by the
'Air Triplicity', he was predominantly intellectual
and communicative rather than, for example, spiritual, emotional, dreamy, or
regal, as can easily be verified by the general trend of his work. Furthermore, the 'Fixed Quadruplicity'
indicates a tendency to fixity or resistance to change which, to take a single
example, we find exemplified by the length of time he spent writing his two
major books. Then, of course, the
self-expression, particularly with regard to Ulysses, is only too
evident, as is the rebelliousness - another strong Aquarian trait which, in
Joyce's case, focuses much of its attention on both the Catholic Church and the
social climate of
DAVID: Schopenhauer the greatest philosopher of the modern age! Are you kidding? What about Nietzsche, Bradley, James, Bergson, Russell, Sartre, or Joad? Admittedly, he may be greater than most of the established philosophers of this or the previous century. But to imply that he is greater than Nietzsche ...
KELVIN: I am quite convinced of it actually, and would be prepared to go beyond implication to a categorical assertion of the fact. Of course, you are well aware that some of Nietzsche's work greatly appeals to me, and I wouldn't wish to underrate his considerable influence on contemporary thought. But the fact nevertheless remains that, by strictly philosophical standards, much of his work leaves something to be desired, particularly when analysed from a detached, deliberative, and scientific point-of-view! No, anyone who has studied The World as Will and Representation in its entirety will be aware of something which should settle the issue of the relative merits of these two thinkers once and for all!
DAVID: Oh, and what, precisely, is that?
KELVIN: A knowledge of the fact that if one is to arrive at a fairly stable, logical, fair, and accurate conclusion about anything, the Will should be kept in the background as much as possible, so that the intellect, freed from the distorting intrusions of passions, emotions, prejudices, feelings, et cetera, may range unhindered over the subject to hand, and thus arrive at orderly and objective findings. If the Will intrudes overmuch, then the intellect may well be proportionately coloured or distorted, and an accurate or fair judgement of the issue at stake will be virtually impossible to achieve. One need only think of how one's judgement is impaired by the emotion of anger, to get a fair understanding of what I'm driving at! In this rather extreme case, the emotion is so violent that one is rightly accused of 'losing one's head' or of being 'blinded by rage'. Thus for a purely objective, analytical, philosophical appreciation of things, the Will must be subdued as much as possible.
DAVID: I see. But what connection, exactly, does this have with Nietzsche?
KELVIN: The very important connection that in Nietzsche's works there are far too many italicized words and exclamation marks in evidence to suggest that he wrote from a purely objective, will-less point of view. One cannot sprinkle exclamation marks all over the text if the emotions are not deeply involved. And if they are deeply involved - as would certainly seem to be so in Nietzsche's case - then one cannot expect the intellect to remain unclouded by them, to escape the relative distortion which they'll engender. Hence exaggeration will take the place of a cool appraisal of whatever is being discussed, and the true philosophical temper of detached objectivity will be rendered virtually impossible. We can learn all this from ordinary day-to-day experience. But if we are slow at learning from such experience, we must turn to Schopenhauer, the true philosopher, and see for ourselves that the man who formulated The World as Will and Representation, the Parerga and Paralipomena, and other such outstandingly objective works, usually knew how to keep his Will in place and to exploit his Aquarian temperament to extraordinary effect. By comparison, Nietzsche was only partly a philosopher. For, in addition to being a musicologist, philologist, social critic, and autobiographer, he was also a literary artist, and a rather fine one too! Few writers before him have stirred-up the passions to such a high degree or given rise to so much controversy, and, in the final analysis, it is always the artist, the man of passion, who pays tribute to the life-force by bringing a higher degree of life to others, regardless of whether or not he is to some extent sacrificing the truth.
DAVID: But even if what you say happens to be true, you must remember that Schopenhauer was largely pessimistic, whereas Nietzsche was mainly optimistic and therefore much more acceptable to the public. In many respects, Schopenhauer was a classical crank, the last and most reactionary of the objective philosophers, and thus the natural enemy of that passionate subjectivity which Nietzsche was to pioneer as perhaps the first of the truly modern philosophers. In fact, less a philosopher than an expressionistic anti-philosopher.
KELVIN: Ah, but from what I was able to gather from a recent conversation with you, it's only the 'Penguin Classics' edition of his work, published under the title Essays and Aphorisms, that you've read, the selection taken from the second volume of the Parerga and Paralipomena, in consequence of which you lack a comprehensive knowledge of his oeuvre. The idea of Schopenhauer the pessimist - partly promulgated by Nietzsche in his lopsided defiance of everything he had formerly believed in - is much too prevalent these days and tends to distort his true image. In actual fact, only a tiny percentage of Schopenhauer's entire output, probably no more than a tenth of it, is directly connected with pessimism. For by far the greater part of it deals with purely objective considerations of such subjects as genius, madness, idealism, the senses, the intellect, metaphysics, art, music, poetry, history, heredity, love, religion, the thing-in-itself, Kant's philosophy, politics, and so on. So the actual part played by pessimism - a by-no-means illegitimate or unreasonable part - is scarcely enough, in my opinion, to secure him the eternal epithet of 'pessimist'. By contrast, Nietzsche's so-called optimism was really a self-preservative measure, a violent reaction against his former self, against a nihilistic, pessimistic, pathological, neurotic, and deeply painful state-of-mind which would probably have driven him to suicide had he not experienced a 'conversion' - analogous to Harry Haller's conversion in Hesse's great Nietzschean novel Steppenwolf - and thereupon decided to adopt an amor fati, a love-of-fate approach to life and, accordingly, turn his back on everything, including his youthful admiration of Schopenhauer and Wagner, which had constituted so deep a part of his former self. Unfortunately for him, however, he took his love of fate too far. For his admirable dictum that Man is something that should be overcome acquired a perverse twist and eventually became his personal fate, in that he literally 'overcame' himself by suffering an irreversible breakdown which remained his fate for the last eleven years of his life.
DAVID: Yes, in consequence, apparently, of a syphilitic infection he contracted as a youth!
