THE SECOND WORLD WAR prevented me from seeing the Smiths again till 1946, for I was forced to remain in India till the war was over and I could secure a passage home. During the war years I occasionally had a letter from Victor or Maggie, but they were neither of them prolific correspondents, and I learned only the salient events of their lives. Another baby, appeared, Margaret. Victor added a little to his slender income by occasional writing. I gathered that the awake Victor’s appearances became rarer and rarer, but that the secondary personality was becoming a reformed character.
At the outset of the war, the secondary Victor, believing himself to be acting according to the best lights of his more gifted “brother,” declared himself a pacifist. This decision had been taken after much heart-searching, and under the influence of notes and articles written by the awake Victor during the early years of the inter-war period. Maggie too was still much influenced by the attitude that Victor had adopted in those days; but the awake Victor himself, on his brief re-appearances, had gradually come to take up a different view. On each occasion he spent much time re-assessing the memories of the other about the reports of Nazi ruthlessness in Germany and elsewhere, and the disastrous appeasement practised by the democratic powers; and little by little he was forced to the conclusion that this war had indeed to be fought. I have already referred to the fact that over this matter he had a genuinely moral struggle. It was difficult for him to abandon the pacifist’s habit of mind, and to face the fact that, potent as “non-violence” is, it cannot solve all problems. Pacifism, he now affirmed, would be a betrayal of urgent concrete duty for the sake of an abstraction. He gradually persuaded Maggie to this view; and through her he tried to influence his own other self. But the bewildered other at first resisted strongly, regarding his brilliant “brother” as a renegade. In declaring himself a pacifist the Dolt had satisfied his increasing loyalty to the values of his other self; yet in stubbornly clinging to his pacifism in spite of the true Victor’s change of opinion, he seems to have enjoyed asserting his own independence. However, what with the arguments brought to bear on him by the converted Maggie and a written communication left for him by the awake Victor, and (above all) the pressure of circumstances, he was at last painfully driven to recant.
He then swung over to a sense of his military obligation. His career in the previous war had been erratic but brilliant. He therefore decided to apply for some sort of army job in the new war. Maggie told me that after he had renounced his pacifism, and was awaiting the result of his letter to the War Office, he went through a phase of scarcely veiled self-importance, as though the whole defence of the Empire rested on his shoulders. Occasionally, however, a schoolboy gaiety would break through his solemnity. It was obvious that he was extremely glad to be relieved of the burden of pacifism. His heart’s desire now was to find himself once more in khaki. But alas! His application was rejected on psychological grounds. After a spell of profound mortification and self-loathing, he brought himself to stoop so far as to join the Local Defence Volunteers, later called the Home Guard. Gradually he restored his self-respect by devoted and no doubt thoroughly efficient work in this connection. So enthusiastic and energetic was he, that he soon rose to a very responsible position. For him, the Home Guard now appeared as the true backbone of Britain’s defence. All this while, he managed also to carry on his normal adult educational duties. Owing to the pressure of war conditions these civilian evening classes were gradually much reduced; but a new kind of adult education began to be organized, namely in the Forces. Victor threw himself into this with enthusiasm, and throughout the greater part of the war years it was his main occupation. He said little about it in his rare letters to me, for reasons of military security. But after the war, when I met him again, he described it in some detail, and in due course I shall record the main facts, in so far as they bear upon the theme of this book.
Such was my scanty knowledge of Victor’s affairs during the years between 1939 and 1946. Shortly after the end of the war I managed to secure a passage home; and once more I visited the Smiths. Owing to the housing shortage they were still in the same little suburban villa, though it was now much too small for them. Eleven years and the strain of wartime life had affected them both rather severely. Maggie received me at the door; and, as so often happens when one meets an old friend after a long absence, her welcoming smile flooded me with a sudden sense of her personality. I was so taken aback that I stammered out some bit of admiration. She laughed and coloured, gave me an unexpected kiss, and said, “I’m an old woman, but I have never come in for many compliments, and I still like them.” She had indeed aged. Her brilliant mane was reduced both in bulk and in splendour. I thought of ploughed red earth sprinkled with lime. Her face had weathered to a healthy russet. It was the eyes and mouth that gave me that sudden vision of beauty. Suffering, hope deferred and much service of others had tempered her face to an expression of great delicacy. It was as though an inner spiritual beauty had conquered the uncouthness of her features and forced them to be lovely.
