The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 73

ELLEN and he got on capitally, all the better, perhaps, because the disparity between them was so great, that neither did Ellen want to be elevated, nor did Ernest want to elevate her. He was very fond of her, and very kind to her; they had interests which they could serve in common; they had antecedents with a good part of which each was familiar; they had each of them excellent tempers, and this was enough. Ellen did not seem jealous at Ernest’s preferring to sit the greater part of his time after the day’s work was done in the first floor front where I occasionally visited him. She might have come and sat with him if she had liked, but, somehow or other, she generally found enough to occupy her down below. She had the tact also to encourage him to go out of an evening whenever he had a mind, without in the least caring that he should take her too — and this suited Ernest very well. He was, I should say, much happier in his married life than people generally are.

At first it had been very painful to him to meet any of his old friends, as he sometimes accidentally did, but this soon passed; either they cut him, or he cut them; it was not nice being cut for the first time or two, but after that, it became rather pleasant than not, and when he began to see that he was going ahead, he cared very little what people might say about his antecedents. The ordeal is a painful one, but if a man’s moral and intellectual constitution is naturally sound, there is nothing which will give him so much strength of character as having been well cut.

It was easy for him to keep his expenditure down, for his tastes were not luxurious. He liked theatres, outings into the country on a Sunday, and tobacco, but he did not care for much else, except writing and music. As for the usual run of concerts, he hated them. He worshipped Handel; he liked Offenbach, and the airs that went about the streets, but he cared for nothing between these two extremes. Music, therefore, cost him little. As for theatres, I got him and Ellen as many orders as they liked, so these cost them nothing. The Sunday outings were a small item; for a shilling or two he could get a return ticket to some place far enough out of town to give him a good walk and a thorough change for the day. Ellen went with him the first few times, but she said she found it too much for her, there were a few of her old friends whom she should sometimes like to see, and they and he, she said, would not hit it off perhaps too well, so it would be better for him to go alone. This seemed so sensible, and suited Ernest so exactly that he readily fell into it, nor did he suspect dangers which were apparent enough to me when I heard how she had treated the matter. I kept silence, however, and for a time all continued to go well. As I have said, one of his chief pleasures was in writing. If a man carries with him a little sketch book and is continually jotting down sketches, he has the artistic instinct; a hundred things may hinder his due development, but the instinct is there. The literary instinct may be known by a man’s keeping a small note-book in his waistcoat pocket, into which he jots down anything that strikes him, or any good thing that he hears said, or a reference to any passage which he thinks will come in useful to him. Ernest had such a note-book always with him. Even when he was at Cambridge he had begun the practice without anyone’s having suggested it to him. These notes he copied out from time to time into a book, which as they accumulated, he was driven into indexing approximately, as he went along. When I found out this, I knew that he had the literary instinct, and when I saw his notes I began to hope great things of him.

For a long time I was disappointed. He was kept back by the nature of the subjects he chose — which were generally metaphysical. In vain I tried to get him away from these to matters which had a greater interest for the general public. When I begged him to try his hand at some pretty, graceful little story which should be full of whatever people knew and liked best, he would immediately set to work upon a treatise to show the grounds on which all belief rested.

“You are stirring mud,” said I, “or poking at a sleeping dog. You are trying to make people resume consciousness about things, which, with sensible men, have already passed into the unconscious stage. The men whom you would disturb are in front of you, and not, as you fancy, behind you; it is you who are the lagger, not they.”

He could not see it. He said he was engaged on an essay upon the famous quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus of St. Vincent de Lerins. This was the more provoking because he showed himself able to do better things if he had liked.

I was then at work upon my burlesque, “The Impatient Griselda,” and was sometimes at my wits’ end for a piece of business or a situation; he gave me many suggestions, all of which were marked by excellent good sense. Nevertheless I could not prevail with him to put philosophy on one side, and was obliged to leave him to himself.

For a long time, as I have said, his choice of subjects continued to be such as I could not approve. He was continually studying scientific and metaphysical writers, in the hope of either finding or making for himself philosopher’s stone in the shape of a system which should go on all fours under all circumstances, instead of being liable to be upset at every touch and turn, as every system yet promulgated has turned out to be.

He kept to the pursuit of this will-o’-the-wisp so long that I gave up hope, and set him down as another fly that had been caught, as it were, by a piece of paper daubed over with some sticky stuff that had not even the merit of being sweet, but to my surprise he at last declared that he was satisfied, and had found what he wanted.

I supposed that he had only hit upon some new “Lo, here!” when to my relief, he told me that he had concluded that no system which should go perfectly upon all fours was possible, inasmuch as no one could get behind Bishop Berkeley, and therefore no absolutely incontrovertible first premise could ever be laid. Having found this he was just as well pleased as if he had found the most perfect system imaginable. All he wanted, he said, was to know which way it was to be — that is to say whether a system was possible or not, and if possible then what the system was to be. Having found out that no system based on absolute certainty was possible he was contented.

I had only a very vague idea who Bishop Berkeley was, but was thankful to him for having defended us from an incontrovertible first premise. I am afraid I said a few words implying that after a great deal of trouble he had arrived at the conclusion which sensible people reach without bothering their brains so much.

He said: “Yes, but I was not born sensible. A child of ordinary powers learns to walk at a year or two old without knowing much about it; failing ordinary powers he had better learn laboriously than never learn at all. I am sorry I was not stronger, but to do as I did was my only chance.”

He looked so meek that I was vexed with myself for having said what I had, more especially when I remembered his bringing-up, which had doubtless done much to impair his power of taking a common-sense view of things. He continued —

“I see it all now. The people like Towneley are the only ones who know anything that is worth knowing, and like that of course I can never be. But to make Towneleys possible there must be hewers of wood and drawers of water — men in fact through whom conscious knowledge must pass before it can reach those who can apply it gracefully and instinctively as the Towneleys can. I am a hewer of wood, but if I accept the position frankly and do not set up to be a Towneley, it does not matter.”

He still, therefore, stuck to science instead of turning to literature proper as I hoped he would have done, but he confined himself henceforth to enquiries on specific subjects concerning which an increase of our knowledge — as he said — was possible. Having in fact, after infinite vexation of spirit, arrived at a conclusion which cut at the roots of all knowledge, he settled contentedly down to the pursuit of knowledge, and has pursued it ever since in spite of occasional excursions into the regions of literature proper.

But this is anticipating, and may perhaps also convey a wrong impression, for from the outset he did occasionally turn his attention to work which must be more properly cared literary than either scientific or metaphysical.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31