A Letter to My Son
by SIR OSBERT SITWELL
MY DEAR BOY: —
One thing at any rate we share in common — an uncommon laziness. We both of us, I know, hate writing letters — especially long letters. You will, therefore, when you receive this, and count its pages, at once comprehend how much energy it required for me to take the decision and make the effort to overcome in this single instance that mutual diffidence upon which, I fully realize, a sound fatherand-son relationship must rest. But some apology from me is surely due to you for the condition of the world in which you find yourself— more especially because, before you were born, I foresaw the probability that the present conflict would ensue.
And, above all, I feel that you should know what I really think upon a number of matters, for, when we meet, the joy of discussing family affairs, and what we have each of us been seeing and doing, is likely to banish talk of more serious things, even if our relationship did not make us dubious of approaching too near to them. It is true, of course, that being a generation older I can give you little direct help in your career, but, since we are both artists — and here I may pause to congratulate myself, for I expected a butcher, a house-agent, a general, as a son, but never another writer — I can, nevertheless, tell you, out of a long, tedious, and at the same time enlivening experience, how to save yourself trouble in pursuit of your goal. Because it is vital to both of us that we should realize that the war is only the Great Interruption, and that your career must continue.
The last war — the First War to End Wars — broke out when I was twenty-one; the present war — the Sequel — when you were twenty. Formerly there were only the ordeals of the private and public school to be endured — concentration camps that were certainly vile enough (there I have seen bullying — and in one instance upon a Jew — which would have taxed the ingenuity of German stormtroopers). But the men of your generation have never for a moment been free; and unless you conquer in the battle for the hours, there will be no liberty left. The embryonic writer of after-the-war will have, not only the schoolmaster and the captain of the games, as you say, for his enemies, but the drill sergeant, the gym instructor, the leader of the fire squad, the civil defense expert, the inspirer of the youth movement, and afterwards, when he grows up, the official of the Labor Exchange and the shop steward, as well as the politician and the critic.
Such an existence is death to the artist; because, to be able to work at his best, it is necessary for him to have an endless vista of hours and days, within the space of which he can write or paint without any interruption except those which are casual or that he makes for himself. But the modern development of “healthy citizenship,” as it is called, under which every man is obliged to take a hand to repel the attacks from land, sea, and air brought upon him by his incompetence as a voter, sterilizes all talent. To be able to exist, you will have to give up twenty-two hours out of every twenty-four. Men are no longer wanted, but only numbers; a man today — and if you are not careful, tomorrow as well — is only valuable to the extent that he can supply man-hours — or ant-hours — of labor to the politicians, and at the end a death with which to crown their policy.
As an inducement to this kind of life and a reward for leading it, the voter, the little man, is flattered morning and evening by the press, and fawned upon by his slave-masters. He is told he is World Champion No. 1, that no one can compare with him. In each country he believes himself to be absolute lord. Moreover the mental food fed to him renders him unduly excitable in the realm of gross ideas, while, too, the people of every nation are profoundly xenophobic. These last facts, unless they can be modified through education (of which development there is no sign), make popular government in the present sense of that term impossible; but they also enable any government, however bad and incompetent, in every country, to achieve an easy and invariable popularity by abuse of foreign countries, or, in more rational cases, by a governessy upbraiding of them.
Hitler, for example, may not have truly represented his people in everything; but he does — and did — truly represent them when he denounced foreign nations. Alas, the feeling of innate racial superiority which inhabits the mind of the common man in every country, and is to be examined in its most blatant form in Nazi doctrines, equally must in every country be encouraged, in order to persuade him to consent willingly to the eventual loss of life and fortune. Yet “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself” remains the only foundation stone of sound, peaceful relations with foreign countries.
Thus are men persuaded to yield money, career, freedom, health, life itself, to the boundless folly or iniquitous ambition of the demagogues, autocrats, and politicians — men who in England, during the last twenty years, have scarcely produced a leader. Churchill was the last, but by origin, as by ability, he was out of the ordinary run, half aristocrat, half American, and in no way derived from the middle classes who govern both here and in France, and who, by their lack of intuition and energy, except in the realm of finance, have proved so great a blight upon their countries.
