IT WAS OVER FIVE YEARS before I met Victor again. During most of this time I was teaching in India. I had always wanted an opportunity to see the East; and when the chance came to take up a post as lecturer in English in an Indian college, I accepted it. Not till 1929 did I return to England on leave. Victor had occasionally written to me, but he was not a painstaking correspondent, and I knew little of his affairs except the bare fact that, very soon after I had seen him, Maggie had come to live with him. In the eyes of the law they were still unmarried, because he was still anxious lest he should have another relapse. But in spirit they were man and wife. The actual marriage was not to come till later, when Victor felt himself completely secure, and it was time for Maggie to have children.
When at last I visited them, I found them established in a little suburban house in the north-country town which was the centre from which Victor worked. Victor opened the door to me himself, and greeted me warmly. As we held each other’s hands in greeting, I stared at him. For he had changed. The years had naturally left a mark on his face, but there was something there besides the signs of maturity. There was a new expression which I could not yet decipher, a curious combination of gentleness about the eyes and hardness or perhaps bitterness about the lips. I stared so long that he laughed and said, “Oh, yes, I’ve weathered a lot. So have you, but you look quite well, though a bit dried up with the sun.”
He took my hat and coat, and called for Maggie. She emerged from the kitchen with a welcoming smile that gave me some hint of the beauty that Victor alone could see in her. Her features were even more pronounced and strange than they had been when I saw her some eight years earlier, as a waitress. But in spite of the years, and a few lines on the forehead and round the eyes, she looked quite young; partly, no doubt because her face was bronzed from a recent holiday, but more because of a general air of well-being and zest.
The little sitting-room was sparsely furnished, mostly in the light wood that was then becoming modish. Over the mantelpiece was a print of a Breughel. On another wall were some rather luscious forest scenes which I could not believe to be quite in accord with Victor’s taste. Altogether the room was a mixture of the highly sophisticated and the naive. The curtains suggested a lodging-house, a thoroughly nice lodging-house; but we drank sherry out of Swedish glasses. Strangely, this curious combination of styles throughout the house did not offend me. They effected a sort of humorous harmony which, I suspected, symbolized the relation between Victor and Maggie themselves.
It was soon clear that the unofficial marriage was a great success, and that in many ways Victor depended on Maggie for security. His eyes would often quickly seek hers as though for confirmation of something which he had just said to me. And once, as he passed behind her chair to fetch something, he fleetingly laid a hand on her shoulder.
Later in my visit, while Maggie was preparing a meal, and Victor and I were sitting in the little garden, he remarked that before she had come to him he must have been spending a great deal of energy in “merely keeping the Dolt at bay,” but that with her daily presence to strengthen him he had far more energy to spare, and a new sense of peace and security. Only on occasions when they were separated for a week or more did he feel anything of the old need to watch himself, and then merely as a vague loneliness and anxiety, not as a real threat.
In more practical ways also, Maggie was helpful. Not only did she look after the house, but also she entered actively into Victor’s affairs. She had visited all his evening classes, and had struck up a real friendship with several of his students. Evidently she fulfilled an important function in his work. She said, “When Victor works up a new subject, he always tries it on the dog first, namely me. Sometimes the poor animal finds it heavy going and can’t keep awake. Sometimes it has a nervous breakdown, like those unfortunate dogs he told me about that some great Russian experimenter tormented with intelligence tests that were just a bit too difficult for them. Sometimes this adoring dog just sits enthralled, forgetting its knitting. Sometimes it asks such a lot of silly questions and raises so many difficulties that poor Victor gets quite cross with it.” Here Victor put in, “And then I have to go away and rewrite the whole thing. Oh, she’s a useful critic, though exasperating, and wilfuly stupid. Then — how I hate her!” On the occasions when she visited his classes, her function (I gathered) was partly to watch the reactions of the members, and partly to watch Victor himself. On the journey home she would report her findings; protesting, perhaps, against Victor’s mannerisms, or suggesting that some disheartened or timid individual needed special treatment. “In fact,” said Victor, summing it all up, “her function is to give me hell.”
On one occasion during my brief visit, Victor expressed perplexity about a certain class secretary who had shown more zeal than honesty by marking on the class register attendances that had not occurred, What ought the wretched tutor to do about it? Should he turn a blind eye, or make a fuss, and cause endless trouble with the authorities? The question was not a real request for advice but rather a statement of perplexity. I was amused by Maggie’s technique for dealing with Victor on this occasion. I saw her take a sidelong glance at her man, and then she continued her knitting in silence. Presently she said, “What would happen if you made a fuss?”
“Trouble, hate, and a shindy with the B. of E.”
“What would happen if you turned a blind eye?”
“Nothing! It wouldn’t even make a difference to the Government grant earned by the class, because there’ll be more than enough attendances anyhow.”
