THE DESIRE TO EXCEED ONE'S PROGRAMME
"But," someone may remark, with the English disregard of everything
except the point, "what is he driving at with his twenty-four hours
a day? I have no difficulty in living on twenty-four hours a day. I
do all that I want to do, and still find time to go in for newspaper
competitions. Surely it is a simple affair, knowing that one has
only twenty-four hours a day, to content one's self with twenty-four
hours a day!"
To you, my dear sir, I present my excuses and apologies. You are
precisely the man that I have been wishing to meet for about forty
years. Will you kindly send me your name and address, and state
your charge for telling me how you do it? Instead of me talking to
you, you ought to be talking to me. Please come forward. That you
exist, I am convinced, and that I have not yet encountered you is my
loss. Meanwhile, until you appear, I will continue to chat with my
companions in distress-- that innumerable band of souls who are
haunted, more or less painfully, by the feeling that the years slip
by, and slip by, and slip by, and that they have not yet been able
to get their lives into proper working order.
If we analyse that feeling, we shall perceive it to be, primarily,
one of uneasiness, of expectation, of looking forward, of
aspiration. It is a source of constant discomfort, for it behaves
like a skeleton at the feast of all our enjoyments. We go to the
theatre and laugh; but between the acts it raises a skinny finger at
us. We rush violently for the last train, and while we are cooling
a long age on the platform waiting for the last train, it promenades
its bones up and down by our side and inquires: "O man, what hast
thou done with thy youth? What art thou doing with thine age?"
You may urge that this feeling of continuous looking forward, of
aspiration, is part of life itself, and inseparable from life
But there are degrees. A man may desire to go to Mecca. His
conscience tells him that he ought to go to Mecca. He fares forth,
either by the aid of Cook's, or unassisted; he may probably never
reach Mecca; he may drown before he gets to Port Said; he may
perish ingloriously on the coast of the Red Sea; his desire may
remain eternally frustrate. Unfulfilled aspiration may always trouble
him. But he will not be tormented in the same way as the man who,
desiring to reach Mecca, and harried by the desire to reach Mecca,
never leaves Brixton.
It is something to have left Brixton. Most of us have not left
Brixton. We have not even taken a cab to Ludgate Circus and
inquired from Cook's the price of a conducted tour. And our excuse
to ourselves is that there are only twenty-four hours in the day.
If we further analyse our vague, uneasy aspiration, we shall, I
think, see that it springs from a fixed idea that we ought to do
something in addition to those things which we are loyally and
morally obliged to do. We are obliged, by various codes written and
unwritten, to maintain ourselves and our families (if any) in health
and comfort, to pay our debts, to save, to increase our prosperity
by increasing our efficiency. A task sufficiently difficult! A
task which very few of us achieve! A task often beyond our skill!
Yet, if we succeed in it, as we sometimes do, we are not satisfied;
the skeleton is still with us.
And even when we realise that the task is beyond our skill, that
our powers cannot cope with it, we feel that we should be less
discontented if we gave to our powers, already overtaxed,
something still further to do.
And such is, indeed, the fact. The wish to accomplish something
outside their formal programme is common to all men who in the
course of evolution have risen past a certain level.
Until an effort is made to satisfy that wish, the sense of uneasy
waiting for something to start which has not started will remain to
disturb the peace of the soul. That wish has been called by many
names. It is one form of the universal desire for knowledge. And
it is so strong that men whose whole lives have been given to the
systematic acquirement of knowledge have been driven by it to
overstep the limits of their programme in search of still more
knowledge. Even Herbert Spencer, in my opinion the greatest
mind that ever lived, was often forced by it into agreeable little
backwaters of inquiry.
I imagine that in the majority of people who are conscious of the
wish to live-- that is to say, people who have intellectual
curiosity-- the aspiration to exceed formal programmes takes a
literary shape. They would like to embark on a course of reading.
Decidedly the British people are becoming more and more literary.
But I would point out that literature by no means comprises the
whole field of knowledge, and that the disturbing thirst to improve
one's self-- to increase one's knowledge-- may well be slaked quite
apart from literature. With the various ways of slaking I shall
deal later. Here I merely point out to those who have no natural
sympathy with literature that literature is not the only well.