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The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 28161

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Though I cannot resist writing upon the picturesque side of Townsend's character, I must take care not to give a wrong impression. Nobody must think, because of Townsend's emphasis and vividness of language, and that touch of imagination he introduced into every thought and every sentence, that he was an oddity or an eccentric. In spite of the fact that he would never take life plain when he could get it coloured, he was a perfectly sane person. As I have said, the more you knew him the more you felt that, though you might be shocked by the first rashness of his thought, it would very likely turn out to be a perfectly sane judgment-proper discount being allowed for his brilliance of vision. I used sometimes to put some of his most wonderful and hair-raising statements into dull English, and then ask him whether that wasn't what he meant. I generally received the instant assurance that my sober version exactly represented his view.

His attitude of mind might, indeed, be summed up by a thing that he once said to me in a period of political calm in the middle of August in the 'nineties. "Strachey, I wish something dramatic would happen." He went on to explain how he was fretted almost beyond endurance by the dullness of the world. And yet I often wonder whether even he might not have found the last six years almost too highly "accidented" even for him. But I know one thing. If he had the anxious mind developed to the highest point, he was essentially a brave man and a true lover of his country. If he had been destined to live through the war there would have been no stouter heart than his, and none would have given a more stimulating expression to the spirit of the nation than he.

I wish profoundly that I had made during his life, as I ought to have done, a proper collection of Townsend's aphoristic and sensational sayings. They would have been not only a source of delight and entertainment, but also a storehouse of what might be called the practical wisdom of an imaginative mind. A good example of what I mean is the following. Townsend was once having an exciting and not to say violent argument with a younger man. In the course of the combat Townsend, we may presume, used a generous freedom of language, and it was returned in kind by his opponent. The clash of mind was fierce. Then the younger man pulled himself together. He felt he had gone too far in some of the things he had said, and apologised to Townsend. If he had been rude or over-vehement in the way in which he had maintained and insisted upon his view-he hoped he should be forgiven. "Not at all," was the instant reply. "You have a perfect right to be wrong!" There was here a great deal more than a felicitous epigram. This acknowledgment of every man's right to be wrong underlay Townsend's philosophy of life and his religious attitude. Though, curiously enough, he had borrowed a certain touch of fatalism from his intercourse as a young man with the philosophies of the East, he felt very strongly the essential freedom of the will. But that freedom he saw could not exist, could not be worthily exercised, could not, as it were, have its full reward in a man's own soul, unless it were a true freedom. Unless a man had the freedom to do wrong as well as the freedom to do right he was not really free. It was idle to pretend that you were giving people a choice of freedom if you put restrictions upon them which would effectually prevent their doing anything but that which the inventor of the restrictions considered to be right; if the doing of the right resulted not from their own impulse but from the application of exterior force over which they had no control, no virtue, no moral force. "There is no compulsion, only you must" meant to him, as it must to every man who knows what truth and justice are, the utmost derogation of freedom.

I have spoken of the influence of the East upon Townsend's mind in matters of religion. Though he never became a mystic, and had not naturally the mystic's attitude or even any true understanding of what mysticism is, as a young man he had looked through the half-open door of the Eastern world not merely with wonder and delight but with a great deal of sympathy. He went to Calcutta, or, rather, to one of its suburbs, when he was a boy of eighteen, and remained there without coming home for over ten years. In that time he acquired a fair acquaintance with several Indian languages, and an intimate knowledge of Bengali, which he always regarded as the Italian of the East. In Bengali he was so accomplished that he was given the post of Government Translator.

In the old daguerreotype here reproduced he is seen sitting, by his moonshee, a Brahmin of the highest caste,-see the mystic Brahmin thread which the Jesuits were accused of wearing,-from whom he learned Hindustani and, I think, a certain amount of Sanskrit. With the moonshee he had many long talks upon those subjects on which the intellectual Brahmins have discoursed and delighted to discourse ever since the day when Alexander took his bevy of Hellenic Sophists across the Indus. Greeks bursting with the new lore of Aristotle-Alexander's own tutor- at once got to work on the Brahmins and began to discuss Fate, Free- will, the Transmigration of Souls, the nature of thought, the power of words, and the mystery of the soul. The Brahmins met them half-way, as today they meet any wandering European metaphysicians. Townsend had an active, eager spirit, and he and the moonshee tired the sun with talk. But there was more than eternal talk between them. They grew to be real friends, in spite of an interval of some forty years. Townsend used to say of the moonshee, "If there is a heaven, that old man is there." Though belonging to the caste of the High Priests of the Hindu faith, he was poor in worldly possessions. But though holy and learned he had no touch in him of sacerdotal arrogance-difficult achievement, considering the sort of veneration with which Brahmins of his exalted spiritual rank were treated in Bengal.

