AS THE SPARKS FLY
In my early teens, at boarding school in England, I cut out the word SOPHROSUNE in Greek letters on my pencil box. Why, I cannot now imagine, since this precept, usually translated as meaning moderation, or nothing in excess, was alien to my temperament. Far from observing the Golden Mean, I have spent most of my life recklessly committed to causes I believed in. Since I either became disillusioned or lost interest in these causes when they prevailed or became popular, I have never ridden the tide which, taken at the flood, leads to success. I should have been more prescient had I carved, “Born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” on the bright polished surface of that light colored wooden box which I can still see clearly in the eye of memory, when so much else has been forgotten. Yet in attempting to analyze the motivations which have shaped my life, I realize that in spite of always having been engage, it was the Greek principle of restraint, or balance, which compelled me to throw my weight on the opposite side of the scales when the oppressed became the oppressors, as so often happens in the course of human events.
Although I never heard of James Russell Lowell; until I came to America, his lines express the feeling which has consciously or unconsciously motivated my life.
Right forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne .
Anatole France, with whose writings I became familiar in early youth, expressed the same idea in his Révolte Des Anges, which ends when Lucifer refuses to lead an assault on heaven by the angels whose fall was due to their compassion for the sufferings of mankind, because he foresees that:
Dieu vancu deviendra Satan: et Satan vanqueur deviendra Dieu. – God conquered will become Satan; and Satan victorious become God.
Men are men and there is no innate virtue in the oppressed. On the contrary, as Bertrand Russell; pointed out long ago when underdog changes places with upper dog he proves to be more ruthless because he has learned, while underneath, to scratch harder in the battle for survival.
Since, either instinctively or by reason of the sense of proportion which is the essence of the classical concept of beauty, I have tended all my life to throw my weight on the weaker side of the scales of power, perhaps I was not so wrong when I carved SOPHROSUNE on my pencil box when I was 14 or 15 years old.
Unfortunately in my personal life and behavior I have paid little heed to Goethe‘s dictum that the essence of wisdom is to know when to stop. By expressing my views too sharply, or by carrying my arguments to a ruthlessly logical conclusion, I have failed to influence as many people as I might have done had I been more temperate or restrained and less combative. I have alienated some friends and lost potential allies by turning my back upon those, who by their refusal to go all the way with me in a battle against odds, seemed to me to be cowards unwilling to stand up and be counted when they were in reality only displaying greater political sagacity than myself. Yet despite my all or nothing attitude in the heat of controversy, I have found myself unable to remain long in the company of extremists on any side.
One’s character, no doubt, is one’s fate. But no one knows the extent to which character is determined by heredity or by environment. Nor is it until late in life that one can dimly perceive how the influences of childhood and youth have shaped one’s destiny, and continue to determine one’s philosophy and behavior until the curtain falls.
These influences in my case were liberal, socialist and free-thinking, strongly colored by the poetry of revolt and liberty and legends, stories and romances of heroism and adventure upon which I fed in childhood; not without a tincture of Gallic realism, but basically English. I was conditioned by the empirical attitude of mind inculcated in me by my father; and my upbringing, despite the absence of religious instruction, was anchored to the basic tenets of the Puritanism which produced the first English radicals in the 17th century, the Pilgrim Fathers who emigrated to New England, and the Nonconformists who founded the British Labor Party two hundred years later.
The environment which shaped me was in many respects different from that of others of my generation but I am a product of the heyday of the liberal era, reared in its faith in infinite progress through freedom from superstition and by means of the scientific discoveries and their technical application which were expected to make man master of his fate. I am, or was, a child of the age of reason – of that new age of faith when it was believed that freed from “the shambles of faith and of fear” a vista of infinite progress would open to mankind.
Thus I was imbued at an early age with a consuming desire for the emancipation of mankind, or for justice, which is perhaps the moral reflection of the desire for harmony and beauty. I believed, thanks to my rationalist upbringing, that mankind requires only freedom from superstition or from the bonds of established religion to acquire the knowledge which, together with release from a narrow regard for material self interest, could lead to heaven on earth. The libertarian values implanted in my mind which have consciously or unconsciously motivated me all my life, were to cause me to recoil in horror from the Soviet dictatorship when I came intimately to know it. It was a passion for the emancipation of mankind, not the blueprint of a planned society nor any mystical yearning to merge myself in a fellowship absolving me of personal responsibility, which both led me into the Communist fold, and caused me to leave it as soon as I learned that it meant submission to the most total tyranny which mankind has ever experienced.
