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The Dance of Life

Havelock Ellis

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
This book was planned many years ago. As to the idea running through it, I cannot say when that arose. My feeling is, it was born with me. On reflection, indeed, it seems possible the seeds fell imperceptibly in youth—from F. A. Lange, maybe, and other sources—to germinate unseen in a congenial soil. However that may be, the idea underlies much that I have written. Even the present book began to be written, and to be published in a preliminary form, more than fifteen years ago. Perhaps I may be allowed to seek consolation for my slowness, however vainly, in the saying of Rodin that “slowness is beauty,” and certainly it is the slowest dances that have been to me most beautiful to see, while, in the dance of life, the achievement of a civilisation in beauty seems to be inversely to the rapidity of its pace. Moreover, the book remains incomplete, not merely in the sense that I would desire still to be changing and adding to each chapter, but even incomplete by the absence of many chapters for which I had gathered material, and twenty years ago should have been surprised to find missing. For there are many arts, not among those we conventionally call “fine,” which seem to me fundamental for living. But now I put forth the book as it stands, deliberately, without remorse, well content so to do. Once that would not have been possible. A book must be completed as it had been originally planned, finished, rounded, polished. As a man grows older his ideals change. Thoroughness is often an admirable ideal. But it is an ideal to be adopted with discrimination, having due reference to the nature of the work in hand. An artist, it seems to me now, has not always to finish his work in every detail; by not doing so he may succeed in making the spectator his co-worker, and put into his hands the tool to carry on the work which, as it lies before him, beneath its veil of yet partly unworked material, still stretches into infinity. Where there is most labour there is not always most life, and by doing less, provided only he has known how to do well, the artist may achieve more. He will not, I hope, achieve complete consistency. In fact a part of the method of such a book as this, written over a long period of years, is to reveal a continual slight inconsistency. That is not an evil, but rather the avoidance of an evil. We cannot remain consistent with the world save by growing inconsistent with our own past selves. The man who consistently—as he fondly supposes “logically”—clings to an unchanging opinion is suspended from a hook which has ceased to exist. “I thought it was she, and she thought it was me, and when we come near it weren’t neither one of us”—that metaphysical statement holds, with a touch of exaggeration, a truth we must always bear in mind concerning the relation of subject and object. They can neither of them possess consistency; they have both changed before they come up with one another. Not that such inconsistency is a random flux or a shallow opportunism. We change, and the world changes, in accordance with the underlying organisation, and inconsistency, so conditioned by truth to the whole, becomes the higher consistency of life. I am therefore able to recognise and accept the fact that, again and again in this book, I have come up against what, superficially regarded, seemed to be the same fact, and each time have brought back a slightly different report, for it had changed and I had changed. The world is various, of infinite iridescent aspect, and until I attain to a correspondingly infinite variety of statement I remain far from anything that could in any sense be described as “truth.” We only see a great opal that never looks the same this time as when we looked last time. “He never painted to-day quite the same as he had painted yesterday,” Elie Faure says of Renoir, and it seems to me natural and right that it should have been so.