Essays from "The Theosophical Path" by Talbot Mundy

As to Writing and Reading

By Talbot Mundy

February 1925

On one point there is very nearly a consensus throughout all the world. They are not many who deny that literacy is a symptom of the progress of the individual and of the race. Some nations have insisted on a test of literacy before they will admit an immigrant at all, and in civilized communities it is compulsory to learn to read and write. In fact, as much stress has been laid on literacy as on sanitation, with the consequence that what was patronizingly referred to as the 'Fourth Estate' has grown into a social element whose boundaries are no more easy to define than is its influence to measure.

The accepted critics speak of modern literature as a flood, and they are right, for it is not less 'floodsome' than was Noah's fabled deluge. They refer particularly to the books that thunder off the presses of the world so fast that none can possibly keep track of them or read the tenth of one per cent. The books, though, are as one drop in the ocean in comparison with all the magazines, newspapers, bulletins and pamphlets that pour forth day by day. Nor do these complete the flood.

Who reckons up the tons of correspondence that the postmen carry to and fro? Has anybody sought to measure up the influence for good and evil that the stamped and sealed hand-written letters wield, which pass in billions back and forth in what amounts to legally protected secrecy? The hand that writes the letter rules the world, these latter days.

All superstition dies hard, and it lingers in the veins of men long generations after its pretensions have been expertly exposed and drenched with vitriolic ridicule. We do a thousand things from superstition that our reason would reject if we should pause to analyse them; and by no means least is the effect that we permit the written or the printed word to exercise upon our thought, and so upon ourselves and our reaction toward one another.

What poet said he cared not who should write a nation's laws, provided he might write its songs? His was a modest preference. The harm he might do, or the good, though vast, would be as nothing to the influence of poisoned pens that scribble in the darkness and suggest, to minds all unsuspicious of the subtilty, solutions of life's handicap that lull into a lazy dream of self-absorbed indifference, or stir the lower lees of animality to madness.

All of us attach too much significance to what is written. We forget that the essentials of life, intangible and tenuous, the inner spiritual meanings of the symbols that we see, are inexpressible in any form whatever. Ink and the best hand-woven paper are not mediums through which the spirit can emerge, and no man, pen he ever so adroitly, from a motive utterly unselfish, with an aim however high, can write one line that is not capable of misinterpretation.

We are too prone to believe whatever we may see in print. We take less care to look into the source of what is fed to our imaginations from the printed page than to investigate the food we eat (though we are careless about that). Incorrigible superstition guiding, we assert or take for granted that no individual, or group, or organized association would attempt to drug our minds; and we forget that the drug-craving almost always is unconsciously acquired. From very small beginnings it becomes a tyranny that owns, eats, empties, and leaves nothing but the shell of manhood. Do we stop to think that drugging of the mind and its imagination is a subtiler and a worse form of corruption than the peddled poison that can only wreck one human being at a time? With pen and ink we can be poisonous at wholesale and a million can fill their minds from the suggestions of one black filling of a fountain-pen.

Time was, when literacy was the privilege of few and the majority were at the mercy of the masters of the art of writing; pens were mightier than swords in those days; he who took his pen in hand was conscious of responsibility. So well was that condition realized that censorship was rigidly enforced by church and state, both equally aware that superstition lent exaggerated value to whatever might be written and regardless of who wrote it. In the early days of printing censorship increased in rigor, aided and abetted by the fears of long-hand secretaries that their own profession of the pen might fall on evil days.

In spite of censorship, it was as evident in those days as it is now, that a man equipped with fluency and malice might undo more governments, upset more nicely balanced calculations and leave greater ruin in his wake than all the culverins and powder in the arsenals of Europe. None denied, as few deny today, that printing, writing, correspondence have in them the germ of liberation for the minds of men; the benefit of literacy was conceded, but the dread prevailed of what might happen if the gift of literacy and the freedom of the press should actually pass into the keeping of the common people.

Those who had inherited, or had assumed the custody of public morals were agreed on the necessity of rigidly reviewing in advance of publication anything the printers might intend to loose upon the public. But -- "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" It was discovered, then as now, that what goes through a sieve is governed by the nature of the meshes of the sieve; it was impossible to keep a higher standard of morality than that of any individual entrusted with enforcing it. The leak began there flowed in rapidly increasing streams into the channels sanctioned by authority all manner of polluting filth to find its level in the lower swamps of public consciousness.

Stupidity increased the weakness of the censorship, since good intentions never were the gage of government. Excluded works of merit, whose plain writing or originality had shocked the appointed guardians of thought, found outlet to the public somehow and men mocked a censorship that tried to keep from them such mental stimulant -- until, since ridicule is all-corrosive, censorship became discredited and, knowing its own weakness, vanished into nothing more than name and a few emoluments.