“Which do you care for most, educating the workers or personal righteousness?” He laughed, and turned to me. “It’s terrible,” he said, “to be linked for life with an immoral woman. Instead of being a force making for righteousness, she leads me into temptation at every turn.”
She too laughed, and remarked, “Poor Victor! He never has the moral courage to be immoral; so when he wants to be, he always has to get me to take the blame for him. Then he can do it with a good conscience.”
Maggie had also been of service to Victor in the writing of the book which he had begun some six years earlier. This incipient masterpiece had been rewritten several times, and was now radically different from the early draft that his father had seen. “He calls it,” said Maggie, “his web, and himself Penelope.” He explained, “The trouble is, I’m mentally growing up rather fast, and everything I wrote even a year ago begins to look puerile.” I suggested that he should not hold it back, but publish it in its present form as a sort of interim report. “No good,” he said. “It would all have to be got into shape and polished, and I can’t be bothered to do that with stuff that I have already outgrown. Besides, there are far too many half-baked books already.”
Maggie seemed to regard her function in relation to the book as twofold. She must stimulate him into finishing it and publishing it as soon as possible, and she must force him to write so that ordinary intelligent people could follow him without undue effort. But Victor, who regarded his “web” neither as educational nor as propaganda but as sheer self-expression, rebelled against both these orders. “After all,” he said, smiling at Maggie, “it’s meant for educated people, not for country wenches and the scum of provincial towns, like you.” Ignoring the sally, she said, “He’ll never publish anything really worthwhile unless I stand over him with a rolling-pin. Of course there were those very respectable contributions to highbrow magazines, political and philosophical. They really began to make a name for him. But he gave up that sort of thing long ago because he said his ideas were still in the melting-pot, and he must get them clear before inflicting any more of them on people. Then at one time he used to write marvellous little articles for Leftish journals, but even that has stopped now. And anyhow he can’t really put the whole of himself into that sort of thing. It’s time he got his teeth into something that will call out all his powers.” Victor insisted that the book certainly did that. She said, “Well, yes, in a way; but it’s like a rough sketch that is always being rubbed out and begun again. For your soul’s health it’s necessary to produce a finished bit of creation. Otherwise you’ll go bad on my hands.”
She looked at him long and anxiously. He replied in a serious voice. “No, Maggie, I have to judge for myself in that field. You can help me a lot, but you can’t dictate the sort of thing I want to write. At present I am mentally in a muddle, and it’s no use rushing into print until I have straightened things out. And as for being intelligible to ordinary people, you always claim to be one of them, and you seem to follow it all pretty well.”
“But,” she said, “I don’t follow it until I’ve made you rewrite it all in simpler language. And of course, I’m no longer really ordinary. I have been hopelessly infected by you. If I had not been, I shouldn’t be able to make head or tail of the stuff.”
“The fact is,” he said, “you’re so anxious to react as the ordinary person that you over-compensate, and affect a sort of wilful, pigheaded stupidity that goes far beyond ordinary people.” He gave her a love-signalling smile, to which she replied in kind.
“The fact is,” she said, “you think ordinary people are like the people in your classes, but they’re not. They are far stupider, and moreover they don’t want to think.” He closed the matter by saying, “Well, anyhow, I’m not writing for ordinary people. I reach them (more or less) in my teaching. In my writing I’m writing for myself, to straighten out my own mind. But unfortunately my mind won’t stay put. It keeps seeing new things which involve restating everything.”
I wanted to find out what Victor’s book was about, and if possible to persuade him to let me read the manuscript. All he would say was, “The jumping-off point was dialectical materialism, but by now it’s neither dialectical nor materialist in any but the most Pickwickian sense.” When I asked him point blank if I could read it, he answered, “Of course, if you like; when I have straightened out a few things.” But he was still straightening them out when I left.
Altogether, I found it impossible to form a clear picture of Victor’s state of mind at this time. He was not very communicative. I learned that he had been drawn more and more into Left Wing political activity, and that there had been difficulties with the university. He had joined the C.P. His articles in Left Wing journals had in early days all been written under a pseudonym; but later this secretiveness irked him, and he took to using his own name, in the form “Vic Smith.” It was this frankness that had caused difficulties with the authorities. There was also trouble over his expression of “Communistic” opinions in his classes. The work of adult education was supposed to be “non-political,” in the party sense. It was concerned with teaching people to think for themselves, not with political propaganda. Certain prominent Conservatives in the town started an agitation against spending public money to aid classes that were hotbeds of “Marxism.” Further, Victor had been mixed up in scandals connected with the unemployed. Once, for instance, he had entertained a party of them at the city’s most exclusive restaurant. He had also been mixed up with disorders that had occurred when a procession of unemployed was refused admission to the Town Hall. He was arrested, and had to spend a night in a police cell, but was released because the evidence against him was insufficient. That night, Maggie suffered acute anxiety, fearing that the shock might recall the Dolt. But he returned to her as his normal self, and indeed elated. He said, “A little direct action is exhilarating after all the mere talking.”
