“Larger inside than out”

It has been suggested…that all laughter had its origin in a sort of cruelty, in an exultation over the pain or the ignominy of an enemy… [But] another philosophy would say, for instance, that the laughter is due not to an animal cruelty but to a purely human realization of the contrast between man’s spiritual immensity within and his littleness and restriction without, for it is itself a joke that a house should be larger inside than out. According to such a view, the very incompatibility between the sense of human dignity and the perpetual possibility of incidental indignities produces the archetypal joke of the old gentleman sitting down suddenly on the ice. We do not laugh thus when a tree or a rock tumbles down, because we do not know the sense of self-esteem or serious importance within.

— “Humour”, in On Lying in Bed.
[original source unknown (to The Hebdomadarian)]

Published in: on August 27, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  

“A divine company and a divine captain”

It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came, a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them. They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk. Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

Orthodoxy (1908).

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  

“Living traditions”

Some little time ago, when I was sitting in a small tavern not far from the river, the door of the place swung open behind me, and there came striding in one of the Kings of the Saxon Heptarchy.  He was a big, blonde, handsome man, with something of that sleepy swagger which has in all ages been the innocent affectation of the German blood.  His tunic was belted and clasped with big barbaric jewels; he had a clumsy, iron-hilted sword; he was cross-gartered up to the knee. And, by a custom which royalty has since, most unfortunately, abandoned, he wore his crown on his head, even when he went into a public-house.

This potentate sat down opposite me, and ordered a pot of beer, for beer is probably one of the few things that are still found surviving out of the Heptarchy.  I fell into respectful conversation with him, and he told me that he was the King of Wessex, and mentioned his very ugly name.  I tried to remember the facts about that prince, but found them a little foggy in my mind.  I said to him delicately: “Excuse my asking so personal a question, but, with the exception of your military reputation, I am disgracefully ill-informed about the rest of your career.  Let me see now — pray forgive my curiosity — but were you ever baptised?”  The question seemed in some mysterious way to offend him.  He said that he had been baptised, like other people; but it was (I understood him to say) “a long while ago,” and “he did not remember the ceremony.”  I said of course it was a long while ago, as it must have been somewhere in the ninth century; but I thought that, even amid the numerous social functions of the King of Wessex, he might remember the moment when, if ever, he embraced Christianity.  By this time he had emptied his pewter pot and I reverently requested permission to have it refilled, a course of action which alone, I believe, averted a serious misunderstanding between that noble barbarian and myself.  He explained, somewhat gloomily, that he didn’t care much about centuries, but that they were rehearsing for the pageant and had got him to be King of Wessex.  Then circumstances began to arrange themselves in my mind, and by the time that a little more beer had disappeared on both sides of the table, I fell into a comparatively friendly conversation with him, for he was hearty and sensible and companionable and a man, in short, much more like a fighting Saxon King than any of the pompous versions of King Alfred in most statues and poems and plays.

And I came away from the conversation with the feeling that these pageants of which the English grow so fond are open to a certain criticism; that they have a defect which prevents them from being the really national things they might otherwise be.  Of this defect my friend the King of Wessex was a large and magnificent example.  A local pageant ought to be a festival of real local patriotism, which is one of the finest things in the world.  It ought to be concerned with the real pride of real people in their town.  Therefore, it ought never to consist of mere dead history; but, as far as possible, of living traditions. Legends should be honoured, if the legends are really current; lies should be honoured, if the lies are really told.  Old wives’ tales should be represented, if the old wives really tell them.  But mere historical coincidences of place and person, the mere fact that such-and-such a man did stand for a moment in such-and-such a spot — these we do not require in a popular pageant.  Suppose they have a pageant in Pimlico — I hope they will.  Then let Pimlico lift up in its pride anything that it is really proud of, if it be only the parish pump or the public-house sign.  Let Pimlico parade whatever Pimlico delights to honour, whether it is its best donkey, its blackest chimney-sweep, or even its member of Parliament.  That is all dignified and reasonable.  But it is not reasonable to send somebody to read up dry history until he discovers that William Wallace stopped three minutes at Pimlico on his way to execution, or that on the spot now occupied by the Pimlico Police-court Caractacus made a speech to the blue and bellowing Britons.  There is no patriotism in the thought that some alien and uninteresting person stood on the soil of Pimlico before Pimlico existed.  The parish has no living legend of the thing.  Whatever be the cause of that faint poetic melancholy that does seem to hover over Pimlico, it cannot be referred to any regrets at the fate of William Wallace.  However blue the modern Britons may look and feel in that district, it has no connection with the blueness of ancient Britons.  There is no true Pimlico sentiment in celebrating names which can be discovered in the British Museum Library, but cannot be discovered in Pimlico.  If Pimlico has any real memories, I care not of what, of prizefighters or dandies, or gentlemen deservedly hanged, let her celebrate those traditions.  If she has none, let her celebrate what is happening to her now, that at least she may have some traditions in the future.

Illustrated London News, 8 August 1908.

Published in: on August 13, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  

Shakespeare and Dante

That Shakespeare is the English giant, all but alone in his stature among the sons of men, is a truth that does not really diminish with distance. But it is a truth with two aspects; a shield with two sides; a sword with two edges. It is exactly because Shakespeare is an English giant that he blocks up the perspective of English history. He is as disproportionate to his own age as to every age; but he throws a misleading limelight on his own age and throws a gigantic shadow back on the other ages. For this reason many will not even know what I mean, when I talk about the greater spaciousness around the medieval poet [that is, Chaucer].  If the matter were pushed to a challenge, however, I could perhaps illustrate my meaning even better with another medieval poet. It is vaguely implied that Shakespeare was always jolly and Dante always gloomy. But, in a philosophical sense, it is almost the other way. It is notably so if, so to speak, we actually bring Shakespeare to the test of Dante. Do we not know in our hearts that Shakespeare could have dealt with Dante’s Hell but hardly with Dante’s Heaven? In so far as it is possible to be greater than anything that is really great, the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet might have made something even more poignant out of Paolo and Francesca. The man who uttered that pulverizing “He has no children”, over the butchery in the house of Macduff, might have picked out yet more awful and telling words for the father’s cry out of the Tower of Hunger. But the Tower of Hunger is not spacious. And when Dante is really dealing with the dance of the liberated virtues in the vasty heights of heaven, he is spacious. He is spacious when he talks of Liberty; he is spacious when he talks of Love. It is so in the famous words at the end about Love driving the sun and stars; it is the same in the far less famous and far finer passage, in which he hails the huge magnanimity of God in giving to the human spirit the one gift worth having; which is Liberty. Nobody but a fool will say that Shakespeare was a pessimist; but we may, in this limited sense, say that he was a pagan; in so far as he is the greatest at describing great spirits in chains. In that sense, his most serious plays are an inferno. Anyhow, they are not a Paradiso.

Chaucer (1932).

Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment