“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).

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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)  

On Emile Zola

I am grown up, and I do not worry myself much about Zola’s immorality. The thing I cannot stand is his morality. If ever a man on this earth lived to embody the tremendous text, “But if the light in your body be darkness, how great is the darkness,” it was certainly he. Great men like Ariosto, Rabelais, and Shakspere fall in foul places, flounder in violent but venial sin, sprawl for pages, exposing their gigantic weakness, are dirty, are indefensible; and then they struggle up again and can still speak with a convincing kindness and an unbroken honour of the best things in the world: Rabelais, of the instruction of ardent and austere youth; Ariosto, of holy chivalry; Shakspere, of the splendid stillness of mercy.

But in Zola even the ideals are undesirable; Zola’s mercy is colder than justice—nay, Zola’s mercy is more bitter in the mouth than injustice. When Zola shows us an ideal training he does not take us, like Rabelais, into the happy fields of humanist learning. He takes us into the schools of inhumanist learning, where there are neither books nor flowers, nor wine nor wisdom, but only deformities in glass bottles, and where the rule is taught from the exceptions. Zola’s truth answers the exact description of the skeleton in the cupboard; that is, it is something of which a domestic custom forbids the discovery, but which is quite dead, even when it is discovered. Macaulay said that the Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Of such substance also was this Puritan who had lost his God. A Puritan of this type is worse than the Puritan who hates pleasure because there is evil in it. This man actually hates evil because there is pleasure in it. Zola was worse than a pornographer, he was a pessimist. He did worse than encourage sin: he encouraged discouragement. He made lust loathsome because to him lust meant life.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on December 12, 2018 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

“An Ideal Postman”

The conception of the Ideal Shepherd seems absurd to our modern ideas. But, after all, it was perhaps the only trade of the democracy which was equalized with the trades of the aristocracy even by the aristocracy itself. The shepherd of pastoral poetry was, without doubt, very different from the shepherd of actual fact. Where one innocently piped to his lambs, the other innocently swore at them; and their divergence in intellect and personal cleanliness was immense. But the difference between the ideal shepherd who danced with Amaryllis and the real shepherd who thrashed her is not a scrap greater than the difference between the ideal soldier who dies to capture the colours and the real soldier who lives to clean his accoutrements, between the ideal priest who is everlastingly by someone’s bed and the real priest who is as glad as anyone else to get to his own. There are ideal conceptions and real men in every calling; yet there are few who object to the ideal conceptions, and not many, after all, who object to the real men.

The fact, then, is this: So far from resenting the existence in art and literature of an ideal shepherd, I genuinely regret that the shepherd is the only democratic calling that has ever been raised to the level of the heroic callings conceived by an aristocratic age. So far from objecting to the Ideal Shepherd, I wish there were an Ideal Postman, an Ideal Grocer, and an Ideal Plumber. It is undoubtedly true that we should laugh at the idea of an Ideal Postman; it is true, and it proves that we are not genuine democrats. Undoubtedly the modern grocer, if called upon to act in an Arcadian manner, if desired to oblige with a symbolic dance expressive of the delights of grocery, or to perform on some simple instrument while his assistants skipped around him, would be embarrassed, and perhaps even reluctant. But it may be questioned whether this temporary reluctance of the grocer is a good thing, or evidence of a good condition of poetic feeling in the grocery business as a whole. There certainly should be an ideal image of health and happiness in any trade, and its remoteness from the reality is not the only important question. No one supposes that the mass of traditional conceptions of duty and glory are always operative, for example, in the mind of a soldier or a doctor; that the Battle of Waterloo actually makes a private enjoy pipeclaying his trousers, or that the ‘health of humanity’ softens the momentary phraseology of a physician called out of bed at two o’clock in the morning. But although no ideal obliterates the ugly drudgery and detail of any calling, that ideal does, in the case of the soldier or the doctor, exist definitely in the background and makes that drudgery worth while as a whole. It is a serious calamity that no such ideal exists in the case of the vast number of honourable trades and crafts on which the existence of a modern city depends.

 — The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 12:35 am  Leave a Comment  

“An education in gratitude”

Purification and austerity are even more necessary for the appreciation of life and laughter than for anything else. To let no bird fly past unnoticed, to spell patiently the stones and weeds, to have the mind a storehouse of sunset, requires a discipline in pleasure, and an education in gratitude.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on November 22, 2018 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

At the end of the war

Every consideration of common-sense suggests that the war is already rapidly reaching its end, and none the less rapidly because it happens to be the right end. The very fact that the enemy is so anxious to finish it in his way, or the nearest he can get to his way, is itself evidence that we are near to finishing it our way.

What the enemy still wishes to avoid is a real reversal of the relations between himself and us. He would avoid the reversal of Sedan even more than the restoration of Alsace. He does not wish the great war of the world to end with one of the decisive battles of the world. He knows how those great decisions dominate history; and how much is remembered as historic because it is dramatic. The same instinct warns him against the bodily presence of invaders on German soil, which will reverse the more recent tradition that Germany is always invading and France being invaded, and return to the older European tradition that it was the Gauls even more than the Teutons who could, if necessary, cross the Rhine.

Germany in recent times has built up a legend that she cannot be invaded, which would have been a worthier legend if it had not always gone along with the legend that she can always invade other people. All the accidents of this war have so far supported this legend, and it is because the legend is just on the very point of being falsified that everything else is surrendered in order that the legend may be saved. If the legend is saved, nothing else can be saved. For that legend is the lie that has forced them into their false position in modern Europe.

The Illustrated London News,
2 November 1918.

Published in: on November 11, 2018 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The mystery of the beasts”

There ought to be a certain limit to our sympathy with animals, not because we need distrust our motives, but because we can never verify our results. There is no reason for not being kind to a fly; but there is real difficulty in finding out if you have been kind to him. Now the world is full of frightful cruelties and neglects which we could all find out if we liked. If we used our imagination upon the sweated worker, the savage, the slave, and even, in some cases, the higher animals, we could get an answer. We could find out, with a rough human finality, whether they are unjustly treated or no. The wealthy idealists of to-day could get an answer to such questions. That is why they will not ask such questions; they are afraid of getting an answer. But the mystery of the beasts and the blinder forms of life is an unfathomable mystery: they cannot discover exactly how much or how little harm they have done to a whale. Therefore they pour their tears into this bottomless bucket: because it is bottomless. They use in pathetic imaginings, by their nature useless and eternal, an energy of the heart which, if directed against real and certain wrongs, might release millions of men from the rack of an artificial agony.

The Illustrated London News, 10 February 1912.

Published in: on November 7, 2018 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Ancient of Days

A child sits in a sunny place,
Too happy for a smile,
And plays through one long holiday
With balls to roll and pile;
A painted wind-mill by his side,
Runs like a merry tune,
But the sails are the four great winds of heaven,
And the balls are the sun and moon.

A staring doll’s-house shows to him
Green floors and starry rafter,
And many-coloured graven dolls
Live for his lonely laughter.
The dolls have crowns and aureoles,
Helmets and horns and wings,
For they are the saints and seraphim,
The prophets and the kings.

(c.late 1890s).

Published in: on October 31, 2018 at 10:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Poetry and prose

We should all like to speak poetry at the moment when we truly live, and if we do not speak it, it is because we have an impediment in our speech. It is not song that is the narrow or artificial thing, it is conversation that is a broken and stammering attempt at song.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on October 24, 2018 at 10:51 pm  Leave a Comment