To illustrate the depth of this veneration, Townsend was fond of telling a story of how he had in his employment in the printing office of his paper, The Friend of India, a high-class Brahmin engaged, I think, as a proof-reader, at low wages. It chanced that on some occasion Townsend was interviewing a very rich Bengal magnate, a mediatised Prince, so far as I remember, though of comparatively humble caste. When the Brahmin entered to bring Townsend a proof, or upon some other business of the paper, the rich noble rose, and, as Townsend picturesquely put it, "swept the dust off the Brahmin's feet with his forehead." The Brahmin received the obeisance without the slightest embarrassment, as a right entirely his due. "There," said Townsend, "is the whole of the East." Fanciful shapes of the plastic earth, the wealth and the power of the rich man, and the man of semi-royal rank, are perfectly real and fully recognised, but they make no difference to the essential fact of religion. Caste in its religious aspects is something of which we English people have no conception.

I remember pleasing Townsend with an illustration of the truth of how English people cannot conceive of great rank without a considerable amount of riches. When reading for the Bar, I came across a short Act of Parliament, in the reign of Henry VI, which was passed to deprive the existing Duke of Buckingham of all his rank and titles "because he was so poor." The two Houses of Parliament were sorry, no doubt, to have to act, but they felt it was no more respectable for a Duke to go about without money than for an ordinary man to go about without clothes. They were doing the right thing by him in reducing him to the ranks of the proletariat in name as well as in fact. English people, insisted Townsend, never seem to realise that the distinction of birth is so valuable because it is incommunicable. That, of course, is quite true. English people, happily, as I think, never have, and never will, regard mere birth with any veneration or even interest. What affects them is that potent, if rather indefinite, thing, position-the aura of distinction which surrounds great office, great wealth, and even great learning; and, oddly enough, most of all by the acclamation of fashion. The Committee of Almack's put the thing exactly, when a certain Duchess, to whom they had refused invitations for a ball, writing in expostulation reminded them of her rank. They simply replied that "the Duchess of Newcastle, though undoubtedly a woman of rank, was not a woman of fashion." It was only to "persons of fashion" that the doors of Almack's stood always open.

Townsend's conversation was a curious contradiction. Half of it consisted of tremendous generalities, which made the hearer gasp with a kind of mental deflation. The other side consisted of specific statements of the most meticulous kind. And these contradictory forms of attack upon the intelligence with whom he was in conversation were mixed together in the most admired disorder. I remember well a lady who met Mr. Townsend for the first time at a luncheon-party in London, telling me that at a pause in the conversation she heard him say of a Polish actress, Madame Modjeska, then performing in town, "She has the most mobile face in South-western Europe." On another occasion the oracle gave forth this tremendous sentence: "Musicians have no morals" but then, remembering a musician who was a close friend of his and mine, Townsend added, "Except G-."

This is a beautiful example of the extreme generalisation followed by a headlong descent to the minutely specific. If you had suggested to Townsend that this was rather a large order, he would have replied, without turning a hair, that you were no doubt perfectly right, and would probably have limited himself in a lightning flash-"Statisticians would probably put the figure at 27 1/2 per cent, or some such figure."

If he had been made to choose in his writings between the specific and the general, he would, however, I am convinced, have chosen the specific, for the specific statement was his leading rule in journalism, as no doubt it was one of the sources of the charm of his style. You should always be specific even if you could not be accurate, might be given as an accurate parody of his principle.

This predilection sometimes led him into strange difficulties, especially in medicine, where he loved to use all the "terms of art." Technical expression had a fatal fascination for him, especially when he did not understand them. I remember his saying, with a naiveté which was quite delightful, apropos of a common friend in illness, "I have discovered the nature of H's ailment. There is no doubt now that he is suffering from the true Blankitis. By the way, Strachey, what is Blankitis?" I am afraid in the case in question I did not know, and he did not know, and in fact none of us but didn't know what the word meant. (I have adopted the phraseology of the little boy when the magistrate asked him if he knew where he would go to if he gave false evidence.) But Townsend had no sympathy with agnosticism of this kind. In spite of the vastness of his view, he loved placing things neatly, correctly, and in order.

He used to tell an excellent story about himself and of the kind of answer you are apt to get if you try to catalogue English people too exactly, especially in regard to their religious opinions.

Twenty-five years ago [said Townsend], when I first came here on leaving the East, I did not realise this peculiarity. I was very much interested in finding out the religious views of all sorts of people, and especially of uneducated people; and so I asked Mrs. Black (the then reigning housekeeper at the Spectator office) what her religious views were. I expected to be told that she was either Church of England, or Chapel, or Presbyterian, or something of the kind. To my surprise this is how she met my inquiry. She looked me straight in the face, and said, "I am a moderate Atheist."

By that name she always went in the secret councils of the office. After all, only an English person could have invented that particular form of religion. I always felt that answer would have delighted Voltaire and given him another ground for quizzing English moderation even in negation. I thought then, and have often thought since, how far the principle of moderation might be extended, and whether you could be a moderate agnostic or a moderate fatalist or a moderate logician.

Townsend had a capacity for wit, but, as he was fond of saying himself, no sympathy with farce or mere high spirits. I doubt even if he had a sense of humour in the ordinary meaning of that term, or in the Frenchman's definition: "la mélancholie gaie que les Anglais nomment 'humour.'" To say this is not to say that he did not enjoy a humorous, an ironic, a witty, or an epigrammatic story or saying. He enjoyed such things immensely and would laugh heartily at them. But he had no use for a "droll," as I must fully admit I have. I can thoroughly enjoy the long-toed comedian, and feel quite sure that if time and opportunity could combine to let me see once a week a film figuring Charlie Chaplin I should be transported with delight. Good clowning, or even bad clowning, or what people call the appalling, or melancholy, or "cut- throat," jokes in a comic paper I always find captivating.

Of good stories and laughable stories Townsend was in many ways an admirable raconteur. Many people would say that cannot be true. On your own confession he was too much of an exaggerator. I don't agree. Exaggeration is not a fair word for what he did to his stories. He had in him a kind of mental accelerator, and upon this he depended, no doubt, too much on occasion, as do so many motor-drivers. All the same, his stories always got home, and, strangely enough, this perpetual speeding-up of his mind never seemed to injure it or to wear it out. O

n the whole, his stories and his quotations were splendid, though I confess one dared not verify his dates and facts and quoted words, for fear of spoiling a real work of art. Strangely enough, he was nearly always accurate in the spirit if not in the letter. Some day I should like to tell some of the stories that he told me of Lord Dalhousie, or Lord Canning and the White Mutiny, and of Lady Canning as a hostess.

That Townsend was a masterly letter-writer this account of him will, I feel, have already suggested. He was vivid, picturesque, and attractive to a high degree. The place he lived in when he was taking a country holiday was always the most wonderful place in the world and the people he met there marvellous and mysterious beyond words. Even if they were bores, they were bores raised to such a high power as to become intensely attractive.

A curious example of the impact made upon his mind by the Eastern religions was shown in his belief that there was a great deal to be said for the Eastern view that Almighty Providence had entrusted the world and its government to a "demi-ergon" or angelic Vizier, who was given the governance of the world under certain conditions of rule which he had to observe. I remember well Townsend once saying to me: "Some day I will write a book upon the neglected religion-the religion which holds God to have 'devolved' the government of the world on a great Spirit or Angel." It was his belief, or an assumed belief (for the thing to him was really a day-dream), that in this way the great antinomy between free- will and that predestination which is implicit in omnipotence, could be got rid of. Townsend thought that this matter had never been discussed as fully as it ought to have been. I am not theologian enough to know how far this is true, but I suspect that this is just the sort of point upon which Townsend would have been misinformed. It seems almost certain that every conceivable abstract point of view, in pure theology not depending upon examination and observation, must long ago have been discussed exhaustively. Not only did the Schoolmen and the Jesuits sound every space of water, but the Byzantine Greeks in the early days of the Christian Faith produced "heresies" of every imaginable kind. The union of Semitic revelation and neoplatonic mysticism, first at Alexandria and later in the City of the Christian Emperor Constantine, constituted a forcing-house of theological systems.

