Sometimes I think I’m far too peaceable; I prefer to smooth ruffled feathers rather than wring a bird by the neck, when I might have got a lot further in life if I’d argued a damned sight more. Back in the 1920s Robert Lynd pointed out: ‘There is nothing like a quarrel for attracting our attention. The ordinary man does not realize the importance of anything, indeed, till somebody has begun to quarrel about it. Who knows whether Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman who ever lived? Yet we find it difficult not to think so merely because she was the occasion of the most beautiful quarrel in legend or history. It is possible that more beautiful women have lived than any that ever got into the histories, but men did not lose their tempers and their lives over them, they were happily married, and their names have perished.’
Lynd pointed out the huge debt literature owes to quarrels and argument – can there be a story if there is no conflict? Even if there is nothing to argue about we can make one up: look at Don Quixote, famous for his quarrel with a windmill. ‘Literature,’ says Lynd, ‘is for the most part an idealization of quarrels. Cut quarrels out of literature, and you will have very little history or drama or fiction or epic poetry left.’ He quotes an old Irish proverb that was new to me; ‘Contention is better than loneliness.’ (He should know; he was an Irishman.) For, as he says, ‘Contention may also be better than stagnation. It is said to be healthier to breathe bad air that circulates than to breathe good air that is perfectly still.’
If you know Lynd’s work you’ll find this a curious argument, coming from him. He was such an equable essayist; one can’t imagine him arguing with anyone, and yet . . . He had a long and successful career from writing, so perhaps a degree of argument was the secret of his success. It makes me wonder whether, in all these years when I’ve been nice to people, I have been too polite for my own good.