Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 17 - HOW THE WORLD LOOKS AT SEVENTY | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Appendix 1 - Congratulatory Letter and Reply

I REMEMBER having often wondered, in earlier days, what would be the answer to this question. And now I have the privilege of myself standing on the pinnacle of age - and of being in the position where some kind of verdict may be given.

There are two verses about David and Solomon whose origin I have not been able to trace, but which run as follows:

King David and King Solomon
Led very merry lives
With many many concubines
And many many wives.

But when old age came on them
With many many qualms,
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs
And David wrote the Psalms.

Perhaps this gives the most general and accepted view on the subject - a view of old age as something a little dull, a little ineffectual, consoling itself with verses and good advice and other second-hand joys. On the whole perhaps a fairly correct view; and yet I cannot but think that it misses something very important, something which in earlier days one does not associate with old age - the sense of adventure.

Youth is full of acknowledged adventure; the campaigns of Love and of War are thrilling and absorbing; but youth does not know or at any rate only faintly surmises how absorbing may be the great adventure of Death.

On the whole I am struck by the singularly little difference I feel in myself, as I realize it now, from what I was when a boy say of eighteen or twenty. In the deeps of course. Superficially there are plenty of differences, but they relate mostly to superficial things like success in games, examinations and so forth. I used to go and sit on the beach at Brighton and dream, and now I sit on the shore of human life and dream practically the same dreams. I remember about the time that I mention or it may have been a trifle later coming to the distinct conclusion that there were only two things really worth living for - the glory and beauty of Nature, and the glory and beauty of human love and friendship. And to-day I still feel the same. What else indeed is there? All the nonsense about riches, fame, distinction, ease, luxury and so forth how little does it amount to! It really is not worth wasting time over. These things are so obviously secondhand affairs, useful only and in so far as they may lead to the first two, and short of their doing that liable to become odious and harmful. To become united and in line with the beauty and vitality of Nature (but, Lord help us ! we are far enough off from that at present), and to become united with those we love what other ultimate object in life is there? Surely all these other things these games and examinations, these churches and chapels, these district councils and money markets, these top-hats and telephones and even the general necessity of earning one's living if they are not ultimately for that, what are they for?

At any rate that is how I feel about it now. I feel that the object of life at seventy is practically the same as it was at twenty. Only one thing has been added. One thing. Beneath the surface waves and storms of youth, beneath the backward and forward fluctuations, deep down, there has been added the calm of inner realization and union. I know now that these two primordial and foundational things (or perhaps they are one) are there. Our union with Nature and humanity is a fact, which whether we recognize it or not is at the base of our lives; slumbering, yet ready to wake in our consciousness when the due time arrives.

With this assurance one certainly discovers that life even in old age may be delightful. What one loses in the keenness and passion of sensual and external things one gains in the inward world - in calm and strength and the deep certainties of life. One can hardly expect to have it both ways. We may concentrate mainly (though not exclusively) on the outer life, or we may concentrate mainly on the inner life, but hardly on both at the same time. And the latter alternative has its advantages. Socrates, in reply to a friend who condoled with him on the waning of his sexual passion, asked whether he would not consider a man happy who had escaped from the clutches of a fierce tiger. "Certainly I should," answered the friend. "Then why," retorted Socrates, "do you not congratulate instead of commiserating me!"

I find there are compensations and consolations in old age. People feel kindly towards you partly because they consider you harmless and not likely to injure them, partly because they are not envious of your condition. They pity you a little in fact - which pleases them and does no harm to you. I find I am a little hard of hearing, and people are good enough - in fact they are compelled - to speak up and speak distinctly. They have the pleasure of helping me over my deafness, and I have the satisfaction of getting them out of their mumbling habits of conversation - a satisfaction so great that were I really not a bit deaf I feel that I should have to pretend to be! As I think I have said before { Footnote 1 } old people and infirm folk and chronic invalids and the like often get needlessly depressed over the impression that they are a burden and an affliction to their friends, whereas in very truth by calling out the sympathies, the energy, the resource and the consideration of those around them they are really conferring the greatest of benefits; and many a household is really supported and held together by the one who to all outward appearance seems to be the most frail and useless member of it. As Lao-tsze says "The thirty spokes of a carriage-wheel uniting at the nave are made useful by the hole in the centre, { Footnote 2 } where nothing exists," and "To teach without words and to be useful without action, few among men are capable of this."

After the fuss and flurry of all the good folk who go about " doing good," to find that you can perhaps be most useful by being a "hole in the centre" is very refreshing.

Unfortunately the world is very unwilling to allow this privilege, and as a rule in a quite automatic way accords to the aged a good deal of respect and influence, pushing them up into positions of power and notoriety. This is all right if you are quite worthy of it, but dangerous if you are not. And naturally if you desire power (and notoriety) you are not likely to be worthy of it.

