Arthur Benson

Experience

It is very strange to contemplate the steady plunge of good advice, like a cataract of ice-cold water, into the brimming and dancing pool of youth and life, the maxims of moralists and sages, the epigrams of cynics, the sermons of priests, the good-humoured warnings of sensible men, all crying out that nothing is really worth the winning, that fame brings weariness and anxiety, that love is a fitful fever, that wealth is a heavy burden, that ambition is a hectic dream; to all of which ejaculations youth does not listen and cannot listen, but just goes on its eager way, trying its own experiments, believing in the delight of triumph and success, determined, at all events, to test all for itself. All this confession of disillusionment and disappointment is true, but only partially true. The struggle, the effort, the perseverance, does bring fine things with it—things finer by far than the shining crown and the loud trumpets that attend it.

The explanation of it seems to be that men require to be tempted to effort, by the dream of fame and wealth and leisure and imagined satisfaction. It is the experience that we need, though we do not know it; and experience, by itself, seems such a tedious, dowdy, tattered thing, like a flag burnt by sun, bedraggled by rain, torn by the onset, that it cannot by itself prove attractive. Men are heavily preoccupied with ends and aims, and the recognized values of the objects of desire and hope are often false and distorted values. So singularly constituted are we, that the hope of idleness is alluring, and some people are early deceived into habits of idleness, because they cannot know what it is that lies on the further side of work. Of course the bodily life has to be supplied, but when a man has all that he needs—let us say food and drink, a quiet shelter, a garden and a row of trees, a grassy meadow with a flowing stream, a congenial task, a household of his own—it seems not enough! Let us suppose all that granted to a man: he must consider next what kind of life he has gained; he has the cup in his hands; with what liquor is it to be filled? That is the point at which the imagination of man seems to fail; he cannot set himself to vigorous, wholesome life for its own sake. He has to be ever looking past it and beyond it for something to yield him an added joy.

Now, what we all have to do, if we can, is to regard life steadily and generously, to see that life, experience, emotion, are the real gifts; not things to be hurried through, thrust aside, disregarded, as a man makes a hasty meal before some occasion that excites him. One must not use life like the Passover feast, to be eaten with loins girded and staff in hand. It is there to be lived, and what we have to do is to make the quality of it as fine as we can.

We must provide then, if we can, a certain setting for life, a sufficiency of work and sustenance, and even leisure; and then we must give that no further thought. How many men do I not know, whose thought seems to be “when I have made enough money, when I have found my place, when I have arranged the apparatus of life about me, then I will live as I should wish to live.” But the stream of desires broadens and thickens, and the leisure hour never comes!

We must not thus deceive ourselves. What we have to do is to make life, instantly and without delay, worthy to be lived. We must try to enjoy all that we have to do, and take care that we do not do what we do not enjoy, unless the hard task we set ourselves is sure to bring us something that we really need. It is useless thus to elaborate the cup of life, if we find when we have made it, that the wine which should have filled it has long ago evaporated.

Can I say what I believe the wine of life to be? I believe that it is a certain energy and richness of spirit, in which both mind and heart find full expression. We ought to rise day by day with a certain zest, a clear intention, a design to make the most out of every hour; not to let the busy hours shoulder each other, tread on each other’s heels, but to force every action to give up its strength and sweetness. There is work to be done, and there are empty hours to be filled as well. It is happiest of all, for man and woman, if those hours can be filled, not as a duty but as a pleasure, by pleasing those whom we love and whose nearness is at once a delight. We ought to make time for that most of all. And then there ought to be some occupation, not enforced, to which we naturally wish to return. Exercise, gardening, handicraft, writing, even if it be only leisurely letters, music, reading—something to occupy the restless brain and hand; for there is no doubt that both physically and mentally we are not fit to be unoccupied.

But most of all, there must be something to quicken, enliven, practice the soul. We must not force this upon ourselves, or it will be fruitless and dreary; but neither must we let it lapse out of mere indolence. We must follow some law of beauty, in whatever way beauty appeals to us and calls us. We must not think that appeal a selfish thing, because it is upon that and that alone that our power of increasing peace and hope and vital energy belongs.

I have a man in mind who has a simple taste for books. He has a singularly pure and fine power of selecting and loving what is best in books. There is no self-consciousness about him, no critical contempt of the fancies of others; but his own love for what is beautiful is so modest, so perfectly natural and unaffected, that it is impossible to hear him speak of the things that he loves without a desire rising up in one’s mind to taste a pleasure which brings so much happiness to the owner. I have often talked with him about books that I had thought tiresome and dull; but he disentangles so deftly the underlying idea of the book, the thought that one must be on the look-out for the motive of the whole, that he has again and again sent me back to a book which I had thrown aside, with an added interest and perception. But the really notable thing is the effect on his own immediate circle. I do not think his family are naturally people of very high intelligence or ability. But his mind and heart seem to have permeated theirs, so that I know no group of persons who seem to have imbibed so simply, without strain or effort, a delight in what is good and profound. There is no sort of dryness about the atmosphere. It is not that they keep talk resolutely on their own subjects; it is merely that their outlook is so fresh and quick that everything seems alive and significant. One comes away from the house with a horizon strangely extended, and a sense that the world is full of live ideas and wonderful affairs.

I despair of describing an effect so subtle, so contagious. It is not in the least that everything becomes intellectual; that would be a rueful consequence; there is no parade of knowledge, but knowledge itself becomes an exciting and entertaining thing, like a varied landscape. The wonder is, when one is with these people, that one did not see all the fine things that were staring one in the face all the time, the clues, the connections, the links. The best of it is that it is not a transient effect; it is rather like the implanting of a seed of fire, which spreads and glows, and burns unaided.

It is this sacred fire of which we ought all to be in search. Fire is surely the most wonderful symbol in the world! We sit in our quiet rooms, feeling safe, serene, even chilly, yet everywhere about us, peacefully confined in all our furniture and belongings, is a mass of inflammability, stored with gases, which at a touch are capable of leaping into flame. I remember once being in a house in which a pile of wood in a cellar had caught fire; there was a short delay, while the hose was got out, and before an aperture into the burning room could be made. I went into a peaceful dining-room, which was just above the fire, and it was strangely appalling to see little puffs of smoke fly off from the kindled floor, while we tore the carpets up and flew to take the pictures down, and to know the room was all crammed with vehement cells, ready to burst into vapour at the fierce touch of the consuming element.

I saw once a vast bonfire of wood kindled on a grassy hill-top; it was curiously affecting to see the great trunks melt into flame, and the red cataract pouring so softly, so unapproachably into the air. It is so with the minds of men; the material is all there, compressed, welded, inflammable; and if the fire can but leap into our spirits from some other burning heart, we may be amazed at the prodigal force and heat that can burst forth, the silent energy, the possibility of consumption.

I hold it to be of supreme value to each of us to try to introduce this fire of the heart into our spirits. It is not like mortal fire, a consuming, dangerous, truculent element. It is rather like the furnace of the engine, which can convert water into steam—the softest, feeblest, purest element into irresistible and irrepressible force. The materials are all at hand in many a spirit that has never felt the glowing contact; and it is our business first to see that the elements are there, and then to receive with awe the fiery touch. It must be restrained, controlled, guarded, that fierce conflagration; but our joy cannot only consist of pure, clear, lambent, quiescent elements. It must have a heart of flame.

(1922)

MLA Citation

Benson, Arthur. “Experience.” 1922. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 13 Oct 2008. 20 Sep 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/benson/experience/>.

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