The upshot of all this activity was that his employers reluctantly warned him that his rashness was damaging to his authority as a teacher, and that unless he would promise to avoid entanglement in party politics, he would have to go. Victor firmly rejected this ultimatum, much to Maggie’s distress.
His father also was much upset. The old gentleman had maintained friendly, though intermittent, relations with his “new” son. On Victor’s brief visits to the old home there had always been violent arguments, but always an underlying mutual respect. Not until Victor’s name began to appear in the press as an agitator and a revolutionary, did the father try to assert his paternal authority. Of course he failed; and according to his own ethic he was left with no alternative but to “disown the boy” and refuse to see him again. Sir Geoffrey was now beginning to threaten to disinherit his son. Natural affection, however, in the end triumphed over his political principles. Worry brought on by this conflict in the old man’s mind seems to have hastened the stroke from which he died.
Victor was much distressed at the breach with the parent for whom he had conceived a warm, though critical, respect. His first impulse was to renounce the small amount of capital which came to him, and hand it over to some worthy cause which would have been approved of by his father. But the practical Maggie, with an eye on Victor’s precarious future and her own future maternity, dissuaded him from this course.
Meanwhile the university authorities who employed Victor were no less distressed than his father; for they regarded Victor with respect and affection, and also as a valuable asset. Every effort was made to persuade him to agree to refrain in future from compromising activities; but in vain. So Victor was regretfully dismissed. This was shortly after the end of his winter classes.
But, to everyone’s surprise, before work began again in the autumn, he had accepted the conditions and was preparing for his usual classes.
Naturally I was curious to know what it was that had brought about this change of attitude. It was quite incredible that Victor should simply have taken the line of least resistance. It was not until my last evening that he made any serious attempt to explain himself. Hitherto, when challenged, he had merely said, “I just had to get away from it all and think,” or “I found I wasn’t really sure of my own foundations after all.” But on the last evening I managed to provoke him into fuller explanation.
We were all three in the little sitting-room. Maggie was working through a pile of mending. Victor, who liked to have some manual work on hand when he was carrying on a desultory conversation with an easy guest, was repairing an electric iron. I sat idly smoking.
I pressed him to tell me why he had given up political action. For a while, he merely went on fiddling with the intestines of the iron; but presently he said, “Well, it was like this. When I was trying my hand at agitation for the unemployed, I met a lot of people in that line whose hearts were right (up to a point) but their heads all wrong. And their wrong heads kept pulling their hearts askew, so to speak. They were afire with generous passion for the underdog, but they had theories that didn’t go deep enough; theories about human nature and historical forces. Misinterpreting Marx, they believed that human nature was simply an expression of environmental influences, whereas, of course, in truth, at every stage of evolution, there’s alwayssomething inside reacting to something outside. This mistake led inevitably to a muddle over morality, and in the end to sheer opportunism. Then there were others whose trouble began in the heart and reacted on the head. Their real motive was not a generous passion, though they thought it was, but some sort of bottled-up hate. And this, of course, messed up their ideas. Mind you, the work we were doing had to be done. It was important. But sooner or later it was going to be important to have the right ideas behind it, otherwise it would all go bad on us. And as no one else seemed to be worrying about that side of the thing, it was clearly up to me to do something about it. That meant giving up active political work, for a while anyhow, and trying to digest what I had learnt through it. For really did learn a lot, about human nature, and about myself. But I had an increasing feeling that I needed new light if I was to form clear ideas about social problems, and about man’s nature. In fact what I needed was to think things out with all possible concentration, and without distraction from current urgencies.”
He lapsed into silence, intent upon the dismembered iron. It was Maggie who prompted him, saying, “Come on, Victor, tell him what you did learn.”
“I learned,” he said, “the huge difference between man’s best and his worst. And I learned more about the oddness of my own nature, compared with other people’s. And I saw that all ordinary people are in a way a mixture of me and the Dolt, and that my relation with the Dolt threw light on the whole social problem.”
Again he fell silent, working with his pliers. But Maggie prompted him, “Tell him about the demonstrations of the unemployed.”
