I have never been able to feel for Charles Lamb the affection that he inspires in most of his readers. There is a cross grain in my nature that makes me resent the transports of others and gush will dry up in me (against my will, for heaven knows I have no wish to chill by my coldness the enthusiasm of my neighbours) the capacity of admiration. Too many critics have written of Charles Lamb with insipidity for me ever to have been able to read him without uneasiness. He is like one of those persons of overflowing heart who seem to lie in wait for disaster to befall you so that they may envelop you with their sympathy. Their arms are so quickly outstretched to raise you when you fall that you cannot help asking yourself, as you rub your barked shin, whether by any chance they did not put in your path the stone that tripped you up. I am afraid of people with too much charm. They devour you. In the end you are made a sacrifice to the exercise of their fascinating gift and their insincerity. Nor do I much care for writers whose charm is their chief asset. It is not enough. I want something to get my teeth into, and when I ask for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding I am dissatisfied to be given bread and milk. I am put out of countenance by the sensibility of the Gentle Elia. For a generation Rousseau had pinned every writer’s heart to his sleeve and it was in his day still the fashion to write with a lump in the throat, but Lamb’s emotion, to my mind, too often suggests the facile lachrymosity of the alcoholic. I cannot but think his tenderness would have been advantageously tempered by abstinence, a blue pill and a black draught. Of course when you read the references made to him by his contemporaries, you discover that the Gentle Elia is an invention of the sentimentalists. He was a more robust, irascible and intemperate fellow than they have made him out, and he would have laughed (and with justice) at the portrait they have painted of him. If you had met him one evening at Benjamin Haydon’s, you would have seen a grubby little person, somewhat the worse for liquor, who could be very dull, and if he made a joke it might as easily have been a bad as a good one. In fact, you would have met Charles Lamb and not the Gentle Elia. And if you had read that morning one of his essays in The London Magazine you would have thought it an agreeable trifle. It would never have occurred to you that this pleasant piece would serve one day as a pretext for the lucubrations of the learned. You would have read it in the right spirit; for you it would have been a living thing. It is one of the misfortunes to which the writer is subject that he is too little praised when he is alive and too much when he is dead. The critics force us to read the classics as Machiavelli wrote, in Court dress; whereas we should do much better to read them, as though they were our contemporaries, in a dressing-gown.
And because I had read Lamb in deference to common opinion rather than from inclination I had forborne to read Hazlitt at all. What with the innumerable books it urgently imported me to read, I came to the conclusion that I could afford to neglect a writer who had but done mediocrely (I understood) what another had done with excellence. And the Gentle Elia bored me. It was seldom I had read anything about Lamb without coming across a fling and a sneer at Hazlitt. I knew that FitzGerald had once intended to write a life of him, but had given up the project in disgust of his character. He was a mean, savage, nasty little man and an unworthy hanger-on of the circle in which Lamb, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth shone with so bright a lustre. There seemed no need to waste any time on a writer of so little talent and of so unpleasant a nature. But one day, about to start on a long journey, I was wondering round Bumpus’s looking for books to take with me when I came across a selection of Hazlitt’s Essays. It was an agreeable little volume in a green cover, and nicely printed, cheap in price and light to hold, and out of curiosity to know the truth about an author of whom I had read so much ill, I put it on the pile that I had already collected.
I began to read my Hazlitt. I was astonished. I found a solid writer, without pretentiousness, courageous to speak his mind, sensible and plain, with a passion for the arts that was neither gushing nor forced, various, interested in the life about him, ingenious, sufficiently profound for his purposes, but with no affectation of profundity, humorous, sensitive. And I liked his English. It was natural and racy, eloquent where eloquence was needed, easy to read, clear and succinct, neither below the weight of his matter nor with fine phrases trying to give it a specious importance. If art is nature seen through the medium of a personality, Hazlitt is a great artist.