It is only fair, however, to admit that where, as in Italy and Germany, the middle classes have yielded and the lower classes have taken over, the leaders who have arisen are, if less purely incompetent, far madder, more unbridled, violent with the violence of the turbulent mob from which they spring. Yet they are merely a reflection of those whose energies they sap and whose lives they ruin.
What can our politicians say in their own and our defense? They can say that here, as opposed to the enemy countries, all that has been done to render war probable was done by mistake, and not on purpose — but to an unprejudiced mind, does not this make their responsibility worse? The strangulation of your life, the chief calamity that involves every man and woman, befalls you because war is total. But remember, it is only total because the politicians have allowed it to be so. Indeed, wrhereas in former ages of barbarism the whole populations of whole countries were uprooted and enslaved after a war by a victorious foe, now every government uproots and enslaves its own people during a war. Only thus can a country survive in total war. This is total war. It is therefore the chief job of your generation to see that the kind of men who deceived themselves and us, and led us into total war, shall never again be returned to Parliament.
IF, in states vowed to death and to fights without a finish, the lot of every man is, of course, hard, that of the artist is especially abominable. Here, unless some special status is allowed him, it will mean, in fact, that he becomes a helot. Had Mozart been a modern Englishman — or, for that, a modern Austrian — he would have spent the last four years training to fight, fighting, or engaged in forced labor; and since he died at thirty-six, this would have constituted a large slice of his art life. Conceive the loss to the world had conscription been in force! Imagine, too, how greatly a modern government would relish wasting several years of Shelley’s brief span by making him a fireman, or enjoy sending Keats, with his weak lungs, upon a gas course.
Yet our governors are humane; they prefer muzzling an artist to his downright destruction. “Give the creature a safe job; make him write what we like.” Can you imagine Shelley or Blake at a desk in the Ministry of Information, or Byron flitting in and out of the studios of the BBC? You are, alas, destined to live in an age in which no painter will be supplied with paints without a permit from the Director of the National Gallery, no writer with paper save by grace of the Paper Controller. For, in a democracy, the artist, first smeared with his own honey, is then staked down upon the ant heap. In the end, however, the artist and the thinker win. Even starvation cannot prevail against them: it has been tried before. Nevertheless, for your own sake, think the matter out, sum up your position.
It is wise not to underrate the difficulties, the cruel difficulties, before you. It will be harder for you than ever it was for your father. The true artist has always had to fight, but it is, and will be, a more ferocious struggle for you, and the artists of your generation, than ever before. The workingman, this time, will be better looked after — he will be flattered by the press and bribed with Beveridge schemes — because he possesses a plurality of votes. But who will care for you or your fate? Who will trouble to defend the cause of the young writer, painter, sculptor, musician? And what inspiration will you be offered when theater, ballet, concert hall lie in ruins and, owing to the break in training, there are no great executant artists for several decades?
Above all, do not underestimate the amount and intensity of the genuine ill-will that people will feel for you; not the workingman, for though not highly educated he has a mild respect for the arts and no preconceived notions; not the few remaining patricians; but the vast army between them, the fat middle classes and the little men. And here I must first make special mention of the civil servant as enemy. Throughout your career your liveliness will provoke his particular attention, and so you will suffer the continued passive obstruction that his resistant softness opposes to the will of the artist, towards whom he bears an inborn loathing. He envies the artist’s liberty of disposition and path of enjoyment, although officially he rates the gummy persistence of the limpet above all other virtues, above the wind-swift speeding of the greyhound or any species of conscious thought.
At best, you will be ground down between the small but powerful authoritarian minority of art directors, museum racketeers, the chic, giggling modistes who write on art and literature, publishers, journalists, and dons (who will, to do them justice, try to help you, if you will write as they tell you), and the enormous remainder, who would not mind — who would indeed be pleased — if they saw you starve.
