Crying for the Moon
1913 (Summer).— For the past few days I have been suffering from a horrible feeling of compression. I have been struggling in vain to embrace a larger sphere of intellectual activity — to expand in spite of the stubborn elasticity of my mental bag which more than once has approached bursting point.
The affair began with some illustrated booklets on trips to Norway, wherein I saw pictures of beautiful places the very existence of which had never before entered my consciousness.
“How ghastly,” I said to myself almost in anguish, “that here I am forced to go on day by day frittering away my life as a museum assistant in London — in England — when all the planet beyond remains unexplored by me.” Surely it is a perfectly natural desire in a human being on first fully awakening to full consciousness of his amazing situation to set out forthwith to explore the globe? For my part I became eager — too eager for my peace of mind — to explore every nook and cranny on the face of the globe, so that before death came I could say that I had had the intelligent interest and curiosity at least to inspect it superficially.
But I did not wish to end there. After traversing the earth and seeing all manner of mountains, rivers, plains, deserts, and faunas, all manner of peoples and of human lives, and experiencing all manner of climates, I was big with desire to settle down quietly and study — to fill out my superficial survey with all the available human knowledge, to make myself acquainted with everything that men had ever found out about the earth.
Zoology, my favorite science, of course offered itself at once as a point at which to begin. I longed for more zoology. Yet my zest recoiled upon itself when I recognized how hopelessly incapable my brain was of sustaining the avalanche of new facts and ideas I wished to cast upon it. I turned over the pages of the Zoologische Anzeiger and read a few papers greedily. Then realizing that there were fifty or sixty more papers in it of equal interest and fifty or sixty more volumes of the Anzeiger, all containing for me, a zoologist, researches and studies of deep fascination, I turned over a few more pages listlessly, read a few more titles, and closed the book. . . . It was no use. I must curb my appetite.
I sat back in my chair and mused. . . . Zoology alone was sufficient to baulk my puny endeavours. How hopeless it all seemed! Man is given the hunger for knowledge, but not the capacity in nerve cells to gratify it. He is “avid of all dominion and all-mightiness,” but is forced to spend his days as a museum assistant. I am not capable of doing much else. Yet I want not only unlimited zoology, but astronomy, physics, chemistry, and all the sciences. I want to explore all knowledge. I have developed again all the accursed thirst for knowledge which in my early days undermined my health and spoilt my eyesight. Surely it is a perfectly natural desire in a human being on waking up in a wonderful world to proceed at once to find out all that is known about it to date!
My sails fluttered loosely in the winds of desire for a moment, then I was caught up and blown on into fresh excesses.
This time it was the picture of a beautiful woman I noticed in the morning paper. The beautiful neck, the perfectly bowed lips, and the grieving eyes simply intoxicated me. I went on glancing at the news, every now and then returning to rest my eyes on Lady Winifred Gore, experiencing every time that I did it a very rueful petulance. What manner of man could he possibly be, I said, who would dare, perhaps nonchalantly, to seek in marriage the hand of such a divinity? I became envious of the fortunate gentleman, whoever he should be. I did not like to face the obvious fact that such a prize could never be mine. I knew that even if it could, such a prize falls to the lot of a man but once. Yet there are a thousand beautiful women with beautiful souls whom I could never know and never love.
The glamour of her noble birth, I think, fired my imagination and made me think of social vortices outside my knowledge. I should like to be an aristocrat or a coal-miner for a while. How difficult it seems to remain content with my own small portion, my own little circumscribed life and the dire necessity of having to remain myself, of having to see life always with my own spectacles all through life’s tour. I desire to have the experiences of a hundred different lives in different classes, circles, professions, trades, occupations, to test and try every kind of life, to sum the series of human experiences.