Many of my contemporaries and those who came after me were to follow the Red Star because of an unhappy childhood, or frustrations of one kind or another, or failure to make a place for themselves in the competitive capitalist world. But I came to Communism via Greek history, French Revolutionary literature, and the English nineteenth century poets of freedom-not in revolt against a strict “bourgeois” upbringing, nor on account of failure to make a place for myself in the “capitalist” world, but profoundly influenced by a happy childhood, a socialist father and a continental education. I am perhaps proof of Arnold Toynbee’s contention that Communism is a “Western heresy.”
When I came to study ancient history my heroes were Pericles, the Gracchi, and Julius Caesar. From an early age I could recite long passages from Shelley, Swinburne and Keats extolling man’s eternal striving for freedom, beauty and justice. Swinburne’s love poems I rejected as incomprehensible aberrations from the glorification of freedom and the denunciation of tyranny and superstition which I loved. I thrilled to such lines as:
Pride have all men in their fathers that were free before them,
In the warriors that begat us freeborn pride have we;
But the fathers of their spirit, how may men adore them;
With what rapture praise who bade our souls be free.
Sons of Athens born in spirit and truth are all born free men;
Most of all, we, nurtured where the North wind holds his reign.
Children all we sea-folk of the Salaminian seamen,
Sons of they that beat back Persia, we who beat back Spain.#
Today I realize that I ought not to have been so unprepared to learn the facts of political life as might seem from my account of the influences of my childhood and youth.
Like a discordant note or muted theme in the first movement of a symphony, there were other early influences in my life which should have prepared me for the disappointments and disillusionment which awaited me, not only in Soviet Russia but in later years in the Free World. In childhood and youth I had imbibed not only classical and romantic literature and the poems of Shelley and Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, and other poets who sang of freedom and inspired belief in the coming of a Golden Age when men would be freed from the chains of superstition and fear. I was also well acquainted with the writings of Shaw and Anatole France, read and enjoyed Voltaire‘s “Candide” and “Zadig” and was to win a prize at school for an essay on Machiavelli.
If heredity also molds character I must take some account of the combative and adventurous spirit of my father’s Viking freebooter ancestors, who settled in Yorkshire before William of Normandy conquered England. Utley is a Danish name derived from the words out-leigh or out-lee, meaning beyond the moor, and there is still a remote small village called Utley in the West Riding where my paternal ancestors were blacksmiths for many generations.
Many of the Utley’s had gone a’roving in their time which accounts for the fact that there are far more of them in America than in England.**
My mother, who came from Lancashire where the Celtic strain is strong, was a woman of charm and wit as well as beautiful, and may be partly responsible for the romantic streak in our characters which led my brother to voyage from England to the South Seas in a small sailing boat, while I sought a false Holy Grail in Communist Russia.
In my brother Temple’s view, it was our Utley inheritance combined with the romantic stories we had read in childhood which shaped our lives.
Writing to our mother from Suva in the Fiji Islands in 1934 shortly after the birth of my son in Moscow he said:
. . . Freda’s letter to me was in tone and spirit very sweet. We neither of us quite seem to have found our new world. Moral—do not read your children romantic tales in their infancy. However hard-boiled they may become afterwards, the original taint remains. Tell Freda to teach Jon to lisp the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld as his first primary. Freda at eleven and I at fourteen learned them too late.
The Songs the Syrens sang for us were not the same. I became a “political animal,” travelling ever Left in search of the ideal society which never was, or probably can be, on land or sea. Temple came to seek escape from civilization by venturing on perilous seas in a small sailing boat to seek his dream islands in the South Seas. He was to be more fortunate than I although he died young. While I was passing through the Valley of Despair in Russia in the early 30’s, Temple had found his Pacific Islands “just as they should be—of an incredible beauty.”
Today I find myself wanting to write about my brother before recording my own story. Perhaps because I now begin to understand that Temple and I in the drama of our lives were like strophe and antistrophe-or thesis and antithesis according to the Hegelian philosophy, eventually to be united in a synthesis of understanding.
Both of us were reared in the liberal philosophy of our time and were subject to the same childhood influences. But whereas I was to follow Marx and Lenin’s teachings, Temple’s views were more akin to Rousseau’s and Bakunin’s. He came to believe that freedom and happiness are to be found by escaping from modern industrial civilization which, even when it provides material comforts and security, deprives man of the satisfaction of basic needs of his nature. I imagined that a better organization of society could create conditions in which men would be free while voluntarily submitting to the demands of the state intended to ensure justice for all.
Our lives perhaps exemplify the split in the liberal personality between the extremes of anarchy and statism. Temple took the high road and I the low, or vice versa according to one’s prejudices, in our life’s journey from the “banks of Loch Lomond.”
In a later chapter, I shall have more to tell concerning my brother’s life and death. Here I only quote, with wonder at Temple’s insight, a passage from a letter he wrote when he was 35 years old on the eve of sailing from Colon to the Marquesas Islands.
