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  

“Cogency and concreteness”

The question of whether an utterance can be brought under the law or not should have nothing to do with the violence of the language. It should be concerned only with the cogency and concreteness of the fact. A man should certainly be allowed to call the colour of a lady’s dress devilish. It is a matter of taste. A man should certainly be permitted to call a historian’s theory (let us say) of the economic changes in the sixteenth century a filthy and disgusting theory. It is a matter of opinion. We ought to be able to call a man a beast for being a Bowdleriser. We ought to be free to call a man a devil for being a Theosophist. For it is perfectly plain in such cases that we are not accusing the man of being anything other than he professes to be: we are only expressing our own personal and irresponsible dislike of what he does profess to be. We are not saying anything that could shake his credit among his friends; we are only indicating (as it were, faintly) that he is not likely to be one of ours.

— The Illustrated London News, 3 May 1913.

Published in: on March 21, 2018 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Transfused with the Copernican idea”

It is a very remarkable thing that none of us are really Copernicans in our actual outlook upon things. We are convinced intellectually that we inhabit a small provincial planet, but we do not feel in the least suburban. Men of science have quarrelled with the Bible because it is not based upon the true astronomical system, but it is certainly open to the orthodox to say that if it had been it would never have convinced anybody.

If a single poem or a single story were really transfused with the Copernican idea, the thing would be a nightmare. Can we think of a solemn scene of mountain stillness in which some prophet is standing in a trance, and then realize that the whole scene is whizzing round like a zoetrope at the rate of nineteen miles a second? Could we tolerate the notion of a mighty King delivering a sublime fiat and then remember that for all practical purposes he is hanging head downwards in space? A strange fable might be written of a man who was blessed or cursed with the Copernican eye, and saw all men on the earth like tintacks clustering round a magnet. It would be singular to imagine how very different the speech of an aggressive egoist, announcing the independence and divinity of man, would sound if he were seen hanging on to the planet by his boot soles.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on March 14, 2018 at 5:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Supposes them scattered everywhere”

A man treats his own faults as original sin and supposes them scattered everywhere with the seed of Adam. He supposes that men have then added their own foreign vices to the solid and simple foundation of his own private vices. It would astound him to realise that they have actually, by their strange erratic path, avoided his vices as well as his virtues. His own faults are things with which he is so much at home that he at once forgets and assumes them abroad. He is so faintly conscious of them in himself that he is not even conscious of the absence of them in other people.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on March 7, 2018 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  

On nationalism

The suggestion under discussion is broadly this: that Germany suffers chiefly from an overdose and debauch of national feeling, and that therefore Nationalism, which has thus destroyed our enemies, must be watched with a wary eye even in our friends and in ourselves, as if it were a highly dubious explosive. Mr Wells, who has explained this view in many places of late, must not be regarded as one of the dull extremists on the other side. He says he agrees with Home Rule; and I cannot suppose him such a lunatic as not to agree with the national reconstruction of Poland, for upon that essential hang all our hopes of the just peace of Europe or (which is much the same thing) of the adequate restraint of Germany. But the point is not whether he admits that Poland and Ireland have been allowed too little national independence. The point is that he thinks that Germany has been allowed too much national independence. He thinks her nationalism is her narrowness. It is this view that I think false in logic, false in history, and highly perilous in practical politics.

It is false in logic, because Nationalism is a generalisation, as is the nature of any “ism.” An Individualist, if there ever was such an animal, does not think that he is the only person who can be an individual. A Collectivist does not think that his cows and acres ought to be collected by an official, and everyone else’s left as they are. Nor does a Royalist mean a madman who thinks he is the King of England; nor a Pantheist the other kind of madman who thinks he is all the God there is. All such positions imply an appeal to a general rule; and the Nationalist is only a Nationalist if he appeals to a general rule of Nationalism. Nations, like marriages, or like properties, are a class of things accorded a certain recognition by the conscience of our civilisation. One of them cannot logically plead its own rights without pleading the rights of the class. And to say that a nation which disregards frontiers and annexes or destroys neighbours is suffering from an excess of Nationalism is intrinsically nonsensical. We might as well say that a man who runs away with his neighbour’s wife is suffering from an excess of reverence for the institution of marriage. We might as consistently maintain that a man who runs away with his neighbour’s watch is too arrogant and implacable a protector of the rights of property. Mr Wells suggests, in an article in the Daily Chronicle, that the German disposition to ram sauerkraut down everybody’s throat with a bayonet is an extravagance of national feeling. But it is not; it is a deficiency of national feeling — if only in the matter of wasting sauerkraut on people who do not appreciate it. What is the matter with the Germans is not that they think German culture is German culture —  a platitude after their own hearts which they might have peacefully enjoyed to the end of the world. It is that they think German culture is culture — that it is the highest product of evolution, and is on a higher platform above an ignorant world. In other words, they think something culture which is only custom.

And as it is false in theory, it is certainly false in fact. In history the Germans have been the least national of all Europeans. The typical nations, first France, then England, Spain, Scotland, Poland, etc. arose like islands in a sea of barbarism for which Germany was rather a loose allusion than a name. The word Allemagne is said to be derived from what practically means Anybody. If civilised men gave the race any title, it was not so much a definition as an expression of ignorance. We find Germans spoken of in this fashion long after France or England had become nations in the sense in which they are nations now. Often Germans were talked of as if they were German measles — merely one of the perils of life, merely something that happened. And so they were; and they have happened again.

— Illustrated London News, 7 October 1916.

Published in: on February 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  

For love of the game

“Oh, Parkinson, Parkinson!” I cried, patting him affectionately on the head with a mallet, “how far you really are from the pure love of the sport—you who can play. It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art’s sake. If we may see the face of Croquet herself (if I may so express myself) we are content to see her face turned upon us in anger. Our play is called amateurish; and we wear proudly the name of amateur, for amateurs is but the French for Lovers. We accept all adventures from our Lady, the most disastrous or the most dreary. We wait outside her iron gates (I allude to the hoops), vainly essaying to enter. Our devoted balls, impetuous and full of chivalry, will not be confined within the pedantic boundaries of the mere croquet ground. Our balls seek honour in the ends of the earth; they turn up in the flower-beds and the conservatory; they are to be found in the front garden and the next street. No, Parkinson! The good painter has skill. It is the bad painter who loves his art. The good musician loves being a musician, the bad musician loves music. With such a pure and hopeless passion do I worship croquet. I love the game itself. I love the parallelogram of grass marked out with chalk or tape, as if its limits were the frontiers of my sacred Fatherland, the four seas of Britain. I love the mere swing of the mallets, and the click of the balls is music. The four colours are to me sacramental and symbolic, like the red of martyrdom, or the white of Easter Day. You lose all this, my poor Parkinson. You have to solace yourself for the absence of this vision by the paltry consolation of being able to go through hoops and to hit the stick.”

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on February 15, 2018 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

On elite athletes

The Englishman with any feeling for England will know that athletic failures do not prove that England is weak, any more than athletic successes proved that England was strong. The truth is that athletics, like all other things, especially modern, are insanely individualistic. The Englishmen who win sporting prizes are exceptional among Englishmen, for the simple reason that they are exceptional even among men. English athletes represent England just about as much as Mr. Barnum’s freaks represent America. There are so few of such people in the whole world that it is almost a toss-up whether they are found in this or that country.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on February 8, 2018 at 2:15 am  Leave a Comment