For we English are unique in that, albeit an artproducing nation, we are not an art-loving one. In the past the arts depended on a small number of very rich patrons. The enclave they formed has never been re-established. The very name “art lover” stinks. The small army of art lovers that still exists, trailing round the smashed and empty galleries, belongs to the Victorian Age. When it moves, the rattle of camphor balls sounds like a rain of bullets in the echoing scagliola halls of houses thrown open to members of the art-loving congregations. Decrepit it may be, but it still retains its power to injure. It cares only for old masters, and you will be surprised at the vigor and satisfaction with which it will always trample on the new.
THE privileges you hold today, then, as an artist, are those of Ishmael: the hand of every man is against you. Remember, therefore, that outcasts must never be afraid, and that to a writer courage should, before physical courage, signify moral courage— during wars a quality often at a discount, whatever the packs of journalists may bleat to the contrary. As an artist, the only crimes you can commit are to fail to support and uphold your peers, to agree in your heart with the herd, and, above all, to be afraid of ideas, afraid of beauty. You must never take heed for the morrow, never be afraid of the morning, for you have no more to lose than you brought with you.
Yet cultivate guile; be not, as I have been, too outspoken. Invent several manners and try them on those who like them. Consider everything upon its merits, for you need not give your own conclusions until tempers are cooler — and heads, I may add, clearer. When I was a boy of your age, in the Brigade of Guards before the last war, we young officers were taught never to argue with a drunken man. See him the next day, and interrogate him then. Similarly I counsel you never to argue; join in, and after the hysteria has vanished, remember to administer splashes of cold water over a long period against a recurrence. (For there will be a morning after.) But, in whatever fashion you may act, do not appear “cynical”; Swift and Pope and Shaw were “cynical,” and it lessened their authority.
On the contrary, join in, as I say; accept the situation and rejoice. We live in an age of world-wide hysteria — and not without reason — when not to believe as many atrocity stories as your neighbor believes, puts you not only in danger of hell-fire, but, if he has his way, exposes you to the rigors of persecution. You would rank as a heretic, as one who refuses to place credence in the Thirty-nine Articles, or who, by declining to take part in a witch hunt, numbers himself openly among the witches.
No, adopt the homeopathic system, but prescribe large doses. Be inventive. Use your creative gift. Pretend to believe and then go one better. Enjoy yourself. Sicken them with the blatant nonsense you pour out. Tell them you know their stories are true, and repeat everything you have ever heard in the same line, however improbable. Pile it on, until they begin to argue against you. Insist on believing everything with a firmer belief than they do; go a hundred times better. Whenever the crowd mentions Italians, shout “Wops!” “Dagos!” “Icecreamers!” It may prove difficult for you, since you lived in Italy as a child, but you must persist. Tell them that Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo, Titian and Veronese, were all really Englishmen with American mothers; and declare that Noel Coward is worth all Dante. (Point out that Dante never wrote the music for his “lyrics.”)
But, at the end of all this, when a reaction has set in, you must let them know this much of the truth: that you abhor brutality, from wherever it comes, and whether shown to Jew or Christian, and that you know, and have long known, the Germans to be a brutal race; that you had been brought up to believe it, even at the time people were praising them, saying they preferred them to the French, and that “they are just like us.” (What a curious, recurrent, dangerous hallucination is that!) Otherwise, unless you emphasize this idea, you will leave them in the right to the point that their hysteria may have arisen from a hatred of oppression.
When you have satiated and disgusted them with your atrocity stories, agree with them that perhaps they are right not to believe everything they are told. And add, quickly, before leaving them, that perhaps the ability not to be taken in by superstitions, not to bow the knee to Mumbo-Jumbo, whether in West Africa or South Kensington, whether outside a kraal or a town hall decorated with flags, may be, after all, the test of a civilized man. Remember, for your own comfort, that you are only exaggerating for the sake of moderation; because you must ever pursue the golden mean, the most difficult of all ideals for the artist, with the clashes inherent in his temperament and his need for expression, to follow.
