“Then you are utterly alone,” said Gideon in amazement. “Are you not afraid?”
“No,” responded Julia stoutly. “I don’t see why I should be more afraid than you would be; I am weaker, of course, but when I found I must sleep alone in the house I bought a revolver wonderfully cheap, and made the man show me how to use it.”The Wrong Box - Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne (1889)
I don’t know how common this is, but every now and then I get a brief shock of recognition. It’s not easy to explain, so allow me to give an example.
I see an expensive car such as a high-end BMW turn into the supermarket. I would hardly ever give such a mundane event a thought because BMWs, even expensive BMWs are a common sight.
Every now and then though, I don’t see a BMW, but a fool. Not just a fool though – but a fool one should feel sympathy for. Not faux sympathy either, but genuine sympathy for a fellow sufferer hopelessly entangled in the human condition.
It’s very brief and not a reasoned reaction or coherent thought. It’s more like getting the point of a really funny gag. Something just clicks into place then life goes on. It’s not a flash of anger at how things are, but more like a peep into a well of infinite disembodied sadness. But it's not sadness either - just recognition. After all, many sad things aren't worth being sad about.
What fascinates me about these episodes is not so much the flash of recognition, but the way acceptance falls back into place afterwards. Life goes on and the foolishness of that BMW driver, although perfectly visible and known to all, stays just beyond the veil. Not even hidden really, but the veil seems necessary for life to go on.
It makes social criticism difficult to maintain because life can’t be one long flash of recognition. There are things that are wrong, things we could do much better, but life is comfortable and life must go on and anyway it’s pretty enjoyable most of the time.
So what has that got to do with the Robert Louis Stevenson quote above? Simple. I had one of those flashes of recognition when I read it. It couldn’t happen today. We are no longer anywhere near as dependent on our own resources as Julia. Life has changed - at least in the UK.
Wham! It hit me hard as soon as I read it – that well of infinite sadness. We are not what we could be. Far, far from it. But life goes on.