“An atheistic literary style”

An interesting essay might be written on the possession of an atheistic literary style. There is such a thing. The mark of it is that wherever anything is named or described, such words are chosen as suggest that a thing has not got a soul in it. Thus they will not talk of love or passion, which imply a purpose or desire. They talk of the “relations” of the sexes, as if they were simply related to each other in a certain way, like a chair and a table. Thus they will not talk of the waging of war (which implies a will), but of the outbreak of war – as if it were a sort of boil. Thus they will not talk of masters paying more or less wages, which faintly suggests some moral responsibility in the masters: they will talk of the rise and fall of wages, as if the thing were automatic, like the tides of the sea. Thus they will not call progress an attempt to improve, but a tendency to improve. And thus, above all, they will not call the sympathy between oppressed nations sympathy; they will call it solidarity. For that suggests brick and coke, and clay and mud, and all the things they are fond of.

The Illustrated London News, 7 December 1912.

Published in: on February 28, 2007 at 1:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Commercial Candour

(On the outside of a sensational novel is printed the statement: ‘The back of the cover will tell you the plot.’)

Our fathers to creed and tradition were tied,
They opened a book to see what was inside,
And of various methods they deemed not the worst
Was to find the first chapter and look at it first.
And so from the first to the second they passed,
Till in servile routine they arrived at the last.
But a literate age, unbenighted by creed,
Can find on two boards all it wishes to read;
For the front of the cover shows somebody shot
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

Between, that the book may be handily padded,
Some pages of mere printed matter are added,
Expanding the theme, which in case of great need
The curious reader might very well read
With the zest that is lent to a game worth the winning,
By knowing the end when you start the beginning;
While our barbarous sires, who would read every word
With a morbid desire to find out what occurred
Went drearily drudging through Dickens and Scott.
But the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

The wild village folk in earth’s earliest prime
Could often sit still for an hour at a time
And hear a blind beggar, nor did the tale pall
Because Hector must fight before Hector could fall:
Nor was Scheherazade required, at the worst,
To tell her tales backwards and finish them first;
And the minstrels who sang about battle and banners
Found the rude camp-fire crowd had some notion of manners.
Till Forster (who pelted the people like crooks,
The Irish with buckshot, the English with books),
Established the great educational scheme
Of compulsory schooling, that glorious theme.
Some learnt how to read, and the others forgot,
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

O Genius of Business! O marvellous brain,
Come in place of the priests and the warriors to reign!
O Will to Get On that makes everything go –
O Hustle! O Pep! O Publicity! O!
Shall I spend three-and-sixpence to purchase the book,
Which we all can pick up on the bookstall and look?
Well, it may appear strange, but I think I shall not,
For the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

– from New Poems (1932).

Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 5:19 am  Comments (1)  

“St. George and the Dragon and the Princess”

In every pure romance there are three living and moving characters. For the sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilisation. But of all the signs of modern feebleness, of lack of grasp on morals as they actually must be, there has been none quite so silly of so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of to-day have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. There could be no worse sign than that a man, even Nietzsche, can be found to say that we should go in for fighting instead of loving. There can be no worse sign than that a man, even Tolstoi, can be found to tell us that we should go in for loving instead of fighting. The two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for.

– Preface to Nicholas Nickleby.

Published in: on February 14, 2007 at 1:37 pm  Comments (1)  

“I am writing this on a train”

I am writing this on a train, and I cannot get on with it because there are two very modern ladies next to me who are talking about vegetarianism and the higher life and spiritual evolution and other amusements of the rich. They are both wealthy and well dressed, as this kind of revolutionists always are; and they are both good looking, with the bleak blue eye which marks that esoteric religion of theirs; the only religion on earth that has in it no agnosticism and no humility. One of them is trying to show that she is very liberal, that she is not a fanatical vegetarian, which seems to me unthinking; for surely if a man is on moral grounds a vegetarian, he ought to be a fanatical vegetarian. He ought to be furious even with the moderate meat-eater: we do not tolerate a temperate cannibal. Meat-eating is either not wrong at all (as I think), or it is very wrong. In this it resembles murder, religion, and most other interesting things. But the lady who is talking has all the intrinsic modern thoughtlessness in thought. She says, in my personal and physical presence, the following calm and extraordinary words: ‘Of course the question is whether you still have the craving. If you can overcome the craving for meat, then you are on a higher plane. But as long as you have a craving for anything, you ought, of course, to do it. The craving shows that you ought to do it.’ This charming generalization (which should be of extraordinary interest to the whole human race, including tyrants, pick-pockets, dipsomaniacs, Thugs, fraudulent solicitors, men who like eating glass, men who wish to be worshipped as the Messiah, opium-smokers, bhang-eaters, military conquerors, sophists, blood-drinkers, and others too numerous to mention), this generalization, I say, moves me immensely. I feel strongly impelled to rise simply and suddenly in my place and speak as follows: ‘Madam, you will not, I am sure, be anything but delighted to learn that you have convinced me. A man should always do a thing as long as he has a genuine craving to do it. How true that is! How illuminating! And yet how simple! My present genuine craving, which is to strike you suddenly and sharply on the bridge of the nose, is one which, as it is far less destructive than meat-eating, will certainly command your theoretical acquiescence, and which also has this advantage, that it will give some sort of glimmering notion of what sort of world you are living in. As you say, I may survive the craving. After beating you on the nose for a day or two the desire itself may leave me. Then, no doubt, I shall pass to a higher plane.’

The Illustrated London News, 28 April 1906.

Published in: on February 7, 2007 at 1:54 pm  Comments (2)  

“A tense and secret festivity”

To sum up the whole matter very simply, if Mr. McCabe asks me why I import frivolity into a discussion of the nature of man, I answer, because frivolity is a part of the nature of man. If he asks me why I introduce what he calls paradoxes into a philosophical problem, I answer, because all philosophical problems tend to become paradoxical. If he objects to my treating of life riotously, I reply that life is a riot. And I say that the Universe as I see it, at any rate, is very much more like the fireworks at the Crystal Palace than it is like his own philosophy. About the whole cosmos there is a tense and secret festivity — like preparations for Guy Fawkes’ day. Eternity is the eve of something. I never look up at the stars without feeling that they are the fires of a schoolboy’s rocket, fixed in their everlasting fall.

Heretics (1905)

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 3:36 pm  Comments (3)  

Hello, world!

Welcome to The Hebdomadal Chesterton!

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a British journalist, novelist, poet, playwright, controversialist, and public figure. He was a wonderful, remarkable man, and while he is not exactly forgotten today, he is not as well known as he should be.

There are a fair number of sites where one can find brief one-liners from Chesterton, but few that provide more substantial fare. On this blog I intend to post excerpts from his published writings, each ranging in length from several sentences to several paragraphs. In this way, it is my hope that readers will begin to know (and to love) the singular spirit of this great man. The excerpts will be chosen in an entirely unsystematic way, which I think is what he would have preferred.

So as not to overwhelm myself with responsibility, I intend to post roughly one excerpt each week.

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 3:19 pm  Comments (1)