And after the war, for it will end one day, — when a silly woman once asked Chekov, apropos of some contemporary fracas, “How do you think the war will end?” he replied, after some thought, “In peace, I should say,” — after the war, then, when we may relapse to easy ways, it will become your duty once more to remind people of the brutality of the German race. For, no doubt, we shall revert to type. The hysteria will pass, for we are not, like the Germans, a feminine, emotional race, but a tolerant, masculine-minded people, who can only be worked up by outrageous events and the wickedness of the press.
YOU must do more, however, than recall the nature of the Germans, in case we forget it: for that would be a purely negative contribution. You must harness your vivid sense of fantasy to the cause of reality. Be practical — practical in the way the Chinese were when they used to recruit their prostitutes from among the blind. You realize, I know, that a certain proportion of Germans are born into the world with an especial love of fighting, and you must see that they get it, before they can inflict their will, first upon the stupid and slavish majority of their own countrymen, and then upon the world.
Ask yourself what can be done to obtain the correct solution: namely, to kill off this ruffianly minority at regular intervals, and before it attains power, and if possible to satisfy its deep urge to kill and be killed in such a manner as to enable it gradually to feel a certain self-respect. Thus, though you cannot cure snakes of their bite, you can deprive them of their venom and, by manufacturing a serum from it, use it for the good of humanity, as a cure for certain diseases.
Now the solution that I propose, and recommend to you most seriously, is derived from the instinctive and traditional treatment of the same problem in other epochs, and I believe it would prove successful and at the same time solve another and even more acute difficulty. During the eighteenth century, the British people had little trouble from the Germans, because they hired German troops to fight their battles, and so procured the death of the most naturally ferocious of the German race. (Indeed, because these were slaughtered in this fashion, the leftover German, with his beer and pipe and dirty mustache, became the very emblem of peace.) Unfortunately in the nineteenth century the idea spread that it was immoral to obtain the death in battle on your behalf of any but your own people — and soon, in consequence, Germany was unleashing her hordes of trained killers upon France.
The League of Nations failed because it possessed no armed force to back up its authority. Well, then, restore the League and recruit the army necessary for the enforcement of its laws from among the German people. Those who love fighting will volunteer, and, by being made to serve an ideal, and at the same time a useful purpose, the tone of them will gradually be raised; they will feel that the future of civilization depends on them, and will respond. The fact of being dressed in a uniform will quiet many of them. And, of course, we must see to it that they are, in the interests of the whole world, decimated every few years in border clashes and in fracases in Thibet and Central Africa. This is the sole solution that will de-totalize war: for within a generation all the Germans who would most like war will have been given a taste of it, have become its victims without involving the rest of their race and the rest of the five continents.
The worst of conscription is that, unlike the system adumbrated above, it involves and kills off those who hate war as much as those who love it. For this reason, and also because I think that, in spite of the efforts of envenomed fanatics who find in these tragic years their happy hour, we shall return to the purely English methods of life that we have through the centuries evolved, I find it difficult to believe that we shall continue to enforce conscription forever after the war. Directly a war — for which we are always unprepared — descends upon us, the nation demands compulsion as a measure of sacrifice, equivalent to lethal dust and ashes; we do not examine whether it is judicious. Yet conscription should never be more than a matter of convenience or its reverse; it should never be a question of religious principle or a measure of self-immolation.
And it is doubtful whether military conscription has ever suited this country, with its tremendous naval tradition and its industrial power; it is doubtful, indeed, how far it has helped any country, for it only enables the old, pre-the-last-war militarism to continue until the next outbreak. In France, it was in force up till 1870; after that Germany adopted it for the whole Reich, and was defeated in 1914. Then France and England forbade Germany to have a conscripted army, and the French was the largest and, by old standards, “the best in the world” — as all our politicians reiterated. The result was that, after the German Army had been reconstituted by Hitler, the French were defeated.
The two greatest and most successful military organizations of modern times, Russian and German, have been built up since the last war, and after a clean sweep. A triumphant nation should always celebrate peace by the destruction of the War Office — then, at the right time, and if our politicians must continue to make us these presents of wars, a suitable organization and army could take shape.
