A review of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s prescient dystopian novel We

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Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.

We is narrated by D-503. D-503 is an engineer building a spacecraft, the Integral, which will expand the domain of OneState. Although OneState has conquered earth (after the apocalyptic Two Hundred Years War), they seek to expand their empire of conformity to the stars, perhaps replicating their giant city-state on planets yet unknown. In its physical form, OneState is a glass panopticon surrounded by a great Glass Wall that keeps the wild natural world out. In its ideological form, OneState mandates uniformity, mechanization, and mathematical precision. The denizens of OneState conform to this ideology at all times. They wear uniforms — “yunies” — that bear the numbers that serve as their names. Indeed, they are “Numbers,” not people. The Numbers wake and sleep at the exact same hour. They march in unison and live and work in glass buildings. They “vote” to elect the same Benefactor each year, who runs unchallenged. They eat foods made from petroleum and produce children in a machine-like process that follows a system of “Maternal and Paternal Norms.” Numbers that don’t meet these Norms are forbidden from reproducing, but any Number can register for intercourse with another Number on Sex Day. A secret police force, the Bureau of Guardians, monitors the population, but it’s ultimately groupthink that keeps the Numbers in line.

One-State’s groupthink ideology is neatly summed up in propaganda that D-503 shares late in the novel:

Here’s the headline that glowed from page one of the State Gazette:

REJOICE!

For henceforth you are perfect! Up until this day your offspring, the machines, were more perfect than you.

IN WHAT WAY?

Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism. But do you not also contain this same infallible reason? The philosophy of the cranes, the presses, and the pumps is as perfect and clear as a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfect? The beauty of the mechanism is in the precise and invariable rhythm, like that of the pendulum. …But think of this: The mechanism has no imagination.

Imagination is the ultimate enemy of the machine, and the Benefactor and his Guardians have a plan to finally root it out and exterminate it.

Throughout much of We, D-503 is very much attuned to this ideology. D-503 thinks of OneState as “our glass paradise.” What we see as dystopia he sees as utopia, he initially constructs We as a testament to OneState’s glory that he will include as part of the cargo of the Integral. However, as the narrative unfolds, D-503 unravels. His sense of self divides as signs of mental illness emerge–first dreams, then an imagination, and then—gasp!—a soul.

D-503’s internal conflict stems from discovering his own innate irrationality—namely, a soul which cannot be measured in numbers or weighed in physical facts. This internal conflict drives much of the narrative of We. Zamyatin delivers this conflict in D-503’s first-person consciousness, a consciousnesses that contracts and expands, a consciousness that would love to elide its own first-person interiority completely and subsume itself wholly to a third-person we—but he can’t. Consider the following passage;

I lie in the bed thinking … and a logical chain, extraordinarily odd, starts unwinding itself.

For every equation, every formula in the superficial world, there is a corresponding curve or solid. For irrational formulas, for my √—1, we know of no corresponding solids, we’ve never seen them…. But that’s just the whole horror—that these solids, invisible, exist. They absolutely inescapably must exist. Because in mathematics their eccentric prickly shadows, the irrational formulas, parade in front of our eyes as if they were on a screen. And mathematics and death never make a mistake. And if we don’t see these solids in our surface world, there is for them, there inevitably must be, a whole immense world there, beneath the surface.

I jumped up without waiting for the bell and began to run around my room. My mathematics, up to now the only lasting and immovable island in my entire dislocated life, had also broken loose and floated whirling off. So does this mean that that stupid “soul” is just as real as my yuny, as my boots, even though I can’t see them now (they’re behind the mirror of the wardrobe door)? And if the boots are not a disease, why is the “soul” a disease?

What initiates D-503’s anti-quest for a soul? It is a woman of course. I-330 interrupts D-503’s routine life, puncturing his logic with irrational passions, taking him on transgressive trips to the Old House—and eventually, leading him to the greatest transgression of all. You see, there’s an underground movement, a secret resistance force—one that not uncoincidentally needs access to the Integral—and this resistance plans to…but I shouldn’t spoil more.

Or really, could I even spoil the plot of We? So many novels and films have borrowed heavily from (or at least echoed) its premise that you already know what it’s about. The major examples are easy—Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1955), etc. Then there are all their followers—the cheap sci-fi paperbacks of the sixties and seventies, their corresponding films—Logan’s RunSoylent Green–and so on and so on, well into our Now (Running ManTotal RecallThe Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. forever).

