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1: The Bishop's Fool (part 4)


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« on: January 21, 2023, 07:22:17 am »

In this talk we were having it was my idea to say just enough to oblige him to forsake some of his romantic conventions and to adopt a more realistic attitude: or come out and defend his obscurantist absolute. "I have been speaking," I went on, "of socialism by consent. It is an odd phenomenon to occur in a country like England. But the English voted themselves into 'Labour' (which promptly transformed itself into 'socialism', of the toughest, the 'total', type). They would have voted themselves into anything that promised speedy demobilization. Six years of Churchillean Tory heroics had been too much. They knew Labour would turn them back into civilians much quicker than Churchill would. That was Aneurin Bevan's explanation of the Labour landslide. It was, I think, the right one, in the main."

"You think that is all—an over-long war?" Rymer breathed a little crossly and sleepily.

"Something the long war precipitated. The background was a hundred years of Liberalism. A hundred years rushed down in the 1945 landslide. The history of the nineteenth century in Great Britain recalls the thousand small steps of a Mayan pyramid, each step a liberation for some depressed class. So Britain mounted to the present pinnacle, a real live working-class Government, with teeth in it like an alligator. From Chartism to the Steel Bill is a long purposeful moral ascent. It is the moral foundation, deriving directly from the teaching of the Gospels, of this monumental progress culminating, in 1945, in the mass acceptance of ethical politics—it is this which is to be my theme."

"You will be preaching to the converted," Rymer threw in.

"The nature of the dynamism is obvious. That the working class played a part is a political fairy tale of course."

"Oh!"

"The British working class is the reverse of socially ambitious. Always it has been the despair of the agitator, a mass as difficult to ignite as a rain-soaked mackintosh. It has been content to be an animal, fond of beer and of football, not envious of the well-to-do because it could only be envious in terms of beer and football, and Château-Yquem and golf fails to stir its pulse. It has been terribly easy to exploit and to 'keep in its place'. It is unnecessary to add that ethics is not its strong point. The moral ascent in question was a middle-class phenomenon. The progressive levitation of the mass of manual workers is one of the miracles of Christ. It is on a spectacular scale the Raising of Lazarus."

Rymer was tying up his shoe. "Rot" was all he said.

"The mere mass, the numbers, of the working class could have produced no such result. To argue that it could is like saying that a mountain must merely, because it is so large, submerge a village at its foot. And so it might if someone placed so tremendous an atomic charge within it as to blow it up."

"The working class is not inanimate," Rymer growled.

"You must have something more than mass, than numbers. The way workers have extricated themselves from underneath the middle-class is often likened to the manner in which the latter supplanted the aristocracy. There is in fact no analogy whatever. The vast colonial expansion of Great Britain and temporary industrial monopoly enriched and expanded so much the class of bankers, merchants, industrialists, that that class wrested the leadership from the landed society. What was responsible for this revolution was something with an action equivalent to atomic fission, namely money."

"The aristocracy were only business men. Money was nothing to do with it," Rymer heckled automatically.

"Now strangely enough the rise to power of the working class was only made possible by money too: not its own money, for it has none, nor for its thirst for power, for it was not interested in power. It was a purely middle-class money which has caused the artificial elevation of the working class at the expense of the middle class."

"How on earth do you make that out!" Rymer expostulated, lazily.

"You see, even all the agitators, from the creator of Marxian socialism onwards, belong to the middle class. Lenin, for instance. Our Fabians, the Webbs, Shaw, or Cripps, have been typically of the middle class. H. G. Wells, who came from the working class, protested at the revolutionary zeal of his 'betters'."

"Where does the money come in?"

"Have you ever thought of the immense sum involved, in this century alone, on socialist propaganda? Money has always been forthcoming—millions and millions of it—to advertise the beauties of the Left Wing. It all came out of bourgeois bank accounts, where it was not straight political subsidy."

"Why should the middle class or any section of it spend so much money in order to have the middle class supplanted by the working class. Was it economic suicide?" Rymer was wearily withering.

"Various explanations of this curious fact have been advanced. There may, of course, be several secondary interests involved. I am concerned exclusively with the major and essential impulse."

"Good! Gooood!" sang Rymer with bantering patronage.

