[Conscious experience always produces feeling in the broad sense of that word. And occasionally feeling possesses—or it may be more accurate to say is infused with—a subtle and exquisite quality that, though not easy to define, is infinitely desirable. Everybody has had some experience of it, and there is nobody who doesn’t want it—perhaps more than anything else the world has to offer. Perhaps the best word for this quality is ‘life.’ In its vivid manifestations it is much rarer and more delightful than pleasure, and, unlike pleasure, one can’t imagine ever growing tired of it. If we were granted our choice among all the pleasures of the world, but on the condition that the chosen pleasure would never end, at the very least we would hesitate, and after reflection probably refuse. But who would refuse ‘life’ on such terms? For it transforms every experience so that it becomes precious to us, and, not infrequently, seems to impart to it an eternal significance.
Happiness and ‘life’ overlap, but they are not synonymous. Almost every experience that is infused with ‘life’ is a happy experience. But not every happy experience is infused with ‘life.’ For example, the sudden cessation of strong pain or fear, or the unexpected getting of one’s heart’s desire will certainly produce a feeling of happiness; however the quality that we described as ‘life’ may be almost entirely absent. We might say that ‘life’ has more existential depth than happiness. It certainly makes a deeper impression on the mind, for moments of happiness are easily forgotten, while moments when we felt totally alive often glow in memory and are a source of continuing happiness and illumination.
Scientific materialism doesn’t seem to have much to say about ‘life’ except, perhaps, to explain that, for reasons unknown, it is produced by a tiny—though still enormously large—subset of the set of bio-chemical states possible to the human organism. On the other hand religion, and Christianity in particular, has a great deal to say about ‘life.’ Perhaps it is this factor more than such obvious ones as the security of a loving heavenly father, or the promise of personal immortality, that accounts for the enduring power of religion. In a way, the claim made by Jesus of Nazareth to have the power to raise Himself and others from the dead is less sensational than His claim to be the source of ‘life.’ From the scientific point of view bodily resurrection would be more significant; but humanly speaking, what is the use of being raised from the dead if you’re still just existing and never feel alive? Doubtless that’s what a suicide would say if he were brought back. As Kent says to Edgar in King Lear: He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer.
Here are two positive illustrations of ‘life’ and one negative one (where deadness is vivid rather than life) that are taken from the autobiography of the late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. The occasions of the first two examples are a boyhood love, and a family reunion after a disillusioning journalist assignment in the USSR in the early thirties. The negative illustration was occasioned by Muggeridge’s years at Cambridge, a great national university and, in his day, a playground for the privileged.]
Now I fell in love for the first time. I happened to see Dora, a girl of about my own age, whose brother I vaguely knew, playing tennis on a public court, and instantaneously the whole of existence for me was concentrated on that one face, uniquely beautiful, as it seemed, and distinct from all other faces. At the same time, the scene itself in which I saw her was glorified and became angelic; as though the wire-netting of the court were golden mesh, the grass greener and softer than any grass ever before seen, the sound of the tennis ball against the racquets, and the laughter and shouts of the players, joyous and most wonderful. Whatever bodily stirrings accompanied these transports were merged and lost in this larger ecstasy, and I should have been outraged to think that what I felt could be reduced to the dimensions of schoolboy eroticism, with which, inevitably, I had become familiar. I was reminded quite recently of how deep-seated these feelings were when I happened by chance to see a schoolgirl wearing in her hat the same badge—an ivy leaf—as Dora had done, and found myself suddenly alerted, as though I were still constantly on the watch for it, just as I had been more than half a century before.
Montreux [a Swiss resort town] Station in the very early morning waiting for Kitty seemed about as far away from the USSR and Oumansky [the press censor], from Berlin and the storm-troopers out in the streets, as it was possible to be. The coffee so hot and fragrant, the rolls so crisp, the butter so creamy; the waiter so obliging, his hair so sleek and black, his face so sallow, his coat so fresh and spotlessly white. Everything and everyone so solid and so durable. Even Kitty’s train, roaring in exactly on time, was part of the omnipresent orderliness.
We extravagantly hired a car to take us to Rossiniere, where our chalet was, climbing up the still snow-covered valley under a blue sky and in bright sunshine. I took stock of our new son, very robust and hearty, and renewed my acquaintance with the older one. There we were, reunited, in the seemingly secure peace and security of the Canton de Vaud, with the rumblings of the wrath to come that I had unmistakably heard, well out of earshot. It was a moment of great happiness; as though, having found each other, we should never again be separated. As though, having found a blue sky, there would be no more grey ones; breathing in this fresh, clear mountain air, no more smog.
Such moments of happiness, looked back on, shine like beacons, lighting up past time, and making it glow with a great glory. Recollecting them, I want to jump up and shout aloud in gratitude at having been allowed to live in this world, sharing with all its creatures the blessed gift of life. Alienation is to be isolated and imprisoned in the tiny dark dungeon of the ego; happiness to find the world a home and mankind a family, to see our earth as a nest snugly perched in the universe, and all its creatures as fellow-participants in the warmth and security it offers. Its very components, the very twigs and mud of which it is made, likewise participating. Then, indeed, all the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour, infinity grasped in one’s hand. So, such moments of happiness comprehend a larger ecstasy, and our human loves reach out into the furthermost limits of time and space, and beyond, expressing the lovingness that is at the heart of all creation.
Cambridge, to me, was a place of infinite tedium; of afternoon walks in a damp, misty countryside; of idle days, and foolish vanities, and spurious enthusiasms. Even now when I go there, as my train steams into the station or my car reaches the outskirts, a sense of physical and mental inertia afflicts me. It was my father who tingled with excitement at the thought of my being at Cambridge; not me. It was he who used expressions like ‘my Alma Mater,’ or ‘sporting oak’; when he came to visit me at Cambridge he was thrilled by my rooms, the Union, dinner in hall, boating on the river; everything. If only he had gone to Cambridge instead of me! How hard he would have worked to get a first, whereas I did nothing and just managed to get a pass degree; how assiduous he would have been at the Union debates, whereas, though he paid for me to have a life subscription, I scarcely ever attended, and never once spoke. For me, the years at Cambridge were the most futile and dismal of my whole life.
How somehow second-rate it all was! Lawrence of Arabia, with many a scruffy acolyte sitting cross-legged and elfin among the unwashed-up crockery; his seemingly indestructible legend surviving every exposure of fraudulence and depravity. Lectures by Quiller-Couch, notes shaking in shaky hands. Wide checks and massive coloured tie to offset the gown and mortar-board. Or Old McTaggart muttering philosophically, and scattering anecdotes about himself with a lavish hand.
On the river—Give her ten! Or watching games and yelling. Or the university rag; requiring so little modification to become the university demo. Or just trudging to and fro on desolate afternoons. Then in the evening the chapel bell intruding into buttered toast, and sounding across the darkening court. The porter in his bowler pricking the names of those who attended evensong. Wearing a surplice; ‘Dearly beloved brethren,’ spoken down the nose with a sniff at the end of each sentence, ‘I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present...’ Then into hall for dinner. That smell always hanging about there of stale bread and old cheese! It must have got into the wood of the benches and tables. The clattering plates, the passing food, the Latin grace. Perhaps it all had a meaning once, but not for me. I found it as moribund as El Azhar, where the Mullahs chant monotonously and unintelligibly to a little circle of students dozing round them.