W. N. P. Barbellion

Living now in rooms alone

September 25, 1914

I have—since my return from Cornwall—placed all my journals in a specially made cabinet. R—— came to dinner and after a glass or so of Beaune and a cigarette, I open my “coffin” (it is a long box with a brass handle at each end), and with some show of deliberation select a volume to read to him, drawing it from its division with lavish punctiliousness, and inquiring with an oily voice, “A little of 1912?” as if we were trying wines. R—— grins at the little farce and so encourages me.

September 26, 1914

Doctor’s Consulting Rooms—my life has been spent in them! Medical specialists—Harley Street men—I have seen four and all to no purpose. M—— wrote me the other day,—

“Come along and see me on Tuesday; some day I dare say we shall find something we can patch.”

He regards me with the most obvious commiseration and always when I come away after a visit he shakes me warmly by the hand and says, “Good-bye, old man, and good luck.” More luck than the pharmacopœia.

My life has always been a continuous struggle with ill-health and ambition, and I have mastered neither. I try to reassure myself that this accursed ill-health will not affect my career. I keep flogging my will in the hope of winning thro’ in the end. Yet at the back of my mind there is the great improbability that I shall ever live long enough to realize myself. For a long time past my hope has simply been to last long enough to convince others of what I might have done—had I lived. That will be something. But even to do that I will not allow that I have overmuch time. I have never at any time lived with any sense of security. I have never felt permanently settled in this life—nothing more than a shadowy locum tenens, a wraith, a festoon of mist likely to disappear any moment.

At times, when I am vividly conscious of the insecurity of my tenure here, my desires enter on a mad race to obtain fulfillment before it is too late…and as fulfillment recedes ambition obsesses me the more. I am daily occupied in calculating with my ill-health: trying to circumvent it, to carry on in spite of all. I conquer each day. Every week is a victory. I am always surprised that my health or will has not collapsed, that, by Jove! I am still working and still living.

One day it looks like appendicitis, another stoppage, another threatened blindness, or I develop a cough and am menaced with consumption. So I go on in a hurricane of bad dreams. I struggle like Laocoon with the serpents—the serpents of nervous depression that press around the heart tighter than I care to admit. I must use every kind of blandishment to convince myself that my life and my work are worth while. Frequently I must smother and kill (and it calls for prompt action) the shrill voice that cries from the tiniest corner of my heart, “Are you quite sure you are such an important fellow as you imagine?” Or I fret over the condition of my brain, finding that I forget what I read, I lose in acuteness of my perceptions. My brain is a tumefaction. But I won’t give in. I go on trying to recollect what I have forgotten, I harry my brain all day to recall a word or name, I attack other folk importunately. I write things down so as to look them up in reference books—I am always looking up the things I remember I have forgotten …

There is another struggle, too, that often engrosses all my energies…It is a horrible thing that with so large an ambition, so great a love of life, I should nevertheless court disaster like this. Truly Sir Thomas Browne you say, “Every man is his own Atropos.”

In short, I lead an unfathomably miserable existence in this dark, gray street, in these drab, dirty rooms—miserable in its emptiness of home, love, human society. Now that I never visit the flat, I visit about two houses in London—the Doctor’s and R——‘s Hotel. I walk along the streets and stare in the windows of private houses, hungry for a little society. It creates in me a gnawing, rancorous discontent to be seeing people everywhere in London—millions of them—and then to realize my own ridiculously circumscribed knowledge of them. I am passionately eager to have acquaintances, to possess at least a few friends. If I die tomorrow, how many persons shall I have talked to? Or how many men and women shall I have known? A few maiden aunts and one or two old fossils. I am burning to meet real live men, I have masses of mental stuff I am anxious to unload. But I am ignorant of people as of countries and live in celestial isolation.

This, I fear, reads like a wail of self-commiseration. But I am trying to give myself the pleasure of describing myself at this period truthfully, to make a bid at least for some posthumous sympathy. Therefore it shall be told that I who am capable of passionate love am sexually starved, and endure the pangs of a fiendish solitude in rooms, with an ugly landlady’s face when…I despair of ever finding a woman to love. I never meet women of my own class, and am unprepossessing in appearance and yet I fancy that once my reserve is melted I am not without attractions. “He grows on you,” a girl said of me once. But I am hypercritical and hyperfastidious. I want too much…I search daily in the streets with a starved and hungry look. What a horrible and powerful and hateful thing this love instinct is! I hate it, hate it, hate it. It will not let me rest. I wish I were a eunuch.

