Flattery, old and new

In more straightforward times flattery itself was more straightforward; falsehood itself was more true. A poor man wishing to please a rich man simply said that he was the wisest, bravest, tallest, strongest, most benevolent and most beautiful of mankind; and as even the rich man probably knew that he wasn’t that, the thing did the less harm. When courtiers sang the praises of a King they attributed to him things that were entirely improbable, as that he resembled the sun at noonday, that they had to shade their eyes when he entered the room, that his people could not breathe without him, or that he had with his single sword conquered Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The safety of this method was its artificiality; between the King and his public image there was really no relation.

But the moderns have invented a much subtler and more poisonous kind of eulogy. The modern method is to take the prince or rich man, to give a credible picture of his type of personality, as that he is business-like, or a sportsman, or fond of art, or convivial, or reserved; and then enormously exaggerate the value and importance of these natural qualities. Those who praise Mr. Carnegie do not say that he is as wise as Solomon and as brave as Mars; I wish they did. It would be the next most honest thing to giving their real reason for praising him, which is simply that he has money. The journalists who write about Mr. Pierpont Morgan do not say that he is as beautiful as Apollo; I wish they did. What they do is to take the rich man’s superficial life and manner, clothes, hobbies, love of cats, dislike of doctors, or what not; and then with the assistance of this realism make the man out to be a prophet and a saviour of his kind, whereas he is merely a private and stupid man who happens to like cats or to dislike doctors.

The old flatterer took for granted that the King was an ordinary man, and set to work to make him out extraordinary. The newer and cleverer flatterer takes for granted that he is extraordinary, and that therefore even ordinary things about him will be of interest.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on October 10, 2018 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  

On physical courage

One of the deepest and most sagacious of the controversial answers of Dr. Johnson ran, I think, something like this: “Why, Sir, strictly speaking , physical courage is not a Christian virtue. Nevertheless, a Christian man should cultivate it; for he who has lost that virtue can never be certain of preserving any other.”

But in our own more refined age not only is courage not called Christian, but cowardice is actually called Christianity.  Motives entirely base, selfish, materialistic, and timid, are supposed to have some kind of savour of the Gospel about them so long as they lead to peace and not to war. Of course, every Christian man, if he be sane, thinks that peace is better than war; and if his horror of war is a compassion for stricken soldiers or an indignation at trampled rights, it is the sentiment of a Christian and even of a saint. But what I complain of is that this spiritual superiority is claimed by Pacifists whose motive is almost as elevated as Falstaff’s when he pretended to be a corpse on the battle-field of Shrewsbury. To keep the peace for money may be as wicked as to make war for money. These rhetoricians may call the merely physical case against war “an advance” in human ethics; but to me it seems not half so like advancing as it is like running away.

The Illustrated London News, 21 June 1913.

Published in: on October 3, 2018 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

“This dodge”

My friend, the human race is always trying this dodge of making everything entirely easy; but the difficulty which it shifts off one thing it shifts on to another.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on September 19, 2018 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

“A cosmic and philosophic humour”

The fundamental conception in the minds of the majority of our younger writers is that comedy is, ‘par excellence,’ a fragile thing. It is conceived to be a conventional world of the most absolutely delicate and gimcrack description. Such stories as Mr Max Beerbohm’s ‘Happy Hypocrite’ are conceptions which would vanish or fall into utter nonsense if viewed by one single degree too seriously.

But great comedy, the comedy of  Shakespeare or Sterne, not only can be, but must be, taken seriously. There is nothing to which a man must give himself up with more faith and self-abandonment than to genuine laughter. In such comedies one laughs with the heroes and not at them. The humour which steeps the stories of Falstaff and Uncle Toby is a cosmic and philosophic humour, a geniality which goes down to the depths. It is not superficial reading, it is not even, strictly speaking, light reading. Our sympathies are as much committed to the characters as if they were the predestined victims in a Greek tragedy.

The modern writer of comedies may be said to boast of the brittleness of his characters. He seems always on the eve of knocking his puppets to pieces. When John Oliver Hobbes wrote for the first time a comedy of serious emotions, she named it, with a thinly-disguised contempt for her own work, ‘A Sentimental Comedy.’ The ground of this conception of the artificiality of comedy is a profound pessimism. Life in the eyes of these mournful buffoons is itself an utterly tragic thing; comedy must be as hollow as a grinning mask. It is a refuge from the world, and not even, properly speaking, a part of it. Their wit is a thin sheet of shining ice over the eternal waters of bitterness.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on September 12, 2018 at 12:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Slang and poetry

All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.

 — The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on September 6, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Background and foreground

The great principle of the Zoroastrian philosophy seems to be that the thorn is essential to the rose. Or, to put it more correctly, that the life of man is a chessboard, because chess is a royal game — the great game for the human intellect. And in chess it is necessary, not only that there should be black and white, but that black and white should be equal. There must be a pattern of black and white, and the pattern must be exact.

To all this view of life I should only answer that the chessboard is only a pattern, and therefore cannot be a picture. A black-and-white artist always treats one or other colour as the background. The artist may be scrawling black on white, when he is illustrator in pen-and-ink. He may be scrawling white on black, when he is a schoolboy chalking the schoolmaster’s nose on the blackboard. But the pen-and-ink artist knows that the page is white previous to the arrival of the pen and ink. The wicked schoolboy knows that the blackboard is black. So we, as Christians, should always believe that this is a white world with black spots, not a black world with white spots. I should always believe the good in it was its primary plan. Also, I should always remember that chess came from Persia.

— The Illustrated London News, 31 May 1913.

Published in: on August 29, 2018 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

“These shapeless enemies have enemies”

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. When I was a child I have stared at the darkness until the whole black bulk of it turned into one negro giant taller than heaven. If there was one star in the sky it only made him a Cyclops. But fairy tales restored my mental health, for next day I read an authentic account of how a negro giant with one eye, of quite equal dimensions, had been baffled by a little boy like myself (of similar inexperience and even lower social status) by means of a sword, some bad riddles, and a brave heart. Sometimes the sea at night seemed as dreadful as any dragon. But then I was acquainted with many youngest sons and little sailors to whom a dragon or two was as simple as the sea.

… At the four corners of a child’s bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on August 22, 2018 at 10:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

“What has happened in English history”

We should think it rather odd if a profiteer had a country house that was called The Cathedral.  We might think it strange if a stockbroker had built a villa and habitually referred to it as a church.  But we can hardly see the preposterous profanity by which one chance rich man after another has been able to commandeer or purchase a house which he still calls an Abbey. It is precisely as if he had gone to live in the parish church; had breakfasted on the altar, or cleaned his teeth in the font. That is the short and sharp summary of what has happened in English history; but few can get it thus foreshortened or in any such sharp outline.

— William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on August 1, 2018 at 11:29 am  Leave a Comment  

“Almost certain of being wrong”

We cannot be certain of being right about the future; but we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on July 25, 2018 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Optimists are more practical reformers”

In order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment. That is the explanation of the singular fact which must have struck many people in the relations of philosophy and reform. It is the fact (I mean) that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better.

The optimist Dickens has achieved more reforms than the pessimist Gissing. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are. A man like Godwin believes existence to be kindly; but he is a rebel. A man like Carlyle believes existence to be cruel; but he is a Tory. Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things.

And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible—like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable—like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on July 19, 2018 at 12:36 pm  Leave a Comment