As I entered, Victor came in from the garden, apologizing for his dirty hands. Again the greeting told me much. There was a real friendliness, which contrasted with that remembered formal and patronizing greeting of seven years earlier. But Victor was obviously aging rapidly. He looked older than his fifty-six years. The grey hair had retreated from his brow. His face was gaunt and pale and heavily lined. The flabbiness that had shocked me in 1939 had given place to an extreme leanness. The eyes were still half-veiled by the Dolt’s drooping lids, but there was a curious change. The lower lids seemed to have risen to meet the upper. This gave an impression as of a person habitually straining to overcome short-sightedness, or constantly suffering from a headache, or perhaps struggling to understand some awkward problem.
When I came down from my room I met Sheila, now a girl of ten. In her, the father’s regular features tempered the mother’s oddities, and I guessed that Sheila might well develop an intriguing beauty. She seemed to be a happy child. I learned later that though her main interest at present seemed to be tennis and the “flicks,” her school record suggested that she might in due season capture a university scholarship, if she could put her back into her work. Colin I did not see. He was away at boarding school. His parents spoke of him with a faintly anxious but respectful affection. They had expected him to take up some form of plastic art; but toward the end of the war he had conceived a passion for flying. Victor remarked, “Oh, Colin is capable; but a dark horse.” Maggie added, “A dear dark horse.” The third child, Margaret, now about five, had a rather charming little monkey face, and a great capacity for mischief. She was nearly always able to get her own way with her doting father.
In my many talks with Victor and Maggie, sometimes separately and sometimes together, I formed a fairly clear picture of their life during the years since I had last seen them. It was now some eighteen months since the true Victor had last appeared; and he had vanished again on the very next day. But the established Victor was a very different person from the disorientated and distracted creature whom I had met seven years earlier. There were no more of those phases of revolt against all that the true Victor had championed. The former “Dolt” now consciously and rather pathetically modelled himself on his “vanishing brother.” Also, he had now quite overcome his physical repugnance to Maggie. This had happened very shortly after my previous visit. I heard of the change from Victor himself; and also from Maggie, separately. Though factually their accounts were identical, their commentaries were strikingly different. Victor regarded the whole incident with a mixture of shame at his antics and thankfulness at their outcome. Maggie adopted an attitude suggestive, I thought, of the parents’ rejoicing over the return of the prodigal son.
Shortly after I had left England in 1939, Victor had formed a sentimental attachment to a certain Amabel, a young woman of naively intellectual tastes. She sought distraction from the uninspiring job of looking after an invalid mother whose tastes were far from intellectual. Socially she was a cut above the average of his students. She always dressed with a quiet distinction. She had the correct figure and the kind of good looks that are popularized by commercial artists. She regarded Victor as a brilliant intellectual who had married beneath him and had need of refined companionship. Obviously it was her mission to supply the need. Without any clear thought of the future, the two began meeting one another outside the classroom; and in due season Victor persuaded her to spend a night with him in a hotel. This became a habit. He explained to Maggie that after the class he was too tired to come home on the same evening. Maggie soon suspected that there was more to it than that, and little by little she found out the main facts. She never challenged him, but he gradually realized that she knew all about it. Maggie was surprised to find how fiercely jealous she could be at heart while maintaining a façade of detachment. “And yet,” she said, “I could not really blame my poor Victor. He was not really being unfaithful to me, because he had never been my lover.” Though she managed to maintain an appearance of calm indifference, Victor’s affair had a deep effect on her. Resentment against him for all the disappointment and suffering that he had caused her froze all her tenderness towards him. She behaved in a way that was superficially correct according to her established standards, but her inner hostility showed through at every turn.
Meanwhile on Victor’s side his love affair proved a source of far more torment than delight. For even to the somnolent Victor it soon became obvious that Amabel was a poor creature compared with Maggie; and that Maggie was necessary to him. When her new coldness toward him had developed into a fixed habit, he became uncontrollably miserable and lonely. He told me, “It was as though the air I had breathed for so long without paying any attention to it had turned to acid fumes.”