You get the point: We is a generative text. And after reading We, I couldn’t immediately think of a clear generative text that generated it. From what materials did Zamyatin craft his tale?  The closest predecessor I could initially think of was Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), or maybe bits of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), neither of which feel as thoroughly modern as We does. However, cursory research (uh, skimming Wikipedia) turned up Jerome K. Jerome’s 1891 short story, “The New Utopia,” which does feature some of the tropes we find in We. Set in city of the future, “The New Utopia” features uniformed, nameless, numbered people whose government attempts to destroy the human imagination. Here, the “Destiny of Humanity” has become an egalitarian nightmare.

While it’s likely that “The New Utopia” furnished Zamyatin some of the tropes he needed to construct We, Jerome’s story simply doesn’t have the same epic themes of underground resistance to technological bureaucracy that have became the stock of so much 20th and 21st-century science fiction. (I rewatched Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) while reading We, and the parallels are remarkable—but the same can be said for any number of sci-fi films of the last sixty or so years).

More significantly, Jerome’s “The New Utopia” is beholden to a rhetorical scheme that makes it feel closer to an essay than a finished work of art. The story is essentially a one-sided dialogue—a man falls asleep, wakes up a few thousand years later, and gets the skinny on the utopian nightmare city he’s awoken in from an enthusiastic Future Person. Reading “The New Utopia” reminded me of reading London’s The Iron Heel, which essentially works in the same way—London’s plot often feels like an excuse to stitch together Marxist readings into monologues posing as dialogues.

Zamyatin’s book, in contrast, is Something New. We is a work of Modernism, not just a collection of new tropes, but a new configuration of those tropes. Zamyatin’s D-503 is a consciousness in crisis, a self that simultaneously dissovles and resolves into something new—a creature with a soul. Consider D-503’s recollection of a nightmare:

It’s night. Green, orange, blue; a red “royal” instrument; a yellow-orange dress. Then, a bronze Buddha; suddenly it raised its bronze eyelids and juice started to flow, juice out of the Buddha. Then out of the yellow dress, too: juice. Juices ran all over the mirror, and the bed began to ooze juice, and then it came from the children’s little beds, and now from me, too—some kind of fatally sweet horror….

The prose here showcases Zamyatin’s vivid style. We, crammed with colors, often evokes Expressionist and Futurist paintings. We get here a painterly depiction of D-503’s abjection, his sense of a self leaking out in “some kind of fatally sweet horror” — his boundaries overflowing. The dream-synthesis here is at once joyful, terrifying, and utterly bewildering to our poor hero. It is also poetic in his rendering. D-503 laments early in his narrative that he is not a poet so that he cannot properly celebrate OneState in writing for his readers. But later, his friend R-13—a poet himself—tells him that he has “no business being a mathematician. You’re a poet…a poet!”

R-13 is correct: D-503 is a poet, a poet who cannot abide all the metaphysics gumming up his mathematical mind. This poetry is rendered wonderfully in the English translation I read by Clarence Brown (1993), and is showcased in the very “titles” of each chapter (or “Record,” in the book’s terms). Each “Record” begins with phrases culled from the chapter. Here are a few at random:

An Author’s Duty

Swollen Ice

The Most Difficult Love

 

Through Glass

I Died

Hallways

 

Fog

Familiar “You”

An Absolutely Inane Occurrence

 

Letter

Membrane

Hairy Me

These are the titles of four random chapters, but I suppose we could string together the whole series and arrive at a Dadaist poem, one that might also serve as an oblique summary of We.

And yet for all its surrealist tinges and techno-dystopian themes, the poem that We most reminded me of was, quite unexpectedly, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). Whitman’s poem sought a new language and a new form to tell the story of a new land, a new people. He wanted to be everyone and no one at the same time, himself a kosmos, form and void, an I, a you, a we. Whitman addressed his poem to both the you of his readership, an immortal future readership beyond him (“Listener up there!”) as well as himself, famously declaring: “I loaf and invite my soul.”

D-503 presents almost as an anti-Whitman. He directly addresses his “unknown readers” in nearly every chapter, and with a Whitmanesque turn, like this one: “You, my unknown readers, you will be told everything (right now you are just as dear, as close, and as unapproachable…).” His ebullience and optimism are ironic of course—they are honest performances that crack under the increasing reality of his emerging soul. Unlike Walt Whitman, D-503 cannot loaf and invite his soul. He can’t sustain the negative capabilities Whitman’s poem engenders. His we cannot reconcile with an I, even as it seeks a mediating you in its dear readers.

And yet for all its bitter ironies and for all its hero’s often feckless struggle, We is a comedy. The book is a cartoon-poem-satire, its comedy sustained in the careening voice of D-503. It’s somewhat well known that George Orwell used We as a template for 1984 (he began that novel less than a year after penning a review of a French translation of We). Orwell’s novel though falls into the same essaying that we see in The Iron Heel and “The New Utopia.” It’s also awfully dour. In contrast, We shuttles along with zany elan, inviting us to laugh at modern absurdity. Indeed, Zamyatin posits laughter as resistance to tyranny, myopia, and brutish closed-mindedness. Late in the novel, D-503 arrives at the following epiphany:

And that was when I learned from my own experience that a laugh can be a terrifying weapon. With a laugh you can kill even murder itself.

I could end by cataloging the various parallels that might be drawn between We and our own dystopian age, but I think that they are too obvious, and, as I’ve noted, have been repeated (with degrees of difference) throughout the body of dystopian narratives that We has helped generate. What the book does though—or I should say, what it did for me—is offer the strange comfort. A century after Zamyatin diagnosed the emergence of another modern world, the human position remains essentially unchanged, and in times of despair we can remember to laugh—and imagine to imagine. Very highly recommended.

Read “The Dancing Partner,” Jerome K. Jerome’s horror story about an automaton

“The Dancing Partner”

by

Jerome K. Jerome

from Novel Notes (1893)


“This story,” commenced MacShaugnassy, “comes from Furtwangen, a small town in the Black Forest. There lived there a very wonderful old fellow named Nicholaus Geibel. His business was the making of mechanical toys, at which work he had acquired an almost European reputation. He made rabbits that would emerge from the heart of a cabbage, flop their ears, smooth their whiskers, and disappear again; cats that would wash their faces, and mew so naturally that dogs would mistake them for real cats and fly at them; dolls with phonographs concealed within them, that would raise their hats and say, ‘Good morning; how do you do?’ and some that would even sing a song.

“But, he was something more than a mere mechanic; he was an artist. His work was with him a hobby, almost a passion. His shop was filled with all manner of strange things that never would, or could, be sold — things he had made for the pure love of making them. He had contrived a mechanical donkey that would trot for two hours by means of stored electricity, and trot, too, much faster than the live article, and with less need for exertion on the part of the driver, a bird that would shoot up into the air, fly round and round in a circle, and drop to earth at the exact spot from where it started; a skeleton that, supported by an upright iron bar, would dance a hornpipe, a life-size lady doll that could play the fiddle, and a gentleman with a hollow inside who could smoke a pipe and drink more lager beer than any three average German students put together, which is saying much.

“Indeed, it was the belief of the town that old Geibel could make a man capable of doing everything that a respectable man need want to do. One day he made a man who did too much, and it came about in this way:

“Young Doctor Follen had a baby, and the baby had a birthday. Its first birthday put Doctor Follen’s household into somewhat of a flurry, but on the occasion of its second birthday, Mrs. Doctor Follen gave a ball in honour of the event. Old Geibel and his daughter Olga were among the guests.

“During the afternoon of the next day some three or four of Olga’s bosom friends, who had also been present at the ball, dropped in to have a chat about it. They naturally fell to discussing the men, and to criticizing their dancing. Old Geibel was in the room, but he appeared to be absorbed in his newspaper, and the girls took no notice of him.

“‘There seem to be fewer men who can dance at every ball you go to,’ said one of the girls.

“‘Yes, and don’t the ones who can give themselves airs,’ said another; ‘they make quite a favor of asking you.’

“‘And how stupidly they talk,’ added a third. ‘They always say exactly the same things: “How charming you are looking to-night.” “Do you often go to Vienna? Oh, you should, it’s delightful.” “What a charming dress you have on.” “What a warm day it has been.” “Do you like Wagner?” I do wish they’d think of something new.’

“‘Oh, I never mind how they talk,’ said a forth. ‘If a man dances well he may be a fool for all I care.’

“‘He generally is,’ slipped in a thin girl, rather spitefully.

“‘I go to a ball to dance,’ continued the previous speaker, not noticing the interruption. ‘All I ask is that he shall hold me firmly, take me round steadily, and not get tired before I do.’

“‘A clockwork figure would be the thing for you,’ said the girl who had interrupted.

