Read CHAPTER XXXVI - STRULDBRUGS of Essays in Rebellion, free online book, by Henry W. Nevinson, on

What a fuss they make, proclaiming the secret of long life! We must stay abed till noon, they say; we must take life slowly and comfortably; we must avoid worry, live moderately, drink wine, smoke cigars, and read the Times. Yes; there is one who, in a letter to the Times, boasted his grandfather sustained life for a hundred and one years by reading all the leading and special articles of that paper; his father got to eighty-eight on the same diet; himself follows their footsteps on fare that is new every morning. Another writer has subscribed to the Times for sixty-seven years, and now is ninety-two on the strength of it. Avoid worry, fret not yourself because of evildoers, let not indignation lacerate your heart, take the sensible and solid view of things, read the Times, and you will surpass the Psalmist’s limit of threescore years and ten.

What a picture of beneficent comfort it calls up! The breakfast-room furniture fit to outlast the Pyramids, the maroon leather of deep armchairs, the marble clock ticking to half-past nine beneath the bronze figure with the scythe and hourglass, the boots set to warm upon the hearthrug, the crisp bacon sizzling gently beneath its silver cover, the pleasant wife murmuring gently behind the silver urn, the paper set beside the master’s plate. Isaiah knew not of such regimen, else he would not have cried that all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof as the flower of the field.

Others there are whom poverty precludes from silver, and the narrow estate of home from daily sustenance on the Times. Some study diuturnity upon two meals a day, or pursue old age by means of “unfired food,” Others devour roots by moonlight, or savagely dine upon a pocket of raw beans. These are intemperate on water, or bewail the touch of salt as sacrilege against the sacrifice of eggs. These grovel for nuts like the Hampshire hog, or impiously celebrate the fruitage by which man fell. Some cast away their coats, some their hosen, some their hats. They go barefoot but for sandals. They wander about in sheepskins and goatskins, eschewing flesh for their food, and vegetables for their clothing. They plunge distracted into boiling water. Shudderingly, they break the frosty Serpentine. They absorb the sun’s rays like pigeons upon the housetops, or shiver naked in suburban chambers that they may recover the barbaric tang. They walk through rivers fully clothed, and shake their vesture as a dog his coat; or are hydrophobic for their skins, fearing to wash lest they disturb essential oils. They shave their heads as a cure for baldness, or in gentle gardens emulate the raging lion’s mane. One dreads to miss his curdled milk by the fraction of a minute; another, at the semblance of a cold, puts off his supper for three weeks and a day. One calculates upon longevity by means of bare knees, another apprehends the approach of death through the orifice in the palm of a leather glove.

Of course, it is all right. Life is of inestimable value, and nothing can compensate a corpse for the loss of it. Falstaff knew that, and, like the Magpie Moth, wisely counterfeited death to avoid the irretrievable step of dying. Our prudent livers display an equal wisdom, not exactly counterfeiting death, but living gingerly living, as it were, at half-cock, lest life should go off suddenly with a flash and bang, leaving them nowhere. Of course, they are quite right. Life being pleasurable, it is well to spread it out as far as it will go. As to honour, the hoary head in itself is a crown of glory, and when a man reaches ninety, people will call him wonderful, though for ninety years he has been a fool. The objects of living are, for the most part, obscure and variable, and prudent livers may well ask why for the obscure and variable objects of life they should lose life itself Propter causas vivendi perdere vitam,” if we may reverse the old quotation.

So they are quite justified in eating the bread of carefulness, and no one who has known danger will condemn their solicitude for safely. But yet, in hearing of those devices, or perusing the Sour Milk Gazette and the Valetudinarian’s Handbook, somehow there come to my mind the words, “Insanitas Sanitutum, omnia Insanitas!” And suddenly the picture of those woeful islanders whom Gulliver discovered rises before me. For, as we remember, in the realm of Laputa, he found a certain number of both sexes (about eleven hundred) who were called Struldbrugs, or Immortals, because, being born with a certain spot over the left eyebrow, they were destined never to know the common visitation of death. We remember how Gulliver envied them, accounting them the happiest of human beings, since they had obtained in perpetuity the blessing of life, for which all men struggle so hard that whoever has one foot in the grave is sure to hold back the other as strongly as he can. But in the end, he concluded that their lot was not really enviable, seeing that increasing years only brought an increase of their dullness and incapacity:

“They were not only opinionative,” he writes, “peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affections, which never descended below their grandchildren. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed are the vices of the younger sort, and the deaths of the old. By reflecting on the former they find themselves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral they lament and repine that others have gone to a harbour of rest, to which they themselves never can hope to arrive.”