I was enraptured. I could not forgive myself that I had lived so long without reading him and I raged against the idolaters of Elia whose foolishness had deprived me till now of so vivid an experience. Here certainly was no charm, but what a robust mind, sane, clear-cut and vivacious, and what vigour! Presently I came across the rich essay which is entitled On Going A Journey and I reached the passage that runs: ‘Oh! it is great to shake off the trammels of the world and of public opinion – to lose our importunate, tormenting, everlasting personal identity in the elements of nature, and become the creature of the moment, clear of all ties – to hold to the universe only by a dish of sweet-breads, and to owe nothing but the score of the evening – and no longer seeking for applause and meeting with contempt, to be known by no other title than The Gentleman in the Parlour!’ I could wish that Hazlitt had used fewer dashes in this passage. There is in the dash something rough, ready and haphazard that goes against my grain. I have seldom read a sentence in which it could not be well replaced by the elegant semi-colon or the discreet bracket. But I had no sooner read these words than it occurred to me that here was an admirable name for a book of travel and I made up my mind to write it.
So that the reader of these pages may be under no misapprehension I hasten to tell him that he will find in them little information. This book is a record of a journey through Burmah, the Shan States, Siam and Indo-China. I am writing it for my own diversion and I hope that it will divert also such as care to spend a few hours in reading it. I am a professional writer and I hope to get from it a certain amount of money and perhaps a little praise.
[Chapter X = “Masterson”:]
Often in some lonely post in the jungle or in a stiff grand house, solitary in the midst of a teeming Chinese city, a man has told me stories about himself that I was sure he had never told to a living soul. I was a stray acquaintance whom he had never seen before and would never see again, a wanderer for a moment through his monotonous life, and some starved impulse led him to lay bare his soul. I have in this way learned more about men in a night (sitting over a syphon or two and a bottle of whisky, the hostile, inexplicable world outside the radius of an acetylene lamp) than I could have if I had known them for ten years. If you are interested in human nature it is one of the great pleasures of travel.
The lot of the English and the American humorist is hard, for pornography rather than brevity is the soul of wit, but the prudishness of his audience (and perhaps their sentimentality) has forced him to look for a laugh everywhere but where it is most easily found. But just as the poet may beat out more exquisite verse when he is constrained by the complicated measures of a Pindaric ode than when he has the elbow room of blank verse, so the difficulties placed in the way of our humorists have often resulted in their making unexpected discoveries in the ludicrous. They have found a rich load of laughter where but for the taboos they would never have sought it. The two pitfalls that threaten the humorist are the inane on one side and the disgusting on the other; and it is a regrettable fact, which the English or American humorist has to put up with, that the inane enrages more than the disgusting revolts.
And suddenly I came upon a tiny village; it consisted of no more than four or five houses surrounded by a stockade of bamboos. I was as surprised to find it there, right in the jungle and six or seven miles from the main road, as its inhabitants must have been to see me, but neither they nor I would betray by our demeanour that there was anything odd about it. […] I wondered how those people had found their way there and what they did; they were self-subsistent, living a life entirely of their own, and as much cut off from the outside world as though they dwelt on an atoll in the South Seas. I knew and could know nothing of them. They were as different from me as though they belonged to another species. But they had passions like mine, the same hopes, the same desires, the same griefs. To them too, I suppose, love came like sunshine after rain, and to them too, I suppose, came satiety. But for them the days unchanging added their long line to one another without haste and without surprise; they followed their appointed round and led the lives their fathers had led before them. The pattern was traced and all they had to do was to follow it. Was that not wisdom and in their constancy was there not beauty?
