“An abyss of light”

There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude. That light of the positive is the business of the poets, because they see all things in the light of it more than do other men. Chaucer was a child of light and not merely of twilight, the mere red twilight of one passing dawn of revolution, or the grey twilight of one dying day of social decline. He was the immediate heir of something like what Catholics call the Primitive Revelation; that glimpse that was given of the world when God saw that it was good; and so long as the artist gives us glimpses of that, it matters nothing that they are fragmentary or even trivial; whether it be in the mere fact that a medieval Court poet could appreciate a daisy, or that he could write, in a sort of flash of blinding moonshine, of the lover who “slept no more than does the nightingale”. These things belong to the same world of wonder as the primary wonder at the very existence of the world; higher than any common pros and cons, or likes and dislikes, however legitimate. Creation was the greatest of all Revolutions. It was for that, as the ancient poet said, that the morning stars sang together; and the most modern poets, like the medieval poets, may descend very far from that height of realization and stray and stumble and seem distraught; but we shall know them for the Sons of God, when they are still shouting for joy. This is something much more mystical and absolute than any modern thing that is called optimism; for it is only rarely that we realize, like a vision of the heavens filled with a chorus of giants, the primeval duty of Praise.

Chaucer (1932).

Published in: on July 30, 2008 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  

“There were limits to Caesar”

Thomas More died the death of a traitor for defying absolute monarchy; in the strict sense of treating monarchy as an absolute. He was willing, and even eager, to respect it as a relative thing, but not as an absolute thing. The heresy that had just raised its head in his own time was the heresy called the Divine Right of Kings. In that form it is now regarded as an old superstition; but it has already reappeared as a very new superstition, in the form of the Divine Right of Dictators. But most people still vaguely think of it as old; and nearly all of them think it is much older than it is. One of the chief difficulties to-day is to explain to people that this idea was not native to medieval or many older times. People know that the constitutional checks on kings have been increasing for a century or two; they do not realize that any other kind of checks could ever have operated; and in the changed conditions those other checks are hard to describe or imagine. But most certainly medieval men thought of the king as ruling sub deo et lege; rightly translated, “under God and the law,” but also involving something atmospheric that might more vaguely be called, “under the morality implied in all our institutions.” Kings were excommunicated, were deposed, were assassinated, were dealt with in all sorts of defensible and indefensible ways; but nobody thought the whole commonwealth fell with the king, or that he alone had ultimate authority there. The State did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake, as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school. There was an idea of refuge, which was generally an idea of sanctuary. In short, in a hundred strange and subtle ways, as we should think them, there was a sort of escape upwards. There were limits to Caesar; and there was liberty with God.

The Well and the Shallows (1935).

Published in: on July 23, 2008 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  

“A curious coincidence”

About all those arguments affecting human equality, I myself always have one feeling; which finds expression in a little test of my own. I shall begin to take seriously those classifications of superiority and inferiority, when I find a man classifying himself as inferior. It will be noted that Mr. Ford does not say that he is only fitted to mind machines; he confesses frankly that he is too fine and free and fastidious a being for such tasks. I shall believe the doctrine when I hear somebody say: “I have only got the wits to turn a wheel.” That would be real, that would be realistic, that would be scientific. That would be independent testimony that could not easily be disputed. It is exactly the same, of course, with all the other superiorities and denials of human equality, that are so specially characteristic of a scientific age. It is so with the men who talk about superior and inferior races; I never heard a man say: “Anthropology shows that I belong to an inferior race.” If he did, he might be talking like an anthropologist; as it is, he is talking like a man, and not infrequently like a fool.

I have long hoped that I might some day hear a man explaining on scientific principles his own unfitness for any important post or privilege, say: “The world should belong to the free and fighting races, and not to persons of that servile disposition that you will notice in myself; the intelligent will know how to form opinions, but the weakness of intellect from which I so obviously suffer renders my opinion manifestly absurd on the face of them: there are indeed stately and god-like races — but look at me! Observe my shapeless and fourth-rate features! Gaze, if you can bear it, on my commonplace and repulsive face!” If I heard a man making a scientific demonstration in that style, I might admit that he was really scientific. But as it invariably happens (by a curious coincidence) that the superior race is his own race, the superior type is his own type and the superior preference for work the sort of work he happens to prefer.

G.K.’s Weekly, 25 April 1925.

Published in: on July 16, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  

“Considering the third”

Unfortunately, however, this trouble about conjunctions, about “ands” and “althoughs”, is used in our time to help the cowardice of modern thought. If modern journalists have to state unpopular or unpleasant truths, if they have to admit something which does not fit in with the policy of their paper, they can always cloud the question with a swarm of bewildering conjunctions. Despite this, nevertheless that, and considering the third, consequently the other, and while black, yet in some ways white — until the brain of the reader reels under the mere number of parenthetical sentences, under the burden of the number of brackets in this extraordinary equation. I remember a journalist who carried this weird use of conjunctions to the point of madness. He had to write the religious notes in some daily paper, and he was wildly anxious (being a worldly man) to treat religion reverently, and not to offend any Churchman, or any Nonconformist, or any Roman Catholic, or any Atheist, or anybody. But such dim convictions as he had he tried to convey by the selection of these small words in his sentences. The consequence was that he always left his whole meaning in an impenetrable darkness: nobody could understand why any of the conjunctions came in exactly where they did. He used to run all the religious scraps of news into a long sentence something like this: “While the Salvation Army is holding a meeting in the Albert Hall, and notwithstanding the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been compelled by his health to go to the Riviera, yet the Pope is likely to quarrel finally with the French Republic, and the Presbyterian Missions are doing well in the Hebrides; moreover, the Buddhist Cosmic Council has met in Chicago, and Canon Hensley Henson has even preached on the subject of immortality, although the Wesleyans have built a new church at Reading.” I used to read those paragraphs over and over again until my brain almost split, and I could not make out what was opposed to what, or, if so, why so. But the truth, I think, is that obscurity is a kind of curse from God, which often falls upon people either for the sin of intellectual pride or for that of moral timidity. And it is very odd how often the two things go together. It is very odd how often you will find that the man who has enough assurance to despise you, has not enough assurance even to hit you back.

Illustrated London News, 3 August 1907.

Published in: on July 9, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  

“A duel to the death”

“A modern man,” said Dr. Cyrus Pym, “must, if he be thoughtful, approach the problem of marriage with some caution. Marriage is a stage — doubtless a suitable stage — in the long advance of mankind towards a goal which we cannot as yet conceive; which we are not, perhaps, as yet fitted even to desire. What, gentlemen, is the ethical position of marriage? Have we outlived it?”

“Outlived it?” broke out Moon; “why, nobody’s ever survived it! Look at all the people married since Adam and Eve — and all as dead as mutton.”

“This is no doubt an inter-pellation joc’lar in its character,” said Dr. Pym frigidly. “I cannot tell what may be Mr. Moon’s matured and ethical view of marriage –”

“I can tell,” said Michael savagely, out of the gloom. “Marriage is a duel to the death, which no man of honour should decline.”

“Michael,” said Arthur Inglewood in a low voice, “you must keep quiet.”

Manalive (1912).

Published in: on July 2, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (6)