24 JANUARY 1936, Page 11



WILLIAM BURROUGHS STEELE went so far in his imitation of The Anatomy of Melancholy as to sketch out a schedule of frustrations closely similar to Burton's classification of the varieties and remedies of madness and melancholia. He was never altogether satisfied with these schedules ; he was altering, adding to, rearranging them to the very end of his life. There are several folders full of these revisions and there exists a copy of his first volume, black with corrections and plump with inserted pages, from which ultimately we may be able to reprint this, the opening, most laboured and least satisfactory of all his volumes. He was dissatisfied even with its title, Frustration through Confusions in Thought, b it he never changed it.

".Before we can deal with frustrations," he begins boldly in his Chapter I, section I, " we must ask what it is that is frustrated. What is the end at which life thrusts ? 'What is this Will in things that is always striving and never getting there ?

" What is wanted ? What do we want ?

" As individuals ? As communities ? As a species ? As a syncytium of life ? "

This is a brave opening of the enquiry, it subpoenas practically all religious and philosophical statements of the nature of being, and puts Steele in the role of a sort of one-man Royal Commission of enquiry into the signifi- cance of the universe, as it has been understood and stated hitherto. His examination of his witnesses is encyclo- paedic. They profess to tell us " Why " and " What for." Let us, he says, get all the precision we can. He takes creed after creed, religious cults one after another, barbaric usages and maxims, systems of philosophy from Heraclitus and Lucretius to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer —the mention of these names as cardinal is his own—and of each he makes the same hard and elementary enquiries. First : What is assumed ? What does this start from ?

For instance, he points out that among other assumptions of Islam, God the Father-Creator is assumed, defined to a certain extent and, for the rest, indicated. He is assumed subject to certain localisations and temperamental re- sponses not very exactly stated, but giving him a recog- nisable " character."

This preliminary enquiry into assumptions is very characteristic of Steele's method. It has the simplicity of a very original intelligence.. Upon what implicit beliefs was the mind floating, he asks, before it began to state this or that positively ? His courage and industry in assembling this collection of " points of departure " and in attempting a digest of it must have been enormous. lie tried, not very successfully, to train several assistants to help him". But the clear, sharp slash of his mind was Part of himself and he could convey it only very partially to others. He slashed anatomically ; the other fellows hacked. His analysis is at once so good and so unsatis- factory that it sets the sympathetic reader agog to organise a means of doing it over again better.

His firm belief that men have no right to a thousand contrasted faiths and creeds and that the multitudinous- ness of people in these matters is merely due to bad education, mental and moral indolence, slovenliness of statement and the failure to clinch issues, is in itself an inspiration. He has no tolerance for loose-mindedness. Men have brains that are closely similar, he argues, they are moved in a similar way to these fundamental question- ings, their inhibitions are of similar kinds ; it is just laziness and untidiness, " mooning and wanibling," that makes an " account rendered " of what people believe, so like a museum after a riot. " They abstract to different degrees, they use differently conceived sets of symbols, they start in at different points, they fog and fumble here or there, but that is no excuse for never tidying up the mess." And this amazing man really started attempting to tidy up the Mess—he calls it The Mess !—the mess of fundamental thought throughout the ages ! And there are times ever and again and here and there when he really seems to smite lanes of lucidity through that jungle.

He makes a classification of religions and philosophies according to what lie calls their " depth of assumption." The simple savage sets his gods and spirits on an unques- tioned land and sea and sky. He assumes also a system of purposes and motives like his own. That, says Steele, is " assumption at the surface of life." At a slightly pro- founder level someone makes the daring assumption that these things also have not been here always, sky, land and all the rest of it, man and his motives ; dogmatises that they had a beginning and so invents a Creator. The Creator begins by being an Old Man like Father and expands very slowly towards abstraction. Presently the assumption, the plausible, rash and fatal assumption, is made that things present a dual system, spirit and matter, and presently, pursuant to that assumption, the Creator is disembodied. He becomes the Great Spirit and soon He is no more to be put back into any sort of body than the fisherman's djinn could be packed back into his jar. One must resort to the hypothesis of an incarnation to do that, and from that assumed embodiment He is always breaking out again. A divine mind and will which are consecutive in time in their action presently follow the divine body to the limbo of lost things. So assumptions go deeper and deeper below superficialities and become more and more abstract.

Steele's examination of all these superimposed systems of apprehension, summarised with a certain pithy precision and compared relentlessly, is like a man with a small, very bright electric torch exploring vast caverns beneath the foundations of the many edifices of Belief on which our race lives. They are not separate excavations, he insists. They connect, do these sustaining vaults, like the catacombs of Paris. The deeper one goes, the plainer it is that they all rest on elementary psychological necessi- ties or upon natural fallacies closely associated with and arising out of these necessities. Differences of creed are seen to be differences of phraseology and mental idiom. The more penetrating their psychological analysis, the less men will trouble whether it is " Jehovah, Jove or Lord," or Creative Necessity, or simply Necessity, that encloses and carries them on. It evoked them and carried them on. They were born in dependence and found themselves free and helpless with infinite reluctance.