In passing, it is worth while noting the awake Victor’s reaction to the Amabel affair. On the rare and brief occasions when he appeared, he was torn between exasperation and detachment. Remembering that the Dolt was after all at bottom identical with himself, and that it was indeed he, Victor, that had made love to Amabel, he could not but feel self-ridicule and annoyance. He could escape this mood only by exercising his most “awake” powers of standing right outside himself, and regarding himself with objectivity as a particular human individual among countless others.
Though the awake Victor could well appreciate Amabel’s physical lusciousness, he saw this animal ripeness itself blighted by a mildew of cultural affectation. It was as though a simple and comely farm house had been painted over to look like marble. He writhed at the memory of the sentimentality and self-deception that each of the pair had evoked in the other, pretending that what was in fact just an honest-to-God animal lust sprang from a deep spiritual affinity. For the awake Victor, Amabel’s mincing voice and meticulous choice of words, her pathetic attempt to be a blue-stocking, somehow eclipsed her physical charms.
As for the Dolt, his feeling for Amabel gradually changed from attraction to contempt, and he began shamefacedly courting his wife. His repugnance was slowly displaced by a late discovery that the powerful spell which she had always exercised over him was not, after all, bestial or diabolic, but (to use his own adjective) “angelic.”
At an earlier stage Maggie would have greeted Victor’s advances with frank enthusiasm, but now, to her own distress, she was completely cold. But in the end her feelings were changed in a rather crucial incident. The true Victor had been in command for a few days and though he shared the common body with the faithless other Victor, Maggie felt no repugnance against that body when the true Victor possessed it. As usual they slept together. Apparently the lesser Victor awoke one night to find himself in bed with Maggie, and being ardently embraced by her. He realized at once that her caresses were meant for his brilliant “brother,” who had gone to bed with her. The lesser Victor had the presence of mind to continue his “brother’s” love-making without letting Maggie suspect the change. Not until the crisis was passed, and they were lying peacefully in each other’s arms, did he tell her what had happened.
This incident was the beginning of a new relationship between them. Little by little Maggie’s bitterness passed, and the two at last lived as man and wife. They shared a bedroom, thereby allowing more space for the children. At the time of my second visit from India, in 1946, there was obviously a great tenderness between them. It is difficult to say how I knew this, for they were not at all demonstrative toward each other. Both were now well advanced in years. The ardours of youth had long since passed. But I noticed that each addressed the other with a voice subtly different from that which they used to other people.
I must not give a false impression. In a long talk with Maggie one evening, when Victor was away lecturing, I learned more about her feelings toward her substitute husband after the Amabel affair. That distressing incident had happened some six years earlier. Shortly after its conclusion, when she was already near the age when childbirth would no longer be safe, Margaret was born. And now Margaret was a junior schoolgirl.
Though Maggie was at last fully mated to the Victor who had for so long rejected her, and though indeed she loved him dearly, yet it was only the other Victor (“my own true Victor”) who kindled her fully. Him she adored. Toward the other, she felt a love that was three parts pity. With the true Victor she attained that passionate friendship between equals which is the fullest expression of love; though (she insisted) it was only through his powerful influence on her that she was able to rise to be in a manner his equal. To her he seemed always godlike, though through his power she had become his equal lover. He had raised her, formed her spirit. For him and with him she had become more than herself. In fact he was Eros to her Psyche. But to the other Victor she felt a tenderness which, in so far as it was more than an echo of that deeper love, was motherly. She had given him her body, not with the exultation of surrender to a god, but almost as she had given her breast to her baby, with a kind of ardent compassion.
From Victor himself I gathered much the same impression. He said, “I know quite well that I can never be to her what my brother is. But it was not only for his sake that she came to love me. Strangely, I could give her something which he could not give, or not in the same degree, namely a man to mother.”
On one of my days with the Smiths, Maggie suggested that Victor and I should avail ourselves of the lovely winter weather, and the fact that he had no engagements, by going for a longish walk on the moors outside the town. She wanted to get us both out of the way while she did some early “spring-cleaning.”
Victor took me in his ancient sports car, which he had kept in action throughout the war for travelling to the military units where he had to lecture. Now that the basic ration of petrol was restored, it was possible to use the car occasionally for private purposes. He was no longer the keen driver that he had been, but he still found motoring agreeable. We left the car at a point where the road passed over the shoulder of a hill. Thence we set off up a lane that had been badly chewed up by tanks and guns. After a couple of miles we reached a deserted military post of some sort, where empty huts were surrounded by a disgusting litter of old cans and other refuse. Thence we struck out by a footpath toward the moor. There was snow on the upper levels, and the bright morning was giving place to a sombre east-wind noon.