We are gregarious, most of us, and we resent the man who does not seek the society of his fellows. We do not content ourselves with saying that he is odd, but we ascribe to him unworthy motives. Our pride is wounded that he should have no use for us and we nod to one another and wink and say that if he lives in this strange way it must be to practise some secret vice and if he does not inhabit his own country it can only be because his own country is too hot to hold him. But there are people who do not feel at home in the world, the companionship of others is not necessary to them and they are ill-at-east amid the exuberance of their fellows. They have an invincible shyness. Shared emotions abash them. The thought of community singing, even though it be but God Save the King, fills them with embarrassment, and if they sing it is plaintively in their baths. They are self-sufficient and they shrug a resigned and sometimes, it must be admitted, a scornful shoulder because the world uses that adjective in a depreciatory sense. Wherever they are they feel themselves ‘out of it’. They are to be found all over the surface of this earth, members of a great monastic order bound by no vows and cloistered though not by walls of stone. If you wander up and down the world you will meet them in all sorts of unexpected places. You are not surprised when you hear that an elderly English lady is living in a villa on a hill outside a small Italian town that you have happened on by an accident to the car in which you were driving, for
always been the preferred refuge of these staid nuns. They have generally
adequate means and an extensive knowledge of the cinque cento. You take it as a matter of course when a lonely hacienda is pointed out to you in Italy Andalusia and you are told that there has dwelt for many
years an English lady of a certain age. She is usually a devout Catholic and
sometimes lives in sin with her coachman. But it is more surprising when you
hear that the only white person in a Chinese city is an Englishwoman, not a
missionary, who has lived there, none knows why, for a quarter of a century;
and there is another who inhabits an islet in the South Seas and a third who
has a bungalow on the outskirts of a large village in the centre of Java. They
live solitary lives, without friends, and they do not welcome the stranger. Though
they may not have seen one of their own race for months they will pass you on
the road as though they did not see you, and if, presuming on your nationality,
you call, the chances are that they will decline to receive you; but if they do
they will give you a cup of tea from a silver tea-pot and on a plate of old
Worcester you will be offered hot scones. They will talk to you politely, as
though they were entertaining you in a drawing-room overlooking a square, but when
you take your leave they express no desire ever to see you again. London
The men are at once shyer and more friendly. At first they are tongue-tied and you see the anxious look on their faces as they rack their brains for topics of conversation, but a glass of whiskey loosens their minds (for sometimes they are inclined to tipple) and then they will talk freely. They are glad to see you, but you must be careful not to abuse your welcome; they get tired of company very soon and grow restless at the necessity of making an effort. They are more apt to run to seed than women, they live in a higgledy-piggledy manner, indifferent to their surroundings and their food. They have often an ostensible occupation. They keep a little shop, but do not care whether they sell anything, and their goods are dusty and fly-blown; or they run, with lackadaisical incompetence, a coconut plantation. They are on the verge of bankruptcy. Sometimes they are engaged in metaphysical speculation, and I met one who had spent years in the study and annotation of the works of Immanuel Swedenborg. Sometimes they are students and take endless pains to translate classical works which have been already translated, like the dialogues of Plato, or of which translation is impossible, like Goethe’s Faust. They may not be very useful members of society, but their lives are harmless and innocent. If the world despises them they on their side despise the world. The thought of returning to its turmoil is a nightmare to them. They ask nothing but to be left in peace. Their satisfaction with their lot is sometimes a trifle irritating. It needs a good deal of philosophy not to be mortified by the thought of persons who have voluntarily abandoned everything that for the most of us makes life worth living and are devoid of envy of what they have missed. I have never made up my mind whether they are fools or wise men. They have given up everything for a dream, a dream of peace or happiness or freedom, and their dream is so intense that they make it true.
