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"THE SIMPLIFICATION OF LIFE:" A CHAPTER FROM EDWARD CARPENTER'S BOOK CALLED "ENGLAND'S IDEAL"
WHEN we remember the sincere reformers of the world, do we not always recall most gladly the simple men amongst them, Savonarola rather than Tolstoi, Gorky rather than Goethe, and would it not be difficult to associate this memory of individual effort for public good with consciously elegant surroundings. Could we, for instance, picture Savonarola with a life handicapped, perhaps, by eager pursuit of sartorial eccentricities, with a bias for elaborate cuisine and insistence upon unearned opulence, or the earning of luxury at the sacrifice of other's lives or happiness ? It does not somehow fit into the frame. In remembering those who have dedicated their lives to the benefit of their own lands, we inevitably picture them as men of simple ways, who have asked little and given much, who have freed their shoulders from the burdens of luxury, who have stripped off from their lives the tight inflexible bandages of unnecessary formalities, and who have thus been left free for those great essentials of honest existence, for courage, for unselfishness, for heroic purpose and, above all, for the clear vision which means the acceptance of that final good, honesty of purpose, without which there can be no real meaning in life.
Such right living and clear thinking cannot find abiding place except among those whose lives bring them back close to Nature's ways, those who are content to be clad simply and comfortably, to accept from life only just compensation for useful toil, who prefer to live much in the open, finding in the opportunity for labor the right to live; those who desire to rest from toil in homes built to meet their individual need of rest and peace and joy, homes which realize a personal standard of comfort and beauty; those who demand honesty in all expression from all friends, and who give in return sincerity and unselfishness, those who are fearless of sorrow, yet demand joy; those who rank work and rest as equal means of progress—in such lives only may we find the true regeneration for any nation, for only in such simplicity and sincerity can a nation develop a condition of permanent and properly equalized welfare.
By simplicity here is not meant any foolish whimsical eccentricity of dress or manner or architecture, colonized and made conspicuous by useless wealth, for eccentricity is but an expression of individual egotism and as such must inevitably be short-lived. And what our formal, artificial world of today needs is not more of this sort of eccentricity and egotism, but less; not more conscious posing for picturesque reform, but greater and quieter achievement along lines of fearless honesty; not less beauty, but infinitely more of a beauty that is real and lasting because it is born out of use and taste.
From generation to generation every nation has the privilege of nourishing men and women (but a few) who think and live thus sincerely and beautifully, and who so far as possible strive to impress upon their own generation the need of such sincerity and beauty in daily life. One of the rarest and most honest of these sincere personalities in modern life is Edward Carpenter, an Englishman who, though born to wealth and station, has stripped his life of superfluous social paraphernalia and stepped out of the clumsy burden of tradition, up (not down) to the life of the simple, common people, earning his living and that of his family as a cobbler (and a good one, too) and living in a peaceful fashion in a home planned and largely constructed by himself. His life and his work are with the people. He knows their point of view, he writes for them, lectures for them, and though a leader in modern thought in England and a man of genius, he is one with his daily associates in purpose and general scheme of existence. In all his present writings the common man and his relation to civilization, is Mr. Carpenter's theme, and he deals with the great problems of sociology in plain practical terms and with a straightforward thought born of that surest knowledge possible, experience. From the beginning of the endeavor of THE CRAFTSMAN to aid in the interests of better art, better work and a better and more reasonable way of living, the work of Edward Carpenter has been an inspiration and an ideal, born out of that sympathy of purpose which makes men of whatever nation brothers and comrades. We have from time to time in the magazine quoted from Mr. Carpenter's books at length, feeling that he was expressing our own ideal as no words of ours could, and particularly have we felt a oneness of purpose with him in his book called "England's Ideal," in which he publishes a chapter on the "Simplification of Life," which with its honesty, sincerity, its high courage and rare judgment should make clear the pathway for all of those among us who are honestly interested in readjusting life on a plane of greater usefulness and higher beauty. In this essay which we purpose here to quote at length, Mr. Carpenter begins by speaking of his own method of readjusting his life as follows:
"IF YOU do not want to be a vampire and a parasite upon others, the great question of practical life which everyone has to face, is how to carry it on with as little labor and effort as may be. No one wants to labor needlessly, and if you have to earn everything you spend, economy becomes a very personal question—not necessarily in the pinching sense, but merely as adaptation of means to the end. When I came some years ago to live with cottagers (earning say £50 to £60 a year) and share their life, I was surprised to find how little both in labor and expense their food cost them, who were doing far more work than I was, or indeed the generality of the people among whom I had been living. This led me to see that the somewhat luxurious mode of living I had been accustomed to was a mere waste, as far as adaptation to any useful end was concerned; and afterward I had decided that it had been a positive hindrance, for when I became habituated to a more simple life and diet, I found that a marked improvement took place in my powers both of mind and body.