He began reluctantly, “Oh, well! It sounds flat in the telling, but it really is significant. Unemployment was already very bad in this unhappy town. The Communists began organizing mass meetings of the workless, and I had a good deal to do with this job. I found the unemployed utterly disheartened and cynical. They were poisoned by the sense of being ‘not wanted,’ chucked on the scrap-heap. Many were so used to idling that they seemed to have lost all power of exerting themselves. Some of the long-timers, though not all, had turned apathetic through and through, even toward their own wives and families. And they had lost all self-respect. Yet, if once an idea or an ideal could penetrate their fog of misery, and really present itself to their minds, they might respond magnificently with acts of real generosity or comradeship. Thus the very same man who was so wrapped up in his personal misery that he had no heart for anything else, shrugging his shoulders over his child’s illness, might suddenly feel the child’s reality and nurse it with the utmost devotion. The man who lost job after job through irresponsibility or sheer slacking, or who habitually pilfered from his mates, might suddenly be lit up by the idea of a mass protest for human fellowship, and work splendidly for the cause. Mind you, many Leftish journalists sentimentalized the unemployed, making out that they were all saints. They weren’t. A few were magnificent. Most were just normal people for whom there were no jobs going, and of course most of these had been morally damaged by their bitter fate. Quite a lot were simply wasters and riff-raff. Inevitably in a labour glut there are bound to be unemployed of all calibres. It was cheering to find that nearly all but the lowest grade could see (with help) the idea of the march not merely in terms of individualistic clamouring for decent treatment but as a gesture for the idea of brotherhood. And for the sake of this gesture they could rise to heroism.”
Again he was silent. Maggie put in a word. “And it fell to Victor to wake these people; and to keep them awake, because they were always apt to break down under some silly little temptation.”
“And that,” he said, “was what made me realize so clearly the difference between them and myself. When they behaved in the awake way, nine times out of ten they had a grim moral struggle, and came through heroically. Even when they had formed regular habits of social loyalty, there was a perpetual tension in their minds. But with me, there’s no serious tension at all, I just see the thing to do, and wholeheartedly want to do it; even if from the point of view of my own self-interest it is very objectionable. To refrain from doing it would be repugnant and painful. It’s queer, I know, but there it is. Obviously I can’t take any credit for this. The credit belongs only to the moral heroes who struggle against temptation, and gloriously triumph; if credit is a meaningful notion, which I sometimes doubt.”
Maggie interrupted. “I think you make it clearer when you say, not that you have no struggle, but that the struggle does not enter into yourself. Once you said it went on outside your very self, like the struggle of the white corpuscles to conquer invading micro-organisms, which consciousness knows nothing of.”
“Yes,” he said, “it’s like that, except that I am not strictly unconscious of the struggle. I am conscious of it clearly enough, but objectively. For my consciousness there’s no internal struggle at all. The end, the goal, simply possesses and uses me.”
I felt incredulous about his claim to have no moral struggle, and I said so. After some thought he replied, “Yes, in a way you are right. I do have moral struggles sometimes, but they are all on a different plane from the ordinary ones that torment most people. So far as sheer individualistic self-interest is concerned, I really don’t have any struggle at all. I quite happily want to do the thing that others often find it impossible to will effectively. But I do have moral struggles of a kind. For instance, I have had a severe moral struggle to give up the C.P. and renounce political activity. You see, both political activity in general and the C.P. in particular still felt right for me; but little by little it was borne in on me that I ought to give them up to pursue another goal. It would have been much easier to carry on politically, but I had to take myself in hand and conquer my established moral habit. Yes, Harry, in a way you’re right.”
At this point I may as well break the historical sequence to mention a future moral struggle that Victor was to have. After turning away from political action and the C.P. he had inclined more and more to pacifism. This was during the earlier part of the inter-war period. Later, as the Nazi menace increased and the farce of “appeasement” developed, Victor was to be forced very reluctantly to see that even the sacred principle of non-violence must in certain circumstances be qualified. But he had formed such a strong moral habit of pacifism that he was faced with a grim moral struggle to break with that habit.
But I must revert to his situation during my visit in 1929, and his abandonment of political action. Victor had a good deal to say about his experiences over the demonstrations by the unemployed. “Of course,” he said, “the Communists had a lot to do with organizing the unemployed in this town. And though inevitably some Communists were mere wasters or spitemongers, most worked splendidly. Now some of these seemed almost to have passed beyond the stage of individualistic moral struggle, seeming to serve the cause with single-hearted passion. When they were at their best, temptation to put self-interest first didn’t seriously touch them at all. They really were ‘possessed.’ But with them the trouble was that their view of the goal and of the policy was often distorted by subterranean hungers. Some, for instance, were loyal to the Revolution not through love, but because under its banner their unwitting vindictiveness could find a sanctioned outlet.”
Maggie said, “At first the Communists admired him immensely. Some called him the English Lenin, because he was so good at inspiring and organizing. But when there were difficulties over the party line, they reviled him.”