Most of the gods that the world has seen have made a somewhat frantic claim that men should have faith in them, and have threatened with dreadful penalties such as could not (whatever their goodwill) believe. There is something pathetic in the violence with which they denounce those who thwart them in the bestowal of the great gifts they have to offer. They seem deep in their hearts to have felt that it was the faith of others that gave them divinity (as though their godhead standing on an insecure foundation every believer was as it were a stone to buttress it) and that the message they so ardently craved to deliver could only have its efficacy if they became god. And god they could only become if men believed in them. But Gautama made only the claim of the physician that you should give him a trial and judge him by results. He was more like the artist who does his work as best he can because to produce art is his function, and having offered his gift such modifications as were rendered necessary by his disbelief in the soul. For as everyone knows the most important point of the Buddha’s teaching was that there was no such thing as a soul or a self. Every person is a putting together of qualities, material and mental; there can be no putting together without a becoming different, and there can be no becoming different without a passing away. Whatever has a beginning also has an end. The thought is exhilarating like a brisk winter morning when the sun shines and the road over the
Downs is springy under the feet.
Karma (I venture to remind the reader) is the theory that a man’s actions in one
existence determine his fate in the next. At death under the influence of the
desire of life the impermanent aggregation of qualities which was a man
reassembles to form another aggregation as impermanent. He is merely the
present and temporary link in a long chain of cause and effect. The law of
Karma prescribes that every act must have its result. It is the only
explanation of the evil of this world that does not outrage the heart.
Now it happened that one of the books I had brought to read on the way was Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. I had read it before, but had found it difficult and wanted to read it again, but since it was an unwieldy volume I tore off the biding and divided it into sections that I could conveniently put in my pocket when, having read enough, I mounted my pony and rode off from the bungalow in which I had passed the night. It is good reading, and though it scarcely convinces you it is often caustic, and the author has a pleasant gift of irony. He is never pompous. He handles the abstract with a light touch. But it is like one of those cubist houses in an exhibition, very light and trim and airy, but so severe in line and furnished with such austere taste, that you cannot imagine yourself toasting your toes by the fire and lounging in an easy chair with a comfortable book. But when I came upon his treatment of the problem of evil I found myself as honestly scandalised as the Pope at the sight of a young woman’s shapely calves. The Absolute, I read, is perfect, and evil, being but an appearance, cannot but subserve to the perfection of the whole. Error contributes to greater energy of life. Evil plays a part in a higher end and in this sense unknowingly is good. The absolute is richer for every discord. And my memory brought back to me, I know not why, a scene at the beginning of the war. It was in October and our sensibilities were not yet blunted. A cold raw night. There had been what those who took part in it thought a battle, but which was so insignificant a skirmish that the papers did not so much as refer to it, and about a thousand men had been killed and wounded. They lay on straw on the floor of a country church, and the only light came from the candles on the altar. The Germans were advancing and it was necessary to evacuate them as quickly as possible. All through the night the ambulance cars, without lights, drove back and forth, and the wounded cried out to be taken, and some died as they were being lifted on to the stretchers and were thrown on the heap of dead outside the door, and they were dirty and gory, and the church stank of blood and the rankness of humanity. And there was one boy who was so shattered that it was not worth while to move him and as he lay there, seeing men on either side of him being taken out, he screamed at the top of his voice: je ne veux pas mourir. Je suis trop jeune. Je ne veux pas mourir. And he went on screaming that he did not want to die till he died. Of course this is no argument. It was but an inconsiderable incident the only significance of which was that I saw it with my own eyes and in my ears for days afterwards rang that despairing cry; but a greater than I, a philosopher and a mathematician into the bargain if you please, said that the heart had its reasons which the head did not know, and (in the grip of compound things, to use the Buddhist phrase, as I am) this scene is to me a sufficient refutation of the metaphysician’s fine-spun theories. But my heart can accept the evils that befall me if they are the consequence of actions that I (the I that is not my soul, which perishes, but the result of my deeds in another state of existence) did in past time, and I am resigned to the evils that I see about me, the death of the young (the most bitter of all) the grief of the mothers that bore them in anguish, poverty and sickness and frustrated hopes, if these evils are but the consequence of the sins which those that suffer them once committed. Here is an explanation that outrages neither the heart nor the head; there is only one fault that I can find in it: it is incredible.
