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5: Time the Tiger (part 4)


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« on: January 23, 2023, 03:55:57 am »

SINCE their return from the cinema in an attempted snowstorm—a fiasco resulting in very dirty soft hail—the two friends had sat in front of the gas fire. A French existentialist film they had gone to see after dinner—"Time the Tiger" was the English title—had predisposed Mark, in the brief halt before re-entering his unmade bed, to a deeper discouragement than he had known for some time. The past fifteen hours pressed on him in this relaxed moment, in the way a crowd pressed on you as soon as you stand still. Mark's mind was now accessible to the day's frictions, against which it had been shut firmly all day in spite of Charles's propaganda. The 'flu, he told himself, still lurked in his bloodstream and perhaps some further toxins as the doctor suspected. He grilled his feet before the red-hot elements superstitiously.

Charles sat at his side gazing at the steam rising from the water placed in front of the fire. He thought of what "the actor-feller" had said: "Time is not passive—it is like a tiger devouring its prey." Its prey is us. But its prey is temporal, like Time itself, for we are merely time-stuff, existential ephemera. It is not something timeless it devours (how could Time do that?) nor is it something timeless devouring something temporal. It is Time devouring itself, time eating up time indeed. But is there in reality any devouring? Is not everything we see just something fizzling away like a firework, which we call time? This verbalism has misled us, we create an abstract entity.

Arguments of this sort had been going on in the film and were now prolonged lazily in his mind. He excogitated dimly an objection to Time seen as a Tiger. Our existence is more like the water, he thought, in that bowl—a small and limited quantity. The active principle is like that fire, which slowly disperses the little body of liquid placed in front of it, until there is nothing left.

Mark at all times was liable to be visited by the discontents which—both because of inherited stoicism, and of a repressive ideology lately acquired—he daily smothered. This was a very severe attack, not unique. But day's discontents came not singly, as disagreeable memories—for he would not have admitted them into his memory any more than he had done at the time: they came as an anonymous cafard, an exquisite depression. On the other hand Charles was subject to no attacks of this sort: he was more analytical to start with and a truculent perfectionist. For Charles, life was a silly wrangle over a shrunken shirt: life as he saw it was waiting months for spectacles—so life becomes a struggle to see (which ought not to be the case in the twentieth century): was a struggle to eat—as if we were paleolithic: he thought of life as charged with toxins no blood-test could isolate—he saw life as a struggle not to be poisoned by all the ideas that were injected as anti-toxins into it by malignant quacks: he saw life as a hysterical chemist obsessed by problems of antisepsis. But he never had the rough philosophy or the detachment to say "what is one man's meat, etc." The man who was being poisoned was himself, that was sufficient. But at least he knew he was being poisoned, he knew what was poison for him.

At Oxford they had sometimes sat like this, Mark and Charles, at the end of the day: and as their discussions used to start then, so now one started rather suddenly, with Charles looking up and saying:

"Do you think Time is a tiger, a ferocious beast of prey?"

It was an undergraduate opening, how people talk when they are young.

Mark shook his head.

"No," he said magisterially, "nothing forcible and palpable like that. More like the bacteria of a disease."

"It is rather a fierce malady!"

Mark shook his head again. "I don't think so. I know you do."

"At least," Charles said, "it moves at an accelerated tempo at present. Perhaps Time has contracted a fever."

Mark looked up, his handsome eyes of a mildly-stern big-dog losing their lethargic droop.

"A fever. Perhaps." Mark passed his fingers through coarse dark hair. "Time has certainly shown itself in the tiger class during this century. The immense explosion of technical creativeness has torn the world of two millennia apart."

"You call that tiger Time. You are sure the tiger is not Man?" Charles asked.