Then license had its day, with now and then reactionary swings that but intensified the common will to read, or to be read to, from whatever was forbidden. Side by side with a perpetually gaining literary habit, that as generations came and went alchemically changed the medium of thought-communication from the sung and spoken to the written word, there flowed out of the stagnant lower levels of the human mind a habit of indecency unable to express itself except in the corruption of the noble, the artistic, the sublime.

So, side by side, the literary bay-tree and the worm both flourished, the worm spoiling what the nature of the tree produced; until, unable any longer to restrain the human appetite for knowledge easily acquired, those in authority let down all barriers and, making virtue of necessity, decreed that literacy, if no more, should be the common heritage of all men.

'If no more' was where the canker entered in. By law it was compulsory to learn to read and write, but not to learn to judge between the good and evil. Canons of good taste, artistic standards, literary judgment were omitted from the new curriculum, imposed on men, or else conceded to them by the keepers of the nations' weal. There came a generation, taught to read and write and stirred to mental hunger by the consciousness of an ability its ancestors did not possess, but utterly unable to discriminate and no less bound than formerly by superstitious reverence for anything in writing or in print.

On them, in their simplicity as helpless as young birds about to leave the nest, the hawks of opportunity descended. There was born, within a generation, an enormous system, sprung Minerva-like from out the forehead of the century, equipped with thundering machinery, devised expressly to exploit the common people's craving for a mental anodyne. It praised itself. It flattered its eager victims. Flamboyantly it flourished fragments of the truth and drenched them in a stream of printer's ink. It cultivated in the public mind the theory that all men had the right to know their neighbors' business and, reckless of the consequence, excited to the limit the awakened craving for sensation.

The printing-press became the governing machinery of nations. With the youth compelled to go to school, it was a simple thing to cultivate in coming generations markets for the ever-growing, ever more sensationally written flood of daily fiction masquerading as the truth.

The proper field of fiction was invaded. To obtain an audience the story-writers yielded to the impulse to appeal to the sensation-appetite, soon learning the advantage of the indirect suggestion over downright loathsomeness. Deliberately books were written with the unconcealed intention of evading legal penalties while pandering suggestively to all the lowest human instincts -- they themselves, the writers, in their own youth caught within the toils of the impersonal, intangible perverter of men's minds, whose modern engine of perversion is the press.

Now this is clear: as much today as in its first beginnings literature has in it the seed, the possibility of liberation for men's minds. Men live today, as yesterday, whose destiny has charged them with possession of great 'organs of opinion' -- who are publishers of magazines, and books, and newspapers -- and who are striving with all their might to purify the streams of print that flood the public mind. But they have learned in the expensive college of experiment that appetite, once whetted, is impossible to appease or to ignore, and they are faced with the fact that the public is glutting itself with trash and, on the whole, prefers it to the better wares that those aware of their responsibility persist in offering.

The flood, in other words, has got beyond control. Discolored, foul, polluted with the reputations of its victims, it has burst the banks of dignity and flows over the whole wide realm of thought. Like Noah in his ark, some writers float on it, some publishers preserve their self-respect, some readers swim, selecting flotsam to support their interest and finding quiet counter-currents -- now and then an island or a rock in mid-stream. But the most go down along the flood, and no man knows to what depravity it leads.

The pessimist's persuasion then, is easy -- lazy might define it more correctly. If we view what Kipling calls the "unforgiving minute" with the concentrated gaze of appetite that throws the wider views of time and cycles out of focus, it may be difficult to disbelieve that all humanity is drowning. Then -- hope lost for the world, ourself the looker-on -- there might be some good sense in resignation to the thought that all is vanity.

They say that Solomon composed that epigram, in some despairing mood when he had tasted all the ashes of sensation. Yet the same man, in the same mood, wrote "there is nothing new under the sun." Nor is it new then, that the world should foul its own nest and pollute the stream of literature. Always it has done the same thing. It erects its cities and pollutes its rivers; it discerns art dimly and invents the chromograph; it hears the symphonies of Beethoven, and dances to the cacophonic barbarism of machine-made jazz.

None knows the number of the wise men and the prophets who have brought into the world new torches lighted at the Ancient Fire of Wisdom. No historian can count the creeds, philosophies, fanaticisms, canons and dissensions that have leaped up from the darkness to distort that light, have flickered in it for a while, and vanished. When the rain drops on the thirsty earth, the mud forms. When the light shines in the darkness, shadows multiply themselves. When wind blows, there are waves that wreck ill-managed ships.

No floods persist. They leave destruction in their wake and carcasses, the ruins of homes unwisely built and tumbled, littered acres where the land-marks stood; but from them, in the leisured course of time, men learn a little wisdom -- as they learn from the polluted streams they labor to repurify at last and to protect. Men die from the pollution -- die in droves, until at last survivors listen to the advocates of cleanliness.