KELVIN: That may well be, though I haven't found any mention of it in his many autobiographical writings, including his letters, and am consequently more inclined to believe that he simply over-worked, since he not only wrote Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, The Wagner Case, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche contra Wagner, Dithyrambs and Dionysus, and numerous letters to friends, publishers, editors, et cetera, in 1888, but, to cap it all, he wrote by far the greater part of what has subsequently become that immense tome The Will to Power as well! No wonder he suffered an irreversible breakdown in January 1889!
DAVID: Yes, but when you consider the vast amount of work he got through in the space of a single decade, and then compare that to the comparatively small amount of work done by Schopenhauer over the best part of five decades, it's only too obvious that Nietzsche was by far the more creative, and thus highly gifted, of the two.
KELVIN: Perhaps. Though it would probably have been better for both him and us if he had written less and deliberated more! But that wouldn't have been in accordance, seemingly, with his fiery temperament! Still, one oughtn't to allow quantity to take over from quality. If today he is more popular than Schopenhauer, it is primarily because his writings are easier to understand, because much of his work appeals to the emotions more than to reason, because of the 'mythic value' of his tragic life and collapse, and because of the many strong polemical points he made against his great predecessor. As I said earlier, Nietzsche was more of an artist, more spontaneous and excitable, and certainly less academic than a majority of theoretical writers either before or since. So it's not particularly surprising to me that he should command a wider public than Schopenhauer. But that doesn't make him a greater philosopher! On the contrary, one can see why the greatest philosophers are less well-known and appreciated when one bears in mind the complexity of their work. Yet Schopenhauer's greatness also lay in the fact that he didn't allow his work to become too complex but reduced the number of technical expressions to a bare minimum, even if, by way of compensation, he inserted far more Greek and Latin citations than virtually any other modern philosopher, with the possible exception of Heidegger. But there is a considerable difference between writing authentic philosophy, which necessarily requires and engenders a certain level of complexity, and juggling with words in a manner that suggests profundity, but is really designed to compensate for a lack of it. If a man has something worthwhile to say, he won't endeavour to hide it behind a mass of complications and contradictions, like some contemporary philosophers, but will communicate it to his readers in the most appropriate manner possible. I need hardly remind you that Schopenhauer had no sympathy for the complicators, or obscure ones, and one can be sure that there are a fair number of twentieth-century philosophers who would have failed to please him on that account! Indeed, I would give anything to know what his opinion of the works of certain more recent philosophers would be if, by some magical decree, we could enable him to return from the grave and investigate some of the philosophical developments which have taken place in the meantime.
DAVID: It's just as well, in my humble opinion, that he can't come back. For he would definitely be annoyed, if not affronted, by various of the remarks Nietzsche made against him, especially those concerning his pessimism.
KELVIN: Yes, I dare say he would. Although I am also aware that some of Nietzsche's criticisms were fully justified! However, I think Schopenhauer would be more puzzled by The Anti-Christ and similar writings than by anything else, particularly in view of the fact that Nietzsche had studied The World as Will and Representation and therefore ought to have known about that very fine essay entitled 'Man's need of Metaphysics', with its acknowledgement of the metaphysics of the people.
DAVID: I'm afraid I don't quite follow you there.
KELVIN: Well, to cut a long explanation short, let us just say that metaphysics-proper has to do with philosophy, metaphysics of the people, by contrast, with religion. Thus there is a metaphysics for the Few and a metaphysics for the Many.
KELVIN: Well, what was a philosopher doing meddling with the metaphysics of the people, i.e. with Christianity, when, by rights, he should have accepted the legitimacy of such a metaphysics and consequently turned his attention back to philosophy?
DAVID: Taking revenge on the priests, I suppose. You must remember that philosophy has often been undermined and perverted by the influence of the majority metaphysics, and that its expositors have often been persecuted, killed, outlawed, severely cautioned, or made to compromise themselves in a manner which, in the long-run, could only have disastrous consequences for both philosophy and religion. However, in Nietzsche's case, you could say that philosophy was standing-up for itself and simultaneously getting its own back on religion. Instead of compromising himself by serving the interests of Christianity, as a majority of Western philosophers had done before him, Nietzsche purposely went out of his way to undermine and slander it, to eliminate the entire trend or tradition of philosophical compromise, and thus champion the rights of the Few, as opposed to those of the Many.
KELVIN: Yes, I realize all that! But, even so, it's as unworthy of one who writes for the Few to attack the metaphysics of the Many as ... of one who writes for the Many to attack the metaphysics of the Few. It is unworthy of a true philosopher because, in light of the intellectual differences which exist between men, both kinds of metaphysics are equally justified and, no matter what guise they may take, there must always be one kind of metaphysics that interprets the Truth - insofar as we're capable of understanding it - in a direct, or factual, way and, conversely, another kind of metaphysics which interprets the Truth in an indirect, or allegorical, way. Now Schopenhauer wasn't, strictly speaking, a Christian. Nevertheless he knew well enough that the common people were entitled to a metaphysics different from philosophy, which granted them aspects of the Truth in a simplified, non-factual, figurative kind of way. With The Anti-Christ, however, it's as though Nietzsche, as a philosopher, was writing for the Many against their metaphysics rather than for the Few against an earlier philosophy. In other words, there is a contradiction involved, quite as though, in ‘revaluating all values’, Nietzsche unconsciously confounded the values of philosophy with those of religion and thereupon divided himself between them. But the philosopher's proper task is not, as previously noted, to meddle with the metaphysics of the people, but to propound his own philosophy in opposition to and/or as an extension of one or more of the various philosophies which have preceded him. Admittedly, to some extent Nietzsche did in fact do so. But he wasn't enough of a philosopher to prevent his emotions and prejudices from taking the lead, from time to time, and, consequently, he was driven into the realms of artistic exaggeration and romanticism. Indeed, I'm not at all surprised that, as his intellectual fatality gradually deepened and he realized where his true inclinations lay, he subsequently turned against many of Schopenhauer's viewpoints. For it's only natural, after all, that one should endeavour to defend oneself against those who threaten to refute or contradict one's theories and, if possible, turn as many people away from their work as possible. Now this is certainly what the mature Nietzsche attempted to do as regards Schopenhauer and, to an even greater extent, the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle.
