“To Battersea”

More than a month ago, when I was leaving London for a holiday, a friend walked into my flat in Battersea and found me surrounded with half-packed luggage.

“You seem to be off on your travels,” he said. “Where are you going?”

With a strap between my teeth I replied, “To Battersea.”

“The wit of your remark,” he said, “wholly escapes me.”

“I am going to Battersea,” I repeated, “to Battersea viâ Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. My remark contained no wit. It contained simply the truth. I am going to wander over the whole world until once more I find Battersea. Somewhere in the seas of sunset or of sunrise, somewhere in the ultimate archipelago of the earth, there is one little island which I wish to find: an island with low green hills and great white cliffs. Travellers tell me that it is called England (Scotch travellers tell me that it is called Britain), and there is a rumour that somewhere in the heart of it there is a beautiful place called Battersea.”

“I suppose it is unnecessary to tell you,” said my friend, with an air of intellectual comparison, “that this is Battersea?”

“It is quite unnecessary,” I said, “and it is spiritually untrue. I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on May 24, 2017 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Aristophanes

Aristophanes was a mighty mocker and derider of the details that were modern in his day; the wild hats and whiskers of ancient progress. Aristophanes was an enemy of modernity, and indeed of modernism. Aristophanes was also a lord of bad language, a man with all the splendid scurrility of Cobbett. But suppose it were recorded of Aristophanes that he came to repent of his satire on Euripides; suppose he had concluded too late that what he had taken for sophistry and scepticism had been a truer traditionalism. We should see nothing but beauty and pathos in some story about Aristophanes bringing the body of Euripides from some barbarian country to the temple of Athene. There would be nothing undignified or unworthy to be carved on a classic frieze in the figure of the great scoffer following the hearse of the great sceptic. But this is only because in the process of time the little things are lost and only the large lines remain. For that little flask of oil, with which the scoffer once stopped the mouth of the sceptic, has lost its bathos for us: and might well be the vessel of the sacred chrism for the anointing of the dead.

William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on May 17, 2017 at 11:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Topsy-turvydom”

If there is one modern fact for which I must confess an undiluted contempt, it is the fact that the infliction of pain or death is called punishment as long as it is inflicted on the poor and ignorant, and is only blamed as revenge when anyone wishes to inflict it on the wealthy and the strong. It is legal to strangle some miserable creature who has consented to a murder; but it is “vindictive” to shoot a great captain who has commanded a massacre. Pity I can understand, and punishment I can understand; but what are we to say of the servile topsy-turvydom which will punish the most pitiable object and pity a person on the grounds that he has hitherto only been envied?

Mrs Swanwick, the Suffragist who has reappeared as a Pacifist, has recently declared that there must be no punishment for the responsible Prussian. She puts it specifically on the ground that they were promised, or promised themselves, the conquest of the whole world; and they have not got it. This, she says, will be punishment enough. If I were to propose, to the group which is supposed to inspire the Pacifist propaganda, that a man who burgled their petty cash should suffer no punishment beyond failing to get the money, they would very logically ask me if I was an Anarchist. If I proposed that anybody trying to knife or pistol another person should walk away and resume his daily amusements if the knife broke or the pistol missed fire, they would certainly ask me I had contemplated the possibility of encouraging the employment of knives and pistols.

Crime can be only insufficiently restrained when the alternative is between success and punishment. It could hardly be restrained at all if the alternative were only between success and failure; that is, between success and freedom — including freedom to try again. On these grounds I rather reluctantly accept the necessity of punishing the smaller sort of criminal; though I wish it were done in a less callous and insolent style. But if I am asked to punish every kind of robber except the robber baron, and every kind of cannibal except the King of the Cannibal Islands, I should immeasurably prefer, for my own spiritual good, to be an Anarchist altogether.

— Illustrated London News, 2 September 1916.

Published in: on May 11, 2017 at 10:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Sight-seeing

Sight-seeing is a far more difficult and disputable matter than many seem to suppose; and a man refusing it altogether might be a man of sense and even a man of imagination. It was the great Wordsworth who refused to revisit Yarrow; it was only the small Wordsworth who revisited it after all. I remember the first great sight in my own entrance to the Near East, when I looked by accident out of the train going to Cairo, and saw far away across the luminous flats a faint triangular shape; the Pyramids. I could understand a man who had seen it turning his back and retracing his whole journey to his own country and his own home, saying, “I will go no further; for I have seen afar off the last houses of the kings.” I can understand a man who had only seen in the distance Jerusalem sitting on the hill going no further and keeping that vision for ever.

