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An essay by Israel Zangwill

The Indestructibles

Title:     The Indestructibles
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

I wonder if you have ever been struck by the catholicity--not to say the self-contradictoriness--of the constant correspondent. The creature will enter with zest into any discussion; there is no topic too small for it, and certainly none too great. The following letters, carefully culled from the annual contributions of a lady whose epistolary career I have followed with interest, will indicate the delicious inconsequence that has made them for me such grateful reading:


SIR,--There is nothing in life worth purchasing by pulsations and respirations. The world is a dank, malarious marsh, with fitful Will-o'-the-Wisp flashes of false radiance--a vast cemetery waiting for our corpses. There is no such thing as happiness.

Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shrieks against

the idea. Youth is an illusion, maturity a regret, and old age an apprehension. Fortunately Providence has sent us a panacea--Universal Suicide.

I am, Sir,
Yours obediently,


SIR,--Surely "A Mad Englishman" and "Dorothy X.," who maintain so glibly that country life is more enjoyable than town life, fail to realise how much of our pleasure depends on human intercourse. It is given only to poets to talk with trees. Nor can ordinary mortals find

Sermons in stones,
Books in the running brooks.

We need the cathedrals and the libraries that are to be found only in the great centres of national life--yes, and also the art galleries and the theatres. Of course, if people will martyr themselves to keep up appearances, and want to live in a fashionable neighbourhood, they will not find town life either cheap or pleasant. But if they are content to live outside the aristocratic radius, they can find many a comfortable villa, with baths (hot and cold), and back gardens which may easily be converted into rustic retreats (I would especially recommend rhododendrons). If you are also not above omnibuses (taking a cab only when it rains, and selecting a driver who does not look as if he would swear), and are satisfied to go to the pit, then I feel sure London is not only as cheap as the obscurest village, but gives you a far greater return for your money. Newly-married couples in especial often make a great mistake in settling in the country for the sake of economy. It is only in the town that they can really lead a tranquil, happy life, enriched with all the resources of culture and civilisation.

I am, Sir,
Yours obediently,


SIR,--The failure of marriage is too apparent to be glossed over any longer. "A.Y.Z." and "A Woman of No Importance" deserve the thanks of every honest heart for their brave outspokenness. Too long has this mediaeval monstrosity cramped our lives. The beautiful word "Home" conceals a doll's house or whitewashes a sepulchre. Marriage is misery in two syllables. How can people be happy chained together like galley-slaves? It contradicts all we know of human nature.

Love, free as air, at sight of human ties
Spreads his light wings and in a moment flies.

Away with this effete Pharisaism! Let us realise the infinite possibilities of happiness latent in the blessing of existence. The world is longing for freedom to love truly, nobly, wisely, many.

I am, Sir,
Yours obediently,


SIR,--I can testify by personal experience to the fact that the manners of our children are deteriorating. Coming up to the Metropolis for a day's excursion last Bank Holiday, I could not walk anywhere without overhearing ribald remarks--and, what was worse, at my own expense--even from respectably dressed children. Let those look to it who

Teach the young idea how to shoot.

I thank Heaven my lot has always been cast in a sweet Devonshire village, where the contagion of ill-conduct has not yet spread among the juvenile population.

I am, Sir,
Yours obediently,


SIR,--Have your flippant correspondents, "Polygamist" and "Illegal Brother-in-Law," any conception of the thousands (ay, tens of thousands) of hearts that are, languishing in misery because they cannot marry their deceased sisters' husbands? And all because of a text which is not to be found in the Bible! Fie upon you, ye so-called Bishops,
Dressed in a little brief authority.

Abolish this unrighteous law, I say, and let floods of sunshine and happiness into a million darkened homes.

I am, Sir,
Yours obediently,

But, after all, is it fair to juxtaposit Agatha's letters? What if one were to collect the leaders of any newspaper on any given subject, before or after any event? I have met Agatha P. Robins in many other places at many other times. Sometimes she is interested in the best substitute for shirt-buttons or for Christianity, sometimes in the problem of living on a thousand a year, sometimes in the abolition of stag-hunting.