“‘Bravo!’ cried one of the others, clapping her hands, ‘what a capital idea!’

“‘What’s a capital idea?’ they asked.

“‘Why, a clockwork dancer, or, better still, one that would go by electricity and never run down.’ Continue reading “Read “The Dancing Partner,” Jerome K. Jerome’s horror story about an automaton”

“On Being in Love” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Being in Love”

by

Jerome K. Jerome

You’ve been in love, of course! If not you’ve got it to come. Love is like the measles; we all have to go through it. Also like the measles, we take it only once. One never need be afraid of catching it a second time. The man who has had it can go into the most dangerous places and play the most foolhardy tricks with perfect safety. He can picnic in shady woods, ramble through leafy aisles, and linger on mossy seats to watch the sunset. He fears a quiet country-house no more than he would his own club. He can join a family party to go down the Rhine. He can, to see the last of a friend, venture into the very jaws of the marriage ceremony itself. He can keep his head through the whirl of a ravishing waltz, and rest afterward in a dark conservatory, catching nothing more lasting than a cold. He can brave a moonlight walk adown sweet-scented lanes or a twilight pull among the somber rushes. He can get over a stile without danger, scramble through a tangled hedge without being caught, come down a slippery path without falling. He can look into sunny eyes and not be dazzled. He listens to the siren voices, yet sails on with unveered helm. He clasps white hands in his, but no electric “Lulu”-like force holds him bound in their dainty pressure.

No, we never sicken with love twice. Cupid spends no second arrow on the same heart. Love’s handmaids are our life-long friends. Respect, and admiration, and affection, our doors may always be left open for, but their great celestial master, in his royal progress, pays but one visit and departs. We like, we cherish, we are very, very fond of—but we never love again. A man’s heart is a firework that once in its time flashes heavenward. Meteor-like, it blazes for a moment and lights with its glory the whole world beneath. Then the night of our sordid commonplace life closes in around it, and the burned-out case, falling back to earth, lies useless and uncared for, slowly smoldering into ashes. Once, breaking loose from our prison bonds, we dare, as mighty old Prometheus dared, to scale the Olympian mount and snatch from Phoebus’ chariot the fire of the gods. Happy those who, hastening down again ere it dies out, can kindle their earthly altars at its flame. Love is too pure a light to burn long among the noisome gases that we breathe, but before it is choked out we may use it as a torch to ignite the cozy fire of affection. Continue reading ““On Being in Love” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On Being in the Blues” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Being in the Blues”

by

Jerome K. Jerome

I can enjoy feeling melancholy, and there is a good deal of satisfaction about being thoroughly miserable; but nobody likes a fit of the blues. Nevertheless, everybody has them; notwithstanding which, nobody can tell why. There is no accounting for them. You are just as likely to have one on the day after you have come into a large fortune as on the day after you have left your new silk umbrella in the train. Its effect upon you is somewhat similar to what would probably be produced by a combined attack of toothache, indigestion, and cold in the head. You become stupid, restless, and irritable; rude to strangers and dangerous toward your friends; clumsy, maudlin, and quarrelsome; a nuisance to yourself and everybody about you.

While it is on you can do nothing and think of nothing, though feeling at the time bound to do something. You can’t sit still so put on your hat and go for a walk; but before you get to the corner of the street you wish you hadn’t come out and you turn back. You open a book and try to read, but you find Shakespeare trite and commonplace, Dickens is dull and prosy, Thackeray a bore, and Carlyle too sentimental. You throw the book aside and call the author names. Then you “shoo” the cat out of the room and kick the door to after her. You think you will write your letters, but after sticking at “Dearest Auntie: I find I have five minutes to spare, and so hasten to write to you,” for a quarter of an hour, without being able to think of another sentence, you tumble the paper into the desk, fling the wet pen down upon the table-cloth, and start up with the resolution of going to see the Thompsons. While pulling on your gloves, however, it occurs to you that the Thompsons are idiots; that they never have supper; and that you will be expected to jump the baby. You curse the Thompsons and decide not to go. Continue reading ““On Being in the Blues” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On Cats and Dogs” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Cats and Dogs” by Jerome K. Jerome

What I’ve suffered from them this morning no tongue can tell. It began with Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus Adolphus (they call him “Gusty” down-stairs for short) is a very good sort of dog when he is in the middle of a large field or on a fairly extensive common, but I won’t have him indoors. He means well, but this house is not his size. He stretches himself, and over go two chairs and a what-not. He wags his tail, and the room looks as if a devastating army had marched through it. He breathes, and it puts the fire out.