Life in India does not keep one in training for rough walking, and it was soon apparent that Victor was a good deal the more active of us. This was convenient, for it enabled him to talk while I was labouring up the hillside. Occasionally I paused for breath, and to look about me. The valley from which we had emerged was one of the many deep grooves in the great plateau of moorland. It was a largely industrialized region, and the smoke from its chimneys contributed to the black haze of the east wind. In one direction the valley lost itself among the sweeping moors; and in the other the view was blocked by the smoke pall of the town. After a while I suggested stopping for lunch, and when we had found a tolerably sheltered spot we settled down behind a wall and took out our sandwiches.
Over lunch the conversation turned to the relations between Victor’s two personalities. “My ‘brother,’” he said, “is an optimist of the deepest dye. He still believes that mankind will turn the corner into some kind of glorious Utopia, though he admits we may destroy ourselves with atomic power. How I wish I could feel as he does! But I can’t. He has faith in mankind because he has such superb faith in himself. Perhaps it is because I have lost faith in myself that I am losing faith in mankind. Much as I admire him, I can’t help regarding him as in a way my younger brother. He retains the buoyancy of youth. After all, he is young compared with me. His actual conscious life has been far shorter than mine. Add up all his periods and then mine, and he can’t be half my age. Of course he has all my memories, but he never has time to digest them all properly and turn them to his own account. So he is really quite inexperienced.” Victor seemed to sense my unexpressed disagreement, for he added, “Of course, I know he is brilliant, and his mind works far more rapidly than mine; but he can’t really keep up, and so he is always in danger of missing the tragic impact of the years. Of course he shares my old body, with all its little accumulating breakdowns and weaknesses; but it doesn’t seem to make him old mentally.” Victor paused, and I remarked that, compared with me, he seemed very fit and active. “Oh, I’m in fairly good condition,” he said, “for my years. But — well you know as well as I do how senescence hampers one. The odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to hamper him, except by making him appear less often.”
There was silence again. We munched our cake, and thought our own thoughts. Then he said, “I am convinced that my imposing other self doesn’t really know what wretched stuff average human nature is. If our average had been just a little more intelligent and a little more sensitive, we might have made quite a different sort of world. But think of that filthy camp we passed, and the messed-up valley, and our whole industrial civilization, and the war, and the Nazis. It’s very simple really. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And that’s what we are, nearly all of us, just sows’ ears. I know very well that’s all I am myself, and really I’m quite good average stuff, indeed rather brighter than average in some ways. But my other self is a real ready-made silk purse. Hence his one big glorious mistake of supposing that everyone has a nice piece of real silk somehow hidden away inside his sow’s’ ear.” We both laughed. I insisted that he himself really had a lot of silk in his make-up, otherwise he would have remained merely the Dolt. He shook his head. “That was just my brother’s influence,” he said, “and perhaps Maggie’s magic.” I rather warmly declared that we were all really pretty good at heart, but spoiled by circumstances. He pulled a wry face, and said, “I have seen a good deal of the plain man (and woman) in the Forces, and I know his limitations, and hers; just as I know my own. He’s unimaginative, self-centred, conventional, vindictive, and he won’t think if he can possibly help it. Damn it! I have good reason to know the plain man, because I am the plain man though uncomfortably raised a little by outside influences. And because I have had an ideal imposed on me, by outside influences, and I haven’t the strength (or the effective will) to live up to it, deep in my heart I hate the things I love. And so I keep queering my own pitch with sudden acts of resentfulness and cruelty, hurting or insulting the very things I love; hurting Maggie, just because she’s too good for me, and because she was forced on me by my other self; spoiling my work in the classes by sudden indifference and irresponsibility or positive malicious provocation of the tiresome people I am supposed to teach. And in all this I am not exceptional at all. I am just what the plain man is. O God, how I hate myself sometimes; and him, and everything. I hate the bad things for being bad and the good things for being good.”
This distressing talk left me dumb. Though I felt painful pity for my unhappy friend. I was also hostile, and inclined to blame him for lacking grit.
