“Vary with every valley”

Industrialism actually boasts that its products are all of one pattern; that men in Jamaica or Japan can break the same seal and drink the same bad whiskey, that a man at the North Pole and another at the South might recognise the same optimistic level on the same dubious tinned salmon. But wine, the gift of gods to men, can vary with every valley and every vineyard, can turn into a hundred wines without any wine once reminding us of whiskey; and cheeses can change from county to county without forgetting the difference between chalk and cheese.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on March 25, 2009 at 7:40 am  Leave a Comment  

“History before history”

In one sense it is a true paradox that there was history before history. But it is not the irrational paradox implied in prehistoric history; for it is a history we do not know.  Very probably it was exceedingly like the history we do know, except in the one detail that we do not know it. It is thus the very opposite of the pretentious prehistoric history, which professes to trace everything in a consistent course from the amoeba to the anthropoid and from the anthropoid to the agnostic. So far from being a question of our knowing all about queer creatures very different from ourselves, they were very probably people very like ourselves, except that we know nothing about them. In other words, our most ancient records only reach back to a time when humanity had long been human, and even long been civilised. The most ancient records we have not only mention but take for granted things like kings and priests and princes and assemblies of the people; they describe communities that are roughly recognisable as communities in our own sense.  Some of them are despotic; but we cannot tell that they have always been despotic.  Some of them may be already decadent and nearly all are mentioned as if they were old. We do not know what really happened in the world before those records; but the little we do know would leave us anything but astonished if we learnt that it was very much like what happens in this world now. There would be nothing inconsistent or confounding about the discovery that those unknown ages were full of republics collapsing under monarchies and rising again as republics, empires expanding and finding colonies and then losing colonies. Kingdoms combining again into world states and breaking up again into small nationalities, classes selling themselves into slavery and marching out once more into liberty; all that procession of humanity which may or may not be a progress but most assuredly a romance. But the first chapters of the romance have been torn out of the book; and we shall never read them.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 8:09 am  Leave a Comment  

The hangman and the soldier

We have so many questions in the modern world which are really difficult to answer; I wish the modern people would leave off asking questions which are quite easy to answer, or, rather, which are not even worth answering.  Latter-day scepticism is fond of calling itself progressive; but scepticism is really reactionary in the only intelligent sense which that term can bear.  Scepticism goes back; it attempts to unsettle what has already been settled.  Instead of trying to break up new fields with its plough, it simply tries to break up the plough.  And the worst symptom is this habit of our philosophers of asking nursery questions, questions that most of us in our babyhood either found answered or found unanswerable.  Sophistry has gone so far as to unlearn the alphabet and reverse the clock.  Many of the queries solemnly propounded in our most portentous books and magazines are queries which a schoolboy would answer with instantaneous and irritating smartness, and which a healthy child would not even admit to be queries at all.

I take such cases as come to hand.  I read two articles this morning in two very able and distinguished periodicals which were devoted to this general consideration: “How extraordinary it is that the hangman is regarded with horror, which the soldier and the judge are not regarded with horror.”  The schoolboy would burst his Eton collar in his eagerness to answer so obvious a difficulty.  He would say at once that a hangman is not so fine as a soldier, because he is not so brave.  A hangman is merely a destroyer; a soldier is not.  A soldier, at the best, is a martyr; at the worst, he is a good gambler.  If the public executioner were obliged to have a personal conflict on the scaffold with the criminal, upon the issue of which depended which of the two were hanged, then general public sentiment would admire the hangman, just as general public sentiment admires the soldier.

All this is a very tiresome truism; but that is my point.  I cannot understand anyone asking a question that has so obvious an answer.  The writer, if I remember correctly, goes on to attempt a solution by talking about clinging memories of barbaric creeds and the slow advance through history of the humanitarian sentiment.  But the thing has nothing to do with the advance of anything or the memory of anything.  There never was a time in recorded history when soldiers were not liked, while hangmen, jailers, and torturers were regarded with marked coldness.  There is no record of any civilization in which the hangman was a desirable parti for the daughters of the aristocracy.  There never was a Victoria Cross merely for killing people.  There never was a civic crown ob cives interfectos.

This does not appear particularly surprising to anyone whose heart is in the right place or whose head is screwed on correctly.  It is not hard to see that the human soul has always recognized three degrees of moral value in the matter of killing.  Highest is the martyr, who is killed without killing; second is the soldier, who is killed and kills; third is the executioner, who kills with no peril at all of being killed in return.  He is disliked.  It may be unjust, but I do not understand anyone thinking it unnatural.

The Illustrated London News, 6 February 1909.

Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 7:58 am  Leave a Comment  

On clothing

…all we can infer from primitive legend, and all we know of barbaric life, supports a certain moral and even mystical idea of which the commonest symbol is clothes. For clothes are very literally vestments and man wears them because he is a priest.  It is true that even as an animal he is here different from the animals.  Nakedness is not nature to him; it is not his life but rather his death; even in the vulgar sense of his death of cold.  But clothes are worn for dignity or decency or decoration where they are not in any way wanted for warmth. It would sometimes appear that they are valued for ornament before they are valued for use.  It would almost always appear that they are felt to have some connection with decorum. Conventions of this sort vary a great deal with various times and places; and there are some who cannot get over this reflection, and for whom it seems a sufficient argument for letting all conventions slide. They never tire of repeating, with simple wonder, that dress is different in the Cannibal Islands and in Camden Town; they cannot get any further and throw up the whole idea of decency in despair. They might as well say that because there have been hats of a good many different shapes, and some rather eccentric shapes, therefore hats do not matter or do not exist.  They would probably add that there is no such thing as sunstroke or going bald. Men have felt everywhere that certain norms were necessary to fence off and protect certain private things from contempt or coarse misunderstanding; and the keeping of those forms, whatever they were, made for dignity and mutual respect. The fact that they mostly refer, more or less remotely, to the relations of the sexes illustrates the two facts that must be put at the very beginning of the record of the race. The first is the fact that original sin is really original. Not merely in theology but in history it is a thing rooted in the origins.  Whatever else men have believed, they have all believed that there is something the matter with mankind. This sense of sin has made it impossible to be natural and have no clothes, just as it has made it impossible to be natural and have no laws.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on March 4, 2009 at 9:30 am  Leave a Comment