Last year, we had a little house up in the Swiss mountains, for the summer. A friend came to tea: a woman of fifty or so, with her daughter: old friends. “And how are you all?” I asked, as she sat, flushed and rather exasperated after the climb up to the chalet on a hot afternoon, wiping her face with a too-small handkerchief.—”Well!” she replied, glancing almost viciously out of the window at the immutable slopes and peaks opposite, “I don’t know how you feel about it—but— these mountains!—well!—I’ve lost all my cosmic consciousness, and all my, love of humanity,”
She is, of course, New England of the old school—and usually transcendentalist calm. So that her exasperated frenzy of the moment—it was really a frenzy—coupled with the New England language and slight accent, seemed to me really funny. I laughed in her face, poor dear, and said: “Never mind! Perhaps you can do with a rest from your cosmic consciousness and your love of humanity.”
I have often thought of it since: of what she really meant. And every time, I have had a little pang, realising that I was a bit spiteful to her. I admit, her New England transcendental habit of loving the cosmos en bloc and humanity en masse did rather get on my nerves, always. But then she had been brought up that way. And the fact of loving the cosmos didn’t prevent her from being fond of her own garden —though it did, a bit; and her love of humanity didn’t prevent her from having a real affection for her friends, except that she felt she ought to love them in a selfless and general way, which was rather annoying. Nevertheless, that, to me, rather silly language about cosmic consciousness and love of humanity did stand for something that was not merely cerebral. It stood, and I realised it afterwards, for her peace, her inward peace with the universe and with man. And this she could not do without, one may be at war with society, and still keep one’s deep peace with mankind. It is not pleasant to be at war with society, but sometimes it is the only way of preserving one’s peace of soul, which is peace with the living, struggling, real mankind. And this latter one cannot afford to lose. So I had no right to tell my friend she could do with a rest from her love of humanity. She couldn’t, and none of us can: if we interpret love of humanity as that feeling of being at one with the struggling soul, or spirit, or whatever it is, of our fellow-men.
Now the wonder to me is that the young do seem to manage to get on without any, “cosmic consciousness” or “love of humanity.” They have, on the whole, shed the cerebral husk of generalisations from their emotional state: the cosmic and humanity touch. But it seems to me they have also shed the flower that was inside the husk. Of course, you can hear a girl exclaim: “Really, you know, the colliers are darlings, and it’s a shame the way they’re treated.” She will even rush off and register a vote for her darlings. But she doesn’t really care—and one can sympathise with her. This caring about the wrongs of unseen people has been rather overdone. Nevertheless, though the colliers or cotton-workers or whatever they be are a long way off and we can’t do anything about it, still, away in some depth of us, we know that we are connected vitally, if remotely, with these colliers or cotton-workers, we dimly realise that mankind is one, almost one flesh. It is an abstraction, but it is also a physical fact. In some way or other, the cotton-workers of Carolina, or the rice growers or. China, are connected with me and, to a faint yet real degree, part of me. The vibration of life which they give off reaches me, touches me, and affects me all unknown to me. For we are all more or less connected, all more or less in touch: all humanity. That is, until we have killed the sensitive responses in ourselves, which happens today only too often.
Dimly, this is what my transcendentalist meant by her “love of humanity,” though she tended to kill the real thing by labelling it so philanthropically and bossily. Dimly, she meant her sense of participating in the life of all humanity, which is a sense we all have, delicately and deeply, when we are at peace in ourselves. But let us lose our inward peace, and at once we are likely to substitute for this delicate inward sense of participating in the life of all mankind another thing, a nasty pronounced benevolence, which wants to do good to all mankind, and is only a form of self-assertion and of bullying. From this sort of love of humanity, good Lord deliver us! and deliver poor humanity. My friend was a tiny bit tainted with this form of self-importance, as all tran-scendentalists were. So if the mountains, in their brutality, took away the tainted love, good for them. But my dear Ruth—I shall call her Ruth—had more than this. She had, woman of fifty as she was, an almost girlish naive sense of living at peace, real peace, with her fellow-men. And this she could not afford to lose. And save for that taint of generalisation and will, she would never have lost it, even for that half-hour in the Swiss mountains. But she meant the “cosmos” and “humanity” to fit her will and her feelings, and the mountains made her realise that the cosmos wouldn’t. When you come up against the cosmos, your consciousness is likely to suffer a jolt. And humanity, when you come down to it, is likely to give your “love” a nasty jar. But there you are.
When we come to the younger generation, however, we realise that “cosmic consciousness” and “love of humanity” have really been left out of their composition. They are like a lot of brightly-coloured bits of glass, and they only feel just what they bump against, when they’re shaken. They make an accidental pattern with other people, and for the rest they know nothing and care nothing.
So that cosmic consciousness and love of humanity., to use the absurd New England terms, are really dead. They were tainted. Both the cosmos and humanity were too much manufactured in New England. They weren’t the real thing. They, were, very often, just noble phrases to cover up self-assertion, self-importance, and malevolent bullying. They were just activities of the ugly, self-willed ego, determined that humanity and the cosmos should exist as New England allowed them to exist, or not at all. They were tainted with bullying egoism, and the young, having fine noses for this sort of smell, would have none of them.
The way, to kill any feeling is to insist on it, harp on it, exaggerate it. Insist on loving humanity, and sure as fate you’ll come to hate everybody. Because, of course, if you insist on loving humanity, then you insist that it shall be lovable: which half the time, it isn’t. In the same way, insist on loving your husband, and you won’t be able to help hating him secretly. Because of course nobody is always lovable. If you insist they shall be, this imposes a tyranny over them, and they become less lovable. And if you force yourself to love them—or pretend to—when they are not lovable, you falsify everything, and fall into hate. The result of forcing any feeling is the death of that feeling, and the substitution of some sort of opposite. Whitman insisted on sympathising with everything and everybody: so much so, that he came to believe in death only, not just his own death, but the death of all people. In the same way the slogan “Keep Smilingl” produces at last a sort of savage rage in the breast of the smilers, and the famous “cheery morning greeting” makes the gall accumulate in all the cheery ones.
It is no good. Every time you force your feelings, you damage yourself and produce the opposite effect to the one you want. Try to force yourself to love somebody, and you are bound to end by detesting that same somebody. The only thing to do is to have the feelings you’ve really got, and not make up any of them. And that is the only way to leave the other person free. If you feel like murdering your husband, then don’t say, “Oh, but I love him dearly. I’m devoted to him.” That is not only bullying yourself, but bullying him. He doesn’t want to be forced, even by love. Just say to yourself: “I could murder him, and that’s a fact. But I suppose I’d better not.” And then your feelings will get their own balance.
The same is true of love of humanity. The last generation, and the one before that insisted on loving humanity. They cared terribly for the poor suffering Irish and Armenians and Congo rubber negroes and all that. And it was a great deal of it fake, self-conceit, self-importance. The bottom of it was the egoistic thought: “I’m so good, I’m so superior, I’m so benevolent, I care intensely about the poor suffering Irish and the martyred Armenians and the oppressed negroes, and I’m going to save them, even if I have to upset the English and the Turks and the Belgians severely.” This love of mankind was half self-importance and half a desire to interfere and put a spoke in other people’s wheels. The younger generation, smelling the rat under the lamb’s-wool of Christian Charity„ said to themselves: No love of humanity for me!
They have, if the truth be told, a secret detestation of all oppressed or unhappy people who need “relief.” They rather hate “the poor colliers,” “the poor cotton-workers,” “the poor starving Russians,” and all that. If there came another war, how they would loathe “the stricken Belgians”! And so it is: the father eats the pear, and the son’s teeth are set on edge.
Having overdone the sympathy touch, especially the love of humanity, we have now got the recoil away from sympathy. The young don’t sympathise, and they don’t want to. They are egoists, and frankly so. They say quite honestly: “I don’t give a hoot in hell for the poor oppressed this-that-and-the-other.” And who can blame them? Their loving forbears brought on the Great War. If love of humanity brought on the Great War, let us see what frank and honest egoism will do. Nothing so horrible, we can bet.
The trouble about frank and accepted egoism is its unpleasant effect on the egoist himself. Honesty is very good, and it is good to cast off all the spurious sympathies and false emotions of the pre-war world. But casting off spurious sympathy and false emotion need not entail the death of all sympathy and all deep emotion, as it seems to do in the young. The young quite deliberately play at sympathy and emotion. “Darling child, how lovely you look tonight! I adore to look at you!”—and in the next breath, a little arrow of spite. Or the young wife to her husband: “My beautiful love, I feel so precious when you hold me like that, my perfect dear! But shake me a cocktail, angel, would you? I need a good kick—you angel of light 1”
The young, at the moment, have a perfectly good time strumming on the keyboard of emotion and sympathy, tinkling away at all the exaggerated phrases of rapture and tenderness, adoration and delight, while they feel—nothing, except a certain amusement at the childish game. It is so chic and charming to use all the most precious phrases of love and endearment amusingly, just amusingly, like the tinkling in a music-box.
And they would be very indignant if told they had no love of humanity. The English ones profess the most amusing and histrionic love of England, for example. “There is only one thing I care about, except my beloved Philip, and that is England, our precious England. Philip and I are both prepared to die for England, at any moment.” At the moment, England does not seem to be in any danger of asking them, so they are quite safe. And if you gently enquire: “But what, in your imagination, is England?” they reply fervently: “The great tradition of the English, the great idea of England”—which seems comfortably elastic and non-committal.
And they cry: “I would give anything for the cause of freedom. Hope and I have wept tears, and saddened our precious marriage-bed, thinking of the trespass on English liberty. But we are calmer now, and determined to fight calmly to the utmost.” Which calm fight consists in taking another cocktail and sending out a wildly emotional letter to somebody perfectly irresponsible. Then all is over, and freedom is forgotten, and perhaps religion gets a turn, or a wild outburst over some phrase in the burial service.
This is the advanced young of today. I confess it is amusing, while the coruscation lasts. The trying part is when the fireworks have finished—and they don’t last very long, even with cocktails—and the grey stretches intervene. For with the advanced young, there is no warm daytime and silent night. It is all fireworks of excitement and stretches of grey emptiness; then more fireworks. And, let the grisly truth be owned, it is rather exhausting.
Now in the grey intervals in the life of the modern young one fact emerges in all its dreariness, and makes itself plain to the young themselves, as well as to the onlooker. The fact that they are empty: that they care about nothing and nobody: not even the Amusement they seek so strenuously. Of course this skeleton is not to be taken out of the cupboard. “Darling angel man, don’t start being a nasty white ant. Play the game, angel-face, play the game; don’t start saying unpleasant things and rattling a lot of dead men’s bones! Tell us something nice, something amusing. Or let’s be really serious, you know, and talk about bolshevism or la haute finance. Do be an angel of light, and cheer us up, you nicest precious pet!”
As a matter of fact, the young are becoming afraid of their own emptiness. It’s awful fun throwing things out of the window. But when you’ve thrown everything out, and you’ve spent two or three days sitting on the bare floor and sleeping on the bare floor and eating off the bare floor, your bones begin to ache, and you begin to wish for some of the old furniture back, even if it was the ugliest Victorian horsehair.
At least, that’s how it seems to me the young women begin to feel. They are frightened at the emptiness of their house of life, now they’ve thrown everything out of the window. Their young Philips and Peters and so on don’t seem to make the slightest move to put any, new furniture in the house of the young generation. The only new piece they introduce is a cocktail-shaker and perhaps a wireless set. For the rest, it can stay blank.
And the young women begin to feel a little uneasy. Women don’t like to feel empty. A woman hates to feel that she believes in nothing and stands for nothing. Let her be the silliest woman on earth, she will take something seriously: her appearance, her clothes, her house, something. And let her be not so very silly, and she wants more than that. She wants to feel, instinctively, that she amounts to something and that her life stands for something. Women, who so often are angry with men because men cannot “just live,” but must always be wanting some purpose in life, are themselves, perhaps, the very root of the male necessity for a purpose in life. It seems to me that in a woman the need to feel that her life means something, stands for something, and amounts to something is much more imperative than in a man. The woman herself may, deny it emphatically; because, of course, it is the man’s business to supply her life with this “purpose.” But a man can be a tramp, purposeless, and be happy. Not so a woman. It is a very, very rare woman who can be happy if she feels herself “outside” the great purpose of life. Whereas, I verily believe, vast numbers of men would gladly drift away as wasters, if there were anywhere to drift to.
A woman cannot bear to feel empty and purposeless. But a man may take a real pleasure in that feeling. A man can take real pride and satisfaction in pure negation: “I am quite empty of feeling, I don’t care the slightest bit in the world for anybody or anything except myself. But I do care for myself, and I’m going to survive in spite of them all, and I’m going to have my own success without caring the least in the world how I get it. Because I’m cleverer than they are, I’m cunninger than they are, even if I’m weak. I must build myself proper protections, and entvench myself, and then I’m safe. I can sit inside my glass tower and feel nothing and be touched by nothing, and yet exert my power, my will, through the glass walls of my ego.”
That, roughly, is the condition of a man who accepts the condition of true egoism, and emptiness, in himself. He has a certain pride in the condition, since in pure emptiness of real feeling he can still carry out his ambition, his will to egoistic success.
Now I doubt if any woman can feel like this. The most egoistic woman is always in a tangle of hate, if not of love. But the true male egoist neither hates nor loves. He is quite empty, at the middle of him. Only on the surface he has feelings: and these he is always trying to get away from. Inwardly, he feels nothing. And when he feels nothing, he exults in his ego and knows he is safe. Safe, within his fortifications, inside his glass tower.
But I doubt if women can even understand this condition in a man. They mistake the emptiness for depth. They think the false calm of the egoist who really feels nothing, is strength. And they imagine that all the defences which the confirmed egoist throws up, the glass tower of im-perviousness, are screens to a real man, a positive being. And they throw themselves madly on the defences, to tear them down and come at the real man, little knowing that there is no real man, the defences are only there to protect a hollow emptiness, an egoism, not a human man.
But the young are beginning to suspect. The young women are beginning to respect the defences, for they are more afraid of coming upon the ultimate nothingness of the egoist, than of leaving him undiscovered. Hollowness, nothingness—it frightens the woman. They cannot be real nihilists. But men can. Men can have a savage satisfaction in the annihilation of all feeling and all connection, in a resultant state of sheer negative emptiness, when there is nothing left to throw out of the window, and the window is sealed.
Women wanted freedom. The result is a hollowness, an emptiness which frightens the stoutest heart. Women then turn to women for love. But that doesn’t last. It can’t. Whereas the emptiness persists and persists.
The love of humanity is gone, leaving a great gap. The cosmic consciousness has collapsed upon a great void. The egoist sits grinning furtively in the triumph of his own emptiness. And now what is woman going to do? Now that the house of life is empty, now that she’s thrown all the emotional furnishing out of the window, and the house of life, which is her eternal home, is empty as a tomb, now what is dear forlorn woman going to do?