The Common Man

by H. M. TOMLINSON

1

A NEIGHBORING coastal town had a visit yesterday from the enemy. As this war is “global,” a term which puts it among the hallowed abstractions, a zodiacal affair, the official account of some blasting done to the old houses and shops of an obscure British town was necessarily brief and vague. “Yesterday morning three enemy aircraft dropped bombs at a place on the south coast. Some damage was done, and some casualties have been reported.” That is all the people who were not there, the global host, were told. More could not have improved their knowledge.

Just a few of us were less fortunate, for we could supplement the official bulletin, but intended not to. We had realized that complete ignorance of some happenings is preferable to exact knowledge. For such a reason, when as neighbors we met again, our exchange of news was laconic and ambiguous. The fact is, when bombs and cannon shells are aimed from a low level at a provincial high street, in the hour when women are thinking of war in terms of rations and coupons, you cannot say much about it, though you were there.

What prevents you is not the strictness of the official censor. You are prevented by that censor everybody acknowledges when ruling out anatomical particulars, human and bared. Yes, war is ugliness so foul that its facts choke utterance. Civility can but stare numbed at what it sees, as if speech were not evolved for this.

We dismissed the subject of yesterday’s irruption. It was not our first shake-up, but one is always free to hope it is the last. Thus we hoped. The following silence, while we gazed at the fire, was broken by a young woman. She remarked reminiscently, “ You know, as far back as I can remember, all the news of the world I’ve ever heard has been bad.” There was a hint of reproach in her manner, as if we had deliberately cheated her of good tidings.

We turned to her. What she had said was, in its way, more startling than the raid. After all, we have gained the point when we merely note the warning siren, trust the brutes are not heading straight for us, and get on with the job; and our trust has been falsified often enough to make bombing, unless personal, pass with allusive comment. For war, when at a decent remove, is always an impersonal abstraction, as various and entangling as metaphysics or the marvels of the subconscious. Like the problem of pain, war has a perennial general attraction to which its sufferers are listless. But this young commentator had pointed at a matter rather more serious than war in our street. Humanity, she complained, had never provided her with good news. Could a young, healthy, welleducated, and pretty woman say anything worse of the world?

She must have supposed our silence meant disapproval of her youthful opinion, though of course it meant merely that we were not ready with some clever jugglery with history as we preferred to have it. Because then, with the coolness of a statistician putting social morality into the exactitude of numerals, she explained that one of her earliest recollections was of resisting her mother when being taken from bed down into the coal cellar. But mother stood no nonsense. By candlelight, while her parents sat on the floor listening, the booming of guns was very sad. It was like the barking of a lot of big dogs. It was a Zeppelin night. They often had one. A smash of glass still frightened her. She gave us a casual selection from the news of all nations since the twenties.

What of general good, she asked, could we set against that uproar — except a few books and poems, and the excellence of orchestras? Little, she thought, except the work of physicians and surgeons, aided by pharmaceutical chemists and research workers; nothing whatever from religion, and little from any of our teachers and leaders — not enough from any source to prevent serious people from speculating on how long it would be before the ground gave way under everybody.

At last it gave way, and nobody with a pennyworth of intelligence expected anything else. Since the other war, the drift of things had caused young people, her generation, to suppose that, in a world of lies and calculated selfishness, whatever one did was of no particular significance, seeing there was no universal law, and no authority worth respectful acknowledgment. If, she said, divine law and authority were mentioned, young people merely wanted to know why God allowed evil to do so well. And that ended their curiosity in the question. They expected no answer, and got none.

When afterwards I reported to an elderly man of religion what she had confessed, he was silent for a while, and then said her indictment was not only just, but the responsibility was his; and that others, if they felt like it, could share the blame. And what were we going to do about it? Because, he remarked, if the earth continues to be such a place of anxiety for the young that beauty is meaningless to them, and in desperation they give themselves to frivolity as the only way to get something out of life — if the earth is to remain a place where it is difficult to rejoice, even over the first swallow, then God’s purpose is frustrate.

