DR. COOMARASWAMY’S study of the Indian craftsman raises questions of the widest and deepest interest, questions that will not only give consciousness to modern Eastern thought, but help us with some of the most advanced of our Western problems. He tells us of a condition of life among the eastern Aryans that still exists, and he tells it in such a way as to make us feel that there is no reason why it should not go on existing. Why, we ask, has this custom of the centuries, which seems so reasonable in the East, and through which the western Aryan once passed, changed in one part of the world and not in the other, and what are the merits of the change?
If we examine our own Western economic history, more particularly the history of England, we find that the break up of the conditions of English craftsmanship and the English village order, cannot be traced back beyond the industrial revolution of the 18th century, and the enclosure of the common lands that accompanied it. Fundamentally, with us the great change came with the introduction of industrial machinery, and the question which forces itself upon us, when we look at the picture Dr. Coomaraswamy draws, is: What are the benefits to our culture of the industrial machinery that has acted in this manner?
Trained as we are to measure everything by a mechanical standard, it is difficult for us to see things clearly, to get a correct focus. We are apt to forget that our view is biassed, that we attach a disproportionate value to the productions of machinery, and that a vast number, perhaps 60 per cent., of these productions are not, as is generally supposed, labour-saving, health-giving and serviceable to our general life and culture, but the reverse. “It is questionable,” said John Stuart Mill half a century ago, “whether all the labour-saving machinery has yet lightened the day’s labour of a single human being”; and the years that have followed his death seem not only to have further borne out his statement, but the people themselves who are being exploited by mechanical conditions are beginning to find it out.
For machinery is only a measure of human force, not an increase of it; and it is questionable whether, owing to the abuse of machinery, the destruction and waste it brings may not equal the gain it yields. Wonderful are the great ships, and the winged words from one side of the globe to the other, wonderful is the consciousness that comes to us from those things, and from rapid movement, and from our power of destruction, but we may pay even too high a price for the boon of progress. It behoves us to ask, at least, what the price is, and if it be a fair one. Perchance, in our thoughtlessness we have, like the boy in the fairy tale, bartered away the cow for a handful of beans; well, there may be much virtue in the beans, but was not the cow good too? A more reasonable view of life and the progress of Western civilization is making us see that the pitiful slums of our great cities are not a necessary corollary to the great ships; that a nicer, saner regulation of industry will mean that the rapid displacement of human labour, and the misery it brings, may be graduated and softened; that it is not necessary for 30 per cent. of the population to die in pauperism, as is the case in England at present; that it is short-sighted and unwise to paralyze invention and skill and individuality by unregulated machine development, and that our present gauge of the excellence in all these things their saleability cannot possibly continue to be a permanent gauge.
It is when Western civilization is brought face to face with the results of other cultures, Eastern cultures, when the stages of its progress are resumed from the points of view of other religions, when Japan, for instance, rejects or chooses what she needs to make her a fighting force, when India seeks to form, out of an imposed educational system, a political consciousness of her own; when Persia and Turkey are in the act of creating constitutions on the Western model, that we in the West come to realize that the stages of progress, as we understand them, are not obligatory. Some of them may be skipped.
So it is with industry, and the conditions of life induced by industrial machinery, much of it may be skipped. And it is the continuous existence of an order like the Indian village community, which, when brought into relation with Western progress, seems to prove this. We in the West have passed through the condition of the Aryan village community. The conditions Dr. Coomaraswamy describes in India and Ceylon are very similar to the conditions that prevailed in mediaeval England, Germany and France; they did not seem nearly so strange to Knox, writing in Stuart times, as they do to us. The 500 years that have passed between our middle ages and the growth of the great cities of machine industry may have proved that the destruction of the Western village community was inevitable, but it has not proved that where the village community still exists it need necessarily be destroyed. Indeed, we are finding out in the West that if the village tradition were still living it could still be utilized; we are even seeking to set up something like it in its place. For the great city of mechanical industry has come to a point when its disintegration is inevitable. There are signs that the devolution has already begun, both in England and America. The cry of “back to the land,” the plea for a “more reasonable life,” the revival of the handicrafts, the education of hand and eye, the agricultural revival, the German “ackerbau,” the English small holding, our technical schools, all these things are indications of a need for finding something, if not to take the place of the village community, at least to bring once again into life those direct, simple, human and out-of-door things of which mechanical industry has deprived our working population. These things are necessary to our life as a people, and we shall have to find them somehow. Dr. Coomaraswamy does well to show how they still exist in great measure in the East, and it may be that the East, in her wisdom, and with her profound conservative instinct, will not allow them to be destroyed. She has, as Sir Geo. Birdwood puts it, let the races and the peoples for 3,000 years come and pass by; she may have taken this from one and that from another, but the fundamental democratic order of her society has remained, and it appears improbable, on the face of it, that we English shall materially change it when so many others before us have left it undisturbed.
