Kenneth Burke, Ch. 1 of Towards a Better Life

This page contains Ch. 1 of Kenneth Burke’s 1932 novel, Towards a Better Life. The text here is from the second edition.

Kenneth Burke,“My converse become a monologue,” Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations, 2nd ed. (1932; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966); originally published as “A Declamation,” The Dial 85 (August 1928), 121-25.


I. “My converse became a monologue”

General statement of the narrator's antinomian philosophy. And his corresponding discomf orts. Reference to a trip with a friend to whom these "epistles" are addressed. Concern with death (as the narrator meets a man "while travelling south alone"). Foreshadowing: thoughts on destitution. Attack upon friend to whom he is writing, and in whom he sees the lucky antithesis of himself. Close: statement of antinomian ars poetica.

I HAD become convinced that, by the exercise of the intelligence, life could be made much simpler and art correspondingly complex; that any intensity in living could be subdued beneath the melancholy of letters. And I tried to realize that we should all be saviours of mankind if we could, and would even slay one another for the privilege. I felt that the man who strove for dignity, nobility, and hon our should have his task made as difficult and as hazardous as possible, and that in particular he should be forgiven no lapses in style. The day was long since past when I drew moustaches on the pictures of pretty women, though I still warmed to find that a new generation had arisen to continue the tradition, to carry on the torch which we had handed down to them. When finding that people held the same views as I, I persuaded myself that I held them differently. And as for bravery: dead upon the fields of glory are millions who would

have feared to wear a hat in inappropriate season, so I judged that brave warriors were dirt cheap as compared with untimid civilians. We create new ills, I thought, and call it progress when we find the remedies. Yet I was not without wonder, the non-believer finding a legend of miracles itself a miracle.

On looking back upon one's own life, one may sometimes feel that every moment of it was devoted to discomfiture, marked by either pain or uncertainty, and he may worry lest this day be the very one on which he snaps under the burden and, if not talented at suicide, becomes insane. Yet it is possible that by a constant living with torment, we may grow immune to it, and disintegration will fall only upon those whom adversity can overwhelm as a surprise, making little headway against those others who would accept even prosperity with bitterness. For when I have heard much talk of the world's growing worse, I have known that this was indulged in by persons who had thought that it could grow better. And in any case, the belief in human virtue is no cause to neglect the beating of our children.

I finally came to hold that one cannot distinguish between friends and acquaintances—and from then

on, my converse became a monologue. I sought those who would listen, when I could not go without them, and did not scruple to avoid them if ever I became self-sufficient, believing that in these unnecessary moments they would be most likely to do me harm. It is obvious that I came by preference to talk most intimately with strangers, and to correspond with my friends on postcards. I discovered that in confessing a reprehensible act, I would sometimes add a still more reprehensible interpretation-and whereas I might forget my own judgments upon myself, those in whom I had confided would carefully store them against me.
Not as by accident, but rather as though some voice had called me, I would awake in the night, and thereafter there was no sleeping. Could vigilance, under these circumstances, be an advance retribution for some yet uncommitted act? Though not by earthquake, people are driven into the street, pawing at one another, gentle and even courteous when necessary, but in the absolute crude, direct, revolting-and it is this panic, or should I say this glacier movement, that must be considered. Did not we two go on a premature search of an already premature spring‹and did we not find the skunk cabbages well thrust up, and brooks temporarily cross-

ing the road from every field, while the same Eumenides still rode upon the shoulders of us both? Who, seeing us munch chocolate, would have thought us dangerous? As a precaution, we carried not pistols, but rum. Feeling our flasks against our moving legs, we were assured, aiming to protect ourselves less against the malignant bite of snakes than from the benign mordency of the season. Oh, tender psychopaths‹if you be young and one of us, and it is spring, you suffer beneath the triple proestrum of climacteric ("if you be young"), personality ("and one of us"), and calendar (that is, "spring"). I the while being condemned as an apologist; as though he who speaks were more goaded than he who must remain silent! We know there has been a major ill in every stage of the world's history, since we know that in no age were all men sovereigns- but one must sing, though it be but to praise God for his boils. And if I have invited death, calling upon death to take me, I likewise avoided traffic with agility.

Recently, while travelling south alone (and I cite you the episode as evidence of my newly discovered patience), I met a man who attracted me by the obvious disquietude of his movements. As he sat facing me, we were finally able to talk with each

other, though the conversation was an unsatisfactory one; for between long pauses, while both of us looked out the window, he would sigh and say, "Death is a strange thing," or "I should not fear to die," remarks which seemed to demand an answer as strongly as they precluded it. The real meaning of this, I came to understand in time, was that he was hurrying to a woman who was near death. After he had spoken at length, and in particular had talked with much penetration concerning suicide, at my suggestion we went to the back of the train, where he explained to me that he was religious, and believed firmly in the process of the Eucharist. Then, as we stood swaying with the car, and watching the tracks untwist beneath us, he said that he had prayed, and that he was sure this much of his prayer would be granted‹that he would arrive at the woman's bedside either while the life was yet in her, or before the animal heat had left the body. This, he insisted, would be solace. In circumstances like these, I answered, we may feel the divisions between us: for I could be certain from the way he spoke, that he had thought a great deal upon the matter, and that his preference was a strong one‹yet for my part, without the assistance of the death to sharpen my imagination, I did not see how he

could feel so niggardly a concession to be the answer to a prayer.

