“Fiction is a necessity”

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personæ, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that anyone had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on September 10, 2014 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

“You ought to publish it”

In matters of truth the fact that you don’t want to publish something is, nine times out of ten, a proof that you ought to publish it.

– A Miscellany of Men (1912).

Published in: on September 3, 2014 at 10:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Macbeth

Calvinists object to stage-plays. Yet all stage-plays are forced to be Calvinistic. They are forced, by the very nature of art, to damn or save a man from the beginning. That is why the old Greek plays about fatality succeeded. Such dramas were popular in spite of everything that could be unpopular, and everything that could be undramatic — in spite of masks and monologues and a shallow stage and an absence of incident. They suited the drama because they were full of destiny. And yet I still think that the greatest drama of all is that in which the throne of destiny is shaken for an instant. I think the greatest drama in the world is “Macbeth.”

I think “Macbeth” the one supreme drama because it is the one Christian drama; and I will accept the accusation of prejudice. But I mean by Christian (in this matter) the strong sense of spiritual liberty and of sin; the idea that the best man can be as bad as he chooses. You may call Othello a victim of chance. You may call Hamlet a victim of temperament. You cannot call Macbeth anything but a victim of Macbeth. The evil spirits tempt him, but they never force him; they never even frighten him, for he is a very brave man.

I have often wondered that no one has made so obvious a parallel as that between the murders of Macbeth and the marriages of Henry VIII. Both Henry and Macbeth were originally brave, good-humoured men, better rather than worse than their neighbours. Both Henry and Macbeth hesitated over their first crime — the first stabbing and the first divorce. Both found out the fate which is in evil — for Macbeth went on murdering and poor Henry went on marrying. There is only one fault in the parallel. Unfortunately for history, Henry VIII was not deposed.

– The Illustrated London News, 16 March 1912.

Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  

On George Eliot

It [the Victorian age] was always saying solidly that things were “enough”; and proving by that sharpness (as of the shutting of a door) that they were not enough. It took, I will not say its pleasures, but even its emancipations, sadly. Definitions seem to escape this way and that in the attempt to locate it as an idea. But every one will understand me if I call it George Eliot.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  

“Not good enough for us”

Certain things are bad so far as they go, such as pain, and no one, not even a lunatic, calls a tooth-ache good in itself; but a knife which cuts clumsily and with difficulty is called a bad knife, which it certainly is not. It is only not so good as other knives to which men have grown accustomed. A knife is never bad except on such rare occasions as that in which it is neatly and scientifically planted in the middle of one’s back. The coarsest and bluntest knife which ever broke a pencil into pieces instead of sharpening it is a good thing in so far as it is a knife. It would have appeared a miracle in the Stone Age. What we call a bad knife is a good knife not good enough for us; what we call a bad hat is a good hat not good enough for us; what we call bad cookery is good cookery not good enough for us; what we call a bad civilization is a good civilization not good enough for us. We choose to call the great mass of the history of mankind bad, not because it is bad, but because we are better. This is palpably an unfair principle. Ivory may not be so white as snow, but the whole Arctic continent does not make ivory black.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on August 6, 2014 at 10:13 pm  Comments (3)  

“Masters of their own lives”

Self-government arose among men (probably among the primitive men, certainly among the ancients) out of an idea which seems now too simple to be understood. The notion of self-government was not (as many modern friends and foes of it seem to think) the notion that the ordinary citizen is to be consulted as one consults an Encyclopaedia. He is not there to be asked a lot of fancy questions, to see how he answers them. He and his fellows are to be, within reasonable human limits, masters of their own lives. They shall decide whether they shall be men of the oar or the wheel, of the spade or the spear. The men of the valley shall settle whether the valley shall be devastated for coal or covered with corn and vines; the men of the town shall decide whether it shall be hoary with thatches or splendid with spires. Of their own nature and instinct they shall gather under a patriarchal chief or debate in a political market-place. And in case the word “man” be misunderstood, I may remark that in this moral atmosphere, this original soul of self-government, the women always have quite as much influence as the men. But in modern England neither the men nor the women have any influence at all. In this primary matter, the moulding of the landscape, the creation of a mode of life, the people are utterly impotent. They stand and stare at imperial and economic processes going on, as they might stare at the Lord Mayor’s Show.