Coming home in the omnibus, I caught the London fever. So many people stimulated my lust for life. I obtained a splendid exhilaration from watching the London streets. The bustle and furore invigorated me. I longed to dash down in the middle of it and go the pace. Here was a man in a silk hat and evening dress stepping into his car from his club, here a man selling mechanical toys, here some laughing girls dashing across the road and enjoying themselves, here a woman with paralysis begging, and here a newsvendor telling me of a “Dramatic Story — Lost Pearl Necklace,” while always everywhere I saw people walking, riding, driving in cabs and ’buses, hurrying, talking, frowning, smiling as if the whole world were tacitly engaged upon the same mysterious undertaking. I felt like climbing down and beseeching some one to tell me what it was.
In the evening I went to the Palace to see Anna Pavlova dance. I was amazed not so much at the dancing but at the fact that here was a woman — strange, delicate, lissome, spirituelle — leading a life quite unsuspected and unimagined by me — a life consisting of the daily pleasure of beautiful eurhythmic motions, and the satisfaction of delighting crowd after crowd who came night after night and clapped and sent her bouquets.
Oh! how I sympathize with the child who keeps saying to its mother: “I want to be a soldier,” “I wish I were an engine-driver,” “I want to be an actor.” It is only when we grow up that we are fools enough to go on our way satisfied with our own little perspectives. I wanted to be Anna for a night or two. I wanted to luxuriate in the stillness which comes upon an audience when the orator waits a few moments before continuing his words. I envied Pasteur the moment when he rushed out of his laboratory crying, “Tout est trouvé.” I mused upon the feelings of a literary genius at the great moment when he writes “Finis” at the end of a book which, with the self-knowledge of genius, he knows to be a masterpiece.
I am passing through the world swiftly and have only time to live my own life. I am cut off by my own limitations and environment from knowing much or understanding much. I know nothing of literature and the drama; I have but little ear for music. I do not understand art. All these things are closed to me. I am passing swiftly along the course of my life with many others whom I shall never meet. How many dear friends and kindred spirits remain undiscovered among that number? There is no time for anything. Everything and everyone is swept along in the hustling current. Oh! to sun ourselves awhile in the water meadows before dropping over the falls! The real tragedies in this world are not the things which happen to us, but the things which don’t happen.
Life and the world to me were a royal banquet at which I could have only a snack. I must needs see this beautiful earth for a few short years from one centre of intelligence and one viewpoint — my own. What man can ever know what it is to be a woman — particularly a beautiful woman? We are born male and female, and as we are born so we die. And what of those extraordinary beings we read of in the newspapers whose existence till we happen to meet one of them seems to be incredible fiction? In how great a measure must our conception of life fail in reality in proportion as we omit these?
The imagination helps a man a little to get outside the limits of his own existence. But the imagination gives only a ghost-like reflection of actualities — sufficient however to inform us clearly of the poverty of the experiences which we sense — as few and poor as our finite, isolated natures let through the veil of the flesh. Books help a little, but experience through books is second hand. Conversation with all manner of people helps a little. But it brings us only knowledge by report.
Even so, there are things which are forever lost to human experience — things of which we can never read in books nor hear by the report of a friend, and which we scarcely dare to imagine — lost continents (Lemuria and Atlantis), lost masterpieces (the books burnt at Alexandria), and lost personalities. How can a man recover to the satisfaction of a tingling curiosity his own babyhood and childhood, or the comedies and tragedies, the personalities of and the accidents to his own immediate forbears? Some men cannot recollect their own father and mother. Few men I trow show much desire to discuss their grandmothers.
When a man grows older, particularly, he is so absorbed in the present that he becomes disloyal to the past and literally forgets himself. He no longer remembers what it is to be a child or a youth; he has forgotten most of the facts and incidents in his life which moulded him and made him what he is. All these things are lost — utterly lost, as few other things can be. And when he dies, even if he be a great man and biographers jostle each other in the race to turn out volumes on his life, not a library of books can possibly recreate a personality or materialize a spirit. Life flows away like a river into the sands of time. You cannot catch it in a sieve, nor bottle sunshine. As Herakleitus first said, “We can never bathe in the same river twice.”
