I have met a formidable young man, a revolutionary, and I must tell you about him.
I had left the car in the ditch with its bent front axle. (How machinery can fetter us, not only by its promise of ease and power but also by its helpless- ness when broken!) A passing lorry brought me to the town. The first garage refused the salvage, being shorthanded. The second offered to bring the car in at once and to repair it next week. And there was I with my engagement next morning and my journey scarcely begun! The third also refused; but in the end the boss, a genial creature, clumsily acting the part of a go-getter, agreed to spare me one man on condition that I myself, since I claimed to be not entirely without experience, should work as his (unskilled) assistant.
A pale young mechanic was summoned. He had a slight limp and the face of a nun; or perhaps rather an abbess, for it combined purity and authority. His challenging eye surprised me with an occasional sharp twitch of the eyelid, which at first I mistook for a wink. His hair, plastered but unruly, had broken rank. A heavy lock drooped over his brow. I thought of the trailed wing of a damaged bird. Raven, I wondered, or jackdaw? And was the hurt actual, I foolishly wondered, or feigned to distract strangers from some secret treasure? He regarded me as though passing a private and unfavourable judgment on me, glancing at my hands. My smile won no response.
Presently we were in the breakdown lorry, with its crane, a megatherian but jaunty tail cocked up behind. A sparrow perched for a moment on its crest, but took wing when we started. To make conversation, I told about the accident, explaining that apparently the steering gear had broken. The mechanic said only, "We shall see." And without shifting his eyes from the road he winked, or so it seemed. Perplexed and disconcerted by his taciturnity, I apologized for fetching him out in filthy weather. He answered, "I'm paid for it."
When we had reached the crippled car, he expertly examined the trouble, while I put on my overalls. Presently he said, "Steering seized up and broken. Steering-arm bolt sheered. The joint has been parched for oil." His raised eyebrows censured me.
When the crane had been manoeuvred into position, my companion crouched on the wet grass to fix the chain for lifting the front of the car. I stood by, willing but unhelpful; gloomily studying the scurf in the young man's hair, and a gnat that had lost itself in that black jungle. After a good deal of manipulation and removal of obstacles, he succeeded in looping the chain round the axle; then he invited me to turn the windlass of the crane while he kept an eye on the car's hoisted head. The wheels were soon free of the ground, and we swung the crippled vehicle round into line for towing. The mechanic mounted the lorry's driving seat. I took up my position beside him, producing cigarettes.
On the slow journey to the garage I attempted several gambits of conversation, from the weather to politics, from the flicks to the economic crisis. His responses were perfunctory and brief. At last I challenged him on more intimate ground. "Do you like your job? It must be tiring, but it's good skilled work, and socially useful." He laughed sourly. Then after a pause he said, "It's all right." I did not pursue the matter. It was as though I had been vainly knocking at a shut door in a shabby street; suspecting, moreover, that I had caught sight of someone watching through curtains.
In the garage, with its hum of machinery, clatter of metal, smell of exhaust gases, and an occasional splutter of curses from a mechanic at work under a nearby car, we set about dismantling the axle.
I must tell you about the work in some detail, even if it wearies you, because I cannot give the man without his environment; and the main feature of his environment was the all-pervading and exacting presence of mechanism; of sick machines, which imposed trains of meticulous activity upon their human doctors and nurses.
Our task, for instance, was quite a complicated one; and I soon found that in the twenty-five years since I had tackled this sort of thing techniques had changed. We had to take off the two front wheels, disconnect the track rod, remove the damaged bolt from the steering arm, and substitute a new one. Then came the operation of relieving the axle of its two stub axles, those great hinges on which the wheels turn sideways for steering. Finally, we had to unscrew the four stirrup bolts that hold the axle to the two front springs. Then at last we should be able to undertake the job of straightening the axle. There was also a damaged wing to be roughly repaired.
I regarded the operations ahead of us with exasperation and gloom, for to me they were just an irrelevance. But my companion attacked the work with quiet relish, or so I inferred from his loving way of handling the tools, and a certain firm delicacy and rhythm in all his actions.
While he worked on one side of the car, I hesitantly and clumsily attacked the corresponding member on the other side. He, of course, was always ahead of me. Sometimes, if he saw I was in difficulty, he would come round to help me. Once, when I felt him watching my awkward movements, I was flustered and let my spanner slip, barking my knuckles. To my surprise he said, consolingly, "Bad luck! The best of us do that sometimes." Then he added, with a new friendliness, which however was salted with sarcasm, "You don't handle the tools quite like a novice. Learned the tricks of the trade on your own car, I suppose?" I told him vaguely that I had spent most of the First War on cars, and a short spell in a workshop. He made no comment.
Well, after a lot of struggling and sweating on my part we had the freed members all parked by the garage wall, and the mutilated front of the car looking rather like a skull with no lower jaw. We also removed the crumpled wing; and then we carried the axle to the forge and settled it snugly into the coals. I, unbidden, took charge of the bellows, while my colleague piled on more fuel and made ready the blacksmith's tools. Then he waited, and we both watched the rhythmically increasing glow. Producing from within his overalls a small green packet, he offered me a cigarette. I said, "I don't seem to have much wind to spare at the moment." But I accepted the fag, and put it behind my ear. I saw him smile to himself at this too consciously proletarian gesture. Then, taking a long pair of pincers, he picked out a bright coal and lit his own cigarette. For some time he watched me critically. Presently he said, "You have forgotten the trick. Don't work so hard at it. Let her keep her own rhythm." I slowed down; but my action remained awkward, for I was self-conscious under his scrutiny. Presently he relieved me at the bellows, and we both smoked.
Anxious to seem thoroughly at ease, I remarked brightly that I was rather enjoying myself as a garage hand. He replied, "Just as well, since you're not paid for the job." Uncertainly, I said something to the effect that it was good practical skilled work, and that watching him I couldn't help feeling he enjoyed it himself. To this he answered rather violently, "If you had to stick to it all day and every day, you'd soon get fed up with the whole bloody life."