DAVID: Really? But I thought that Carlyle was against Christianity, an atheist who wanted people to throw off their old spiritual garments and emancipate themselves from the clutches of a dying society.
KELVIN: No, not entirely. For although he may have been against Christianity as it existed during his time, he certainly wasn't against a metaphysics of the people per se, as Nietzsche would appear to have been. Religion for Carlyle wasn't something that could be done away with, in order that people might live happily ever after. For such an assumption would have presupposed the impossible - namely, that the metaphysical need in the average man could be eliminated. No, it was precisely what appeared to be the inadequacy of the then-current metaphysics of the people that Carlyle was particularly worried about. Thus he wanted people to throw off the old, dead metaphysics and subsequently step into a new, healthier and better metaphysics. Although he didn't have many useful suggestions to make as to the exact nature of this other - not, anyway, unless you take his socialistic philosophy of hard work as its cornerstone! One finds in Chapter Five of Book Three of Sartor Resartus the basis of his discontent with the old metaphysics and hope that, during the process of its ultimate dissolution, a new metaphysical integrity would arise out of it, phoenix-like, to bring fresh hope and life to an ailing society. With Carlyle, there is no attempt to proclaim the 'death of God', as with Nietzsche, but, rather, a tendency to lament over the misuse and neglect of Western man's relationship to a deity, as apparent in his day. Thus one can quite understand why Nietzsche, in his iconoclastic rage against everything Christian, became somewhat contemptuous of Carlyle's insistence on the establishment of a new metaphysics, believing, as he must, that it would only lead to a resurrection or prolongation of man's relationship to God - the very thing that he was busily undermining in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Anti-Christ, Twilight of the Idols, and similar writings. With Carlyle, the idea that 'God is dead' wouldn't have been a matter for rejoicing but, rather, for lamenting, since he loathed the mechanistic and utilitarian trends that were everywhere in full-swing in consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Admittedly, Nietzsche wasn't exactly enamoured of them either! But his attitude to Christianity was even more hostile, and ultimately suggested, unlike Carlyle, that religion was largely to blame for them.
DAVID: Was Carlyle a genuine philosopher?
KELVIN: No, for like most Sagittarians he was much too expansive to remain wholly in the mould of philosophy, unlike his great compatriot, David Hume, a generation or two before. One finds Carlyle branching out into literature, biographies, travelogues, histories, criticisms, essays, letters, speeches, reminiscences, diaries, and so on, with a dash of philosophy thrown-in for good measure. As in the case, for example, of the Sartor Resartus - a work which, for all its theorizing, is predominantly literary. No, genuine philosophers are rather few-and-far-between, which is only to be expected where such a difficult subject is concerned, and in a world, moreover, where the vast majority of intellectual writers are obliged to earn their living in a somewhat more commercial vein. Schopenhauer was fortunate enough to inherit a large patrimony, following the suicide of his father. But the vast majority of modern writers have to struggle for a living, and philosophy is certainly not the best way to go about doing that! Of course, to be a genuine philosopher, it isn't enough that one should only write in a philosophical manner, with due attention to logical consistency. One has to write great philosophy, and not just juggle with words. But I don't want to go into the details of that subject here. It suffices if we regard men like Hume, Locke, Kant, and Schopenhauer as genuine philosophers.
DAVID: Hmm, which reminds me of what you contended earlier about Schopenhauer being the greatest of the moderns. I am inclined to concede now that, in strictly philosophical terms, he was greater than Nietzsche and arguably greater than such philosophers as Berkeley, Descartes, Leibniz, Condorcet, Helvetius, Spinoza, Hegel, and Mill. But as regards Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Camus, Bergson, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and John Cowper Powys ... I'm not so sure. On what criterion do you base your contention?
KELVIN: On a number of criteria actually, the most important of which must surely be that, with a little indirect help from Hume and Kant, he evolved a rather fine system of philosophy and maintained a firm allegiance to it throughout his professional life. Now Bertrand Russell may well be the greatest British thinker since Hume, but he isn't by any means a pure philosopher, and he certainly hasn't evolved a systematic methodology. There is a great deal of the mathematician, scientist, general essayist, sociologist, politician, economist, autobiographer, and even artist - he wrote several short stories - about him. Now although I have little doubt that a philosopher should comment on a wide range of topics, there is surely a limit as to how far he can comment on them without ceasing to be a philosopher. Undoubtedly, Bertrand Russell is one of the greatest writers of the modern age, but, on serious reflection, I do not think that he is the greatest philosopher of it. He is much too diversified for that! And as for Jean-Paul Sartre, I would say that he is also much too diversified to be considered a genuine philosopher. As a novelist, short-story writer, critic, essayist, playwright, biographer, autobiographer, journalist, and editor, he undoubtedly ranks with the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But I hardly think that his two principal philosophical works, Being and Nothingness and A Critique of Dialectical Reason, really qualify him to be regarded as the greatest philosopher of modern times either, even if he is arguably the greatest late-twentieth century French philosopher. Taking our previous estimation of a philosopher into account, it seems only fair to conclude that Sartre's various literary achievements have no more entitlement to a place in the world of philosophy than do the various literary achievements of anyone else. And the same, of course, applies to Albert Camus, a man whose literary work far outshines his philosophical creations, including The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus. Besides, there is something about the so-called 'philosophy of the absurd' which is rather absurd in itself and which, in its apparent supposition that man is in the world but not of it, accordingly gives rise to a certain bewilderment.
DAVID: Oh, and why is that, exactly?