A gooseberry that groweth green and great,
A serpent round the sea serenely curled,
A lonely soul that fails to find a mate,
A boy redundant in a teeming world,

A sister yearning for dead sisters' shoes,
A life that longs for death, or after-life,
A ghost, a mistress whom her maids abuse,
An erring judge, a French or German wife,

A child's long ear or holiday, a slum,
A man gone bald, or drunk, a coin's design--
Should things like these across your paper come,
Conclude the Silly Season will be fine.

It is difficult to trace exactly when "The Season" ends and "The Silly Season" begins. It needs the finest discrimination to know when the adjective comes in--without a worldly training, indeed, you cannot tell the one from the other. But the past masters of the social art proclaim that "The Season" is dead, and we bow our heads in reverence. Yes, it is vanished, that focus of futilities, that wonderful Season, that phantasmagoria of absurdities, of abortive ambitions, over which a hundred humourists have made merry: it is dead, with its splendours and jubilations and processions--dead as the ropes of roses in St. James's street. Often have I debated the potency of satire, again and again have I suggested to learned friends a scientific and historical investigation of the popular belief that satire moves mountains or even molehills. But they agree only in shrinking from the task. To take only the last half-century: we have had one supreme satirist who harped eternally on the failings of fashion and the vanity of things. In his novels society saw itself reflected in all its attitudes and postures and posings. Not one meanness or folly escaped. What Professor Huxley has done for the crayfish, that Thackeray did for the Snob. He studied him lovingly, he dissected him, he classified every variety of him. A thousand disciples, less gifted but equally remorseless, followed in the Master's footsteps. "Punch" took up the tale, and week by week repeated the joke. It was heard in drawing-room recitations to the accompaniment of pianos; it even went on the stage. Ladies rushed into print to expose foibles men never guessed, and to say of the sex at large what less gifted women say only of their personal friends. For years we have never ceased for a moment to hear the lash of the whip, the swish of the birch, the whizz of the arrow, the ping of the bullet, the thwack of the flail, the thud of the hammer, the buzzing of the hornet. And what does it all amount to? How much execution has been done? Is society purer or nobler? Have less daughters been sold at Vanity Fair, or more invitations been sent to poor relatives? Has Jones got better manners or champagne? Is Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkins more distant to duchesses? Did my Lady Clara Vere de Vere consider whether Hood's seamstress was at work on her court gown? Is any one wiser or kinder or honester for all the literary pother? Are the diplomatic corps less maculate than in the days of Grenville Murray? Have we not, on the contrary, cast on our own imperfections the complaisance of an eye educated in the superior imperfections of our neighbours?

Lo, here is a new satirist arisen, Sarah Jeannette Duncan, who, in "The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib," sketches Anglo-Indian society in a manner that would not discredit Thackeray--and with something, too, of Thackeray's haunting sense of the pathos of the dead Past and the flying Present. But will the memsahib of to-morrow take warning by the fate of Helen Peachey, who went out to India in all her bridal bravery, in all her youth and freshness? Will she escape exchanging the placidity of Fra Angelico's piping cherubim for the petulance and ring-shadowed eyes of the seasoned matron? Will she be on her guard against shrinking to the prejudices and flirtations of a coterie, dying to all finer and higher issues? Will she worship virtue more and viceroys less? Alas, I fear me not--no more than Pagett, M. P., will leave off talking solar myths, or foolish things cease to be done under the deodars. Will Hogarth keep wine-bibbers from the bottle, or can you make men sober by acts of "L'Assommoir"? Will "Madame Bovary" stay a sister's fall, or "Sapho" repel an eligible young man? Will "The Dunciad" keep one dunce from scribbling, or "Le Tartufe" elevate a single ecclesiastic? As well expect "long firms" to run short, and the moths to avoid the footlights, and the fool to cease from the land. "How gay they were, and how luxurious, and how important in their little day! How gorgeous were the attendants of their circumstances, on the box with a crest upon their turbans!--there is a firm in Calcutta that supplies beautiful crests. And now, let me think! some of them in the Circular Road Cemetery--cholera, fever, heat-apoplexy; some of them under the Christian daisies of England--probably abscess of the liver." Yes, madam, we know it all, we recognize the Thackeray touch. "And soon, very soon, our brief day, too, will have died in a red sunset behind clustering palms, and all its little doings and graspings and pushings, all its petty scandals and surmises and sensations, will echo further and further back into the night." True, most true, and pity 't is 't is true. But meantime we will go on with our little doings and graspings and pushings--yes, madam, even you and I who have realised the vanity of all things; for the knowledge thereof--this, too, is vanity. "And it was all a striving and a striving, and an ending in nothing, and no one knew what they had lived and worked for." Yea, so it is, Frau Schreiner. And still we are living on--and oh! how hard we work (on African farms or otherwhere) to express artistically our sense of the futility of life!