Victor continued. “They had seen something of the true goal. (Call it fullness of life for all.) It really did, in a way, possess them. But they had only seen it superficially. They didn’t really know what fullness of life involved. Rebelling violently against individualism, they made a god of society, the ideal communist society, of course. The free democratic society was their ultimate goal, but meanwhile they were concerned only to establish the close-knit revolutionary state. What they could never see was that, though one must identify oneself with society, one must also, even for society’s sake, be true to oneself, even if that meant going against the party line. Then again, they couldn’t see that flouting the best moral tradition of society was a seriously harmful thing to do, even from the point of view of the Revolution itself. The end justifies the means, yes; but only if the means do not in the long run poison the end. The trouble with them was that they were too impatient ever to think of the long run. For the urgency of the Revolution you might steal and lie and beat people up, and even betray your friend, regardless of the effect of it all on the quality of the Revolution.”
Silence again. Victor seemed absorbed in the electrical problem, or in his own thoughts. Maggie prompted him. “Tell him how you came to loggerheads with them.”
“The turning point,” he said, “was when they expected me to write articles in the local press to the effect that the organization of the unemployed was entirely spontaneous, and not inspired by the Communists in the first instance. I was also to tell my university friends the same lie. When I protested, they replied that it really didn’t matter lying, even to personal friends, if it was for the Revolution. The important thing was to make people believe there was a real popular protest, non-political in origin. That was the only way to rouse the public and start up serious political action, and so on. When I refused to do this bit of bare-faced lying, they said I cared more about keeping my hands clean than serving the Revolution; or else more about keeping in with my employers; or else that I had not freed myself from the spell of bourgeois morality. We had many long and heated arguments, in which they simply insisted that the Revolution justified any means whatever, and I insisted that a reputation for irresponsible lying would do the cause no good. To this they merely answered that the lie would never be found out. Neither side gave way an inch. In the end I just said I wouldn’t do the job, and if they persuaded someone else to do it, I would publish the truth.”
I asked Victor if that was the end of his active political work.
“No,” he said, “I carried on as before for a while, but the comrades who had called me the English Lenin now turned violently against me. Mind you, I don’t blame them. They sincerely believed I was a menace to the Revolution. Some even persuaded themselves I was actually working for the capitalists. So everything I did was misrepresented, often deliberately. Most of the politically conscious unemployed were turned against me, and some of those who were not politically conscious at all were caught by the rumour that I was a police spy.”
Maggie said, “But give credit where it is due. Many of the non-politicals who knew you fairly well just laughed at the whole slander, and said they knew you were sound.”
“Yes,” said Victor, “and of course that was gratifying. But when a general meeting was held (at my request), It became clear that I could no longer hold the mass of the unemployed as I had done. The Communist line was easier for them to grasp, and from their point of view the charges against me were damning. I put my case as simply as I could, and at the time they took it superbly. I said the particular issue was a minor one, but a principle was at stake that was immensely important for the Revolution. I asked them what they really wanted, just a successful agitation in our town, or a whole new and radically transformed society, based on friendliness and mutual confidence. I tried to show what would happen if the Revolution turned savage, and what might happen if we won through without sacrificing the goal for immediate petty gains.”
Maggie again, “And when he sat down they raised the roof.”
Victor sighed, “Yes! I thought I had done the trick. I thought this might be the little significant event that would change the course of history. But I was mistaken. The comrade who was put up to defend the orthodox line was a local party leader, one of those who see everything black or white, and will go through hell for the white. He was an artisan, and he had devoted his life to the class war. He never spared himself, and his health was undermined. I had always respected him for his courage, and in a way for his sincerity; though I suspected he was deceiving himself about a lot of things, and I had never been able to make a real human contact with him.” Here Victor jerked out an exasperated little laugh. “Queer!” he said, “I was always sparring with that fellow, and I felt he was really an evil influence, and yet, damn it, I couldn’t help liking him, even loving him. And in a furtive sort of way I believe he liked me too, but he tried hard not to. And so there was always a barrier, even when we were working harmoniously together. The trouble was that he was proud of being a fanatic, and proud of being Machiavellian. Really I think he was at heart a muddled sort of saint who had forced himself to be tough and ruthless and a demagogue. Well, he enjoyed fighting me on that occasion. He began by saying I had almost persuaded him to change his mind and speak on my side. (They cheered.) But cold reason, he said, had saved him. Then he went through my speech point by point, giving a false interpretation to everything, and quoting Marxian texts against me very skilfully. Little by little he worked up to the charge that this unrealistic idealism would hamstring the Revolution, and finally he indulged in a lot of scurrilous stuff (which I am sure he believed) to prove I was sexually ‘incorrect,’ and politically a bourgeois Liberal, consciously or unconsciously on the side of reaction. When he sat down there was an uproar, mainly favourable to him. There were other speakers, for and against; but those on my side were obviously rattled. When my turn came to reply, there was so much noise I couldn’t get any coherent answer across at all. I might have been trying to talk to a crowd of excited apes.”
