Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

1. Autocracy And War—1905
From the firing of the first shot on the banks of the Sha-ho, the fate of the great
battle of the Russo-Japanese war hung in the balance for more than a fortnight.
The famous three-day battles, for which history has reserved the recognition of
special pages, sink into insignificance before the struggles in Manchuria
engaging half a million men on fronts of sixty miles, struggles lasting for weeks,
flaming up fiercely and dying away from sheer exhaustion, to flame up again in
desperate persistence, and end--as we have seen them end more than once--not
from the victor obtaining a crushing advantage, but through the mortal weariness
of the combatants.
We have seen these things, though we have seen them only in the cold, silent,
colourless print of books and newspapers. In stigmatising the printed word as
cold, silent and colourless, I have no intention of putting a slight upon the fidelity
and the talents of men who have provided us with words to read about the battles
in Manchuria. I only wished to suggest that in the nature of things, the war in the
Far East has been made known to us, so far, in a grey reflection of its terrible
and monotonous phases of pain, death, sickness; a reflection seen in the
perspective of thousands of miles, in the dim atmosphere of official reticence,
through the veil of inadequate words. Inadequate, I say, because what had to be
reproduced is beyond the common experience of war, and our imagination,
luckily for our peace of mind, has remained a slumbering faculty, notwithstanding
the din of humanitarian talk and the real progress of humanitarian ideas. Direct
vision of the fact, or the stimulus of a great art, can alone make it turn and open
its eyes heavy with blessed sleep; and even there, as against the testimony of
the senses and the stirring up of emotion, that saving callousness which
reconciles us to the conditions of our existence, will assert itself under the guise
of assent to fatal necessity, or in the enthusiasm of a purely aesthetic admiration
of the rendering. In this age of knowledge our sympathetic imagination, to which
alone we can look for the ultimate triumph of concord and justice, remains
strangely impervious to information, however correctly and even picturesquely
conveyed. As to the vaunted eloquence of a serried array of figures, it has all the
futility of precision without force. It is the exploded superstition of enthusiastic
statisticians. An over-worked horse falling in front of our windows, a man writhing
under a cart-wheel in the streets awaken more genuine emotion, more horror,
pity, and indignation than the stream of reports, appalling in their monotony, of
tens of thousands of decaying bodies tainting the air of the Manchurian plains, of
other tens of thousands of maimed bodies groaning in ditches, crawling on the
frozen ground, filling the field hospitals; of the hundreds of thousands of survivors
no less pathetic and even more tragic in being left alive by fate to the wretched
exhaustion of their pitiful toil.