"The difference arising from having a small piece of garden is very great, and makes one feel how important it is that every cottage should have a plot of ground attached. A rood of land (quarter acre) is sufficient to grow all potatoes and other vegetables and some fruit for the year's use, say for a family of five. Half an acre would be an ample allowance. Such a piece of land may easily be cultivated by anyone in the odd hours of regular work, and the saving is naturally large from not having to go to the shop for everything of this nature that is needed.
"Of course, the current mode of life is so greatly wasteful, and we have come to consider so many things as necessaries—whether in food, furniture, clothing or what not—which really bring us back next to no profit or pleasure compared with the labor spent upon them, that it is really difficult to know where the balance of true economy would stand if, so to speak, left to itself. All we can do is to take the existing mode of life in its simpler forms, somewhat as above, and work from that as a basis. For though the cottager's way of living, say in our rural districts or in the neighborhood of our large towns, is certainly superior to that of the well-to-do, that does not argue that it is not capable of improvement.
* * *
"NO DOUBT immense simplifications of our daily life are possible; but this does not seem to be a matter which has been much studied. Rather hitherto the tendency has been all the other way, and every additional ornament to the mantelpiece has been regarded as an acquisition and not as a nuisance; though one doesn't see any reason, in the nature of things, why it should be regarded as one more than the other. It cannot be too often remembered that every additional object in a house requires additional dusting, cleaning, repairing; and lucky you are if its requirements stop there. When you abandon a wholesome tile or stone floor for a Turkey carpet, you are setting out on a voyage of which you cannot see the end. The Turkey carpet makes the old furniture look uncomfortable, and calls for stuffed couches and armchairs; the couches and armchairs demand a walnut-wood table; the walnut-wood table requires polishing, and the polish bottles require shelves; the couches and armchairs have casters and springs, which give way and want mending; they have damask seats, which fade and must be covered; the chintz covers require washing, and when washed they call for antimacassars to keep them clean. The antimacassars require wool, and the wool requires knitting-needles, and the knitting-needles require a box, the box demands a side table to stand on and the side table involves more covers and casters—and so we go on. Meanwhile the carpet wears out and has to be supplemented by bits of drugget, or eked out with oilcloth, and beside the daily toil required to keep this mass of rubbish in order, we have every week or month, instead of the pleasant cleaning-day of old times, a terrible domestic convulsion and bouleversement of the household.
"It is said by those who have traveled in Arabia that the reason why there are so many religious enthusiasts in that country, is that in the extreme simplicity of the life and uniformity of the landscape there, heaven—in the form of the intense blue sky—seems close upon one. One may almost see God. But we moderns guard ourselves effectually against this danger. For beside the smoke pall which covers our towns, we raise in each household such a dust of trivialities that our attention is fairly absorbed, and if this screen subsides for a moment we are sure to have the daily paper up before our eyes so that if a chariot of fire were sent to fetch us, ten to one we should not see it.
"However, if this multiplying of the complexity of life is really grateful to some people, one cannot quarrel with them for pursuing it; and to many it appears to be so. When a sewing machine is introduced into a household the simple- minded husband thinks that, as it works ten times as quick as the hand, there will now be only a tenth part of the time spent by his wife and daughter in sewing that there was before. But he is ignorant of human nature. To his surprise he finds that there is no difference in the time. The difference is in the plaits and flounces—they put ten times as many on their dresses. Thus we see how little external reforms avail. If the desire for simplicity is not really present, no labor-saving appliances will make life simpler.