He admitted, before we parted, that he himself gave up, became resigned to the dust of a confusion he guessed would grow worse, a month after the last war ended. “What could I do,” he asked, “after it was plain, as it was by then, that all the lofty sentiments expressed by statesmen, all the promises made to keep the common man going at an awful job, were to be thrown out for burial with the dead? Statecraft, on behalf of money and privilege, and afraid of losing control of the inadequate machinery of democratic government, which it didn’t want to improve, played upon the weariness and heartburning of the multitude, following four years of agony, to conjure itself back to power again.

“What could I do? In my church, I felt like the psalmist, who was required by the Babylonians to sing them songs of Zion. I hadn’t the heart for it. Yes, I’m afraid I resigned myself to captivity. All I did was to maintain a ritual faithfully. That girl convicts me and my generation.”

2

A TIME has come — and we are doing in it as well as we can — which is called the day of the common man. We cannot help noticing that most broadcasts are addressed to that fellow. Suddenly he has been promoted, if not to nobility, then to indispensability, thus ranking above earls. There is an unmistakable note of anxiety in the appeals to him to sacrifice himself. For him propaganda is designed, as if nothing could go right unless he believed with all his heart that our intent is just, and for his good. The microphone might as well be a flatiron if he were not listening. Without his approval, the news agencies and the newspaper press could be devoted to skipping rope, or anything you please. If the queues of him dwindled, Hollywood would realize a worse thing than war.

So he has been lifted up. This is his day. Nothing has really happened, of course, nothing new, except that it has dawned on us, if dimly, that the State, without the hearty singing of the national anthem by the nobodies, would be a disembodied tradition and a silence, like the stones of Nineveh. There can be no doubt that when a country is threatened, then, unless the nobodies save it, it is lost.

At the end of the other war, when the nobodies, by prodigious exertions, and sacriiices too awful to contemplate then or now, succeeded in their effort, and cleared a space in which we could breathe at ease again, and were free to rediscover the use of reason, they uttered no complaint; they did not even pause to see whether their names appeared in the list of honors and rewards, but hurried away down their byways and side-turnings, to count what bread was left in their cupboards. This could not have taken them long, but they did not show up again prominently till they were told that all they had done before to save us was undone, and now they must do it again, for their very lives. What is all this fuss about a Beveridge Report? Surely the necessity for it condemns us?

There are intellectual aristocrats who shudder at the thought of the common man. That he should be honored with a day takes importance from their own existence. He is a rude creature of appetites but no taste; body but not mind. Somehow, they do not know how, he goes on living without resource to what, for them, are the founts of life, about which, showing as it were in Pierian grass, are the imprints of the winged horse; or some other token of original authority in perpetuity.

What he does not know puts him in a sphere with which they cannot communicate. There the language they use makes no sound. He can but build and drive a locomotive, or work a ship, or judge when to plow and sow, or moil at a coke oven. He has never so much as heard of the Upanishads, the Early Fathers, the Encyclopedists, the Impressionists, and what not. He has not begun. His rough surface is inappropriate to drawing rooms, where, anyhow, the allusions in conversation would be less obvious to him than a dropped plate. He does not care for poetry, except when he understands it, and he would die miserably if left alone in a Celtic Twilight. And when, hopefully and experimentally, the new movements in art and music are tried on him, he seems puzzled. Baudelaire, and even James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, are wasted on him. He has never read Marx or Pareto, and would not understand them if he did; yet it is known that the Parables of Jesus get through to him with the ease of sunshine. How does that come about? Does it mean anything?

To bother us still more — for certainly this fellow is a problem to which we are forced to give a little attention — it has been discovered of late years that he can be almost as attentive to Beethoven and Mozart, and even to Bach, as he has always been to Handel, which makes it harder than it used to be for critics of fine discernment to dismiss Handel with his popularity. But even the recent news that at times he responds to the music of the privileged does not bring him closer to the intellectuals and refiners, who remain aloof, distressed by his incuriosity over the qualities which give them their social significance, and by his gothic humor, and his earthiness, which come of his coarse labors on the line of subsistence; and he has such simple desires, satisfied mainly with the luck, if his luck runs to it, of home, leisure, and games.

3

HE is “the mob.” It was the mob, we remember, still perplexed, which was the fabulous public of Dickens, a fact which does not impress the intellectuals, as Dickens was a barbarian; so, for that matter, was Shakespeare. It was the mob which once crowded the Victorian Crystal Palace of London during the Handel festivals. But that is not the worst of it — not by a long way. The mob, though enormous, is not only difficult to make out, but it has attributes which to some observers are terrifying.

