Letter of reply from Naomi Mitchison, March 9, 1937

March 9 [TLS carbon?, one side, single-spaced. Passages in italic below are omitted from The World and Ourselves, 1938 (pp.77-9)]

9th [March 1937]

Dear Laura Riding

This letter should, I think, be a P.S.to my first. From what you say now, I think I must have misunderstood your original letter. I can’t help thinking your phrasing is a little to blame for that! You see, your [constant] reference to “inside” activities is bound to have a certain connotation to people of my generation; it hooks on to the Lawrence words, and sounds to me as if it had definite sexual implications, and I took it in that way. I’m now not quite sure what it does mean, but probably something with which I am in much more sympathy.

Again, your reference to “the professional woman politician” as “common-place and blank”, and without this inside virtue, seemed designedly provocative. When I think of such women as Ellen Wilkinson in this country, to say nothing of dozens of minor women politicians whom I know, or of the socialist and communist women I worked with in Austria after the counter-revolution, I really don’t see what you mean. Or is it that you are thinking, not of that kind of politician at all, but of the “parlour pink”, the discusser and criticiser, who knows all the theory but in practice can’t talk naturally to a working woman? I think, from your letter, that perhaps they are the kind of politicians you are thinking of. I certainly have never been able to “elucidate the content of Marx’s Capital” as you were! You see, for me politics means a sharing and understanding of other people’s pain and oppression through an act of imaginative good will (or love) and after that a stirring of these people up to demand the life that has been denied them. It is an affair of contacts all the time.

Naturally all this is a means, though in itself rather a good thing to do. And the end? Well, there I differ from the good Marxist, who tends to say that the classless society is an end in itself. To my mind, the classless society, or the attainment of relative economic equality, is a necessary step before people can begin to have general good relationships with one another. These good relationships, constantly thwarted by capitalism, with the suspicion, jealousy and misunderstanding which goes with it, must be relationships of love, freedom, knowledge and acceptance, and they must be between individuals and other individuals or groups. At present we can only see our way very dimly towards them. It is probable that the ultimate relationship we are after is transcendent i.e., not to be got within human limitations, but why worry? We can get a long way towards it. Another generation must build on our work.

I wonder if this elucidates at all what I am after? Perhaps I tend to theorise about it too much, in the Scottish way. Practice is harder to talk about. One is constantly trying to “be good”, in your inside kind of way, probably, and breaking down, and perhaps sometimes succeeding. One sees that certain emotions or appetites are bad – stop one from being a good “inside” person, if I can make a guess at what you mean – that jealousy, self-pity, money-interest, pride, the wish for or attainment of power, jam one up inside the limited field of the self. One tries to get rid of them in various ways, partly rational, partly by acts of imaginative well-wishing, partly by external shocks; then one can get away from oneself into creative relationship, either with other people or with the material of art. But one does not always, or indeed often, succeed. Yet one must go on.

But I’m not sure if this is really what you want. It may sound like the worst kind of pseudo-Christianity. Words are wingless between one mind and another.

I’m sorry I thought you were Knoxville; they claimed you there – and someone was writing very good poetry in the middle of that odd town. And I’m glad you don’t dislike me.