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Letter ReferenceKarl Pearson 840/4/3/17-21
ArchiveUniversity College London Library, Special Collections, UCL, London
Epistolary TypeLetter
Letter DateTuesday 7 July 1886
Address FromThe Convent, Harrow, London
Address To
Who ToKarl Pearson
Other VersionsRive 1987: 87-90
PermissionsPlease read before using or citing this transcription
The Project is grateful to University College London (UCL) and its Library Services for kindly allowing us to transcribe this Olive Schreiner letter, which is part of its Special Collections. The date has been written on this letter in an unknown hand. The name of the addressee is indicated by content and archival location.
1 The Convent
2 Tuesday night
4 I cannot enter into the whole question, only touch one point.
6 If the course of action which living creatures assume to avoid end
7pain, or discomfort or to avoid danger, & the feeling of satisfaction
8which results when this is successfully done be rightly defined by the
9word "Aesthetic" then you are quite right in saying that all the
10senses are as entirely aesthetic in their origin as in their final
11development. I do not know that I ever accurately defined the word
12aesthetic to my-self, but I think I never use it but in one sense. If
13I have tooth-ache & have my tooth drawn the sense of pleasure which I
14should experience when it was over would be extreme; but I should not
15call the action of having the trul tooth drawn nor the pleasure which
16succeeded it aesthetic. If a hungry cat catches a mouse & eats it, its
17enjoyment is intense, but I do not call it aesthetic. If I see that
18swing hanging outside & stretch out my hand to catch it, to prevent it
19from hitting my eye, I am very glad I have caught it, but my action &
20feeling, according to my definition, are not aesthetic. If I put
21chloroform in my mouth for the sake purely of the pleasant sensation,
22if a well-fed cat catches a mouse simply for the pleasure of catching
23it, if I stretch out my hand & rock the swing slowly to & fro for the
24pleasure of the restful motion, then I call these actions aesthetic.
25If I write a book because I am starving & want money I may feel great
26pleasure in doing it to get the fo money, but my action ^pleasure^ is
27not aesthetic; if I write it simple for the joy I have in writing &
28the joy it may give others, my work is aesthetic.
30 Further, if a man strives to attain to intellectual truth or knowledge
31for the hope of any ^material^ gain to himself, or because he
32philanthropically wants to lessen the sufferings of mankind, then his
33work is not aesthetic: if he strives after truth or knowledge simply
34for the infinite joy of holding it or that others may have the
35unreadable joy of holding it (this is the highest rarest, ^most complex^
36& most lately developed form of aestheticism, & one which is rarely or
37never found combined with strong development of the those lower forms
38of aestheticism such as regard taste smell, dress) then the strife is
39I think aesthetic. Shortly I would define the aesthetic to be that
40course of action which has for its aim simply joy, & not the removal
41or avoidance of pain. Am I justified in so using the word? (I put this
42as a real question?) ^Of course a large number of our actions are
43partly aesthetic, partly not.^
45 To me the word aesthetic never in itself implies either praise or
46blame. The most degraded type of the human creature I have known is
47also one of the most aesthetic. A man who will send a little child
48quivering & crying out of a room because she has on a dress whose
49colour does not please him, who will get up & leave a table because
50there is some dish that offends him; who holds it impossible that an
51ugly woman or a deformed man should ever be loved by a person of the
52opposite sex; such a man is so immersed in the lower forms of
53unreadable aesthetic feeling that one knows the higher must be forever
54shut off from him.
56 With regard to the sexual sense. (Is one right in calling it a sense?)
57There is little doubt that among the lower forms of animal life the
58sex union is undertaken simply as a means of relieving unpleasant
59sensations, analogous to those of hunger & thirst. Don’t you think
60so? With many higher carnivorous & domestic animals this I am sure is
61also the case: with certain as the horse, there is a certain slight
62slight aesthetic element. I know a strange case of affection between a
63mare & horse (though that might be simply brotherly feeling!) & they
64exercise choice. But it is among ^wild^ bird that the sex feeling seems
65to become really aesthetic. I have watched cock-o-veets ^playing^ for
66hours together in the bush at the Cape, rubbing their beaks together,
67singing before each other showing their feathers to eachother, dancing
68up who to rub their heads ^against^ each other when there were no birds
69near to act as rivals. Any one who could watch them & fail to see that
70it was entirely aesthetic, done only for mutual pleasure, must be a
71singularly bad observer. There is a reason which I think accounts for
72carnivorous & hard driven animals being unaesthetic & birds being so.
74 //You touched rightly on the false & weak point in what I said. I
75seemed to imply, & did imply, that the sex desire to produce children
76was in antithesis to with the aesthetic development. Of course that is
77nonsense. The desire to have offspring may or may not be aesthetic; it
78depends upon the cause of the feeling whether the sex ^desire^. The
79aesthetic or unaesthetic nature of the sex relation depends on the
80fact whether happiness intellectual or physical is the moving motive;
81where simply the avoidance of evil or removal of pain be the cause,
82according to my definition, it cannot be. It may the the "aesthetic" &
83be the infinitely low & repulsive if the creature’s idea of joy ^is^
84unintellectual, or perhaps high - but I think in this relation as in
85art & all other things
, the aesthetic with^out^ a firm basis of ^laid on^
86utility is of the nature of a disease & a decay; it is not an
87undeveloped, it is an effete condition - but I have not thought it out.
89 //Yes, I see often a danger to the race from the development of the
90aesthetic in sexual matters. I see it coming from two opposite sides.
