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Friday, January 27, 2012

"Live Furniture"

I found this essay amusing. :-)


"Black and White"
[Reprinted in Current Opinion: A Magazine of Record and Review, volume XXXVI, January-June 1904]

Nobody can possibly imagine what would happen if agnostics really became agnostic. No one can say, that is, what would happen if the modern skeptical mind ceased to be quite certain about everything. Genuine agnosticism would no doubt make a very great revolution in the tradition of our lives; but what would be the bold and general features of that great revolution it is very difficult to predict with certainty. One thing, however, may be considered as fairly certain. If agnosticism came properly into play, one thing or class of things would at any rate happen. We should have ghost stories in every street in London; we should have fairy stories in every village in England; we should have the cry of the witches in every high wind, and the grin of Robin Goodfellow in every act of the household, from the breakfast service to the pleasant taste of the supper. This is real agnosticism, to be attracted to elves and afraid of specters. For precisely the thing which has always made these notions important, precisely the thing which has always made fairies attractive and ghosts disquieting, has been the eternal attitude of man, the eternal attitude of agnosticism. Once admit that we do know that fairies are, and they are no more attractive than elfs; once admit that we do know that a ghost can walk, and he becomes a good deal less dangerous than any harmless old vicar dawdling about in the moonlight. The thing which has given life to all the superstitions is this ancient and mystic thing, agnosticism. Peasants and old women can frighten us with their tales precisely because they are philosophically right; they do not know why such things should not be, but yet do not absolutely know that they are. Modern agnostics summarize the views of the peasants and old women by saying that they are beliefs born of ignorance. Ignorance is a Latin word, which means agnosticism.

Now, this genuine agnostic attitude is the one which, as I have said, I recommend in the case of the beliefs of children not only as the most wise answer to their questions, but as the only honest answer. Let us take the question of the personality of inanimate things. If a child says, "Does my doll really think?" the only truthful answer is, "I do not know. You know more about it than I do." To pretend that we do know of any argument against things of the kind thinking is extravagant. All we know about tables and chairs is that they do not adopt our ways of expressing themselves. They are apparently deaf and dumb and blind, and, therefore, separated from us. But, then, for the matter of that, we may strike them as deficient in some organ of communication which they possess, and through which they conduct a gay and complex social life. Through this organ they may be, so to speak, winking at us all day, shouting at us all day, digging us in the waistcoat, and kicking us on the shins all day. They may be sending up glorious rockets to blind men, and playing divine oratorios to deaf ones.

Another thing that people forget about the things called lifeless or motionless is that motion is very considerably a matter of time. It is true that to us who flower and fade for the feverish interlude of three score years and ten an armchair appears to be motionless. But for all we know, from the point of view of a thing which lives a hundred times longer than an armchair, the armchair may appear quite vivacious. The armchair may be waving its arms like an orator addressing a mob. It may be throwing its legs about like a sailor dancing a hornpipe. To us who live less than a hundred years its atoms appear stationary; to others the atoms may appear as pouring and mingling and eddying like the bubbles of a waterfall. To people who live a million years it may appear to move with slow and solemn gestures reminiscent of the old school; to people who live two million years it may appear to have movements which are easy and modern; to people who live four million years it may appear to gesticulate like an Italian in a rage. For it is, as I say, merely a matter of time; and I belong to the philosophical school of Mrs. Snagsby in "Bleak House," who, when her husband remarked that it was time for tea, answered "What's time to eternity?" If a flash of lightning had a personality and could write its reminiscences, it would undoubtedly regard the instant of time in which it lit up the landscape as a long and comfortable and valuable lifetime; it would regard the unearthly incandescence which made all things ghastly for a second as the steady benignity of a summer sun. And just as we open our eyes as infants and see the trees in a certain attitude and close them as corpses while the trees remain in the same attitude, so it would be with the life of the lightning. It would open its blinding eyes when a clerk was hailing a hansom cab and close them forever before he had lowered his umbrella. So that to the lightning that clerk would be what a mountain or a pine tree is to us, a thing not only motionless but incapable of motion. The lightning would see men not as trees walking, but as trees standing still.

To that momentary soul all the contortions and energies of our human life would only be like the varied shapes of a silent and unstinting forest. The hand of a man lifted to strike his friend in a startled drawingroom would be only the crooked bough standing out from an ancient oak. The mouth of a man just opened to speak would only be the hole in a hollow tree. All our movements would be frozen into perpetuity. The man who had stumbled on his hands and knees would be a quadruped. The man who was leaping over a fence would be a flying bird.

It is at least possible that this is really the case with the things that we call inanimate— stones, trees, houses, armchairs, dolls, and hobby-horses. It may be that they express themselves with a fine patriarchal leisure, which our lives are too short to cultivate. It may be that they have the grand air of gentlemen, and we only the hurry of journalists. Perhaps it takes a beech-tree some little time (say ninety years) to make an observation about the weather. Perhaps in the course of a century and a decade or so an elm may have thought of and uttered a very witty reply, immediately followed about forty years later by the applause of the whole forest uttered in shouts at intervals of three years apart. It may be that, like the lightning, we drop in at Nature's great "at home" rather too late and leave a trifle too early, thus missing a good deal of the cosmic fun. It may be that the stones and the trees are, so to speak, human beings, and that we are only thunderbolts.

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