Friday, November 14, 2003

The Seventh Sense 

I have a paperback book in front of me; the edges of the pages are yellow and crisp with age, and falling out of the cover in handfuls. It cost a mere 75p nearly 30 years ago, and remains one of my favourite novels. There’s a bookmark in this passage, that I’ve returned to many times, both for its depth of insight and for its wonderful writing. The extract is a little long, but well worth the read if you have a couple of minutes.

“There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can’t teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically – she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. And then, when she finds she is beginning to hate her used body, she suddenly finds that she can do it. She can go on living – not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She no longer hopes to live by seeking the truth – if women ever do hope this – but continues henceforth under the guidance of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one – knowledge of the world.”

“The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy – this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognised without a cry. We only carry on with our famous knowledge of the world, riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do.”

“And at this stage we begin to forget that there ever was a time when we lacked the seventh sense. We begin to forget, as we go stolidly balancing along, that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life. It is hardly consoling to remember such a feeling, and so it deadens in our minds.”

“But there was a time when each of us stood naked before the world, confronting life as a serious problem with which we were intimately and passionately concerned. There was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. Obviously the existence or otherwise of a future life must be of the very first importance to somebody who is going to live her present one, because her manner of living it must hinge on the problem. There was a time when Free Love versus Catholic Morality was a question of as much importance to our hot bodies as if a pistol had been clapped to our heads.”

“Further back, there were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was, what we were ourselves.”

“All these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty. The seventh sense, indeed, slowly kills all the other ones, so that at last there is no trouble about the commandments. We cannot see any more, or feel, or hear about them. The bodies which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the inevitable grave, under the protection of our last sense. “Thank God for the aged,” sings the poet:”

“Thank God for the aged
And for age itself, and illness and the grave.
When we are old and ill, and particularly in the coffin,
It is no trouble to behave.”

“Guenever was twenty-two as she sat at her petit point and thought of Lancelot. She was not half-way to her coffin, not ill even, and she had only six senses. It is difficult to imagine her.”

“A chaos of the mind and body – a time for weeping at sunsets and at the glamour of moonlight – a confusion and profusion of beliefs and hopes, in God, in Truth, in Love and in Eternity – an ability to be transported by the beauty of physical objects – a heart to ache or swell – a joy so joyful and a sorrow so sorrowful that oceans could lie between them: then, as a counterpoise to these attractive feautures, outcrops of selfishness indecently exposed – restlessness or inability to settle down and stop bothering the middle-aged – pert argument on abstract subjects like Beauty, as if they were of any interest to the middle-aged – lack of experience as to when truth should be suppressed in deference to the middle-aged – general effervescence and nuisance and unfittingness to the set patterns of the seventh sense – these must have been some of Guenever’s characteristics at twenty-two, because they are everybody’s.”

From “The Once and Future King” by T H White

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