Wednesday, January 30, 2013


In a single eight page essay Robert Louis Stevenson set several of the hares in my brain to scampering. That's one of the things I like about essays, especially the essays of those of an earlier age who had the learning and the leisure to write them, and the indulgence of editors, and readers, of journals who appreciated wide-ranging explorations of lively minds.

This essay, published in 1878, is entitled somewhat alarmingly Aes Triplex. A footnote explains that this translates as "triple brass" and means, broadly speaking, boldness. The over-arching theme of the essay is to celebrate the art of living boldly. RLS scoffs at namby pamby stuff about being careful, watching your step, looking after yourself, not making mistakes. On the contrary, he rejoices in the fact that people build houses beside smouldering volcanoes and reminds us that simply occupying this planet means living dangerously because of the possibility of being blown to bits by another planet flying the other way.

He admires Dr Johnson who set to work on his Dictionary without wondering if he would be able to complete it, and who, in advanced age, set off on a walking tour of the Highlands, his heart "bound with triple brass". Thackeray and Dickens both died before they could finish works in progress. There is no excuse in Stevenson's mind for not doing something in case you couldn't finish it: "It is not only in finished undertakings that we ought to honour useful labour".

RLS would surely not have approved of how we now protect children from taking risks that would teach them how to cope with risk later. We need excitement and danger, and probably seek it more dangerously if we are prevented from meeting them as children. RLS admired people who climb mountains "roping over a peril" and hunters "riding merrily at a stiff fence".  He advocates a headlong rush at life, no peering anxiously ahead, no looking back, in order to cope with what the world flings at us.  People who do that, he thought, have a stronger love of living than those who fuss about what they eat and trudge dolefully round the block because doctors say they must for their health's sake. "It is better to live and be done with it," he writes, "than to die daily in the sickroom".

He would surely hate air-conditioning, that all-purpose air that keeps us comfortable but shelters us from the real air that blows and stings and keeps us aware. We need the bite of the wind to appreciate the warmth of the fire. An air-conditioned atmosphere would be, to Stevenson, to live in that "parlour with a regulated temperature" which he thought would be to "die a hundred times over".

It's time enough for the parlour with a regulated temperature when we're carted off to the retirement home.

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