It would, of course, be said that it was absurd to come at all, and to see so little. To which I answer that in that sense it is absurd to come at all. It is no more fantastic to turn back for such a fancy than it was to come for a similar fancy. A man cannot eat the Pyramids; he cannot buy or sell the Holy City; there can be no practical aspect either of his coming or going. If he has not come for a poetic mood he has come for nothing; if he has come for such a mood, he is not a fool to obey that mood…

No great works will seem great, and no wonders of the world will seem wonderful, unless the angle from which they are seen is that of historical humility.

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on May 3, 2017 at 10:11 am  Comments (1)  

“All those ideal figures”

The world cannot keep its own ideals. The secular order cannot make secure any one of its own noble and natural conceptions of secular perfection. That will be found, as time goes on, the ultimate argument for a Church independent of the world and the secular order. What has become of all those ideal figures from the Wise Man of the Stoics to the democratic Deist of the eighteenth century? What has become of all that purely human hierarchy of chivalry, with its punctilious pattern of the good knight, its ardent ambition in the young squire? The very name of knight has come to represent the petty triumph of a profiteer, and the very word squire the petty tyranny of a landlord. What has become of all that golden liberality of the Humanists, who found on the high tablelands of the culture of Hellas the very balance of repose in beauty that is most lacking in the modern world? The very Greek language that they loved has become a mere label for snuffy and snobbish dons, and a mere cock-shy for cheap and half-educated utilitarians, who make it a symbol of superstition and reaction. We have lived to see a time when the heroic legend of the Republic and the Citizen, which seemed to Jefferson the eternal youth of the world, has begun to grow old in its turn. We cannot recover the earthly estate of knighthood, to which all the colours and complications of heraldry seemed as fresh and natural as flowers. We cannot re-enact the intellectual experiences of the Humanists, for whom the Greek grammar was like the song of a bird in spring. The more the matter is considered the clearer it will seem that these old experiences are now only alive, where they have found a lodgment in the Catholic tradition of Christendom, and made themselves friends for ever. St. Francis is the only surviving troubadour. St. Thomas More is the only surviving Humanist. St. Louis is the only surviving knight.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on April 26, 2017 at 11:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Insolent, like a dogma”

Architecture is a very good test of the true strength of a society, for the most valuable things in a human state are the irrevocable things—marriage, for instance. And architecture approaches nearer than any other art to being irrevocable, because it is so difficult to get rid of. You can turn a picture with its face to the wall; it would be a nuisance to turn that Roman cathedral with its face to the wall. You can tear a poem to pieces; it is only in moments of very sincere emotion that you tear a town-hall to pieces. A building is akin to dogma; it is insolent, like a dogma. Whether or no it is permanent, it claims permanence like a dogma.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on April 13, 2017 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Cobbett and Johnson

Cobbett had a prejudice against Johnson; which is all the more amusing because it was exactly the sort of prejudice that Johnson might have had against him. Cobbett regarded Johnson as a mere pedantic pensioner; and Johnson would very possibly have regarded Cobbett as he regarded Wilkes, more or less in the abstract as a dirty demagogue. So many things united these two great Englishmen, and not least their instinctive embodiment of England; they were alike in their benevolent bullying, in something private and practical, and very much to the point in their individual tenderness, in their surly sympathy for the Catholic tradition, in their dark doubts of the coming time.

William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on April 5, 2017 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  

“Begins with an infallible dogma”

What modern people want to be made to understand is simply that all argument begins with an assumption; that is, with something that you do not doubt. You can, of course, if you like, doubt the assumption at the beginning of your argument, but in that case you are beginning a different argument with another assumption at the beginning of it. Every argument begins with an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first. All this is the alphabet of thinking. And it has this special and positive point about it, that it can be taught in a school, like the other alphabet. Not to start an argument without stating your postulates could be taught in philosophy as it is taught in Euclid, in a common schoolroom with a blackboard. And I think it might be taught in some simple and rational degree even to the young, before they go out into the streets and are delivered over entirely to the logic and philosophy of the Daily Mail.

— The Daily News, 22 June 1907.

Published in: on March 29, 2017 at 7:07 am  Leave a Comment  

“To escape by a plea of guilty”

Becket was a type of those historic times in which it is really very practical to be impracticable. The quarrel which tore him from his friend’s side cannot be appreciated in the light of those legal and constitutional debates which the misfortunes of the seventeenth century have made so much of in more recent history. To convict St. Thomas of illegality and clerical intrigue, when he set the law of the Church against that of the State, is about as adequate as to convict St. Francis of bad heraldry when he said he was the brother of the sun and moon. There may have been heralds stupid enough to say so even in that much more logical age, but it is no sufficient way of dealing with visions or with revolutions. St. Thomas of Canterbury was a great visionary and a great revolutionist, but so far as England was concerned his revolution failed and his vision was not fulfilled. We are therefore told in the text-books little more than that he wrangled with the King about certain regulations; the most crucial being whether “criminous clerks” should be punished by the State or the Church. And this was indeed the chief text of the dispute; but to realise it we must reiterate what is hardest for modern England to understand—the nature of the Catholic Church when it was itself a government, and the permanent sense in which it was itself a revolution.