KELVIN: Because I don't understand how a person who was born into this world can possibly fail to be of it. If, however, one were transported to the moon one could certainly be said to be in that world or, at any rate, on that planet but not of it, because one would require, amongst other things, the use of a special breathing apparatus and suitably-weighted attire to be able to survive there. But here on earth where, if one overrules the inconvenience of daily pollution, one can breathe perfectly well without requiring the aid of any artificial breathing apparatus and, except in a very high gale-force wind, walk about without running the risk of coming unstuck from the pavement or grass, and floating off into space, it strikes me as quite absurd to suggest that we are not of it. Admittedly, we're not earth, stones, rocks, trees, or lakes. But, then again, neither are any of our fellow inhabitants - the animals, birds, fish, and insects - who are all creatures incapable of thinking about the absurd.
DAVID: But isn't it highly probable that so much of this recent absurdist and existentialist speculation is a direct consequence of Nietzsche's dictum that 'God is dead' and that, as a result of this deplorable fact, or this fatuous notion, as you prefer, modern man finds himself trapped in a godless world with a meaningless universe all around him? In short, that everything has become exactly what Carlyle feared it would - a sort of boundless mechanistic desert?
KELVIN: Yes, this is an idea which has certainly played its part in twentieth-century philosophy. But it has also over-played itself and, from what I've gathered during the course of my studies, I doubt very much that Nietzsche would now feel any great sympathy towards it. In Carlyle's case - yes, it would have a definite appeal. However, for Nietzsche, who overcame his nihilism and whose mature philosophy is largely expressive of one who rejoices in the fact that he has personally overthrown God and thereby set mankind on a new, independent, and self-reliant course, it could only engender repugnance. In this respect, Bertrand Russell is a worthier disciple of Nietzsche than either Camus or Sartre, though he probably wouldn't have wanted to advertise the fact. However, one can only base one's opinion of a given writer on what one has already read by him, irrespective of the likelihood that he may have changed his viewpoint in the meantime, and consequently become quite different from what one superficially imagines him to be, on the basis of a few long-published works. I dare say, for instance, that if Camus were alive today he would be writing along quite different lines from those to which he dedicated himself during and just after the Second World War. If I now had to live through something similar to him, there would be a strong possibility that such a subject as the absurdity of modern life would have more influence on me than it does at present. But that is to a large extent beside-the-point, and something one ought not to consider too thoroughly, if one wants to retain one's criticisms! Curiously enough, it is usually only one's favourite authors that one criticizes anyway, much as one criticizes one's brothers, sisters, parents, friends, lovers, et cetera, because they are the only people whom one is really in a position to criticize. Indeed, when one is in a critical mood one criticizes even oneself, and sometimes more than one criticizes anyone else or, conversely, than anyone else criticizes one. Which is sufficient proof of the fact that one shouldn't allow oneself to be misled into imagining that an author who criticizes something in the work of another author necessarily dislikes either him or his work. After all, Nietzsche certainly criticized Schopenhauer a lot in later years, yet no-one could have been more enthusiastic about Schopenhauer in his youth than him!
DAVID: A thing which would indicate how much he changed over the years.
KELVIN: Yes, and also the extent of his knowledge of Schopenhauer's work and thus, by a curious paradox, his dependence on it. But to continue our discussion of the relative merits of the various philosophers, I think you can now see why I regard Schopenhauer so highly, particularly in light of his continuous, not to say exclusive, commitment to philosophy. Even John Cowper Powys is only a minor philosopher by comparison. For by far the greater part of his considerable oeuvre is of a distinctly literary nature, and no more entitles him to be considered the worthy inheritor of Schopenhauer's crown than do the literary works of Sartre and Camus or, for that matter, of Arthur Koestler. As, however, for Kierkegaard, Bergson, Jaspers, Hussurl, James, Bradley, Moore, Joad, Berlin, and Popper, each of whom is more strictly in the philosophical tradition than any of the above-mentioned writers, the plot becomes increasingly complex and the rivalry more intense, though I don't seriously believe that any of these men ultimately wins out, irrespective of the intermittent flashes of genius from Bergson and Moore. Unfortunately, I must confess to not having read a great deal of either Bradley or James, and that there are also some other modern philosophers, including Heidegger and Wittgenstein, whom I can scarcely bear reading at all! But I don't think that fact would lead me to alter my opinion very much. These days it is so easy for the philosopher to become swallowed-up by the psychologist, sociologist, behavioural scientist, biologist, educationalist, mathematician, essayist, and even artist ... that it's often exceedingly difficult to know exactly where the one begins and the other ends. But, despite the fact that the roles and boundaries of philosophy are constantly being modified in accordance with the dictates of the age, one should never forget that the true philosopher is always a rare product, and that he is usually outnumbered at least 100/1 by the scientists, educationalists, essayists, artists, et cetera, whose investigations may sometimes overlap with his own. It is hard enough to find an age with an abundance of great artists - say, poets and novelists. But to find an age with an abundance of great philosophers ... is virtually impossible! Even the ancient Greeks, masters of the dialectic as they were, only produced three really outstanding ones, viz. Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, and since then there has never been any shortage of people ready to find fault with them, including Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In truth, men are much easier to entertain than to instruct, the reason being that entertainment is more closely bound to the perceptual than to the conceptual, and the perceptual is everywhere the root condition of things, against which the conceptual, and the highly conceptual above all, is a sort of Christian 'rebirth' or Nietzschean ‘revaluation’. As soon as someone begins to instruct one in philosophy, one is automatically put on one's guard against both correct and incorrect knowledge which appears to contradict one's own knowledge or nature or even lifestyle, and there is rarely any shortage of either! But we have discussed this confounded subject of philosophy and the relative merits of philosophers quite long enough! I'm even beginning to feel that I have convinced you of the validity of my argument, since you haven't bothered to interrupt me for some time. You did say something about Nietzsche having changed so much, but that can hardly be regarded as an interruption.
DAVID: No, in actual fact I was thinking about astrology again, wondering whether Aquarius isn't the best sign for a philosopher to be born under. It certainly appears to have worked in Schopenhauer's favour, doesn't it?
