Archive for July 30, 2008

Old books: the art of living, 1910 style

July 30, 2008

By Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931)

Considering that we spend our whole lives in this human machine, that it is our sole means of contact and compromise with the rest of the world, we devote to it very little attention. When I say “we” I mean our inmost spirits, the instinctive part. And when I say “the human machine” I mean the brain and the body. The expression of the soul by means of the brain and the body is what we call the art of “living.” We do not learn this art at school. At school we are shown, practically, that our brains are capable of performing certain useful tricks, and that if we do not compel our brains to perform those tricks we shall suffer. Thus one day we run home and proclaim to our delighted parents that eleven twelves are 132. But not a word about the principles of the art of living yet! Only a few detached rules from our parents, to be blindly followed when particular crises supervene. And, indeed, it would be absurd to talk to a schoolboy about the expression of his soul.

School is merely preparation for living; unless one goes to a university, in which case it is preparation for university. One is supposed to turn one’s attention to living when these preliminaries are over – at the age of twenty. Assuredly one lives then. But one has been living all the time, in a fashion; all the time one has been using the machine without understanding it. But does one, school and college being over, enter upon a study of the machine? Not a bit. The question becomes, not how to live, but how to obtain and retain a position in which one will be able to live; how to get minute portions of dead animals and plants which one can swallow, in order not to die of hunger; how to procure the exclusive right of entry into certain huts where one may sleep and eat without being rained upon. And when one has realised this ambition, there comes the desire to be able to double the operation, for oneself and another. Marriage!

But no scientific sustained attention is yet given to the real business of living, of self-expression, of conscious adaptation to environment – in brief, to the study of the machine. At thirty the chances are that a man will understand better the draught of a chimney than his own respiratory apparatus. And as for understanding the working of his own brain – what an idea! As for the skill to avoid friction in the business of living, do we give an hour to it in a month?

A young lady produces a watercolour drawing. “Very nice!” we say, and add, to ourselves, “For an amateur.” But our living is more amateurish than that young lady’s drawing; though surely we ought everyone of us to be professionals at living.

When we have been engaged in the preliminaries to living for about fifty-five years, we begin to think about slacking off. Up until now our reason for not having scientifically studied the art of living – perfecting the machine – is not that we have lacked leisure (we have heaps of leisure), but that we have simply been too absorbed in the preliminaries, have treated the preliminaries to the business as the business itself.

At fifty-five we ought at least to begin to live our lives with professional skill, as a professional painter paints pictures. But it’s too late. Neither painters nor any professionals can be formed at the age of fifty-five. Thus we finish our lives amateurishly, as we began them. And when the machine creaks and sets our teeth on edge, or refuses to obey the steering wheel and deposits us in the ditch, we say: “Can’t be helped,” or, “I must make the best of things.” And we try to believe that in accepting the status quo we have justified the status quo.