On Doing What One Likes, from On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh

nb173I found a much-banged-up copy of Alec Waugh’s 1926 collection of essays, On Doing What One Likes, a few years ago, stuck it in my shelves, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I took it down and started reading. Alec Waugh was, of course, the older brother of the now-better-known Evelyn. In 1926, thanks to his best-selling first novel, The Loom of Youth, and other successful books, it was Alec who was the star and Evelyn some nobody still having to sneak back to his rooms at Oxford when out too late. Now, although Bloomsbury Publishing is releasing a selection of his novels, histories and travel books, Alec will probably forever have to bear his nephew Auberon’s sentence that he “wrote many books, each worse than the last.”

I expected to encounter a rather brash young smarter-than-the-world voice in Waugh’s essays, but instead, I found a remarkable wisdom, particularly in the first one, “On Doing What One Likes.” It reminds me a bit of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address and other “how to live your life” pieces that get passed and linked to and tweeted all over the Internet. So, in hopes this might get the same kind of circulation, I am happy to provide here the full text.

“On Doing What One Likes,” by Alec Waugh (1926)

“It’s deplorable,” a friend said to me the other day, “your ignorance of painting.”

I nodded.

“And music, you know still less of that.”

Again I nodded.

“It’s disgraceful,” he continued. “No one who considers himself educated has the right to be so ignorant. On Friday afternoon I will take you to the National Gallery.”

And for a couple of hours on the following Friday we drifted down the long galleries, while he explained and dissected the particular beauties of each masterpiece. “The grouping there,” he would say, “The architectonics. You can see it, can’t you? And over there, look, the rhythm of that figure. You like it? Of course you like it, I knew you would, one’s only got to see the stuff; the trouble is that most people won’t take the fag to!”

Yes, unquestionably, I had enjoyed it, but I could not, at the same time, help feeling as I said “good-bye” to him, that I should have enjoyed myself more if, as originally intended, I had spent the afternoon reading the new novel by Arnold Bennett.

“I shall now,” I told myself, “be unable to finish it till Sunday, which means that Vere Hutchinson’s book will have to wait until next week and probably by then there will be some new book out that I shall desperately want to read at once. Vere Hutchinson will have to wait, and new things come along nowadays at such a pace that if one doesn’t read a book within a month of its appearance there is a strong likelihood that one will never read it at all.”

I was not at all sure that I had not wasted that two hours in the National Gallery.

It was held once upon a time that an educated person should know something of everything and everything of something. But the world was smaller then and life was slower, and there were no tubes and telephones and taxis: in this period of intense specialisation it would be an impossible task to attempt to know something about everything, and there are times when it is better to surrender than to compromise. There is so little time for the discovery of all that we want to know about the things that really interest us. We cannot afford to waste it on the things that are of only casual concern for us, or in which we are interested only because other people have told us that we ought to be.

I heard a man lamenting the other day the alarming dimensions of his ignorance, the incredibly large number of things that he had either forgotten or had never known. “We are all in the same boat,” he said, “it would be quite possible to set a general knowledge paper consisting entirely of questions to which a preparatory schoolboy of average intelligence might be expected to know the answer, on which any of us might fail to get fifteen per cent.”

But we are not on that account any the less good citizens. We are not any the less qualified to conduct the particular enterprise for which we may consider ourselves best fitted, because we do not know who followed Philip II to the throne, or what the capital of Chile is, or in what continent is Patagonia. It is simple always to find excuses for oneself. We can prove and disprove anything. But there is a case, and a strong case, for that particular form of indolence that allows us to move through life knowing only what immediately concerns us.

Sherlock Holmes certainly would have defended it. He knew intimately what he needed to know, and refused to dissipate his energy acquiring information that would be of no service to him. He could tell from the mud on a man’s boots in what part of London he had been walking. But he had never heard of the solar system. His defence would have been, that though it would have been interesting enough to understand the mechanism of the sun and planets, he had only a limited measure of time at his disposal, and he could not spare to astronomy the time which he required for the perfection of his studies of cigar ash.

Strength exists only as the opposite of weakness, and supreme knowledge of one subject presupposes as supreme an ignorance of others. Sherlock Holmes knew what he needed to know. And knew nothing else. He would have been in fact a less good detective had he understood the principle of the stars. For him that was unnecessary knowledge.

