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If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live,
we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world
than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically
modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.
First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate.
Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence.
Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes
to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers.
He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially
fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight
he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing
from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really
fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting.
It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive.
He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians;
the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese
because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at;
if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active.
He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society
of his equals--of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different
from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering.
He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures,
camels and crocodiles. These creatures are indeed very different
from himself. But they do not put their shape or colour or
custom into a decisive intellectual competition with his own.
They do not seek to destroy his principles and assert their own;
the stranger monsters of the suburban street do seek to do this.
The camel does not contort his features into a fine sneer
because Mr. Robinson has not got a hump; the cultured gentleman
at No. 5 does exhibit a sneer because Robinson has not got a dado.
The vulture will not roar with laughter because a man does not fly;
but the major at No. 9 will roar with laughter because a man does
not smoke. The complaint we commonly have to make of our neighbours
is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business.
We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business.
If our neighbours did not mind their own business they would be asked
abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbours.
What we really mean when we say that they cannot mind their own
business is something much deeper. We do not dislike them
because they have so little force and fire that they cannot
be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have
so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well.
What we dread about our neighbours, in short, is not the narrowness
of their horizon, but their superb tendency to broaden it. And all
aversions to ordinary humanity have this general character. They are
not aversions to its feebleness (as is pretended), but to its energy.
The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness.
As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.