“There is a sort of lethal factor in us Utleys which inhibits success. Both my father who was, and my sister who is much cleverer than I am, always missed it. You see they, who could have got it easily, never quite believed in it. I, who would find its attainment much more difficult, believe in it rather less.”
Unlike my brother. I was ambitious. Although I was never able to surmount the “lethal factor” in the Utleys which inhibits us from paying the required price for success, I longed for it. And time was when thanks to my having acquired inordinate confidence in my abilities, thanks to my easy academic successes at school and college, I imagined I would be one of the “movers and shakers” of the world. My faith in human reason, inculcated in me by my upbringing, combined with what Bertrand Russell called my incurable political romanticism, impelled me to continue to believe, even when my views were most unpopular, that if only I could write well enough, I could convince the world of the truth as I saw it.
No doubt one gets what one wants most in life if one tries hard enough, but one cannot have everything. The cost of freedom comes high and one cannot expect to enjoy it, least of all in the world of letters, if one desires fame or security more. Of course, one always goes on hoping to enjoy both. There have been times when I railed against my fate and considered myself ill-used because the world failed to award me fame, fortune or influence and I found myself reviled for expressing my deepest convictions regardless of the consequences. On one such occasion Edith Hamilton, who died in her 94th year in full possession of her faculties, gently reproved me for feeling sorry for myself following the failure of my 1949 book. The High Cost of Vengeance * to win a wide circulation. “My dear Freda,” she said, “don’t expect the material rewards of unrighteousness while engaged in the pursuit of truth.” Nevertheless I often did, continuing to yearn for the success which I occasionally glimpsed but never quite achieved. Even when one of my books was a success I went off on another quest.
Like my father, I did not “stick to one last,” as they express it in North Country England. I dissipated my energies and endeavors in too many directions, wanting to be both scholar and journalist, politician and preacher, crusader for the causes I believed in and seeker for the truth. Desirous of success but unwilling or unable to pay the ultimate price, I could not devote myself to the goddess who, although not the bitch she has been called, demands wholehearted devotion to herself alone.
Thus, I was destined to become a Communist when it was most unpopular to be one, and an anti-Communist during the years when its false promises were generally believed by Western “liberals.” Too fast, too soon. The way to success as I have painfully learned, is not to learn too much too soon. It pays to be wrong when everyone else is deluded and woe betide all Cassandras, or anyone else who learns and speaks truth before the public is prepared to listen. The best reputations are gained by those who change their opinions just before the midnight hour when it is usually too late to change the course of human events.
I might have a man’s mind-which was the compliment I most relished- but I could always be accused by my opponents or detractors of being too emotional, as perhaps I am, because I am a woman. And in the struggle for existence in which I was to be engaged at an early age, I had to shoulder the financial responsibilities of a man while also meeting the domestic demands of a woman.
Whether or not I ever deserved the following tribute paid me by Pearl Buck in her review of my 1940. The Dream We Lost,*** her words are apposite to the struggle all women who strive to overcome the initial disadvantage of not being born men.
“This is one of the richest books I have ever read. It is more than an unassailable indictment of Russian Communism. It is a strongly dramatic story and one interesting enough to make a major novel, the story of a brilliant mind, rigorously truthful in its working, though born unhappily in the body of a woman. For even in the best parts of the world a first rate mind is still hampered if it happens to belong to a woman. Nevertheless, this mind was born, and it is to its honor that Freda Utley has simply borne with the disadvantages of being a woman without allowing them to influence her thinking. (Asia. October, 1940)”
Editors Note: We continue our story next Saturday.
* Henry Regnery Co.. Chicago, 1949.
# Swinburne Athens.
** I knew from my father who, while at college in Manchester, won a money prize for amateurs tracing their ancestry, that in the 17th century four Utley brothers had emigrated to Massachusetts. Since it struck my childhood imagination I also recall that the wife of an Utley who was a cavalryman in Wellington’s army had accompanied him on the campaigns in the low countries and crossed rivers hanging on to his horse’s tail. After my 1936 book. Japan’s Feet of Clay was published in the U.S.A. I received several letters from American Utley’s including one from a man who had made a hobby of tracing Utleys and sent me a long list of them. Unfortunately I have lost this but I remember it included the name of an Utley who had been the champion bo\er of the British Navy. In Chicago in 1939 when speaking for the Council of foreign Relations at the invitation of Clifton Utley I was to find rows of Utleys in the telephone book whereas there had been only myself and one other listed in London. At this time I disabused Clifton Utley of the notion that the Utleys stemmed from Wales.
*** The John Day Co., 1940.