Before I leave my recollections of Mr. Townsend, I want to say something of a curious incident in his last illness; and I must also attempt to describe his personal appearance. During the last six or nine months of his life-he was nearly eighty and his health had been undermined by his hard work in the Delta of the Ganges-his brain and memory failed him almost completely. His intellectual life sank, indeed, to what was practically a perpetual delirium. Occasionally, however, there would be a lucid interval, in which he became for a short time truly conscious and could make sensible and rational remarks. For example, on one occasion when he was in the middle of a paroxysm of loud, violent, and incoherent talk, almost approaching raving, he suddenly turned to his wife or daughter with an apology of bewildering poignancy. "I do wish that man on the sofa would keep quiet. I am afraid his noise worries you. It worries me quite as much." Even stranger, more curious, and more suggestive of the double personality is the following circumstance. Though I remember his telling me only some six or seven years before his death that he had entirely forgotten his Bengali and did not suppose he could now speak a word of it, he talked when his memory went a very great deal in the Indian vernacular and apparently with great fluency. And here I may note that he was always very fond of correcting people who talked as if the inhabitants of Bengal talked Hindustani, saying that it was Bengali that they talked, that the language was entirely different from Hindustani, and was also the language of some fifty or sixty million people and not by any means a patois. On the first occasion, when the doctor was present, when Mr. Townsend reverted to the language of the East, Mrs. Townsend in explaining what was happening, made a very natural slip, and said: "You hear, he is talking in Hindustani."

Immediately there came from the bed a voice in Townsend's old tone and manner, and making a correction quite in his old style: "No, not Hindustani, Bengali." But though the true consciousness was, as it were, on the watch and quite able to make a correction, its force was spent, at any rate for the time. Nothing more was said for a long interval by the consciousness.

Here I should like to put in a plea for a much closer psychological study of the sayings of the delirious, the insane, and of persons in the hour of death. Such words are not, as a rule, recorded and are often passed over in fear or pity. This seems to me a great mistake. No harm could be done, but, rather, a great deal of good, if nurses were taught to record such expressions. This would result, I feel sure, in a greater kindness to delirious persons and to those who are insane or on the verge of insanity, quite apart from the benefit which would accrue to scientific investigation. If people understood something of the double or multiplex personality there would be less terror and surprise at some of the phenomena of the emergence of the uncontrolled subconsciousness. It might at first be thought that the doctor was the proper person to make a record of the kind I am suggesting. But the doctor is, as a rule, too busy to do this sort of work, and, what is more, it is not he who generally has the opportunity to note the real expressions of the subconsciousness or to witness the struggle between the two personalities. Even in the case of delirious or semiconscious persons, the patient, when the doctor is there, makes an effort and pulls himself together and so reconstructs the normal personality. It is the nurse who sees the patient mentally off his or her guard, and who is, as it were, in a position to note the things of most value to the psychologist.

Townsend's personal appearance is difficult to describe. He had, from the time I first saw him in '85, grey hair and a grey moustache. He was a small man, wiry and full of energy, and in the first ten years of our friendship quite capable of taking long country walks. He always wore, even in the country, black or dark-grey clothes, which indeed constituted for him a kind of uniform. His eyes were grey and glittered brightly and keenly behind his gold-rimmed spectacles. These he never removed, except for a moment of polishing on a large silk bandana handkerchief. He smoked comparatively little, but was a perpetual snuff- taker. Nothing was more amusing than to hear him discourse on snuff- taking and describe his adventures with snuff merchants. In fact, snuff- taking in his mind had become endowed with a kind of freemasonry. All snuff-takers, he declared, knew each other. They were so few in number. He was also very interesting about snuff-boxes, and the lost art of making hinges through which the almost impalpable dust of well-ground snuff would be unable to penetrate.

I might indeed have exampled his snuff-taking as a proof of his power of endowing everything with a sense of adventure and pregnant interest.

His step was light and very quick, his voice pleasant and refined, and his manner of talking, as may be imagined, what I must-in spite of the associations-call arresting. The saying that if you had taken refuge under an arch during a rainstorm and found yourself next to Dr. Johnson you would have realised in his first ten words that you were face to face with a man of true distinction might well have been applied to Townsend himself.

But, after all, Townsend is not a man who can be described. You may describe a Mrs. Siddons with a faultless profile, a great statesman or writer with what an old family servant of ours called "an iron countenance"; but it is impossible to describe the intelligence, the nervous energy, the versatility of expression which quick-coming, eager thoughts throw upon the human face. Who can paint a thought, or number the flashes of wit? Townsend was to be appreciated, not to be described. Moreover, he was a man who impressed you more the hundredth time you saw him than on the first. It is the old mystery, the old paradox set forth by Wordsworth:

You must love him ere to you

He will seem worthy of your love.

