[Laura Riding composed this letter in 1937 to request a response from around four hundred people, of whom around one hundred replied. Out of these she selected sixty-five letters as appropriate to comment on in The World And Ourselves (1938), a book which formed the fourth of the Epilogue volumes.]
A personal letter, with a request for a reply
INTERNATIONAL affairs claim an increasing share of everyone’s attention. Even people who are not newspaper-readers by temperament wait anxiously between editions and weigh one newspaper report against another; few conversations take place that do not at some point touch upon international affairs.
This universal preoccupation has arisen from something more actual than forebodings of a new World War. It refers to what is now going on internationally, what has recently been going on; it denotes an immediate common unhappiness, not a spectacular common fear. The general feeling everywhere is: international affairs are too much with us, they are eating into our personal lives and labours, corroding our energies and private happiness.
What, properly, are international affairs? They represent a remote, outer traffic, the least significant kind of contact that may be between people. The profession which has in the past been responsible for such contact is diplomacy. It is the task of diplomacy to reduce these remote, outer affairs to a routine that does not interfere with the routine of national life. The routine of national life is itself an outer operation—when compared with the more intense, more personal course of private life. The profession which has in the past been responsible for public contact within the nation is politics. It is the task of politics to reduce the less personal, merely national affairs to a routine that does not interfere with life inside the houses. But now all the affairs outside the houses, both political and diplomatic have swollen into an indiscriminate monster distraction.
Yet we know that all these outside affairs are the less important ones; they are subsidiary to what goes on inside the houses; they are intended to serve the amenities of private life, and all the inner realities of the mind. We, the ‘inside’ people, have left all these matters to those who seemed functionally best equipped to act as outside people. And at a time when inside problems have reached a high degree of clarity and solution—when personal life and thought have developed to a high potentiality of happiness—we find ourselves continuously gainsaid and agitated by the outside mechanism.
What shall we do? Let us first consider who ‘we’ are—we, the ‘inside’ people. First of all, we are the women. Women are those of us who are most characteristically, most natively, ‘inside’ people. Our responsibility down the centuries has been the order of things inside the houses: the intricate well-being of personal life, its formation and maintenance. And with us, on the inside of things, we have had the poets and the painters and all those men who have been able to treat the outer mechanism of life as subsidiary to its inner realities—who have discovered the inside importances. We too, the women, have been discoverers; but we have also had to guard the inside importances, to keep them intact for discovery. We have grown increasingly articulate about these cherished things, but at the same time a strong female instinct of resistance to their externalization has been at work. For always the outside world, with its violent physical emphasis on the means of life, may become the unwitting enemy of the inside order of things, which is chiefly concerned with the ends of life.
What is wrong, and what shall we do about it—we, the women, and the men of inside sensibilities, and the inside selves in many outside persons which lean away from the outer realities toward the inner ones? The quality of the inside world—the world inside the houses and the minds—is, in the wide use of the word, female: concerned with ends rather than with means, with a final goodness of life rather than with physical instrumentalities for their own sake, the sake of the momentary excitement they give. The quality of the outside world—the world of political and diplomatic traffic—grows more and more harshly male, more and more inimical to the inner happiness which men and women have together formulated. The terms 'male' and 'female’ must be understood as representing no mere primitive opposition of sex to sex; but as defining two worlds of differing quality, in either of which men and women may jointly move and live. In the outer world the male quality naturally predominates; in the inner world, the female. It is not wrong that there should be this outer traffic, with its outer, predominantly male methods of organization. What is wrong is that the outer world should have become recklessly disconnected from the world of personal life and thought, should have broken its affiliations with those inner realities which are predominantly female in quality. International affairs give off a curious all-male odour. The beings who throng the diplomatic and political corridors seem to be of another race than those men, mature in female sensibilities, who are our familiars inside the houses, inside the intimate corridors of private thought and feeling.
A confused outer brutality envelops the inner hearth of life where we cultivate all that we know to be precious and true. We on the inside are not afraid, but we are unhappy: who dares to deny it? The danger is not to ourselves, but to the outside people. We are unhappy on their behalf, however happy on our own. They, these exclusively male-minded beings (with no small number of denatured women in their ranks), are somehow our responsibility. What are we going to do about them? The least serious aspect of the problem is that they have in their possession all the outer instrumentalities life. For we are sufficiently powerful to exercise what might be called a psychic control over these: the outer world may disconnect itself from the inner, but the inner world continues nevertheless to avail itself of the outer world as it has need. The really serious aspect of the problem has to do with them: what can we do about them, for them?
Can we rehumanize them by thrusting ourselves into the outer employments—we who have dedicated ourselves to the inner ones? I think that such translation from inner to outer employment results only in the dehumanization of the inner faculties—or, to use a more precise term, their decharacterization. The effect of political employment on the female character provides a clear example of the decharacterization that takes place when an inner mode of life is deserted for an outer mode. The professional woman politician tends to lose the peculiar inside virtue she has as a woman and to become commonplace and blank; and a similar loss of virtue occurs in a poet or any other person of inside sensibilities when such a translation of employment is made. Political and diplomatic employments—all outer employments, in fact—are intrinsically commonplace and blank. People with a special talent for outer employments may pursue them happily enough so long as they do not give them huge primary importance. But, when they do, the public corridors of life teem with fretful, blundering Napoleons; these are then dangerous dull haunts.
What shall we do—what shall they do? Can we make them stop? For that, surely, is the only remedy? To stop, to rest—it is not more outer emphasis that is needed, but less. The outer instrumentalities of life have grown too big, too self-serious. The outer problems are not the serious ones. They are sportive diversifications of the inner problems the extensive, mechanical intercourse of peoples, not intensive communication between persons joined in local intimacy; the remote, periodic exchange of the commodities of physical wellbeing, not sustained participation in mutually educative thought. Above all, the problems that we solemnly label ‘international affairs’ are not ‘intellectual’ problems. They consist of the crudest emotional situations—problems that demand only light, playful behaviour and response; the kind of response called intuition’, and popularly associated with women because women avoid protracting a situation rationally wherever a simple spontaneous response is possible. What can we do about these children of the outer world, in their pseudo-rationalistic, self-murderous contortions over problems that need no more for their solution than the moving round of the clock-hands—on the international clocks?
I have refrained from naming public persons, countries, parties, particular disasters or dire situations. It is not so much of the immediate victims of international unhappiness that I am here speaking as of the nature of the unhappiness. We are all victims in one way or another—suffering cannot be measured in terms of death or physical injury alone. And it is already a step toward an understanding of an unhappy state of affairs to suffer along with it.
I address this to you personally, and to a limited number of others, in the hope of receiving answers that will help us all to see with a more united vision what this unhappiness is that surrounds us, and to know better what we may unitedly do about it from the inside-if, indeed, there is anything to be done.