"The complete emergence of the working class from underneath the possessing class (which it abolishes—or which is abolished for it) is perhaps meaningless. Fifty, or a hundred million people cannot rule. What would they rule? They can only be told that they are ruling, which is another matter; and meanwhile of course they go on labouring just the same as before. The people who tell them they are ruling, those people are in fact the rulers. As we see in Russia, the majority must always toil. It is an age in which paper takes the place of bullion, and the verbal of the physical."

"It is a different thing working for yourself and being exploited by some boss," Rymer interjected. "That is solid enough."

"There is always a boss. They have a different line of talk, that is all. And the abolition of the middle class is a disservice to the working class, it seems to me. The classless society has been proved a myth. If class we must have, then a trinity of classes is preferable to two classes. The natural class-arrangement is to have a middle class, involving the perpetual individual emergence and ascent of manual workers, passing into the middle sphere, the reverse constantly occurring too, duds dropping out of the middle class into the working class. This individual emergence should be facilitated. Complete 'emancipation' would signify everybody being relieved of the necessity to work, when they could divide their time between the football-field, the dog-track, and the cinema: which is absurd. In the last analysis, for one man to be slaving down in a coal-mine, and another man to be passing his time between august Downing Street and luxurious Checquers, is unjust: which is emotionally true but otherwise absurd.

The present theoretic eminence of the working class is a piece of illusionism. It is pure Maskelyne and Devant. The situation today speaks for itself. Workers' wages, after spectacular rises, are frozen in order to enable the devalued pound to push up the cost of living, so that the workers will be economically where they started, before the honeymoon. In the end all they will have gained is millions of free dental plates and pairs of spectacles. Even these retrospectively they will be made to pay for."

Rymer cleared his throat, and the new National Health Service dental plate stirred indignantly about. "The working class is no better off than it ever was then?" said he with mild derision.

"I did not say that. The Socialists have not improved upon the Liberal achievement, that is the point."

"Give them time. And besides the advance has in fact been enormous. Ask them!"

"A bogus inflationary advance, and a supply of ideologic stimulants. But the idea of a Glorious Working Class World has to be paid for and it costs billions of pounds. The actual workman has to pay for the advertisement of his imaginary self."

"The view of most people of course," said Rymer, "is that the working man is over-privileged, is spoilt."

"Everybody, not only the manual worker, is taken in by the advertising, that is all. His prestige but not his pocket has benefited. It is the same as with Culture and the Arts. So much money is spent in advertising how artistic and cultivated we are that there is no money left for artists or for real culture. All the money goes in the salaries of officials, public relations men, promoters, and in official publications, large buildings, educational activities, entertainment, and so on. There are now millions of political administrative parasites on the back of the working class, and their numbers multiply hourly. Every working man has a petit bourgeois appointee on his back."

"How about the parasites that were there before?" came from Rymer in a sardonic shout.

"The Liberal dream of 'the just' and the 'fair' and the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, people will live to regret in the rigours of the 'total' society."

"I thought utilitarian thinking had been sufficiently discredited," Rymer broke in again. "Men are great idealists. That is what you forget. The negative satisfactions of 'peace and plenty' do not appeal to them."

"Etcetera!" I answered him a little sharply. "Every power-thirsty Führer endorses those arguments and is clamorously in favour of 'heroism', 'living dangerously', plain living (a little 'mousetrap' cheese and a glass of watery bitter beer). That shows a splendid spirit, they think. That people should be prepared to endure hardships makes them ever so enthusiastic—those who aspire to be their tyrants."

Rymer began tearing up a piece of paper into smaller and smaller fragments.

"Then think—war after war: what could be more utterly unutilitarian than that—and the consequent debt that is heaped upon the unprotesting nations—more crushing debts at each fresh massacre. No greatest happiness of the greatest number there! England is finished, tomorrow America will be finished, riddled with war debts, rotted with inflation. All this accepted without a murmur! What heroes we are! What idealists! The wars of our time are the means by which men are being pushed towards total servitude."

"Or towards a free world."

"Certainly not that. Such freedom as man may enjoy is perhaps all in the past."

"Freedom to exploit!" heckled Rymer.