At dinner-time he creeps in under the table, lies there for awhile, and then gets up suddenly; the first intimation we have of his movements being given by the table, which appears animated by a desire to turn somersaults. We all clutch at it frantically and endeavor to maintain it in a horizontal position; whereupon his struggles, he being under the impression that some wicked conspiracy is being hatched against him, become fearful, and the final picture presented is generally that of an overturned table and a smashed-up dinner sandwiched between two sprawling layers of infuriated men and women.

He came in this morning in his usual style, which he appears to have founded on that of an American cyclone, and the first thing he did was to sweep my coffee-cup off the table with his tail, sending the contents full into the middle of my waistcoat.

I rose from my chair hurriedly and remarking “——,” approached him at a rapid rate. He preceded me in the direction of the door. At the door he met Eliza coming in with eggs. Eliza observed “Ugh!” and sat down on the floor, the eggs took up different positions about the carpet, where they spread themselves out, and Gustavus Adolphus left the room. I called after him, strongly advising him to go straight downstairs and not let me see him again for the next hour or so; and he seeming to agree with me, dodged the coal-scoop and went, while I returned, dried myself and finished breakfast. I made sure that he had gone in to the yard, but when I looked into the passage ten minutes later he was sitting at the top of the stairs. I ordered him down at once, but he only barked and jumped about, so I went to see what was the matter. Continue reading ““On Cats and Dogs” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On Dress and Deportment” — Jerome K. Jerome

“ON DRESS AND DEPORTMENT” by Jerome K. Jerome

They say—people who ought to be ashamed of themselves do—that the consciousness of being well dressed imparts a blissfulness to the human heart that religion is powerless to bestow. I am afraid these cynical persons are sometimes correct. I know that when I was a very young man (many, many years ago, as the story-books say) and wanted cheering up, I used to go and dress myself in all my best clothes. If I had been annoyed in any manner—if my washerwoman had discharged me, for instance; or my blank-verse poem had been returned for the tenth time, with the editor’s compliments “and regrets that owing to want of space he is unable to avail himself of kind offer;” or I had been snubbed by the woman I loved as man never loved before—by the way, it’s really extraordinary what a variety of ways of loving there must be. We all do it as it was never done before. I don’t know how our great-grandchildren will manage. They will have to do it on their heads by their time if they persist in not clashing with any previous method.

Well, as I was saying, when these unpleasant sort of things happened and I felt crushed, I put on all my best clothes and went out. It brought back my vanishing self-esteem. In a glossy new hat and a pair of trousers with a fold down the front (carefully preserved by keeping them under the bed—I don’t mean on the floor, you know, but between the bed and the mattress), I felt I was somebody and that there were other washerwomen: ay, and even other girls to love, and who would perhaps appreciate a clever, good-looking young fellow. I didn’t care; that was my reckless way. I would make love to other maidens. I felt that in those clothes I could do it.

They have a wonderful deal to do with courting, clothes have. It is half the battle. At all events, the young man thinks so, and it generally takes him a couple of hours to get himself up for the occasion. His first half-hour is occupied in trying to decide whether to wear his light suit with a cane and drab billycock, or his black tails with a chimney-pot hat and his new umbrella. He is sure to be unfortunate in either decision. If he wears his light suit and takes the stick it comes on to rain, and he reaches the house in a damp and muddy condition and spends the evening trying to hide his boots. If, on the other hand, he decides in favor of the top hat and umbrella—nobody would ever dream of going out in a top hat without an umbrella; it would be like letting baby (bless it!) toddle out without its nurse. How I do hate a top hat! One lasts me a very long while, I can tell you. I only wear it when—well, never mind when I wear it. It lasts me a very long while. I’ve had my present one five years. It was rather old-fashioned last summer, but the shape has come round again now and I look quite stylish.

But to return to our young man and his courting. If he starts off with the top hat and umbrella the afternoon turns out fearfully hot, and the perspiration takes all the soap out of his mustache and converts the beautifully arranged curl over his forehead into a limp wisp resembling a lump of seaweed. The Fates are never favorable to the poor wretch. If he does by any chance reach the door in proper condition, she has gone out with her cousin and won’t be back till late. Continue reading ““On Dress and Deportment” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On the Weather” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On the Weather” by Jerome K. Jerome

Things do go so contrary-like with me. I wanted to hit upon an especially novel, out-of-the-way subject for one of these articles. “I will write one paper about something altogether new,” I said to myself; “something that nobody else has ever written or talked about before; and then I can have it all my own way.” And I went about for days, trying to think of something of this kind; and I couldn’t. And Mrs. Cutting, our charwoman, came yesterday—I don’t mind mentioning her name, because I know she will not see this book. She would not look at such a frivolous publication. She never reads anything but the Bible and Lloyd’s Weekly News. All other literature she considers unnecessary and sinful.