91From the side which is represented by the prostitution of our large
92cities, the degradation of the sex functions from child producing to
93the moment’s sensuous pleasure; also I see it coming from the
94intellectual side. As the intellect plays increasingly a larger &
95larger part in our existence, unless we can keep the repro-ductive
96nature in close connection with it will we not less & less care to
97exercise it, will not vitality die away from it do we not already find
98with our own natures that our ^sex^ feeling might be entirely satisfied
99without the use of it. The mere pres-ence or, yet more mere mental
100contact with the nature desired completely satisfies. Will humanity at
101at last break out into one huge blossom of the brain - & die! Like one
102of those aloes, which which grow for three hundred years then break
103out into one large flower at the top of their stem, & die! It would be
104a beautiful death! - But ^I think^ I see reasons why neither form need
105be feared; except in ^our^ dark moments, when weakness makes dark
106possibilities lay hold of ^us^ as realities. Of late years these moments
107seldom come to me. It was however thinking out the first of these
108possibilities, (the extinction of the race through aimless sexual
109indulgence) that the thought struck me, that, sex relationships
110without the distinct aim of reproduction, which seemed to me at the
111moment the one thing we had to fight against & dread; was, possibly,
112not as much a degeneration as the final evolution of a universal law
113^working always^ in the evolution of the senses.
115 I should like to say something about what you say about touch, but I
116can’t now; it will soon be daylight.
118 //Some parts of your letter seem to me not with understanding of what
119I said. unreadable When I was talking of aesthetic development, & sex,
120I had no thought of individual natures, but, as I always do when I
121speak of sex, unless I define that I am speaking specially of the
122human race or of particular human individuals, I was looking at the
123whole series of sex developments from the first division of the sex
^reproductive organs^ into two in the lowest existences, right
125up to man. What I said had no bearing on my individual thought or
126feeling, ^or yours^ When you say – "I ought rather to have said
127intellectual pleasure is to me more real & exciting, hence I refuse to
128pursue that which is less worthy of me", &c. &c. I donot see that it
129quite bears on anything ^that^ I said. If I should speak personally I
130would say, that the lower aesthetic on others more physical pleasures
131are in direct antithesis to the higher intellectual which he who has
132tasted ^will^ never sell for the lower ^physical^. Y One can hardly say
133why it is; but so it is that all the pleasures of eating, drinking,
134dressing even living in richly furnished rooms, drag one down from the
135stronger pleasures. It is not asceticism it is the sense of the man
136who has drunk champagne & cannot return again to water that makes us
137crush down the physical pleasures & cling to the richer we know of.
138Living here in this empty room with its bare floor & walls, with the
139chunk of bread & butter & weak tea for breakfast and supper, & a
140scanty meal that a servant would despise in the middle of the day, one
141finds life beautiful & rich, not in spite of the senses being robbed,
142but because of it. Yet I never go out in the town without buying
143sweets or fruit for the nuns & children, it is right they should have
144the only pleasure that can reach them. So also with regard to the
145sexual pleasures, it may be right, it may be beautiful that other men
146& women should have them in their simply sensuous form; for me it
147would be death. What is all the joy that the ^touch of a^ man’s hand
148or life would give, compared to the touch of brain on brain. What do
149all the libertines in London what do all the good husbands & wives
150know of pleasure happiness compared with what I knew when I lay all
151night on the floor before the fire in Dordrecht. & read First
152Principles, & for the first time the whole theory of evolution which I
153had been feeling after in the dark burst in upon my sight! If the
154physical relation cannot be made subservient & ^helpful^ to the mental
155^life^ then by some of us it must be left for ever; it may be good for
156the majority of human beings but not for us. To me personally, it
157seems that the keenest sexual delight which a woman could know would
158be that perhaps the man would gain in physical strength, & through the
159body the mind gain a new power; that intellectual work before
160impossible might be done easily. that a man should say not "Now I love
161you so absorbingly, I have no other thought but you, I cannot leave
162you", but "Now for months I could shut myself up alone concentrated on
163my work - so strong I am".
165 To me sexual union to which there is no child born is like a statue
166^left^ unfinished. There is one form of ^sexual^ pleasure which a woman
167can have & not a man - it no doubt seems a very morbid one to you but
168to me it seems a very important one. unreadable It is the pleasure she
169has ^when she feels^ that by her suffering she is bringing something
170into another’s life that he could not have had without it; a larger
171experience of life
173^the relation of father to child, without which a man’s life does
174not seem to me quite complete. All I said about music you
175misunderstood. I think wilfully Karl Pearson, you make me justify my
176self; you you misjudge me so. ^
178 Olive Schreiner
180 It is quite light. I have put out my lamp. all the young rooks are
181singing in the big tree.
183 ^I wish you would define what you mean by the intellectual & the
184emotional. It seems to me very hard to draw a scientific line of
185demarcation between them. There are intellectual emotions just as
186there are unintellectual. I can’t see how you will do it. I have
187tried & failed. I’m going for a walk as soon as the old nun unlocks
188the front door.^
190 ^Please tell me about that woman on the staircase. For the last three
191weeks I have not done a stroke of work, that is the worst of
192"fantastic dreams". You can’t do them to order like dry thinking.
193What makes me feel more keenly remorseful is that I am in splendid
196 ^Please send Walden & paper to Mrs Walters Ashburman Rd Bedford^
The books referred to are: Herbert Spencer (1862) First Principles London: Williams & Norgate; Henry David Thoreau (1854) Walden; or Life in the Woods Boston: np. Rive's (1987) version of this letter has been misdated, omits part of the letter, and is also in a number of respects incorrect.