[Chapter XXXII = “Princess September”]
‘Then take your freedom,’ she said, ‘I shut you in a golden cage because I loved you and wanted to have you all to myself. But I never knew it will kill you. Go. Fly away among the trees that are round the lake and fly over the green rice fields. I love you enough to let you be happy in your own way.’
Then he opened his wings and flew right away into the blue. But the little Princess burst into tears, for it is very difficult to put the happiness of someone you love before your own, and with her little bird far out of sight she felt on a sudden very lonely.
[Chapter XXXIV = “A Marriage of Convenience”:]
It appears that the Oriental has a passion for the circus and Mr Wilkins for twenty years had been travelling up and down the East from Port Said to Yokohama (Aden, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Saigon, Hue, Hanoi, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, their names roll on the tongue savourily, crowding the imagination with sunshine and strange sounds and a multicoloured activity) with his menagerie and his merry-go-rounds. It was a strange life he led, unusual and one that, one would have thought, must offer the occasion for all sorts of curious experiences, but the odd thing about him was that he was a perfectly commonplace little man and you would have been prepared to find him running a garage or keeping a third-rate hotel in a second-rate town in California. The fact is, and I have noticed it so often that I do not know why it should always surprise me, that the extraordinariness of a man’s life does not make him extraordinary, but contrariwise if a man is extraordinary he will make extraordinariness out of a life as humdrum as that of a country curate. I wish I could feel it reasonable to tell here the story of the hermit I went to see on an island in the Torres Straits, a shipwrecked mariner who had lived there alone for thirty years, but when you are writing a book you are imprisoned by the four walls of your subject and though for the entertainment of my own digressing mind I set it down now I should be forced in the end by my sense of what is fit to go between two covers and what is not, to cut it out. Anyhow, the long and short of it is that notwithstanding this long and intimate communion with nature and his thoughts the man was as dull, insensitive and vulgar an oaf at the end of this experience as he must have been at the beginning.
‘The fact is that in a marriage of convenience you expect less and so you are less likely to be disappointed. As you do not make senseless claims on one another there is no reason for exasperation. You do not look for perfection and so you are tolerant to one another’s faults. Passion is all very well, but it is not a proper foundation for marriage. <i>Voyez-vous</i>, for two people to be happy in marriage they must be able to respect one another, they must be of the same condition and their interests must be alike; then if they are decent people and are willing to give and take, to live and let live, there is no reason why their union should not be as happy as ours.’ She paused. ‘But, of course, my husband is a very, very remarkable man.’
But now that I come to this part of my book I am seized with dismay. I have never seen anything in the world more wonderful than the temples of
Angkor, but I do not know how on
earth I am going to set down in black and white such an account of them as will
give even the most sensitive reader more than a confused and shadowy impression
of their grandeur. Of course to the artist in words, who takes pleasure in the
sound of them and their look on the page, it would be an opportunity in a
thousand. What a chance for prose pompous and sensual, varied, solemn and
harmonious; and what a delight to such a one it would be to reproduce in his
long phrases the long lines of the buildings, in the balance of his paragraphs to
express their symmetry, and in the opulence of his vocabulary their rich
decoration! It would be enchanting to find the apt word and by putting it in
its right place give the same rhythm to the sentence as he had seen in the
massed grey stones; and it would be a triumph to hit upon the unusual, the
revealing epithet that translated into another beauty the colour, the form and
the strangeness of what he alone had had the gift to see.
Alas, I have not the smallest talent for this sort of thing, and – doubtless because I cannot do it myself – I do not very much like it in others. A little of it goes a long way with me. […] I can bear it better when this kind of stately writing is done by our forefathers. The grand style became them. I am awed by the magnificence of Sir Thomas Browne; it is like staying in a great Palladian palace with frescoes by Veronese on the ceilings and tapestries on the walls. It is impressive rather than homely. You cannot see yourself doing your daily dozen in those august surroundings.