One notices this when reading that scholarly humanist, Dean Inge. The mob frightens him. Yet it is easy to sympathize with the dean, and to feel a tremor of his alarm. A familiar study, and Plato in use, should be not only quiet but immune from rude disturbance and change; the only intrusion of noise from the outside should be the rooks cawing home at sundown at the end of another day of peace. It is unsettling, while watching rooks in immemorial elms, with the tower of a fourteenthcentury church just showing, to remember that beyond the quiet of that room, with old wisdom on its shelves, beyond the elms and the ancient church, the spirit of unrestful man is free, and bloweth where it listeth.

The common man, the mob, is unpredictable. He is an unshapen and dubious form of life, and very numerous. His emotions are not only stirred and gladdened by good music and certain gracious words. As the unforeseen rising of the wind, in which establishments topple that cannot face the tempest, the human spirit — moved by God knows what — can enlarge into an elemental and irresistible power. It is said the disastrous Napoleonic era began in no more than empty bellies after hope was dead, which seems miraculous. Where this spirit is concerned, all we can do is to look for what hardly anyone believes will happen, as in China recently, and Russia. To have been in England during 1940 is to have learned something of it.

We are not helped when told that the famous historical breaks in a quiet and reasonable existence came usually of stupidity so evident that correction could have been made in one move, if made in time; and after warnings that no dumb animal would have disregarded. We know that. Man is the only animal to accumulate knowledge, and to reason on its benefits, and the only one to make a fool of itself of choice. There are years, as at present, when one could suppose he is bent on making his existence an abiding horror.

Great upsets, we know, have come of black ignorance in high places, which could have been cured by raising the blind and letting in daylight. Looking at general ruin, we see that all that was wanted to save it was a little good sense, not quite so much pride, and a touch of self-reproach. That is all. If only the few people who had common welfare in their hands had felt kindness before the sun went down! If only enough decency and gumption had been in high council to form the reconciling and creative words just not too late, then how much the less of woe!

That view of history, very likely, is illusory. Statesmen, though as great as Hitler imagines himself to be, are rarely of that stature, meek in nobility. The sense of power makes for pride, and that withers whatever it looks at. The worship of great men, and other myths, comes of common human yearning for an authority above its own modest nature, which it feels to be inadequate before the mystery of existence. And then, too, that spellbinding drama of the final days of an international crisis, when the red specter looms, is deceptive; the going and coming of inimical messengers is fascinating and appalling, and so memory and reason leave us as we watch.

The protagonists whose speech and movements hold us, as if we saw the Norns in a dire twilight working out our fate, are in reality but speaking their parts, making predestined moves. This drama was written for them long ago. They are compelled by the past. The tragedy they enact till the light goes out is of the long play through unconsidered years of the ordinary thoughts and deeds of men, and of their negligence. This is only the last scene. This is the meaning of it all. The bias to catastrophe was formed by prevailing notions and common mental indolence, though its purport was not manifest till the hour when society began to come over, to topple, for at last our eyes were opened, but in dismay. Says Ecclesiastes, “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.”

Shall we instance this? Almost any page of history will do. A story goes that once Thomas Jefferson proposed to a Congressional committee that, after the year 1800, there should be no more slavery, and he was defeated by one vote. One vote! And then, perhaps, that little debate over, and its decision registered, the committee looked out the window, wondering whether it was going to rain.

One vote! But is not regret misplaced? That vote mirrored Jefferson’s contemporaries. They were like that. He himself had not, perhaps, divined the way things might go, but he hated every form of tyranny, the use of force for personal motives. He knew that kindness is not in whips, and that society has no security without the sense of fellowship. His mind was superior and prescient, but his advice was given to the wilderness. The people about him were unaware there was much to question, except the usual hindrances to private fortune. His judgments had no reference to the land they knew, which was not a wilderness, but the commonplace of home and effort. Jefferson was, in fact, not there with them, but distant in another time. That is why he was aware the confidence his friends reposed in the continuity of their daily scene was given to a slowly dissolving appearance.

