Monday, November 30, 2015

On Death

I knew a man once who made a great case of Death, saying that he esteemed a country according to its regard for the conception of Death, and according to the respect which it paid to that conception. He also said that he considered individuals by much the same standard, but that he did not judge them so strictly in the matter, because (said he) great masses of men are more permanently concerned with great issues; whereas private citizens are disturbed by little particular things which interfere with their little particular lives, and so distract them from the general end.

This was upon a river called Boutonne, in Vendée, and at the time I did not understand what he meant because as yet I had had no experience of these things. But this man to whom I spoke had had three kinds of experience; first, he had himself been very probably the occasion of Death in others, for he had been a soldier in a war of conquest where the Europeans were few and the Barbarians many! secondly, he had been himself very often wounded, and more than once all but killed; thirdly, he was at the time he told me this thing an old man who must in any case soon come to that experience or catastrophe of which he spoke.

He was an innkeeper, the father of two daughters, and his inn was by the side of the river, but the road ran between. His face was more anxiously earnest than is commonly the face of a French peasant, as though he had suffered more than do ordinarily that very prosperous, very virile, and very self-governing race of men. He had also about him what many men show who have come sharply against the great realities, that is, a sort of diffidence in talking of ordinary things. I could see that in the matters of his household he allowed himself to be led by women. Meanwhile he continued to talk to me over the table upon this business of Death, and as he talked he showed that desire to persuade which is in itself the strongest motive of interest in any human discourse.

He said to me that those who affected to despise the consideration of Death knew nothing of it; that they had never seen it close and might be compared to men who spoke of battles when they had only read books about battles, or who spoke of sea-sickness though they had never seen the sea. This last metaphor he used with some pride, for he had crossed the Mediterranean from Provence to Africa some five or six times, and had upon each occasion suffered horribly; for, of course, his garrison had been upon the edge of the desert, and he had been a soldier beyond the Atlas. He told me that those who affected to neglect or to despise Death were worse than children talking of grown-up things, and were more like prigs talking of physical things of which they knew nothing.

I told him then that there were many such men, especially in the town of Geneva. This, he said, he could well believe, though he had never travelled there, and had hardly heard the name of the place. But he knew it for some foreign town. He told me, also, that there were men about in his own part of the world who pretended that since Death was an accident like any other, and, moreover, one as certain as hunger or as sleep, it was not to be considered. These, he said, were the worst debaters upon his favourite subject.

Now as he talked in this fashion I confess that I was very bored. I had desired to go on to Angouléme upon my bicycle, and I was at that age when all human beings think themselves immortal. I had desired to get off the main high road into the hills upon the left, to the east of it, and I was at an age when the cessation of mundane experience is not a conceivable thing. Moreover, this innkeeper had been pointed out to me as a man who could give very useful information upon the nature of the roads I had to travel, and it had never occurred to me that he would switch me off after dinner upon a hobby of his own. To-day, after a wider travel, I know well that all innkeepers have hobbies, and that an abstract or mystical hobby of this sort is amongst the best with which to pass an evening. But no matter, I am talking of then and not now. He kept me, therefore, uninterested as I was, and continued:

"People who put Death away from them, who do not neglect or despise it but who stop thinking about it, annoy me very much. We have in this village a chemist of such a kind. He will have it that, five minutes afterwards, a man thinks no more about it." Having gone so far, the innkeeper, clenching his hands and fixing me with a brilliant glance from his old eyes, said:

"With such men I will have nothing to do!"

Indeed, that his chief subject should be treated in such a fashion was odious to him, and rightly, for of the half-dozen things worth strict consideration, there is no doubt that his hobby was the chief, and to have one's hobby vulgarly despised is intolerable.

The innkeeper then went on to tell me that so far as he could make out it was a man's business to consider this subject of Death continually, to wonder upon it, and, if he could, to extract its meaning. Of the men I had met so far in life, only the Scotch and certain of the Western French went on in this metaphysical manner: thus a Breton, a Basque, and a man in Ecclefechan (I hope I spell it right) and another in Jedburgh had already each of them sent me to my bed confused upon the matter of free will. So this Western innkeeper refused to leave his thesis. It was incredible to him that a Sentient Being who perpetually accumulated experience, who grew riper and riper, more and more full of such knowledge as was native to himself and complementary to his nature, should at the very crisis of his success in all things intellectual and emotional, cease suddenly. It was further an object to him of vast curiosity why such a being, since a future was essential to it, should find that future veiled.

He presented to me a picture of men perpetually passing through a field of vision out of the dark and into the dark. He showed me these men, not growing and falling as fruits do (so the modern vulgar conception goes) but alive throughout their transit: pouring like an unbroken river from one sharp limit of the horizon whence they entered into life to that other sharp limit where they poured out from life, not through decay, but through a sudden catastrophe.

"I," said he, "shall die, I do suppose, with a full consciousness of my being and with a great fear in my eyes. And though many die decrepit and senile, that is not the normal death of men, for men have in them something of a self-creative power, which pushes them on to the further realisation of themselves, right up to the edge of their doom."

I put his words in English after a great many years, but they were something of this kind, for he was a metaphysical sort of man.

It was now near midnight, and I could bear with such discussions no longer; my fatigue was great and the hour at which I had to rise next day was early. It was, therefore, in but a drowsy state that I heard him continue his discourse. He told me a long story of how he had seen one day a company of young men of the New Army, the conscripts, go marching past his house along the river through a driving snow. He said that first he heard them singing long before he saw them, that then they came out like ghosts for a moment through the drift, that then in the half light of the winter dawn they clearly appeared, all in step for once, swinging forward, muffled in their dark blue coats, and still singing to the lift of their feet; that then on their way to the seaport, they passed again into the blinding scurry of the snow, that they seemed like ghosts again for a moment behind the veil of it, and that long after they had disappeared their singing could still be heard.