There is an endless store of Wisdom, and the acts of men can no more empty it than can the night blot out the sun. By night, how many of us think the day has gone forever and no dawn will gleam along the hills? Not even maniacs succumb to that delusion. All of us expect the coming dawn, and some of us prepare for it. We may await a new dawn of the Ancient Wisdom in the world with equal confidence. We may as well be ready for it when it comes.

Undoubtedly the night of literature lingers; there are many who have bad dreams, some who sleep too deeply to be dreaming, and a horde who dance the night through to the tune of any instrument, who will be weary and will sleep late when the morning comes. But stars shine all the brighter for the darkness, and considering the stars is better for us, and more restful, than to woo sensation in the yellow light that seeks to dim them with its artificial glare.

H. P. Blavatsky was the morning star. The literary dawn will not be far behind her. She retaught the ancient law of individual responsibility, and of the dignity and the divinity of man. Her theme was theme enough for all the writers of the world for centuries to come. With morning, when the world perceives there was no profit in the yellow glare of cheap sensation; when it sees the littered nastiness of what the lamps made to resemble virtue, it will turn toward the sun.

But there is no need now, because the morning star is merged into the faint rays of the rising sun, to waste time waiting for the full dawn. There is still with us that "unforgiving minute," and the words we write are as reactive as the stuff we read. We are responsible. In these days, when the youngest of us is a letter-writer and the oldest makes his book of reminiscences, not one of us escapes responsibility for some share in the stream of written thought that goes forth influencing men's minds. Responsibility comes home to roost.

We are in school, as all the universe was always -- in the school that fits us for the ascending path of evolution. We are learning, or if not we will be forced to learn, to use the written and the printed word as medium for transference of thought, in preparation for the day -- it may be centuries ahead of us -- when thought-communication will be understood and used without mechanical assistance.

It requires no deep investigation into logic, and it needs no pinnacles of purity from which to realize that just so long as we are willing to admit into our thought the written vapors of suggestiveness and all indignity, we never shall be fit to guard our minds against a more insidious, unwritten method of approach. It is what we read now -- what we are willing to spend time on reading -- that provides us with a part of the experience on which our evolution will be based.

And so with writing. Whether it be letters to our friends, the daily news or books intended to be read by fellow-men whose personality and views are totally unknown to us, we must respect their dignity although we fail to recognise our own. We may not trespass in a man's house; laws are rigidly enforced against offenders who befoul the air with smoke or keep their premisses in such condition as may spread disease. We keep all those who are likely to spread contagion isolated. But we must learn not to contaminate the thought of others, nor to obscure truth, nor to deny it with the written word, before we shall be fit for further progress.

In our hands, available to all of us, there is a means of thought-communication. We have fouled it until all too few of us can recognise the foulness, and we have to purify it carefully, persistently and one by one, each individual attending to his own share of the whole. No one man, nor any group of men is rightfully to blame for the incredible debasement of our modern literary output, which is due to the inherent craving of the lower natures of us all for anything that will keep our eyes masked from the light. Indignity desires indignity, like craving like.

The dawning of the dignity of man affords the remedy. When writers, whether of books or news or private letters, learn that they imbue the written matter with their own true character, revealing to the educated eye their meannesses as well as what of virtue they may have, there will be more attempt to cleanse and prune the thought that goes on to the page. When it is realized that every contribution to the mass of sordid thinking adds to the inevitable karma that contributor will have to meet, there will be caution, if for no more reason than a mere enlightened selfishness. When it is understood that the reception into consciousness of sordid views and misinterpretations of the facts of life unfits the thinker for true thinking on his own account, the market will diminish for the wares of the sensualist and for sheer self-preservation he will have to strive to turn out better reading-matter.

The last phase of literary degradation has arrived, exactly as the deepest darkness usually precedes dawn. The so-called 'realistic' school of letters foists on us a presentation of the worst side of men's character, their worst indecencies and lowest aims, as the truth about human nature; and they scream, as they scream of the indignity of nature, that the truth and art are one.

That wail exposes their own falsity. As surely as that truth and art are one, depiction and delineation and description of the dignity of manhood are the first pre-requisites of art. The rebirth of the art of writing, though the midwives of the so-called realism scream however loud that their brain-child is nature's favorite, was heralded when first H. P. Blavatsky dared to come among us and reteach that fundamental principle of all art -- that life is spiritual evolution, aspiration, ever climbing upward, and the picture of degeneracy is not, never was and never can be worth a minute's spattering of pen and ink.

With dignity (of which two attributes are tolerance and humor) let the spiritual aspect of humanity become the theme of art, and soon there will be greater men than Shakespeare in our midst, because we shall be plowing up a field of thought in which the seeds of renaissance can grow.