But how tell them that? In what words as concrete as a pioneer’s axe? He was aware that the thoughts of men, which shape their world, change as their perception grows of a moral order informing the material universe; and how explain that, to make it as plain as a crucifix? For their part, his fellows respected him as a good man — though he had odd views, which were harmless, because not at all relevant to things as they were.

The truth of the matter, we may fairly venture, is that when our country fares ill, each one of us must answer for it. An inheritor of an estate takes over its mortgage. He ought to know for what he is responsible. But if in careless freedom he is interested in only the gossip of the day? If what was laid up for him before he came into possession, keepsakes and remembrances not always suitable to lavender, put by last year, and in years before that — if these things do not engage him, because other things make better fun?

Well, at long last he is awakened. There is a knock at his door. It is the State. He is ordered to submit and render. He was unaware he was in for this; but who is to blame? For he is the State. The State is men and women, ourselves and our neighbors. Without individual conscience, the State is no more worthy of affection than a temporary erection of scaffolding; than a system of sanitation; than any other convenience suitable to communal life. To make a god of it, as some people do, is to add another devil to the world. The State is we and our goings-on, continuing what our fathers did. For such a just reason, that young lady, a child when the last war began, who remarked that all the news she had ever heard of the world was bad — though she named a few exceptions — was not far out. Her accusation points at each of us.

4

THE business of men, after the last war ended, would hardly bear looking at, if one began to think it over. Most of us have heard that said, or something like it. And there was no escape from it, as monasteries had long since gone out of fashion, though the daily scene became more and more strident, coarse, and violent. The headlines in the press, you will recall, were not only like echoes of cries from Pandemonium, but were never sufficiently sustained for common expectancy; there had to be inventions. The craving for excitement suggested that to be febrile and convulsive proved you were alive. Even the arts were affected, as was natural, for they must reflect their hour, which was hard, harsh, noisy, and disordered.

That quickened rhythm of life! It should have warned a casual onlooker that society was out of heart. What civilization worth the name could there be when it was speeding nobody knew where or why, with no direction, no bearings; no time for anybody to stop, look, and listen — to say nothing of considering the lilies of the field? It was as if all were hurrying to escape their own shadows, a life of desperation in a flight from discontent, which clung to their heels.

There was no more a central conviction upon which society could remain steadfast, no Athena, no Apollo, no Zoroaster or Confucius, and the authority of our own religion, once absolute, had been taken over by science. Bethlehem, and the homage of wise men as well as of shepherds, had gone. In place of it, a physical laboratory, and formulas instead of beatitudes. It is easier to work to a formula, when one is hurried, and has no time to consider circumstance; besides, what can graciousness do to increase the power and load of the engines?

Never in history has humanity possessed so great a body of knowledge for its use as we have today. With our formulas we have gone far, we can boast, and do boast, in the conquest of nature; and what has happened in consequence? Look around at our triumph! What we need is a salt to deliver us from the smell of this corruption.

Only yesterday I read in a sober and admirable London newspaper the assurance that, looking beyond this war, our technicians are working famously “towards the final conquest of the sky.” Its final subjugation? Poor old throne of God! We shall upset it yet, doing as well as this.

We are getting on. Already many of the cities of the world, among them some of the most ancient establishments of civility, are largely rubble. Universities, libraries, museums, transport systems, hospitals, theaters, the memorials of celebrated men, and venerated temples, have weeds growing over their foundations. The seeking of impersonal truth has had to be changed into a fight on one’s own doorstep with a legion of lies we thought had disappeared from daylight forever. Pity itself, without which men are savages, has been forced to improvise means to rescue populations in extremity; too often these must die in lands we cannot enter.

There it is. Our late wonderful accessions to knowledge have done their part in this; but was it supposed that forces by which we could, in a large measure, overcome space and time, alter the balance of nature, and bring either a greater fullness of life, or death, could be used outside a moral order, as though no more were involved than in a game of chance? The devices the cleverest technicians worked out to increase our physical abilities have brought about a holocaust of the innocents.

Then let us ask, if shyly, “Is it possible the empyrean has an answer to its conquest? May we not be looking at another glorious illusion?” Perhaps we should not be too confident that our success in releasing powers latent in the universe is all to our advantage, and to be used as we please. As far as our definitions of formative principles go, they may be technically right; but they cannot be absolutes. They cannot be.

