J.N.W. Sullivan & Colin Wilson — ‘The Desirability of the Ordinary.’

Found in a pamphlet by Colin Wilson: Autobiographical Reflections (Paupers' Press, 1980) this quotation from the writer J.W.N. Sullivan. Sullivan was a friend of Aldous Huxley & John Middleton Murry, later he knew Aleister Crowley and was part of Ottoline Morrell's intellectual country house salon at Garsington in the 1920s. In the first World War he worked in the ambulance services in Serbia. Colin Wilson writes of him:

I have always felt that the very essence of the human problem was grasped by that fine music critic, J. W. N. Sullivan, in his classic autobiography But For the Grace of God (London: Jonathan Cape 1932). He writes about the first world war:

'The only assimilable 'lesson' taught by the war was the extreme desirability of the ordinary commonplace civilised life. Even as seen from the relative security of a war hospital that life seemed desirable almost beyond imagining. Looking out on those dark, alien Serbian hills, after a day spent amongst the sights and odours of suppurating flesh (for all our wounded, on the long journey from the front, developed gangrene), I have had visions of Paradise. I have pictured the lighted Strand, one of the golden streets of Heaven, and longed for its ambrosia, two poached eggs on toast, in those dazzling halls of light called Lyons' restaurants. It was inconceivable to me that I could ever have been discontented with life in such celestial surroundings. The thought of a London bus on a rainy evening, its windows steamy with the breath of its crowned passengers, splashing its way through dark space around Trafalgar Square, filled me with a yearning that perhaps an exiled cherub would experience for his chariot of fire. I felt that I had learned my lesson. If ever I were permitted to live again my ordinary life I would never, I reflected, permit the blasphemy of thinking it dull. It seemed incredible to me that I should ever have been blind to the bliss of working in a London office, and of living in two amazingly beautiful rooms in idyllic Richmond. And on top of these there were my serene, wise books, and my dramatic, untamed pianola! I have never quite lost that vision. I am a little impatient of those people who find the whole of our 'material' civilisation merely sordid and ugly. A London bus is not quite the miracle I thought it in Serbia, but it is, nevertheless, a most delightful, friendly and interesting object. And I can still sometimes experience a mood of pure exultation at my incredible good fortune in being alive, and privilege to sit on a high stool at a delicatessen counter in the Strand, consuming a Bismarck herring and (as I believe) genuine German lager beer. Perhaps I would enjoy riches. I might like to possess a Rolls-Royce, a country house, a flat in town, and a villa in the south of France. But I can still feel, at times, that the transition from an overcrowded Serbian hospital even to a life of one room, a bed and chair, and a penny newspaper every morning, is so vast that the millionaire's extra advantages are hardly perceptible on that scale'.

Sullivan adds: 'It is a pity that one cannot preserve this attitude. One becomes so debilitated that even a bus-ride down the Strand is taken for granted...' And in that word 'debilitated' Sullivan has gone to the heart of the problem. Man has taken about three million years to struggle to his present position on the evolutionary ladder; he has survived ice ages and fought mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. Yet he has achieved this amazing, wonderful civilisation far too quickly - almost overnight. He takes it for granted, and needs the misery of war or violent catastrophe to remind him of how lucky he is. He responds magnificently to challenge, but the moment a challenge has been conquered, his 'robot' murmurs: 'Nothing to worry about now - relax', and he promptly over-relaxes into a state of 'debilitation' and boredom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *