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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Emotion
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

We are a curious nation, we English! Stendhal says that our two most patent vices are bashfulness and cant. That is to say, we are afraid to say what we think, and when we have gained the courage to speak, we say more than we think. We are really an emotional nation at heart, easily moved and liking to be moved; we are largely swayed by feeling, and much stirred by anything that is picturesque. But we are strangely ashamed of anything that seems like sentiment; and so far from being bluff and unaffected about it, we are full of the affectation, the pretence of not being swayed by our emotions. We have developed a curious idea of what men and women ought to be; and one of our pretences is that men should affect not to understand sentiment, and to leave, as we rudely say, "all that sort of thing to the women." Yet we are much at the mercy of clap-trap and mawkish phrases, and we like rhetoric partly because we are too shy to practise it. The result of it is that we believe ourselves to be a frank, outspoken, good-natured race; but we produce an unpleasant effect of stiffness, angularity, discourtesy, and self-centredness upon more genial nations. We defend our bluffness by believing that we hold emotion to be too rare and sacred a quality to be talked about, though I always have a suspicion that if a man says that a subject is too sacred to discuss, he probably also finds it too sacred to think about very much either; yet if one can get a sensible Englishman to talk frankly and unaffectedly about his feelings, it is often surprising to find how delicate they are.

One of our chief faults is our love of property, and the consequence of that is our admiration for what we call "businesslike" qualities. It is really from the struggle between the instinct of possession and the emotional instinct that our bashfulness arises; we are afraid of giving ourselves away, and of being taken advantage of; we value position and status and respectability very high; we like to know who a man is, what he stands for, what his influence amounts to, what he is worth; and all this is very injurious to our simplicity, because we estimate people so much not by their real merits but by their accumulated influence. I do not believe that we shall ever rise to true greatness as a nation until we learn not to take property so seriously. It is true that we prosper in the world at present, we keep order, we make money, we spread a bourgeois sort of civilisation, but it is not a particularly fine or fruitful civilisation, because it deals so exclusively with material things. I do not wish to decry the race, because it has force, toughness, and fine working qualities; but we do not know what to do with our prosperity when we have got it; we can make very little use of leisure; and our idea of success is to have a well-appointed house, expensive amusements, and to distribute a dull and costly hospitality, which ministers more to our own satisfaction than to the pleasure of the recipients.

There really can be few countries where men are so contented to be dull! There is little speculation or animation or intelligence or interest among us, and people who desire such an atmosphere are held to be fanciful, eccentric, and artistic. It was not always so with our race. In Elizabethan times we had all the inventiveness, the love of adventure, the pride of dominance that we have now; but there was then a great interest in things of the mind as well, a lively taste for ideas, a love of beautiful things and thoughts. The Puritan uprising knocked all that on the head, but Puritanism was at least preoccupied with moral ideas, and developed an excitement about sin which was at all events a sign of intellectual ferment. And then we did indeed decline into a comfortable sort of security, into a stale classical tradition, with pompous and sonorous writing on the one hand, and with neatness, literary finish, and wit rather than humour on the other. That was a dull, stolid, dignified time; and it was focussed into a great figure of high genius, filled with the combative common-sense which Englishmen admire, the figure of Dr. Johnson. His influence, his temperament, portrayed in his matchless biography, did indeed dominate literary England to its hurt; because the essence of Johnson was his freshness, and in his hands the great rolling Palladian sentences contrived to bite and penetrate; but his imitators did not see that freshness was the one requisite; and so for a generation the pompous rotund tradition flooded English prose; but for all that, England was saved in literature from mere stateliness by the sudden fierce interest in life and its problems which burst out like a spring in eighteenth-century fiction; and so we come to the Victorian era, when we were partially submerged by prosperity, scientific invention, commerce, colonisation. But the great figures of the century arose and had their say--Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, William Morris; it was there all the time, that spirit of fierce hope and discontent and emotion, that deep longing to penetrate the issues and the significance of life.

It may be that the immense activity of science somewhat damped our interest in beauty; but that is probably a temporary thing. The influence exerted by the early scientists was in the direction of facile promises to solve all mysteries, to analyse everything into elements, to classify, to track out natural laws; and it was believed that the methods and processes of life would be divested of their secrecy and their irresponsibility; but the effect of further investigation is to reveal that life is infinitely more complex than was supposed, and that the end is as dim as ever; though science did for a while make havoc of the stereotyped imaginative systems of faith and belief, so that men supposed that beauty was but an accidental emphasis of law, and that the love of it could be traced to very material preferences.

The artist was for a time dismayed, at being confronted by the chemist who held that he had explained emotion because he had analysed the substance of tears; and for a time the scientific spirit drove the spirit of art into cliques and coteries, so that artists were hidden, like the Lord's prophets, by fifties in caves, and fed upon bread and water.

What mostly I would believe now injures and overshadows art, is that artists are affected by the false standard of prosperous life, are not content to work in poverty and simplicity, but are anxious, as all ambitious natures who love applause must be, to share in the spoils of the Philistines. There are, I know, craftsmen who care nothing at all for these things, but work in silence and even in obscurity at what seems to them engrossing and beautiful; but they are rare; and when there is so much experience and pleasure and comfort abroad, and when security and deference so much depend upon wealth, the artist desires wealth, more for the sake of experience and pleasure than for the sake of accumulation.

But the spirit which one desires to see spring up is the Athenian spirit, which finds its satisfaction in ideas and thoughts and beautiful emotions, in mental exploration and artistic expression; and is so absorbed, so intent upon these things that it can afford to let prosperity flow past like a muddy stream. Unfortunately, however, the English spirit is solitary rather than social, and the artistic spirit is jealous rather than inclusive; and so it comes about that instead of artists and men of ideas consorting together and living a free and simple life, they tend to dwell in lonely fortresses and paradises, costly to create, costly to maintain. The English spirit is against communities. If it were not so, how easy it would be for people to live in groups and circles, with common interests and tastes, to encourage each other to believe in beautiful things, and to practise ardent thoughts and generous dreams. But this cannot be done artificially, and the only people who ever try to do it are artists, who do occasionally congregate in a place, and make no secret to each other of what they are pursuing. I have sometimes touched the fringe of a community like that, and have been charmed by the sense of a more eager happiness, a more unaffected intercourse of spirits than I have found elsewhere. But the world intervenes! domestic ties, pecuniary interests, civic claims disintegrate the group. It is sad to think how possible such intercourse is in youth, and in youth only, as one sees it displayed in that fine and moving book _Trilby_, which does contrive to reflect the joy of the buoyant companionship of art. But the flush dies down, the insouciance departs, and with it the ardent generosity of life. Some day perhaps, when life has become simpler and wealth more equalised, when work is more distributed, when there is less production of unnecessary things, these groups will form themselves, and the frank, eager, vivid spirit of youth will last on into middle-age, and even into age itself. I do not think that this is wholly a dream; but we must first get rid of much of the pompous nonsense about money and position, which now spoils so many lives; and if we could be more genuinely interested in the beauty and complex charm and joy of life, we should think less and less of material things, be content with shelter, warmth, and food, and grudge the time we waste in providing things for which we have no real use, simply in order that, like the rich fool, we may congratulate ourselves on having much goods laid up for many years, when the end was hard at hand!

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Arthur C. Benson's essay: Emotion