On August 29, 1914, being my seventieth birthday, some of my friends were good enough to present me with a congratulatory Address couched in very friendly and affectionate terms. Though I cannot say that I desired the thing beforehand seeing that there is always something painful in the very idea of being singled out in any such way yet I must confess that, being done, 'it was a consolation and a pleasure to me. { Footnote 3 }

There is one thing however that I think I have not sufficiently dwelt on as a valid and permanent object of Life though perhaps in some subtle way it may be implied in what I have said before. I mean Self-Expression. Constructive expression of oneself is one of the greatest joys, and one of the greatest needs of life; and as long as one's Life exists in this or any other sphere so long I imagine will that need be present, and the joy in its fulfilment. It is a foundation-urge of all Creation. At first sight this seems contrary, and indeed hostile, to the hole-in-the-centre theory; but probably it will be found not to be so. Probably it is only a question of the depth at which the Self is functioning. Near the surface the self is very definite and constructive in this or that direction; it is limited in its aims and operations, and so far its activity seems to be at variance with other aims and operations. At the centre it is neither this nor that, because it is All. It vanishes from sight because it has become the Whole.

Most healthy work is generated from a desire for, or an effort towards, self-expression. If one's feet suffer from cold and exposure to injury one makes boots to protect and cover them. If boots prove painful and confining one designs sandals in order to free them. Having made these for oneself first, other people desire them and adopt the same devices. One's work, begun for a private purpose and to satisfy one's own wants, is continued for public ends and becomes a kind of extended selfishness. It is the same with the institutions of society. Finding that they maim and confine you personally, the best thing you can do is to liberate yourself by reshaping them. In reshaping them you liberate others, and are accounted a reformer and general benefactor. But I imagine that no one is really a useful reformer who does not begin the work from his own private need, since that is the only way in which he can understand the true inward- ness of the work to be done. And the accusation of selfishness, which may be preferred against him, saves him from the awful danger of becoming, or posing as, a public benefactor.

It is truly wonderful to see what activity, what enthusiasm, vast numbers of people throw into public work of one kind or another. Let us hope they all do so from the underlying ground of some personal need which makes them unhappy in the existing conditions and impels them for their own personal satisfaction to alter those conditions. If so their work will probably be healthful and successful. It will not wait on results but will bring its own results with it. Still there is a paradox in all such action. I cannot personally be comfortable in a society which makes a fetish, say, of what H.G.Wells calls The Misery of Boots. Therefore I work for a future society where people shall go barefoot or freely wear such footgear as suits them. But by the time such state of society arrives, where shall "I" be? That is the question. What is the good of my working for a state of things which will certainly not come in my lifetime? What is the impelling force which causes me so to work when it would be so much easier not to work, and merely to let things slide? If, as one must suppose, it is something organic in Nature, it must be that I "myself" will be there. I, the superficial one, am working now for the other "I," the deeper one - who is also really present even at this moment (although he lies low and says nothing about it) and who in due time will consume the fruits which he is now preparing.

I find at the age of seventy that I am getting nearer to that place in the centre where nothing- exists and yet all is done and that I suppose is satisfactory. A very simple round of life contents me. As long as I can have my friend (or friends) and my little corner of Nature, and my little pastime of constructive work, I really do not know what to wish for more. (And surely every one ought to be able to command these.)

We are up - my friend and I at about 7 a.m. in summer, about 8.0 in winter. In summer a wash and a sunbath on the lawn, for half an hour, are very much in the order of the day. Then, for me, there is my study to tidy up and dust and (in winter) my fire to light; there is the front of the house to sweep, wood to chop, and so forth. George has his kitchen to attend to, coals to get in, the chickens to feed, and preparations to make for the work of the day baking or washing or whatever it may be.

I remember the time when I used to think that to get up early, perhaps by candlelight, go down into a dishevelled sitting-room, clean out the grate and light up the fire would surely be the most dismal of occupations; as a matter of fact I find these little preliminary duties quite interesting. They stir one's limbs and one's interest in the world, and help to peel off the thin but clinging veil of sleep.

By 8.30 I find I can settle down to work, either in my study or, if the weather allows, outside in my little veranda or porch. I thus get a couple of hours fairly undisturbed. At 10.30 we have breakfast or what is called 'brunch,' a combination of breakfast and lunch a good meal of coffee and milk, oatmeal porridge, an omelet, stewed fruit, or similar provender, and which one enjoys all the more for its being the first in the day. Brunch and reading the daily paper occupy an hour; and at 11.30 I am able to start work again and go on to 1.30 or 2.0. I thus get a good four hours or more in the morning for solid literary work, to some extent broken into at times by mere business matters and correspondence, but generally the most satisfactory period of work in the day.