How I loathe those happy folk — there are millions of them, all detestable — who with a terrible self-complacency go on revolving around the centres of their own souls, perfectly satisfied with that situation in life to which — to use their own smug phrase — it has pleased God to call them; people who have no envy and no malice, who have never coveted their neighbour’s ox nor his wife, and who believe out of ignorance and lack of imagination rather than out of conceit that their own life contains everything to be desired. They are fat, greasy, and smug. But their smugness is not the philosophical smugness of Marcus Aurelius. They have no philosophy. They are too happy and pleased with themselves to need one. Marcus Aurelius developed his philosophy of resignation because he feared to desire fearlessly the things he knew he would desire in vain. He put forth his tentacles and drew them in again. He shrank from life, not because he did not love it, but because he loved it too well; not because he had no desires, but because he had too many. It was his reaction, as a biologist would say. The other people have no reaction because life gives them no stimulus. Theirs is not resignation after a struggle; it is contentment without one. Only very occasionally do the self-complacent harbour a suspicion that possibly all is not well, just for a few fleeting seconds while some unpleasant person like myself pulls them by the nose, making the ugly suggestion that perhaps they could not really write a novel as well as the other man they criticize, that perhaps life would be the tiniest bit fuller if they understood art or loved music, that doing the thing that is nearest is easy and always dull, that their cherished views on Church and State after all may be a little questionable, that things may not be what they seem, that life to some is difficult, that men do starve and commit murder and rape, that God may not always be in His Heaven nor everything right with the world.
Another type of being I have in mind falls neither within that of the self-complacent nor the philosophically resigned. I mean the type of those neurotic intellectuals who welcomed in Baudelaire a new frisson. How could they be capable of such ennui — as if they had sounded the very depths and soared to the very heights and compassed everything! They assumed that because their fierce thirst had dried up their own wells, life held no more water — I could understand a complaint that they were in such case forbidden to drink any more. They were like men dying of inanition in a land of plenty or of thirst in a well-watered country. Lucky for them that although like petulant children who had finished their meal they indeed cried for more cake, yet they were ignorant of the cupboard stores and fondly imagined there was no more cake in the whole wide world!
As for myself, I am neither bored, self-complacent nor resigned. I am a plunger. I cannot timidly sigh, “Thy will be done.” Better surely to die spluttering beneath a pile of vain hopes than with the sickly imperturbable smile of the comfortable person. It is better to have hoped in vain than never to have hoped at all.
This afternoon I have had tea in an old-fashioned garden of an old-fashioned Hertfordshire inn. While I was drinking tea the innkeeper came out from a fowl run and turning round toward me slammed the gate, calling, “Are you getting on alr——?” Silence. He had caught in the wicket-gate the neck of a fowl which had followed him. It was dead at once, and he handed it over to the boy to pluck. No mistake, this is a “jolly vivid” world, with battle, murder and sudden death, assassinations and prosaic starvation; and a fowl in Hertfordshire killed in a moment between a gate and plucked ready for cooking!
Shortly after leaving the inn, I walked up the hill and came to a field full of acres of poppies. The sun was going down and the gipsies slept. Of a truth a “jolly vivid world!” To plunge into that scarlet crowd, to bathe in the colour, to crush the crisp green stalks between the teeth — to drown!
How well I recollect years ago as a little boy waking up one morning to find, for the first time in my life, the snow covering the ground. I was ravished! I went out into the field at the back of the house and for a moment regarded the snow, immobile, with a pinched, serious little face. Then I gave way, stretched myself out fiat on it and rolled over and over and over gurgling with joy. The next day I was home from school with a touch of bronchitis, and my face was perhaps a little paler and more wondering. But I have burnt my fingers often since — in a field of poppies, in a library or among girls — plunging always. Of a truth a “jolly vivid” world! and full of luscious, ruddy things.
I am acutely sensitive to the fact that others are tasting more of them than I.
I have just been wandering about looking gloomily out of the windows of my prison of flesh and wishing to be whisked away like a spirit into all kinds of places, lives, knowledge, and love. Being a separate and isolated creature makes me sick at heart. I am not content with living my own life. I could use up fifty lives at least.