– A Miscellany of Men (1912).

Published in: on July 30, 2014 at 9:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Paying for sunsets

Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.

– Orthodoxy (1913).

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 7:25 am  Comments (2)  

“Comparatively innocent”

Those who speak scornfully of the ignorance of the mob do not err as to the fact itself; their error is in not seeing that just as a crowd is comparatively ignorant, so a crowd is comparatively innocent. It will have the old and human faults; but it is not likely to specialise in the special faults of that particular society: because the effort of the strong and successful in all ages is to keep the poor out of society. If the higher castes have developed some special moral beauty or grace, as they occasionally do (for instance, mediæval chivalry), it is likely enough, of course, that the mass of men will miss it. But if they have developed some perversion or over-emphasis, as they much more often do (for instance, the Renaissance poisoning), then it will be the tendency of the mass of men to miss that too. The point might be put in many ways; you may say if you will that the poor are always at the tail of the procession, and that whether they are morally worse or better depends on whether humanity as a whole is proceeding towards heaven or hell. When humanity is going to hell, the poor are always nearest to heaven.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on July 16, 2014 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Every star is like a sudden rocket”

Mysticism in its noblest sense, mysticism as it existed in St John, and Plato, and Paracelsus, and Sir Thomas Browne, is not an exceptionally dark and secret thing, but an exceptionally luminous and open thing. It is in reality too clear for most of us to comprehend, and too obvious for most of us to see. Such an utterance as the utterance that “God is Love” does in reality overwhelm us like an immeasurable landscape on a clear day, like the light of an intolerable summer sun. We may call it a dark saying; but we have an inward knowledge all the time that it is we who are dark…

It is remarkable to notice even in daily life how constant is this impression of the essential rationality of mysticism. If we went up up to a man in the street who happened to be standing opposite a lamppost and addressed him playfully with the words, “Whence did this strange object spring? How did this lean Cyclops with the eye of fire start out of unbegotten night?” it may be generally inferred, with every possible allowance for the temperament of the individual, that he would not regard our remarks as particularly cogent and practical. And yet our surprise at the lamppost would be entirely rational; his habit of taking lampposts for granted would be merely a superstition. The power that makes men accept material phenomena of this universe, its cities, civilizations, and solar systems, is merely a vulgar prejudice, like the prejudice that made them accept cock-fights or the Inquisition. It is the mystic to whom every star is like a sudden rocket, every flower an earthquake of the dust, who is the clear-minded man.

Mysticism, or the sense of the mystery of things, is simply the most gigantic form of common-sense.

– The Daily News, 30 August 1901.

Published in: on July 9, 2014 at 11:04 am  Comments (4)  

On the Death of Gertrude Blogg

Be this thing written, e’re I write
The record of the evil time:
That day my soul repented not
One idle hour, one braggart rhyme.

The grass brought up its million spears,
Aye — for the honour of our star,
Write that no thorn or thistledown
Failed me when I went forth to war.

Old tunes of revelry and sport
Dance on my deaf’ning drums of fight,
The hoarded sunlight of spring days
Blazed for my beacon all the night.

After, the days were grey and long,
But for the hour life battled well,
And all the trumpets of her tower
Answered the horns of Azrael.

We fought, although our dearest fell –
We stood, although the planets reeled –
No sullen doubts, no empty days
Can wipe that blazon from our shield.

And yet to me, doubtless to me –
The miracle of time shall come,
My thoughts grow light as thistledown
Once more: but after years in sum

God keep some mark upon my brow,
Though song be loud, though wine be red,
Of one who met Man’s oldest foe
And did not faint till he had fled.

– (1899).

Gertrude Blogg was the sister of Frances Blogg, whom Chesterton married in 1901. Gertrude died on 2 July 1899 after having been struck in the street by a horse-drawn omnibus.

Published in: on July 2, 2014 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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