The Englishman, when of sound mind, recognizes the truth of these facts by instinct, more fully than would a Continental; he recognizes the wickedness and, above all, the folly of megalomaniac conceptions. He wants no youth movements, no Balillas and black-handed gangs of tub-thumping tots and thugs in miniature, no great organizations to cripple and pervert the minds of the young. And if, during real peace, an English government proposes to continue conscription, then the English people, unless they have altered their character, will tell it to go.
YOU asked me, when I last saw you, what were my politics, and I find it a question difficult, even now, to answer. I belong to the balance of the body politic, and have at one moment felt, and acted, in one mood; at another, in another. I believe in trying to achieve the fullest liberty for the individual within the bounds of human and political conscience.
With the late D. H. Lawrence, it is my opinion that, where finance and economics are concerned, it is man’s chief misfortune that at present those who are most active and eager in these fields, — that is, in the pursuit of money or in planning to take it away, — and whose ideas are therefore the most likely to prevail, unless we can marshal the disinterested, are the most unpleasant, the most material-minded, of all men — either the most greedy, the most anxious to exploit their fellows, or the most dry, kill-joy doctrinaires.
In any case, money is a convenience we have ourselves created for our own use, not a god or a religion. And it should remain so — that is to say, money is made to be spent. But so long as the money world is ruled by the beaked and bloated tribes of the great capitalists, whose fortunes must be considered as a kind of elephantiasis, or threatened by the dour, sour looks of our old enemies, the Puritans, what can you expect?
I should not like to see — though no doubt I shall — hereditary wealth abolished. Today men seem afraid to defend it. American ideas of ant labor prevail. But, in all truth, the only kind of wealth worth having is the kind you do not earn: it is unassociated with the mean and slavish virtue of thrift. You have time to learn how to spend your money, and time in which to spend it. Obversely, I should like to see the possession and privileges of inherited wealth extended universally.
To abolish hereditary possessions today, instead of insisting on them for everyone, would be equivalent to the action of the Elizabethans, had they decreed the abolition of glass in all windows, because it was only to be found in the houses of the rich, and had thereby prevented its use from becoming general. Samuel Butler maintained, in The Way of All Flesh and in his Note-books, that one day it would be as anomalous to be born without an annual income attached to you of three or four hundred, to come to you when you had reached the age of twenty-five or so years, as it is today to be born without arms or legs. Evolution should provide each of us with a fortune, as with a face. I think he was right.
I was told lately, by an American who had been in Paris at the time the Germans entered that city, that German officers could be seen sitting in the fashionable teashops, gnawing huge lumps of butter, or sometimes with twenty or thirty cakes piled on the plate in front of them; this was, of course, the ugly result of underfeeding. A gross fortune is, similarly, the result — and as indecent a result — of poverty, the most degrading of human afflictions. But the stupidity and financial fecklessness of successive governments in Britain have at least accomplished this much, that we can say that any man who today sets out to make a great fortune must be either a great fool or a great philanthropist — and, if he succeeds, a great knave; for he pays 19s. 6d. in the pound as income tax, and at least two thirds of his possessions must go to the state when he dies.
For though governments in the past feared to overtax the people they ruled, or pretended to represent, they have now made what must be to them a most joyful discovery; that, so long as overtaxing arises through sheer muddle, lack of foresight, and incompetence, and not through intention, they can squander the national income up to any limit (and this is of benefit to them — at least indirectly — by increasing their importance). If, that is to say, they take your money, not because they believe in doing so, not because they are advocates of socialism, but because, on the contrary, having continually opposed it, they yet have floundered, of their own accord, into a position so tragic and untenable that socialism becomes their sole chance of rescue, nothing else remains to be done except to cling to an expedient in which they have no faith. But you and I would surely, even though we are not socialists, prefer to live in a state that was socialist by principle rather than by virtue of the amazing ineptitude of its politicians.