KELVIN: Indeed it does, although it's altogether doubtful that he would have given the idea much credence, being, by nature, far too scientifically-minded to dabble in matters which may have superstitious or occult connections. Besides, astrology was nowhere near as popular or prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century as today, and I don't think you will discover any reference to it in his works. However, it does seem that, with the decline of faith in Christianity, subjects like astrology, numerology, and palmistry have acquired a new impetus in the world; though it must remain highly unlikely that any of them will ever become the official metaphysics of the people, just as it must remain unlikely that any of the new so-called 'religions' will, since they mostly lack the requisite ingredients for a genuine metaphysics. Indeed, some of them patently contradict one another, as do spiritualism and a belief in reincarnation. For if one believes in a spirit world, it seems fairly evident that reincarnation is ruled out, since one can hardly return to earth in the guise of another creature, human or animal, and remain a disembodied spirit at the same time, or vice versa. Thus there is always a subterranean warfare going on between the various beliefs which corresponds, as a sort of polar antithesis, to the polemical warfare going on between the various political parties at any given time, and which resembles the same sordid scramble for power. Although they may pretend otherwise while they are weak and dispersed, most of the sects involved would certainly like to be 'in power', to be regarded as representative of the official metaphysics of the people, and to have dominion over all the others - assuming the others would still be countenanced. After all, that is solely in accordance with human nature, with the ambitions, as it were, of the various sects. But, oddly enough, I am quite satisfied with the situation as we find it today, i.e. with so many conflicting beliefs and sects that none of them has complete dominion over the others and no reason, in consequence, to instigate wholesale purges or public executions in the name of the Truth and against the many 'heretics' who somehow remain unconvinced of its authenticity. Even the official metaphysics, as represented by Christianity, is much less powerful than it used to be, and consequently much more tolerant of heretics and unbelievers. Perhaps that is the chief reason why, in some countries, it appears to be making a greater effort at bringing the various denominations into closer unity, in order to make an ecumenical 'last stand', as it were, in the face of increasing Aquarian opposition as a single body, rather than as a number of separate limbs as much torn apart by inter-unitary conflict as by extra-unitary opposition. However, whether there will then be a sort of spiritual Blücher to assist it, remains to be seen.
DAVID: Perhaps that 'spiritual Blücher', as you so arcanely put it, will be the Second Coming, come back to aid the faithful and divide the chaff from the wheat?
KELVIN: Yes, although you know better than anyone that I am essentially a man of philosophy, rather than of religion.
DAVID: But if Schopenhauer is still right about philosophy being of interest only to the Few, he is certainly wrong about religion being of interest only to the Many, as can be verified by the dwindling numbers of church-goers and true believers. It is quite evident that the vast majority of ordinary people are nowhere near as Christian-minded as were their ancestors. Naturally, there are still people who can't get along without a belief in God, but one hesitates to name them among the majority. It's only too obvious that Schopenhauer's so-called metaphysics of the people is really a rather arbitrary definition for that which, in the majority of Western nations, transpires to being a metaphysics of a minority and, often enough, of a bourgeois minority at that! If Karl Marx hasn't taken over from Jesus Christ, where the majority of people are concerned, I really don't know who the hell has! Perhaps we ought to extend the horizon of contemporary religion until it encompasses everything from mystical intuition to psychedelic hallucinations; from trust in the 'born leader' to conversations with the dead; from belief in reincarnation to an explanation of the heavenly bodies in terms of astrological determinism; from a worship of one's favourite artists or film stars to a pantheistic identification with nature; from a regular perusal of wise sayings or teachings to several minutes' daily quiet and stillness, et cetera. By the way, I should be interested to learn, in light of what you were saying about the conflicts and contradictions between the various esoteric sects, whether you would give more credence to reincarnation than to spiritualism, or vice versa?
KELVIN: I'm afraid that I shall have to disappoint you, since I give no credence to either.
DAVID: Oh, and why, exactly, is that?
KELVIN: Because I don't understand how a spirit can come back to earth in the guise of another being, still less how a spirit, i.e. a 'will' in Schopenhauer's sense of the term, devoid of intellect and thus of verbal self-consciousness, can possibly communicate with the living. It may well be that the Will, as spirit and kernel of our true being, can survive bodily death. But if it does so without self-consciousness, as Schopenhauer reasonably maintained, then one might as well abandon the idea of survival altogether, since one won't know anything about it. What is the use of an Eternal Will without a consciousness to guide it? Indeed, there is adequate indication in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation that the word 'soul', as significant of a fusion of will and conceptual consciousness, was anathema to Schopenhauer, and that he expressly forbade future philosophers to make use of it because, unlike every philosopher before him, with the possible exception of Hume, he clearly saw the individual divided into will and intellect, into thing-in-itself and phenomenon, into eternal and temporal, into that which is primary and that which is secondary, in complete opposition to the hitherto-accepted belief that the Will proceeded from the intellect and thus formed a unity, or soul, of which the body was antithesis. Now spiritualists may use the term 'spirit' as opposed to 'soul', but the whole idea of communicating with a spirit presupposes the existence in that spirit of a knowing consciousness, hence a 'soul' in the worst possible sense of the word, which is capable of delivering messages, through a medium, to those present at the séance, or spiritualistic gathering. Now my objection to this is based on the realization that even if spirits did exist, they could only do so without consciousness and therefore with no possibility of being able to communicate with the living. For one cannot deliver verbal messages without the assistance of an intellect, and one certainly cannot use the intellect unless, as a function of the brain, it is being kept alive by the regular pulsation of the heart and the concomitant flow of blood through the cerebral and other arteries. And I certainly don't see how an alien spirit, deprived of consciousness, would be able to usurp the domain of one's own spirit and thereby make use of one's intellect as a means to establishing the requisite spiritual/intellectual integrity of a communicative being. Hence it appears absolutely inadmissible to me that one should ever be in a position to communicate with spirits.
DAVID: Well, you have made a fairly strong point there. Although my knowledge of Schopenhauer isn't as profound as yours, and therefore I can't remember very much of what he wrote on the difference between will and intellect. But perhaps you would now like to expatiate on your objection to reincarnation?
KELVIN: All right, but only after I have put a question to you first?
DAVID: Sure, go ahead!
KELVIN: What do you seriously suppose a spirit to be?
