“Every brick”

A city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol—a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post-card. The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon; every slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums. Anything which tends, even under the fantastic form of the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, to assert this romance of detail in civilization, to emphasize this unfathomably human character in flints and tiles, is a good thing. It is good that the average man should fall into the habit of looking imaginatively at ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh might be a notorious thief.

— The Defendant (1901).

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Published in: on March 20, 2019 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Two kinds of ascetics

There are two kinds of ascetics in the world… The first ascetic surrenders things because he could enjoy them; he is the Catholic monk. The second ascetic surrenders things because he could not enjoy them; he is the Puritan. The first is in the tradition of the Pagan sacrifices; he sacrifices the best beast to his gods. The second slaughters only black beetles upon the altar. Briefly, the first offers to give up his goods, the second offers to give up his bads, to heaven. That is why Protestant asceticism (as in the case of total abstinence) is a thing so much more militant and regimentary; it is not left as the wild vow of one man, it is turned into ordinary ethics… The Protestant ascetic… is too good to drink wine. But any stupid monk who was a man of any humility would know that the question was: whether he was good enough to drink it.

Independent Review, January 1906.

(Hat-tip: Society of G.K. Chesterton)

Published in: on March 13, 2019 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  

“The common clay of earth”

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand the common clay of earth we should understand everything.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on March 6, 2019 at 11:11 am  Leave a Comment  

On patriotism

For some dark reason, which it is difficult indeed to fathom, belief in patriotism in our day is held to mean principally a belief in every other nation abandoning its patriotic feelings. In the case of no other passion does this weird contradiction exist. Men whose lives are mainly based upon friendship sympathise with the friendships of others. The interest of engaged couples in each other is a proverb, and like many other proverbs sometimes a nuisance. In patriotism alone it is considered correct just now to assume that the sentiment does not exist in other people.

— Varied Types (1905).

Published in: on February 20, 2019 at 11:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Parables

There was a man who dwelt in the east centuries ago,
And now I cannot look at a sheep or a sparrow,
A lily or a cornfield, a raven or a sunset,
A vineyard or a mountain, without thinking of him;
Is this be not to be divine, what is it?

The Notebook (c.1894-97).

Published in: on February 13, 2019 at 12:57 pm  Comments (1)  

“The luxurious art”

Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are—of immeasurable stature.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on February 6, 2019 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Sincere and wrong”

When I was very young I wrote a novel — Lord, what a bad novel! — in which I made the hero say: “There were never any just wars but the religious wars.” It was, perhaps, the only quite sound remark in the whole book. Yet though it was in the mouth of a fictitious character in a fantastic story, it was severely criticized as a reactionary paradox. In a very fine article in the Nation recently, Mr Wells has seen and said that war is sometimes a horrible necessity, in order to put true ideas in the place of false ones. I do not say this for any cheap controversial purpose. I do not urge Mr Wells to apologise to the paladins and persecutors whom he has probably reviled all his life. Yet is is certain if the Crusades had succeeded, there would have been no Balkan Wars; and if the Southern effort in the Thirty Years’ War had succeeded, there would have been no Prussia. I merely welcome the first great truth gathered of this horrible harvest: the truth that if you think wrong, you go wrong.

Mr Wells thinks, and I think so, too, that in the case of the Prussian we are really warring against a delusion. He is like a lunatic with plenty of pistols and a good aim, but liable to shoot a dog out of hatred of cats. Thus he sees the Russian as a yellow-skinned Oriental. He sees the Briton as a yellow-haired deserter. But “they ain’t”. It is one of the innumerable shallow phrases of the modern and mercantile peace, that when people are sincere they should not be attacked. Why, it is exactly because they are sincere that they should be attacked. If a man pretends to be your wife’s previous and lawful husband, you can laugh at him as at any other amusing fraud. If he really believes that he is, you will take prompt action to prevent his acting on his belief. An insincere polygamist is an ornament in any modern house: we use him to carry tea-cups. But a sincere polygamist we will blow to hell, if we can, with horse, foot, and artillery. And if you ask us why, we can only answer — because he is sincere and wrong.