"In any event, historians—unless such irresponsible snoopers into the past have to shut up shop—will marvel at the twelve decades in which the 'liberal' ferment was at work in English life. From such early steps up as the Cotton Factory Regulation Act they will see it at work, through thousands of measures of Christian legislation, up to such a climax as Lloyd George's National Insurance Act. The present socialist government is, then, the most spectacular achievement of a truly idealizing cult—and it will be its last. The moralist politics of Protestant Christianity was violently anti-authoritarian, in contrast with the Catholic philosophy. This is its last Protest, as it were."

"Why its last?" asked Rymer dully.

"Because it has given birth, now, to its opposite: to something tough and authoritarian. It must mean it is exhausted. Or perhaps, after all, it has achieved its end. Jesus said, you may recall, 'The first shall be last, and the last shall be first'."

"I remember that."

"Nietzsche who described Christianity as a 'slave religion'...."

"That I remember too!"

"... could have opened his argument by quoting those words. Today the first are becoming the last and the last are loudly advertised as being the First. Liberalism has done its work? What do you say?"

"What are your politics?" he enquired.

"Liberal, really," I laughed. "Liberal, yes."

"Oh. I never would have thought of you as a liberal."

"No? I experience some anxiety as to whither my idealism may lead us. It is my conscience. My liberal conscience."

He sighed. "That conscience again! How long have you suffered from conscience? However, it does not obtrude in every day life; in fact, no one would know you had one."

"You are less fortunate," I told him. "It's absence is all too apparent with you."

A cat at this point appeared from somewhere and rubbed itself against my leg. It was a thin cat, I could feel its ribs as it pressed its body against my trousers.

"Fond of cats?" I asked.

Rymer shook his head.

"Not very. Pussy is anti-social."

I am not fond of cats, either, but I scratched its bony, independent head.

"Having," I said, "put my hand to the plough, I will just finish the furrow. The evidence is abundant and conclusive. That the sentimental conditioning of the English public by constant injections of a Christian ethical-political preparation is responsible for all we see. Without having soaked themselves (or been soaked, which shall we say?) as no other nation has, in burning sympathy for the oppressed, no surrender of India or Egypt—no sentimental enthusiasm for the 'great Russian experiment' (we should have noticed long ago it was an ugly despotism)—no conservative Opposition so full of trimmers as to make it appear merely a socialist right-wing. No mythical British 'kindliness', therefore, but Reformation Christianity in its Victorian and Edwardian swan-song laid the foundations of the Welfare State.

"The tough institutionalism of Rome has naturally seen to it that the Latin countries are provided with a class that has some resistance to set a limit to professional indiscipline or red excesses. In France or in Italy communism is more open, not 'crypto' as with the English. The declared communist is easy to check. It is instructive to speculate what a purely Catholic Europe would be like at this time. In all likelihood a practical and orderly society would be there, instead of a feverish ideological patchwork, the rabid indiscipline of parties. With the fearful deterrents to revolt, or even to criticism, at the disposal of a twentieth century ruler, where there was any real authority the agitator would not exist. In Russia today he would be instantly liquidated, as we know in any non-Christian society that is what would happen."

"You believe in bumping off everyone who disagrees with you?" was my listener's comment: comments usually made in the form of a question, but hardly anticipating an answer, though on this occasion receiving one.

"No. I am in fact conducting a polemic, among other things, against absolutist methods."

"Stupid of me. Sorry."

"In my last remarks, for I have been indecently long and must finish, there is the evidence I must not omit, of how the rich have taken their squeezing to death by the State."

"They had no choice. They had no option."

"The average coarse illiterate tycoon, banker, or manufacturer one might expect to defend his property with savage desperation. But he does not do that, in these islands at least. He hands it over like an apologetic sheep, who has taken more than his share and knows it."

"Not in this country!"

"No, they are as if spellbound, 'like somnambulic cattle'. This is the result of the long conditioning. It is, otherwise, undeniably our nature as men to put up a fight to protect our property. I should myself defend, with gun if necessary, my typewriter, let us say, against a nocturnal intruder. I have no right to such a possession, except for that nine-tenths of the law possession takes with it. I just have it, have worked for it, and should defend it. If a man entered my flat, laid his hand upon my typewriter crying, 'Property is a theft,' I should answer, 'Get out, you thief!' If he did not leave, I should take steps (however violent) to prevent my typewriter from being removed and passing into his hands."

"Oh, wouldn't you let him have it? I should." Rymer pretended to look astonished at my possessiveness.

"But you haven't got anything!" I indignantly pointed out. "It's easy for you to talk. You haven't got a typewriter. I am speaking of normal property-owning people, who perhaps have a nice overcoat they do not want to lose: and of course the normal possessing class in a free enterprise society, with whom it would be, only greatly magnified, the case of my typewriter."

"Yes, I see the sort of people you are talking about—whose mobile police would machine-gun strikers and jail their leaders."

"That, more or less, is the normal behaviour. Our life is animal. What I mean is that we have the most house-trained set of magnates here on record."

"They had no choice," said Rymer dully.

"The Russian communists, to return to that, deal with dissent as a Bengal tiger would. This—once more—is because they have rooted Christianity out of their system. They are 'sincere': they are an idealogic tiger. They are dangerous, unless you feel like joining them."

"But what are you driving at?" There was a new note. Rymer, my Chorus, was showing signs of returning to personal life, and ceasing to be a mere heckler. "I see what you want to prove. But what then? Supposing I say, 'Very well. Socialism is a product of Christianity.' What happens next? Why should you wish to convince me of that?"

"I can clear that up for you at once," I told him. "The way things have gone has involved for us a terrible dilemma—for us ex-Christian liberals. The Third War approaches. That deepens the dilemma; since it will be a war between a liberal principle, and an anti-liberal principle."

"What war is this? What war are you talking about?"

"Soviet Russia has never been socialist according to Western ideas (and Western connotes Liberal). In the same way the communists misuse the term democracy, as we understand it. But the twentieth century Left Wingers repudiated the Western norm: totalitarian socialism they regarded as just an up-to-date model—extreme perhaps but authentic. The Left Wing, of course, shades off into Liberalism where Mr. Attlee stands. And much muddy thinking develops: terms originating in the West, implicit in them the backgrounds of the Western mind with its roots in Aristotle or in Plato, come to be used to describe their opposite. Terms like Democracy and Liberty are stood on their head, or turned inside out. Verhovenski, and William Morris or Mr. Herbert Morrison, are supposed to stand for the same thing. Meanwhile the old men at present in control in England are good if confused men. All are hospital cases, however. Bevin's doctor accompanied him everywhere: Bevin has dropped out. Cripps, the strongest of the Christian-socialist leaders, has dropped out too, though still alive. Attlee was in hospital for some time and it was believed he would have to lay down the premiership. Morrison was many months in hospital, his complaint phlebitis. None of them can survive the wear and tear of office for more than a few years. Who will it be then? How long will our rulers go to Church? How long will they understand, like Mr. Attlee, that socialism was born out of Christianity? The natural twentieth century drift must be towards the eventual repudiation of Christianity, or its sentimental political puritan hang-over. We see that occurring everywhere, do we not? In a word, the danger is that in its hour of triumph socialism will forget, ignore, or violently discard, the ethics by means of which it was able to gain acceptance and to mount to power: indeed that it may strip away all our civilized Christian freedoms and thrust us back into a system of villeinage and worse. Socialism without ethics is a terrible thing."

Stopping as if it were a book I had finished reading and was now closing with a snap, I looked over at Rymer. I saw that he was deeply upset. It might take him a half-hour to recover. I have explained how his is the religious approach: what he enjoys teaching he wishes to see treated as a sacred text. A hint that this fabric of salvation could have a fatal flaw was highly distasteful to him: the view that the very basis of socialism in Christian ethics might be its weak spot must have distressed him deeply. For when Christianity vanished, all socialism's angelic credentials, as being so obviously unselfish that the power of Ghenghis Khan might be entrusted to it with absolute safety, would vanish too.

That all such credentials would become worthless, was an odious suggestion to a man who would not even allow his wife to discuss the No-Food Minister's Monkey Nut Scheme. So poor Rymer was miserable, had been sealing himself up with sealing-wax for fear he might burst, and I should have to break the wax.

But I thought I would round off my discourse; so bending a stern eye upon him, I said:

"As a priest yours is a great responsibility."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. To advocate socialism, as you do, is perhaps natural for a Protestant clergyman. It is good Christianity. But surely it is your duty to be critical and if necessary to denounce tendencies on the part of political extremists, to transform a basically Western theory into its illiberal opposite, substituting a violent caricature of the Hegelian State for the City of God."