DAVID: You mean, how do I visualize one?
DAVID: Well, I'm not absolutely sure. I suppose one usually thinks of wills, spirits, or whatever in terms of the human form, a sort of transparent body ranging from the height of a child to that of a fully-grown adult. Even Schopenhauer contended, if I remember correctly, that the Will isn't limited to the brain or head because, objectively considered, the brain is merely a function of it, but extends throughout the entire body - indeed, that the body was really the objectification of the Will as perceived by the mind, and that the heart was its chief symbol. Yes, so one can only imagine a dead person's spirit as taking his physical shape and size.
KELVIN: It interests me the way you speak of a 'will' when considering the living but instinctively rename it a 'spirit' when speaking of the dead. It seems as though one cannot imagine the Will surviving death.
DAVID: Yes, that is an odd thing, and I'm not at all sure that Schopenhauer really appreciated the distinction! But, tell me, has my definition of a spirit satisfied you, and, if so, do you agree with me on what I can only regard as a rather dubious hypothesis?
KELVIN: I do, insofar as we're only assuming that spirits exist for the sake of argument. And so we find ourselves with the prospect of a man-sized spirit on our hands, a spirit which has come adrift, as it were, from someone's dead body and, without the assistance of either a brain or any senses, is now trying to find its way back to life, back to the land of the living. How it can get about without such assistance, I really don't know. But we must assume, for the sake of continuing our argument, that it can. Now it seems unlikely that this hypothetical spirit, this man-sized spirit of a dead person, will endeavour to find its way back to life in this world by, as it were, 'gate-crashing' a living person, presumably someone of the same sex. For where there is already a spirit or, rather, will in operation, there's hardly room or cause for another! So the only way it can return to this delightful world is presumably as a new-born baby. Thus it must await its turn in the queue, so to speak, along with the many other spirits adrift in limbo, for a suitable opportunity, and not endeavour to force any couple on earth to start a family or extend the size of their existing family against their will or before they are ready. Only when its time has at last arrived, and copulation without contraception is leading to positive results, can it surreptitiously force its way into the vagina of the potential mother and, having reached the womb, link-up with the sperm cells or incipient foetus of the potential baby and subsequently reappear, approximately nine months later, in the guise of a new-born child. The parents will, of course, recognize this child as their own, and they will think, if familiar with Schopenhauer's metaphysics, that its intellect, as the secondary function, came from the mother, whereas its Will, as the primary function, came from the father, thereby altogether ruling out the possibility that an alien spirit may have previously and unknowingly installed itself as the legitimate Will. Now as the child grows up and gradually manifests the parental inheritance in all of its various guises, is perceived, for instance, to have the father's nose but the mother's eyes, the father's build but the mother's hair, the father's moral predilections but the mother's understanding, the parents will never for a moment doubt that it is their legitimate offspring, that it was given life by them and by them alone! But those who believe, against all reason, in reincarnation know better, don't they? They know that the child's spirit came from elsewhere and surreptitiously installed itself without either of the parents being in any degree aware of the fact. They wouldn't like the idea that the Will came from the father, because that could imply that the child had two Wills which, even according to their dubious logical standards, is quite impossible. Thus they disregard the father's influence, even though everything about copulation suggests that his influence cannot be disregarded so easily.
DAVID: Enough! I quite understand why you object to reincarnation, even though you talk about it in such a serious and seemingly convincing manner! Indeed, I'm rather surprised that I ever took an interest in the subject. For I did once upon a time, when I was a credulous young adolescent intent upon getting to the 'truth' of such esoteric doctrines, no matter by what circuitous paths. What amazes me is that I didn't think about those sorts of considerations at all, but just blandly swallowed everything with a studious disregard for their intrinsic fallibility. But those days, thank God, are past, and I doubt if I shall ever again fall victim to any degree of intellectual acquiescence in such matters - not, that is, unless I'm unfortunate enough to become thoroughly senile in old age!
KELVIN: Heaven forbid!
DAVID: Well, having got this far with our discussion, I suppose we ought to continue from where we left off about the spirits, for I am quite interested to hear what else you have to say about or, more accurately, against them. We are still conveniently assuming that spirits exist, but you are quite opposed to the idea that (1) they can communicate with the living; and (2) they can return to life on this planet in the guise of another person. Thus we are faced with the problem of ascertaining exactly what they can do, and on this point it seems that we get very little help from Schopenhauer. For although he contended that the Will is eternal, he left us with no idea as to what it would be most likely to do in eternity.
KELVIN: Quite, since it isn't something about which the living are in a position to speculate with any degree of accuracy. But I should be interested to know, in asking you another question, whether you believe in ghosts?
DAVID: Certainly not! How many intelligent people actually believe in ghosts these days? Scarcely anyone!
KELVIN: Then you're aware that spirits and ghosts are really one and the same thing, and that the word 'spirit' is merely a more sophisticated term for a ghost?
DAVID: Yes, I guess so. But what does that have to do with the eternality of the Will? Surely you're not suggesting that the word 'will' has even greater dignity than 'spirit', and thus removes us twice over, in fairly Platonic fashion, from ghosts?
