On Reality In People by Richard King

Story type: Essay

My one great grievance against people in the mass is that they are so very seldom real. I don’t mean to say, of course, that you can walk through them like ghosts, or that, if they “gave you one straight from the shoulder,” you wouldn’t get a black eye. But what I mean is, that they are so very rarely their true selves; they so very rarely say what they think–or indeed think anything at all! They are so very rarely content to be merely human beings, and not some kind of walking-waxwork figure with a gramophone record inside them speaking the opinions which do not belong to them, but to some mysterious “authority” whom it is the correct thing to quote. Have you ever watched the eyes of friends talking together? I don’t mean friends who are real friends, friends with whom every thought is a thought shared–but the kind of familiar acquaintance who passes for a friend in polite society, and passes out of one’s life as little missed in reality as an arm-chair which has gone to be repaired. In their eyes there is rarely any “answering light”–just a cold, glassy kind of surface, which says nothing and is as unsympathetic and as unfamiliar as a holland blind. You can tell by their expression that, in spite of all their apparent air of friendly familiarity, they are merely talking for talking’s sake, merely being friendly for the sake of friendship; that, if they were never to see each other again, they would do so without one heartbreak. Perhaps I am unsociable, perhaps I am a bit of a misanthrope; but those kind of friends, those kind of people, bore me unutterably. I am only really happy in the society of bosom friends, or in the society of interesting strangers. The half-and-halves, the people who claim friendship because circumstances happened to have thrown you together fairly frequently–and one of us has a beautiful house and the other an excellent cook–these people press upon my spirit like a strait-waistcoat. I gabble the conventional small-talk of polite sociability, and I thank God when they are gone! They are called “friends,” but we have absolutely nothing in common–not even a disease!

So much polite conversation is merely “polite,” and can by no stretch of imagination be rightly called “conversation.” It consists for the most part in exaggerated complimentary remarks–which, it is hoped, will please you–or in one person waiting impatiently while the other person relates all he and his family have been doing until he, in his turn, can seize a momentary pause for breath to begin the whole recent history of his own affairs in detail. But neither of them is really at all interested in the story of the other’s doings–you can see that in their eyes, in the kind of fixed smile of simulated interest with which they listen, the while they furtively take note of the grey hair you are trying to hide, the shirt button which will leave its moorings if something isn’t done for it before long, the stain on your waistcoat denoting egg-for-breakfast and an early hurry–all the things, in fact, which really interest them to an extent and are far more thrilling anyway than the things you are telling them in so much thraldom on your own part and with so much gusto.

Some people are artificial through and through; it may be said of them that they are only really real when they are having a tooth pulled. But the majority of people only hide themselves behind a kind of crust of artificiality; beneath that crust they were real live men and women. And the war–thank God! (that is to say, if one ever can thank God for the war)–cracked that crust until it fell away, and was trampled under the feet of real men and women living real lives, honestly with themselves and vis-a-vis the world. That is one of the reasons why the war has made social life a so much more vital and interesting state. Of course, there are some people who still strive to revive the social life of “masks,” but they are the people whose crust of artificiality was only cracked–or rather chipped–by the horror and reality of war. War never really reached them, except through their stomachs and their motor cars, or perhaps in the excuse it gave them for flirting half-heartedly with some really useful human labour. They never went “over the top” in spirit, and their point of view still reeks of the point of view of the farthest back of the base. These people will be more real when they are dead than while they are alive–if you can understand my meaning? But thank Heaven! their ranks are thinned. They belong to the “back of beyond,” to the “frumps,” the “washouts,” and the “back numbers.”

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