Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 3, Chapter 3

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book III; Chapter III
Henrik Pontoppidan4516224Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook III; Chapter III1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

He had purposely not prepared his address beforehand. He wanted to try for once to depend upon the inspiration of the moment, and use the words dictated by his heart—so as to avoid the stiff, artificial methods which, according to old models, he had accustomed himself to use in his carefully written sermons.

All the same he did not come unprepared. The subject on which he had chosen to speak, had, on the contrary, for some time occupied his mind to an extraordinary extent. He had made up his mind to follow the advice the weaver gave him at their first interview, and talk to them about himself. He would try to draw a rough sketch for them of the life of a town-bred child during its growth, and give an account of the impressions to which such a child was subjected, so as to show them the conditions of life and the influences which had operated on his own development, and which had at last brought him to the parting of the ways where he now stood.

He began by telling them a little story. It was the story of a young princess who was one day presented with a lovely flower by a lover. She was at first delighted with it, and was about to fasten it in her bosom. But when she discovered that the flower was no artificial imitation of nature, made of silk or painted feathers, but a real, living rose, she threw it aside angrily, and told her maid to sweep the ugly peasant's flower away at once.

This story, he said, seemed to him, applied to our times, to contain a deep and sad truth. In our time it was not alone the young, spoiled princess who thus scornfully rejected the flowers of life—no, the whole so-called modern culture, in its progress in the large towns, was an acknowledged struggle to corrupt God's earthly gifts, an arrogant attempt to change—or, as it was called—"to develope and improve" God's works on earth, and to create a universe according to the poor capacity of mankind. One had only to look at any of the large towns, or to think how people in the chief cities of the world herded together in hundreds of thousands like a new Tower of Babel, and did their best with coal dust, high houses, and tall chimneys to shut out God's sun and the fresh air—and one could not fail to see how the whole of this Society was built up in antagonism to Nature.

Or if one looked at persons—at these dressed-up ladies who, by means of all kinds of machines—"crinolines, corsets," or whatever the things were called—"improved" their appearance; if one looked at men, old and young, who got themselves up according to the latest Paris fashions, and by the help of pomades, wax, and hot irons robbed their hair and beards of every natural line. In fact, in great as in small things, one could not but notice this triumphant rebellion against the laws of nature.

Or if one went from the streets into the houses, and sought these people in their occupations, their recreations, their joys and their sorrows—everywhere one saw how modern civilization, in tearing mankind away from the ever youthful mother, Nature, had doomed them to a world of show and an existence of shams, which in the end they fancied to be the only true and real one. The tired workmen who in the evening sought the beershop to procure a moment's artificial pleasure by means of the glass; the young ladies who at dusk seated themselves at the piano to conjure up the spirit of moonlight, the roaring of waves, or the song of the lark within four walls; all those who, in the stifling heat and pestilent air of the theatre, shed tears over paid buffoons parodying human joys and sorrows among painted scenes; the "lover of Art," who best enjoyed the sight of a raging sea or a flowery meadow framed and glazed on his wall—were not all these like the princess who preferred the painted feather to the living, scented rose?

"And yet "—he continued—"this is only the least important outer side of the case. If we look deeper into modern life, if we look for the inner life behind this ugly mask—what do we see? We see humanity divided by a great gulf, which separates—not the good from the bad, not the honest from the dishonest, the children of God from the slaves of sin,—no, but the rich from the poor, the classes who live only for pleasure, from the needy and the suffering. On one side we have the masses toiling in poverty, on the other we have a chosen few living in idleness and profusion. Here—cold, darkness and ignorance reign; there—light, splendour and satiety. In this way the culture of to-day carries out Christ's law of brotherhood among men! Thus has it fulfilled the law, Love your neighbour! And the higher the state of culture in a community so much the wider the gulf; the louder the wails here, the bolder the licence there—until we, in the capitals, the so-called centres of culture, see the whole community in a wild state of moral dissolution, and hear voices from both sides melting into one vast uniform cry: the cry of the dying for air!"

He felt the need of making his point of view clear to his hearers at once; and a craving to confess openly the view of life which the solitude and self-absorption of the last few months had rooted in him. When he had once touched on his old subject of contention, he was urged on as if by a storm; the words surged to his lips with a fluency and ardour which surprised himself.

He felt perfectly well that it was the sting in Miss Ragnhild's words which cut him to the heart and inspired his passion,—and that it was her public challenge which called forth this veiled answer. To this was added the solemn silence around him, the long rows of strained listening faces. He did not feel here—as he did in church—any cold abyss between himself and his hearers. For the first time he felt the intoxication, which lies in seeing the thoughts of hundreds, held by the power of his words, the eyes of hundreds hanging on his lips. Going on in a lighter vein, he touched upon the restlessness of town life in all its forms; giving among other things a sketch of the long dinners, with course after course, and an endless variety of wines. Then he spoke of the style of conversation prevalent at these entertainments. He who had the power of handling every subject on heaven and earth in a light and joking manner was said to have conversational talent; and by this alone was a person's worth gauged in the social world. To speak seriously on serious subjects—to inquire into the ardent longings and the higher aspirations of men was considered unsuitable and pedantic. In like manner it was contrary to good form to speak of one's own purposes in life, our plans and hopes, though it was quite the thing to chatter glibly about the latest scandal, dress and theatres.

"In this fevered atmosphere, amid this devouring restlessness," he went on, "our young people grow up. Amid frivolity, arrogance, twaddle and hypocrisy they receive the first deep impressions which are of such enormous importance in their future life. There is so much to be pruned, bent, ground, and polished before a child from the Almighty's workshop can become a presentable member of Society. Look at our young men, the youths who are to be our leaders, teachers, and judges! Before they reach their twentieth year, most of them have given up every higher and nobler aspiration, and have thrown overboard all faith in the true and fruitful Powers of life. They have learnt that Society only requires from them an irreproachable exterior, correct behaviour, and a pleasant smile; that a well-starched shirt-front is the shield to make them invulnerable in the battle of life; and that well-dressed hair, good clothes, and a twirled moustache are the passports to a happy and brilliant future. 'A hopeful youth' is the one who most easily learns the hypocrisies of Society, while the 'Bête noire' of the family is he whose whole nature revolts against these dictates of Society, and who defends himself with hands and feet against the poison which both at home and at school is dropped into eyes and ears." He pulled himself up. He perceived that the bitter memories of his own home had got the mastery over him, and he required a moment's pause to recover himself. When he looked at his watch he discovered to his horror that the time had flown, he had spoken for an hour and a quarter. "We shall have to stop," he said with an apologetic smile; and although on all sides he was begged to continue, he decided to break off.

"No, I think it's best to stop now. In any case I could not finish to-day what I want to say to you. But if we can agree to meet here again on another Sunday, I will continue then."

"Yes, yes," was shouted from all sides.

"Very well, send a message to me, and I shall be at your service. I will only add now that whatever my position in the parish in future may be—and possibly a change will take place from to-day—I feel sure that when once we have learnt to know and understand one another, that our common life will be happy and blessed. If these hours can contribute to that end, my aims will be accomplished."

Bowing slightly, he left the rostrum.