The explorer further discovered that, after the age of eighty, the marriages of the Struldbrugs were dissolved, because the law thought it a reasonable indulgence that those who were condemned, without any fault of their own, to a perpetual continuance in the world, should not have their misery doubled by the load of a wife; also that they could never amuse themselves with reading, because their memory would not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end; and after about two hundred years, they could not hold conversation with their neighbours, the mortals, because the language of the country was always upon the flux.

It is a pity that the laws of Laputa stringently forbade the export of Struldbrugs, else, Gulliver tells us, he would gladly have brought a couple to this country, to arm our people against the fear of death. Had he only done so, what a lot of letters to the Times, advertisements of patent medicines; and Eugenic discussions we should have been spared! If earthly immortality were known to be such a curse, we could more easily convince the most scrupulous devotee of health that old age was little better than immortality.

It is not, therefore, as though great age were such a catch that it should demand all these delicate manipulations of diet, sleep, rest-cures, health-resorts, scourings, and temperatures, for its attainment. How refreshing to escape from this hospital atmosphere into the free air, blowing whither it lists, and to fling oneself carelessly upon existence, as Sir George Birdwood, for instance, has done! He also wrote to the Times, but in a very different tone. Like another Gulliver, he pictured the calamity of millionaires living on till their heirs are senile. It is all nonsense, he said, to prescribe rules for life. One of his oldest friends drank a bottle of cognac a day, and, as for himself well, we know that he is eighty, has lived a varied and dangerous life in many lands, has written on carrots, chestnuts, carpets, art, scholarship, all manner of absorbing subjects, and yet he heartily survives:

“I attribute my senility let others say senectitude,” he shouts in his cheery way, “to a certain playful devilry of spirit, a ceaseless militancy, quite suffragettic, so that when I left the Indian Office on a bilked pension I swore by all the gods I would make up for it by living on ten years, instead of one, which was all an insurance society told me I was worth.”

That sounds the true note, blowing the horn of old forests and battles. “A playful devilry of spirit,” “a ceaseless militancy” how stirring to the stagnant lives of prudent regularity! “Lie in bed till noon-day!” he goes on; “I would rather be some monstrous flat-fish at the bottom of the Atlantic than accept human life on such terms.” Who in future will hear of rest-cures, retirements, retreats, nursings, comforts, and attention to health, without beholding in his mind that monstrous flat-fish, blind and deaf with age, rotting at ease upon the Atlantic slime? Life is not measured by the ticking of a clock, and it is no new thing to discover eternity in a minute. “I have not time to make money,” said the naturalist, Agassiz, when his friends advised some pecuniary advantage; and, in the same way, every really fortunate man says he has no time to bother about living. So soon as a human being does anything simply because he thinks it will “do him good,” and not for pleasure, interest, or service, he should withdraw from this present world as gracefully as he can. Of course, we all want to live, but even in death there can hardly be anything so very awful, since it is so common.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is not meat and drink.” “He that loses his life shall find it,” said one Teacher. “Live dangerously,” said another; and “Try to be killed” is still the best advice for a soldier who would rise. For life is to be measured by its intensity, and not by the tapping of a death-watch beetle. “I’ve lost my appetite. I can’t eat!” groaned the patient whom Carlyle knew. “My dear sir, that is not of the slightest consequence,” replied the good physician; and how wise are those scientists who deny to invalids the existence of their pain! Sir George Birdwood recalled the saying of Plato that attention to health is one of the greatest hindrances to life, and I vaguely remember Plato’s commendation of the working-man, who, in illness, just takes a dose, and if that doesn’t cure him, remarks, “If I must die, I must die,” and dies accordingly. That is how the working-man dies still; though sometimes he is now buoyed up by the thought of his funeral’s grandeur. “A certain playful devilry of spirit,” “a ceaseless militancy” for life or death those are the best regulations.