I was disconcerted by the note of anger in his voice. To my clumsy reminder that he had said his work was "all right," he answered, "At bottom it's all right, and it might be grand, but--" He eyed me as though debating whether to be frank or not, but remained silent. I queried, "Conditions bad?" "Good enough," he said, "but, well, society makes the whole thing all wrong." To my silly grunt of sympathy he replied hastily, "Oh, I'm well enough fixed up myself, really. The boss is all right, as they go. Might be a real good sort if it weren't for his false position, as employer. The pay gives me all I need, for the present. But, hell, what's it all for, the work, I mean? You said it was socially useful work, and so it might be. But the actual aim, naturally, is just to put money in his pocket, and to--" When I goaded him to go on, he said with sudden rage, "To help people like you with plenty of money to waste society's petrol on amusing themselves."
He looked at me with the cold gaze of a duellist who has drawn blood and is ready to parry the counterstroke. But I merely laughed off my small wound and said, "I see." He continued to oppose me with his rapier glance, and presently he said, quietly, "You might get me sacked for that." "That way," I said, "I should earn the contempt of a man I respect. Even if we are on opposite sides of the class war, which we're not really, we can treat each other with the respect due from person to person." He threw the butt of his fag into the forge. "Persons!" he snorted. "Cells in a sick society, nothing more! We are determined through and through by our social conditioning, and mainly by the thought forms imposed on us by the economic circumstances of the particular class to which each of us belongs." Once more the wink. He added, "Of course it's not really your fault you're a cell in the cancer lump; nor any credit to me that I am a humble muscle cell, and relatively sound." Again the wink.
By now, however, I was beginning to tumble to it that his prodigious wink was involuntary. All the same, I had a strong feeling that in some way it was significant, though unconsciously. Throughout my dealings with him his false wink falsely gave the lie to his manifest sincerity, and falsely invited me to laugh at his most treasured convictions. It was as though, deep within him, some buried self were humorously and forlornly signalling behind the other's upright back.
At this point he deserted the bellows for a moment to readjust the axle's position in the forge. He turned it over. The part that had been submerged in the coals was already dimly glowing.
When I could turn my attention from considering his eyelid's queer behaviour, I said, "You think we are wholly shaped by our class ideology, but what about Lenin? He was a lawyer, not an artisan, yet it was he that led the worker's revolution."
My companion embarked on a harangue. He even forgot to work the bellows, so I silently took his place. "Yes," he said, "the more alert among the bourgeoisie sometimes react not merely to the circumstances of their own class but to society as a whole. For the workers, of course, there's really no conflict, since the interest of their class is identical with the interest of society. But you comfortable people find it almost impossible to see beyond your own noses, or rather beyond the interest of your own reactionary class. The few who do succeed have all had some shock or other to wake them; like Lenin, who was outraged by the government's murder of his brother. Even so, we find that all but the very great ones (like Lenin) remain hidebound by their class ideology. At heart, you see, they never really get beyond being mere liberals. When it comes to the point, they funk the revolution, on the plea of forbearance, or Christian charity, or the inevitability of gradualism. And so they do more harm than good."
I remarked to my companion, with a sarcasm that failed to touch him, that he seemed to know all about it. He answered, quietly, "I read the one newspaper that champions the workers; and I watch people. In fact I keep my eyes open. And the great revolutionary writers help me to understand what I see." I asked him if he was quite sure that they themselves understood, in any deep way. Without taking his eyes from the axle, he said, "They explain human behaviour realistically, in terms of the economic motive; and in the long run this is all that counts, for the understanding of history. This goes deep enough for anyone who is concerned with social action." Once more the wink attacked him, and he impatiently rubbed his eye with his bent forefinger. I pointed out that the workers were far from being united in favour of the revolution which was to put their class in power. "Of course," he said, with an impatient glance at me. "Of course! They're hampered in two ways: by sheer blind stupidity, which prevents their seeing through the smoke screen of capitalist propaganda to the true interest of their class; and by antisocial self-interest. For the sake of individualistic dreams they betray society by violating their own social nature. You see, in the last resort the fully enlightened self-interest needs must identify itself with the interest of society; and so with the interest of the working class, which is the interest of society. Maliciously, I added, "In fact the only way to personal salvation is to recognize that we are all members one of another, and to live wholeheartedly for love." I chuckled. "Put it that way if it amuses you," he said, "but I prefer more scientific language. It's more precise and less misleading. Love is just a subjective emotion due to glands and so on. For action one must think in terms of objective historical forces."
I protested that even expert historians disagreed violently about historical forces. "You're right," he said, emphatically. "It's because they can't see the wood for the trees. At one time, when I was little more than a raw adolescent, I had a craze for attending evening classes. Specially after the military had refused me because of my stiff ankle. I felt I wanted something to live for, so I decided to live for the truth." He laughed at himself. "I began with a course on history and found Henry Ford was not far wrong when he said history was bunk. That sort of history was bunk. I also tackled psychology, thinking it would go deeper. In a way it did; but it didn't help me to understand the social mess; and it was social truth I wanted. I even began on philosophy; but, hell, it was all just playing with words. At last I tried a course in economics. The tutor seemed very worried about one Karl Marx, so I started reading Marx on my own. That introduced me to a new sort of economics and history; yes, and philosophy, too. It all made sense, fell into a pattern. Of course I realize now that old Marx is not infallible. But he's dry and scientific and unsentimental. And he gives you something big to live for and fight for."
At this point sunlight broke through the murky garage window and lit up countless motes in the air, so that a wide slanting shaft of light reached to the forge, turning fierce coal and axle into a mildly radiant living thing, into a glowing heart of love. The mechanic, a half-seen ministering figure, bowed over this tender being, his nun's face lit from below by its radiance. The rest was darkness. Then the sunlight vanished and with it that strange nativity.
The young man now put on more fuel, and then relieved me at the bellows, saying simply, "My turn, now."