I talked with him further, asking him questions as though he had come from some strange region. And upon my enquiring as to what he feared most of the future, he answered: "Destitution. Destitution of finances, destitution of mind, destitution of love. The inability to retort. The need of possessing one's opposite in years, sex, and texture of the skin; and the knowledge that by this need one has been made repugnant. The replacing of independence by solitude." His reply, I said, suggested that he must be well versed in this gloomy lore. I was sure that had I instigated him further, he could have discoursed with authority on many aspects of fear and undemonstrative disaster, though every conclusion would have been drawn solely from the laboratory experiments of his own biography. With him, surely, each adversity would have its parallel in thought, its ideological equivalent, its sentence. And I knew that the world would hear no more of him. And God pity the man or the nation wise in proverbs, I told myself, for there is much misery and much error gone into the collecting of such a store.

Need one, his eyes shifting with humility, need one who is uneasy on finding himself in two mirrors,

need one whose pity of mankind is but the projection of his own plight, need such a one relinquish however little his anger with those who cross his interests! Would a gifted daisy, from thinking upon his crowded slum conditions in the fields, find thereby any less necessity for resisting the encroachments of a neighbour? We must learn to what extent our thoughts are consistent with our lives, and to what extent compensatory; to what extent ideals are a guide to behaviour, and to what extent they are behaviour itself. We would not deny the mind; but merely remember that as the corrective of wrong thinking is right thinking, the corrective of all thinking is the body.

You moralistic dog‹admitting a hierarchy in which you are subordinate, purely that you may have subordinates; licking the boots of a superior, that you may have yours in turn licked by an underling. Today I talk out to you anonymously, not because I should fear to tell you this to your face, but because my note of scorn would be lacking. And I would have you perceive the scorn even more than understand its logic, being more eager to let you know that I resent you than to let you know why I resent you. I would speak as a gargoyle would speak which, in times of storm, spouted forth words.

Further, I have many times changed my necktie to go in search of you and explain to you my resentment, meaning to give you at once an analysis of yourself and an awareness of my hatred-but when I found you, lo! we were companions, exchanging confidences, congratulating each other, and parting with an engagement for our next meeting. I have watched you each year come to consort more irresponsibly with God; I have seen you take on ritual dignity, as the impure take on ritual cleanliness by laving the hands or by spilling goat's blood with the relevant mummery. I have seen you grow brutal under a vocabulary of love. If you wanted to thieve, your code would expand to embrace the act of thieving. Feeling no need to drink, you will promptly despise a drunkard. Nor do you hesitate to adopt such attitudes. Yet be who flicks a weed unthinkingly is heinous, while a crime brewed in protracted spite is pardonable for the doer, had his equipment been directed otherwise, would have been capable of great pity.

It is true that you are absolved of guilt through your disinterest in these matters, where I am guilty through too much husbandry of my despite. That a stranger, asking us each about the other, would receive from you a kindly, regretful account of my

errors, and from me an explosion of venom against you, a credo of vindictiveness which would turn him from me in loathing. This third person, this "disinterested party" (and I already contemn him like yourself) would further think it significant against me that, for every item of good fortune which has been bestowed upon you, he may find in me a corresponding item of failure. But since even humility too consistently maintained becomes a boast, how could I expect otherwise than that my accusations against you should redound upon their author! Yes, I have shouted in still places that this aversion is beyond our clashing interests, that it is not rivalry, but ars poetica, and as such would necessarily entail rivalry as a subsidiary, but far subsidiary, aspect.

For all such reasons, and primarily because of my difficulty in finding such an account of my position as would serve also to justify me, I have been silent, until I can be silent no longer. I have waited, trusting that from somewhere would come a formula, which I could point to, saying: That figure is you, and I am this other. But despite much persistent praise of patience, I feel forced into a choice. And I have remained apart from you, that I might not be weakened by your good nature.
Yet there are times, in the very midst of such

preoccupations, when my retaliation is of a different order. Our unavowed conflicts, and even my recurrent melancholy memories, seem separated f rom me, as I find myself busily at work upon my utterance. I would, on such occasions, deem it enough to place antinomies upon the page, to add up that which is subtracted by another, to reduce every statement by some counter-claim to zero. Did each assertion endow with life, and each denial cause destruction, at the close the message would be nonexistent; but, by the nature of words, after this mutual cancellation is complete, the document remains.