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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Being Shocked

Title:     On Being Shocked
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Being shocked is evidently still one of the favourite pastimes of the British people. There has been something of a festival of it since the production of Mr Shaw's new play. Even the open Bible, it appears, is not a greater danger to souls than Androcles and the Lion. Of course, the open Bible has become generally accepted in England now, but one remembers how the Church used to censor it, and one looks back to the first men who protested against its being banned as to bright heroes of adventure. Everybody knows, however, that if the Bible were not already an accepted book--if we could read it with a fresh eye as a book written by real people like ourselves and only just published for the first time--it would leave most of us as profoundly shocked as Canon Hensley Henson, who, though he does not want to limit its circulation, is eager at least to expurgate it for the reading of simple persons. I do not, I may say, quarrel with Canon Henson. Every man has a right to be shocked so long as it is his own shock and not a mere imitation of somebody else's. What one has no patience with is the case of those people who are always shocked in herds. They are intellectually too lazy to be shocked, so to say, off their own bat. So they join a mob of the shocked as they might join a demonstration in the streets or a political party. They are so lacking in initiative that, instead of boldly being shocked themselves, they frequently even are content to be shocked by proxy. In the world of the theatre they hire the Censor to be shocked for them by all the immoral plays that are written. The Censor having been duly shocked, the public feels that it has done all that can be expected of it in that direction and it refuses to turn a hair afterwards no matter what it sees in the theatre. It takes schoolgirls to musical comedies which are as often as not mere tinkling farces of lust. But it does not care. It has handed over its capacity for being shocked to the Censor, and nothing can stir it out of the happy sleep of its faculties any more--nothing, I should add, except a Shaw play. For even the chalk of a dozen censors could not remove the offence of Mr Shaw. He is like an evangelist who would suddenly rise up at a garden party and talk about God. He is as bad form as one of those enthusiastic converts who corner us in railway trains or buttonhole us in the streets to ask us if we are saved. He is a Salvationist who has broken into the playhouse, and, as he unfolds the knockabout comedy of redemption, we are aware that we no longer feel knowing and superior, as we expect the winking laughter of the theatre to make us feel, but ignorant and simple, like a child singing its first hymns. That is the mood, at any rate, of Androcles and the Lion. That is the offence and the stone of stumbling. Mr Shaw has stripped some of our most sacred feelings as bare as babies, and we do not know what to do to express our sense of the indecency.

