Tribune, 21 July 1944
I have just found my copy of Samuel Butlers
Note-Books, the full edition of the first series, published by Jonathan Cape in 1921.
It is twenty years old and none the better for having gone through several rainy seasons
in Burma, but at any rate it exists, which is all to the good, for this is another of
those well-known books which have now ceased to be procurable. Capes later produced
an abridged version in the Travellers Library, but it is an unsatisfactory
abridgement, and the second series which was published about 1934 does not contain much
that is of value. It is in the first series that you will find the story of Butlers
interview with a Turkish official at the Dardanelles, the description of his
method of buying new-laid eggs and his endeavours to photograph a seasick bishop, and
other similar trifles which in a way are worth more than his major works.
Butlers main ideas now seem either to be unimportant, or
to suffer from wrong emphasis. Biologists apart, who now cares whether the Darwinian theory of
evolution, or the Lamarckian version which Butler supported, is the correct one? The whole
question of evolution seems less momentous than it did, because, unlike the Victorians, we
do not feel that to be descended from animals is degrading to human dignity. On the other
hand, Butler often makes a mere joke out of something that now seems to us vitally
important. For example:
The principal varieties and sub-varieties of the human race are not now to be
looked for among the Negroes, the Circassians, the Malays or the American aborigines, but
among the rich and the poor. The difference in physical organization between these two
species of man is far greater than that between the so-called types of humanity. The rich
man can go from (New Zealand) to England whenever he feels inclined. The legs of the other
are by an invisible fatality prevented from carrying him beyond certain narrow limits.
Neither rich nor poor can yet see the philosophy of the thing, or admit that he who can
tack a portion of one of the P & O boats on to his identity is a much more highly
organized being than he who cannot.
There are innumerable similar passages in Butlers work. You could easily
interpret them in a Marxist
sense, but the point is that Butler himself does not do so. Finally his outlook is that of
a Conservative, in
spite of his successful assaults on Christian belief and the institution of the family.
Poverty is degrading: therefore, take care not to be poor that is his reaction.
Hence the improbable and unsatisfying ending of The Way of All Flesh, which
contrasts so strangely with the realism of the earlier parts.
Yet Butlers books have worn well, far better than those
of more earnest contemporaries like Meredith
and Carlyle, partly
because he never lost the power to use his eyes and to be pleased by small things, partly
because in the narrow technical sense he wrote so well. When one compares Butlers
prose with the contortions of Meredith or the affectations of Stevenson, one sees what a
tremendous advantage is gained simply by not trying to be clever. Butlers own ideas
on the subject are worth quoting:
I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at
the same time readable. Platos having had seventy shies at one sentence is quite
enough to explain to me why I dislike him. A man may, and ought to, take a great deal of
pains to write clearly, tersely and euphoniously: he will write many a sentence three or
four times over to do much more than this is worse than not rewriting at all: he
will be at great pains to see that he does not repeat himself, to arrange his matter in
the way that shall best enable the reader to master it, to cut out superfluous words and,
even more, to eschew irrelevant matter: but in each case he will be thinking not of his
own style but of his readers convenience . . . . I should like to put it on record
that I never took the smallest pains with my style, have never thought about it, and do
not know or want to know whether it is a style at all or whether it is not, as I believe
and hope, just common, simple straightforwardness. I cannot conceive how any man can take
thought for his style without loss to himself and his readers.
Butler adds characteristically, however, that he has made considerable efforts to
improve his handwriting.
An argument that Socialists
ought to be prepared to meet, since it is brought up constantly both by Christian
apologists and by neo-pessimists such as James Burnham, is the alleged immutability of
human nature. Socialists are accused I think without justification
of assuming that Man is perfectible, and it is then pointed out that human history
is in fact one long tale of greed, robbery and oppression. Man, it is said, will always
try to get the better of his neighbour, he will always hog as much property as possible
for himself and his family. Man is of his nature sinful, and cannot be made virtuous by
Act of Parliament. Therefore, though economic exploitation can be controlled to some
extent, the classless society is for ever impossible.
The proper answer, it seems to me, is that this argument
belongs to the Stone Age. It presupposes that material goods will always be desperately
scarce. The power hunger of human beings does indeed present a serious problem, but there
is no reason for thinking that the greed for mere wealth is a permanent human
characteristic. We are selfish in economic matters because we all live in terror of
poverty. But when a commodity is not scarce, no one tries to grab more than his fair share
of it. No one tries to make a corner in air, for instance. The millionaire as well as the
beggar is content with just so much air as he can breathe. Or, again, water. In this
country we are not troubled by lack of water. If anything we have too much of it,
especially on Bank Holidays. As a result water hardly enters into our consciousness. Yet
in dried-up countries like North Africa, what jealousies, what hatreds, what appalling
crimes the lack of water can cause! So also with any other kind of goods. If they were
made plentiful, as they so easily might be, there is no reason to think that the supposed
acquisitive instincts of the human being could not be bred out in a couple of generations.
And after all, if human nature never changes, why is it that we not only dont
practise cannibalism any longer, but dont even want to?
A businessman was in the habit of going home by a suburban
train which left London at seven-thirty. One evening the night-watchman, who had just come
on duty, stopped him and said:
Excuse me, sir, but Id advise you not to go by your usual
train tonight. I dreamed last night that the train was smashed up and half the people in
it were killed. Maybe youll think Im superstitious, but it was all so vivid
that I cant help thinking it was meant as a warning.
The businessman was sufficiently impressed to wait and take a
later train. When he opened the newspaper the next morning he saw that, sure enough, the
train had been wrecked and many people killed. That evening he sent for the
night-watchman and said to him:
I want to thank you for your warning yesterday. I
consider that you saved my life, and in return I should like to make you a present of
thirty pounds. In addition, I have to inform you that you are sacked. Take a weeks
notice from today.
This was an ungrateful act, but the businessman was strictly
within his rights. Why?