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The Iniquity of Oblivion

A MAN I know is fond of asking the irritating question—and
in putting it he regards neither age nor sex, neither ancient
friendship nor the rawest nodding acquaintance—” Did you ever
forget an invitation to dinner ? ”

Of course the denial is prompt, passionate, and invariable.
There are few crimes of which one would not rather be accused
than this. He who cannot summon up the faintest blush at the
recollection of having once said ” Season,” when no money had
passed between him and the Railway Company whose guest he
was for the moment—of having under-stated his income for
purposes of taxation—or of having told his wife he was going
to church, and then furtively picked up a fishing-rod as he passed
through the hall—will colour angrily at the most innocent sugges-
tion of a single possible lapse of memory regarding an invitation
to dinner. But, none the less, every one finds it a little difficult
to meet the natural rejoinder : ” How do you know ? ”

Indeed, no other reply but painful silence is possible. To say,
” Because I do,” is natural enough, and frequently quite conclusive
of further argument ; still, it can hardly be called a reasoned
refutation. The fact is, you don’t know, and you cannot know.
Your conviction that you do is based, first, on some sort of idea


                        By Kenneth Grahame 193

that you are bound to recollect, sooner or later, anything that you
may have forgotten : an argument that only requires to be stated
to display its fallacy ; secondly, on a vague belief that a defection
of so flagrant a character must inevitably be brought home to you
by an incensed host or hostess—a theory that makes no allowance
for the blissful sense of injury and offended pride, the joy of brood-
ing over a wrong, which is one of the chief pleasures left to
humanity. No : one doesn’t know, and one can’t know : and the
past career of the most self-satisfied of us is doubtless littered with
the debris of forgotten invitations.

Of course invitations, being but a small part of life, and not—
as some would imply by their practice—its chief end, must be
taken to stand here for much besides. One has only to think of
the appalling amount of book-lore one has ” crammed ” in days
gone by, and of the pitiful fragments that survive, to realise that
facts, deeds, achievements, experiences numberless, may just as
well have been hurried along the dusty track to oblivion. And
once it has been fairly brought home to us that we have entirely
forgotten any one thing—why, the gate is open. It is clear we
may just as easily have forgotten hundreds.

This lamentable position of things was specially forced upon
me, some time ago, by a certain persistent dream that used to
wing its way to my bedside, not once or twice, but coming a
dozen times, and always (I felt sure at the time) from out the
Ivory Portal. First, there would be a sense of snugness, of
cushioned comfort, of home-coming. Next, a gradual awakening
to consciousness in a certain little room, very dear and familiar,
sequestered in some corner of the more populous and roaring part
of London : solitary, the world walled out, but full of a brooding
sense of peace and of possession. At times I would make my way
there, unerringly, through the wet and windy streets, climb the


                        194 The Iniquity of Oblivion

well-known staircase, open the ever-welcoming door. More often
I was there already, ensconced in the most comfortable chair in
the world, the lamp lit, the fire glowing ruddily. But always the
same feeling of a home-coming, of the world shut out, of the
ideal encasement. On the shelves were a few books— a very few
—but just the editions I had sighed for, the editions which refuse
to turn up, or which poverty glowers at on alien shelves. On the
walls were a print or two, a woodcut, an etching—not many.
Old loves, all of them, apparitions that had flashed across the field
of view in sale-rooms and vanished again in a blaze of three
figures ; but never possessed—until now. All was modest—O, so
very modest ! But all was my very own, and, what was more,
everything in that room was exactly right.

After three or four visits, the uncanniness of the repetition set
me thinking. Could it possibly be, that this was no dream at
all ? Had this chamber, perhaps, a real existence, and was I all the
time leading, somewhere, another life—a life within a life—a life
that I constantly forgot, within the life that I happened to
remember ? I tried my best to bring the thing to absolute proof.
First, there was that frequent sense of extreme physical weariness
with which I was wont to confront the inevitable up-rising of the
morning—might not that afford a clue ? Alas, no : I traced my
mornings back, far behind the beginnings of the dream. I could
not remember a day, since those rare white ones at school when
it was a whole holiday, and summer was boon and young, when I
had faced the problem of getting up with anything but a full
sense of disgust. Next I thought, I will consult my accounts.
Rooms must be paid for in London, however modest they may be ;
and the blessed figures can’t lie. Then I recollected that I did
not keep any accounts—never had kept any accounts—never in-
tended to keep any beastly accounts—and, on the whole, I confess

                                                I was

                        By Kenneth Grahame 195

I was rather glad. Statistics would have been a mean prosaic way
of plucking out the heart of this mystery. My only chance
seemed to lie in coming across the place by accident. Then
perhaps the extinguished torch would re-kindle, the darkened garret
of memory would be re-illumed, and it would be in my power at
last to handle those rare editions, not capriciously as now, but at
any hour I pleased. So I haunted Gray’s Inn, Staple Inn,
Clifford’s Inn ; hung about by-streets in Bloomsbury, even back-
waters in Chelsea ; but all to no result. It waits, that sequestered
chamber, it waits for the serene moment when the brain is in just
the apt condition, and ready to switch on the other memory even
as one switches on the electric light with a turn of the wrist.
Fantasy ? well— perhaps. But the worst of it is, one never can feel
quite sure. Only a dream, of course. And yet—the enchanting
possibility !

And this possibility, which (one feels convinced) the
wilful brain could make reality in a moment if it were only
in the right humour, might be easily brought about by some
accidental physical cause, some touch, scent, sound, gifted with
the magic power of recall. Could my ringers but pass over the
smooth surface of those oak balustrades so familiar to me, in a trice
I would stand at the enchanted door. Could I even see in some
casual shop-window one of those prints my other existence hoards
so safe and sure—but that is unlikely indeed. Those prints of
the dim land of dreams, ” they never are sold in the merchant’s
mart ! ” Still, if one were only to turn up, in twopenny box or
dusty portfolio, down in Southwark, off the roaring Strand, or
somewhere along the quaint unclassified Brompton Road, in a
flash the darkness would be day, the crooked would be made
straight, and no policeman would be called upon to point out the
joyous way.


                        The Iniquity of Oblivion 196

If I have special faith in this sort of divining-rod, it is because
of a certain strange case I once encountered and never quite
elucidated. There was a certain man, respectable enough in
every particular ; wore drab spats all the year round, lived in a
suburb, and did daily business on the ” Baltic.” When the
weather was fine, and a halcyon calm brooded o’er the surface of
the Baltic, instead of taking his suburban train at Cannon Street,
he used to walk as far as Charing Cross : and before departing, if
time allowed, he would turn into the National Gallery. Of a
catholic mind, for he had never strayed down the tortuous byways
of Art, he only went in to be amused, and was prepared to take
his entertainment from all schools alike, without any of the
narrow preferences of the cultured. From the very first, how-
ever, the Early Tuscans gripped him with a strange fascination,
so that he rarely penetrated any further. What it was precisely
that so detained him could never be ascertained. The man was
not apt in the expression of subtle emotion, and never succeeded
in defining the strong ” possession “—for such it seemed to be—
by which he was caught and held. The next phase in the case
was, that he took to disappearing. He disappeared literally and
absolutely—sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a fortnight
or more ; and on his return could tell nothing, explain nothing.
Indeed, he did not seem to be really conscious of any absence. It
was noted in time that his disappearances always coincided with
his visits to the National Gallery. Thither he could be tracked ;
there all trace of him would cease. His female relations—an
unimaginative, uneducated crew—surmised the unkindest things
in their narrow way. Still, even they found it difficult to fling a
stone at the Early Tuscans. For myself, I like to think that
there was some bit of another life hidden away in him—some
tranced memory of another far-away existence on Apennine slopes


                        By Kenneth Grahame 197

—which some quality in these pictures, and in these alone, had
power to evoke. And I love to think that, transformed by
this magic touch back into the other man of him, he passed,
dream-possessed, forth from the portico, through Trafalgar Square,
and into Charing Cross Station. That there, oblivious of all
suburbs, he purchased one of those little books of coupons so
much more romantic than your vulgar inland slip of pasteboard,
and in due course sped Southwards—irresistibly drawn,—took the
Alps in a series of whorls, burrowings, and breathless flights o’er
torrent and fall—till he basked at last, still speeding South, in
the full sunlight that steeps the Lombard plain. Arrived in time,
where his destiny (which was also his past) awaited him, I could
see him, avoiding clamour of piazza, shunning prim airlessness of
Galleria and Accademia, climbing the white road to where, in some
little village or red-tiled convent, lurked the creation, madonna or
saint, that held the other end of the subtle thread. The boy-
lover, had he been, of this prim-tressed model ? Or the St.
George or homely St. Roch who guarded her ? Or himself
the very painter ? Whatever the bond, here I could imagine him to
linger, steeping his soul in the picture and in the surroundings so
native both to it and to the man whose life for a brief minute he
lived again, till such time as that sullen devil within him—the
later memory of the man he also was— began to stir drowsily and
to urge him homewards, even as the other had urged him out.
Once back, old sights and sounds would develop the later man
into full being and consciousness, and as before he would tread
the floor of the Baltic, while oblivion swallowed the Tuscan
existence—until the next time !

These instances, it is true, are but “sports” in oblivion-lore.
But, putting aside such puzzle-fragments of memory, it is im-
possible not to realise, in sad seriousness, that of all our recollection


                        198 The Iniquity of Oblivion

has once held, by far the larger part must be by this time in the
realm of the forgot ; and that every day some fresh delightful
little entity pales, sickens, and passes over to the majority. Sir
Thomas Browne has quaintly written concerning the first days of
the young world, ” when the living might exceed the dead, and to
depart this world could not be properly said, to go unto the
greater number”; but in these days of crowded thought, of the
mind cultured and sensitised to receive such a swarm of impres-
sions, no memory that sighs its life out but joins a host far exceed-
ing what it leaves behind. ‘Tis but a scanty wallet that each of
us carries at his back. Few, indeed, and of a sorry mintage,
the thin coins that jingle therein. Our gold, lightly won, has been
as lightly scattered, along waysides left far behind. Oblivion,
slowly but surely stalking us, gathers it with a full arm, and
on the floor of his vast treasure-house stacks it in shining piles.

And if it is the larger part that has passed from us, why not
also the better part ? Indeed, logic almost requires it ; for to
select and eliminate, to hold fast and let go at will, is not given to
us. As we jog along life’s highroad, the knowledge of this
inability dogs each conscious enjoyment, till with every pleasant
experience comes also the annoying reflection, that it is a sheer
toss-up whether this is going to be a gain, a solid profit to carry
along with us, or fairy gold that shall turn to dust and nothing-
ness in a few short mornings at best. As we realise our helpless-
ness in the matter, we are almost ready to stamp and to swear.
Will no one discover the chemical which shall fix the fleeting
hue ? That other recollection, now—that humiliating, that dis-
gusting experience often years ago—that is safe enough, permanent,
indestructible, warranted not to fade. If in this rag-fair we were
only allowed to exchange and barter, to pick and choose !
Oblivion, looking on, smiles grimly. It is he that shall select,


                        By Kenneth Grahame 199

not we ; our part is but to look on helplessly, while—though he
may condescend to leave us a pearl or two—the bulk of our jewels
is swept into his pocket.

One hope alone remains to us, by way of consolation. These
memories whose passing we lament, they are torpid only, not
dead. They lie in a charmed sleep, whence a chance may awaken
them, a touch make the dry bones live ; though at present we
know not the waking spell. Like Arthur, they have not
perished, but only passed, and like him they may come again
from the Avalon where they slumber. The chance is small,
indeed. But the Merlin who controls these particular brain-cells,
fitful and capricious though he be, after the manner of magicians,
has powers to which we dare not assign limits. At any moment
the stop may be pulled out, the switch pressed, the key turned,
the Princess kissed. Then shall the spell-bound spring to life, the
floodgates rise, the baked arid canals gleam with the silver tide ;
and once more we shall be fulfilled of the old joys, the old thrills,
the old tears and laughter.

Better still—perhaps best of all—as those joyous old memories,
hale and fresh once more, troop out of the catacombs into the
light, these insistent ones of the present, this sullen host that be-
leaguers us day and night with such threatening obsession, may
vanish, may pass, may flee away utterly, gone in their turn to
lodge with Oblivion—and a good riddance !

The Yellow Book—Vol. VII. M

MLA citation:

Grahame, Kenneth. “The Iniquity of Oblivion.” The Yellow Book, vol. 7, October 1895, pp. 192-199. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.