Talents in Touch
by Jack Common
We do not know – how often one has to say that. We used to be so complacent about the ever–widening circle of things known. And, of course, about the physical universe we do know a great deal indeed. Also we understand a tremendous lot about the mechanics of maintaining a herd of men in close proximity. In fact, wherever there is a clear conjunction of predictable material law we are on to it like a shot. This remarkable facility received its freedom when the dark experiences of the early Christians convinced them that man was a spiritual being despite all; for that discovery pushed the material world at arm’s length. It could then be explored. The idealising of a repressed humanity into something spiritual resulted in a tremendous gain of materialist knowledge. To the Christian with God inside him the material world is always before his eyes. So even the most saintly philosophers of the church seem to their oriental confreres inescapably gross. That god-in-man took away divinity from the sun and earth, which then became merely commensurable objects. We know things about them which the ancients never knew. Perhaps we know too much – at any rate, our detailed and over-proved observation begins to seem rather weary. It needs to be redeemed in some second innocence. The heavenly bodies obey mechanical laws, true. And we, in the decadences of Christianity, are especially sharp to detect mechanical law. We have to be, for our godliness is a real deux ex machina, maintained or won by the skilful delegation of every brutal function to mindless contrivances that are capable of toil without suffering. That is our latest peak of experience. From it you can barely see another towering, and the first of that new vista will be in how it affects humanity. Naturally: you must fit man into your cosmogony first.
The masses are not Christian now, any more than they were pagan in the year 60 B.C. They are nothing, nothing official. And that is only to say that their precise spiritual condition has not been reported. Thus, if a fellow goes to meet his Maker either through the normal course of the hospital or by joining the army, and honestly answers “None” when they ask what his religion is, down he goes as Church of England. The curious result is that that Church has more atheists among its official flock than any other, not even excepting the Church of Rome, which has always been a favourite atheistical retreat for folks clever enough to enjoy its ritual. Yet it would not be quite fair to describe every man who hasn’t a religion as an atheist, just as you wouldn’t call everybody with no money in the bank communist. Those terms don’t come along till later, when the poor man recognises what he’s a-doing of, and is prepared to stand up for his practice against all who have other ways of wangling along. So, the present position is that there does not exist a reasonably revelatory description of the quiet communion in which the great world of common men actually lives. Well, then, the things to consider are, how did we ever get such notices before, and why have they stopped coming. The original process is something like this. As any body of men begin to live together in larger and more complex systems of relationships, some of them fail to fit in easily. They are to some extent cut off from the natural communism of their fellows. Some in their isolation become ego-conscious; they slave to perfect their talents so as to be top-dogs and thus escape the vagrancy which otherwise would be their fate. Some again endure that vagrancy but are compensated in their bad luck in being cut off from the normal activities by developing a sudden consciousness of what the whole business is about. The lame man who cannot hunt draws pictures of hunting; the weak-bodied and unfit for war spins his tales of heroes more glorious than his colleagues whom he dare not fight. But the simplest example of this in our time is sex. Odd word for it! Complicated societies like ours have to practically forbid their members from entering into full sexual life until they have gone a good way towards mastering the economic ropes. Many are able to acquiesce quietly in the postponement. But for some the denial brings a flare of heightened consciousness which, when it is spread about, is communicated to all, so that in our own streets you’ll see this curious blinkering and intense seeing occurring simultaneously, as some lass with a nice leg on her passes men preoccupied with business and men unnaturally alert for inflammation – the same men in alternating moods. That’s the low of it. Yet the barring out provides some marvellously fine insights, too. Sometimes the passion, which might easily have spent itself in dull coupling, is distilled into a sweetness which irradiates a whole personality. The little stark bit of chastity – that is the deep of the well, and people who haven’t it are somehow glossy and over-blown. Their attraction shocks like the electric eel at first touch, but who would want to touch again?