The Prussian is sincere and wrong. He really does think that he could do everything better than everybody; like Bottom the Weaver. I have no doubt he thinks that Prussians could play the bag-pipes better than Highlanders; or dive for pearls better than the pearl-fishers. Prussians already say they understand Shakespeare; from which manifest scream of madness it will be but one note higher to say that they understand Burns. They understand everything: there was never a madman who did not. So that our work with the Prussians is not so much a pulling-down of thrones as a casting-out of devils; not only out of the land, but out of the enemy.

Illustrated London News, 12 September 1914.

Published in: on January 30, 2019 at 4:36 pm  Comments (2)  

“The superficial impression of the world”

It is quite right to invent subtle analyses and detached criticisms, but it is unreasonable to expect them to be punctuated with roars of popular applause. It is possible to conceive of a mob shouting any central and simple sentiment, good or bad, but it is impossible to think of a mob shouting a distinction in terms. In the matter of eloquence, the whole question is one of the immediate effect of greatness, such as is produced even by fine bombast. It is absurd to call it merely superficial; here there is no question of superficiality; we might as well call a stone that strikes us between the eyes merely superficial. The very word ‘superficial’ is founded on a fundamental mistake about life, the idea that second thoughts are best. The superficial impression of the world is by far the deepest. What we really feel, naturally and casually, about the look of skies and trees and the face of friends, that and that alone will almost certainly remain our vital philosophy to our dying day.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on January 16, 2019 at 11:13 am  Leave a Comment  

“A person born in a black hat”

It cannot be denied that the world lost something finally and most unfortunately about the beginning of the nineteenth century. In former times the mass of the people was conceived as mean and commonplace, but only as comparatively mean and commonplace; they were dwarfed and eclipsed by certain high stations and splendid callings. But with the Victorian era came a principle which conceived men not as comparatively, but as positively, mean and commonplace. A man of any station was represented as being by nature a dingy and trivial person—a person born, as it were, in a black hat. It began to be thought that it was ridiculous for a man to wear beautiful garments, instead of it being—as, of course, it is—ridiculous for him to deliberately wear ugly ones. It was considered affected for a man to speak bold and heroic words, whereas, of course, it is emotional speech which is natural, and ordinary civil speech which is affected. The whole relations of beauty and ugliness, of dignity and ignominy were turned upside down. Beauty became an extravagance, as if top-hats and umbrellas were not the real extravagance—a landscape from the land of the goblins. Dignity became a form of foolery and shamelessness, as if the very essence of a fool were not a lack of dignity. And the consequence is that it is practically most difficult to propose any decoration or public dignity for modern men without making them laugh. They laugh at the idea of carrying crests and coats-of-arms instead of laughing at their own boots and neckties. We are forbidden to say that tradesmen should have a poetry of their own, although there is nothing so poetical as trade. A grocer should have a coat-of-arms worthy of his strange merchandise gathered from distant and fantastic lands; a postman should have a coat-of-arms capable of expressing the strange honour and responsibility of the man who carries men’s souls in a bag; the chemist should have a coat-of-arms symbolizing something of the mysteries of the house of healing, the cavern of a merciful witchcraft.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on January 9, 2019 at 6:30 pm  Comments (1)  

“Men are never individual when alone”

A mere sympathy for democratic merry-making and mourning will not make a man a writer like Dickens. But without that sympathy Dickens would not be a writer like Dickens; and probably not a writer at all. A mere conviction that Catholic thought is the clearest as well as the best disciplined, will not make a man a writer like Newman. But without that conviction Newman would not be a writer like Newman; and probably not a writer at all. It is useless for the æsthete (or any other anarchist) to urge the isolated individuality of the artist, apart from his attitude to his age. His attitude to his age is his individuality: men are never individual when alone.

— The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).

Published in: on December 19, 2018 at 5:19 pm  Comments (1)