What is the end to which life drives ? What is the purpose of being ? We do not know, probably we can never know fully and comprehentively. The form of the question may make an answer impossible. Nowadays that goes almost without saying. Finite creatures by their very nature cannot know fully and completely ; knowing is in itself a function of incompleteness, it is the relation of a knower to something it does not completely comprehend. Theologies, " philosophies," therefore fol- low myths into negation. Of absolute knowledge there are no findings. The more acutely interesting thing, the thing of real practical moment, is this, that while on the whole we don't know, yet nevertheless to a certain limited extent we do. The exciting, the exalting idea in our minds is that there are very considerable possibili- ties of knowing better and more precisely and of bringing together into more effective co-operation a great multitude of aims in life that are at present, merely through lack of lucidity, divergent and conflicting. Here Steele develops his essential thesis, and most of the rest of this big volume, Frustration through Confusions in Thought, is a copious and searching attack upon the needless personifications, dramatisations, false classifications, tautologies and mixed metaphors that at present, he holds, waste an enormous proportion of our mental energy. Our conceptions of the ends of life, using " our " to indicate the whole human bunch of us, are not nearly so confused and contradictory and incompatible at bottom as they seem to be. Much more agreement is possible among men upon this question of ends, than is generally supposed.

Concurrently with his survey, therefore, he is making an extract, so to speak, of all that can be found in common beneath these divisions and anthropomorphisms, sym- bolists and metaphorical obscurities that make religions different and standards of collective activity diverse. If, indeed, we are not looking for exactly the same thing in the fog (the Mess, the Jungle) of human thought, we are at any rate driven by extremely similar motives to seek satisfaction for nearly identical needs. It is the fog (Mess, Jungle) that brings about our violent collisions and divergencies. It is that which to the best of our ability we should do well to clear.

Abruptly in the middle sections of this first volume Steele passes from his wide survey of religions and philosophies into an heroic attempt to cover them by a common statement.

Let me try to summarise here as compactly and clearly as possible the way in which he sets about this task. All living substance, he presumes, is aggressive. In that it differs from the inorganic. It has within itself an urge to live more, to increase, extend, prolong itself. Even when it rejects, avoids, escapes, it runs away only that it may fight again another day. And as consciousness appears in the ascendant scale of life, it " appears asso- ciated with a process of inhibition and of the organisation of impulse, which conduces to the prolongation and extension of the individuaL" Steele is very insistent upon this idea that originally and generally speaking consciousness is preoccupied with individual self-preservation. Only in the case of many birds and mammals and a few reptiles and fishes does any con- scious solicitude and devotion to offspring or species appear, To provide for the continuation of the species through mechanism or by affording passionate sensuous gratifica- tion, was Nature's easier path, and generally she took it Passionate intellectual gratification was a harder thing to build into the primitive self-seeking organism. So the lustful individual is unconscious that he serves the species in his gratification. The normal individual animal is conscious of the urge to live only so far as that concerns its own self.

Now this was all very well ; it worked throughout the evolution of animal forms upon this planet, until the mental structure developed so much intelligence and fore- sight as to look beyond tomorrow. Then trouble began. This, Steele thinks, has occurred only in the case of the human brain. And it has been only very gradually realised by that brain, it has been realised with extreme reluctance, that the more powerful its head-lights of intelligence are, the plainer it is that this conscious individual life on which its solicitudes centre, drives past the culminations of its powers to enfeeblement and death. Man alone of all animals looks beyond the lures of nature and becomes aware of death waiting for him at the end. All religions, all philosophies of conduct, stripped down to their bare essentials, express the consequent impulse to escape this inherent final frustration.

And when you come to clear up the fog (Mess or Jungle) you find, says Steele, that the real attempt life is making in all these conscious processes, is an attempt to raise and extend the originally quite narrow and finite self-consciousness so as to lift it over this primary frustration, to enable it to turn at last upon the king of terrors and say : " 0 grave ! where is thy victory ? 0 death ! where is thy sting ? "

Bodily immortality, immortality of the soul, the oversoul, the overman, the superman, the mind of the species, Nirvana, return to the bosom of god, undying fame, progress, service, loyalties, are all expressions at various angles and levels of the same essential resolve ;- not to live so as to die. Almost all of these death-evasive systems, since they are primarily escapes from self- concentration, imply co-operations. Something outside the individual life cycle is brought in, with which the individual motives can be blended and identified. It is a reaching out to greater entities, if you will, or an attempt to annex fresh territories and establish reserves of imagination and purposes and satisfaction beyond the reach of personal death. But as long as these reachings out after immortality remain various in their imaginative and intellectual quality, some antique, some modern, some epic, some lyric, some gross and some fine, vague or delicately definite, prosaic or poetic, their mutual con- tradictions so work out in conduct that we are all at sixes and sevens. Is it not possible, he asks, in the increasing light of modern psychology, to reduce an enormous proportion of these divergencies to a common denominator ?

And so from these questions of " What is wanted ? What do we 'Want ? " Steele goes on to the concluding chapters, which he has entitled lengthily, " The Desire for Unlimited Living, and Various Conceptions of Im- mortality at Successive Stages of Intellectual De- velopment."

With this very interesting conspectus of " Immor- talkies " I will deal in my next article.