“Born into a romance”

A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent. They fail to feel adventures because they can make the adventures. The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance… They think that if a man makes a gesture it would be a startling and romantic matter that the sun should fall from the sky. But the startling and romantic thing about the sun is that it does not fall from the sky. They are seeking under every shape and form a world where there are no limitations — that is, a world where there are no outlines; that is, a world where there are no shapes. There is nothing baser than that infinity. They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.

Heretics (1905)

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Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Happy Birthday, Chesterton!

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.

Autobiography (1936)

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A precious and wonderful privilege”

In my early youth it was Schopenhauer’s hour and the power of darkness, and there lay on the whole intellectual and artistic world a load of despair. The liveliest claim that could be made was to call oneself a decadent, and demand the right to rot. The decadents said in substance that everything was bad except beauty. Some of them seemed rather to say that everything was bad except badness. Now the first movement of my mind was simply an impulse to say that being rotten was emphatically all rot. But I began to make for myself a sort of rudimentary philosophy about the thing, which was founded on the first principle that it is, after all, a precious and wonderful privilege to exist at all. It was simply what I should express now by saying that we must praise God for creating us out of nothing.

Where All Roads Lead (1922)

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  

“A mother, a protectress, a goddess”

I opened a paper only ten minutes ago in which it was solemnly said, in the fine old style of such arguments, that there was a time when men regarded women as chattels. This is outside the serious possibilities of the human race. Men never could have regarded women as chattels. If a man tried to regard a woman as a chattel his life would not be worth living for twenty-four hours. You might as well say that there was a bad custom of using live tigers as arm-chairs; or that men had outgrown the habit of wearing dangerous snakes instead of watch-chains. It may or may not be the fact that men have sometimes found it necessary to define the non-political position of women by some legal form which called them chattels; just as they have thought it necessary in England to define the necessary authority of the State by the legal form of saying that the King could do no wrong. Whether this is so or not I do not know, and I do not care. But that any living man ever felt like that, that any living man ever felt as if a woman was a piece of furniture, with which he could do what he liked, is starkly incredible. And the whole tradition and the whole literature of mankind is solid against it. There is any amount of literature from the earliest time in praise of woman: calling her a mother, a protectress, a goddess. There is any amount of literature from the earliest time devoted to the abuse of woman, calling her a serpent, a snare, a devil, a consuming fire. But there is no ancient literature whatever, from the Ionians to the Ashantees, which denies her vitality and her power. The woman is always either the cause of a wicked war, like Helen, or she is the end of a great journey, like Penelope. In all the enormous love poetry of the world, it is practically impossible to find more than two or three poems written by a man to a woman which adopt that tone of de haut en bas, that tone as towards a pet animal, which we are now constantly assured has been the historic tone of men towards women. The poems are all on the other note; it is always “Why is the queen so cruel?” “Why is the goddess so cold?”

The Illustrated London News, 6 April 1907.

Published in: on May 16, 2007 at 12:44 pm  Comments (2)  

“Behaving like asses”

We can at once test the ethics of publicity by removing it from public life; by merely applying it to private life. What should we think, at a private party, if an old gentleman had written on his shirtfront in a fine large flowing hand: ‘I am the only well-bred person in this company’? What should we think of any person of taste and humour who went about wearing a placard inscribed ‘Please note quiet charm of my personality’? What should we say if people gravely engraved on their visiting card the claim to be the handsomest or the wildest or the most subtly, strangely attractive people about town? We should not only think, with great accuracy, that they were behaving like asses… we should also think they were wantonly reversing and destroying a principle of social amenity and moral delicacy. Yet modern business, especially in America, does really enforce this sort of publicity in public life.

– “The American Ideal”, in On Lying in Bed.

[original source unknown (to The Hebdomadarian)]

Published in: on May 9, 2007 at 11:40 am  Leave a Comment  

“Put his head in a bag”

It is obviously a fundamental truth that you cannot be funny about a funny subject; if the subject is funny, you can only be pathetic. Thus, pathetic stories are told about clowns, but funny stories about bishops. Farce and religion are deeply akin: they are both based on human dignity. Sin and a piece of orange-peel both mean the Fall of Man. In the light of this eternal contrast we need not wonder that paragraphs in the newspapers which concern the churches and the sects should generally be the funniest reading. But I really think that the following beats anything –

“Some remarkable and lively scenes were witnessed on Saturday night at the adjourned meeting of the Easter Vestry held at St. Mark’s Church, Barnet Vale. Well-known Non-conformists, Passive Resisters, and Roman Catholics were present. For some time past there has been a heated controversy in the parish against what has been considered Ritualistic practices of the Vicar, the Reverend C. McLaughlin … but the Bishop has intimated that there is nothing in the ritual of St. Mark’s to which he takes exception. At the adjourned vestry meeting, Mr. Goddard had undertaken to substantiate the truth of six statements he had made against the Vicar. The first of these was that the Vicar had been urged to wear a ‘mitre’. The reading of the word ‘mitre’ created great amusement.”

I do not wonder at the amusement, but I think it was evoked less by the actual word ‘mitre’ (which is, after all, a word we can most of us pronounce without falling into convulsions) than by the whole nature of this remarkable charge, the charge which is, you will observe, put first and foremost at the very head and front of the Vicar’s infamy. Somebody else (presumably for fun) had urged him to wear a mitre. I do not know what the other five accusations were, but if they were of a corresponding force and logic, it might be possible to imagine them. The second charge was, perhaps, that somebody had said that he would look nice in knickerbockers; the third that Mr. Kensit had satirically suggested that he ought to wear a cardinal’s hat; the fourth that his first cousin had dreamed of him in a green turban; the fifth that his maiden aunt had always wished that he had been in the Life Guards. The list certainly suggests a number of startling images, but it is difficult to see how the unfortunate Vicar is himself responsible for them, just as it is not easy to see why it should be a charge against him that somebody else wanted him to wear a mitre. When a man displeases the little boys in the street, it is not unusual for them to advise him (in a bold metaphor) to put his head in a bag. Doubtless, if a priest of the Church of England did put his head in a bag it would be a startling innovation in the Anglican form of public worship; but it would scarcely be reasonable to accuse a Vicar of introducing this new Romish custom merely because some little gutter-boys had advised him to do it. And, moreover, if an ordinary Vicar put his head in a mitre, he could only be fulfilling the isolated wish of an individual humourist. Whereas, if he put his head in a bag he might, in some cases, be fulfilling a public and long-felt wish.

The final joke of the whole thing was that, as far as I can make out from the report, the priest in question was really an extremely moderate High Churchman and had not done anything odd at all. I feel myself in no great haste to burn idols. But if incense is an idol I should certainly burn it; the same principle applies to tobacco. The only moral of such things is that while there are fools enough on both sides of the question, there is a certain injustice in the fact that the fools on one side are allowed to pose as sturdy Englishmen of sound common-sense, while the fools on the other are regarded wholly as fanatics. It may be the truth that Ritualism is wrong, but if it is, it is a spiritual truth, a mystical truth; it is no more sensible than its opposite. The man who goes through the careful form of using incense may be a Ritualist, but so is the man who goes through the careful form of not using incense. The churchwarden who flies into a passion because somebody has suggested that the Vicar should wear a mitre is just as mad (or just as transcendental) as the Vicar who should actually wear one.”

The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907.

Published in: on May 2, 2007 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment