Saturday, July 22, 2017

T.H. White

From The Elephant and the Kangaroo:

Before we deal with this, however, it seems necessary to make a few remarks about our hero’s character. He Was a childish man, in spite of his amoebae, and he was confiding, and he nearly always told the truth. This was out of laziness, as he had found that it was easier to be truthful and swindled, instead of going to the trouble of making up lies in order to swindle other people. Sometimes he grew ashamed of this laziness, about once a year, and tried to tell a few hard-working lies; but he told them so badly, with such a shifty look in his eye, that nobody believed them for a moment. This discouraged him. Fortunately, however, it did not matter how much he told the truth round Burkestown, because nobody in that locality ever told it, and consequently nobody believed it. Indeed, Mr. White’s truthfulness had the curious effect 'of making the aborigines consider that he was the most cunning liar they had ever met. Unaccustomed to hearing the truth in any form, they were baffled by his veracity, and came to fear him greatly in a bargain. For instance, if he were selling one of the pigs which he kept on the refuse of the garden, he might say to the buyer: “I am afraid that this pig is not so fat as he should be. You see, if you put your hand here between the shoulder blades, you can feel the backbone.” Far from lowering the price of the thin pig, this often had the effect of putting a couple of guineas on it: for the buyer immediately concluded that Mr. White had some intensely subtle reason for not selling, and became half mad to secure the prize. 

Another feature of his character was that he was generally pursuing some theory or other, often dealing with archaeology or biology or history. For instance, he had a theory about warfare. He said that there were some 275,000 separate species in the animal kingdom, but that out of this huge number there were only a dozen or so which indulged in true war, i.e., which would band together in order to attack bands of their own species. The guilty dozen included H. sapiens, one termite, several ants, and possibly, though Mr. White was unsure of this, the domestic bee. If, said he, only twelve or so out of 275,000 will go to war, then obviously we can discover the true cause of warfare by looking for some Highest Common Factor which is found among the twelve, but not found among the 274,988 others. Eventually he had discovered that the H.C.F. was not Property nor several of the other things which had been suggested, but the making of a territorial claim. All twelve made a claim to territory other than the nest itself, and he could discover no pacific species which made such a claim. Also the few varieties of H. sapiens which did not make a territorial claim-the Lapps, Eskimos, and other true nomads-remained at peace. Mr. White said that the only thing necessary to abolish warfare was to abolish territory, i.e., to do away with artificial boundaries, nationalism, tariffs, and so on. 


Brownie was sitting in a corner, eating the latest glue. She was an animal who suffered from crazes, like her master. They say that wise men grow to resemble the creatures they are interested in, and that Darwin ended by looking like an ape. This is true conversely, at any rate, for most animals grow to resemble the masters they are interested in, and Brownie was no exception. She had put up with so many snakes, falcons, goshawks, merlins, ravens, ants, goat meths, hedgehogs, and other assorted fauna collected by Mr. White that in the end she had taken to collecting herself. For instance, she was keen on week-old chickens. Every spring, when these came round, she attended all their meals. She also caught them in her month, without hurting them, and carried them into the dining room, where she liberated them under the table and watched them run. The hens, ever after, in adult life, fled upon the approach of Brownie. Another of her interests was the insect world. She spent a good deal of time catching flies, or taunting the bees in the hall. She was a student of wood-boring wasps, which she would watch on the workshop window sill all day long. She had been the proud owner of a wild baby rabbit, which she used to take to bed with her, in her master’s bed, and also of a young leveret. Neither of these had been much pleased at having to sleep with Brownie and Mr. White, and the rabbit particularly had often flown into a passion at the general perversity of the situation, and had bitten them both. People seem to think that wild rabbits are charming little balls of fluff, but [they are really very choleric animals, with no tolerance at all. Other pets kept by Brownie included ducks, turkeys, and an Orphan lamb. She was interested in the swallows on the tool cupboard, and devoted to hedgehogs, for which she had a special bark. She did not like puppies. 

The craze for Nature Study, however, was not the only one she had. Mr. White possessed varied interests, and So did she. There was carpentry, for instance, which was perhaps the latest of his digressions. Poor Brownie could hardly saw or hammer, but at least she collected the spare pieces of wood, and kept them under the dining-room table. So far as gardening was concerned, she collected most of the root crops and tubers, which she also stored under the table. She had, besides, a rubber ball. 