She said: “Lor’, sir, you do look worried.”

I said: “Mrs. Cutting, I am trying to think of a subject the discussion of which will come upon the world in the nature of a startler—some subject upon which no previous human being has ever said a word—some subject that will attract by its novelty, invigorate by its surprising freshness.”

She laughed and said I was a funny gentleman.

That’s my luck again. When I make serious observations people chuckle; when I attempt a joke nobody sees it. I had a beautiful one last week. I thought it so good, and I worked it up and brought it in artfully at a dinner-party. I forget how exactly, but we had been talking about the attitude of Shakespeare toward the Reformation, and I said something and immediately added, “Ah, that reminds me; such a funny thing happened the other day in Whitechapel.” “Oh,” said they, “what was that?” “Oh, ’twas awfully funny,” I replied, beginning to giggle myself; “it will make you roar;” and I told it them.

There was dead silence when I finished—it was one of those long jokes, too—and then, at last, somebody said: “And that was the joke?”

I assured them that it was, and they were very polite and took my word for it. All but one old gentleman at the other end of the table, who wanted to know which was the joke—what he said to her or what she said to him; and we argued it out. Continue reading ““On the Weather” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On Being Shy” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Being Shy” by Jerome K. Jerome

All great literary men are shy. I am myself, though I am told it is hardly noticeable.

I am glad it is not. It used to be extremely prominent at one time, and was the cause of much misery to myself and discomfort to every one about me—my lady friends especially complained most bitterly about it.

A shy man’s lot is not a happy one. The men dislike him, the women despise him, and he dislikes and despises himself. Use brings him no relief, and there is no cure for him except time; though I once came across a delicious recipe for overcoming the misfortune. It appeared among the “answers to correspondents” in a small weekly journal and ran as follows—I have never forgotten it: “Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially toward ladies.”

Poor wretch! I can imagine the grin with which he must have read that advice. “Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially toward ladies,” forsooth! Don’t you adopt anything of the kind, my dear young shy friend. Your attempt to put on any other disposition than your own will infallibly result in your becoming ridiculously gushing and offensively familiar. Be your own natural self, and then you will only be thought to be surly and stupid.

The shy man does have some slight revenge upon society for the torture it inflicts upon him. He is able, to a certain extent, to communicate his misery. He frightens other people as much as they frighten him. He acts like a damper upon the whole room, and the most jovial spirits become in his presence depressed and nervous.

This is a good deal brought about by misunderstanding. Many people mistake the shy man’s timidity for overbearing arrogance and are awed and insulted by it. His awkwardness is resented as insolent carelessness, and when, terror-stricken at the first word addressed to him, the blood rushes to his head and the power of speech completely fails him, he is regarded as an awful example of the evil effects of giving way to passion.

But, indeed, to be misunderstood is the shy man’s fate on every occasion; and whatever impression he endeavors to create, he is sure to convey its opposite. When he makes a joke, it is looked upon as a pretended relation of fact and his want of veracity much condemned. His sarcasm is accepted as his literal opinion and gains for him the reputation of being an ass, while if, on the other hand, wishing to ingratiate himself, he ventures upon a little bit of flattery, it is taken for satire and he is hated ever afterward. Continue reading ““On Being Shy” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On Eating and Drinking” — Jerome K. Jerome

I always was fond of eating and drinking, even as a child—especially eating, in those early days. I had an appetite then, also a digestion. I remember a dull-eyed, livid-complexioned gentleman coming to dine at our house once. He watched me eating for about five minutes, quite fascinated seemingly, and then he turned to my father with—

“Does your boy ever suffer from dyspepsia?”

“I never heard him complain of anything of that kind,” replied my father. “Do you ever suffer from dyspepsia, Colly wobbles?” (They called me Colly wobbles, but it was not my real name.)

“No, pa,” I answered. After which I added:

“What is dyspepsia, pa?”

My livid-complexioned friend regarded me with a look of mingled amazement and envy. Then in a tone of infinite pity he slowly said:

“You will know—some day.”

