Why I Quit Going To Church
In the retrospect of a life which had, besides its preliminary stage of childhood and early youth, two distinct developments, and even two distinct elements, such as earth and water, for its successive scenes, a certain amount of naiveness is unavoidable.
I am conscious of it in these pages. This remark is put forward in no apologetic spirit. As years go by and the number of pages grows steadily, the feeling grows upon one, too, that one can write only for friends. Then why should one put them to the necessity of protesting as a friend would do that no apology is necessary, or put, perchance, into their heads the doubt of one's discretion? So much as to the care due to those friends whom a word here, a line there, a fortunate page of just feeling in the right place, some happy simplicity, or even some lucky subtlety, has drawn from the great multitude of fellow beings even as a fish is drawn from the depths of the sea.
Fishing is notoriously I am talking now of the deep sea a matter of luck. As to one's enemies, they will take care of themselves. There is a gentleman, for instance, who, metaphorically speaking, jumps upon me with both feet. This image has no grace, but it is exceedingly apt to the occasion--to the several occasions. I don't know precisely how long he has been indulging in that intermittent exercise, whose seasons are ruled by the custom of the publishing trade.
Somebody pointed him out in printed shape, of course to my attention some time ago, and straightway I experienced a sort of reluctant affection for that robust man. He leaves not a shred of my substance untrodden: for the writer's substance is his writing; the rest of him is but a vain shadow, cherished or hated on uncritical grounds. Not a shred!
Yet the sentiment owned to is not a freak of affectation or perversity. It has a deeper, and, I venture to think, a more estimable origin than the caprice of emotional lawlessness. It is, indeed, lawful, in so much that it is given reluctantly for a consideration, for several considerations.
A Personal Record/Chapter VI
There is that robustness, for instance, so often the sign of good moral balance. That's a consideration. It is not, indeed, pleasant to be stamped upon, but the very thoroughness of the operation, implying not only a careful reading, but some real insight into work whose qualities and defects, whatever they may be, are not so much on the surface, is something to be thankful for in view of the fact that it may happen to one's work to be condemned without being read at all.
This is the most fatuous adventure that can well happen to a writer venturing his soul among criticisms. It can do one no harm, of course, but it is disagreeable. It is disagreeable in the same way as discovering a three-card-trick man among a decent lot of folk in a third-class compartment. The open impudence of the whole transaction, appealing insidiously to the folly and credulity of man kind, the brazen, shameless patter, proclaiming the fraud openly while insisting on the fairness of the game, give one a feeling of sickening disgust.
The honest violence of a plain man playing a fair game fairly--even if he means to knock you over--may appear shocking, but it remains within the pale of decency. Damaging as it may be, it is in no sense offensive. One may well feel some regard for honesty, even if practised upon one's own vile body. But it is very obvious that an enemy of that sort will not be stayed by explanations or placated by apologies.
Were I to advance the plea of youth in excuse of the naiveness to be found in these pages, he would be likely to say "Bosh!
Yet a writer is no older than his first published book, and, not withstanding the vain appearances of decay which attend us in this transitory life, I stand here with the wreath of only fifteen short summers on my brow. With the remark, then, that at such tender age some naiveness of feeling and expression is excusable, I proceed to admit that, upon the whole, my previous state of existence was not a good equipment for a literary life.
Perhaps I should not have used the word literary. That word presupposes an intimacy of acquaintance with letters, a turn of mind, and a manner of feeling to which I dare lay no claim.
I only love letters; but the love of letters does not make a literary man, any more than the love of the sea makes a seaman. And it is very possible, too, that I love the letters in the same way a literary man may love the sea he looks at from the shore--a scene of great endeavour and of great achievements changing the face of the world, the great open way to all sorts of undiscovered countries.
No, perhaps I had better say that the life at sea--and I don't mean a mere taste of it, but a good broad span of years, something that really counts as real service--is not, upon the whole, a good equipment for a writing life. God forbid, though, that I should be thought of as denying my masters of the quarter-deck.
I am not capable of that sort of apostasy.
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I have confessed my attitude of piety toward their shades in three or four tales, and if any man on earth more than another needs to be true to himself as he hopes to be saved, it is certainly the writer of fiction. What I meant to say, simply, is that the quarter-deck training does not prepare one sufficiently for the reception of literary criticism.
Only that, and no more. But this defect is not without gravity.
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If it be permissible to twist, invert, adapt and spoil Mr. Anatole France's definition of a good critic, then let us say that the good author is he who contemplates without marked joy or excessive sorrow the adventures of his soul among criticisms.
Far be from me the intention to mislead an attentive public into the belief that there is no criticism at sea. That would be dishonest, and even impolite. Ever thing can be found at sea, according to the spirit of your quest--strife, peace, romance, naturalism of the most pronounced kind, ideals, boredom, disgust, inspiration--and every conceivable opportunity, including the opportunity to make a fool of yourself, exactly as in the pursuit of literature.
But the quarter-deck criticism is somewhat different from literary criticism.
This much they have in common, that before the one and the other the answering back, as a general rule, does not pay. Yes, you find criticism at sea, and even appreciation--I tell you everything is to be found on salt water--criticism generally impromptu, and always viva voce , which is the outward, obvious difference from the literary operation of that kind, with consequent freshness and vigour which may be lacking in the printed word.