Her master was, a second-rate writer, and that was the way in which he earned such living as he had. It was the only occupation she was unable to share. When he sat at the typewriter, Brownie sat beside him and groaned continuously-perhaps she was doing her best to imitate the machine. When he wrote with a pencil, in an armchair, she sat on his lap and sighed, in order to be in it as much as possible. 

The glue must have been due to the Ark. It was used in construction. Mr. White had been trying to boil it in a soup tin, because he had no gluepot, and she had discovered it, in the solid state, at the bottom. This was what she was eating. Being at the bottom, it was almost out of reach of her tongue. However, she had bitten dents in the tin all round, and she could reach some of the glue, and it made her froth at the mouth. 


For that matter, what is the good of doing anything with the Irish, who won’t even try water divining? What are they? Just a rag bag of every defeated nation since the dawn of prehistory, driven into this accursed rain cloud of an island as the last refuge for incapacity; They think that the sunlight puts fires out and the moon changes the weather and God knows what else. I suppose they think that the moon is a kind of phosphorescent balloon which gets gradually blown up and deflated. They have no idea of the earth’s shadow or of geography or of anything else. The only good thing 15 that they murder one another at a great rate. How many murders did we have last month? There was the man who threw his wife into a well with a turkey, and the man who chopped up his brother and buried him in a bog, and the man who decapitated his grandmother with a hatchet, and... .and . . Always pointless, too, and so badly done. The whole island is strewn with blunt instruments which the murderer has forgotten to conceal. Professional assassins, all over the world, are Irishmen or Italians. Chicago, everywhere. I suppose they’ll murder me before they’ve finished. For the sake of a cigarette card or something. It’s lucky Mikey is timid. He’d be afraid to make a had shot the first time, and get hurt himself. Not that he dislikes me. It would be a sudden whim, as usual. . . . 

What’s the good of struggling with it all? It isn’t only the O’Callaghans, it’s the whole island. You might as well try to reform the Alps. And why reform them, anyway? Why transplant human life at all, in this ridiculous Ark? Why not leave it to be exterminated? 

Why live, thought Mr. White, for that matter; I’m sure‘ I don t know why we take such trouble to do so. It’s all rheumatism, and filling up forms.
Mikey was waiting for him, tongue-tied with longing, doubt, modesty or apprehension


...however, there came an alteration in the relations between the builders. 
The trouble between Mr. White and Pat Geraghty was that the one was of Alpine while the other was of Mediterranean race. Geraghty, although insane to a scarcely noticeable extent, was in other respects a normal aborigine of Cashelmor. He had spent‘his life in the environs of Burkestown. All his, neighbors had always been either thieves or Swindlers or assassins. He, and they, believed, ‘with the O’Callaghans, that the moon’s changes ‘changed the" weather; that sunlight extinguished fires; that' the best cure for whooping cough lay in passing the sufferer under the belly of a donkey; that there was a real and tangible fire in Hell, where Mr. White would be roasted, without being consumed. by a benevolent deity, for the rest of eternity; that it would rain if a curlew were heard; that Purgatory, where he himself would go, was also a place of actual fire, but not eternal; that “frost brings rain”---a not unnatural belief, when one reflects that, in winter, if it is not dry and 
frosty it is pretty well sure to be wet and rainy; that wag. tails were birds of death, like the chaladrius; that three candles in one room would bring a death before the end of the year; that women must not cut men’s hair; that there was a “stray sod” near Burkestown and that, if the traveler stepped on it, he would lose his way for the rest of the night unless he had the presence of mind to turn his waist coat back to front; that a weasel should be spat upon when met; that the banshee sounded a little like an amorous cat; and that Ireland was the land of Saints and Scholars, whose saintly and scholarly activities had only been handicapped by the barbarous interference of English cannibals like Mr. White. All these things, and a great many more, were believed by Pat as simply as it is believed in other places that the milkman will call in the morning. Since scarcely any of them were believed by his master, there was, of course, a barrier between them. 

It was not so. much what Geraghty believed, however, as what he was accustomed to understand by his environment, that caused the trouble. So far as his experience went, the main objective of human beings was to take advantage of one another. In recognizing this, indeed, he and his neighbors offered perhaps their best claim to possessing greater perspicuity than their oppressors across the water. 
He was now, for external reasons, beginning to worry bout being employed by a venomous Englishman. 