"There were men there in the eighteenth, the seventeenth, the sixteenth century and so on. No, I prefer to say Time. In 1900 the bee was in the clover. God was in His Heaven, all was well with the world. Fifty years ago the scene was amazingly different. The radio, the automobile, the airship and airplane, the telephone, television, the cinema—these revolutionary techniques did not come one at a time with decent intervals in between. Four decades absorbed this stupendous cataract."

"The advent of energies out of scale with man, as if a race of giants had been born the size of skyscrapers." Charles shook his head; "1900: a blessed time."

"In some ways, yes," Mark agreed. "Though neither of us was born yet. We are like the cinema and the telephone in that respect."

"I am neither like a telephone nor like the flicks." And they both laughed. "Tonight," Charles proceeded, "we have been to a movie play. Forty years ago it would have been living, sweating, actors. Much better!"

"I too prefer the mime in the flesh: as I prefer a concert hall to a radio," Mark again agreed. "However, the cinema has its uses and beauties. You would not deny that? At present it is mis-used in the most disgusting way by Hollywood."

"And don't forget what is done over here."

"All right. But once the profit-motive is banished—as it will be in a socialist society, then there will be nothing but an intelligent standard of movie. If nothing else, its educative power will be enormous. Today it miseducates and corrupts. Then it will..."

"No it won't," shouted Charles, "not if you have that pack of vulgar nobodies still there! By education, which you stress, they would mean propaganda. And as for art! In the company of some film magnate they lap up the vulgarest rubbish the cinema can produce. No Hollywood horror would be too stupid for them. One would say that they identify socialism with philistinism."

Mark laughed nervously. "You have got that all wrong too, Charlie. That is not bad taste, the minister involved is a man of sensitive culture. Alfred Munnings and he, for instance ..."

"Yes, yes, and Augustus John!" Charles laughed boisterously.

"Augustus John?" A rather grave look came into Mark's face. "I don't know about Augustus John," he said slowly, "but the responsible officials are not philistines whatever else they may be. No. It is DOLLARS."

"Nothing but dollars," echoed Charles. "You believe that on the sly these great ministers of state slip out to see films of the type we have been to this evening? Who knows, that fat man at my side may have been Bevan."

"Highly probable," snapped Mark. "I know Bevan likes good films."

"Don't speak to me of vermin! There are vermin in all movie houses."

"Poor Nye."

"You will really have to get a new type of politician, Mark, for your brave new world. Do be serious about it if you must go in for it!... But I have been thinking about what you said—the last forty or fifty years you know and Time going berserk."

"Well?"

"Well," said Charles, "I of course agree that Time has packed a millennium into a half-century. But what should interest us most, purely as citizens, is not the terrific stepping up of man's power over nature but the fantastic power conferred upon the politicos in this new era of radio, automatic weapons, atomic bombs, and so on: of man's power over man. The power of a Sultan or a Mogul was absurdly limited in comparison with that of present-day Iron Curtain rulers. And the fact that they rule for the rulees' good (so they say) does not make it a more attractive proposition. Upon what they might think was for my good we should violently disagree, were I a Pole or Roumanian."

Mark groaned and placed his hand affectionately on that of his friend. "Charles—chum...."

"Please!" Charles looked up with alarm.

"All right!" Mark laughed, "I thought you'd rise to that. But we are very old and very great friends."

"Yes, indeed," Charles responded gravely.

"I was not born a socialist—quite the contrary."

"Anything but!"

"Well, Charles, what I suggest you remember is that I have made myself a socialist—just as you might do."

"No thank you!" Charles told him. "When you see me in a 'Liberty Cap' you will know I am on my way to Colney Hatch."

"I understand perfectly. It was not at all easy at first in my own case. I felt just like you. Inside I still feel in many ways as you do. Habits acquired in one's young days... oh, of eating, dressing, and of thinking: don't I know their power! They form an unbreakable framework—I can never be a socialist like Bevan...."

"I hope not."

