Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 84

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Chapter LXXXIV

On our way to town Ernest broached his plans for spending the next year or two.  I wanted him to try and get more into society again, but he brushed this aside at once as the very last thing he had a fancy for.  For society indeed of all sorts, except of course that of a few intimate friends, he had an unconquerable aversion.  “I always did hate those people,” he said, “and they always have hated and always will hate me.  I am an Ishmael by instinct as much as by accident of circumstances, but if I keep out of society I shall be less vulnerable than Ishmaels generally are.  The moment a man goes into society, he becomes vulnerable all round.”

I was very sorry to hear him talk in this way; for whatever strength a man may have he should surely be able to make more of it if he act in concert than alone.  I said this.

“I don’t care,” he answered, “whether I make the most of my strength or not; I don’t know whether I have any strength, but if I have I dare say it will find some way of exerting itself.  I will live as I like living, not as other people would like me to live; thanks to my aunt and you I can afford the luxury of a quiet unobtrusive life of self-indulgence,” said he laughing, “and I mean to have it.  You know I like writing,” he added after a pause of some minutes, “I have been a scribbler for years.  If I am to come to the fore at all it must be by writing.”

I had already long since come to that conclusion myself.

“Well,” he continued, “there are a lot of things that want saying which no one dares to say, a lot of shams which want attacking, and yet no one attacks them.  It seems to me that I can say things which not another man in England except myself will venture to say, and yet which are crying to be said.”

I said: “But who will listen?  If you say things which nobody else would dare to say is not this much the same as saying what everyone except yourself knows to be better left unsaid just now?”

“Perhaps,” said he, “but I don’t know it; I am bursting with these things, and it is my fate to say them.”

I knew there would be no stopping him, so I gave in and asked what question he felt a special desire to burn his fingers with in the first instance.

“Marriage,” he rejoined promptly, “and the power of disposing of his property after a man is dead.  The question of Christianity is virtually settled, or if not settled there is no lack of those engaged in settling it.  The question of the day now is marriage and the family system.”

“That,” said I drily, “is a hornet’s nest indeed.”

“Yes,” said he no less drily, “but hornet’s nests are exactly what I happen to like.  Before, however, I begin to stir up this particular one I propose to travel for a few years, with the especial object of finding out what nations now existing are the best, comeliest and most lovable, and also what nations have been so in times past.  I want to find out how these people live, and have lived, and what their customs are.

“I have very vague notions upon the subject as yet, but the general impression I have formed is that, putting ourselves on one side, the most vigorous and amiable of known nations are the modern Italians, the old Greeks and Romans, and the South Sea Islanders.  I believe that these nice peoples have not as a general rule been purists, but I want to see those of them who can yet be seen; they are the practical authorities on the question—What is best for man? and I should like to see them and find out what they do.  Let us settle the fact first and fight about the moral tendencies afterwards.”

“In fact,” said I laughingly, “you mean to have high old times.”