Knowledge is not wisdom. How little after all the ancients knew. And how much of what they thought they knew was wrong. Aristotle held that a body weighing a hundred pounds would fall to the earth a hundred times as fast as a body weighing one pound, and because in other things he was so wise, for twenty centuries it occurred to no one to contradict him. Plato believed that the earth was flat and that the sky was an inverted bowl. Pythagoras may have suspected that the earth was round, and revolved about the sun. And Aristarchus may have propounded a theory of the solar system. But Hipparchus was in a position to discredit both of them, and for two thousand years the earth was believed to be motionless, and the stars were held to be equidistant from the earth. Virgil and Seneca and Horace knew less about astronomy than a child of seven does today. Shakespeare not only did not know where Patagonia was. He did not know that it existed.

And yet it is to these men, who were on so many subjects incurious and misinformed, that we turn now from our surfeiting of knowledge for consolation and advice. They may have known little, but they were wise, and all the information that we have acquired through three centuries of discovery and speculation have not made us wiser than they were. Wisdom has not been increased with knowledge: it has, indeed, very little to do with knowledge. We acquire knowledge, but wisdom we bring with us, in great or little measure, to develop or let die within us.

It is interesting to know how flour is converted into bread; how sardines are rescued from the high seas to become hors d’oeuvres how the decomposition of forests produces paper. It is interesting, but I cannot see that it is of very much importance to the vast majority of us who will never have to hunt sardines, or bake bread, or control paper mills. There are some things we must be content to take on trust. Where there are so many books that we have never read, so many pictures that we have never seen, so much music we have never heard, and when so much of our life is spent in livelihood, I cannot see why we should spend one minute of our spare time discovering matters that are of no direct concern to us.

And we cannot be equally interested in everything.

The Hanoverian monarch who confessed that he did not like poetry and he did not like painting, was far wiser than the courtiers who laughed at him. There were certain things that he liked extremely, and he knew that every hour he devoted to books and pictures subtracted an hour from the sum of his life’s enjoyment. He knew that he had only a few such hours at his disposal.

We spend, I am very certain, the half of our time among people that we do not particularly like and on things that do not particularly amuse us, and consequently have no time for the people and things that do really matter to us. “It’s months since I’ve seen So-and—so,” we say; or, “It’s six weeks since I went to the theatre.” And we excuse ourselves and say that life goes so quickly that we have no time. But it is our own fault. We have had, in Dr. Temple’s phrase, all the time there is, and we have wasted it. Instead of going to theatres, which we really enjoy, we have been to dinner-parties that have bored us, and dances that have only mildly entertained us. We have allowed other people to dictate our tastes to us.

And we owe it not only to ourselves, but to society, to spend our spare time in whatever manner may be most agreeable to us. We are far pleasanter persons when we are happy than when we are bored. Happiness is a social lubricant, and George II, would have been a worse king had he decided that his distaste for literature was unkingly and spent long hours reading Shakespeare in the palace library. Had we three thousand years of life in front of us we might order our days on the assumption that we should know something of everything and everything of something. But we have only some seventy-odd years, and eight hours out of every twenty—four we must spend in sleep, and another eight in the earning of our living.

“The tragedy of life,” I heard someone maintain the other day, “is neither poverty nor age nor sickness, but the fact that if you live in Kensington you must, if you are to dine in Hampstead, leave Chelsea before six. I am not,” he continued, “being perversely paradoxical.” It is, that fact, a symbol of the hack-work, the dull, dreary, unimaginative hack-work of living that is imposed on us. We have so little time. We shall never do all that we should like to do; see all that we should like to see; know all that we should like to know. So little time, with so much to do in it. And yet what hours we spend a year dressing for this and shaving for that other party, getting from one extremity of London to the other.

And who is to deny the truth of his contention?

We imagine sometimes that by the doubling or trebling or quadrupling of our incomes the majority of our troubles would be removed. But in fact they would not. Of the innumerable small annoyances that fret and harass us, a few only would be discharged by any obvious increment of income.