Then with what powers have we still to reckon, outside our knowledge, and perhaps forever outside the reach of human wit? There are laws not embodied in our statutes, and energies undescribed in our encyclopedias. Truths we do not know may be enough to turn our glorious conquest into a wind in the desert. While we stand before our achievements in admiration, even adoration, as they revolve to further conquests, perhaps a little compunction stealing over us might prove fortunate. Mercy came to the scene when the Garden was left, and we don’t want to lose both.

5

THE chief sufferer from the cruelty of ambitious authority and cunning is the common man. As I write, I hear machine guns going it in the blue. He is in the sky, the ordinary fellow, on such a day, in continuance of whatever designs we down below have upon the earth. For my part, as Spitfires are aloft, a thought comes that one ought to be young enough to be up there with him, for what is feral is at large, and must be caught and confined.

But if, beyond that, the common man, who must win this war and another peace, can be aroused to the challenge that his also must be the greater part in ordering our affairs to a better purpose, then to me it seems impossible that he could make a worse mess of it than has come of dedicated and specialized attention. It is not more knowledge that is wanted, — there exists a mass of knowledge so great that the right use of it is blacked out, — but good sense. If a superior and respected neighbor has all knowledge, and all wisdom, and understands all mysteries, and has not charity enough to see that we have not long to stay, and that we all go the same way home, and shall be on the same level when we reach it, then it would be better to depend for counsel on the house dog, who at least can bark his sympathetic understanding.

We know of the injunction, when the matter is of first importance, to speak in the vulgar tongue, that all may understand; and the need was never greater than now for the right speakers to have sufficient vulgarity to arouse the outer fringes of the multitude, with an urgent message. It is easy to fall into a hopeless view of human nature. That can come of daily contacts, with the pricking of envy and pride, and rejection through antipathy. We don’t like the fellow, and he is met at every turn. To look out, when low and depressed, on the usual activities of mankind, is to see but a confusion of clumsy feet undirected by much of a head and by no heart at all, and heedless of the beauty of gardens.

That is always the early impression of the general scene, and to some despairing souls the view never changes. They can find no promise of a fairer time, when each shall be for all, and all for each. They cannot help remarking that the individual, whose freedom we desire, so often uses it, when it is his, that he goes far to sadden daylight.

Aided by longer experience and by sympathy for those poor and numerous fellow creatures insufficiently gifted with the charm of egotism, one sees that self-love appears to be all that moves men only because its effects are so noticeable, for they are irksome. What is distasteful is always sooner remarked than what is modest. In fact, not everybody is selfish. There are others. There must be very many others. Does not the world continue to turn, in its common and uncomplaining way, war or no war, reward or none?

These others are not importunate. They are never eloquent, except dumbly. They are never in the forefront; they do not resist when pushed more to the back, nor even when at last they are pushed right out, being old. They do not grieve over their lot, so we seldom realize they are there; the world merely goes on turning. They accept stony ground, where nothing much grows, as the only kind of earth that was made, and there they are. They are the great body of the folk, in which daily heroism goes unrecorded because it belongs to this way of living, and there is nothing to say. These people are a chief element in the landscape, with trees and grass, which we scarcely notice, yet should certainly miss, if one morning we looked out and saw only earth’s dry bones. The world would cease to go round.

After I have read dismal reports by health and medical officers, and have listened to the confidences of social workers, not always suitable for print, and so get the idea that civilization can include worse things than would be found in a Kaffir kraal, I recall what used to be known as the “distressed areas” of England. That euphemism softened the fact that people there were deprived of all that could make men happy. They had not even hope.

I remember in particular one distressed mining town, which had the look of a community crumbling at the end of time. A man stood at a street corner, to whom I spoke. He was neat and upright, but his clothes were threadbare on a cold day. He was haggard but stern, and his gray eyes met mine as if he were a master of his craft, though now he did not practice it. I wanted to know how long he had been out of work. He held up three fingers. “Months?” I asked. “Years,” he said. That sort of fellow, now proving his mettle in Italy, as he did before at Ypres, was one of the victims of the social lie with the fine name, “economic necessity.” Let us clear our civilization of that, before we ever complain again of barbarity in our midst.