"Well, no one can say," said Rymer, with his brashest smile, "if I neglect to do my duty, that I did not know what it was."

Unexpectedly the tension relaxed. He shook himself and smiled sweetly. "Very interesting," he told me in a most affable way, "although supposing you decided that socialism is too dangerous to go on with I do not see what you would do about it."

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

"That was not the point. I neither wish, nor should I be able, of course, to take any action. We were talking about you—about official Christianity. Your natural enthusiasm for the triumph of the Christian ethic in the triumph of socialism should be tempered by the thought that the political expression of the Christian ethic is administered by ambitious men who might betray it. The Church, a rejuvenated Church, should be on the bandwaggon and seek to function as the conscience of the politician. It is surely the Church's privilege to do this: it is after all its ethic that has been used."

"The Church consists largely of ambitious men also," Rymer pointed out sedately.

"You must get a new Church for the new socialist society," was my answer to that.

"Are you a socialist, would you say?" he asked, sitting up.

This was the counter-attack.

"I belong to no party, seeing that, if you do, the only truth you are allowed is a partisan truth. Your judgement then must function only pragmatically. I prefer to concern myself with a non-pragmatical truth. A literature at the service of propaganda ceases to be an art: it becomes an agent of intoxication and of deception."

"Not a socialist," he summed up laconically. "He says he's not a socialist," as it were to himself.

"That's not quite true, either," I objected. "You have assured me, Rymer, that it is not necessary for your parishioners to come to church on Sunday. They can be equally good Christians by stopping at home: is that correct?"

"Yes," he answered with a shade of defiance.

"Well, as a good non-church-going Christian man I cannot help being, to some degree, a socialist. Socialism is lay-Christianity. I am what a good socialist ought to be."

Getting up, I went over and looked out at the waving jungle. "My conscience compels me—unofficially and not as a party-man—to approve of the idea of socialism, which I understand as an attempt to realize the brotherhood of man."

The savage vegetation waved hysterically as a gust from the sky blew on it. "'Socialism' is a term that covers very different state-forms. Some are like primitive communism, some like highly-organized capitalism. 'If there were dreams to sell, which would you buy'?"

I returned from the window. Rymer is physically a slothful man. He was still huddled in his chair.

"Please show me," I said, "those new poems of yours. Those epigrams and things you spoke about in your letter. Let us forget the Sermon on the Mount and turn to the Song of Solomon."

"Would you really like to see them?"

He had them wedged in a book at his side. So we passed over into the other compartment of his mind. I took one after the other verses of half a dozen lines perhaps, each emptied of anything possessing weight. Most feelings had to be excluded, ideas were his enemies.

His lines drifted across the mind like a shadow of a bird. Some were deliberately concrete: say a feather out of a white cloud. But it was visibly dissolving as you held the paper. What he set out to fashion were words that melted as the eye rested on them. His heaviest words had come to rest on the page like the whispering leaf of a canary bush falling like a shadow upon the emerald lawn of a Persian miniature. He did not always succeed. Several were far heavier than air, and one contained an idea: it had slipped in somehow. Then he had written quite different verses, but now they were apparently always like this. As he drifted heavily through Bagwick in the costume of the Bishop's Fool, he was, I expect, lightening a line, or looking for a word that would fall like a snowflake, a silent self-effacing word.

I picked up the last of these pieces; even the paper on which he got the schoolmistress in Cockridge to type his verses, was the flimsiest available. He sat in a shapeless huddle in his chair, as though there were no bones inside his clothes, but a great jellyfish. His face was as careworn as that of a Chinese sage, umber-faced, umber-eyed, every furrow at its sharpest and with the expression of a miserable malefactor—one who knew that he had murdered a violet or been guilty of weighting with too ponderous a dew the rose upon the grave of his friend.

As I lifted the sheet of paper there was a thumping in the hall and a ringing: immediately Eleanor came in to announce the Storby car. It was a little windy outside. As Rymer drooped like a dejected porpoise over the sash of the car-window I warmly shook the poet's hand. He cheered up as I shook him and as I drove off he was singing his good-byes. I heard Eleanor's firmer note and agitated my hat out of the window.

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