I should like to accompany others in living their lives — particularly the lives of those whom I love. I could feel all the pain at parting from friends in a new way. This centrifugal force of the spirit must lie at the bottom of the little pain felt in saying “goodbye” even to acquaintances. Something snaps when we bid “adieu” to a man we know — or even when we leave a tramcar or a railway-carriage after making ten minutes’ silent acquaintanceship with five or six dull, uninteresting yet human beings. Partir, c’est toujours mourir un peu.
I can see the gentleman with red cheeks and large biceps flinging at this the epithet “sentimental,” as if he were flinging a stone. But he does not understand. How should he? Large biceps and red cheeks are not without their disadvantages. I do affirm that the most commonplace farewells for me focus the attention all at once upon the mystery and magic of our existence and separated lives. It comes as an abrupt reminder of our ignorance of the future and our dependence upon outside forces. We feel a helplessness as creatures swept across a limitless ocean by currents, each alone in his own little boat, even though the boats keep together for a while and we shout to each other across the water. After a day of homely pleasures, when we have been immersed in the little soothing commonplaces of daily life, we are at once made to confront the great mystery which lies everywhere around us and which — look where we will — is ever ready to catch the eye and compel the attention — as soon as it is time to get up and say “good-bye.” We may try to avoid it as much as we can — we may smoke a cigarette and drink a glass of wine, play cards, and tell a funny story; but we all know, though we never mention it, that each of us has a skeleton in his closet — the skeleton of Death and the Unknown.
A dark night with stars but no moon, tall trees — dusky gaunt forms — on each side of a hill road. Everything is silent. I feel solitary and pleasurably sad. Suddenly a train dashes along the valley below. I look over the hedge and gaze at the lighted windows of the train as it sails around a bend in the valley like a phosphorescent caterpillar. . . . Who are those that are travelling in it and whither are they going? I do not know. God knows, I suppose, but I must continue my solitary way, catching sight now and then of a cottage window light in between the trees. Such window lights summon an idle tear from I know not where.
Everywhere one can see human love trying to overcome time, distance, and separation, trying to draw together the threads of isolated lives. If I enter a friend’s house, I see on the mantelpiece photographs of folk I met last week hundreds of miles away — they are cousins or relations or friends. I say to myself with an infinite relish for the mysteries of time and space, “Dear me, last week, this time, I was hundreds of miles away"— in Timbuctoo or the Andaman Islands, wherever they are.
After a day spent in London — in “all the uproar and the press,” in ’bus riding and train catching, with a literary friend at lunch and tea in an A.B.C. shop with all its variegated life — I arrive toward evening at a village thirty miles in the country and enter a baker’s shop for a loaf of bread for my supper. There is the baker, fat, bald, and sleepy — waiting for me. He has been waiting there all day — for weeks past — perhaps all his life! He hands me the loaf, our courses touch and then we sweep away again out into the infinite. What would he say if I told him his life was a beautiful parabolic curve?
Last year about this time, armed with a letter of introduction, I called upon a professor of zoology who happened to be out. I was inadvertently shown by the servant girl into a drawing-room where a little boy lay on a rug sound asleep, with his head framed in one arm and his curls hanging loosely down over his face. I looked down upon his little form and upon his face and marvelled. He never stirred and I stepped softly from the room and never saw him again. Life is full of such magic. Every such experience means a little bitter-sweet sorrow. For it means pain to be a separate lonely unit, a disrupted chip of the universe. The gregarious nature of man is not simply a fact of natural history. It is the expression of a deep religious desire for oneness in which alone we can sink down to rest.
I nowhere obtained a more vivid impression of my own isolation than when walking the other evening in the country where I was staying, I turned toward home and caught sight of the little cottage up the road where I lodged. I noted the room with the open lattice window where I had been sleeping and where I was to sleep, and I considered how that at night when everything was in darkness and no one stirred all that there was of me would be found unconscious in a bed, beneath that little roof, within that small cottage which stood beneath the stars like millions of other cottages scattered over the countryside. By day I was alive and moving about, my ego was radiating forth, absorbing, soaking up my environment so that I became a larger being with a larger ego. By night I shrank to a spot. The thought made me catch my breath.