Presently my mind reverted to a phrase that he had casually used. I said, "About this 'illusion of individuality'? What do you really mean? After all, you and I aren't illusions, are we! Individual conscious beings do exist, don't they? There's no denying that. And the state, thank God, is not an overmind." He answered with a teacher's patience, "Yes, but the individual is not a tight little pea rolling about on a plate with other peas. He's just a node in the social tissue, just a knot in the great net of society. Without society he's nothing. (How do they put it?) He's a focal point where social forces determine consciousness. Of course society is just made up of individuals, as a net is made up of knots; but it's society that matters; the net, not the knots." Against this view I protested. I said I could understand the view that nothing mattered, but that society, as such, should matter, rather than individuals, seemed to me a crazy notion.
Thinking of you and me, of our long growing- together, with its joys and pains (its growing pains), I had a sudden ridiculous vision of your face all puckered with amused exasperation when the milk boiled over before you could reach it. How could the loved individual behind that face not matter, I said to myself, inwardly laughing.
But aloud I said only, "Surely, surely, it's people that matter, and loving some of them. Yes, and all the workings of creative imagination and creative intelligence. All these matter, absolutely. And nothing else."
For a moment my companion paused in his work, and I seemed to hear a tremor in the breath that he took. Gently he said, "You have got it all wrong, comrade." (The word had slipped out, and he smiled at his mistake.) "Nothing matters absolutely. Good and bad are relevant to human wants. And of course what we all want is happiness, and to love and all that. But when you begin to understand historical forces, you find you don't want the old sort of happiness (personal success and love and so on); you want happiness for mankind as a whole. You discover that what matters for you is not just yourself, not even Tom, Dick and Harry, or all selves, but the whole social tissue of individuals. Each of us matters only insofar as he fulfils a useful function in the whole." Interrupting, I demanded, "And what is 'useful'?"
For some moments he was silent, staring sombrely at the forge. Then he said, with some exasperation, "We all know well enough what is useful, because we all know what it feels like to be frustrated. At any rate, the workers do." This answer did not satisfy me. I said, "But when the revolution has done away with social frustration, then what is useful?" Again he fell silent. Then he answered, dully, "That's really a false question, because we can't imagine ourselves into that time. New needs will always arise with the increasing complexity of society. But presumably, in the last analysis, what is useful is whatever is needed for fulfilling the dynamic potentialities of society. These include cultural activities like art and science, but the final sanction seems to be just power to dominate the nonhuman environment, power to organize the whole world for human living."
When I protested against this lame conclusion he answered hotly that the whole question was purely theoretical and sidetracking, and couldn't be answered in any significant way. Then he turned from defence to attack. "Anyhow," he said, "what sort of answer is yours? You say individuals matter. They do, to themselves, and sometimes to each other. But seen in a wider context, seen from the point of view of society, seen objectively, they don't matter in themselves at all. From the point of view of the hive, the individual bees are mere organs, mere cells in the social tissue. If we were not essentially social by nature, expressions of the social environment, there might be some point in each one's trying to be a perfect little flower of personality, like a woman caring only for her own beauty, and for admiration. But, Christ, how dull, how bloody dull that sort of thing is! And since we are social, how mean and evil it is too, in the only true sense of the words."
Without a pause he said, with a roughness that was at once exasperated and genial, "Come on, mate, this thing is about cooked now. Quick! Give me a hand."
We seized the axle with long pincers and lifted it from the forge. The crooked region glowed like a bar of sunset. Its surface was sprinkled with brighter sparkles. We fixed one cold end in a vice and tugged at the other with levers, to straighten the glowing crook. Conversation ceased. We strained and sweated; but the brightness faded to a ruddy grey before the main bend was even roughly straightened. My companion let go, remarking, "The bugger'll have to be cooked again. Come on, we'll give him hell this time, comrade." We both laughed, and I said, "Right, comrade! We'll liquidate the stiff- necked reactionary." We carried the axle back to the forge, and again I took up my place at the bellows, while he settled the bend snugly into the red hell and put on more coal.
I challenged him. "What sort of a revolution is it that you want, and are presumably working for?" He seemed to be musing, for he ignored my question. I repeated it. Still musing, he said, "Of course an easygoing revolution would be pleasantest; but no ruling class ever gives up without a struggle, so probably there'll be bloodshed. As soon as the government brings itself to do something really revolutionary the bosses will begin to take action with tanks and machine guns. And then, of course, they will have to be brought to heel with superior force. But of course the government may not ever do anything revolutionary." He fell silent, but when I prompted him, he said, "Then a resolute minority, knowing the need of the people better than they do themselves, may have to seize power. And if America tries to stop them, Russia will help them."
"Good God!" I said, laughing uneasily. "You're a dangerous fellow! So the resolute and far-seeing minority are actually to force the masses to have what is good for them, even at the risk of a world war."
He came to with a jerk. "Hell!" he said. "I meant it all in the abstract, of course. How did you get me talking this way?" I eagerly explained that he was talking this way because we had made a real personal contact, and so we couldn't help trusting each other. He staged a bitter laugh, and said, "Trust you? You're one of them, not one of us. I have no reason to trust you at all. You may be a bloody spy for all I know." The wink closed his eye for a full second.
In silence we both watched the brightness of the forge wax and wane in time with the bellows. Once more the axle became a bar of sunset. I suggested that we might now complete the bending, but he said, "No! It's still only orange; we must bring it up to primrose if we can." I redoubled my effort. Sweat streamed into my eyes and was salt in my mouth. "Let me have a turn," he said. And as we changed he gave me a child's shy smile. After we had put in a little more strenuous work on the bellows, the axle achieved a dazzling brilliance. "Now!" he said; and we hastily set it once more in the vice. Once more we levered and tugged, till he was satisfied that the true shape was restored. Then we took the axle to the anvil; and while I held it in position or turned it according to his orders, he gave the final touches with a hammer. The trailed wing of his forelock quivered with each blow. His pale face glistened with sweat. Presently he flung the hammer aside, saying, "That'll have to do. The thing's as stiff as a corpse again." He straightened himself, wiped his sweating hands on some waste, and blew a droplet from the tip of his nose. Our eyes met, and he grinned with schoolboy satisfaction. He said, "If only we could make the new world that way, with anvil and hammer, instead of machine guns, and people squealing in pain! But what history demands, must be." "Rot!" I retorted, as we laid the axle aside to cool.