At two or so one goes easy. By the ruse of 'brunch' one has avoided that deadly snare, the midday meal. Is it not Thoreau. who says that one should pass by the one o'clock dinner "tied to the mast, like Ulysses, and deaf to the voice of the Siren"? Certainly George and I never cease to congratulate ourselves on this arrangement by which the painful density and lethargy of that period is escaped. It seems to place the day in its proper order and perspective; and we only regret that most people owing to professional hours and public duties are not able to conform to it. From 2.0 or 2.30 to 5.0 one can make a change. There are oddments of work to do in the garden, there are little outdoor renewals and repairs round the house, there are visitors and casual guests; at 4.0 or so there is the sociability of afternoon tea. At 5.0 there are letters to get ready for the post, which goes at 6.30. At 7.0 there is supper, which is generally a rather more substantial meal than brunch. Sometimes tea and supper are combined in one intermediate meal, which of course goes by the name of 'tupper.' In the evening there are friends to see, books to read, notes to make; there is the public- house, which is an unfailing joy, and the farm-lads' Club, which is always homely and cheering. What can one wish for more? It is hard to say.

Yet I ought to say and it would be less than candid not to say that there have been times all through my life when the necessity of escaping into an altogether bigger world than that provided by my native land has come upon me with a kind of Berserker rage. As I think I have said, I come of Cornish ancestry - and my private opinion is that I was left on the coast of Cornwall some three thousand years ago by a Phoenician trader. At any rate the leaden skies of England, and something (if I may say so) rather grey and leaden about the people, have since early days had the effect of making me feel not quite at home in my own country. I longed for more sunshine, and for something corresponding to sunshine in human nature more gaiety, vivacity of heart and openness to ideas. But everything has its compensation, and the result of being pinned down so much to a limited and local life on the land has been, that every three or four years I have been able to 'stick it' no longer, and have been compelled in the intervals of my work to make a dash for some warmer and brighter climate. In this way it has come about that I have seen quite a little of other lands not only of the usual resorts in Switzerland and Italy, but of places like Morocco, Sicily, Corsica, Spain, besides (as already mentioned) the United States and Ceylon and India. Having a talent for economical travel I have been able to do this at singularly small expense. And my knowledge of agriculture and of the working life of the people at home has in such cases opened up a world of interest in the comparison of these with the corresponding things abroad a world which as a rule is a sealed book to the ordinary tourist. In many cases my companions have themselves been manual workers, and I have found the vivacity of their interest in foreign fields and crops or in town-trades and workshops both encouraging and amazing.

At the age of seventy one does not bother so much about the exceptional feats, about great exploits, the climbing of the highest mountains. The ordinary levels of life seem sufficient. I confess that excessive cleverness and all that sort of thing bores me rather than otherwise. I seem to see in the general average of human life, in the ordinary daily needs, a steady force pushing mankind onwards, or rather, gradually unfolding through mankind the liberation of a core of goodness and worth which is undeniable, impossible to ignore, and daily coining more and more into evidence. I say this deliberately and with full recognition all the time of the vast masses of cheap and nasty people as well as of cheap and nasty things which are washed up in the ordinary current of this our modern life, and with recognition also of the huge whirlpools of popular madness which occasionally arise, and which accompany crises like that from which we are now suffering [1915]. Perhaps the madness and the blind passion the loosening of the torrents of hate and revenge, and of the pent-up waters of prejudice and ignorance are, after all, better than the dreary stagnation of the cheap and nasty. The whole commercial period through which we, here in the West, have been passing for the last hundred years has undoubtedly bred, both in men and goods, a lamentable common- placeness and cheapness a low level and a paltry standard of human value. Perhaps even the madness of warfare is better than that.