The loneliness of life is sometimes appalling! There is the loneliness known to most when in moments of exaltation a man feels genius stir within him like a child in the womb of its mother, and knows that he cannot express himself. He wishes to embrace the whole world and yet cannot stir a limb; he wishes to tell the whole world his good tidings and draw it to himself, yet he cannot utter a sound. In all great crises we are alone. The greatest things are incommunicable. I was once walking on the sands by the sea when a great wave of joyfulness swept across me. I stood upon a rock and waved my stick about and sang. I wanted the sands to be crowded with a great male voice chorus — hundreds of thousands of men — so many that there should be no standing room for more. I imagined myself standing above them, a physical and musical Titan on the top of a high mountain as high as Mont Blanc, conducting with a baton as large as a barge pole. The breakers would boom an accompaniment, but the chorus would be heard above everything else and even God Himself would turn from schemes for new planets (and less hopeless ones than this) to fling a regret for injustice done to such spirited people!
So in the crises of pain you are alone. If you have a cold in the head you can tell your friend and he condoles with you. But if you develop an incurable disease, it is impossible for your closest friend to offer his paltry sympathy.* It would be impertinent for him to offer a remark when the mills of God have once caught you and begun to grind you out. It is an affair beyond man’s scope. Man cannot presume on God. Similarly in crises of the heart. At the time you cannot utter your misery. And afterwards, you are glad to be finished with it, and so no one knows.
But we are alone not only in crises. We are really alone in the ordinary thoughts and emotions of every day: the simplest movements of the soul are incommunicable. A recent writer says, and says truly, “By no Art may the Ego be made manifest even to itself.” So that we are lonely even in ourselves and strangers to ourselves, so that I echo with enthusiasm Balzac’s remark that nothing interested him so much as himself.
It may be explained here that after the destruction of the doctor’s certificate described under this date, it became immediately necessary to obtain another as soon as conscription came into force. It is this second certificate that is mentioned subsequently (Ibid, p. 260), but its history, though clear in the Journal MS., was inadvertently omitted from the book as published.— Ed.
There is a deep-lying desire in most of us to be immanent in all life. I regret I was not alive in the days of ancient Rome. To have been non-existent and unconsidered in such great affairs stings me sharply! I seem to be a sort of serious village idiot whose desire to help is viewed with smiles or friendly tolerance, or else is simply ignored — an energetic fly on a great wheel, puling out remonstrances because he isn’t the engineer. I am piqued because I was not a witness of the gambollings of Dinosaurs and Pterodactyls. Yet I lay unthought of in the womb of a mother whose species was still unevolved. God does not appear to have taken me into consideration at all! In fact it is hard to bring myself to believe that men lived so long ago in Rome, Carthage, Babylon, Nineveh, just as we are now alive, or that there ever really existed such things as Pterodactyls and Dinosaurs. I am taught to believe such things, but where is the man who really knows? “I wonder, by my troth, what you and I did till we loved. . . .” I am in love with life and can hardly believe it, just as a man in love with a woman can scarcely believe that she was in the world before he knew her. We are informed that every reason is in favour of the earth being round, but no one has actually seen that it is round. We believe theoretically in the millions of beings who inhabit China, but the existence of so many people is part of no one’s real knowledge. We are unable to realize truly the few millions of people that live with us in the city of London. No one but Jesus Christ could have wept over a whole town. The ordinary man’s compassion is too little. If Xerxes really wept over his army, he was a great soul.
The mind comprehends only the inmates of his own drawing-room, his own household or his little circle! of friends. That is the real world — even of the large-souled Mrs. Jellyby! The world beyond — the heathen of the Dark Continent — must be accepted as a corollary. It is a little shock of surprise, not unmingled with regret, every time I leave home and wander abroad, to see thousands of other people like myself scurrying like rabbits over the earth’s surface. They upset my equilibrium. I come tumbling down into the guise of a mere unit of the population. As I near home once more, I grow big again — like Alice — until once again in the family circle I assume my original dimensions: very comfortable it is, too.
