A letter from America in 1917
How wise words from the past could influence future generations.
This is the second excerpt from an upcoming book of letters from Arnold Marsh 1890 to 1977, this one again to his sister Sylvia. The topic is mostly about the Bible and other works, racism and slavery, civilisation and class structure, etc. Written while he was in Hollywood, California in December 1917, at the age of 26, some time before returning to Ireland and becoming the Headmaster of Newtown School in Waterford.
1636 Cahuenga Ave
Dec 19th 1917
My dear Sib,
Thy powerful letter of the 7th of Oct reached me rather more than a month ago. Why so much determination about it? You fling your views at me as if you thought they were wicked enough to boast of, and defied anyone to agree with you, but indeed they nearly all seem to me to be very decent and agreeable. There is just one thing. Why do you study the Bible so much, especially the Old Testament? What do you get out of it? I should have thought more modern writers would have had more interest for you, seeing that you are not sound. I’m glad I learnt all the texts I did, but reading the Bible now doesn’t inspire me half as much as reading Walls, or John Dewey, or Bertrand or George Russell, or Bernard Shaw, or many others. The ancient prophets were no doubt very valuable in their own time, and if you take an antiquarian interest in them, and make a hobby of them, like my hobby of old books that are not nearly so well bound or printed as new ones, I can understand your studying them, but I don’t think you do do that, so what is the idea? Do you think the ancient prophets were more inspired than the modern ones, or that their teachings were more applicable to present and future conditions, or just simply that time has sifted them out and given you only the good, whereas the ideas of modern prophets have not yet been tested and you don’t know what’s good and what isn’t? If that is so I’m glad to have found something to disagree with, for I can’t see that anyone can gain much except religious ecstasy from Jeremiah and Isaiah, and if you want religious ecstasy you can get it from modern writers, reinforced by a far greater fund of knowledge than the old writers had. I sometimes think that history is chiefly valuable for its mistakes. It can’t show you the right road to take to an unexplored future, but it can show what caused failures in the past, and put you on your guard. You can get an idea from Jeremiah of what caused the conquest of Palestine, and to an old believer that is an impressive lesson for the present, but to sceptical people isn’t history far more valuable, showing how all great empires have fallen, and showing it by the use of known facts rather than flowery poetical ravings?
What you say about ideals being luxurious seems fairly true, although it doesn’t define very much, and it doesn’t explain why the modern world wants so many luxuries that savages and beasts are happy without. Wouldn’t you love to be a cat stretched out dreaming in the sun, or a monkey fooling about in a tree? There is happiness! Civilisation can’t equal that. Supposing, dear sister, people left their babies in the care of monkeys in the woods, or in savage villages never troubled and made restless by the white man, do you not think that the future of the human race would be just as happy as it seems likely to be today? The monkeyed men would still be men. They would get their food and intermarry and band themselves together in tribes, following out the same primitive instincts as we do, and they would be saved from that eternal worrying and thinking that people of leisure and education have to contend with.
Why shouldn’t we stretch out in the sun and let ourselves be dominated by the civilised Prussian? He, poor fool, thinks that he can’t be happy unless he is able to glorify himself above the other fellow. Why not let him? Why not have a race of slaves ruled by intelligent supermen who would stamp out any attempts at freedom? I suppose because it can’t be done. We’re all infected with the Prussian disease. We want to be civilised and powerful, and we want to beat the other fellow, and there can be no peace until we’ve all learnt to tolerate each other. And what then? There’ll be less physical pain and less death than there is in war, but can civilised people be happy? We’ll all get these ideals driven into us, or at any rate many of us have, and we’re longing to satisfy them.
Can we ever be content? Educate the working man! Teach him how to care for himself and his home, i.e. how to be clean and healthy, and how to make his family the same. Then what? You’ve given him ideals. He’ll want something else. He’ll think his life is too narrow. He must emulate the rich, go travelling, riding in a motor car, wearing evening dress, and his ideals will make him less eager for wife and children. Then there will be fewer wives and children. There will be more idle women and more lazy men. Friend Satan will find further mischief for them by tempting them with still more ideals; and surely the more unrealised ideals and unsatisfied dreams a man has the more miserable he is! Damn ideals! His only course will be to give himself up to opiates of some kind, something that will calm his restlessness, but which will also weaken his vitality.