We had finished our lunch, so we rose to our feet and continued our way over the gentle slopes of the great moorland plateau. To break the black silence that had descended on us, I asked Victor to tell me more about his work in army education. He said, “I suppose we did rather more good than harm, and sometimes it was quite stimulating both to lecturer and audiences. Yes, one did sometimes feel that the discussion kindled people. But my ‘brother,’ who only took my place very seldom, thought it was all marvellous. He used to write copious notes afterwards, to help me. And they really were very useful. He was always surprised to find these very average ‘cross-section’ audiences so thoughtful. He insisted that people were all waking up at last; and that, if they were not led up the garden path by devilish propaganda, they would found a new world after the war. Well, there’s some truth in that view, but look at the world now! Everyone’s just clamouring for a good time. You see, my brother’s trouble was simply this: being so good at stirring people up and making them think seriously, he never realized how they flopped again when he had left them.”
Victor explained the aims and methods of that great venture of education in the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. The problem was very different from the civilian one, with which he was so familiar. For the civilian audiences, attendance at classes was of course voluntary, and those who came were all drawn by some sort of desire for education, however vague a desire. The service audiences were mostly audiences of educational conscripts. In the early days, apparently, Victor often found himself faced with a group who had no interest whatever in the matter in hand. They regarded the occasion simply as an opportunity for idleness or even sleep. Sometimes there was open hostility. People would ostentatiously read a paper, or snore, until a sergeant intervened. Or they would sit with their backs to the lecturer. There could not have been a worse atmosphere for education. “But after all,” he said, “the situation was a challenge. Somehow one had to make those people glad they had been forced to come. No doubt my other self always succeeded. But for me it was necessary to learn the right technique very laboriously. One had to combine school-boy humour with unmistakable sincerity and enthusiasm for the subject. No wonder in those early days the atmosphere sometimes cowed me completely. Then the whole affair would be simply a nightmare. However, as time passed, the troops themselves got more used to the idea of serious discussion, and we lecturers got more skilled. Latterly I generally came away with a feeling that on the whole something worth while had been accomplished. And occasionally even I had the exciting experience of seeing those ordinary beer-drinking, pin-up-girl connoisseurs and football fans begin to sit up and take notice, and fire off volleys of questions or comments. But this was rare.”
It was clear that my companion had a gnawing sense of failure. “I ask myself,” he said, “did I in any of those meetings give anyone the beginnings of a real longing for the life of the mind. One or two, here and there, perhaps. And perhaps one or two would be just very slightly more tolerant and understanding than they could have been otherwise. Perhaps! That is what one hopes for as the result of all that travelling about in crowded wartime trains, in planes, in Army trucks, R.A.F. trucks, Navy trucks, to remote batteries, searchlight sites, camps, islands. It wouldn’t be so horribly depressing if I didn’t know that my ‘brother’ would have done it all incomparably better. He would always hold their attention, always give them something worth while, always leave a lasting effect. Damn him!”
The weather had greatly deteriorated, and conversation petered out. The wind was biting, and sleet was beginning to drive into our faces. Those Yorkshire moors have a restrained grandeur of their own, and bad weather enhances it. The snow added to their severe beauty; and to our discomfort, for as soon as we left the path, we found ourselves in difficulties. We came into a region of innumerable peat hags, miniature canyons, the bottoms of which were black bog or peat. They were now partly filled with snowdrifts. Then came a blizzard of blinding sleet, and presently a heavy cloud swept along the moor and engulfed us. Conversation had ceased. We were far too busy floundering in concealed holes or leaping from tussock to tussock. Presently Victor stopped and said, “We shall get hopelessly lost in this mist. Let’s give up the round, and go back to the car.” I was quite glad to do so, but rather surprised that Victor, the more active of us, should lose heart so easily. Neither of his two personalities had been easily daunted by physical discomforts or risks.
