After I published “The Windmill or No Windmill Theory of Life . . . and Film” a few days ago, I got a call from a charming English gentleman. He told me he thought I was ”onto something.” However, he said, I had chosen the wrong name for my theory. I ought to call it the “Common Toad Theory of Life”
“Hmm,” I said. “I sort of like the windmill thing. It comes from George Orwell—“
“Yes, yes –quite,” said the caller. “But this is Orwell, too.”
“Really? Do tell.”
“Well, you see, it comes from an essay the old boy wrote. It’s called “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” In it Orwell describes the lifestyle of a common toad. He describes how the toad looks in the spring, when it emerges from its hole, after having slept through the entire winter: ‘At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent.’
“That’s rather a nice bit, though I suppose you Americans don’t understand the Anglo-Catholic comment. They went in for fasting and self-mortification, the Puseyites. But at any rate, Orwell goes on to describe all these lovely charming details about the male common toad — how he eats and swells up, how he gets to feeling a bit randy and couples with a female. And so on and so forth.
“Then Orwell asks a question:
‘Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually ‘sentimental’, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous. This is often backed up by the statement that a love of Nature is a foible of urbanized people who have no notion what Nature is really like. Those who really have to deal with the soil, so it is argued, do not love the soil, and do not take the faintest interest in birds or flowers, except from a strictly utilitarian point of view. To love the country one must live in the town, merely taking an occasional week-end ramble at the warmer times of year.
“May I read another paragraph or two?”
‘This last idea is demonstrably false. Medieval literature, for instance, including the popular ballads, is full of an almost Georgian enthusiasm for Nature, and the art of agricultural peoples such as the Chinese and Japanese centre always round trees, birds, flowers, rivers, mountains. The other idea seems to me to be wrong in a subtler way. Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves? If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.
‘At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
“Well, then; what do you think?”
“Yes, it’s not half bad, is it? And, as I was saying, I think it’s rather a more sensible outlook than Benjamin’s in Animal Farm. Old Benjamin is too pessimistic by a third. He seems to think no political scheme can ever do the slightest bit of good. That wasn’t Orwell’s view — and it’s not mine. Perhaps it shouldn’t be yours either. It’s not that nothing can ever come from a political scheme such as erecting a windmill. It’s rather that there ought always to be a space outside of politics. Life needn’t be all about windmills. It can be about toad-watching as well.”
“I quite agree. And films, too. Why can’t they be about toad watching?
“Yes, by all means. Let us have toads.”