KELVIN: Indeed I am! For, like you, I find it difficult to believe in ghosts, and if 'ghost', 'spirit', and 'will' are all indicative of the same thing, then I must confess to finding it no less difficult to believe in the eternality of the Will, despite my genuine admiration for Schopenhauer's work. Admittedly, like you, I can conceive of the Will as the cardinal force behind every human being. But I certainly cannot conceive of Will as the cardinal force behind itself! An Eternal Will - as character, drives, passions, emotions, et cetera - without a body to serve, appears as ridiculously impossible to me as would a living body without a Will to guide it. After all, it's only the brain, with the aid of the senses and intellect, which makes it possible for the Will to respond to the information it receives in either a positive or a negative manner. It is only a high level of consciousness which makes it possible for the will to feel either pleasure or pain, love or hate, sympathy or anger, respect or contempt, certainty or doubt, enthusiasm or apathy, et cetera, and if this level of consciousness is removed from it, as appears to be the case at death, then it is very difficult to see how the Will - as drives, passions, emotions, et cetera - can continue to function in its proper capacity - indeed, how it can continue to function at all! As I said earlier, once one is deprived of consciousness, one is as good as extinct. For the idea of an Eternal Will is of little consolation if there isn't going to be a mind to witness it. Even Schopenhauer has his contradictions on this point. For, having claimed somewhere that the Will is eternal, he goes on to assert, somewhere else, that it's virtually synonymous with the heart, that age-old symbol of the soul which, as we all know, ceases to function at death. Of course, one can always use the word 'eternal' in a more down-to-earth sense, as significant of that which is always to be found in men or animals from generation to generation and which undergoes no fundamental change in itself, unlike certain parts of the organism. But that wasn't what Schopenhauer was driving at, when he considered the Eternal, nor does it explain the differences in character between people, which he also attributes to the Will. However, as to the Christian notion of the 'equality of all souls', taking the word 'soul' as synonymous with 'will' and not with 'will and intellect', one finds a fundamental truth there in that every soul or will is capable of expressing itself in terms of the various emotions and passions known to man - for example, that love, hate, anger, jealousy, fear, trust, joy, sorrow, doubt, compassion, respect, hope, contempt, malice, benevolence, et cetera, are known to everyone, although they may not be known to everyone to exactly the same extent. But, then again, one cannot claim that everyone has the same character or temperament. So, since the character is clearly a product of the Will rather than of the intellect, the 'equality of all souls' is evidently a rather limited proposition - limited, that is, if one regards it from a purely scientific viewpoint, as opposed to the social viewpoint of its psychological aid to the oppressed over the centuries. As a panacea for the humble and downtrodden, the ugly and stupid, it has undoubtedly worked wonders!
DAVID: And usually to the dismay of the ruling classes! Be that as it may, there is something about the different types of character which has started me thinking along astrological lines again. I mean if, as you learnt from Schopenhauer, character, as a product of the Will, is a direct inheritance from one's father, how, then, do you reconcile that with astrology, with a belief which quite emphatically maintains that one's character is to a large extent governed and determined by the planetary pattern existing at one's birth? Surely there is a contradiction involved here which is almost as unpardonable as the contradiction concerning reincarnation. For one obviously cannot be the inheritor of two characters, any more than one can be the inheritor of two wills! Either one acquires one's character from one's father or one acquires it from the planets.
KELVIN: That is a very good point and, in nine cases out of ten, I'm quite sure that a mother would be more willing to ascribe this important acquisition to the planets than to her husband! Now although, as previously remarked, I'm not a real devotee of astrology, I am quite prepared to accept the idea that the planets may have some relation to one's character, but a relation or 'synchronization', as the astrologers are now calling it, which is entirely different from what one inherits from one's parents and, more especially, one's male progenitor. This latter relation I assume to be largely moral, whereas the former relation I assume to be largely amoral, though not immoral. Any comparison with one's father will indicate that in certain respects of character one is quite similar, whilst in certain other respects one is quite dissimilar, and this dissimilarity, usually consisting of what may be termed 'surface traits', can be ascribed, I think, more to the time of year at which one was born than to the influence of one's mother, which, in any case, seems - if Schopenhauer is to be believed - largely to do with the understanding. Indeed, one might assume from this that only those sons who were born at the same time of year as their father, and therefore under a similar planetary configuration, would most resemble him in character. Thus a father and son who were both Leonean, and hence proud, creative, commanding, generous, strong-willed, dignified, fixed in their opinions, and so on, might further resemble each other in their moral outlook upon the world, in their respective artistic or scientific predilections, their politics, religion, class, responsibility, humour, and any other traits which might correspond to the father's hereditary bequests. But, even so, the influence of the mother still has to be reckoned with, and if she is an unusually intelligent woman, then the chances are pretty high that the son will be somewhat cleverer than his father and that some of his moral characteristics will be proportionately modified.
DAVID: Well, from what little I know about astrology, I would certainly say that you are doing your best, as a certified Libra, to strike a balance between the influences of planets and father as regards the shaping of character. A less 'balanced' person would probably settle for either one or the other, not both! I, at any rate, would definitely be more inclined to put my money on the father's influence. But if I told you that I was an Aries, I suppose you'd be able to concoct an excuse for dismissing my opinion on the basis of its lopsidedness and one-pointedness of aim, and for reminding me, in suitably terse terms, that, as a pioneer and firebrand, I'm congenitally unfit for subtle discussion! And I dare say that, if I'd been born on Mars on April 15th, I would be considered even more unfit for subtle discussion!
KELVIN: Not necessarily. For if you had been born on Mars you wouldn't be an Aries at all.
DAVID: Why ever not?
KELVIN: For the simple reason that an Aries only exists in relation to our life on earth. A person born on Mars would be subject to quite different influences, no matter in what month he was born. Instead of being influenced or affected by Mars, he would be influenced by the Earth and by an entirely different configuration of planets. Besides, as Mars takes almost two years to circle the Sun, there would have to be about twenty-three earth months or, alternatively, twelve 55 day months to make a year on Mars, and that would necessitate the introduction of a different pattern of astrological signs and values, particularly in view of the fact that Mars has two moons. Fortunately to say, no-one from this planet has yet been born there. But with space-research developments pushing ahead so quickly, it isn't altogether impossible that people may be born there in the not-too-distant future, and then astrologers, if any still exist, will be obliged to study the relative planetary configurations from Mars, in order to ascertain the strongest influences which the Earth and other planets in the Solar System are likely to have on such people. There can be no doubt that, with the rise of various space stations and air-conditioned outposts on other planets, today's astrology will appear elementary by comparison! Imagine, for instance, what difficulty an astrologer would be faced with if, in the event of people being born on Jupiter, he had to account for the influence of its twelve moons! And this is a planet which takes approximately 11¾ earth years to circle the Sun!
