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Two Centuries of Progress

Dreamed 1938-9 by Edwin Muir

SOURCE: The Story and the Fable by Edwin Muir (1940). He grew up on the island of Wyre in the remote, timeless Orkney Islands off Scotland. By 16 he was an orphan in Glasgow. These four passages (two dreams, two not) are much later, from 1938-39, when he and his wife Willa were living in Prague. The titles are mine. --Chris Wayan


Another dream: I can remember only a little of it. A film about the life of Zola is coming to the picture-house here shortly, and in my dream I was discussing it with some one. While I was speaking I suddenly realized with intense lucidity that art is the creation of order out of chaos. On some stage or other, where I don't know, I saw things moving into their places, though what the things were I could not clearly tell; it did not seem to matter. When the movement ended (it did not take long) there was arrangement and order. The emotion is almost all that remains of the dream: an emotion of power, freedom, and harmony. The change seemed simple and obvious, and yet brought about a great transformation. The final result was somewhat like a set stage scene, but the properties were living things, including trees and human beings: the whole change seemed to take place in a wood. I thought of the Word which was in the beginning, and this seemed to be merely an imitation or rehearsal of it...


The other dream is sordid. I was in a pub with some clamorous, hearty men who looked like racing men. They were discussing Christ in irritable voices, as if they knew him personally and could not decide what to make of him. At last one of them said, "Well, at least you can bash in his face for him," and this seemed to be an original thought, a solution.

Then Christ was there. He was a thin-faced man with an unhealthy, hectic-red complexion. He had on a shabby waterproof, and was wearing eyeglasses, which for some reason gave him a pedantic, opinionated expression. A huge clenched fist came out and struck him in the middle of the face, breaking his glasses: the hand was so huge that it covered most of his face. What can one make of such a dream?


Yesterday Hitler marched into Prague, and he is installed now in the Hrad'cany. The Prague policemen keeping order with tears running down their cheeks. I have read the newspapers until I am tired out. I do not know what to think of Chamberlain's speech. Willa said, "Britain's only policy is to keep the Stock Exchange going."

The nineteenth century sowed the whirlwind that we are reaping. Think of all the native tribes and peoples, all the simple indigenous forms of life which Britain trampled upon, corrupted, destroyed, during that time in the name of commercial progress. All these things, once valuable, once human, are now dead and rotten. The nineteenth century thought that machinery was a moral force and would make men better. How could the steam-engine make men better? Hitler marching into Prague is connected with all this. If I look back over the last hundred years it seems to me that we have lost more than we have gained, that what we have lost was valuable, and that what we have gained is trifling, for what we have lost was old and what we have gained is merely new. The world might have settled down into a passable Utopia by now if it had not been for 'progress.'


I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days' journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time.

Every summer, during my two weeks' holiday, I travelled back that hundred and fifty years again. What a relief it was to get back to the pre-industrial world, and how much better everything was arranged there! And even in Glasgow I could make little excursions into it on Saturday afternoon and Sunday by taking a walk in the country. On these walks I often met other Glasgow people doing the same thing. They thought they were 'nature-lovers,' but what really drew them into the country was a personal or racial memory of a protective order which had existed before the modern chaos came upon us...

I was brought up in the midst of a life which was still co-operative, which had still the medieval communal feeling. We had heard and read of something called "competition," but it never came into our experience. Our life was an order. Since the Industrial Revolution there has not really been an order except in a few remote places; for competition is the principle of anarchy. The hiker flying from that anarchy to 'nature' is really, without knowing it, looking for an order. But he will have to look elsewhere for it now.

This is the point I have reached, after starting two hundred years ago; and with that I bring myself up to date. I do not think there is anything admirable in being up to date, apart from the fact that it is necessary. And to be born outside your age and have to catch up with it and fit into it is a strain. Yet I would not for any price have missed my knowledge of that first pre-industrial order; for it taught me something which is inherent in every good order.

LISTS AND LINKS: bars, cafes, pubs and clubs - Jesus - violence - Tales of the Waking World - war - Hitler - time-travel - essays and rants - sociology - economics and capitalism - 3 pre-industrial co-operative utopias: Serrana, Lyr, Tharn - (I also recommend Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge) - more Edwin Muir - Prague - Orkney Is. -

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