My poor, dear mother used to say she liked to see me eat, and it has always been a pleasant reflection to me since that I must have given her much gratification in that direction. A growing, healthy lad, taking plenty of exercise and careful to restrain himself from indulging in too much study, can generally satisfy the most exacting expectations as regards his feeding powers.

It is amusing to see boys eat when you have not got to pay for it. Their idea of a square meal is a pound and a half of roast beef with five or six good-sized potatoes (soapy ones preferred as being more substantial), plenty of greens, and four thick slices of Yorkshire pudding, followed by a couple of currant dumplings, a few green apples, a pen’orth of nuts, half a dozen jumbles, and a bottle of ginger-beer. After that they play at horses.

How they must despise us men, who require to sit quiet for a couple of hours after dining off a spoonful of clear soup and the wing of a chicken!

But the boys have not all the advantages on their side. A boy never enjoys the luxury of being satisfied. A boy never feels full. He can never stretch out his legs, put his hands behind his head, and, closing his eyes, sink into the ethereal blissfulness that encompasses the well-dined man. A dinner makes no difference whatever to a boy. To a man it is as a good fairy’s potion, and after it the world appears a brighter and a better place. A man who has dined satisfactorily experiences a yearning love toward all his fellow-creatures. He strokes the cat quite gently and calls it “poor pussy,” in tones full of the tenderest emotion. He sympathizes with the members of the German band outside and wonders if they are cold; and for the moment he does not even hate his wife’s relations.

A good dinner brings out all the softer side of a man. Under its genial influence the gloomy and morose become jovial and chatty. Sour, starchy individuals, who all the rest of the day go about looking as if they lived on vinegar and Epsom salts, break out into wreathed smiles after dinner, and exhibit a tendency to pat small children on the head and to talk to them—vaguely—about sixpences. Serious men thaw and become mildly cheerful, and snobbish young men of the heavy-mustache type forget to make themselves objectionable.

I always feel sentimental myself after dinner. It is the only time when I can properly appreciate love-stories. Then, when the hero clasps “her” to his heart in one last wild embrace and stifles a sob, I feel as sad as though I had dealt at whist and turned up only a deuce; and when the heroine dies in the end I weep. If I read the same tale early in the morning I should sneer at it. Digestion, or rather indigestion, has a marvelous effect upon the heart. If I want to write any thing very pathetic—I mean, if I want to try to write anything very pathetic—I eat a large plateful of hot buttered muffins about an hour beforehand, and then by the time I sit down to my work a feeling of unutterable melancholy has come over me. I picture heartbroken lovers parting forever at lonely wayside stiles, while the sad twilight deepens around them, and only the tinkling of a distant sheep-bell breaks the sorrow-laden silence. Old men sit and gaze at withered flowers till their sight is dimmed by the mist of tears. Little dainty maidens wait and watch at open casements; but “he cometh not,” and the heavy years roll by and the sunny gold tresses wear white and thin. The babies that they dandled have become grown men and women with podgy torments of their own, and the playmates that they laughed with are lying very silent under the waving grass. But still they wait and watch, till the dark shadows of the unknown night steal up and gather round them and the world with its childish troubles fades from their aching eyes.

I see pale corpses tossed on white-foamed waves, and death-beds stained with bitter tears, and graves in trackless deserts. I hear the wild wailing of women, the low moaning of little children, the dry sobbing of strong men. It’s all the muffins. I could not conjure up one melancholy fancy upon a mutton chop and a glass of champagne.

A full stomach is a great aid to poetry, and indeed no sentiment of any kind can stand upon an empty one. We have not time or inclination to indulge in fanciful troubles until we have got rid of our real misfortunes. We do not sigh over dead dicky-birds with the bailiff in the house, and when we do not know where on earth to get our next shilling from, we do not worry as to whether our mistress’ smiles are cold, or hot, or lukewarm, or anything else about them.

Foolish people—when I say “foolish people” in this contemptuous way I mean people who entertain different opinions to mine. If there is one person I do despise more than another, it is the man who does not think exactly the same on all topics as I do—foolish people, I say, then, who have never experienced much of either, will tell you that mental distress is far more agonizing than bodily. Romantic and touching theory! so comforting to the love-sick young sprig who looks down patronizingly at some poor devil with a white starved face and thinks to himself, “Ah, how happy you are compared with me!”—so soothing to fat old gentlemen who cackle about the superiority of poverty over riches. But it is all nonsense—all cant. An aching head soon makes one forget an aching heart. A broken finger will drive away all recollections of an empty chair. And when a man feels really hungry he does not feel anything else.