By this time I was most confused as to what lesson he would convey, and sleep had nearly overcome me, but I remember his telling me that such a sight stood to him at the moment and did still stand for the passage of the French Armies perpetually on into the dark, century after century, destroyed for the most part upon fields of battle. He told me that he felt like one who had seen the retreat from Moscow, and he would, I am sure, had I not determined to leave him and to take at least some little sleep, have asked me what fate there was for those single private soldiers, each real, each existent, while the Army which they made up and of whose "destruction" men spoke, was but a number, a notion, a name. He would have pestered me, if my mind had still been active, as to what their secret destinies were who lay, each man alone, twisted round the guns after the failure to hold the Bridge of the Beresina. He might have gone deeper, but I was too tired to listen to him any more.

This human debate of ours (and very one-sided it was!) is now resolved, for in the interval since it was engaged the innkeeper himself has died.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects.(1908)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"The family"

“THE family is the true unit of the state, and is more important than the state. The state exists for the family, not the family for the state. Property is necessary for its normal and healthy being.”

~Hilaire Belloc: in The Way Out.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Autumn And The Fall Of Leaves

IT IS not true that the close of a life which ends in a natural fashion─life which is permitted to put on the pomp of death and to go out in glory─inclines the mind to repose. It is not true of a day ending nor the passing of the year, nor of the fall of leaves. Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.

There is a house in my own county which is built of stone, whose gardens are fitted to the autumn. It has level alleys standing high and banked with stone. Their ornaments were carved under the influence of that restraint which marked the Stuarts. They stand above old ponds, and are strewn at this moment with the leaves of elms. These walks are like the Mailles of the Flemish cities, the walls of the French towns or the terraces of the Loire. They are enjoyed to-day by whoever has seen all our time go racing by; they are the proper resting-places of the aged, and their spirit is felt especially in the fall of leaves.

At this season a sky which is of so delicate and faint a blue as to contain something of gentle mockery, and certainly more of tenderness, presides at the fall of leaves. There is no air, no breath at all. The leaves are so light that they sidle on their going downward, hesitating in that which is not void to them, and touching at last so imperceptibly the earth with which they are to mingle, that the gesture is much gentler than a salutation, and even more discreet than a discreet caress.

They make a little sound, less than the least of sounds. No bird at night in the marshes rustles so slightly; no man, though men are the subtlest of living beings, put so evanescent a stress upon their sacred whispers or their prayers. The leaves are hardly heard, but they are heard just so much that men also, who are destined at the end to grow glorious and to die, look up and hear them falling.

* * * * *

With what a pageantry of every sort is not that troubling symbol surrounded! The scent of life is never fuller in the woods than now, for the ground is yielding up its memories. The spring when it comes will not restore this fullness, nor these deep and ample recollections of the earth. For the earth seems now to remember the drive of the ploughshare and its harrying; the seed, and the full bursting of it, the swelling and the completion of the harvest. Up to the edge of the woods throughout the weald the earth has borne fruit; the barns are full, and the wheat is standing stacked in the fields, and there are orchards all around. It is upon such a mood of parentage and of fruition that the dead leaves fall.

The colour is not a mere splendour: it is intricate. The same unbounded power, never at fault and never in calculation, which comprehends all the landscape, and which has made the woods, has worked in each one separate leaf as well; they are inconceivably varied. Take up one leaf and see. How many kinds of boundary are there here between the stain which ends in a sharp edge against the gold, and the sweep in which the purple and red mingle more evenly than they do in shot-silk or in flames? Nor are the boundaries to be measured only by degrees of definition. They have also their characters of line. Here in this leaf are boundaries intermittent, boundaries rugged, boundaries curved, and boundaries broken. Nor do shape and definition ever begin to exhaust the list. For there are softness and hardness too: the agreement and disagreement with the scheme of veins; the grotesque and the simple in line; the sharp and the broad, the smooth, and raised in boundaries. So in this one matter of boundaries might you discover for ever new things; there is no end to them. Their qualities are infinite. And beside boundaries you have hues and tints, shades also, varying thicknesses of stuff, and endless choice of surface; that list also is infinite, and the divisions of each item in it are infinite; nor is it of any use to analyse the thing, for everywhere the depth and the meaning of so much creation are beyond our powers. And all this is true of but one dead leaf; and yet every dead leaf will differ from its fellow.

That which has delighted to excel in boundlessness within the bounds of this one leaf, has also transformed the whole forest. There is no number to the particular colour of the one leaf. The forest is like a thing so changeful of its nature that change clings to it as a quality, apparent even during the glance of a moment. This forest makes a picture which is designed, but not seizable. It is a scheme, but a scheme you cannot set down. It is of those things which can best be retained by mere copying with a pencil or a brush. It is of those things which a man cannot fully receive, and which he cannot fully re-express to other men.

It is no wonder, then, that at this peculiar time, this week (or moment) of the year, the desires which if they do not prove at least demand─perhaps remember─our destiny, come strongest. They are proper to the time of autumn, and all men feel them. The air is at once new and old; the morning (if one rises early enough to welcome its leisurely advance) contains something in it of profound reminiscence. The evenings hardly yet suggest (as they soon will) friends and security, and the fires of home. The thoughts awakened in us by their bands of light fading along the downs are thoughts which go with loneliness and prepare me for the isolation of the soul.

It is on this account that tradition has set, at the entering of autumn, for a watch at the gate of the season, the Archangel; and at its close the day and the night of All-Hallows on which the dead return.

~Hilaire Belloc: from Hills and the Sea.

Autumn, by Frederic Edwin Church.
Oil on canvas, 1875; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

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