I said, “But I don’t see how this made you any less sure of your own position, your own foundations.” He remained silent for some time. Maggie said, “The poor dear felt he had failed, and this was almost a new experience for him, on such a scale. So he reckoned there must be something wrong with him if he couldn’t hold the crowd back from lapping up dope.”
Victor spoke again. “The whole business got me down rather badly. I was dead tired and sleepy and fed up. I even began to wonder whether my line really had been crazy idealism, and my unconscious motive really had been to secure my own position in the status quo. Also, I felt a sudden stab of wounded vanity; and of course I knew very well that personal vanity, however fleeting, was a danger signal meaning that the Dolt was stirring in me. So I had to run to Maggie for help.”
Maggie said, “I put him on to mending a broken chair, and then digging in the garden, till he could take a balanced view again.”
“Yes,” he said, “but the fact remained that I had completely failed to fortify those people against the over-simplified ideas of the party. I felt I must, after all, have a wrong conception of the springs of human action. It had seemed to me that, if people could be made to see what was good, they would certainly will it — as the audience did during my speech. But after all I had evidently underestimated the power of the positive evil will to take charge of them, to blind them to the good that they had seen. Of course, I am not identifying doctrinaire Communism with the evil will. Its main driving force is often the good will. But unfortunately the evil will in us can use the good will for its own ends, turning it subtly bad in us without our knowing what has happened. In my Communist opponent, for instance; and in the Dolt. I had assumed that the whole difference between me and the Dolt was that I could see more clearly than he could, and so I inevitably willed more wisely. But now I began to realize that there was something more positive in him than mere blindness, mere absence of vision. Something or other could destroy vision, and so destroy the good will. Of course I knew in a way that this thing was just the primitive will, rebelling against the developed will; or the perverted will, obsessed with primitive ends, resisting the more enlightened will; or the somnolent self, opposing the awake self; or the unregenerate spirit striving to prevent the birth of the twice-born spirit. But all this was metaphor. What positive thing was there, blotting out the vision, perverting the will? In my own case, I felt that there was some very positive power holding the Dolt together against the truer vision; and that Maggie, in keeping the Dolt at bay was struggling against something more than a mere blindness.”
He paused, but before I had thought of something to say, he concluded, “So you see, I had to give up political action to face up to this fundamental problem. Otherwise I might do more harm than good.”
Victor had finished mending the iron, and was clearing up his tools. While he was out of the room I noticed that Maggie’s hands lay idle, and that she was gazing with wide and glistening eyes at the empty grate. Uncomfortably I felt that she was not far from tears. I did not like to question her; but in the light of future events it seems well to record this little incident. Suddenly she rose, and went out, saying that we all deserved a cup of tea.
While I was thinking over all that Victor had said, he returned and settled into an easy chair. I remarked that he must find Maggie a great source of strength. He answered quietly, “I cannot live without her. I cannot. Without her I should soon die into the Dolt for ever.” I protested that, after all, he had been himself before ever he met Maggie. “Yes,” he said. “Those early spontaneous flashes of awakeness maintained themselves; and indeed they increased, as though I were gradually strengthening my hold. But now — well, I am beginning to wonder whether growing old doesn’t favour the Dolt.” Suddenly he turned an earnest face toward me, and said, “It’s Maggie I am anxious about. Of course I used to care frightfully on my own account about being my real self, but now, well, I don’t much mind really for myself. But I do care very much for Maggie’s sake. She’d be in such a hole if the Dolt took over permanently. And she’d be so distressed for me. I sometimes feel terrified for her. (And this terror itself means I am not quite awake.) Yet I know it was right to link up with her. It was the way of life for both of us. Then there’s another thing. Of course it was glorious for both of us that she was able to rescue me from the Dolt; and it’s good that we both need each other so much, and that each quickens the other so much; but it’s bad that I should depend on her for my very existence. For both our sakes I must be able to stand permanently on my own feet.”
At this moment Maggie returned with the tea-tray. Glancing at it, he said, in his most Oxford accent. “Waitress! That cake’s a bought one. I shall complain to the management, and you’ll be dismissed.” She laughed. “Complain, if you like, sir.” she said, in her most outlandish speech. “But I’m marrying the management.”
Over our tea I led Victor back to his story. I asked whether he had made any progress in getting his foundations clear since the clash with the Communists. “I think so,” he said. “Of course, in a way the problem is simple enough. Something or other blinds the Dolt to a whole aspect of experience which is clear to me. But what is it that blinds him? Is it just a strong physiological mechanism that invariably comes into action at the critical moment, a kind of reflex shutting of the eyes whenever they turn in a certain direction? If so, would some drug or other break the reflex, and so destroy the fictitious personality, and keep me permanently in the field? Or is that whole theory too simple. Then is there some psychological method or technique that would do the trick? I made enquiries about drugs, but got nowhere. Then I tried the mystics, eastern and western.”