"As a rule all curtains, hangings, cloths and covers, which are not absolutely necessary, would be dispensed with. They all create dust and stiffness, and all entail trouble and recurring expense, and they all tempt the housekeeper to keep out the air and sunlight—two things of the last and most vital importance. I like a room which looks its best when the sun streams into it through wide open doors and windows. If the furnishing of it cannot stand this test—if it looks uncomfortable under the operation—you may be sure there is something unwholesome about it. As to the question of elegance or adornment, that may safely be left to itself. The studied effort to make interiors elegant has only ended—in what we see. After all, if things are in their places they will always look well. What, by common consent, is more graceful than a ship—the sails, the spars, the rigging, the lines of the hull ? Yet go on board and you will scarcely find one thing placed there for the purpose of adornment. An imperious necessity rules everything; this rope could have no other place than it has, nor could be less thick or thicker than it is; and it is, in fact, this necessity which makes the ship beautiful.
* * *
"WITH regard to clothing, as with furniture and the other things, it can be much simplified if one only desires it so. Probably, however, most people do not desire it, and of course they are right in keeping to the complications. Who knows but what there is some influence at work for some ulterior purpose which we do not guess, in causing us to artificialize our lives to the extraordinary extent we do in modern times ? Our ancestors wore woad, and it does not at first sight seem obvious why we should not do the same. Without, however, entering into the woad question, we may consider some ways in which clothing may be simplified without departing far from the existing standard. It seems to be generally admitted now that wool is the most suitable material as a rule. I find that a good woolen coat, such as is ordinarily worn, feels warmer when unlined than it does when a layer of silk or cotton is interposed between the woolen surface and the body. It is also lighter; thus in both ways the simplification is a gain. Another advantage is that it washes easier and better, and is at all times cleaner. No one who has had the curiosity to unpick the lining of a tailor-made coat that has been in wear a little time, will, I think, ever wish to have coats made on the same principle again. The rubbish he will find inside, the frettings and frayings of the cloth collected in little dirt-heaps up and down, the paddings of cotton wool, the odd lots of miscellaneous stuff used as backings, the quantity of canvas stiffening, the tags and paraphernalia connected with the pockets, bits of buckram inserted here and there to make the coat "sit" well—all these things will be a warning to him.
* * *
"And certainly, nowadays, many folk visibly are in their coffins. Only the head and hands are out, all the rest of the body clearly sickly with want of light and air, atrophied, stiff in the joints, strait-waistcoated, and partially mummied. Sometimes it seems to me that is the reason why, in our modern times, the curious intellect is so abnormally developed, the brain and the tongue waggle so, because these organs alone have a chance, the rest are shut out from heaven's light and air; the poor human heart grown feeble and weary in its isolation and imprisonment, the liver diseased and the lungs straitened down to mere sighs and conventional disconsolate sounds beneath their cerements.
"There are many other ways in which the details and labor of daily life may be advantageously reduced, which will occur to anyone who turns practical attention to the matter. For myself I confess to a great pleasure in witnessing the Economics of Life—and how seemingly nothing need be wasted; how the very stones that offend the spade in the garden become invaluable when footpaths have to be laid out or drains to be made. Hats that are past wear get cut up into strips for nailing creepers on the wall; the upper leathers of old shoes are useful for the same purpose. The under garment that is too far gone for mending is used for patching another less decrepit of its kind, then it is torn up into strips for bandages or what not; and when it has served its time thus it descends to floor washing, and is scrubbed out of life—useful to the end. When my coat has worn itself into an affectionate intimacy with my body, when it has served for Sunday best, and for week days, and got weather-stained out in the fields with the sun and rain—then faithful, it does not part from me, but getting itself cut up into shreds and patches descends to form a hearthrug for my feet. After that, when worn through, it goes into the kennel and keeps my dog warm, and so after lapse of years, retiring to the manure-heaps and passing out on to the land, returns to me in the form of potatoes for my dinner; or being pastured by my sheep, reappears upon their backs as the material of new clothing. Thus it remains a friend to all time, grateful to me for not having despised and thrown it away when it first got behind the fashions. And seeing we have been faithful to each other, my coat and I, for one round or life-period, I do not see why we should not renew our intimacy—in other metamorphoses—or why we should ever quite lose touch of each other through the aeons.
Excerpted from CRAFTSMAN HOMES by Gustav Stickley. Copyright © 1979 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted January 20, 2012