It is always the first fact that escapes notice; and the first fact about the Church was that it created a machinery of pardon, where the State could only work with a machinery of punishment. It claimed to be a divine detective who helped the criminal to escape by a plea of guilty. It was, therefore, in the very nature of the institution, that when it did punish materially it punished more lightly. If any modern man were put back in the Becket quarrel, his sympathies would certainly be torn in two; for if the King’s scheme was the more rational, the Archbishop’s was the more humane. And despite the horrors that darkened religious disputes long afterwards, this character was certainly in the bulk the historic character of Church government. It is admitted, for instance, that things like eviction, or the harsh treatment of tenants, was practically unknown wherever the Church was landlord. The principle lingered into more evil days in the form by which the Church authorities handed over culprits to the secular arm to be killed, even for religious offences. In modern romances this is treated as a mere hypocrisy; but the man who treats every human inconsistency as a hypocrisy is himself a hypocrite about his own inconsistencies.

— A Short History of England (1917).

Published in: on March 8, 2017 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

“The poison of pride”

Is it not true that pride gives to every other vice the extra touch of the intolerable? Whether or no it be the one thing that is unpardonable, is it not, in practice, the one thing that is unpardoned?

I think the instinct of mankind against pride, as the ultimate human evil, can be proved from the most prosaic details or the most babyish beginnings. We do not specially resent a schoolboy being in love with a different girl every week, nor even his being in love with all of them in the course of the same week. Our dim yet divine desire to kick him only comes when he says that they are all in love with him. Even at that early and innocent stage the egoism is more revolting than the appetite. It is even more so, of course, when the double sin has sprung to maturity. Profligacy might well be pathetic, if the pathos were not killed by the pride. The sort of sensual madness that ends in suicide has about it something of the sacred madness of a marriage. It is at least irrevocable. But what we all hate is the Lothario, the lady-killer. And we hate the murderer, not for the number of times he killed a lady, but for the number of times he has failed to kill himself.

Even from this casual case of the common dandy and professional seducer the practical point could be proved: that pride is the poison in every other vice. It is just as true in the case of the opposite fault. Nobody ever hated a miser. Fundamentally, everybody pitied him. And if you do not understand how throwing pebbles, pulling coat-tails, and firing pea-shooters can be expressions of pity, then I can only tell you (what will doubtless distress you very much) that you are something smaller than mankind. The real miser was so public that he was almost popular. So long as the rich man dressed like a poor man he received something of that unconscious respect that all Christendom has given to the poor man. The rags of the miser were reverenced like the rags of the saint. And this was on the noble and unreasonable ground that both were voluntary. There was this much of truth in the comparison: that neither the saint nor the miser minded looking like a fool. Therefore men have always joked about the miser, as they have about the hermit, as they have about the friar and the monk. The real beggar was funny: the false beggar was even funnier. And the usurers and princes of avarice were never killed (strangely enough) until there had been added to them that dynamite detail which we call pride.

The modern rich began to be hunted by the modern hatred when they had abandoned the wise precautions of the misers. The misers hid their wealth. The millionaires display it. In both cases the common-sense of the public pierces through the pretense. But in the old case it found only a harmless eccentricity; in the new case it discovers a harmful concentration. When all is said and done, however the difference between the two types of money-getting is not hard to state. The fact is that a man was ashamed of being a miser; a man is not ashamed of being a millionaire. This amazing truth can only be explained as the insolence of the profligate has been explained. The usurer, the man-killer, can, like the lady-killer, stun and strengthen himself with the small drug of pride. The moment he can sincerely admire himself, all other men will admire him.

I believe this malady of a small pride will be found almost everywhere to be the reason of wrong and of the rending of human fellowship. Gluttony is a great fault; but we do not necessarily dislike a glutton. We only dislike the glutton when he comes the gourmet — that is, we only dislike him when he not only wants the best for himself, but knows what is best for other people. It is the poison of pride that has made the difference. Sloth is a great fault: but we do not necessarily dislike the sluggard. We only dislike the sluggard when he becomes the aesthete — the man who need not do anything, but need only “exist beautifully”. It is the poison of pride that has made the difference. Passions that can be respected as passions, weaknesses that can be reverenced as weaknesses, can all be suddenly distorted into devilish shapes, and made to dance to devilish tunes, at the first note of this shrill and hollow reed.

Illustrated London News, 22 August 1914.

Published in: on March 1, 2017 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment