Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next


  • And can the scribbler really urge no more than that on his own behalf? Is his best justification for his own existence merely the fact that he forms one of a large useless class, so large and so intricately intermixed with others that there is no hope of successfully weeding them out? Must he, add those (to him) far more important persons who are dependent upon him, go down quick into the pit as useless members? — must they be hewn down and thrown into Tophet alive, lest they cumber the ground that might else be supporting a fruitful crop of shoemakers and ploughmen? There are just two little excuses wherewith he may try to justify his being — two considerations which may possibly save him from the final limbo of empty windbags and do-nothing eatalls. They are these.
  • First of all, I will admit that I have all through been pretending to too much austerity — to far greater austerity than is really in me. I am not, in fact, so great an ascetic as I have made myself out to be. A world so terribly in earnest that it could never smile would be a world unendurable by human beings. On the other hand, it seems a horribly cruel thought that we should devote one acre of ground to any purpose of mere diversion while there are thousands starving for want of bread in our very midst. Why was not this playfield planted with corn, and given to the poor? asks the ever-present politico-socialistic Judas within us. But on the other hand, just fancy a world which was all so strictly and materialistically utilitarian that it gave itself wholly over to growing bread and pork, making necessary clothing, quarrying coal, and catching codfish. What to us would be the worth of such a world at all at all? If we are human we must have arts and pleasures. The merest savage makes a stone axe for himself, and then a tiny dolly axe for his baby-boy. He has his dances and his corrobborees: he paints his bright-hued pictures, and carves his rude bas-reliefs in leisure moments. Even in the pre- glacial age, we find him scratching figures of mammoths on bits of their own ivory, or drilling bears' teeth to make a savage necklet for his dusky squaw.
  • All these feelings have become so ingrained in the very fibre of our natures that we should not be human now if we were born without them. An ants' nest is a perfect model of a purely utilitarian phalanstery: in it, all the exertions of every member are devoted solely to the construction and maintenance of the rest, to the collection of food, the care of pupae, the warding off of enemies, the keeping of aphides and other useful flocks and herds. There is no formican literature, no formican fine art, no formican science. But man is not an ant: he cannot live by bread alone, and his life must be filled up with many small amusements and distractions, petty enough in themselves, yet absolutely necessary for his well-being. Suppose we were to occupy every field on earth with our corn and our turnips; suppose we were to sacrifice all the beautiful wild beasts, all the graceful wild flowers, all the tangled thickets and copses; suppose we were to make all our waterfalls drive grist-mills, and to blast away all our rapids for the sake of improved navigation; suppose we were to people every acre as thick as it could stand with human beings, each just sufficiently clad and fed and housed and lighted — what sort of world should we have made it into in the end? What a joyless, purposeless, truly bestial existence it would be after all! — as bestial as that of the cow in the meadow, chewing the cud leisurely, and thinking placidly of nothing at all in heaven above or earth below or the waters that are under the earth.
  • To you, no doubt, this all seems to perfectly self-evident that you wonder any man should seriously take the trouble to write it down in black and white.
  • But it has not always seemed self-evident to many of us, and does not even now seem self-evident to the average social democrat among the working men. It is only with some effort that the awakened scribbler, endeavouring to justify himself to himself, to strike a treaty of peace with his own conscience, arrives at the conclusion that even he, as a wheel among wheels in a great social mechanism, fulfils a remotely useful purpose. What he writes affords amusement for a passing moment to a few people, most of whom indeed may themselves be useless, but some of whom may belong to the useful classes. I confess it was with a glow of pleasure that once in a third-class carriage I saw a workman in his muddy clothes reading one of the papers to which I contribute; and when I asked him why he bought it, received the answer,
  • 'Because I always read the articles about so-and-so,' those being, in fact, the very series that I am engaged upon. And whether the actual distribution of the product is at present good or bad, at least the product itself is well- meant: just as it is well that there should be paintings and statues and architectural works, even if many of them are still too much monopolised by special classes. The things themselves are there, and they are working up slowly (let us hope) toward a better future.
  • And that brings me at last to my second and final point. Though I am not a poet, like Alastor Jones, there is a stanza of Shelley's which often suggests to me a certain grain of moral comfort when this sort of ethical dyspepsia oppresses my professional conscience in spare moments.
  • Everybody knows the lines by heart
  • > Like a poet hidden
  • >
  • > In the light of thought,
  • >
  • > Singing hymns unbidden
  • >
  • > Till the world is wrought
  • >
  • > To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.
  • Now, a journalist is not a poet, and Heaven knows he is far enough from being lost in a haze of thought; yet I sometimes think that even he, in his humble capacity of populariser and suggester, may help to do something like what that last line so exquisitely shadows forth as the poet's function. There is one species of literature which everybody reads — the daily paper; and it is better that they should there get honest thought, however inartistically expressed, than dishonest buncombe; better that they should get a little sprinkling of some useful knowledge than mere appeals to their worst feelings; better that they should be pointed onward and pointed backward; better that they should read such stuff as a decent third leader than that they should be wholly delivered over to endless and aimless political acrimonies. If a man is driven by fate into the position of scribbler, he may at least elect which kind of scribbler he will be. There are scribblers of whom one may fairly say that they take no heed at all of right or wrong; they produce just such articles as will please their audience, irrespective of ulterior tendency. But a scribbler may say to himself, in the rare intervals of thinking afforded him by his trade: 'I will at least in this my dubiously useful calling endeavour to abstain from doing any active and positive harm. Since the public will have journalism, and I am chosen by destiny as one of the instruments for supplying them with that doubtful article, I will make my work as little hurtful and as much helpful as I possibly can. I will give the people of my best, such as it is; I will never print anything which will aid in keeping back humanity on its old, half-brutal track. Where possible and when possible, so far as the medium permits, I will teach whatever little I know, and I will preach whatever I best feel. It cannot do much good, but it will not do any harm; and it may perhaps fall n with other influences to help on slowly toward the upward path.
  • After all, what one individual can effect is always but little, and less in proportion to his personal obscurity. If he works decently well as a cog-wheel fitting in with surrounding cogs, he has done the most that can be reasonably expected of him.' And perhaps, to end the whole question, a scribbler who acts as far as possible up to these principles is on the whole, in existing circumstances, as a member of a confessedly imperfect and ill-organised society, earning his livelihood, not indeed, like the shoemaker, with a clear consciousness of social worth, but in a relatively harmless and unblameworthy fashion. With that negative sort of self-approval, it seems to me, he must be content to plod his way in the humble hope that at the end he may escape utter condemnation at the hands of collective labouring humanity.
  • ***