6

IN Tolstoy’s wise book, called the greatest novel ever written, — whatever that may mean, — we can fancy we find a special affection of the author for two characters, General Kutuzov, and the peasant-soldier Karataev. Both were natural men. I suppose most of us have met them, some time or other. The general, though a courtier, thought as little of elaborate plans of campaign as he did of court gossip. He would be pensive while listening to a staff discussion on the science and art of warfare, and then go to sleep while the talk went on, for his mind was fixed. He did not blink at the splendor of Napoleon, and was undisturbed by the magical success of genius on the field of battle. Prestige to him was a noise. He listened as long as he could to an energetic dispute on which was victory, or which was defeat, and then dozed off.

He retired from the field of Borodino, beyond Moscow, and guessed well what had happened that fateful day, though nobody else seemed to be aware. It was supposed he was defeated once more, and Mother Moscow was at the enemy’s mercy; yet his men remained confident, as if the sun and the seasons were with their general, and they could wait. Kutuzov perceived the drift of things about him, for he felt, being kind, what was undivulged in the nature of man, what was potent for good around him, and knew it could not be hurried, any more than frost in the course of time, and took advantage of his instinct to the undoing of the triumphant invader. He did not expect applause, nor look for honors. He had good sense. He did not hate Napoleon, but he had an idea that that man, now with glory about him, would soon be eating horseflesh. And who was he to interfere with the march of necessity, beyond the duty to move along with it, as his hour struck?

When the peasant Karataev appears in the novel, after a sentence or two we attend to this supposed simpleton somewhat puzzled, as if here a chance were offered to get an indirection out of innocence, greatly to our advantage, if we could fathom the drift of it, and could follow it in accord. We shall hear a word from this soldier, very likely, not to be found in the library, except also by chance, in the right hour, when one’s mind is clear.

But Karataev does not know he has anything to say; he is friendly, and enjoys talking to another man. He is pleased to give himself. Life has been this way for him, he tells us, and laughs. He might be talking to his dog in solitude about the wonders of the road. He is as guileless as morning light, and when he laughs you can believe the fount of life flows clear at its source. And where is that? And what did he find there, and keep, that we lost long ago, and have never missed till this moment? Something has gone from us, though this man has it as naturally as breathing.

Both these men are as usual in the world as trees and grass. They are rarely obvious, and then only by accident. It is in our extremity that they appear, and to our aid. If we want to know the quality of human nature, let us search there, and not in statistics, in the various salons, or in the counsels of those with interests to serve. Hooker tells us, “For as much as we are not by ourselves sufficient to furnish ourselves with competent store of things needful for such a life as our nature doth desire, a life fit for the dignity of men, therefore to supply these defects and imperfections which are in us living singly and solely by ourselves, we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others.”

We have heard often enough, since Hooker’s time, that such an ideal is as attractive but as useless as the beauty of the Gospels, for human nature is against it, and human nature cannot be changed. As to whether our nature is changeable or not, one would give much to hear the view of a paleolithic man, after a glance at a university don. Anyhow, whenever the likelihood is expressed of a fairer and kindlier time, there they always are, those with interests to serve, or perhaps with no more than minds they cannot alter, facing us with their horrific bogey, and reminding us of the worst. We mean well, but they can give us no hope. What we desire is not within the power of human nature to bring about. Men never will voluntarily give up their possessions and their rights. It never has been done, and it never will be done.

But it is always being done. The critics have not been sufficiently observant. It is being done this day by the nobodies everywhere. Men have voluntarily given up the promise of youth, home, wife, children, wealth, and ambition, to further an idea of good for the world, which they may not live to share. Is that not also human nature? Is it not an advance on the Stone Age, and the stock market?

Human nature is a mystery, and what can be conjured from it to the common good is at least as well worth trying as an attempt to disintegrate the atom. Let us attempt something towards the integration of the virtues in our neighbors. That, if successful, would provide us with power beyond the scope of shattered atoms. Abiding in the human spirit is a force which can be evoked to either good or evil. A word will move it. We have witnessed the miracle. Men are indeed born again, and their neighbors scarcely know them. Though we can estimate accurately enough the strength of expanding gases and of electricity, we are ignorant of the lift in human nature itself, when quickened by its ghostly endowment.