“Laughter is as divine as tears”

To most people, however, there is a fascinating inconsistency in the position of St Francis. He expressed in loftier and bolder language than any earthly thinker the conception that laughter is as divine as tears. He called his monks the mountebanks of God. He never forgot to take pleasure in a bird as it flashed past him, or a drop of water as it fell from his finger: he was, perhaps, the happiest of the sons of men. Yet this man undoubtedly founded his whole polity on the negation of what we think the most imperious necessities; in his three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he denied to himself and those he loved most, property, love, and liberty. Why was it that the most large-hearted and poetic spirits in that age found their most congenial atmosphere in these awful renunciations? Why did he who loved where all men were blind, seek to blind himself where all men loved? Why was he a monk, and not a troubadour? These questions are far too large to be answered fully here, but in any life of Francis they ought at least to have been asked; we have a suspicion that if they were answered we should suddenly find that much of the enigma of this sullen time of ours was answered also.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on June 20, 2018 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

“No difference”

Why do people think it intelligent to say, “I can see no difference”? It is nowadays quite a mark of culture to say that one can see no difference between a man and a woman, or a man and an angel, or a man and an animal. If a man cannot see the difference between a horse and a cow across a large field, we do not call him cultured: we call him short-sighted. Now there are really interesting differences between angels and women; nay, even between men and beasts, and all such things. They are differences which most people know instinctively, as most people know a cow is not a horse without looking for its mane; or most people know a horse is not a cow without looking for horns. Whether the difference ought to count in this or that important question is a completely different matter; but it ought not really to be so difficult simply to see the difference…

This is a strange epoch; and while, in some ways, we have quite dangerously encouraged the appetites, we have quite ruthlessly crushed the instincts.

— The Illustrated London News, 14 December 2012.

Published in: on June 13, 2018 at 9:33 pm  Comments (1)  

“The narrowest thing about him”

Nine times out of ten a man’s broad-mindedness is necessarily the narrowest thing about him. This is not particularly paradoxical; it is, when we come to think of it, quite inevitable. His vision of his own village may really be full of varieties; and even his vision of his own nation may have a rough resemblance to the reality. But his vision of the world is probably smaller than the world. His vision of the universe is certainly much smaller than the universe. Hence he is never so inadequate as when he is universal; he is never so limited as when he generalises.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on May 30, 2018 at 9:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Biting holes in their own case”

If a European State, at war with other States, suddenly began to eat its prisoners, the other States would be justified in breaking off all intercourse and international discussion, and destroying it without further speech. But if the other States began, however reluctantly, to eat a prisoner here and there, they might still maintain much of their logical case, and even something of a rather relative moral superiority. But obviously there is one thing they could not possibly maintain, and that is the innocent and instantaneous disgust at the mere sight of the cannibal. Yet it would be precisely upon that innocent disgust that they would base their whole claim to crush a mere nest of cannibals. Even if they only on rare occasion took a bite at a man, even if they were only found cautiously and considerately nibbling at a man, they would be biting holes in their own case: they would be nibbling away the natural instincts which were their chief allies in the whole war. They would be making the crime of their enemy a less exceptional thing, and therefore the crushing of their enemy a more exceptional thing.

— Illustrated London News, 16 September 1916.

Published in: on May 16, 2018 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The poetizing of natural history”

In the early days of the world, the discovery of a fact of natural history was immediately followed by the realization of it as a fact of poetry. When man awoke from the long fit of absent-mindedness which is called the automatic animal state, and began to notice the queer facts that the sky was blue and the grass green, he immediately began to use those facts symbolically. Blue, the colour of the sky, became a symbol of celestial holiness; green passed into the language as indicating a freshness verging upon unintelligence. If we had the good fortune to live in a world in which the sky was green and the grass blue, the symbolism would have been different.

But for some mysterious reason this habit of realizing poetically the facts of science has ceased abruptly with scientific progress, and all the confounding portents preached by Galileo and Newton have fallen on deaf ears. They painted a picture of the universe compared with which the Apocalypse with its falling stars was a mere idyll. They declared that we are all careering through space, clinging to a cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were a remark about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in our own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang; and men still go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us that Mr. Scott’s monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale.

To what towering heights of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of natural history had continued and man’s fancy had played with the planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have been proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry haughtily in the blind tournament of the spheres. All this, indeed, we may surely do yet; for with all the multiplicity of knowledge there is one thing happily that no man knows: whether the world is old or young.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on May 9, 2018 at 5:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Dickens

It was the whole glory and meaning of Dickens that he confined himself to making jokes that anybody might have made a little better than anybody would have made them.

All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on May 2, 2018 at 11:04 am  Leave a Comment  

On Sir Walter Scott

Scott was very far indeed from being a perfect writer, but I do not think that it can be shown that the large and elaborate plan on which his stories are built was by any means an imperfection. He arranged his endless prefaces and his colossal introductions just as an architect plans great gates and long approaches to a really large house. He did not share the latter-day desire to get quickly through a story. He enjoyed narrative as a sensation; he did not wish to swallow a story like a pill that it should do him good afterwards. He desired to taste it like a glass of port, that it might do him good at the time. The reader sits late at his banquets. His characters have that air of immortality which belongs to those of Dumas and Dickens. We should not be surprised to meet them in any number of sequels. Scott, in his heart of hearts, probably would have liked to write an endless story without either beginning or close.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on April 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

The crank

Another way in which I tried to define the crank was that he always begins at the wrong end. He never knows the right way to take hold of anything, as one takes hold of a cat by the scruff of the neck. He always tries to catch his cat by the tail; especially if it is a Manx cat. The thing he begins with is always the thing that is last — and least. Thus, if he is talking about the ancient and lawful bond between man and woman, he will talk about votes before he talks about vows. Thus, if he is talking about children, he will be genuinely interested in the children’s schools; it will never so much as cross his mind that children, as a class, generally belong to families. If he is interested in Shakespeare, he will not be interested in Shakespeare’s poetry; he will be interested in the extraordinary question of who wrote it. If he is interested in one of the Gospels or in one of the Epistles, he will not be interested in what is written there; he will be interested in some bottomless bosh about when it was written. It was when I had got thus far in my speculations that I began to suspect that I had found out the definition of the crank after all.

The true and horrid secret of the crank is this: that he is not interested in his subject. He is only interested in his object. He wants to do something, to alter something, to feel he has made a difference, to rediscover his own miserable existence. He does not care for women, but for Votes for Women; he does not care for children, but for education; he does not care for animals, but for anti-vivisection; he does not care for Nature, but for “open spaces”. He does not care for anything unless he can do something to it. Leave him for three minutes alone with a cow or a canary, and he has not enough energy to live the life of contemplation. He can never enjoy a discussion because he can never enjoy a doubt.

The Illustrated London News, 19 July 1913.

Published in: on April 11, 2018 at 10:09 am  Comments (1)  

“Wonder at the world”

The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ That text has been the stay and support of more Pharisees and prigs and self-righteous spiritual bullies than all the dogmas in creation; it has served to identify self-satisfaction with the peace that passes all understanding.

And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on April 4, 2018 at 12:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

“It is immortal”

When a thing of the intellect is settled it is not dead: rather it is immortal.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on March 28, 2018 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment