“At least on the side of Life”

There were throughout antiquity, both in its first stage and its last, modes of idolatry and imagery of which Christian men can hardly speak. “Let them not be so much as named among you.” Men wallowed in the mere sexuality of a mythology of sex; they organised prostitution like priesthood, for the service of their temples; they made pornography their only poetry; they paraded emblems that turned even architecture into a sort of cold and colossal exhibitionism. Many learned books have been written of all these phallic cults; and anybody can go to them for the details, for all I care. But what interests me is this:

In one way all this ancient sin was infinitely superior, immeasurably superior, to the modern sin. All those who write of it at least agree on one fact; that it was the cult of Fruitfulness. It was unfortunately too often interwoven, very closely, with the cult of the fruitfulness of the land. It was at least on the side of Nature. It was at least on the side of Life. It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of Sex, which is not even a worship of Life. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility. The new Paganism literally merits the reproach of Swinburne, when mourning for the old Paganism: “and rears not the bountiful token and spreads not the fatherly feast.” The new priests abolish the fatherhood and keep the feast — to themselves. They are worse than Swinburne’s Pagans. The priests of Priapus and Cotytto go into the kingdom of heaven before them.

— The Well and the Shallows (1935).

Published in: on April 30, 2008 at 8:27 am  Leave a Comment  

“A fiercer delight”

It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective. It is, I know, very common in this age; it was perfectly put in those quiet lines of Matthew Arnold which are more piercingly blasphemous than the shrieks of Schopenhauer —

Enough we live: –and if a life,
With large results so little rife,
Though bearable, seem hardly worth
This pomp of worlds, this pain of birth.

I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.

Orthodoxy (1908).

Published in: on April 23, 2008 at 9:22 am  Comments (2)  

“His love of plain beef and bread”

It is always hard to speak of good things or good people, for in satisfying the soul they take away a certain spur to speech. Dickens was often called a sentimentalist. In one sense he sometimes was a sentimentalist. But if sentimentalism be held to mean something artificial or theatrical, then in the core and reality of his character Dickens was the very reverse of a sentimentalist. He seriously and definitely loved goodness. To see sincerity and charity satisfied him like a meal. What some critics call his love of sweet stuff is really his love of plain beef and bread. Sometimes one is tempted to wish that in the long Dickens dinner the sweet courses could be left out; but this does not make the whole banquet other than a banquet singularly solid and simple. The critics complain of the sweet things, but not because they are so strong as to like simple things. They complain of the sweet things because they are so sophisticated as to like sour things; their tongues are tainted with the bitterness of absinthe. Yet because of the very simplicity of Dickens’s moral tastes it is impossible to speak adequately of them; and Joe Gargery must stand as he stands in the book, a thing too obvious to be understood. But this may be said of him in one of his minor aspects, that he stands for a certain long-suffering in the English poor, a certain weary patience and politeness which almost breaks the heart. One cannot help wondering whether that great mass of silent virtue will ever achieve anything on this earth.

– “Great Expectations”, in Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911).

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  

“The fieriness of fire”

I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud. It is just the same with people. . . When we call a man “manly” or a woman “womanly” we touch the deepest philosophy.

— Letter to Frances [later his wife] (1899).

Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 9:05 am  Comments (3)  

“You can toast muffins at it”

Go to the man who likes gas-stoves (if such a man there be) and ask him what he thinks a fire is for. If he thinks that a fire is for the sake of heat, dismiss him with derision to his doom. He will have heat enough if his spiritual ruin is at all parallel to his intellectual. Every sound human institution has at least four different objects and different justifications. Man was never so silly as to sit down on a one-legged stool. All his supports are quadrupedal. A man’s fireside, the open fire on his hearth, is delightful for all kinds of different reasons. It does, among other things, heat the room; but it also lights the room. It looks beautiful. You can roast chestnuts at it. You can see pictures in it. You can toast muffins at it. If you happen (as is no doubt the case) to be a Parsee, you can worship it. You can, with dexterity, light your pipe at it; you can tell ghost-stories round it, with Rembrandtesque effects. If a man gives me heat instead of a fire, I am no more satisfied than if he gives me little red pictures instead of a fire, because I can see them in the coals. I want a fire; not one of the uses of a fire.

Illustrated London News, 11 April 1908.
Published in: on April 2, 2008 at 1:28 pm  Comments (1)