It is clear, then, that being shocked is simply a way of recovering our balance. It is also a way of recovering our sense of superiority. There is more pleasure in being shocked by the sin of one's neighbour or one's neighbour's wife than in eating cream buns. Not, indeed, that it is always the sins that shock us most. Much as we enjoy the whisper of how a great man beats his wife, or a poet drinks, or some merry Greek has flirted her virtue away, we would shake our heads over them with equal gravity if they had the virtues of Buddhist monks and sisters. It is the virtues that shock us no less than the vices. Perhaps it was because Swinburne gave utterance to the horror a great many quite normal people feel for virtue that, in spite of an intellect of far from splendid quality, he ended his life as something of a prophet. Tolstoi never shocked Europe more than a hair's weight so long as he blundered through the seven sins like nearly any other man of his class. He only scandalised us when he began to try to live in literal obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. When we are in church, no doubt, we say fie to the young man who had great possessions and would not sell all that he had and give to the poor, as Jesus commanded him. But in real life we should be troubled only if the young man took such a command seriously. Obviously, then, the psychology of being shocked cannot be explained in terms of triumphant virtue. We must look for an explanation rather in the widespread instinct which forbids a man to be different either in virtues or in vices from other people. It arises out of a loyalty to ordinary standards, which the average man has made for his comfort--perhaps, we should say, for his self-respect. To deny these standards in one's life is like denying a foot-rule--which would be an outrage on the common-sense of the whole trade union of carpenters. Or one might put it this way. To live publicly like a saint is as disturbing as if you were to ask a tailor to measure your soul instead of your legs. It is to whisk your neighbour into a world of new dimensions--to leave him dangling where he can scarcely breathe. This does not, it may be thought, explain the attitude of the shocked man towards sinners. But, after all, we are very tolerant of sinners until they break some code of our class. John Bright defended adulteration because he was a manufacturer. Grocers object to the forgery of cheques, which is a danger to their business, in a manner in which they do not object to the forgery of jam, which puts money in their purses. We are more shocked by the man who gets drunk furiously once in six months than by the man who tipples all the time, not because the former is more surely destroying himself, but because he is more likely to do something that will inconvenience business or society. We can forgive almost all sins except those that inconvenience us. There are others, it may be argued, that we hate for their own sake. But is not a part of our hatred even of these due to the fact that they inconvenience our minds, having about them something novel or immeasurable? It is in the last analysis that breaches of codes and conventions shock us most. If your uncle danced down Piccadilly dressed like a Chinaman, your sense of propriety would be more outraged than if he appeared in the Divorce Court, since, bad as the latter is, it is less bewilderingly abnormal. Mr Wells, in The Passionate Friends, offers a defence of the conventions by which Society attempts to reduce us all to a common pattern. He sees in them, as it were, angels with flaming swords against the remorseless individualism that flesh is heir to. They are a sort of compulsion to brotherhood. They are signs to us that we must not live merely to ourselves, but that we must in some way identify ourselves with the larger self of human society. It is a tempting paradox, and, in so far as it is true, it is a defence of all the orthodoxies that have ever existed. Every orthodoxy is a little brotherhood of men. At least, it is so until it becomes a little brotherhood of parrots. It only breaks down when some horribly original person discovers the old truth that it is a shocking thing for men to be turned into parrots, and gives up his life to the work of rescuing us from our unnatural cages. Perhaps a brotherhood of parrots is better than no brotherhood at all. But the worst of it is, the conventions do not gather us into one brood even of this kind. They sort us into a thousand different painted and chattering groups, each screaming against the other like, in the vulgar phrase, the Devil. No: brotherhood does not lie that way. Perched vainly in his cage of malice and uncharitableness, man feels more like a boss than a brother. There is nothing so like an average superman as a parrot.

The passion for being shocked, then, must be redeemed from its present cheapness if it is to help us on the way to being fit for the double life of the individual and society. We must learn to be shocked by the normal things--by the conventions themselves rather than by breaches of the conventions. Those who lift their hands in pious horror over conventional Christianity should also lift their hands in pious horror over conventional un-Christianity. The conventions are often merely truths that have got the sleeping-sickness; but by this very fact they are disabled as regards any useful purpose. Every great leader, whether in religion or in the reform of society, comes to us with living truths to take the place of conventions. He gives the lie to our bread-and-butter existence, and teaches us to be shocked by most things to which we are accustomed and many things which we have treasured. Society progresses only in so far as it learns to be shocked, not by other people, but by itself. What did England ever gain except a purr or a glow from being shocked by French morals or German manners? The English taste for being shocked is only worth its weight in old iron when it is directed on some thing such as the procession of the poor and the ill-clad that circulates from morning till night in the streets of English slums. Being shocked is a maker of revolutions and literatures when men are shocked by the right things--or, rather, by the wrong things. Out of a mood of shock came Blake's fiery rout of proverbs in that poem which begins:

A Robin Redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

It is, unfortunately, not the Robin Redbreast in a cage that shocks us most now. It is rather the Robin Redbreast which revolts against being expected to sit behind bars and sing like a mechanical toy. Our resurrection as men and women will begin when we learn to be shocked by our mechanical servitudes, as Ruskin and Morris used to be in their fantastic way, instead of being shocked, as we are at present--the conventionally good, the conventionally bad, and the conventionally artistic who are too pallid to be either--by what are really only our immortal souls. At our present stage of evolution, Heaven would shock us far more than earth has succeeded in doing. That is at once our condemnation and our comedy.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On Being Shocked