“There’s a beautiful young thing,” R—— and I say to one another sardonically, hoping thereby to conceal the canker within.

I could gnash my teeth and weep in anger—baulked, frustrated as I am at almost every turn of life—in my profession, in my literary efforts, and in my love of man and woman kind. I would utter a whole commination service in my present state of mind.

October 7, 1914

To me woman is the wonderful fact of existence. If there be any next world and it be as I hope it is, a jolly gossiping place, with people standing around the mantelpiece and discussing their earthly experiences, I shall thump my fist on the table as my friends turn to me on entering and exclaim in a loud voice, “WOMAN.”

October 11, 1914

Since I grew up I have wept three times. The first time they were tears of exasperation. Dad and I were sitting down side by side after a wordy combat in which he had remained adamant and I was forced both by conscience and argument to give in, to relinquish my dissections, and go off to some inquest on a drowning fatality. The second time was when Mother died, and the third was today. But I am calm now. Today they were tears of remorse …

On occasion bald confession in this Journal is sweet for the soul and strengthens it. It gives me a kind of false backbone to communicate my secrets: for I am determined that some day some one shall know. If God really intervenes in our affairs, here is an opportunity. Let Him save me. I challenge Him to save me from perishing in this ditch…It is not often I am cornered into praying but I did this morning, for I feel defeated this day, and almost inarticulate in my misery.

Nietzsche in a newspaper I read today: “For myself I have felt exceptionally blest having Hell’s phantoms inside me to thrust at in the dark, internal enemies to dominate till I felt myself an ecstatic victor, wrenching at last good triumphant joys thro’ the bars of my own sickness and weakness—joys with which your notions of happiness, poor sleek smug creatures, cannot compare! You must carry a chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star.”

But Nietzsche is no consolation to a man who has once been weak enough to be brought to his knees. There I am and there I think I have prayed a little somehow today. But it’s all in desperation, not in faith. Internal chaos I have, but no dancing star. Dancing stars are the consolation of genius.

October 12, 1914

Am better to-day. My better self is convinced that it is silly and small-minded to think so much about my own puny destiny—especially at times like these when—God love us all—there is a column of casualties each day. The great thing to be thankful for is that I am alive and alive now, that I was alive yesterday, and even may be to-morrow. Surely that is thrilling enough. What, then, have I to complain of? I’m a lucky dog to be alive at all. My plight is bad, but there are others in a worse one. I’m going to be brave and fight on the side of Nietzsche. Who knows but that one day the dancing star may yet be born!

October 13, 1914

Spent the evening in my lodgings struggling with my will. Too flabby to work, disinclined to read, a dreadful vague unrest possessing me. I couldn’t sit still in my chair, so walked around the table continuously like a squirrel in a cage. I wanted to be going out somewhere, talking to some one, to be among human beings.

Many an evening during the past few months, I have got up and gone down the road to look across at the windows of the flat, to see if there were a red light behind the curtains, and, if so, wonder if she were there, and how she was. My pride would never allow me to visit there again on my own initiative. K—— has managed to bring about a rapprochement but I go very seldom. Pride again.

I wanted to do so tonight. I thought I would just go down the road to look up at the windows. That seemed to be some comfort. Why do I wish to do this? I do not know. From a mere inspection one would say that I am in love. But remember I am also ill. Three times tonight I nearly put on my boots and went down to have a look up! What ridiculous weakness! Yet this room can be a frightful prison. Shall I? I cannot decide. I see her figure constantly before me—gentle, graceful, calm, stretching forth both hands and to me …

Seized a pack of cards and played Patience and went on playing Patience because I was afraid to stop. Given a weak constitution, a great ambition, an amorous nature, and at the same time a very fastidious one, I might have known I was in for trouble.

October 14, 1914

Marie Bashkirtseff

Some time ago I noticed a quotation from one Marie Bashkirtseff in a book on Strindberg, and was struck with the likeness to a sentiment of my own. Who are you? I wondered.

This evening went to the Library and read about her in Mathilde Blind’s introductory essay to her Journal. I am simply astounded. It would be difficult in all the world’s history to discover any two persons with temperaments so alike. She is the “very spit of me!” I devoured Mathilde Blind’s pages more and more astonished. We are identical! Oh, Marie Bashkirtseff! how we should have hated one another! She feels as I feel. We have the same self-absorption, the same vanity and corroding ambition. She is impressionable, volatile, passionate—ill! So am I. Her journal is my journal. All mine is stale reading now. She has written down all my thoughts and forestalled me! Already I have found some heartrending parallels. To think I am only a replica: how humiliating for a human being to find himself merely a duplicate of another. Is there anything in the transmigration of souls? She died in 1886. I was born in 1889.