"But cannot you see, old Charles, that all the moulds are being broken for one? Do you feel intact yourself? I feel sometimes like an oyster without a shell" (hastily.) "I know you will say you do. There is nothing left of the world we both grew up in. We have been forcibly, violently, re-born. I am not a convert to socialism: I have been re-born a socialist."

Charles blew, to denote disgust. "Well, I haven't," he said, and put a match to a new cigarette.

"You're a pig-headed blighter, Charles. But force your mind open a fraction. Consider! The right word for what you hate is not 'socialism', in fact. It is not a theory of the state I have been re-born to. It is a set of quite novel conditions. But, for those conditions, like it or not, socialism is the necessary political philosophy. The society that was here in 1900 is as utterly of the past as the England of the Wars of the Roses. You have omitted to be re-born or have escaped rebirth, that is all."

"Thank God."

"All right, Charles, but you move about in this world like a ghost. You are, my dear Charles, a ghost from my past life. You are not a creature of flesh and blood!"

Mark laughed heartily, gazing affectionately at his friend.

"No?" said Charles. "I am not of flesh and blood?" At the same time he administered a pinch of considerable force. Mark started and caught Charles's wrist. "Such demonstrations," he observed, "prove nothing. A poltergeist is still a ghost."

"What you say proves nothing either, for it has no logical support."

"You think not."

"No. First of all, the word 'socialism' needs to be defined of course. What you mean is Marxism. Its prophet flourished a century ago. Marx's 'class-war' is the sociological complement of Darwin's lethal biological vision."

"Is life not a nightmare battle of organisms to survive? But go on."

"Marxist socialism comes to us from the past as a sacred text. It has been imposed upon this age by means of a ceaseless propaganda. As to Marxism being the only doctrine that is compatible with the air age and the ether age, that is rubbish. It is arbitrary and irrelevant. It is just as archaic as those other things which continue to be foisted on us such as the credit system, the Texas hoard of gold, Cabinet rule masquerading as parliamentary democracy—there is a long list of these obsolete institutions and techniques deliberately preserved. It is a very eccentric theory that television, rocket-bombs, radio and X-ray oblige us to accept Marxism."

Mark lay back and yawned nervously. "If," he said, "you find yourself unable to accept my solution of your difficulties...."

"What difficulties?" Charles interrupted.

"Wait a year or two Charles and you will find out. But here is something else. Socialism is so solidly entrenched that no Blimp crusade is likely to dislodge it."

"So you think."

"So I know. Its leaders are de facto rulers of England."

"What if the Tories come out on top at the general election?" Charles asked.

"If they were the strongest party? They could hardly secure a working majority. But if they did—if they do—they could not rule. There would be a General Strike, a violent one. Should the Tory Government succeed, for argument's sake, in breaking the General Strike, that would not be the end. In suppressing it there would be bloodshed. A nascent class-war would be on. There would be great bitterness, nation-wide plotting and agitating, half the country permanently strike-bound. Do not delude yourself: the old party-system see-saw is at an end in this country. Not to adjust yourself, Charles, to this new situation is hopelessly romantic. Are you impressed with Lord Woolton by any chance? Are you an admirer of Mr. Anthony Eden? Or are you go-ahead, and a hot Butlerite?"

Charles laughed as he got up and stretched himself. "Now you are on sounder ground," he said. "The winning-side argument—the best I know of in dealing with the intelligent."

"That's good."

"No, it isn't. Because I am not ambitious."

"Nor am I," Mark pointed out. "Ambition has nothing to do with it. It is just in order to live on the side of the law."

"You mean," Charles told him, as he went back and sat down, "you mean to starve safely. To go on saying Yes ever after—unmolested, in a shabby corner. For without ambition that is all that you can mean. Well, Mark, that may be a prospect to tempt some people with. You might find that they would come and join you with alacrity. But to employ such arguments with me...! I am off to bed and to dream of my own little millennium."

"Pleasant dreams then—full of free enterprise, free speech for the upper classes, and a little freebooting thrown in. Good night, mad rebel!"

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