A rich voluptuous languor of dim pain,
A dreamy sense of passionate regret,
Delicious tears and some sweet, sad refrain,
Some throbbing, vague, and tender canzonet,
That mourns for life so real and so vain,
Wherein we glory while our eyes are wet.

I am afraid, if I pursue this investigation, I shall end by believing that satire is simply an aesthetic satisfaction--the last luxury of the sinful. Ridicule, we are always told, is a tremendous destructive--an atmosphere in which nothing can live. But is it? Christianity, Kings, and War are little the worse for the jets of mockery that have been playing on them for two centuries. In Swift's day the wits at the coffee-houses regarded religion as a farce that even the Augurs could not keep up any longer without public winking; yet Diderot and the Encyclopaedia are dead, and the bishops we have always with us! It was thought War could not survive Voltaire's remark that a monarch picks up a parcel of men who have nothing to do, dresses them in blue cloth at two shillings a yard, and marches away with them to glory--but here is our Henley singing a song of the sword, while all our novelists are looking to their weapons. Despite Heine's sarcasm, the collection of English kings is as incomplete as ever. A passing fad can, perhaps, be made to pass along a little faster, but it only makes room for another. True, "Punch" killed the craze for sunflowers and long necks; but then "Punch" invented it. It was merely made to be destroyed brilliantly, like a Chinese cracker or a Roman candle. Folly is older than "Punch's" jokes, and will survive them. Snobbery and self-seeking, pettiness and stupidity, envy, hate, and all uncharitableness, were no secret to the mummies in the British Museum. "Unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again." Are there not a hundred sayings in Ecclesiastes and Menander, in Horace and Moliere, as apt to-day as though fresh from the typewriter? One of the learned friends to whom I proposed the thesis contended that Perseus and Juvenal at least are out of date. But this was merely my learned friend's ignorance. Is it not the truest piety to conclude that those things which the ridicule of the ages cannot kill deserve their immortality--that Kings, War, and Christianity play a part in the scheme of creation, and that even snobbery and jobbery, folly and fraud, rouge and respectability, and horse-racing, bounders and politicians, the prize-ring and the marriage market, are all necessary to the fun of Vanity Fair! They are thrown up by the flux of things for Honesty to set his heel on. So houp-la! On with the dance! louder, ye fiddlers! faster, O merry-go-round! Nay, not so glum, ye moralists and satirists, philanthropists and preachers; link hands all--_ducdame, ducdame!_--and thank the gods for keeping you in occupation. What should we do without our fools? The question seems pat for a Silly Season correspondence. Come, gather, fools all. Ye could not be better employed than in answering it. For, mark, brother-satirists mine, you cannot kill the Silly Season correspondence.

And you cannot kill Ghosts. Perhaps because they do not exist. No other dead thing is so tenacious of life as your ghost. If ridicule were really fatal, we should have given up the ghost long since. Consider the fires of burlesque through which he has passed unscathed. What indignity has been spared him? Now at last he is to encounter the supreme test--he is to be taken seriously. The Psychical Society has the matter in hand--or should one say, the spirit? And Mr. Stead, who believes in himself in a way that is refreshing in these atheistic times, proposes either to rehabilitate the ghost or to lay him for ever. But this latter is beyond the might of man or society.