DAVID: I don't think that I'd want to be an astrologer, in those circumstances. And I don't think that anybody will ever be born on Jupiter anyway, at least not for hundreds of years to come. It would be a strange thing, though, if there were other highly developed beings in different solar systems throughout this galaxy who had also evolved a system of astrology, but one which, of necessity, was entirely different from our own. The mind fairly boggles at the thought of what kind of influences they might be subject to, of how many planets and moons their solar systems might contain, and of what kind of names these planets might have! But I don't want to get carried away by this sort of far-fetched speculation, when I already find the astrological speculation on this planet more than sufficiently far-fetched! I must return to sensible proportions, and not permit your perverse Libran imagination to carry me away. If people heard us talking like this, they'd probably consider us mad! Why, you'll be telling me next that if, in the future, I intend to start a family, I ought to choose the right time to make my wife pregnant so that, nine months later, she can deliver her child under the auspices of a favourable star or planetary configuration!
KELVIN: My dear friend, that is a most excellent idea, and one of the best you've given me all afternoon! I suggest, for the sake of variety, that you make her pregnant in late January or early April, in order to have either a Libran or a Sagittarian child or, failing that, in late May or early October, in order to have either an Aquarian or a Geminian child. In all four cases you should be guaranteed a high degree of natural intellectuality and communicativeness which, by keeping you both amused and instructed in later years, will largely repay you for your pains. Of course, you may think there is far too much superstition involved with this strategy and that, by a common law of nature, one should only make one's wife pregnant when one genuinely feels the urge to do so. If that is the case, then I would advise you to forget what I have just said and continue to go about your marital duties in a less methodical manner. After all, there is always the possibility that your wife may give birth either prematurely or belatedly, and thus ruin your astrological calculations altogether, plunging you into a fit of despair at the prospect of having to raise someone you hadn't in the least bargained for - a young brat of an Aries or a hypocritical Virgo, a tight-lipped Taurus or an over-emotional Scorpio. Yes, and there is even the possibility that you may change your mind when it's too late, regretting, on deeper consideration, that you hadn't made your wife pregnant in early October rather than early April. In which case, it's probably wiser to keep astrological considerations in the background and to follow your lascivious bent, whatever the consequences! As the poet Gray once wrote: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise".
DAVID: Maybe. Although, as a married man who shortly intends to start a family, I must confess to being somewhat intrigued by the idea of planning ahead like that! But, at the moment, I don't know enough about astrology to permit myself any firm decisions.
KELVIN: You could always buy a few worthwhile books on the subject, or even go along to the local library and borrow some of the better astrological tomes to be found there. As a matter of fact, I'm returning that Modern Textbook of Astrology quite soon, so if you would like me to reserve it for you ...
DAVID: (Returns the book in question to his friend's desk) Yes, that would be an excellent idea! I shall have to go into this business in some depth, just to be on the safe side. I may not be one of the most superstitious of people but, if some of the things you've said about astrology are true, then, as a potential father, I ought to grant the subject a little more credence than hitherto! Unfortunately, my interest in astronomy has always precluded me from taking a strong interest in astrology. But if, as you maintain, everything connected with the world of man is dualistic, then I have absolutely no reason to presume that the planets are any exception, or that a material universe can exist without a spiritual, or occult, one behind it. My chief concern to-date has been with the material, whereas it would seem that yours has been with the spiritual.
KELVIN: A fact which, in astrological terms, doesn't in the least surprise me, since Aries is ruled by Mars, which is a predominantly 'material' planet, whereas Libra is ruled by Venus which, by contrast, is a predominantly 'spiritual' one. Thus whilst, as a Libran, I may endeavour to strike a balance between astronomy and astrology, it's likely that I shall be slightly more interested in the latter study, since it is mostly concerned with the spiritual influence of planets. Indeed, radio and television waves have given us ample proof, this century, of the spiritual influences at work on this planet, and one might just as well cite the moon's influence over the tides as the sun's influence over the growth of crops. But a purely material interpretation of things is of no more use to us than a purely spiritual one. For in both cases we're only given half the picture, not the whole, and so the truth remains unacknowledged. Now just as there exists a spiritualism which is a discredit to the spiritual, so there exists a materialism which is a discredit to the material, and which only succeeds in bringing the material interpretation into disrepute and in engendering, as a violent reaction, an equally disreputable spiritual interpretation. The only thing one can do to prevent oneself swinging from one extreme to the other is to cultivate authentic interpretations of both, and then keep them in as stable an equilibrium as possible. For a misuse of the one will subsequently engender a misuse of the other, and instead of serving each other, as indeed they should, they'll slander and undermine each other, to the ultimate detriment of both and, needless to say, to the lasting detriment of mankind in general. Thus, if we're wise, we will be neither anti-spiritual nor anti-material but, on the contrary, see the legitimacy, logicality, and authenticity of both spheres in their rightful perspectives. And in this respect we have something to learn from women who, on the whole, are shrewder than men and more attuned to the spiritual influences of the planets than us. We should do well to follow their moderation from time to time!
DAVID: Well, I certainly endeavour to do that as regards the material side of things. But I have to confess that my wife seems to belong to that small percentage of women who take absolutely no interest in astrology. She never reads the horoscopes.
KELVIN: I should hope not! For in the vast majority of cases the daily or weekly horoscopes aren't written by serious, professional astrologers but by quacks and hired mercenaries whose chief purpose, apart from concocting platitudinous advice and forecasts, is to detract from the already-precarious reputation of their superior colleagues and discourage one from taking astrology seriously. In this last respect they succeed remarkably well! So it's of little surprise to me that a well-educated woman like your wife should fail to be impressed. However, I wager anything that her apparent indifference will be transmuted into a growing curiosity once she realizes that you have taken a genuine interest in the subject and are perusing your textbook. If she is a loving wife, she will be the last person on earth to discourage you from your recent change-of-heart.
DAVID: I do hope you're right. For I have no immediate intentions of being discouraged, not even by you!
KELVIN: And I have no immediate intentions of discouraging you. Although, between ourselves, there is a high probability that the complexity of that textbook will. After all, not everyone is cut-out to be an astrologer!
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?
STEPHEN: A few.
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-à-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!