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An essay by Henry W. Nevinson

The Catfish

Title:     The Catfish
Author: Henry W. Nevinson [More Titles by Nevinson]

Before the hustling days of ice and of "cutters" rushing to and fro between Billingsgate and our fleets of steam-trawlers on the Dogger Bank, most sailing trawlers and long-line fishing-boats were built with a large tank in their holds, through which the sea flowed freely. Dutch eel-boats are built so still, and along the quays of Amsterdam and Copenhagen you may see such tanks in fishing-boats of almost every kind. Our East Coast fishermen kept them chiefly for cod. They hoped thus to bring the fish fresh and good to market, for, unless they were overcrowded, the cod lived quite as contentedly in the tanks as in the open sea. But in one respect the fishermen were disappointed. They found that the fish arrived slack, flabby, and limp, though well fed and in apparent health.

Perplexity reigned (for the value of the catch was much diminished) until some fisherman of genius conjectured that the cod lived only too contentedly in those tanks, and suffered from the atrophy of calm. The cod is by nature a lethargic, torpid, and plethoric creature, prone to inactivity, content to lie in comfort, swallowing all that comes, with cavernous mouth wide open, big enough to gulp its own body down if that could be. In the tanks the cod rotted at ease, rapidly deteriorating in their flesh. So, as a stimulating corrective, that genius among fishermen inserted one catfish into each of his tanks, and found that his cod came to market firm, brisk, and wholesome. Which result remained a mystery until his death, when the secret was published and a strange demand for catfish arose. For the catfish is the demon of the deep, and keeps things lively.

This irritating but salutary stimulant in the tank (to say nothing of the myriad catfishes in the depths of ocean!) has often reminded me of what the Lord says to Mephistopheles in the Prologue to _Faust_. After observing that, of all the spirits that deny, He finds a knave the least of a bore, the Lord proceeds:

"Des Menschen Thaetigkeit kann allzuleicht erschlaffen,
Er liebt sich bald die unbedingte Ruh;
Drum geb' ich ihm gern den Gesellen zu,
Der reizt und wirkt und muss als Teufel, schaffen."

Is not the parallel remarkable? Man's activity, like the cod's, turns too readily to slumber; he is much too fond of unconditioned ease; and so the Lord gives him a comrade like a catfish, to stimulate, rouse, and drive to creation, as a devil may. There sprawls man, by nature lethargic and torpid as a cod, prone to inactivity, content to lie in comfort swallowing all that comes, with wide-open mouth, big enough to gulp himself down, if that could be. There he sprawls, rotting at ease, and rapidly deteriorating in body and soul, till one little demon of the spiritual deep is inserted into his surroundings, and makes him firm, brisk, and wholesome in a trice--"in half a jiffy," as people used to say.

"Der reizt und wirkt"--the words necessarily recall a much older parable than the catfish--the parable of the little leaven inserted in a piece of dough until it leavens the whole lump by its "working," as cooks and bakers know. Goethe may have been thinking of that. Leaven is a sour, almost poisonous kind of stuff, working as though by magic, moving in a mysterious way, causing the solid and impracticable dough to upheave, to rise, expand, bubble, swell, and spout like a volcano. To all races there has been something devilish, or at least demonic, in the action of leaven. It is true that in the ancient parable the comparison lay between leaven and the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven was like a little leaven that leavens the whole lump, and Goethe says that Mephisto, one of the Princes of Evil, also works like that. But whether we call the leaven a good or evil thing makes little difference. The effect of its mysterious powers of movement and upheaval is in the end salutary. It works upon the lump just as the catfish, that demon of the deep, preserves the lumpish cod from the apathy and degeneration of comfort, and as Mephisto, that demon of the world, acts upon the lethargy of mankind working within him, stimulating, driving to production as a devil may.

"A society needs to have a ferment in it," said Professor Sumner of Yale, in his published essays. Sometimes, he said, the ferment takes the form of an enthusiastic delusion or an adventurous folly; sometimes merely of economic opportunity and hope of luxury; in other ages frequently of war. And, indeed, it was of war that he was writing, though himself a pacific man, and in all respects a thinker of obstinate caution. A society needs to have a ferment in it--a leaven, a catfish, a Mephisto, the queer, unpleasant, disturbing touch of the kingdom of heaven. Take any period of calm and rest in the life of the world or the history of the arts. Take that period which great historians have agreed to praise as the happiest of human ages--the age of the Antonines. How benign and unruffled it was! What bland and leisurely culture could be enjoyed in exquisite villas beside the Mediterranean, or in flourishing municipalities along the Rhone! Many a cultivated and comfortable man must have wished that reasonable peace to last for ever. The civilised world was bathed in the element of calm, the element of gentle acquiescence. All looked so quiet, so imperturbable; and yet all the time the little catfish of Christianity (or the little leaven, if you will) was at its work, irritating, disturbing, stimulating with salutary energy to upheaval, to rebellion, to the soul's activity that saves from bland and reasonable despair. Like a fisherman over-anxious for the peace of the cod in his tank, the philosophic Emperor tried to stamp the catfish down, and hoped to preserve a philosophic quietude by the martyrdom of Christians in those flourishing municipalities on the Rhone. Of course he failed, as even the most humane and philosophic persecutors usually fail, but had he succeeded, would not the soul of Europe have degenerated into a flabbiness, lethargy, and desperate peace?

Take history where you will, when a new driving force enters the world, it is a nuisance, a disturbing upheaval, a troubling agitation, a plaguey fish. Think how the tiresome Reformation disturbed the artists of Italy and Renaissance scholars; or how Cromwell disgusted the half-way moderates, how the Revolution jogged the sentimental theorists of France, how Kant shattered the Supreme Being of the Deists, and Byron set the conventions of art and life tottering aghast. Take it where you will, the approach of the soul's catfish is watched with apprehension and violent dislike, all the more because it saves from torpor. It saves from what Hamlet calls--

"That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat--
Of habits devil."

In the Futurist exhibition held in Sackville Street in 1912, one of the most notable pictures was called "Rebellion." The catalogue told us that it represented "the collision of two forces, that of the revolutionary element made up of enthusiasm and red lyricism against the force of inertia and the reactionary resistance of tradition." The picture showed a crowd of scarlet figures rushing forward in a wedge. Before them went successive wedge-shaped lines, impinging upon dull blue. They represented, we were told, the vibratory waves of the revolutionary element in motion. The force of inertia and the reactionary resistance of tradition were pictured as rows on rows of commonplace streets. The waves of the revolutionary element had knocked them all askew. Though they still stood firmly side by side to all appearance (to keep up appearances, as we say) they were all knocked aslant, "just as a boxer is bent double by receiving a blow in the wind."

We may be sure that inertia in all its monotonous streets does not like such treatment. It likes it no more than the plethoric cod likes the catfish close behind its tail. And it is no consolation either to inertia or cod to say that this disturbing element serves an ultimate good, rendering it alert, firm, and wholesome of flesh. However salutary, the catfish is far from popular among the placid residents of the tank, and it is fortunate that neither in tanks nor streets can the advisability of catfish or change be submitted to the referendum of the inert. In neither case would the necessary steps for advance in health and activity be adopted. To be sure, it is just possible to overdo the number of catfish in one tank. At present in this country, for instance, and, indeed, in the whole world, there seem to be more catfish than cod, and the resulting liveliness is perhaps a little excessive, a little "jumpy." But in the midst of all the violence, turmoil, and upheaval, it is hopeful to remember that of the deepest and most salutary change which Europe has known it was divinely foretold that it would bring not peace but a sword.

[The end]
Henry W. Nevinson's essay: The Catfish