Besides this general process, there is the particular one by which someone here and there gathers in himself a queer kind of consciousness of the notions playing on his fellows. The case of the artist and the philosopher is a hard one to unravel. We are over-dazzled at the splendour and the rarity of the achievement and generally content to murmur “genius” and pass on to something easier. It’s sure a wonder how a whole world of sensation is suddenly focussed in the reflector of one imagination and thrown far and near into many minds. Only one Beethoven and one Shakespeare and one Jesus - the marvel it is. Now in general, when a thing appears mystical and miraculous, it means that here we have something that has been left to nature. We never planned to have Shakespeares and Beethovens. Many of them would be an embarrassment to our narrow day of toil, and anyhow we don’t know how to grow them. Yet they answer some necessity. Somewhere in the dark and nettled tensions of human life there comes about a thrust which our institutions cannot take. The force bursts through to produce something which looks alien and odd to the potato-ranks of our planning, or the carnations we grow for swank; it shoots up in a singular and impossible luxuriance. We never planted that one, and we know well that the way the ground is dunged and dug there’ll not be another like it for a long time. So give it a name and pass on – genius.
All the same we are prepared to stand a fair amount of consciousness of a less intense sort, something that can be controlled and handled and made to yield only enough light to enable us to get on with the job in hand. During all periods of high civilisation this consciousness is fairly widely taught; it becomes a usual social asset; and there comes to be a body of people who can pretty easily write a book, paint a picture, cut holes in somebody’s belly, manage a factory, or argue a case in a law court – it’s very nearly a matter of indifference which shape their consciousness takes. Such a versatile and shallow cultivation it is. Perhaps one or two of them are really much better than that, men who might have had “genius” (the silly word) were it not that it was too easy for them to win some sort of knowledge. These great leaders just fallen short are surrounded by thousands of people for whom consciousness is a mere social privilege and convenience. They derive licence from the intellectually arrogant leader, as he from them. They surround him with a wall of light. So that his search for knowledge of the simple human stuff is a continual discovery of them. We did not dare ask for a “genius” – I mean ask with the full responsibility of getting someone who would upset all our comfortable world with his notions – and so we are limited in what we know to the short-range observation of these men of brief roots.
Now complex people should associate with very simple folk. And the association is not real unless the complex man feels vividly his essential human inferiority to the good unconverted stuff of the simple man. At present he cannot get into that position at all: he is a “gentleman”, thus forever out of touch, or he is crippled in his powers by uncongenial work and lack of social recognition. So consciousness must feed on consciousness until it soon burns out. And, therefore, the art, philosophy and leadership of our day is brittle, flashy stuff, over-intellectual or too consciously under-intellectual. It reports on what is already reported in a tiny trickle of marginal commentary. Suppose you leave out of your music everything but pure rhythm; or if you leave out of sculpture everything but pure form, the shape itself; suppose you leave out of writing everything but the bare word-sound – these are the whittlings that go on now. Why, the dear old bourgeois novel turns up every week freshly maltreated; and the nature-poetry of that too-practical epoch comes along regular as rain, twisted in syntax and with some functional scenery in, but still saying nothing about man and man that has not already been put in prose. These repetitions and dissections show all too clearly that there is no right relation between the conscious and unconscious parts of society. They are divided, hostile and alien. The sap cannot flow between them. Therefore, leviathan remains unlighted while the illuminants twinkle for themselves like glow-worms on a Big Five bankside.
Our artists at least are sensible of the deprivation this is. They are weary of willing to paint, or of copying the tradition. They want to experience some deep compulsive mandate which will overwhelm their irritating awareness of what they are doing. So they turn to the unconscious. That instinct is sound – if they did but know the way. Yet the works of surrealism, confessed or not, never climb out of a confused experimentalism. Probably what is wrong is that they to express a personal unconscious – “my unconsciousness” one of them said the other day with a quaint and unpardonable possessiveness. They desire the trance of art, and know at any rate what is missing in nearly all contemporary work, but in that trance they’ll be themselves still; they’ll serve their own unconscious, nobody else’s. They put their shirt on nightmare as a dark horse, but they take care to hang on to the cuff-links. That is the disease of our day all right, the same that makes the pacifist hang on to his dividends while refusing the crude and final stroke of war. It was different in Shakespeare’s time. Notice how his unconscious is so remarkably like everyone else’s that every born fool with a B. Litt. to his name thinks he has a special affinity to Shakespeare and can shed new light on the plays. Even if you regard the characters there as projections of the author, then all you can say is that he must have ardently wanted his world to be just goodly human. His folk are not geniuses, not astoundingly intricate or rare; there is nothing they do or say (content, that is, not the perfection of their speech) which is not done or said in any back-street. Hence, though literary men are fascinated by the amazing technical dexterity of his writing, ordinary simple folk still feel perfectly well at home in his world. He probably never was at home in theirs, but he wanted to be – that’s it. Here you have a man natively of exceptional talent, who might have graced the Court or the government, living almost like a vagrant, or like a man disinherited and teased by contact with all he might have had, extremely sensitive to all the relationships yet failing in marriage, and again in extra-marital and extra-sexual love. The makings of a fine man, you might have said, had you known him in the flesh, only nothing came to a proper focus for him except in the imaginative crystal of his writing, and there perfectly. It is the standard situation of men of fine consciousness.