…we do not write as we want to but as we can, and though I have the greatest respect for those authors who are blessed with a happy gift of phrase I have long resigned myself to writing as plainly as I can. I have a very small vocabulary and I manage to make do with it, I am afraid, only because I see things with no great subtlety. I think perhaps I see them with a certain passion and it interests me to translate into words not the look of them, but the emotion they have given me. But I am content if I can put this down as briefly and baldly as if I were writing a telegram.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
But it was a very different Angkor Wat that met the intrepid gaze of Henri Mouhot from that which the tourist now can so conveniently see. If indeed you are curious to know what this stupendous monument looked like before the restorer set to work upon it (it must be admitted unobtrusively), you can get a very good impression by taking a narrow path through the forest when you will come presently upon a huge grey gateway covered with lichen and moss. On the upper part of it, on the four sides, dimly emerging from ruined masonry is, four times repeated, the impassive head of Siva. On each side of the gateway, half hidden by jungle, are the remains of a massive wall and in front of it, choked with weeds and water-plants, a broad moat. Entering you find yourself in a vast courtyard, strewn with fragments of statues and green stones on which you vaguely discern sculpture; you walk softly on dead brown leaves and they squelch every so faintly under your tread. Here grow enormous trees, towering above you, shrubs of all kinds and dank weeds; they grow among the crumbling masonry, forcing it apart, and their roots writhe like snakes upon the surface of the stony soil. The courtyard is surrounded by ruined corridors and you climb hazardously up steep, slippery and broken stairs, threading your way through passages and vaulted chambers dripping with wet and heavy with the stink of bats; the pedestals on which stood the gods are overturned, the gods are gone. And in the corridors and on the terraces the tropical vegetation grows fiercely. Here and there the great pieces of carved stone hang perilously. Here and there on a bas-relief still miraculously in place stand the dancing-girls veiled with lichen, mockingly, in their everlasting gestures of abandonment.
It chanced that one day towards dusk, when I was wandering about this temple, for in its ruin it offered peculiar sensations that I found it curious to expose myself to, I was overtaken by storm. I had the great dark clouds massed in the North-East and it had seemed to me that never again could the temple in the jungle be seen by me more mysteriously; but after a while I felt something strange in the air and looking up saw that the dark clouds were on a sudden charging down upon the forest. The rain came suddenly and then the thunder, not a single peal but roll upon roll reverberating down the sky, and lightning that blinded me, darting and slashing fiercely. I was deafened and confused by the noise, and the lightning startled me. The rain fell not as in our temperate zone, but with an angry vehemence, in sheets, storming down as though the heavens were emptying themselves of flooded lakes. It seemed to fall with no blind unconscious force, but with a purpose and a malignancy which were, alas, but too human. I stood in a doorway, not a little frightened, and as the lightning tore the darkness like a veil I saw the jungle stretching endlessly before me, and it seemed to me that these great temples and their gods were insignificant before the fierce might of nature. Its power there was so manifest, spoke with so stern and insistent a voice, that it was easy to understand how man had devised his gods and built great temples to house them to serve as a screen between himself and the force that terrified and crushed him. For nature is the most powerful of all the gods.
Angkor Wat is placed due east and west and the sun rises directly behind the five towers that surmount it. It is surrounded by a broad moat, which you cross by a great causeway paved with flagstones, and the trees are delicately reflected in the still water.
