Respectable people…What bastards!
- Emile Zola, The Belly of Paris (1873)
Indignation and goodwill are not enough to make the world better. Clarity is needed, as well as charity, however difficult this may be to imagine, much less sustain, toward the other side. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about social indignation is that it so frequently leads to the death of personal humility. Once that has happened, one has ceased to live in that world of men which one is striving so mightily to make over. One has entered into a dialogue with that terrifying deity, sometimes called History, previously, and perhaps again, to be referred to as God, to which no sacrifice in human suffering is too great.
The Americans and the English are bound together at present by the ties of war, and by that sort of cousinly love which expresses itself in private by foaming at the mouth.
I find it good to be out this still, dark, mizzling afternoon; my walk or voyage is more suggestive and profitable than in bright weather. The view is contracted by the misty rain, the water is perfectly smooth, and the stillness is favorable to reflection. I am more open to impressions, more sensitive (not calloused or indurated by sun and wind), as if in a chamber still. My thoughts are concentrated; I am all compact. The solitude is real, too, for the weather keeps other men at home. This mist is like a roof and walls over and around, and I walk with a domestic feeling. The sound of a wagon going over an unseen bridge is louder than ever, and so of other sounds. I am compelled to look at near objects. All things have a soothing effect; the very clouds and mists brood over me. My power of observation and contemplation is much increased. My attention does not wanter. The world and my life are simplified. What now of Europe and Asia?
If I could have secured this advantage without the horrid prolonged trials that produced it, I might have gladly become a sailor. I love moving water, I love ships, I love the sharp definition, the concentrated humanity, the sublime solitude of life at sea. The dangers of it only make present to us the peril inherent in all existence, which the stupid, ignorant, untravelled land-worm never discovers; and the art of it, so mathematical, so exact, so rewarding to intelligence appeals to courage and clears the mind of superstition, while filling it with humility and true religion. Our world is a cockleshell in the midst of overwhelming forces and everlasting realities; but those forces are calculable and those realities helpful, if we can manage to understand and obey them.