Yet it is not, perhaps, for a writer to complain. If an artist, it is scarcely probable that he will make a great fortune in a capitalist state, though it is true that he occupies, at any rate financially, a special place in it. For one thing, the proceeds of a book, which may have taken him five years to write, are liable to income tax and supertax — though a great portion of the money should surely be regarded as capital; for another, it has long been recognized that a writer’s particular form of property, the copyright of the books he has created, is on a different footing from all other property, is not inalienable, and should, in fact, be snatched from his family or heirs as soon as this can be accomplished without an appearance of indecent haste.
So much for the writer’s financial status. What the artist, should do for his own sake, I think, is not to advocate that money be taken away from its present owners, but to support a policy which will undermine its attraction for the material-minded by diminishing the value they can set upon it. Rationing, for example, already accomplishes this. It soon becomes plain that there is little object in making too much money, if there is little or nothing to buy with it. Confine the rich to the pastures of a restricted Fortnum & Mason’s. Advocate heavy permanent taxes on jewelry and old masters and decorative objects, and then you will be able to say to the rich, in the continual effort you make to educate those of them who need it, “Look! Modern pictures and books remain; their value may increase, while that of investments is bound to sink.” Plug that over, every time.
MONEY, though, is not so important to you as liberty; I recur to that. You must carry out a continual campaign against civil servants, dons, masters of hounds, schoolmasters, professional football players, and all friends of national sclerosis everywhere. Use once again your sense of fantasy and of fun. Hit them where they least expect it.
If, for example, it should prove — which I do not believe — that the character of the English people has changed, should it develop that the young are to be enslaved, and the artists subjected to continual domination by pinheads, then charge the foe. If you find that it has been planned for the intelligent, the intellectual, above all, the creative and those who live for things of the spirit, to spend a large portion of their lives after the war in undergoing, one after another, courses in gas and bombthrowing, then loudly, and on every occasion, you must demand in the name of Sacred English Fair Play that the philistines who hate art and literature and love to handle and throw bombs and to fire guns and, generally, to be as noisy and destructive as possible, and to live with a continual BBC program from opening to close, should, as compensation, be obliged to suffer six-weeks-long compulsory courses in Dutch painting or Persian textiles, and to pass endurance tests in the Art Element in Chinese Caligraphy and in English Romantic Poetry.
Torn from their peacetime occupations of golf, darts, and reading the papers, they must be made, during these courses, to live under, for them, the most uncomfortable circumstances possible; they must be forced to sleep on planks, eighty in a hut (unless they show a liking for dormitory life, when they should be placed in the solitary confinement of a comfortable bedroom). No radio should be allowed in any hut or mess. At mealtimes, they must listen in silence to Beethoven quartets, and after dinner attend orchestral concerts of Mahler and Stravinsky. The examinations in Byzantine jewelry and Turkish tiles should be conducted to the appropriate music of the countries concerned. During the Netherlands School of Painting course, they should be taken by train, starting from London at midnight, to that flat part of East Anglia which somewhat resembles Holland in configuration, and there be made to lie for hours in a damp ditch, so as to observe the sun rise over the river from the correct angle. During the daytime they should be made to adopt the proper physical attitudes of Teniers boors, one foot in the air, an arm extended, and later to dance in the same jolly and abandoned style.
The unsuccessful candidates for promotion, the recalcitrant and stubborn, could be ordered to take further courses in French Symbolist Poetry, as well as English Romantic, and be examined minutely on the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. Those who showed any symptom of being refractory could even be commanded to attend a lecture on the latest art movement by Group-Dupe Herbert Read. But you should be humane as well as stern, and first aid should be ready on all occasions for the mind as well as the body.
I implore you to take what I say seriously, even when I put it in a form to amuse you. You are a cavalier by type, and not a roundhead, and you will need all the fun you can make for yourself and others, as well as all the fighting spirit you can muster, if you are, as I hope, to carry on a long one-man campaign against stupidity and priggishness wherever you see it. Never allow yourself to be discouraged, however hopeless at any one moment the struggle may appear.
I must end now, for my letter is long, and at present you have not much time for reading; but there still remain several subjects on which I must talk to you in my next letter. Take care of yourself.
Your affectionate father,