On Lying in Bed




Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience
if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.
This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic
apparatus on the premises. I think myself that the thing
might be managed with several pails of Aspinall and a broom.
Only if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way,
and laid on the colour in great washes, it might drip down again
on one's face in floods of rich and mingled colour like some
strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages.
I am afraid it would be necessary to stick to black and white
in this form of artistic composition. To that purpose, indeed,
the white ceiling would be of the greatest possible use; in fact,
it is the only use I think of a white ceiling being put to.

But for the beautiful experiment of lying in bed I might never have
discovered it. For years I have been looking for some blank spaces
in a modern house to draw on. Paper is much too small for any really
allegorical design; as Cyrano de Bergerac says, "Il me faut des géants."
But when I tried to find these fine clear spaces in the modern
rooms such as we all live in I was continually disappointed.
I found an endless pattern and complication of small objects
hung like a curtain of fine links between me and my desire.
I examined the walls; I found them to my surprise to be
already covered with wallpaper, and I found the wallpaper
to be already covered with uninteresting images, all bearing
a ridiculous resemblance to each other. I could not understand
why one arbitrary symbol (a symbol apparently entirely
devoid of any religious or philosophical significance)
should thus be sprinkled all over my nice walls like a sort
of small-pox. The Bible must be referring to wallpapers, I think,
when it says, "Use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do."
I found the Turkey carpet a mass of unmeaning colours,
rather like the Turkish Empire, or like the sweetmeat called
Turkish Delight. I do not exactly know what Turkish Delight
really is; but I suppose it is Macedonian Massacres.
Everywhere that I went forlornly, with my pencil or my paint brush,
I found that others had unaccountably been before me,
spoiling the walls, the curtains, and the furniture with their
childish and barbaric designs.

. . . . .

Nowhere did I find a really clear space for sketching until this occasion
when I prolonged beyond the proper limit the process of lying on my back
in bed. Then the light of that white heaven broke upon my vision,
that breadth of mere white which is indeed almost the definition
of Paradise, since it means purity and also means freedom.
But alas! like all heavens, now that it is seen it is found
to be unattainable; it looks more austere and more distant
than the blue sky outside the window. For my proposal to paint
on it with the bristly end of a broom has been discouraged--
never mind by whom; by a person debarred from all political rights--
and even my minor proposal to put the other end of the broom into
the kitchen fire and turn it to charcoal has not been conceded.
Yet I am certain that it was from persons in my position that all
the original inspiration came for covering the ceilings of palaces
and cathedrals with a riot of fallen angels or victorious gods.
I am sure that it was only because Michael Angelo was engaged
in the ancient and honourable occupation of lying in bed that
he ever realized how the roof of the Sistine Chapel might be made
into an awful imitation of a divine drama that could only be acted
in the heavens.

The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed
is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity
that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing
and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary
matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones,
at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality.
If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals,
it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered
more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics.
Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness
is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence.
A playwright can attack the institution of marriage so long
as he does not misrepresent the manners of society, and I have met
Ibsenite pessimists who thought it wrong to take beer but right
to take prussic acid. Especially this is so in matters of hygiene;
notably such matters as lying in bed. Instead of being regarded,
as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience
and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it
were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning.
It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing
good about it or bad about its opposite.

. . . . .

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed,
get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society
that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows
more fickle. A man's minor actions and arrangements ought to
be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable
are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true;
our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change.
Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions,
but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden,
sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top
of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles,
but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon.
This alarming growth of good habits really means a too great emphasis
on those virtues which mere custom can ensure, it means too little
emphasis on those virtues which custom can never quite ensure,
sudden and splendid virtues of inspired pity or of inspired candour.
If ever that abrupt appeal is made to us we may fail.
A man can get use to getting up at five o'clock in the morning.
A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions;
the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more
attention to these possibilities of the heroic and unexpected.
I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed
of an almost terrible virtue.

For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic
caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed
(like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done
in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales),
it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional.
But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this:
if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or
justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick.
But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse;
then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary
hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get
up a hypochondriac.



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