“Oppressive liberty”

Most men need institutions to make them distinguish themselves; and they also need institutions to make them enjoy themselves.  For, paradoxical as it sounds, men shrink from enjoyment; they make one automatic step backwards from the brink of hilarity; because they know that it means the loss of dignity and a certain furious self-effacement.  It is to get over this first reluctance of every reveller that men have created also coercive festivals such as Christmas Day.

The truth at the back of almost every human institution, from a marriage to a tea-party, is the fact that people must be tied by the leg even to do justice to themselves.  In such matters coercion is a sort of encouragement; and anarchy (or what these people call liberty) is really oppressive, because its atmosphere discourages everybody.  If we all drifted in the air like utterly detached bubbles, if no one knew how long anyone else would be within an inch or a yard of him, the practical result would be that nobody would have the courage to begin a conversation with anybody else.  It is so embarrassing to begin a sentence in a friendly whisper and have to howl the last part of it because the other person is floating away into the free and formless ether.  People must be tied together in order to talk; for twenty minutes at a dance or for forty years in a marriage; for an hour at a dinner or for three hours at a Christmas dinner.  But if anything is to be got out of the relation, it must be a secure one, so far as it goes; and this is true of all pleasure and of all toil.  The anarchist says that a man should never speak till he feels inclined; but this would only mean the the modest man would never speak.  He must be “brought out”; by force, if necessary.  The anarchist says that a man should not feast except of his own accord: that would mean, at any rate, that women would never feast.  They must be made to.  The anarchist says that no man should work unless he wishes to.  At that rate no healthy man would ever work at all; for I hope every healthy man can think of occupations much more entertaining.  The anarchic philosophy fails utterly because it ignores this psychological fact of the initial reluctance to do even desirable things.  If there are two godlike and glorious things in the world they are an English breakfast and a sea-bath.  Yet I have never known any brave and honourable man who denied that he detested getting out of bed and plunging into cold water.  The forms and rites of Christmas Day are meant merely to give the last push to people who are afraid to be festive.  Father Christmas exists to haul us out of bed and make us partake of meals too beautiful to be called breakfasts.  He exists to fling us out of the bathing-machine into the heady happiness of the sea.

The Illustrated London News, 8 January 1910.

Published in: on December 18, 2013 at 1:19 am  Leave a Comment  

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