And you cannot kill Grouse. At least I can't. I sometimes suspect there are others of the population equally incompetent, and perhaps still less interested in battues; though the Twelfth figures in everybody's calendar like a Church festival, and the newspapers devote leaders to it, and the comic papers have pictures, and sometimes even jokes about it, and you would think the whole population of these islands struck work and went a-shooting with gillies and dogs and appropriate costume. But that is the craftiness of the editors, from Mr. Buckle and Mr. Yates down to the editor of the _Halfpenny Democrat_--they make the humblest of us feel we are in the best sets, so we all come up to town for the season, and are seen at three parties a night, and we ride in the Park, and we go to Henley and Goodwood to a man; and we yacht at Cowes, and pot grouse in Scotland--still with the same wonderful unanimity; and we hunt with the hounds, and run with the salmon, and keep our Christmas in country houses, and come up smiling for the New Year, ready to recommence the same old Sisyphean round. I suppose the people who really do these things could be exhibited in the National Gallery, but the space their doings fill is incalculable.

And you cannot kill Adelphi Melodrama. But I have a piece of advice to offer to the Italian gentlemen who have done so much for our stage. It is, that they run their theatre on a principal of duality befitting their joint management. Let it be the home of Melodrama and Burlesque, the same play serving for both _genres_. Let, say, Mr. Sims--who is so clever in either species--write the pieces--each melodrama being its own burlesque. An extra dash of colour here, an ambiguous line there, with a serious meaning in the melodrama and a droll in the burlesque, will secure the brothers two audiences, and after eight o'clock I guarantee standing room only. The simple will come to weep and thrill, the cynics to laugh and chuckle. And everybody will be happy.

In sooth, is not the world divided into those who take the great cosmic drama seriously, and those who treat it as farce? On the one hand the workers and the fighters, on the other the journalists, politicians, and men about town. Yet have the workers and the fighters the nobler part. A genuine emotion, an earnest conviction, vitalises life. The day-dreams of hungry youth are better than the dinners of prosaic maturity, and a simple maiden in her flower is worth a hundred epigrams. I had rather be an Adelphi god than a smoking-room satyr.

Who shall blame the melodramatist? He writes for those to whom literature makes no appeal. Literature is a freemasonry of the highest minds, and that poetry is Greek to the masses I should scarcely have thought a "Question at Issue" demanding substantiation from Mr. George Gissing. Mr. Gosse must know that the eclipse which darkened England at the passing of Alfred Tennyson was invented by the newspapers and the poets who outraced one another to weep upon his tomb. Look upon Mr. Booth's map of East London, with its coloured lines showing the swarms of human beings who live ignobly and die obscurely, and realise for yourself of what import the cult of beautiful form is to these human ant-heaps. Walk down the populous Whitechapel Road of a Saturday night, or traverse the long slimy alleys of Rotherhithe among the timber wharves, and discover how many of your countrymen and contemporaries are living neither in your country nor in your century. To Mr. Henry James, the dull undertone of pain and sorrow is part of the music of London--such harmony is in aesthetic souls. But the dull and the gross, who only suffer and endure, the muddy vesture of decay closes them in and they cannot hear it.

What shall literature do for these? In a great smoky Midland town, on dreary pavements, under sloppy skies, I saw a girl who was a greater argument for melodrama than all the cheques of all the managers. She was going to her work in the raw dawn, her lunch in a package under her arm; the back was bent and the face was pale and pinched, but there was a slumbering fire of romance in the deep-fringed eyes, and suggestions of poetry lurked in the shadows of her hair; and at once my breast was full of stirrings to write for her--only for her--a book full of beauty and happiness and sunshine, and, oh! such false views of life, such inaccurate pictures of the pleasures of a society she would never know. The hero should be handsome and brave and good, with a curling moustache; and the heroine should be beautiful and true, with an extensive wardrobe; and the clouds would come only to roll by, and the story should die away in an odour of orange-blossom, and in a music of marriage-bells. And there should be lots of money for everybody, and any amount of laughter and gaiety, and I would give dances twice a volume, and see that all the girls had partners, delightful waltzers with good conversation. And there would be garden-parties (weather permitting invariably), and picnics without green spiders, and sails without sea-sickness. And as for truth and realism--fie on them! We can create a much nicer world than nature's. Why be plagiarists, when we can make universes of our own?

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Indestructibles