This was the moment when I burnt my wrist. I grazed it against the hot axle and let out a yell. I apologized for my clumsiness and assured him that the hurt was nothing. In a moment my companion was transformed into a sister of mercy. Taking hold of my forearm with gentle hands, he examined the burn; and a surprising little cry of sympathy escaped him. Then with a motherly tenderness that I found embarrassing, for the hurt was indeed trivial, he murmured comforting words as though to a child that had bruised himself. He hurried away and returned with a first-aid outfit. He washed his hands in a tin basin with "Gresolvent," and then with carbolic soap. Soon he was applying some ointment or other to my wrist. Lint followed, and cotton wool. Then with firm but delicate touch he wound a bandage round the wrist and through the fork of the thumb. Expertly he divided the end of the bandage and knotted the two strands round the wrist, with the knot well away from the damage. He laid a caressing hand for a moment on the finished work. The gesture combined tenderness and pride in artistry. "That'll be all right," he said, "but don't use it too much for a bit." It was as though he were a great surgeon examining a patient recovering from some ticklish and successful operation. Our eyes met, and he must have seen my embarrassment, for he said, apologetically, "One can't be too careful," and added, "I wish I could have been a doctor."
Turning brusquely from me, he drew from an inner pocket a large old watch on a strap, and ejaculated, "Jees! It's dinnertime." I asked him to be my guest at a meal, but he refused with some return of hostility. He insisted on washing my hands for me. We took off our overalls; and as he seemed to be dawdling impatiently I tactfully left him.
After the gloom of the garage, my eyes contracted to cope with sunlight. The air sparkled with a shower of diamonds. The wet street gleamed. The tawdry facades displayed a real though borrowed glory. For even a poor little north country work town can be transfigured by celestial stagecraft to suggest the New Jerusalem. The faces of the people, homely but sunlit and freshened, adequately simulated pilgrims newly arrived in heaven. Their terrestrial clothing, their shawls, cloth caps, frayed mackintoshes and wrinkled or laddered stockings had still to be transmuted into the raiment of the blessed, but they had arrived in heaven. Closer inspection shattered the illusion. A policeman was admonishing a peddler. An old beggar held out a cap containing a nest-egg penny. A queue waited for rations. A news vendor displayed a poster announcing "The Atom and Russia."
Presently a more pleasing vision attracted me. A girl was distributing leaflets. She was a gallant little figure in grey trousers and a scarlet waterproof jerkin. Her dark hair, a halo in negative, gleamed with raindrops. With every leaflet she gave also a smile such that no man could resist, and surely no woman either. Some recipients of her literature studied it with care; some, after a mere glance, crumpled it and impatiently threw it into the gutter. As I approached, she encountered a woman carrying a baby in her shawl. I was following in the mother's wake, and I saw the young amazon's smile change. When my turn came and I was reaching out my hand for the leaflet, our eyes met; and for an instant, before the appropriate gaiety was restored, I was arrested by the depth of sorrow in that young face, so that I did not at once take hold of the paper. She pushed it into my hand, wrinkled her nose at me, reconstructed the smile, and turned for the next victim. Walking away, I read, "Protest meeting against dismissal of strikers," and so on. I put the leaflet in my pocket and continued my search for an eating place.
When my solitary meal was over, I hurried back toward the garage. Presently I found that I was overtaking a linked couple. There was no mistaking the red jerkin and the dark orb of hair. As I drew nearer I recognized that the man was my mechanic. He was talking earnestly to her, and from time to time I saw his ascetic profile lit with love. I slowed my pace and turned into a side street to allow them to reach the garage before me.
When I arrived, the young man was already at work. He had fixed the car's damaged wing on a bench and was carefully flattening out the puckers with a lead mallet. His smile of greeting was genial. He said with mock censure, "You're late! You'll be losing your job." Then he deserted the wing, and together we carried the cooled axle to the car, propped it roughly in position with blocks of wood, and began to refit the stirrup bolts. We worked in silence for a while, my companion seeming disinclined to talk. But his silence was not hostile, as it had been earlier in the day. My mind's antennae reported him as friendly, but absorbed.
When the axle was fixed, we attended to the steering arm. The sheered bolt had to be driven out of the socket with a punch and hammer, for rust had gripped it. When this was done, he cleaned the socket and oiled it, and lifted the whole stub axle back to the car to fit it in position once more. I followed suit with the other one. We inserted the bolts of the track rod. I was working at high pressure to keep pace with the more skilled man, but he said, "Take it easy, mate! You have a damaged wrist. I'll do the final tightening, to save your straining." This he did; and when the job was finished, he kept pushing the whole mechanism to and fro on its hinges as though anxiously testing the steering. But I could see that he was absorbed in his own thoughts.
Presently, without raising his eyes, he said, "You think I'm heartless about individuals, but I'm not. My trouble is that I am far too much tangled up with individuals. I'm not really 'possessed' by the revolution, as some of the comrades are. I try to be, but I can't be; not really." I waited for him to continue; and after a long pause he said, "Of course I do whatever has to be done. I have a reputation to keep up. But I have to force myself all the time. Outwardly I'm the leader, and they say I'm steel-willed. Inwardly I'm quite different. How Lenin would despise me! And because I know he would, I have to drive myself harder and harder. And that makes me drive the comrades hard, too. Sometimes they grumble, sometimes they slack, but I can always kick them into action again."