Mrs. O’Callaghan put on the clothes which she wore when she went to Dublin. These were not showy, owing to a habit which she had acquired of never putting on a new dress until two years after she had bought it. Horace recommends the author to wait seven years before publishing, and it seems an excellent rule for clothes as well as for books; but not so good a rule when extended to food and fresh vegetables, as it was, to some extent, by Mrs. O‘Callaghan. She would often purchase a pound ~of cheese Cashelmor, only to find that it had gone moldy before it 
reached the table six weeks later. She was a conservative. Mr. White reminded her to put on the fur coat, a wedding present from her father. Mikey polished his boots, as he was made to do on Saturday nights because of Mass on Sundays, and painfully put ‘ on one of the clean collars which were always dirty before they were fixed. He also shaved. 
Think of all those tricks of shabby gentility with which she used to madden me. When she was giving breakfast to Father Byrne, after a Station, she used to lean forward whenever the old lobster spoke, crooking her little finger as she held the teacup, and cry, “Is that a fac?” She thought _ it was genteel. In 1900 or so, when she was a girl, perhaps it was genteel. Think of that young virgin in her father’s boorish farm, uneducated, put upon, aflutter with dreams of dukes perhaps and of the wide world stretched before her; think of her simple arts, her hopes to better herself, her innocent and pondering attempts to learn gentility. Somebody in the hearing of that child, somebody who ' seemed to her to be the height of fashion, had crooked the 

finger, had said, “Is‘that a fac?” She had stored it up. She had given it, her little accomplishment, like a dog’s poor trick, to Father Byrne.‘ She had been proud of it, and a trifle nervous in case it might not quite be up to date. But of course she had been forced to put that fear away from her. She had had nothing else to substitute. 

How desperately cruel life is, thought Mr. White: Life and Time. They take everything, take the soft-petaled maiden and the fashions she pondered. Fashion and’ slang are awful in their pathos. There are spinsters knocking about nowadays, I suppose, who cry girlishly that such and such a thing is “some stunt” and who would like to describe themselves as 'flappers.” In twenty years the Wrens of today will be saying “browned off” with the same cracked ring. Human beings run about like sheep, copying one another, talking the latest idiom, wearing the latest hat. And Time comes stealthily to rob them, till idiom and hat are both ridiculous, leaving nothing in the little squirrel hoard of graces. 

It is not the Irish, he thought, it is the climate. It is not the fault of the race. The Irish are not lazy, not backward, not dirty, not superstitious, not cunning, not dishonest. They are as nice as anybody else. It is not them. It is the air. 

It is that bloody Atlantic, said Mr. White, looking angrily in the direction of Mullingar: that’s what does for us. It is those millions of square miles of water vapor pouring in from the southwest, supersaturated, bulging, colored, and weighted like lead. It is like living under a pile of wet cushions: They force us to our hands and knees. Between us and America there is nothing to discharge them. We have to bear the whole of it. We are the outpost, the bulwark which saves England from the like oppression. By the time the air reaches England, it has been sieved, milked, lightened, by the protecting highlands of the Gael. So of course they sit there, bright and breezy, and little wonder if they rule the world. But to talk about the Irish being oppressed by the Saxon in the east is nonsense-not at all, it is by the Atlantic in the west. Why, even champagne will hardly fizz here: one might as well be living down a coal mine. ‘ 

l believe, he continued doubtfully, that champagne does not fizz in coal mines; but, if you take it to the top of a mountain, where the air is lighter, it fizzes so much that the whole bottle turns to froth. That is what happens if you take an Irishman away from his native hell. Here, in the oppression of the clouds, he is just a flattened Hamilton, a squashed Wellesley, or a burdened Shaw. Drop him across the channel, and immediately he boils over like a firework display. He invents quaternions or conquers Napoleon or writes St. Joan. And the same thing happens the Other way round. Leave him in England, and Swift is the master of ministers, the friend of princes, the cynosure of wit. Drag him away to the atmospheric pressure of the County Meath, and he is only a nasty-minded, complaining parson at Laracor, and finally he goes dotty altogether, and no wonder. 

What a pity it is that people will go in for racial criticism. The whole thing is perfectly simple. All human beings everywhere are more or less horrible, but they have different fashions of being it, in different places. Consequently, one notices the horribleness of foreigners without noticing one’s own-which they notice-just because it is different. 

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