Forty years on

One could easily say too much, write too much. My old hero, Thomas Ernest Hulme, who died young in the Great War, warned me against this when I was quite young. In the book Speculations (1924), which Herbert Read scrabbled together from Hulme’s loose papers published here and there, and notebooks published nowhere, I found an extremely clear and, in retrospect, somewhat simplistic account of an attitude towards the world which Hulme identified with Pascal. It provided an “epiphany” to me: a manifestation of something. It “showed” to me something I thought I already knew, but did not know.

Here follows the passage that I was reading, in of all places the Victoria and Albert Museum’s art library, some forty years ago, precisely. I may have quoted it before, in which case it is re-quoted. It comes from draught papers on, “Humanism and the Religious Attitude,” written in a style intentionally vulgar. (Hulme, a big man from Staffordshire, like Samuel Johnson before him, hated jargon, and cant, and miserable small lies. And large ones.)



“The whole subject has been confused by the failure to recognize the gap between the regions of vital and human things, and that of the absolute values of ethics and religion. We introduce into human things the Perfection that properly belongs only to the divine, and thus confuse both human and divine things by not clearly separating them. …

“To illustrate the position, imagine a man situated at a point in a plane, from which roads radiate in various directions. Let this be the plane of actual existence. We place Perfection where it should not be — on this human plane. As we are painfully aware that nothing actual can be perfect, we imagine the perfection to be not where we are, but some distance along one of the roads. This is the essence of all Romanticism. Most frequently, in literature at any rate, we imagine an impossible perfection along the road of sex; but anyone can name the other roads for himself. The abolition of some discipline or restriction would enable us, we imagine, to progress along one of these roads. The fundamental error is that of placing Perfection in +humanity, thus giving rise to that bastard thing Personality, and all the bunkum that follows from it.

“For the moment, however, I am not concerned with the errors introduced into human things by this confusion of regions which should be separated, but by the falsification of the divine.

“If we continue to look with satisfaction along these roads, we shall always be unable to understand the religious attitude. The necessary preliminary preparation for such an understanding is a realization that satisfaction is to be found along none of these roads.

“The effect of this necessary preparation is to force the mind back on the centre, by the closing of all roads on the plane. No ‘meaning’ can be given to the existing world, such as philosophers are accustomed to give in their last chapters. To each conclusion one asks, ‘In what way is that satisfying?’ The mind is forced back along every line in the plane, back on the centre. What is the result? To continue the rather comic metaphor, we may say the result is that which follows the snake eating its own tail, an infinite straight line perpendicular to the plane.

“In other words, you get the religious attitude; where things are separated that ought to be separated, and Perfection is not illegitimately introduced on the plane of human things.

“It is the closing of all the roads, this realization of the tragic significance of life, which makes it legitimate to call all other attitudes shallow. Such a realization has formed the basis of all the great religions, and is most conveniently remembered by the symbol of the wheel. This symbol of the futility of existence is absolutely lost to the modern world, nor can it be recovered without great difficulty.”


I was not yet a Christian when I read this, and would have laughed if told I was about to become one.

Would have laughed, perhaps less uproariously, had I been told I would find myself lying in a hospital among terminal cases, in four weeks’ time. For that, not Christian conversion, was the next “big thing” to happen in my little life (helping to focus me from another angle).

Moreover, as a (Catholic) Christian now, I realize that human life is not essentially tragic, nor futile. In this sense, the religions of the West differ from the religions of the East, though it could be said that they start with the same human consciousness, drawn in the passage above. But Hulme claimed only to be inditing the “preparation for” a transcendent or religious view of life. It really was a pity he died in the trenches of the Western Front. I should have liked to meet him as an old, old man.

Put another way, the penny dropped for me while I was reading that. Curiously, at the time I was also reading Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (in Meredith’s translation), from day to day in the same library. That was the prolegomena to Hulme’s prolegomena: that steam-train of Kant’s. Other “pennies from heaven” drop on other people in other ways.

What I recall most vividly, on this fortieth anniversary of the beginning of my slide into the Christian religion, was the darkness on the steps as I was leaving the Museum. I was in a state of complete bafflement, from the knowledge that I had just “lost my faith.” For my trust in Atheism had been completely shattered.