It was only when you had learned to love his wit and the gallant cataract of his mind that you could fully understand and value its fascination.

As a postscript to Townsend's oracular sayings I must add one of his dicta on women. Here his generalisations were enormous and almost always included a wild nosedive from the empyrean of generalities to that purely specific element, the hard earth. For example, he was never tired of saying-in various forms, for he never really repeated himself-that women were far more trustworthy in money matters than men. He used to say that he had never in any single instance in his whole career been repaid a loan of money made to a man. On the other hand, he had never been cheated by a woman.

It may perhaps be said that, considering I am writing a biography of myself and not of Townsend, I have dwelt too long on my predecessor in title. But, in truth, I have hardly dwelt long enough, for I am describing the making of my mind. I could hardly be too detailed or too particular in my description of Townsend, for his influence upon my journalistic career was of enormous importance. Though I very soon realised Townsend's defects as an editor, as a critic of public affairs, as a man of letters, and as a user of words, my admiration for him as a great journalist did not diminish but grew year by year.

I learned as time went on to disregard the faults and exaggerations which so often greatly displeased the statesmen or men of letters who had not the time or the patience really to understand and so to be tolerant. Townsend had to some extent done what is very rarely done in England, though it is so much done in America; that is, he had thought out a good many of the problems of publicity and arrived at very sound conclusions. If he had lived in America, I have no doubt that, with the encouragement of a public that understands publicity, he would have carried his ideas much further than he was able to carry them here, and would have been hailed as a master in his art. As it was, he never wrote anything on the function of the newspaper editor, and it was only in the shape of sparkles from the wheel that one saw the tendency of his mind to do what the Americans have done. They have succeeded in isolating publicity and making it a special art, so that it has now become with them a special art with special conditions of its own.

Townsend, as far as I remember, never talked about the ethics of journalism or the duties of the journalist. It must not be supposed for a moment that this was because he did not realise or respect those duties, or was indifferent. It was rather due to the fact that he had a kind of innocence, a sancta simplicitas, on this as, indeed, on many moral and social questions. He took sound and honourable behaviour as a matter of course, and he would no more have thought of praising other people or himself for having a strict sense of honour in their conduct of a newspaper than he would of praising them or himself for not committing petty larceny, perjury, or fraud. He took, indeed, a very hopeful view of mankind and did not the least believe they were really bad, even if they did show themselves to be tigers on occasion. For instance, I remember his saying to me once, with that naive gaiety which was peculiar to him, that though he and Hutton differed a great deal in matters of theology they never had any differences as to the line the paper should take. Though Hutton inclined to an extremely "high" section of the Church, to what, indeed, might be described as a kind of sublimated sacerdotalism, and Townsend to a Broad Church Presbyterianism, buttressed by an intense opposition to every form of priestly function, he went on to point out that everything was made easy "because both Hutton and I are at heart on the side of the angels."

Apropos of angels, I remember with intense delight one of Townsend's most characteristic sayings. In the course of a conversation which began on some mundane theme and drifted on to spiritual lines, I remember his suddenly throwing the noble horse of dialectic on to his haunches with the catastrophic remark: "Strachey, remember this. If there are angels, they have edges." Here was the whole man. The idler or the fool will think, or pretend to think, that this was simply ridiculous nonsense, and will pass on with the comment, "We are not amused." As a matter of fact, there was a great deal of good sense packed under a kind of semi- humorous hydraulic pressure in this amazing dictum. What he meant was that if there were angels, they were not vague, fluid, evanescent creatures, some times part of a general angelic reservoir and sometimes in single samples, but definite personalities. His was only a fierce and violent way of saying what Tennyson said so exquisitely in the immortal lines:

Eternal form shall still divide

The eternal soul from all beside,

And I shall know him when we meet.

There can be no eternal form without an edge. The edge, the dividing- line, is the essential thing in individuals, and Townsend's mind had pounced upon this as a cat will fall like a thunderbolt upon a mouse. It was in this vivid, practical way that his mind worked. He jumped all the intermediate things and came out with the essential in his mouth. But those who had slow or atrophied minds and did not see the process often failed to recognise what he was after, or what a clever kill he had made.

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