“A fixed form”

The advantage of a fixed form is not at all understood by people in our times. The advantage of a fixed form is that it really varies — that is, by its very fixity, it measures the various moods in which we approach it.  Getting up in the morning is a fixed form; if it were not a fixed form, I, for one, would never do it.  No getting up for me — nisi me compelleret ecclesiae auctoritas.  But it is exactly because I have to get up every morning that I notice that one day is bright blue, another brown and foggy, another cold, clear, and silvery, and my mood varies accordingly.  On the bright blue day my spirits go slightly down; there seems something pitiless about perfect weather.  On the clear cool day, my spirits are normal.  In the fog, my spirits go up; it feels like the end of the world, or better still, a detective story.  But I should not appreciate any of these differences if I had not a fixed common duty to perform on each of such days; if it were not that under the blue dome of summer or the yellow umbrella of the fog, I have to go through the same disgusting rites of washing and getting dressed.  It is the same with the advantages of keeping up a fixed ceremonial through the ages.  The fixed formality stands as a permanent critic of the changing society.  Thus, if we continue one form from childhood, such as keeping a diary, or a birthday, this is the only thing that enables us to realise change.

The Illustrated London News, 26 September 1908.

Published in: on October 29, 2008 at 7:09 am  Comments (2)  

“It is the humble man”

It is the humble man who does the big things. It is the humble man who does the bold things. It is the humble man who has the sensational sights vouchsafed to him, and this for three obvious reasons: first, that he strains his eyes more than other men to see them; second, that he is more overwhelmed and uplifted with them when they come; third, that he records them more exactly and sincerely and with less adulteration from his more commonplace and more conceited everyday self.

Heretics (1905).

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 7:00 am  Comments (1)  


Religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life. But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists insist on it. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable — is almost horribly valuable. Pessimism says that life is so short that it gives nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives everybody his final chance. In the first case the word brevity means futility; in the second case, opportunity.

Preface to Nicholas Nickleby.

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 8:11 am  Leave a Comment  

“Bank-clerks are without songs”

How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody do anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things?. . .

[There is] an indefinable something in the very atmosphere of the society in which we live that makes it spiritually difficult to sing in banks. . . There is something spiritually suffocating about our life; not about our laws merely, but about our life.  Bank-clerks are without songs not because they are poor, but because they are sad.  Sailors are much poorer.  As I passed homewards I passed a little tin building of some religious sort, which was shaken with shouting as a trumpet is torn with its own tongue.  They were singing anyhow; and I had for an instant a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human.  Human nature is hunted, and has fled into sanctuary.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 7:25 am  Comments (2)  

“This is the jungle”

The critic in question said in these words, or almost these words: “We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Dryden’s conversion to Roman Catholicism; but, after all, in the case of so great a man as Dryden, does the question matter very much?” That is the Modern Mind. This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks. This is the Jungle. This is the thickest of all thickets and the thorniest of all earthly briar-patches; and though I was born and bred in that briar-patch, like Brer Rabbit, I found it difficult to discover a path out of it; and I did not know how we are really to make a path through it.

Of course we can always begin by using the primitive implement of reason; and try to let in a little light merely by letting in a little logic. So far as I understand the argument as an argument, it is this. If John Dryden had been born half-witted, or if he had been a dunce and a dull fellow entirely insignificant in the intellectual and social life of his time — then it would have been frightfully and sensationally important to know whether he was or was not sincere, with a soul-searching sincerity, in his intellectual acceptance of the complete Catholic philosophy. But as he was not a dunce but a poet, as he was not a half-wit but a wit, as he was not a mindless person but a very great mind, then it must be a matter of indifference whether such an intellect can accept such an intellectual philosophy. Dryden was so great a thinker that it does not matter what he thought; he was almost certainly in search of the truth, but he was so capable of searching for it that nobody can take any interest in whether he found it; and it is only in the case of a small man that we could take a great interest in the great truth that he thought he found. How, I ask you, do people get their minds into a tangle like that? How could a man be sincere in his Catholicism, and yet think himself superior to his Catholicism? How could his greatness be detached from anything so great as a belief in a universal order of life, death and eternity; if he really had the greatness and really had the belief? It might make some sense if Dryden was not sincere; but it is practically admitted that he was sincere. It might make some sense if Dryden was small; but it is actually based on the view that he was great.

While the world has been talking about removing Victorian taboos, I have been resolved from the first to remove that one Victorian taboo; which really was a senseless and strangling taboo: the taboo on the topic of real religion, and its real and inevitable place in practical life. Most of the things the Moderns call Victorian taboos are about as Victorian as the Ten Commandments or the maxims of Confucius. But this really was Victorian, in the sense of having arisen recently in a vulgar, commercial and cowardly social system. It is not the notion that it is right or wrong to be a Moslem; it is the notion that it cannot really matter even to a Moslem that he is a Moslem. What is totally intolerable is the idea that everybody must pretend, for the sake of peace and decorum, that moral inspiration only comes from secular things like Distributism, and cannot possibly come from spiritual things like Catholicism. That is the fixed idea like a fossil that lies under all the labyrinthine wrappings or coil of contradictory conventions, in the mind of the reviewer whose words I quote.

It has nothing to do with what he would call being religious; or forcing religion upon him or anybody else. No Catholic thinks he is a good Catholic; or he would by that thought become a bad Catholic. I for one am not even tempted to any illusion in that matter; I fear that very often, when I have got up early to go to Mass, I have said with a groan, Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, which, I may explain to the Moslem, is not a quotation from the Mass. But the critic here in question does not say, in the grand Lucretian manner, “Religion alone can persuade men to such evils.” He says, “Religion alone cannot really have persuaded anybody to anything.” He stands for a stupid interlude of intellectual history, in which men would not recognise religion either as a friend or an enemy, which supposed that a great man must be great, not merely in spite of it, but even without reference to it. That intellectual interlude was never very intellectual; and anyhow, it is over.

The Well and the Shallows (1935).

Published in: on October 1, 2008 at 2:20 pm  Leave a Comment