For Reactionaries Only

One night last winter I stood watching a gypsy play with fire. He and half his tribe had just turned out of the pub, the men singing and step-dancing in their heavy boots, the women aloof hunching disapproval behind their shawls. Not more than twenty he was, a sturdy lad permanently dirty and unshaven but with a clear out-door look in his eyes which gave you the improbable idea that he would strip white enough, and a shock of hair pushing his cap away from his brow. He made his fire out of newspaper on the cobbles, keeping it between his boots. There was a fair amount of wind blowing, and if you or I had tried the job, it's ten to one we'd have wasted a few matches before we got the thing started and then lost the whole issue when a ground-wind snatched at the flaming paper. But this lad was a real fire-master. He tended the flames that curled back from his corduroyed legs with caressing movements of his hands, as though he was combing a horse's tail. The newspaper he kept bundled up under his jacket so that he could tear off a strip quickly with one hand, twist it, and add it to the blaze. When it was high enough he took out half-a-dozen kippers and laid them on, jammed together as they were. In far too short a time he was treating us all to torn portions of charred but mainly uncooked kipper - a friendly act if not brilliantly successful.

Probably we are particularly liable to be struck by such simple things now because we are bound to doubt whether the so-called civilised life is worth the sacrifices we have to make in order to maintain it. The temptation is to see in the curious grace of the gypsy's fire-drawing evidence of a way of living more whole than ours. In much the same way, a modern anthropologist is able to observe savage communities all the more sympathetically for having left his own people in a high state of war preparation; historians are led to take another look at the ages of barbarism; and artists find inspiration among "primitives". This is reaction, of course; ours is a reactionary period. Well, let's make the best of it. At any rate, we are free for the moment of the collective conceit which puts ourselves on top of all history, right in the van of progress. Not so very long ago practically everyone you knew was a Progressive, and the debate concerned various ways of doing good amiably all round. You would get told off proper if you didn't admit that this was an age of plenty, or that you could have Socialism in our time, or that war could be abolished. Today it is impossible not to suspect your best friend of being a reactionary, and the man who has not been accused of Fascism isn't on the intellectual map at all. What has happened to the Progressives then? I suspect that they got marched over and left behind, so that they are stuck in a last ditch somewhere, dieharding in the defence of democracy while we reactionaries quarrel about how far back we are going. And the way to get rid of the reactionaries is similar. Why go back to the middle ages with Hitler when the lovely stone age nights are calling you?

From a "savage" point of view we own terrific collective powers but are ourselves deficient in all the natural graces. In singing, dancing, drawing, poetry-making, speaking, and love-making we are pretty deplorable judged by uncivilised standards. We seem to have got caught up in a kind of madly-extreme democracy, so that we bank all on a tremendous queen-bee of a Beethoven and have millions who can't sing at all; or having raised a Shakespeare, from thence on we content ourselves with smoking-room limericks and advertising slogans. What happens is that you have first a simple human pleasure which all join in, then it becomes worked on and specialised into a high art with a large audience delegating their interest to a few skilled performers, and the last stage occurs when the audience no longer keep alive the rhythms in themselves and so do not recognise the skilled delegate when he appears. Thus, if you want to exhaust yourself any time, you cannot do better than try to explain to the ordinary man what you see in chamber music. There is an envoi to this process: comes a time when the delegates themselves get the wind up at the lack of backing they receive and try to re-shape themselves in accordance with the alleged demands of popular taste. Caesar gives circuses.

Have the rank and file of civilisation really become brutish, then? No savage is going to believe that. Periods of high civilisation are few and very brief, all about and around them the unadulterated and uncollectivised men are dancing and singing and making a wonder out of words. We have these free rhythms in us all right, but inhibited. So far, civilisations have been clumsy contrivances for swiftly capitalising the collective human strength for the endowment of a few individuals. Their social training has been a sort of ferreting; stopping-up all the outlets of expression save one, so as to get a concentrated power. Thus it follows that the spread of education to all and sundry does not result in a general increase in the arts of expression. Whatever the intention, the technique is inhibitory. It says, in effect, you shall not make verse or music unless you are prepared to go forth and specialise. The arts now become too difficult for the ordinary man, and few men believe they are capable of them, though as users of tools they often fall easily enough into the rhythm of gesture which is the germ of all arts.

Well, now that this civilisation-by-proxy swindle is likely to blow itself up, and we are all of us in a reactionary funk about it, there are two forms of reaction open to us. One is to tighten up the discipline and increase the inhibitions, emphasise the inner tension in actual drills and military formations, forbid even the free art of representative minority and their thought; the other to conduct our own relaxation before the discipline breaks, give back to the ordinary man the power which he delegated to minorities, and so build a dark age of our own instead of being flung headlong into it in the Roman fashion. The great virtue of a dark age is that it discovers the value of exceedingly simple things: of the love between man and wife, for instance; of the good in working a piece of land; of the rare sympathy that springs up in small and poor communities. In a dark age the people begin to make songs of their own, and dances; their speech becomes deintellectualised, so that word-formations accumulate without any one planning them by rule, and they therefore have a touch of magic in them. We'd enjoy a dark age fine, if it wasn't that they've got a bad name because of the poverty, plague, and social anarchy that they are generally marred with. That may have been because they were accidental, not specially wished-for like ours.

To us the new age opens as an age of exploration. We start on the assumption that all of us are libelled in our collective picture. The sum of our abilities and potentialities, as added up in the accounts of nation, republic, and empire, is quite incorrect. But even if our collectivity represented us as we are, that still leaves out what can be. You know very well that you are much better than you've ever had the chance of being. So am I. So is my mate. Whenever I do happen to exercise a new ability, I find myself speculating on how many potentialities there may be in me that lie rotting. The fact is, nobody knows how good they are. For one freedom, we develop a hundred fears, since society likes a man to have but one face, so that he can be readily catalogued and counted on. Even my gyppo boy, for all his fine unconscious fire-love, is a tongue-tied hobble-dehoy half his time.

I believe that mere ordinary man is an Eldorado of infinite potentiality, and that the work of endowed individuals is no more than outcrop gold indicating the quality of the greater mine. Moreover, had that dogma been generally believed, I think we should not have daunted the majority by efforts to lift them up or add to their natural capacities. No man can add a cubit to his stature; and no man needs to. It is enough to free the province of your manhood, that is, to unlearn the fears and inhibitions by which you are lessened. The dark age technique of unlearning is what is needed, and it is not such a strange thing as it seems. We have an acquisitive view of learning as of a thing you add to the personality, this being the opinion proper to an acquisitive society. Yet when you learn to swim you are really escaping from doubt and awkwardness into an innate swimming rhythm which everybody possesses, rather marvellously, whether they use it or not. And queerer than that, there is the case of the recently developed art of cycling. When I took it up, the man who showed me how pointed out that it wasn't a question of learning to ride, what you had to do was to unlearn the inability to ride. He was perfectly right. It is all there if you can get it.

So with the arts and graces which during the stress of a high civilisation are slurred over or made remote and rare. We can unlearn the social self-consciousness which distorts the exercise of the natural rhythms in its effort to compete with the hardy specialist in them. In the end we shall come into our birthright again, and damn those professors of progress who call only the ages of mass-slavery and isolated genius, golden.

Originally published in January 1939.