And this is just what is happening in Southern California, and just what I suppose has always happened to peoples that have got rich beyond their needs and have gone in for civilisation. Racial suicide, downfall, and the springing into power of a more vital and laborious race! What is it then that Wells finds good in civilisation? When he says that civilisation gives you something beyond the bare necessities of life does he think that that something makes you happier? Happiness I suppose is contentment, but it seems to me that when you’ve got the bare necessities you are content, like the cat in the sun, unless some fool has put an ideal into you, and then your joy is over; for you are thinking of and wanting something that you can’t get. I believe civilisation is caused by this disease of idealism, and that the best thing we can do is to put the brake on. Instead of teaching children fairytales let them enjoy what they’ve got. Teach them to avoid romantic literature, not to look at pictures of foreign countries, not to suppose that there is any world but their own. Teach them that there are three instincts which need to be satisfied if we would have happiness, – hunger, sex and the herd, and that when we are fed and have our children and our friends our life is complete, and we can doze in the sun. But that also is impossible. Some must govern because, otherwise, abnormal people would interrupt the happiness of society and there would be wars. Some must know about foreign lands because the countries have all got linked up, and unless every country makes a Tibet of itself the knowledge of other places will work into children’s minds and make them restless again. When some know about these things they’ll talk about them, and others will be envious. So what hope is there? Shall we start a crusade to make all countries into Chinas? Shall we forbid the use of any except hand driven machinery? It can’t be did (sic), and it wouldn’t be permanent if it was done, for what people have grown out of before they may grow out of again. So the only thing to be done is to tone the ideals down, and provide innocent mental relaxation for the times when we don’t have to work, i.e. relaxation that won’t make us long for an impossible life, – Charley Chaplin for example. There is a man who has brought wholly un-stimulating merriment to millions (I hope soon to assist him.) What is this you are saying? The movies are making people restless and dissatisfied? Maybe, but they also soothe people and put pleasant thoughts into ugly lives. In places where old religious and social traditions are still living things the movies no doubt upset an order that is good, just as the white man upsets the savage, but they don’t corrupt the people the way white men corrupt savages, and their main effect is probably to hasten a movement that is sure to come. Old traditions will die anyway, because the nearness of cities won’t let them live. I’m not satisfied with movies as they are, but I don’t think they should be condemned. What I should like to see would be somebody making them in Ireland. I’d like to do it myself. Someday – . Well, no, I won’t start talking foolishly, but I don’t intend to live here all my life. I’ll be surprised if I’m not in France next year, although I was rejected when I tried to enlist, but …
I, e’er I go to bloody France,
Will ask a chance to see the hilly,
The little, April – dappled glens,
And weedy fens of water lily.
The little cliffs along the hills
Where water spills in silver clatter,
And on the stones the fronds of fern
Shake off and spurn the constant spatter.
And Antrim then will seem to me
What it can’t be to those within her,
For none her loveliness can know
Until they go afar to win her.
Her little hills are dressed in green
And heather sheen and whin-bush shining,
And seeing them an Antrim boy
Shouts out with joy and ends his pining.
He wanders through the glens he loved
Before he moved to strange places,
And knows his home is in the fold
Among the old familiar faces.
No more he dreads the burning sun,
The hostile one, on deserts beating,
But laughs to see its beams leap out
Among the rout of clouds retreating.
No more he fears the dreadful blasts
Along the wastes in wild Decembers,
For Antrim snows are soft and light,
And warm and bright he piles the embers.
And in the spring the April showers
Fall all the hours on new buds peering,
And (indistinct) green are filled with song
Where all day long the birds are cheering;
And summer comes and still the green
Is always seen in Antrim grasses;
And autumn showers the glens with gold
And beauty’s old but never passes.
So, e’er I go to bloody France,
I’ll ask a chance to leave my duty,
And once again a little while
I’ll see the smile of Antrim’s beauty.
But all the same I think it’s rather a good thing to execute people who try to write pomes (sic), for they certainly do terrible harm in giving people wild romantic notions when they’re good, and when they’re bad they’re obviously not fit to live.
I don’t know your English address, and owing to the low mentality of the Irish censors I don’t like to send this to an Irish one, so I’m sending it to Norwood.
Hope you get it all right.