He rose, and fetched one of the wheels, and began to work it into position on a stub axle. I dealt with the other; in silence, for his confession intrigued me. But he did not continue it, till I had said, "Tell me more, if you feel like it." Presently he said, solemnly, "I have a girl friend." For a moment he looked at me across the front of the car with the eyes of a nesting bird on its eggs. He continued, "She's the real thing all right. She's heart and soul for the revolution. Together we really are a fighting unit. They call us the master cell. And if I drive the comrades, it's she that drives me. Just by believing in me, and setting me an example. Christ! I've got to live up to her belief in me." He was tightening up the wheel with fierce though accurate strokes of the lead mallet. Then he said, "But of course that's the wrong motive. I mustn't do it for her, but simply for the revolution. Perhaps I ought to give her up. Fancy her being a snare!"
I interrupted. "Good God, man! You're no revolutionary. You are just a puritan absorbed in your own struggle for righteousness, for salvation. As a Marxist you must believe that what matters is action, not motives. And you say that in action you're sound." He said nothing.
Both wheels were fixed. He fetched a long-handled jack to lever the car's weight from the blocks, so that I could move them away. Then he lowered the car till the wheels once more touched the ground, and the tires flattened very slightly with the car's weight.
He said, "In a way you're right, of course. But the point is, I'm dependent on her. As a unit we're sound in action, but without her I probably couldn't keep it up." After a pause he added, shyly, "You see, for me she is the revolution, the spirit of the revolution, concentrated in one little girl. That's really why I love her." His eye emphatically winked. "So, after all, if I act from her belief in me I really am acting from loyalty to the revolution, to the spirit of the revolution embodied in her." His eyelid flickered, and I let out a guffaw. "That's not much like Marxism," I said. He flushed and answered sharply, "It's quite sound, really. I didn't use Marxist language, but what I meant was just that historical forces have made her into the ideal comrade in revolutionary work, and that I want to cooperate with her all my life."
This was too much for me. I laughed again, and so far forgot myself as to give him a friendly punch, from which he recoiled with dignity. "Good God!" I said. "Can't you admit you're in love with the girl herself? Marxism is all very well, but if you push it too far it turns just silly. Human beings are very complicated things. They live in several dimensions at once, not just in one. And if they try to live just in one, they warp themselves horribly. Besides, if the revolution is controlled by one-dimensional minds, it will be warped too, horribly. If you go on the way you are going now, you'll grow into a dangerous fanatic; and if dangerous fanatics guide the revolution the whole thing will be poisoned. Instead of being inspired by love it will be harsh and barbarous and deadly."
He had been standing idly, wiping his hands on a bit of waste. Now he turned away brusquely to continue work on the damaged wing. The reiterated thud of the lead mallet seemed to give him satisfaction, for he continued hammering after the metal sheet was as flat as it would go. Presently he said, "Revolutions are bound to be harsh. You can't make that sort of omelette without breaking lives. And look! I do admit I'm in love with the girl herself. But if I was really possessed by the revolution, really fit to be a leader, I shouldn't love her that way. It's humiliating. I can't help being individualistically excited about her. I keep imagining all her body. Sometimes I wish I was on a South Sea island with her, alone with her, and living just for us two. Of course, I'm a sexual animal, and she's another; so my feeling that way about her is quite natural. But I ought to be able to rise above it all, for the revolution. I keep losing sight of the realest thing about her, just because of her hair and her eyes, and, well, the feel of her; and the way when we're together we seem to belong together, like a bolt and a nut. I mean, the realest thing about her is not really that sort of thing at all; it's just that she's a focal point where revolutionary forces in society find full expression. And the hell of it all is that if I give her up, as I once tried to do, I don't find it easier to concentrate on the revolution, but harder, much. I just think of nothing but her. Without her to watch me, my political work turns tiresome and silly." I laughed at him genially, but he did not respond.
We carried the repaired wing back to the car, and set about fixing it in position. I held it while he lay on his back to fit the bolts.
When the job was finished, he wriggled out from under the car, stood up, knocked the dust from his overalls, and said, dully, "The trouble with you comfortable people is always the same. You put up smoke screens to hide the truth from yourself, because you daren't face the consequences of seeing it. You talk about liberty (for the rich, of course) or personality, or the importance of expressing all sides of one's nature; and you won't see that today there's only one thing that is really important, namely that your class should be kicked out of its power and privileges. Everything else is just a sidetracking of historical forces that can't anyhow be halted but only delayed. And the longer they're delayed, the more misery. And now, look at the mess you have made of the world! Those of you who call yourselves socialists ought to be glad that socialism is established in one great country and is spreading over Europe; but you don't welcome it; you're terrified lest people should insist on having it here. So you persuade yourselves it's not really socialism at all, and you spread all sorts of lies about it, and actually believe them yourselves. And now! You know your bloody system is falling to pieces, and the only way to bolster it up for a bit is to have war scares and actual wars. And now you have prostituted science by inventing an absolutely hellish weapon, and you're getting ready to smash Russia before it's too late, even if it means smashing the world. But Jesus Christ! We'll see you don't succeed."
Uncomfortably I admitted there was truth in what he had said, but insisted that it was only half the truth. I began to talk about the unreasonableness of Russian policy since the war. He broke in bitterly, "The West has played false every time, and now Russia's taking no more risks." I spoke of the unmistakable evidence of tyranny inside Russia. He protested, "It would be madness to be squeamish when the motherland is in danger. Besides! The capitalist press is plugging anti-Russian dope all the time."
