Man, we suspect, is the only animal capable of persuading himself that his hardships are medicine to the soul, of flattering himself into a conviction that some mortal spasm was a fortifying discipline.
Having just moved our household goods for the fourth time in four years, we now find ourself in the singular state of trying to believe that the horrors of the event have added to our supply of spiritual resignation. Well, let us see.
The brutal task of taking one’s home on trek is (we can argue) a stirring tonic, a kind of private rehearsal of the Last Judgment, when the sheep shall be divided from the shoats. What could be a more convincing reminder of the instability of man’s affairs than the harrowing upheaval of our cherished properties? Those dark angels, the moving men, how heartless they seem in their brisk and resolute dispassion–yet how exactly they prefigure the implacable sternness of the ultimate shepherds. A strange life is theirs, taking them day after day into the bosom of homes prostrated by the emigrating throe. Does this matter-of-fact bearing conceal an infinite tenderness, a pity that dare not show itself for fear of unmanly collapse? Are they secretly broken by the sight of the desolate nursery, the dismantled crib, the forgotten clockwork monkey lying in a corner of the cupboard where the helpless Urchin laid it with care before he and his smaller sister were deported, to be out of the way in the final storm? Does the o’ermastering pathos of a modest household turned inside out, its tender vitals displayed to the passing world, wring their breasts? Stoic men, if so, they well conceal their pangs.
They have one hopelessly at a disadvantage. In the interval that always elapses before the arrival of the second van, there is a little social chat and utterance of reminiscences. There is a lively snapping of matchheads on thumbnails, and seated at ease in the debris of the dismantled living room our friends will tell of the splendour of some households they have moved before. The thirty-eight barrels of gilt porcelain, the twenty cases of oil paintings, the satin-wood grand piano that their spines twinge to recall. Once our furnitures were moved by a crew of lusty athletes who had previously done the same for Mr. Ivy Lee, and while we sat in shamed silence we heard the tale of Mr. Lee’s noble possessions. Of what avail would it have been for us to protest that we love our stuff as much as Mr. Lee did his? No, we had a horrid impulse to cry apology, and beg them to hurl the things into the van anyhow, just to end the agony.
This interval of social chat being prolonged by the blizzard, the talk is likely to take a more ominous turn. We are told how, only last week, a sister van was hit by a train at a crossing and carried a hundred yards on the engine pilot. Two of the men were killed, though one of these lived from eleven o’clock Saturday morning until eleven o’clock Monday night. How, after hearing this, can one ask what happened to the furniture, even if one is indecent enough to think of it? Then one learns of another of the fleet, stalled in a drift on the way to Harrisburg, and hasn’t been heard from for forty-eight hours. Sitting in subdued silence, one remembers something about “moving accidents by flood and field,” and thanks fortune that these pitiful oddments are only going to a storage warehouse, not to be transported thence until the kindly season of spring.
But packing for storage instead of for moving implies subtler and more painful anguishes. Here indeed we have a tonic for the soul, for election must be made among one’s belongings: which are to be stored, and which to accompany? Take the subject of books for instance. Horrid hesitation: can we subsist for four or five months on nothing but the “Oxford Book of English Verse” and Boswell’s Johnson? Suppose we want to look up a quotation, in those late hours of the night when all really worthwhile reading is done? Our memory is knitted with a wide mesh. Suppose we want to be sure just what it was that Shakespeare said happened to him in his “sessions of sweet silent thought,” what are we going to do? We will have to fall back on the customary recourse of the minor poet–if you can’t remember one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, at least you can write one of your own instead. Speaking of literature, it is a curious thing that the essayists have so neglected this topic of moving. It would be pleasant to know how the good and the great have faced this peculiarly terrible crisis of domestic affairs. When the Bard himself moved back to Stratford after his years in London, what did he think about it? How did he get all his papers packed up, and did he, in mere weariness, destroy the half-done manuscripts of plays? Charles Lamb moved round London a good deal; did he never write of his experience? We like to think of Emerson: did he ever move, and if so, how did he behave when the fatal day came? Did he sit on a packing case and utter sepulchral aphorisms? Think of Lord Bacon and how he would have crystallized the matter in a phrase.