It is an impressive rather than a beautiful building and it needs the glow of sunset or the white brilliance of the moon to give a loveliness that touches the heart. It is grey veiled by a faint green, which is the colour of the moss and the mould of all the rainy seasons it has seen, but at sunset it is buff, pale and warm. At dawn when the country is bathed in a silver mist the towers have an aspect that is strangely insubstantial; they have then an airy lightness which they lack in the hard white light of noon. Twice a day, when the sun rises and when it sets, a miracle is performed and they gain a beauty not their own. They are the mystic towers of the spirit’s high citadel. The temple and its dependencies are built on a strictly formal plan. This part balances that and one side repeats the other. The architects exercised no great power of invention, but built on the pattern dictated to them by the rites of their religion. They had neither wanton fancy nor vivid imagination. They yielded to no sudden inspiration. They were deliberate. They gained their effects by regularity and by vastness. The modern eye, of course, has been distorted by the huge buildings that are now so easily constructed, mammoth hotel and enormous apartment house, so that the great size of Angkor Wat must be realised by an effort of the imagination; but to those for whom it was built it must have been stupendous. The very steep steps that lead from one story to another give it a singular effect of height. They are not the broad and noble stairs of the West, fit for the pageantry of processions, but an arduous and hurried means of ascent to the presence of a secret and mysterious god. They render the divinity remote and enigmatic.
My thoughts went back to a temple that I had visited a day or two before. It is called Bayon. It surprised me because it had not the uniformity of the other temples I had seen. It consists of a multitude of towers one above the other, symmetrically arranged, and each tower is a four-faced, gigantic head of Siva the Destroyer. They stand in circles one within the other and the four faces of the god are surmounted by a decorated crown. In the middle is a great tower with face rising above face till the apex is reached. It is all battered by time and weather, creepers and parasitic shrubs grow all about, so that at a first glance you see only a shapeless mass and it is only when you look a little more closely that these silent, heavy, impassive faces loom out at you from the rugged stone. Then they are all around you. They face you, they are at your side, they are behind you, and you are watched by a thousand unseeing eyes. They seem to look at you from the remote distance of primeval time and all about you the jungle grows fiercely. You cannot wonder that the peasants when they pass should break into loud song in order to frighten away the spirits; for towards evening the silence is unearthly and the effect of all those serene and yet malevolent faces is eerie. When the night falls the faces sink away into the stones and you have nothing but a strange, shrouded collection of oddly shaped turrets.
But it is not on account of the temple itself that I have described it – I have, albeit with a halting pen, already described more than enough – it is for the sake of the bas-reliefs that line one of its corridors. They are not very well done, and the sculptors had but too obviously little sense of form or line, but they have notwithstanding an interest which at this moment called them up vividly to my memory. For they represent scenes in the common life of the day in which they were done, the preparation of rice for the pot, the cooking of food, the catching of fish and the snaring of birds, the buying and selling at the village shop, the visit to the doctor, and in short the various activities of a simple people. It was startling to discover how little in a thousand years this life of theirs had changed. They still do the same things with the same utensils. The rice is pounded or husked in the self-same way and the village shopkeeper on the same tray offers for sale the same bananas and the same sugar cane. These patient industrious folk carry the same burdens on the same yokes as their ancestors carried so many generations back. The centuries have passed leaving no trace upon them, and some sleeper of the tenth century awakening now in one of these Cambodian villages would find himself at home in the artless round of daily life.
Then it seemed to me that in these countries of the East the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, nor great wall, but man. The peasant with his immemorial usages belongs to an age far more ancient than Angkor Wat, the great wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt.
|The Bayon Temple, bas-relief of a market scene from the souther gallery.|
From Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License.
