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"The Idea of Self-Preservation Was as Jealously

Guarded from the Young as the Facts of Sex Had Been in Earlier Ages": One more quote from Rebecca West, writing about the English after World War I (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Epilogue, p. 1122, paragraph breaks added):

The sense of guilt which is born in every man, and is willing to operate without reasonable cause, had here abundant food, and for long we had been sick with masochism.... [Many Englishmen] had lost all sense that it is sometimes necessary to fight for one's life; and many children born in the decade after the Great War can never have heard a word from their parents and teachers which suggested that their country had or could have been actuated by any motive except stuipd and credulous jingoism in taking up arms in 1914.

The idea of self-preservation was as jealously guarded from the young as the facts of sex had been in earlier ages. Thus England ... put itself in a position of insecurity unique in history by raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of defending their nation was repugnant not so much by reason of the danger involved (though indeed they were now often instructed in fear as in other times boys had been instructed in courage) as because they could not believe it would in any circumstances be necessary.

Since every day Germany and Italy were formulating in more definite and vehement terms that they meant to vanquish and annihilate England, it was amazing that it should have been possible to enclose them in the magic sphere of this illusion. It would, of course, be comprehensible had they been drugged by sensual indulgence or grown careless of honour; bet never had the mass of the people been more sober, and law-abiding, and restrained, never had they been so anxious for honourable dealings between class and class and between nation and nation.

The fault was not decadence but the desire for holiness, the belief in sacrifice, and a willingness to serve as the butchered victim acceptable to God.

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44 Comments
Careful With That Inference:

Folks, I'm glad you like reading the blog, and find my posts worth closely scrutinizing -- but there really is no need to overread between the lines. A commenter on an earlier post writes:

What's with the literary quotes today? Employing the maxims of implicature, we can infer that Eugene is trying to convey some relevant message. The analogy seems to be that we Americans are too unwilling to defend ourselves today.

So, Professor: is the mssage "we should be cheering the latest illegal NSA program" or "we should invade Iran"?

The commenter, I'm afraid, is inferring what I am not implying. I started reading Rebecca West's chapter because I liked the "It was good to take up one's courage again" quote that someone had posted on another blog months ago; and it did seem linked to the posts about courage, which were in turn triggered by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali story. I blogged the first set of quotes because of the link to courage. I blogged the second quote because I ran across it in the same reading session, because it struck me as eloquent and moving, and because I am pretty interested in history. I had hoped that my readers would be moved by it as I was -- always a good reason, I think, to pass along quotes.

But if you absolutely must try to infer some deeper message -- and, I stress again, I'm flattered that you'd want to, but I don't see why you should -- consider the possibility that, contrary to the (often accurate) stereotype of Americans, not all of my messages are about Americans.

Perhaps the West quote is apt about certain aspects of European society today; we've all heard things said that suggest it might be. Or perhaps not. If you as a reader find that resonance, great. If not, you might just find the quote moving as a commentary on a trait that sometimes arises in human nature, for instance in the era or eras about which West was writing.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Careful With That Inference:
  2. "The Idea of Self-Preservation Was as Jealously
37 Comments