He fell silent, munching the bought cake.
Presently he said, “I haven’t got my mind clear about mysticism yet, and perhaps I never shall. But if I had to make a sort of interim report, it would run something like this. (Make yourself comfortable. Have some more cake, though it’s only a sort of ersatz of the real Maggie cake.) And fortify yourself to listen to a lecture.”
At the risk of overburdening the reader, I must give a rather full report of Victor’s comments on mysticism at this stage of his life. For his attitude on this subject seems to me significant for understanding his whole character. It is not easy for me whose mind is so pedestrian, to do justice to his views, because I cannot accept them without grave reservations. But I must do my best.
After Victor had continued for some time to sip his tea in silence, he said. “First, it is obvious that the great mystics had something enormously important to say. Second, they could only say it in human language and in terms of contemporary thought and values. And, as they themselves insist, human thought and language are far too clumsy for the task. Third, in their cultural environment, and with their contemporary thought, it was impossible for them to recognize that any statements about ultimate reality must be overwhelmingly more false than true. Consequently, in spite of their insistence on the ineffability of God, and so on, they persist in making far-reaching statements in the faith that they may be more true than false. They claim that in some significant sense they come into a special relation with ‘God’ or the ‘Whole’ or ‘Reality,’ or what-not. Well, I believe that all such statements, taken in the sense in which they were intended, are completely unreliable. But, fourth, taken in another sense, simply as statements about the nature of consciousness or individuality, in relation to the depth behind depth of objective reality, they are often profoundly true. I mean though it is utterly beyond our power to know whether consciousness is or is not at the heart of all things, it is quite possible for us to be wakened somewhat beyond our ordinary somnolent mundane level of awareness, so as to see or feel a little deeper into objective reality than we normally do. My own special case proves this rather strikingly; but really there is plenty of evidence of it in ordinary experience. The mystics have very much help to give us in this venture of deepening our awareness. Fifth, very roughly, what they tell us on this subject is this. Man cannot ‘save’ himself, cannot wake to a higher level of experience simply by the will to do so, on the part of his normal mundane self. Something other than his normal self must help him, must in some sense invade him, kill his normal individualistic self, and so possess him that he becomes a new kind of self, with new experience, new desires, a completely new orientation. The mystics say that this something other is ‘God’ or ‘Reality’ or the ‘Whole’; but to say this sort of thing is to forget the limitations of human understanding. All that can legitimately be said is that something other than his normal self must intrude within his consciousness, with shattering effect upon his normal self, killing it, and creating a new self. This is the justification of all the talk about ‘self-naughting,’ self-destruction, self-transcendence, and so on. Beyond this claim about something intruding, one other statement can safely be made. It is a statement implied in all that the mystics say. The ‘something’ that intrudes presents itself simply as a sphere of objective reality hitherto ignored, a wider, deeper, more subtle sphere; or better, not a distinct sphere at all, but a whole system of new aspects of familiar reality. So to speak, all familiar things are transfigured by a new illumination, so that one experiences them more fully, more deeply, and discovers in them new kinds of value, hitherto unsuspected; much as the child wakes up from the purely animal values to discover the values of personality, in himself and others.”
The lecture seemed to be finished. Victor concentrated on his food. I remarked that his attitude to mysticism seemed to me an ingenious attempt to have the cake and eat it. To accept the validity of mystical experience and yet deny the mystic’s claim to have some sort of contact with God, or ultimate reality, seemed too clever by half. With his mouth full, Victor said merely, “All new ideas seem at first too clever by half. But this one works. It’s true to the actual experience.”
At this point I queried, “You claim, do you, to have actually had the actual experience? With so many modern mystics one can never be sure that they speak from their own experience and not merely from their reading of mystical classics.” Victor answered cautiously, “Naturally I don’t really know what actual experience the great mystics really had; but certainly I myself have actually experienced something which is the guiding star of my life. Indeed, so long as I am fully myself, I am constantly experiencing it. When I begin to lose it, I know the Dolt is in the offing, and I must discipline myself.”
I was not yet satisfied, so I challenged him again. “You have it constantly, you say. Now for instance?” He answered promptly, “Yes, now. While I am talking to you I am compellingly aware of our universal setting. Not only do I feel us as little individual members of this planet’s gropingly intelligent species, surrounded by a formidable pregnant cosmos of galaxies, but also I am constantly, though obscurely, aware of my fundamental identity with you and all personal beings, through the underlying ground of all being. Is that definite enough?”