But there are places of which the only point is the arrival; they promise the most fantastic adventures of the spirit and give you no more than three meals a day and last year’s films. They are like a face, full of character that intrigues and excites you, but that on closer acquaintance you discover is merely the mask of a vulgar soul. Such is
I spent one morning there in order to visit the museum in which there is a collection of Khmer sculpture. The reader may possibly remember that when I wrote of Phnom-Penh I became strangely eloquent (for a person who does not much like others to gush and is shy of superlatives) about a statue to be seen there. This was a Khmer work and now I may remind him (or tell him if like me till I went to Indo-China he never knew that Khmers or their sculpture existed) that this was a mighty nation, the offspring of the aboriginal tribes of Indo-China and an invading race from the plateaux of Central Asia, who founded a far-flung and powerful empire. Immigrants from
Eastern India brought them the Sanskrit language,
Brahmanism and the culture of their native land; but the Khmers were vigorous
people and they had a creative instinct that enabled them to make their own use
of the knowledge the strangers brought them. They built magnificent temples and
adorned them with sculptures, founded it is true on the art of India, but which
have at their best an energy, a boldness of execution, a fertility and a brilliant
fancy to be found nowhere else in the East. The statue of Harihara at
Phnom-Penh testifies to the greatness of their genius. […] It has the candour
of the primitive quickened by the complexity of the civilised. The Khmer
brought a long inheritance of thought to the craft which had so suddenly
captivated his fancy. It is as though to the England of the Elizabethan age had
come, a bolt from the blue, the art of painting in oil; and the artists, their
souls charged with the plays of Shakespeare, the conflict of religions at the
Reformation, and the Armada, had begun to paint with the hand of Cimabue. Something
like this must have been the state of mind of the sculptor who made the statue in
Phnom-Penh. It has power and simplicity and an exquisite line, but it has also
a spiritual quality that is infinitely moving. It has not only beauty, but
These great works of the Khmers gain a peculiar poignancy when you reflect that a few ruined temples strewn about the jungle and a few mutilated statues scattered here and there in museums are all that remains of this mighty empire and this restless people. Their power was broken, they were dispersed, becoming drawers of water and hewers of wood, they died out; and now, the rest of them assimilated by their conquerors, their name endures only in the art they so lavishly produced.
The French carry
to their colonies just as the English carry to theirs; and the English,
reproached for their insularity, can justly reply that in this matter they are
no more singular than their neighbours. But not even the most superficial
observer can fail to notice that there is a great difference in the manner in
which these two nations behave towards the natives of the countries of which
they have gained possession. The Frenchman has deep down in him a persuasion
that all men are equal and that mankind is a brotherhood. He is slightly
ashamed of it and in case you should laugh at him makes haste to laugh at
himself; but there it is, he cannot help it; he cannot prevent himself from
feeling that the native, black, brown or yellow, is of the same clay as himself,
with the same loves, hates, pleasures and pains, and he cannot bring himself to
treat him as though he belonged to a different species. Though he will brook no
encroachment on his authority and deals firmly with any attempt the native may
make to lighten his yoke, in the ordinary affairs of life he is friendly with
him without condescension and benevolent without superiority. He inculcates in
him his peculiar prejudices; England Paris is the centre
of the world, and the ambition of every young Annamite is to see it at least
once in his life; you will hardly meet one who is not convinced that outside there is
neither art, literature nor science. But the Frenchman will sit with the
Annamite, eat with him, drink with him and play with him. In the market-place
you will see the thrifty Frenchwoman with her basket on her arm jostling the
Annamite housekeeper and bargaining just as fiercely. No one likes having
another take possession of his house, even though he conducts it more
efficiently and keeps it in better repair than ever he could himself; he does
not want to live in the attics even though his master has installed a lift for
him to reach them; and I do not suppose that Annamites like it any more than
the Burmese that strangers hold their country. But I should say that whereas
the Burmese only respect the English, the Annamites admire the French. When in
course of time these peoples inevitably regain their freedom it will be curious
to see which of these emotions has borne the better fruit. France
‘Tell me,’ I said now, ‘you must have known an awful lot of people, what opinion have you formed of the human race?’
‘Sure I’ll tell you. I think they’re bully. You’d be surprised at the kindness I’ve received from everybody. If you’re ill or anythin’ like that, perfect strangers will nurse you like your own mother. White, yellow, or brown, they’re all alike. It’s surprisin’ what they’ll do for you. But they’re stupid, they’re terribly stupid. They’ve got no more brains than a turnip. They can’t even tell you the way in their own home town. I’ll give you my opinion of the human race in a nutshell, brother; their heart’s in the right place, but their head’s a thoroughly inefficient organ.’
This really is the end of this book.