Victor must have sensed my surprise; for he said, “I suppose it’s a bit pusillanimous to turn back, but why should two old buffers like us go floundering on in this uncomfortable mess? This weather might have been exhilarating thirty years ago, but at our age it’s too much of a good thing. Besides,” he laughed nervously, “it frightens me.” Of course I raised no objection to turning, but as we retraced our steps I asked him what he meant by saying he was frightened. I could not see any danger. “Of course there’s none, really,” he answered. “We can easily make our way down into some valley or other even if we do get lost. But — well, the whole scene is too poignantly symbolical of the universe. The desolation of these sweeping moors, the savage sleet, the labour of every step, the early darkness, the whole physical world’s complete indifference to man, the way man himself has messed up everything, for instance in that derelict camp. The fact is, life is getting me down, and any little thing can take the lid off hell for me. Everything is so bleak and hopeless, everything. And I do everything in such a second-class blindfold way. Fancy never having got beyond being a journeyman in adult education after all these years!”
I protested that things were not nearly so bad as he thought. Surely Victor had had his share of good fortune — a useful job well done, a splendid wife, and a family that did them both credit. Almost with resentment he said, “Oh, of course I ought not to complain. I’m well, have enough to live on, and am harmlessly occupied. And of course Maggie is superb. I shudder to think what I should have been without her. She is incomparably the best thing in my life. But all the while I know I’m not really what she wants. You see, after all, she’s simply far too good for me. She really does love me; I know; but always she longs for that other Victor. Christ! How I hate my better self sometimes!”
We walked on in silence for a while. Presently Victor continued, “And then there’s Colin. He’s a fine lad, I know; but I just can’t make head or tail of him. Except of course that he sees through his wretched father pretty thoroughly. How could he help it, after my unsatisfactory behaviour to him while he was a child! Now, of course, I have learnt sense, but it’s too late. He just gangs his ane gait. If ever I try to advise he is painfully polite and really takes no notice at all. Indeed he is always so considerate that I feel he is treating me as a mental patient. Sometimes I could wring his neck. Then Sheila! Certainly an attractive girl, isn’t she; but in no real sense my daughter. She is quite simply not interested in me. But Margaret — she’s really mine, and I think I live in her more than in anything else. I didn’t damage her as I damaged Colin. And I can appreciate her. And I, myself, begat her. She’s not the other’s child. We’re very good friends, as you know. But she knows quite well by now that I’m a man beaten by his own shortcomings. She still has a real affection for me, but she admires only my ‘brother.’ Oh, yes, she is beginning to see through me already. And now, of course, I’m getting old. I might be her grandfather. I can’t help her as much as I used to. Soon she’ll leave me far behind.”
All that Victor had said was in a way true, but I felt unreasonably annoyed with him for being so depressed about it, and for dragging it into the open, so that I had to make some comment. The root of the trouble seemed to me to be that he was too self-absorbed, and too conscious of his inferiority to the true Victor. Somehow I didn’t feel like telling him this.
Victor continued, “There’s a coherent pattern in your life. In mine there’s only a chaos of abortive patterns. But I’m not claiming to be uniquely unfortunate. The plain fact is that all men are unhappy in one way or another. At least I have never found anyone who wasn’t. Get them talking, and people all confess to some gnawing misery or other; except those that are ashamed of it, or so frightened they can’t admit it even to themselves.” I protested against this fantastic idea; and he admitted he might be exaggerating. “No doubt,” he said, “the death-wish is warping my judgment. Intellectually, and even in a way spiritually, I know (at least I sometimes know) that to give up would be treason to the spirit; but my terrible fatigue and disillusionment keep spawning arguments for death.”
We walked in silence for a while, for the blizzard had redoubled its force, and conversation was impossible. When respite came, I babbled vaguely of the loveliness of the world. The English countryside, I said, even in this harsh weather, was enough to hold me to life, no matter how depressing my personal career. He said, “One can’t live for scenery.” I tried another line. I argued that, even if as an individual one was futile, yet in a way one was more than an individual, having a part in the great struggle of humanity to find its soul. He laughed bitterly. “It’s not finding its soul,” he said. “It’s damning itself. Within fifty years’ time it will probably have wiped itself right off the planet with atomic warfare. But look! Why is it that all individuals today, at least all who are socially conscious, are in one way or another tortured by social guilt? Because whatever they do is fatally false, falsified by the pressure of an utterly false society. If you live solely for individual contacts and personal service, then you betray your obligation to the suffering millions with whom you have no contact. If you live for economic or social and political action to cure the sick world, then, either you will be entirely ineffective, or else you will gain power, and so be corrupted by power; and then you will contribute to the burden of the institutionalism and mechanized tyranny that is turning all men into robots. If you withdraw from the world to purge your soul of the world’s poison, seeking a lone salvation in religious discipline and contemplation, then again you betray your immediate obligation to your fellows, even if you innocently suppose you will discover truth invaluable to a future generation. No! As I see it, do what you will, you are damned, just because you are all of a piece with a damned world, a damned species. No wonder death is coming to seem more and more desirable.”