He was wiping the smeared wing. "Well," he said, more amiably, "the job's finished. She looks pretty awful with that wing, but she'll travel safely. We had better just try her out on the road to test the steering." It was late in the afternoon. I said that I should need a meal before continuing my journey; and I suggested that we should take the car to some cafe and have a high tea together. "I can't do that," he said. "My time belongs to the boss till six o'clock." I replied that his time was mine, till the job was finished, and that was how I intended to finish it. I added that if he could make contact with his girl he could bring her, too. I also remarked that he would be doing no harm except to his employer, and employers were fair game. To my surprise he had scruples. "No!" he said. "He plays fair, and I will too. Honestly, I'd like to come, but it wouldn't be playing the game." I laughingly accused him of being still enslaved to bourgeois morality. Then I took the matter into my own hands, found the proprietor, told him I wanted to take his man away early and talk to him over a meal, and added that I would pay for his time off. The boss looked at me in amazement and said, "But you have both been arguing all day. Besides, I have work for him to do. If I am to run a concern like this I must stick to sound business principles, and not go soft to my employees." However, after I had pleaded with him and flattered him, his geniality triumphed over his principles. He said, "Oh, well! He's a useful lad, in fact a key man, and I can't afford to put him against me. I expected your job would take all day, and it hasn't, so my plans are not really upset any more than they were by letting you have him in the beginning. So take him, if you haven't had enough arguing even yet."
I paid my bill; and after the mechanic and I had cleaned ourselves up a bit, we set off in the car. He directed me from street to street, until at last we drew up in front of a drab little house. In a few moments he had found the girl and brought her to the car. As he introduced us, she showed signs of recognition, and I confessed that she had handed me a leaflet earlier in the day.
In the cafe, the two sat primly opposite me like children on their best behaviour. They might have been at a children's party, waiting to be handed plates of trifle. They might have been brother and sister, for both had dark hair, deep eyes and a certain grace of movement, with which, I suspected, one had infected the other. I noticed that the girl's fastidious little nose had a slight downward curve, and that the wings of the nostrils were well marked. Her bright lips, flowerlike under the tip of her nose, were yet daintily compressed at the extremities. They at once invited and forbade. A chin like a small pale apricot lent firmness to the whole face.
I remarked to her that distributing leaflets was a job that always cowed me. However good the cause, I somehow hadn't the nerve to butt in on people. She flashed scorn at me, and said, "But surely it depends on the cause. If you don't really believe in it, of course you feel bad, even if you think you believe in it. But if you really, really believe in it, and especially if it is the most important of all causes, then you can't have any qualms at all. You would gladly force people to read your leaflets. You feel proud and glad to be on the job. And you don't notice when you're tired out." "And you are quite sure," I asked, "that your revolutionary propaganda is the most important of all causes?" "Naturally," she answered, with wide and earnest eyes. "What can possibly be more important than freeing the workers from exploitation by the rich, and founding the socialist world-state?"
Already, as you have guessed, knowing my weakness, I was half in love with this little fiery flower of a girl. But curiously I found myself less jealous of her lover than of the revolution.
I asked her if she was quite sure that the revolution really mattered so very much to her, more than personal values, like love and marriage and motherhood. She still gazed almost fiercely at me; but in the light of my earlier encounter with her I seemed to detect (or did I imagine?) a tremor in her eyes, slight as the quiver of a candle flame when a door is banged. She said, "Love matters to me very much, but the revolution matters very much more; because, you see, the revolution is going to make a world in which all loving can be far happier than it can ever be in our poisoning society. You see"--she glanced at her companion--"loving one person so much makes me love all others and want to help them. And so the revolution has got into my blood, into the very marrow that makes my blood."
All this while the young man was watching the face of his beloved with such tenderness that I was embarrassed. Perhaps he sensed my discomfort, for he suddenly compressed his lips, narrowed his eyes, and said gruffly, "The girl's right, you know. If the revolution really grips you, nothing else matters."
Still addressing the young woman, I said, "For the revolution, of course, you would not hesitate to lie and kill?" "Of course," she answered. "One mustn't be squeamish. Lying and killing are legitimate weapons for the revolution. They are wrong only when capitalists use them, against the revolution." I asked if she would even lie to her lover for the Revolution. "Of course, of course," she said. "I might have to lie to him. But he wouldn't really be my lover anymore if I had to lie to him for the revolution." She turned to her companion, and they looked at one another with grave affection.
The waitress arrived with our meal, and while she arranged the table we kept silent. My lady guest, acting as hostess, poured out the tea. We all attacked our fish and chips.
Presently I challenged the girl again. I said, "Would you even kill the man you love, for the revolution? Probably you will say the need could not possibly arise, but people do sometimes lose their balance completely and turn against their own ideals. Or let us merely suppose that, though he remained loyal to the revolution, he had adopted a policy which you firmly believed to be disastrous. (Think of Trotsky and Stalin.) Suppose you were convinced that for the revolution his immediate destruction was necessary. (Oh, I know this is all crazy from your point of view, but just suppose.) Well, would you kill him?" Again the two looked gravely at each other. She put down her fork, and laid her hand on his wrist, and she said, "I don't know what I would do, but clearly I ought to kill him. It would be right, darling, wouldn't it? I mean, socially desirable." Her questioning smile was appealing and tender; but before he could answer, it changed into a look of excitement and fervour, and she declared, "Of course, of course I would kill him. To be true to the revolution, and also to be true to my own love for him, for the real him, who taught me so much, and helped me to give myself to the revolution, I should have to sacrifice him." They looked at each other in mutual adoration.
I munched my fish in silence.
Presently she wrenched her gaze from her dear victim; and then, seeing that our cups were empty, she took off the lid of the teapot, so that steam swelled from it as a tall column. She poured in hot water and filled our cups.
I said, "Another question, still more fantastic. You say that for the revolution you would lie and even kill. Would you, perhaps draw the line at torture? Or would you not? Let us suppose that someone fell into your power who possessed information vitally necessary for the revolution, and that he refused to surrender it. Would you use torture to extract it? Would you put him through the third degree? Would you go further and, well, tear off his fingernails one by one? Would you, for the revolution, gouge out his eyes?" Her brows knit and her deep eyes blazed, deliciously scourging me. She said, "Those are just silly abstract questions without any practical bearing." But I would not be put off. "They are nothing of the sort," I insisted. "They might become very practical questions. Don't funk the issue!"