You can be certain that his perfection, his wonderful haleness, was to some extent the gift of his fortunate time. There were ready around him certain sympathies which he could naturally rely on, but which now need a lot of looking for. What a business that search can be you may see something of in the career of D.H. Lawrence. Natively Lawrence had an imaginative insight of the same order, though not the same magnitude as Shakespeare’s. Yes, but how often is it free? At first, perhaps, he had a certain naïve confidence of addressing the world, but it isn’t long before an irritated uncertainty of whether any listen or not begins to intrude into everything he does. His natural audience, his natural inspiration, should have been the Nottingham miners. He is certain – why, is interesting – that they would never read his books. The people who will, bourgeois women and the university youth, are no good to him. He exists in a sort of culture vacuum, like a fly on a bubble riding down the stream. Out of his lonely lack of community, he is always much over-valuing the importance of his personal relations with friends, and then in reaction theoretically damning them. His own personality he over-values. He is the only child not allowed to go out and play. The result is that the ordinary reticences and self-discipline which membership of any community naturally brings do not exist for him. He’ll record the littlest moods of exasperation or vanity; even the sort of squib one might let off at the drinking- table must go down seriously as a poem or something. And every now and then his stories will dwindle into dramatisations of himself and his friends, a kind of amazing diary. His personality is fully-licensed. He and we get so sick of it – for, of course, a writer’s personality is the last thing that anyone should write about – that it’s a relief to everybody when his fine sympathy with the non-human world gets the uppermost. He’s top of the world so long as there’s no people in it.
Lawrence was too good to acquiesce in that banishment. His artist’s need of deep contact with primarily innocent people drove him to a wild and extravagant exploration of the external proletariat and the coolie-fragments of past civilisations. But he’d have done better to have stayed at home. The original statement of the problem was a cleaner one. Why was he not in full acceptance of the Notts. miners? That was the thing. All the differences of race and colour among the proletariat abroad merely obscured the way for him. Sad. It is such a simple need to have, that of a constant good communion between the bright nervelet that the intellectual is and the dark unaware life of the commonality. It would happen easily but that in the odd contrivances by which we keep up a part-civilisation any polarity may be strangled.
We have been talking of exceptional cases, of course. The lesser men of consciousness never feel their present deprivation with anything like the same force. Nor do they need to be in such exquisite fine touch with folk as do these adventurers in the rare imaginative realm. Still, they too, every time they look up from the thinning trickle of their work, meet the great blank wall of mass- humanity. That seems inimical to them. The poor old mass-monster, how he mocks their tea-cup civilisation and their cult of the person! Well, give it up then. It has become purely self-regarding anyway, the clever studying the clever. We know to weariness all that that kind think, say and do. The world has been their Lido long enough; the sun must be sick of this nakedness. And they must be. They are. Yet there is always in front of us this tremendous mass-humanity, still unlocked. Think of the potentiality there. Why, damn it, we made Athens and Rome, Paris and London, while calling on but one man in a hundred to live a full manhood – what shall we do now, when the whole species pauses before the possibility of ascension. All but a tiny fraction of the people now breathing have been living under a belittling and inhibiting notion of themselves as unfit for anything but toil. It had a long life that notion, for generally it was justified by our inability to fight necessity without it. It went unquestioned, therefore, except for rare grumbles or Messianic flashes of inspiration. But now people actually cling to it – a sign that it is going. The eagerness with which all sorts of men disown an interest in anything highbrow, as though they were under suspicion; the general habit in nearly all circles that you’re just an ordinary bloke that likes sport and jazz and doesn’t bother his head about politics – this is how the deep pressure of some intimations of immortality first are felt. The proletariat clings to the gutter, and desperately shoos away destiny with an Edgar Wallace or a Littlewood’s coupon. The middle-classes have to join in, of course, with a sort of Toc H good fellowship. Meanwhile the realists of the high bourgeoisie arm themselves against the day when the man-in-the-street goes highbrow and asks for his heritage.