Our friends would still be divided from each other and from ourselves by so many furlongs of tube and omnibus and car. There would be the same number of streets to cross. The same invariable varieties of dress. There would be ties to be arranged and faces shaved. And a millionaire cannot shave nor arrange his tie any more speedily than I can.

The hack-work of life; we cannot, whatever our income, escape our share of it. If only we could have it done for us, we sometimes think. If only we could be possessed of magic properties; if only with the waving of a hand we could find ourselves attired suitably for whatever engagement might lie immediately in front of us; if only the lifting of a finger could transport us from Bayswater to Chiswick; if only, that is to say, we had the vitality to sustain life at such a tension. For we might not have.

Edgar Allan Poe asserted that as it was impossible for a poet to sustain his inspiration over a long period, an epic could never be more than the setting for moments of occasional poetry. And it is certain that an audience can rarely support for more than an hour the intense excitement of big drama, big poetry, and big music. The curtain must be allowed to fall. There must be that ten minutes’ interval of chatter and cigarettes and cocktails. That was where the Victorian novelists were so wise. They loaded their pages with long wadges of description and dissertation. They were dull to an extent that the neo-Georgians have never dared to be.

We cannot deny, if we are honest with ourselves, that we have rarely read a classic without being for quite long intervals considerably bored by it. And yet it is the reading of those books that we recall with the most enjoyment; precisely, I sometimes think, because of those tedious interludes; /chose long accounts of trivial people and uninteresting conversations which provided so admirable a contrast for such sensations as the novelist had subsequently to offer. They were a breathing space. The Victorian novelists gave the reader an interval to recover in. They bored him so that he should be able to relish more keenly the excitement when it came. They quickened his appetite with hunger. “I have earned this,” he thought, as he reached delightedly, after thirty—seven pages of moralities, a brief interlude of dramatic action.

The Victorians had the courage to be dull, and through this dullness they achieved effects that are impossible for our contemporaries. The modern novel, whatever it may not be, is a live and moving thing; so live and moving that it does not satisfy. It is a series of fireworks that dazzle and bewilder and exhaust. In the nursery, where we were made to begin our tea with bread and butter, cream cakes were a delight to us. Now, when we can begin with cake, tea is a meal that as often as not we miss.

We have to be bored, it seems, before we can be amused.

And it may well be that as we find the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in spite or perhaps because of that facility of theirs to weary us, more satisfying than all save a very little contemporary work—it may well be that it is this very hack-work of life which we so deplore that makes life on the whole so entertaining. Three parts of the air we breathe, that air which is our life and sustenance, does little more than blur our consciousness, dull our appetite, deaden our vitality, and it may be that such an existence as the possession of a magic carpet and a magic casket would impose on us would be a process analogous to the extraction of the nitrogen from the air we breathe. For one rapturous year all things would be the slaves of our delight. But on the twelfth hour of the twelfth month we should be dead.

The hack-work of life, the hours we spend resentfully and unsensationally in buses and cars and taxis, in baths and in front of mirrors, may be, for all we know, the correctives, the price we pay for the animated periods they divide; they may be as necessary to us as nitrogen. Only we must see to it that our few free hours are undiluted oxygen.

We should treat our spare time as we treat our income. A man has a limited sum of money to spend on his amusements, and he has at the beginning of the year to decide which of his tastes he will be able to indulge. “I like cigars,” he may say, “and I like champagne. But I cannot afford both, and as I prefer cigars, I will content myself with Chablis.” In the same way should a man say, “I like books and I like pictures, but I have not the time for both and I prefer books. I like bridge and I like dancing, but I prefer dancing; I like Jones and I like Brown, but I prefer Brown.” And the wise man will concentrate on books, on dancing and on Brown. A philosophy of intelligent selfishness.

But we are beset by tempters. The man who plays bridge is surrounded by friends imploring him to dance; the dancing man is informed that there is nothing in the World like bridge. The musician is warned that his “soul’s welfare” is imperiled by his failure to attend the latest exhibition of pictures; and the painter’s preference for his own craft is received with austere disapprobation. On all sides our friends are importuning us for the sake of our ultimate salvation to do the things that we quite like instead of the things that we really like.

It behooves us to be very firm.

On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh
Kensington: The Cayme Press, 1926