After a silence, she laid down her knife and fork, and still looking at her plate, she said wearily, "Very well! Clearly I ought not to shrink even from torture, not if there was no other way of making the fascist beast give up his secret. Fascists themselves torture and sometimes we may be forced to pay them back in kind. But look! When fascists torture, it's just brutality. If ever we torture, it will be like a necessary surgical operation." Once more she looked at her companion. Once more that gaze of mutual comprehension. Once more, and more terrifyingly, her face was suddenly lit with ecstasy, and she said in a rapt voice, "Yes! Even if it was the man I had loved, I would tear off his nails one by one, and gouge out his eyes. I would do anything at all, to him or to myself, for the revolution." Her lover was now staring at her, fascinated, as though she was some terrible, lovely goddess.
A sluggish autumnal fly fell from the ceiling onto our table. It lay on its back, feebly kicking. All our eyes were directed to it. Then suddenly I was prompted by a malicious impulse to use this moribund creature as a means of shaking the girl's assurance. I took up a table knife and brought its cutting edge down on the fly's thorax, slowly pressing. Its struggles became suddenly violent, but soon they dwindled to a mere quiver, and then ceased. For a moment the girl watched its dying antics, her exaltation fading. Then, to my surprise and horror, she put her face in her hands, and a muffled sob escaped her. The young man laid his arm round her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. Lowering her hands, she flashed defiance at me. "That," she said, quietly, "was not necessary for the revolution."
I flicked away the corpse, and murmured shamefacedly, "Sorry! But it was only an insect, not a man; and noxious, in its little way."
The young man protested that I ought not to take a girl by surprise like that. Girls were more sensitive than men to the sight of suffering. All the more credit to those that forced themselves to overcome their squeamishness for the revolution. I apologized again; and felt distressfully that you, too, would have condemned me. The girl sat motionless, staring at the tablecloth.
To draw my attention from her, the young man embarked on a lecture. "Look!" he said, brushing back his unruly hair. "I think I can clear up our muddle. Of course there's nothing really evil about squashing flies, but some of us have been very heavily conditioned against hurting anything, and so we may be upset by it. Now, the taboo on cruelty has been socially justified. It is socially very important that people should dislike hurting anything, even an insect. We need a terrifically strong spirit of mutual kindliness among human beings, and we can well afford to have it so strong that the excess of it spills over onto animals. But very often, of course, we have to kill animals for the good of man. And it is quite irrational to be squeamish about it." Here I tried to interrupt, but he continued. "The same argument applies to killing and torturing human beings. When they turn antisocial, noxious to mankind, it's just social common sense to put them out of the way. And if they have valuable information and won't surrender it, surely it's common sense to get it out of them, even by torture, if necessary. We ought to overcome our squeamishness." I tried again to interrupt, but he said, "Wait a minute. Of course, to use torture light-heartedly, even on insects, is psychologically dangerous; and to use it on human beings is infinitely more so. It may undermine the established moral tradition, and so destroy mutual trust. It may break down the, well, the psychological warp on which society is woven. Believe me, I do see that. And it's important, though some of the comrades don't really see how important. The taboo against killing and torture, and the violent guilt feelings that decent people have about them, really are immensely important, just because they are socially useful. All the same, in an urgent revolutionary situation it's irrational, it's plain madness, to let our emotional habit of squeamishness endanger the revolution. I don't see how you can possibly answer this unless you claim there's some sort of absolute moral law that must never, never, in any circumstances, be broken. If you do claim this, then you will have to base your moral law on the will of God or some other fantastic notion."
While the young mechanic was delivering this lecture, the girl continued looking at the tablecloth. But when he had done, she touched his hand, and said, "Thank you for that. I knew I was right really; but I lost my balance. You saved me from my own squeamishness."
Unpleasantly I saw myself through the eyes of these two young enthusiasts as a pitiable but noxious creature, dominated unwittingly by fear of the revolution. Gloomily I wondered if they were right. I entertained this possibility, intellectually; but I felt, and with conviction, that these generous-hearted young people, through loyalty to the truth of Marx and Lenin, had blinded themselves to the deeper truth of Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tzu and all the saints.
How could I answer my friends' well-reasoned challenge? It seemed important that an answer should be made. It seemed to me at the time that the very integrity of the cosmos somehow depended on my answer, even though I knew intellectually that such a thought was farcical. Suddenly I was surprised by a ludicrous but startling fantasy. I felt that, crowding around us in that cramped little cafe, were all the great prophets and saints of every age and country, and even of worlds unknown to man; and they were commanding me to reveal the truth to this admirable though deluded boy and girl. I protested that for them, the believing saints, it was easy to answer from their belief; but for me difficult, from my unbelief. But they replied, "You in your unbelief have claimed, nevertheless, a certainty. Answer from your certainty."
Then, most irrationally, I prayed. I prayed in the hollow of my own heart, mutely. I prayed to the unknown for light.
At last I embarked on a halting affirmation such as you have heard from me a thousand times. And never yet have the words wrung wholly true, for either of us.
The young revolutionaries sat eating their apple tart in silence. Sometimes they watched me coldly, as a judge might scrutinize a prisoner who confutes himself unwittingly. But presently their eyes grew milder, not with credence, no, but at least with kindness.
I began by uneasily admitting that in some very rare circumstances even torture might perhaps be the right course. But I declared that, if social utility alone were taken as the sole criterion of good and evil, torture and every kind of harshness would be far too tempting to those who, whether as rulers or rebels, believed themselves to be custodians of social utility. Little by little, but inevitably, society would be brutalized through and through. "That way," I said, "lies the degradation of man to insect." I declared, with a conviction that surprised even myself, that the taboo against torture must be felt to spring from something truly sacred. (Here the girl grimaced, the man sighed.) This something more than man, I freely granted, must not be thought of as a personal God, nor even as some principle fundamental to the cosmos; for such things, I insisted, were utterly beyond the reach of our understanding. As well might a worm explain humanity as a man expound the foundations of the cosmos. At this the young man nodded cautious approval.