With appreciation, which comes at the end, when the critic and the criticised are about to part, it is otherwise. The sea appreciation of one's humble talents has the permanency of the written word, seldom the charm of variety, is formal in its phrasing. There the literary master has the superiority, though he, too, can in effect but say--and often says it in the very phrase--"I can highly recommend.
I have a small handful of these sea appreciations, signed by various masters, yellowing slowly in my writing-table's left hand drawer, rustling under my reverent touch, like a handful of dry leaves plucked for a tender memento from the tree of knowledge. It seems that it is for these few bits of paper, headed by the names of a few Scots and English shipmasters, that I have faced the astonished indignations, the mockeries, and the reproaches of a sort hard to bear for a boy of fifteen; that I have been charged with the want of patriotism, the want of sense, and the want of heart, too; that I went through agonies of self-conflict and shed secret tears not a few, and had the beauties of the Furca Pass spoiled for me, and have been called an "incorrigible Don Quixote," in allusion to the book-born madness of the knight.
For that spoil! They rustle, those bits of paper--some dozen of them in all. In that faint, ghostly sound there live the memories of twenty years, the voices of rough men now no more, the strong voice of the everlasting winds, and the whisper of a mysterious spell, the murmur of the great sea, which must have somehow reached my inland cradle and entered my unconscious ear, like that formula of Mohammedan faith the Mussulman father whispers into the ear of his new-born infant, making him one of the faithful almost with his first breath.
I do not know whether I have been a good seaman, but I know I have been a very faithful one. And, after all, there is that handful of "characters" from various ships to prove that all these years have not been altogether a dream. There they are, brief, and monotonous in tone, but as suggestive bits of writing to me as any inspired page to be found in literature.
But then, you see, I have been called romantic. Well, that can't be helped. But stay. I seem to remember that I have been called a realist, also. And as that charge, too, can be made out, let us try to live up to it, at whatever cost, for a change.
With this end in view, I will confide to you coyly, and only because there is no one about to see my blushes by the light of the midnight lamp, that these suggestive bits of quarter-deck appreciation, one and all, contain the words "strictly sober.
Did I overhear a civil murmur, "That's very gratifying, to be sure? It is at least as gratifying to be certified sober as to be certified romantic, though such certificates would not qualify one for the secretaryship of a temperance association or for the post of official troubadour to some lordly democratic institution such as the London County Council, for instance.
The above prosaic reflection is put down here only in order to prove the general sobriety of my judgment in mundane affairs. I make a point of it because a couple of years ago, a certain short story of mine being published in a French translation, a Parisian critic--I am almost certain it was M.
Gustave Kahn in the "Gil Blas"--giving me a short notice, summed up his rapid impression of the writer's quality in the words un puissant reveur.
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So be it! Who could cavil at the words of a friendly reader? Yet perhaps not such an unconditional dreamer as all that. I will make bold to say that neither at sea nor ashore have I ever lost the sense of responsibility.
There is more than one sort of intoxication. Even before the most seductive reveries I have remained mindful of that sobriety of interior life, that asceticism of sentiment, in which alone the naked form of truth, such as one conceives it, such as one feels it, can be rendered without shame. It is but a maudlin and indecent verity that comes out through the strength of wine. I have tried to be a sober worker all my life--all my two lives.
I did so from taste, no doubt, having an instinctive horror of losing my sense of full self-possession, but also from artistic conviction. Yet there are so many pitfalls on each side of the true path that, having gone some way, and feeling a little battered and weary, as a middle-aged traveller will from the mere daily difficulties of the march, I ask myself whether I have kept always, always faithful to that sobriety where in there is power and truth and peace.
As to my sea sobriety, that is quite properly certified under the sign-manual of several trustworthy shipmasters of some standing in their time. I seem to hear your polite murmur that "Surely this might have been taken for granted.
It might not have been. That August academical body, the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, takes nothing for granted in the granting of its learned degrees. By its regulations issued under the first Merchant Shipping Act, the very word sober must be written, or a whole sackful, a ton, a mountain of the most enthusiastic appreciation will avail you nothing. The door of the examination rooms shall remain closed to your tears and entreaties. The most fanatical advocate of temperance could not be more pitilessly fierce in his rectitude than the Marine Department of the Board of Trade.
As I have been face to face at various times with all the examiners of the Port of London in my generation, there can be no doubt as to the force and the continuity of my abstemiousness.
With Answers to Critics and Correspondents
Three of them were examiners in seamanship, and it was my fate to be delivered into the hands of each of them at proper intervals of sea service. The first of all, tall, spare, with a perfectly white head and mustache, a quiet, kindly manner, and an air of benign intelligence, must, I am forced to conclude, have been unfavourably impressed by something in my appearance.
His old, thin hands loosely clasped resting on his crossed legs, he began by an elementary question, in a mild voice, and went on, went on. It lasted for hours, for hours. Had I been a strange microbe with potentialities of deadly mischief to the Merchant Service I could not have been submitted to a more microscopic examination.
Greatly reassured by his apparent benevolence, I had been at first very alert in my answers. But at length the feeling of my brain getting addled crept upon me. And still the passionless process went on, with a sense of untold ages having been spent already on mere preliminaries. Then I got frightened.