It is curious that for the last twenty years or more there has been a general feeling especially among the Socialists and Internationalists of the various countries that society was approaching a critical period of transformation. It had become obvious that the existing order of things in Government, Law, Finance, Industry, Commerce, Morality, Religion, the Capitalist Wage system, the Rivalry of nation with nation, the administration and cultivation of the Land, and so forth - could not continue much longer. In each one and all of these matters we have been heading towards an impasse, a block, a point at which further progress in the old direction must cease, and a new departure begin. We have seen this; and yet we have been unable to say, for the most part, or even surmise, how the change would come, what catastrophe would upset the balance of our highly artificial Commercial Civi- lization, or in what way a new order of life, and a more human and rational order, might begin to establish itself. The Catastrophe has come. We are already in the welter of a World-war which in magnitude exceeds anything that has ever occurred in the past, or even been imagined. The nations are in the melting-pot; the institutions of society are threatened in every direction. But at present we are still unable to see the outcome, or even to guess what it will be. The lineaments of the new world are hidden from us. That the outcome will be far, far greater and grander than we now suppose, I do not doubt also that it will take far longer than we generally think to define itself. Beneath all the madness of the present conflict - the raging passions, the insane folly, the frantic delusions, the devilish concentration of all the wit and ingenuity of man towards purposes of death and torture, there is, I firmly believe, a method and a meaning. A new life is preparing to show itself coming to the surface of society, as it were, out of the deeps, showing indeed the strangest and most violent agitation of that surface just before its appearance. Having lived so long as I have done among the downright manual workers of our towns and the agricultural rustics primitives as they are in many ways and belonging to a period "before civilization" - I do not feel at all alarmed. I know that the lives of these good solid folk, founded as they are upon the primal facts of Nature, will not in any case suffer a very great change. If the whole of our Banking and Financial system collapsed and fell in, if world-wide Commerce came to a standstill, if the Capital necessary for huge armaments and general ironworks was not forthcoming, if Law and Government were paralysed, old- age insurances ceased to be paid, and Landlords were unable to collect their rents if all this and much more happened, my friend who ploughs the fields near my cottage would go out next morning with his team to his usual work, and scarcely know the difference. If anything he would decidedly feel more cheerful and hopeful. Some other friend who forges and tempers table-knives by the score would continue to forge and temper them. The knives would still be wanted, the power to make them would still be there. And if at any point combined labour were needed, as to build a workshop or carry through a steel-making process, the men who do these things now in forced and servile toil under the Capitalist system would do them ten times better and more heartily in free co-operation.

No, if all this jerry-built cheapjack Commercial Civilization collapsed it would not much matter. The longer I live the more I am convinced of its essential pettiness and unimportance. The great foundational types, the real workers of the world - whether in England or Germany or France, or Turkey or Bulgaria or Egypt - will remain, and indeed must remain because the primal facts of Nature, the sun and the earth and the needs of human life, continually generate them. They will remain and, once freed (as one may hope) from the burden of the futile and idiotic superstructure which they have to support, will rise to a far finer standard of being than they can now realize. The cheap and aimless types belonging to the mercantile and middle classes will disappear with the world to which they belong.

Let me say however, for the consolation of some, that it is not necessary to suppose that the transformation of Civilization of which I speak and which is even now preparing must necessarily mean that all Law and Government, and world-wide Commerce and Finance and huge organization of Industry, and even present-day Art and Morality and Religion, will collapse and become non-existent. In a sense they will do so, an in a sense they will not. "In the twinkling of an eye they will be changed." In some sense the outer forms of these things will remain: but the Spirit will be changed; and so greatly changed that their shapes also will be profoundly modified. When Industry exists really for the supply of good and useful things and not for the manufacture of profit; when High Finance is not for gambling, but for the insurance and security of everybody; when Courts of Law are for the uplifting and not for the downcasting of criminals, and so on; then the forms of these institutions will be as different from what they are now as the organs of a Dragonfly are different from those of the Water- beetle from which it sprang.

But before this great and wonderful Transformation takes place, there must - it is abundantly evident - be great sacrifices. No such huge change could happen without. Some of the functions and activities of the present Society must perish; and with them must perish those who are engaged in these functions. Thousands and millions of individuals must die in the mere effort to create and establish a new collective order. Heroisms, exceed- ing those of the past, will be needed and will be supplied. We need not fear. We know the great heart of humanity.

It is amazing to see, in the present war, the high spirits, the courage, the devotion, the loyalty to each other of the combatants in each nation; and these things would be utterly unintelligible were it not for the fact that each people (and we need make no excep- tion) thinks and believes in some obscure way that the cause for which it is fighting is a noble and an honorable one. Terrible as war is, and terrible the apparent folly of mankind which allows it to continue, still it is to my mind obvious that those engaged in it could not give their lives, as they so constantly do, not only with conscious devotion to some high purpose, but even with an instinctive exultation and savage joy in the very act of death, if they were not impelled to do so by the insurgence of a greater life within - a life within each one more vivid and even more tremendous than that which he throws away. The willing sacrifice of life, and the ecstasy of it, would be unintelligible if Death did not indeed mean Transformation.

In my little individual way I experience something of the same kind. I feel a curious sense of joy in observing - as at my age one is sometimes compelled to do - the natural and inevitable decadence of some portion of the bodily organism, the failures of sight and hearing, the weakening of muscles, the aberrations even of memory a curious sense of liberation and of obstacles removed. I acknowledge that the experience the satisfaction and the queer sense of elation seems utterly unreasonable, and not to be explained by any of the ordinary theories of life; but it is there, and it may, after all, have some meaning.


  1. Chap. X, p. 180.{Return to main text}
  2. By means of which, of course, the wheel turns on its axle.{Return to main text}
  3. The Address together with my Reply is printed in an Appendix at the end of this book.{Return to main text}

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