I could not make much of this; but I took careful notes of our conversation, and subsequently Victor himself vetted them.
As he seemed to have settled once more into silence, I stimulated him again by asking him to tell me how all this bore on politics. “Well,” he said, “the bearing is rather depressing. Granting that political action is necessary, how is it to be kept sweet? Not, certainly, by the Communist method of sacrificing everything to immediate political opportunism. But, on the other hand, not, as the mystically-inclined sometimes think, by the withdrawal of the best people away from the field of political action so that they can peacefully contemplate the ‘Whole.’ Somehow the political leaders must themselves be contemplatives, up to a point; to keep them true to the spirit. But how can they? Politics is a whole-time job. And so is religious contemplation. Moreover, so long as the masses are what they are, that sort of leader will never gain power. The masses themselves live on too low level of experience to care at all deeply and constantly for the spirit. But the Revolution, some sort of drastic social change, becomes increasingly urgent. The only hope is that the leaders and the masses will be a little more clearly aware of the spirit than they have been in the past. Really we are in a dilemma. We can’t get the true Revolution without a general rise in spiritual awareness; but we can’t have that until the Revolution has abolished some of the conditions that fix people’s attention on individualistic power-lust or on herd passions.”
Again he paused, but soon continued, “And now one final point, concerning me personally.” I saw his eyes meet Maggie’s. He continued, “I see now that, for me at any rate, there are no short cuts, no special technique for securing my position against the Dolt. At present I am maintained against him largely by Maggie’s power, by something which is in a way magical or in a way like prayer. My own native power or responsiveness to the spirit is no longer quite what it was. Probably I shall never fully regain that youthful sensitivity. So I must compensate for its loss by more earnest and continuous attention to the objective vision of the spirit, which distinguishes me from the Dolt. Here ends my second lecture.”
He handed his cup to Maggie to be refilled.
Little more happened before I left the Smiths next morning. I hoped to see them again before leaving for India, but we did not succeed in arranging a meeting. My general impression of Victor’s condition was that, in spite of his sense of psychological insecurity, he was really very firmly established, and indeed on the threshold of a triumphant career.
While I was in India I received an occasional letter from Victor telling me odds and ends about his work, speaking of articles he had written, books he hoped to write, and people he had met. Then came a letter announcing that the couple had been legally married, and then the news that Maggie had borne a son, and that both were doing well. This was followed by increasingly rare letters, in many of which the child figured a good deal. Evidently Victor was taking parenthood very seriously. In one of his letters, he said, “Children must be allowed to develop in their own way, of course, and learn their own lessons; but one tries to help them to avoid some of one’s own mistakes. Probably one nevertheless treats them unwittingly all wrong in some way or other, so that they develop a set of troubles all their own.”
Before closing my account of this period of Victor’s life I had better mention a matter about which I did not learn till long afterwards, when I returned to England. Quite early in their married life Maggie had been made seriously anxious lest Victor’s continued interest in other young women should lead sooner or later to distressing complications. Victor assured her that his inveterate habit of falling in love with any girl that was specially attractive to him could not lessen his feeling for her. But inevitably she felt insecure; and jealous, in spite of her modern theories. She was tormented by the fear that from one of these light-hearted relations with other women some serious attachment would arise. It seemed to her that they must spring from some inadequacy in herself. Evidently she could not permanently satisfy her husband. This idea Victor vehemently rejected. He said (so Maggie told me) “For me you are, and always will be, the dearest, in fact the very best of all possible mates. But, damn it, I won’t blind myself to other women! And you must not blind yourself to other men. Of course, of course, monogamy, the single life-long partnership, is the only way to fullness of love; but don’t you see, don’t you feel, that if monogamy excludes every other attraction, If it turns — well, monastic, it may miss fullness of love after all.” Then he added, garbling a famous quotation, “Besides, I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not other girls quite a lot.”
Honesty compels me to record that Victor’s behaviour in this matter seemed to me rather heartless and irresponsible. Even if he did know that his attachment to Maggie was unshakable, she had every reason to be distressed; and surely it was cruel and selfish to let her suffer. When I said this to Victor, he replied emphatically that for both their sakes he was justified in these occasional loves. For himself, he was justified because they quickened him (so he said) spiritually for his work, and because they did actually deepen his love for his wife. And on Maggie’s account too he was justified because (he insisted) only in such experience, however painfully, could she learn the truth about him, and about herself, and about love.
Well, this all sounded to me rather specious. Yet I find I have to reserve judgment. I have no illusion that Victor was perfect, even in his most lucid state; but so often he has proved himself far more sensitive than my very commonplace self! As for Maggie, she claims that she now entirely approves of Victor’s conduct. But then, she was always too forgiving.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00