The frantic race to the Christmas finish-line has redoubled after the mad stumble of our transit strike. (Spouse rather enjoyed taking the party boat “Skyline Princess” from the Brooklyn Army Terminal to Wall Street and the “Sea Streak” from there to 34th Street—once.) As we go from crazed interruption to crazed resumption, I'd like to share a personal treasure: the contents of a meticulously typeset note and its enclosure, a faded newspaper clipping, sent to friends and relations by my aunt, Beatrice Warde, 71 years and one week ago from London, her beloved adopted home. Beatrice, my letterpress Guardian Angel, became (although a New Yorker born) the sort of jolly, cerebral Catholic that the English soil produces like a rare but vigorous species of wildflower. But judging from this virtuosic flight of fancy, she'd have made a pretty good Druid, too. Enjoy; and to those of you who have sampled our story here, many warm wishes from the inhabitants of the CrazyStable.
This folder is only a Solstice Card, but I think the picture which it encloses could rank as a Useful Gift.
I cut it out of The Times picture page a fortnight ago. It represents “a hedgehog which is about to close up for the winter hibernation, photographed at Bibury, Gloucestershire”. I stuck it up by the inkstand on my desk, and it proved too useful to be thrown away. For I find it an infallible corrective to the effects of artificial light. Not on the eyesight: on the insight.
The great thing about daylight is that we cannot control it. When I prepare to leave my office, of an April evening, I am still mentally jabbering about my own concerns. Then I notice that the sun’s attention is wandering: soon the frank yawn of sunset will change the subject. Artificial light can be switched on and kept on like a sycophant’s smile; no wonder that in mid-winter, when so much of the day is bulb-lit, our workaday affairs seem so terribly important.
Important they are, and perhaps in the strict sense of terribly. Deep in our minds lives the Earliest Scientist, the first man who watched to see if the year would turn. His sort built Stonehenge, not as a monument to a conviction, but as a delicate astronomical instrument to test a theory. Language is not as old as his earliest note-books, with the formulae of propitiation that sufficed last year, and might work this time. Being a scientist, he dare not argue from memory, let alone from another man’s book; he must deduce from the current phenomena, and they all indicate that a Disaster is steadily approaching, one minute sooner each day…He urges us to build bonfires or dynamos, to seal the harvest in arns or libraries or banks or museums; he has invented many ways of enduring (for a while) that possible Night. The Winter Solstice brings him the real relief that succeeds any danger that seemed real. In that moment’s reaction he mocks his own devices for Keeping Things Going. One of his earliest devices was slavery. The Roman slaves were probably as overworked as our dynamos by mid-winter minds, but they were freemen during the Saturnalia.
When the whoop of that First Free Breath has gone out, however, the artificer and his artifices are more needed than ever. The sun, in his slow and languid convalescence, must be left alone, and his free gift replaced by earned light and warmth, which, because it can be controlled, must not be wasted. Here in the northern latitudes, where the trustful community-life called civilization is a relatively new thing, we recall how our ancestors withdrew to their scattered houses, thriftily fed the fire, and by its governable light sat counting and valuing their own goods and deeds. No wonder that Protestantism or Private Judgment, Thrift, and Home-made Mysticism, flourish so well in northern lands.
I think my own thoughts by artificial light, secure from interruption so long as I can earn (at the world’s price) enough fuel for the bonfire... My eager, controllable, Synthetic Sunray Lamp can be focused upon books or “Art”. It would look very silly trying to illuminate a ten-acre field of corn, but the fields now are bare. Until March, nous n’irons plus aux bois…
The only trouble is that nobody ever need break off early. There are only subjective reasons, like fatigue, for stopping. There’s the light, and it’s paid for: come on! Only free light can be wasted. The indoor life calls for Creative Living to the Full—unlike the farmer’s life of letting things grow or breed. The opera manuum hominum are often made of precious metals; the Psalmist noticed that, but he was so concerned about the silliness of worshipping a solid silver idol that he never noticed that it is a sinful waste to pay for such an idol and then neglect to worship it. Waste of material things, whether paintings or coals, is a sin to the mid-winter mind. “Are you Wasting your Life?” is what every neon sign could say, whether it recommended lipstick to young nursemaids or the Literature of Art to elderly brewers.
Now if there is nothing objective, nothing outside to evince independent boredom, why then fatigue cannot be intercepted. If, having found a way of sitting up all Night, we feel bound to do it, then we come up against the fact that subjective reasons-for-stopping (like fatigue or poverty) are always the most painful, humiliating reasons.
That is why, in default of a good deliberate sunset, I use this picture of a December Hedgehog. The faint rebuke in those grave little eyes is not the rebuke that I expect nowadays—for wasting artificial light, or Time, or Chances to Get the Most out of Life. Oh dear no. I am simply told that if I’d only put out that artificial light I’d see that it was time to hibernate; at least I might let sensible people curl up in peace. The gentle but deliberate Change of Subject is a great refresher. Use it now: from all this spate of words (Copywriter’s Holiday), turn to my whiskered friend from the West, and see if the Gift does not make up for the Greeting—which I have been scribbling since dinner-time (1:30 a.m.) by the all-too-dependable courtesy of the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation, Ltd.