We sleek, well-fed folk can hardly realize what feeling hungry is like. We know what it is to have no appetite and not to care for the dainty victuals placed before us, but we do not understand what it means to sicken for food—to die for bread while others waste it—to gaze with famished eyes upon coarse fare steaming behind dingy windows, longing for a pen’orth of pea pudding and not having the penny to buy it—to feel that a crust would be delicious and that a bone would be a banquet.

Hunger is a luxury to us, a piquant, flavor-giving sauce. It is well worth while to get hungry and thirsty merely to discover how much gratification can be obtained from eating and drinking. If you wish to thoroughly enjoy your dinner, take a thirty-mile country walk after breakfast and don’t touch anything till you get back. How your eyes will glisten at sight of the white table-cloth and steaming dishes then! With what a sigh of content you will put down the empty beer tankard and take up your knife and fork! And how comfortable you feel afterward as you push back your chair, light a cigar, and beam round upon everybody.

Make sure, however, when adopting this plan, that the good dinner is really to be had at the end, or the disappointment is trying. I remember once a friend and I—dear old Joe, it was. Ah! how we lose one another in life’s mist. It must be eight years since I last saw Joseph Taboys. How pleasant it would be to meet his jovial face again, to clasp his strong hand, and to hear his cheery laugh once more! He owes me 14 shillings, too. Well, we were on a holiday together, and one morning we had breakfast early and started for a tremendous long walk. We had ordered a duck for dinner over night. We said, “Get a big one, because we shall come home awfully hungry;” and as we were going out our landlady came up in great spirits. She said, “I have got you gentlemen a duck, if you like. If you get through that you’ll do well;” and she held up a bird about the size of a door-mat. We chuckled at the sight and said we would try. We said it with self-conscious pride, like men who know their own power. Then we started.

We lost our way, of course. I always do in the country, and it does make me so wild, because it is no use asking direction of any of the people you meet. One might as well inquire of a lodging-house slavey the way to make beds as expect a country bumpkin to know the road to the next village. You have to shout the question about three times before the sound of your voice penetrates his skull. At the third time he slowly raises his head and stares blankly at you. You yell it at him then for a fourth time, and he repeats it after you. He ponders while you count a couple of hundred, after which, speaking at the rate of three words a minute, he fancies you “couldn’t do better than—” Here he catches sight of another idiot coming down the road and bawls out to him the particulars, requesting his advice. The two then argue the case for a quarter of an hour or so, and finally agree that you had better go straight down the lane, round to the right and cross by the third stile, and keep to the left by old Jimmy Milcher’s cow-shed, and across the seven-acre field, and through the gate by Squire Grubbin’s hay-stack, keeping the bridle-path for awhile till you come opposite the hill where the windmill used to be—but it’s gone now—and round to the right, leaving Stiggin’s plantation behind you; and you say “Thank you” and go away with a splitting headache, but without the faintest notion of your way, the only clear idea you have on the subject being that somewhere or other there is a stile which has to be got over; and at the next turn you come upon four stiles, all leading in different directions! Continue reading ““On Eating and Drinking” — Jerome K. Jerome”

“On Being Idle” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Being Idle” by Jerome K. Jerome

Now, this is a subject on which I flatter myself I really am au fait. The gentleman who, when I was young, bathed me at wisdom’s font for nine guineas a term—no extras—used to say he never knew a boy who could do less work in more time; and I remember my poor grandmother once incidentally observing, in the course of an instruction upon the use of the Prayer-book, that it was highly improbable that I should ever do much that I ought not to do, but that she felt convinced beyond a doubt that I should leave undone pretty well everything that I ought to do.

I am afraid I have somewhat belied half the dear old lady’s prophecy. Heaven help me! I have done a good many things that I ought not to have done, in spite of my laziness. But I have fully confirmed the accuracy of her judgment so far as neglecting much that I ought not to have neglected is concerned. Idling always has been my strong point. I take no credit to myself in the matter—it is a gift. Few possess it. There are plenty of lazy people and plenty of slow-coaches, but a genuine idler is a rarity. He is not a man who slouches about with his hands in his pockets. On the contrary, his most startling characteristic is that he is always intensely busy.

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen. Continue reading ““On Being Idle” — Jerome K. Jerome”