Indeed, there seems to be no reason, on the face of it, why we should aspire to do so. Some change we are certainly bringing, and bringing unconsciously, but it is a curious and suggestive thought that the spiritual reawakening in England, which goes now by the name of the higher culture, now by the name of Socialism, which has been voiced in our time by Ruskin and Morris, which has expressed itself in movements like the arts and crafts, or is revealed in the inspired paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, demands just such a condition as in India our commercialisation is destroying. The spiritual reawakening in the West is appealing for a social condition in which each man shall have not only an economic but a spiritual status in the society in which he lives, or as some of us would prefer to put it, he shall have a stable economic status in order that he may have a spiritual status as well.
It is such a condition that still exists in India, where society is organized, as Dr. Coomaraswamy shows, upon a basis of “personal responsibility and co-operation,” instead of, as with us, upon a basis of contract and competition. Even if we admit that the change in the Aryan of the West from the one basis to the other has been necessary in order to produce the conditions of modern progress, the scientific results of our civilization, in short, the great ships, it may yet be that the spiritual re-awakening that is beginning to stir the dry bones of our Western materialism may yet leave the ancient East fundamentally unchanged, and bring us once again into some kindred condition through our contact with her.
In the profoundly interesting address of the English artists in 1878, which bore the names of Morris, Burne-Jones, Millais, Edwin Arnold, Walter Crane and others, there is an appeal to the Government on behalf of Indian Arts and Crafts against the effects of English commercialism upon the production of Indian craftsmanship.
“At a time,” say the signatories, “when these productions are getting to be daily more and more valued in Europe, these sources are being dried up in Asia, and goods which ought to be common in the market are now becoming rare treasures for museums and the cabinets of rich men. This result seems to us the reverse of what commerce ought to aim at.”
But has commerce any aim? Is it as yet more than a blind force? The experience of 30 years has shown that this appeal of the English artists might have been as eloquently made on behalf of English as of Indian craftsmanship. For, indeed, the appeal is less against English Governmental action than against the conditions imposed upon the world by the development of industrial machinery, directed by commercialism. Industrial machinery which is blindly displacing the purpose of hand and destroying the individuality of human production; and commercialism, which is setting up one standard only, the quantitative standard, the standard of saleability.
To compass the destruction of commercialism and regulate and delimit the province of industrial machinery for the benefit of mankind, is now the work of the Western reformer. The spiritual reawakening with us is taking that shape.
It is probable that in this effort of the Western artists, workmen, and reformers for the reconstruction of society on a saner and more spiritual basis, the East can help us even more than we shall help the East. What would we not give in England for a little of that “workshop service” which Dr. Coomaraswamy describes, in place of our half-baked evening classes in County Council Schools? What, in our effort at the revival of handicrafts in the decaying country-side, for some of those “religious trade union villages” of which Sir George Birdwood speaks?
There has come over Western civilization, in the last 25 years, a green sickness, a disbelief, an unrest; it is not despondency, for in the finer minds it takes the form of an intense spiritual hopefulness; but it takes the form also of a profound disbelief in the value of the material conditions of modern progress, a longing to sort the wheat from the chaff, the serviceable from the useless, a desire to turn from mechanical industry and its wastefulness, and to look once more to the human hand, to be once again with Mother Earth.
“It behoves us,” said Heraclitus, in the time of the beginnings of Hellenic civilization, “it behoves us to follow the common reason of the world; yet, though there is a common reason in the world, the majority live as though they possessed a wisdom peculiar each unto himself alone.” This is so profoundly modern that it might almost be a comment upon English or American industrialism, did we not know that it applied equally to the peculiar intellectual individualism of Hellas, which disintegrated and destroyed her culture. But the “common reason of the world,” if the words of Heraclitus are to be taken at their face value, includes the reason of the East, and with it the social order that has stood there unshaken for 3,000 years, and hence stood there long before the days of Heraclitus himself.
For our immediate purpose, too, the purpose of this book, the “common reason of the world” includes and defines the Indian craftsman and the Indian village community; it gives them a definite and necessary place not only in the Indian order of things, not only in the culture of the East, but in the world. It shows them to be reasonable and right, and it shows them, what is still more important, to be the counterpart one of the other.
Here once more we are learning from the East. The English craftsman and the English village are passing, or have passed away; and it is only in quite recent times that we have discovered that they, too, are the counterpart one of the other. Industrial machinery, blindly misdirected, has destroyed them both, and recent English land legislation has been trying, with allotment and small-holdings acts, to re-establish the broken village life. Those of us, however, that have studied the Arts and Crafts in their town and country conditions, are convinced that the Small Holding Problem is possible of solution only by some system of co-operation, and if some forms of craftsmanship are simultaneously revived and added to it. “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee”; that is an old lesson, and it is true not only of England, but of all Western countries that have been touched by the greensickness of industrial machinery. With us in the West it is the newest of new ideas that the arts and crafts and the revival of agriculture are the corollary of one another. In India they always appear to have thought this, and to have held by the truth.
I never heard of the god Visvakarma, the god of the Arts and Crafts, before I learned of him from Dr. Coomaraswamy. But he seems strangely like a personification of that Platonic idea of abstract beauty which for so many centuries has haunted the Western mind. Whether it be Plato or Plotinus, Pico della Mirandola or Rossetti, ever and again in the great periods of our Western development the idea recurs. Who knows, perhaps Visvakarma is the god for whom we in the West, in our spiritual reawakening, are in search; possibly he can help us!
C. R. ASHBEE.