The world is “so full of a number of things"— there are so many blades of grass, such a prodigious quantity of leaves on the trees and so many — far too many — stars in the sky. Their quantity depresses me. If there were but one of each sort it would be easy to understand the ingenuous enthusiasm of the man of science, who even as it is realizes and never ceases to insist that the study which a man may devote to but a single creature is infinite. How depressing!
Perhaps all our knowledge and experience is a stupendous dream. Matter may be non-existent and time and space categories in which to think, as those deep and entertaining men, the philosophers, tell us. Yet the distilled water of philosophical speculation is a poor substitute for the wine of life. For I should like to be alive continuously — now that I have at length a footing in this ramshackle world — to watch developments, to see revolutions and evolutions, above all the climax, whatever that may be. I am glad to have been alive, to have known how the Titanic went down and how Scott died in the Antarctic. I am happy at the thought that I have lived to see men fly like birds over the country and to read the poems of Francis Thompson. We live in extremely interesting times, but how will things fadge in the future? When will socialism come? What will biology do with evolution? Who will be the next world-genius? Yet in a little while I know I shall be dead and probably as unconscious and unconsidered as before — a heap of ashes within four rotten planks.
The future has a fascination for me which I cannot resist. I take a gambler’s feverish interest in it. Life is as exciting as a game of cards or a holiday at Monte Carlo. We turn up each day like a card and if we are optimists expect it to be the ace of trumps. Each day brings with it a piece of the unknown and each evening we have definitely annexed a piece of what in the morning was unknowable. When a man dies, it is a shock. Yet there is always the satisfaction of knowing that the end came in such a manner and on such a day. A man sets out to accomplish some great task, to portray the human comedy (Balzac) or to write the history of the Roman Empire (Gibbon). Day follows day and carries him a stage nearer the desired end. “Shall I finish it?” he asks himself, and strains his eyes, peering into the future in vain. He labours on with all the intense excitement of a race but with none of its bustle, till the last day comes and he writes “Finis” with a sigh and drops his pen. It is an eerie business — exploring the tortuous galleries of time.
As I finish writing this entry in front of my window, the sun is going down. I review my desires as they come crowding past! I have searched every quarter of my existence and everywhere I have found more and more desires for life. I turn them out and they join in the procession. I watch it, brooding — hand on cheek like Carlyle — until a final birth-throe of desire is brought forth — consummating all the others! I desire to draw together all the knowledge of the world, past, present, and future, and to be conscious of it as a single simultaneous phenomenon, just as soon as a signal, such as the fall of a hammer on an anvil, should be given to me. . . . It was simply impious! But, surely, if ever, it would be then, in that moment, that the meaning of the universe would stand revealed and the craving for the intellectual satisfaction of final and complete knowledge would abate. I should drink my fill of beauty and have no longer any dread of finding at the bottom of the cup the ghost-like enigma that haunts all beautiful things. The world would be beautiful — and intelligible as well I should breathe a sigh and rest. The loss of one’s personal immortality or personal identity would be a small price to pay for such an immeasurable gain.
But vain imaginings all these! — leaving me torn, déchiré, blinded! In the impious desire to know and feel everything from the beginning to the end, to be immanent in everything, I was climbing up the battlements toward eternity. The Olympians seeing me down in the distance very properly cast me back into the pit of mortal life — just as they cast Satan, the apostate angel, out of Heaven. Satan was a lucky devil: he carried down with him at least the memory of Heaven.
So be it, then. Let me return to my insects and worms. In fact, the man who on seeing before him, fresh and brilliant, a plant — the scarlet pimpernel — or a worm — the mullein moth caterpillar — still continues in pain and anguish to cry for the moon, would be scarcely human. Give me the man who will surrender the whole world for a moss or a caterpillar, and impracticable visions for a simple human delight. Yes, that shall be my practice. I prefer Richard Jefferies to Swedenborg and Oscar Wilde to Thomas à Kempis.