October 15, 1914

A man is always looking at himself in the mirror if for no other reason than to tie his tie and brush his hair. What does he think of his face? He must have private opinions. But it is usually considered a little out of taste to entertain opinions about one’s personal appearance.

As for myself, some mirrors do me down pretty well, others depress me! I am bound to confess I am biased in favor of the friendly mirror. I am not handsome, but I look interesting—I hope distinguished. My eyes are deep-set…but my worst moments are when the barber combs my hair right down over my forehead, or when I see a really handsome man in Hyde Park. Such occasions direct my gaze reflexly, and doubt like a thief in the night forces the back door!


Today, M—— sent me dancing mad by suggesting that I copied R—— in my manner of speech and opinions. Now R—— has a damned pervasive way of conducting himself—for all the world as if he were a high official of the Foreign Office. I, on the contrary, am shy, self-conscious, easily overlooked, and this makes me writhe. As we are inseparable friends—everybody assumes that I am his tacky-lacky, a kind of appoggiatura to his big note. He, they suppose, is my guide, philosopher, and Great Maecenas—Oxford befriending the proletariat. The thought of it makes me sick—that any one should believe I imbibe his ideas, echo his conceits, and even ape his gestures and manner of voice.

“Lost yourself?” inquired a despicable creature the other morning as I came out of R——’s room after finding him out. I could have shot him dead!…As for —— more than one person thinks that he alone is the brilliant author until at last he himself has got into the way of thinking it.

“It makes me hate you like mad,” I said to him today. “How can I confront these people with the naked truth?”

R—— chuckled complacently.

“If I deny your alleged supremacy, as I did this morning, or if suddenly, in a fit of spleen, I’m induced to declare that I loathe you (as I sometimes do)”—(more chuckles)—“that your breath stinks, your eyes bulge, that you have swollen jugulars and a platter face: they will think I am either jealous or insincere…To be your Echo tho’!—my God!” I spat. We then grinned at one another, and I, being bored, went to the lavatory and read the newspaper secure from interruption.

Resignation

In the Tube, a young widow came in and sat in front of me—pale-faced, grief-stricken, demure—a sort of “Thy Will be Done” look. The adaptability of human beings has something in it that seems horrible. It is dreadful to think how we have all accommodated ourselves to this War. Christian resignation is a feeble thing. Why won’t this demure widow with a loud voice blaspheme against this iniquitous world that permits this iniquitous war?

October 21, 1914

I myself (licking a stamp): “The taste of gum is really very nice.”

R.: “I hate it.”

I: “My dear fellow” (surprised and entreating), “envelope gum is simply delicious.”

R.: “I never lick stamps—it’s dangerous—microbes.”

I: “I always do: I shall buy a bookful and go away to the seaside with them.”

R.: “Yes, you’ll need to.”

(Laughter.)

Thus gaily and jauntily we went on to discuss wines, whiskies, and Worthington’s, and I rounded it up in a typical cock-eyed manner,—

“Ah! yes, it’s only when the day is over that the day really begins—what?”

October 23, 1914

I expressed to R—— today my admiration for the exploit of the brave and successful Submarine Commander Max Kennedy Horton. (Name for you!) R—— was rather cold. “His exploits,” said this bloody fool, “involve loss of life and scarcely make me deliriously eulogistic.”

I cleared my throat and began,—

“Your precious sociology again—it will be the ruin of your career as an artist. It is so interwoven into the fiber of your brain that you never see anything except in relation to its State value. You are afraid to approve of a lying, thieving rogue, however delightful a rascal he may be, for fear of what Karl Marx might say …You’ll soon be drawing landscapes with taxpayers in the foreground, or we shall get a picture of Ben Nevis with Keir Hardie on the summit.” And so on to our own infinite mutual amusement.


The English Review returns my Essay. I am getting simply furious with an ambition I am unable to satisfy, among beautiful London women I cannot get to know, and in ill-health that I cannot cure. Shall I ever find any one? Shall I ever be really well? My one solace is that I do not submit, it infuriates me, I resent it; I will never be resigned and milky. I will keep my claws sharp and fight to the end.

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MLA Citation

Barbellion, W. N. P.. “Living now in rooms alone.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Nov 2006. 16 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/barbellion/living_now_in_rooms_alone/>.

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