At this point I asked Victor if he had told Maggie about his death-wish. He had not; and I urged him to do so, so that she could help him to overcome it. “It would distress her,” he said, “and she wouldn’t understand. She’s so wedded to life.”
Brushing aside this interruption, he continued, “Probably the root of the whole trouble is that as a species we are neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring; neither sheer brute nor fully personal. As some writer or other said (perhaps Wells), man is not perfected for flight in his chosen element, like the bird; he’s just a clumsy first experiment, like the old flying lizards. And like them he will sooner or later come to grief. My ‘brother’ is probably an earnest of the higher type that might be able to make a good thing of this planet. The rest of us are poor tortured misfits. But the chances are that his type will never establish itself. And even if it does, it will probably complicate its world society to such an extent that it will be beaten by circumstances, just as we are being beaten on our more lowly plane. But, anyhow, what does it matter? In my clearest, coldest moments I begin to see that existence is in the last analysis simply pointless. That is just what my hearty ‘brother’ in spite of his brilliance, can never see.”
This kind of talk filled me with despond, and with exasperation at Victor. It was so devastatingly true; but I felt there must be an effective answer to it. I longed for the true Victor to appear and provide the answer. Indeed I felt that one breath from the other Victor would dispel this fog that engulfed the poor secondary personality. Presently it occurred to me to point out that if Victor (the present Victor) really regarded his ‘brother’ as being gifted with a more penetrating insight than his own, surely he must credit him with some solid ground for optimism. To this my companion replied, “In theory you are right. But he seems to me to be constantly misled by his own personal beatitude. To him, with his fundamental peace of mind (however caused) all is bound to seem ultimately for the best. But we who cannot see his vision cannot really feel the ultimate rightness of things. And it’s no use pretending. Besides, he may be wrong. He may be merely projecting his own well-being on the universe.” I stammered something about the lovely and glorious things in the universe redeeming the evil. “After all,” I said, “some things do matter. And you ought to be content to have lived and worked for the things that matter.”
“They matter,” he replied, “to us; but we, perhaps, don’t matter to the universe. And anyhow I can’t believe that I matter to anyone very much.”
“To Maggie,” I protested. He answered quietly, “Not much, really. If I were to fade out, finally giving place to my ‘brother,’ she’d be glad. And if I were to put an end to the two of us, she would merely be upset at losing my ‘brother’ for ever. Frankly, I’d be glad to be done with the whole business, if I could get out in some easy way. Tell me, Harry! Do you find life still worth living?”
I thought before I answered. “Well,” I said,” I have no illusions about my own importance, and if I were to find myself under sentence of death tomorrow, I shouldn’t really mind. But I should be a bit annoyed all the same. Everything is so frightfully interesting. One’s own life has been pretty futile, of course; but the life of the species is so exciting, and most of all in our own age.”
He answered, “To me the whole of contemporary existence begins to seem merely like the last and dullest scene of a rather tiresome play. I want to get away and go to sleep.”
For a long while we trailed down the moor in silence; till at last we came out below the mist, and the murky valley spread out before us. Presently we reached the car, and packed ourselves into it. (Our feet left pools on the floorboards.) I was feeling thoroughly dejected, and cross with Victor, and yet I couldn’t produce a satisfactory answer to his pessimism. But he, having got the matter off his chest, was beginning to cheer up. He was obviously enjoying the driving. Here at least was a job he liked and could do with precision and elegance. Presently he said, “Sorry I was so gloomy. It’s not really as bad as all that, I know. I do feel it in my bones that things are worth while, and that what my idealistic ‘brother’ calls ‘the spirit’ matters much more than we do, and that one must go on blunderingly serving it. I feel it in my bones; but O God, I can’t feel it clearly and commandingly.”
Nothing else worth reporting happened during my visit. The awake Victor did not put in an appearance. Maggie said she would telegraph to me if he did so before my leave was finished; for I had a great desire to see him again. I payed another short visit before I returned to India, but the situation was much as it had been.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00