Then, uncertainly, I bore witness to my certainty. I said my piece that you have heard so often, my piece about the spirit. Familiar as it is to you (oh, too familiar), I find I must now say it all over again, because under the scrutiny of those young earnest eyes I found myself phrasing it in a subtly different idiom or with a new accent.
"This something," I said, "this all-important thing, is at once in us, and yet not just ourselves. It is something in a way distinct from us that we see inwardly. It is something in relation to which (when we really, really see it) the whole human species seems not an end but a means; an instrument for realizing this something, this glorious possibility. Oneself, and others, and the whole species come to seem unimportant save insofar as they succeed in embodying or expressing this possibility, this ideal, this, yes, this spirit, in concrete human living. And yet, if we are honest, we are forced to recognize that the human mind cannot possibly understand what the status of this thing is, in the universe as a whole. We know it only in ourselves and each other, and in our loving each other; and of course in all the forms of our conscious and creative behaviour. But love is the very tissue of it. The tissue, I mean, of the vision that we have of it. For it confronts us as a vision. What gives us the vision we cannot know. It is a vision that simply emerges out of the relation between a conscious being and an objective universe containing other conscious beings. So this 'something,' this spirit, presents itself as a vision of a way of behaving in relation to the objective universe; an ideal way of life. It is the way of sensitive and intelligent awareness of everything that comes up against one in the business of living. It is the way of love for all lovely things; and of at least sympathetic understanding for all unlovely things; yes, and even of love for them in an odd sort of style. But above all it is the way of creative action in relation to the real world of minds and things; action not just for action's sake, or to make a big noise or a big mark on the universe, but action to make more loveliness and more loving, I mean more sensitive and intelligent loving; in fact, it is essentially the way of action to fulfil and express the, well, the spiritual potentiality of--of?--well, of the objective universe itself in its impact on subjective beings."
I paused to think of the next thing to say. The eyes of the couple were upon me, interested, a little troubled, fundamentally aloof. "Go on!" the young man said.
This ideal," I declared, "this spirit, has gradually revealed itself throughout the ages to the most sensitive human minds. And we ourselves, in our clearest state, cannot but recognize its claims on us. Moreover, though we know so little about the universe, we can be quite sure (in virtue of our experience of spirit) that all personal beings throughout the whole cosmos of space and time must joyfully worship this thing, whenever they are properly awake and not misled by obsessions over trivial irrelevant cravings. And this vision of the spirit, this recognition of 'fittingness,' 'appropriateness,' in personal behaviour, is the true sanction of right and wrong. Killing and torture are in themselves always evil just because they are a flagrant violation of the spirit. No doubt, in our sick-adolescent world, killing is sometimes necessary (and many other evils, too), but only in defence of the spirit. And only those who have a deep and spiritual loathing of killing (not a mere sickly squeamishness) are to be trusted to kill (or sanction killing) only when loyalty to the spirit itself demands it. And it is the same with torture, but with a difference; for even in our barbaric society we can be sure that in practice there are no situations in which it is justified. For no immediate goal can compensate for the hideous degradation that it causes, in the torturer and in society."
I could say no more. The cloud of unseen witnesses that had seemed to press in upon me faded from the room, withdrawing (it seemed to me) with a sigh, whether of fulfilment or of disappointment I could not determine.
The three of us sat in silence. Then the young man said, sadly, "Ideas like those have power, but it is a hypnotic power, appealing to the infantile need for something great and imposing, like the father, and later the leader. Be careful, comrade, lest you trick yourself into some sort of fascism. Because, you know, fascists can support their brutal values by arguments like yours, based on feeling instead of intelligence."
I answered desperately, "They can, of course, but falsely. Their values are opposed fundamentally to the whole great spiritual tradition of mankind; and also to our own individual intuition when we are most clearly conscious, most fully ourselves, not distracted by some irrelevant craving, like the craving for power. And think! In personal relations most of us know quite well the difference between two kinds of relation that are both called love, but one of them quite falsely. We know the difference between using a girl as a mere means to one's own satisfaction, and really loving her." The two glanced at each other. I continued. "Of course, if you have never really loved you cannot know what that difference is. And in the same way, if you have never really experienced the spirit you cannot possibly see the difference between it and the counterfeit of it that Marxism and Freudianism so glibly explain."
Suddenly I noted that my guests were already smoking, and that a cigarette had been put down for me on the table. The young man was expelling from his lungs a great cloud of smoke. He dispersed it with his hand, as though brushing aside my fog of words. He said, "Well, at least you have made me see how seductive the old ideas can be, especially if one needs a smoke screen." Suddenly, the wink once more violently assailed him; and he said, surprisingly, "Something deep down in me makes me wish you were right. If I didn't wish it so much, I shouldn't need to be so much on my guard." The girl, who had been dreamily watching me, turned to her lover with a sudden look of perplexity.
Then again she gazed at me, holding her lip-stained cigarette in a poised hand, while from her nostrils smoke wreaths caressed her face. Still studying me, she murmured to him, "He really believes it." Then after a draught of smoke, she said, "He's earnest about it. Suppose he really has got hold of some truth he can't properly tell. In a way I can sort of feel it." But in a harder voice she declared, "But today it's not what we need. It's an irrelevance and dangerous. Gentleness, and all that, is dangerous. We must keep it locked tight in our hearts. We must be made of steel. For today, the struggle."
Evidently this amazon had tasted poetry, at least the modern poetry of the revolution.
"Comrade," she said, and she could not prevent the imprisoned gentleness from looking out from her eyes, "I shall be sorry if in the end we have to liquidate you." She smiled. It was the smile that I had intruded upon when first we met. I duly laughed.
Turning to her lover, she hauled up his watch from his breast pocket, and glancing at it she cried, "Half-past already! And we have to arrange the hall for the meeting."
The two rose hurriedly, and I secured my bill. As we shook hands for parting, the mechanic said quietly, "I'm glad you had that breakdown."
Third Encounter: A Mystic
Four Encounters Contents