We’re going to see some fun, we are. And we can’t practice seeing too soon. Why, if our intellectuals were capable of half the humility and self-suppressing wonder before the spectacle of plain humanity with the sun rising on it that they have shown for the pretties of Nature, we should have made our fag-lighter work and found out where we are by now. It is harder to admire man than nature. That’s seditious, for a start; it costs you the total loss of your misterhood, and seriously threatens your prospects of owning wage-slaves and becoming civilised. Oddly enough, though, most of the poets are getting prepared to pay that penalty. You and I will have to follow them – all in good time.
You see, the present arrangements are so damn ridiculous. The proper study of mankind is man, but the moment any of us shows a bit of useful social awareness or insight, we at once make a gentleman of him, thus segregating him from his subject- matter and compelling him to work by memory all the rest of his life. Strictly speaking there is no allowance made among us for the intellectual in his own right. He is accidental. One who makes his money in a queer way, but does, thank God, remain a gentleman. It means in practice that he’s expected to do no more than picture the ruling class to itself. And now the ruling class doesn’t want pictures of itself, so he might as well be bundled out of the country as a Jew or something equally unsporting. It’s hard lines on the intellectuals. For they are made to seem snobs by the mere organisation the country has, and there’s nothing more absurd to himself and others than a writer-painter-scientist shoved into snobbery. To be denied living contact with nearly all your fellow-citizens and kept viciously circling in the coteries of a class, while at the same time trying to do good work – by God, let no man envy the present-day intellectual. No wonder the stuff they raise is brittle and short-stemmed, little hard dottles of poetry, incredibly skeletonised pictures, philosophy vapour-thin despite the many layers of its tissues. They lack renewal, these talents out of touch. They want manuring with some of the good rough stuff of inarticulate man.
That will happen all right, never fear. Each year sees almost all of us forced nearer to the negative consanguinity of mass. We don’t like it; we don’t even want to believe that it is so. We all hunch cold shoulders against it. But wait. Already there are people who are beginning to exploit this new helplessness, and to rule us as though we were something sub-human. It is amazing to watch how in a few short years the ordinary impotence of the working-class against its bosses has extended to whole sections of the bourgeoisie. They still enjoy a relatively high standard of living, but their influence on the government of the country rapidly wanes. We come to the day of the unscrupulous and unsanctioned ruler. And our defence against him is to proclaim the community we are in. Once we know we are in it and feel it vividly, we’d be invincible. But we are not sure yet; we can only recognise it as a shadow on us, which can be sketchily declared in popular fronts and alliances against something. Things often begin sketchily, but wait till we proclaim our unity for something positive, for the triumphant declaration of the good-neighbourliness of all. Then under-dogdom will see its day come up. For the first time the whole man will walk upright in the sun, and his story will not then be concerned with the dismal account of whole populations mutilated of their manhood in the cause of some brief and uncertain part-splendour which so far has been all his tale.
That’s all for the present, hoping it finds you as it leaves me. I had intended to conclude with a table of dogmas. For, as this book cannot aim at proving anything, proof being possible only when all parties are using the same dialectic and are agreed about their main hypothesis, it seemed only fair to put down flat what I think are trumps, so to speak. But if I did that, folks might think I had an original set all to myself. Actually the kind of intimations I’ve been dealing in are common property among many, many people who have greater authority than I to speak of them. When they are codified it must be by collective counsel, a general squaring-up of common experiences. To do it any other way would be to commit an act of isolation, perhaps, from the others. One has to be careful of that, even in small matters.
No conclusions, then. You can work them out for yourself, and it’s odds on you’ll get as least as good an answer as I should. The things I’ve been talking about hit you as hard as they do me, mate, and that’s a fact. I leave it to you, then – all the best.
End of Talents In Touch by Jack Common