“Huge hieroglyphics”

One often wonders what the world of the future will really think of our present epoch.  It is all very well to say that they will find plenty of documents and an enormous amount of printed matter.  Our newspaper language is obvious because it is printed in large letters.  The names over our shops are obvious because they are printed in large letters. They are not obvious in any other sense. We think them simple because we know what they mean. But they are not by any means things of which one can say generally that it is easy to know what they mean. Take the first case that comes to hand.  Suppose the traveller from New Zealand saw over a big London building the words “Child’s Bank”, I suppose he would think it meant a child’s money-box.  We read it quite simply and swiftly and in another sense; but then, so did the ancient Egyptians read simply and swiftly the huge hieroglyphics that we can hardly decipher.  When they saw a moon, six suns, a human hand, a lotus, and five birds standing on one leg, they immediately burst out laughing, because it was a joke. But our descendants, even if they know our language, may well have almost as much trouble with us as we have with Egypt. The opportunities for a natural error are so infinite; as in the case of Child’s Bank.

I remember when I was a little boy (I was a poetical and unpleasant little boy) I always read the words “Job-Master” over some neighbouring door, as if the first word were the Job of the Old Testament.  I also remember that over a shop of hatters or hosiers in Kensington were written the words “Hope Brothers.”  I supposed this to be an inspiring address to mankind, urging them not to fall into an impotent pessimism.  I have since found that the thing has another and less invigorating meaning; and I am even able to appreciate the irony of the fact that over another establishment of an analogous kind is written “Hope, Limited”.  Try the experiment for yourself with almost any words on which your eye happens to fall.  At the moment when I am writing (with fevered brow) this article, the words on which my eye falls first are “Typewriting Office,” written backwards on a windowpane.  That reminds me of an example.  I once wrote a rather silly book about twelve historic figures whom I chose to consider symbolic — St. Francis of Assisi, Charles II, Tolstoy, and so on.  As a book must have a name I called it “Twelve Types”.  I afterwards discovered that it had some sale as a book about technical printing; I found it myself in a library for working printers.  I hope the poor brutes didn’t read it.

The Illustrated London News, 12 September 1908.

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Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 11:13 am  Comments (1)  

“A castle in the clouds”

There is all the difference between fancying there are fairies in the wood, which often only means fancying a certain wood as fit for fairies, and really frightening ourselves until we walk a mile rather than pass a house we have told ourselves is haunted.  Behind all these things is the fact that beauty and terror are very real things and related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all, even in doubt or fancy, is to stir the deep things of the soul. We all understand that and the pagans understood it. The point is that paganism did not really stir the soul except with these doubts and fancies, with the consequence that we to-day can have little beyond doubts and fancies about paganism. All the best critics agree that all the greatest poets, in pagan Hellas for example, had an attitude towards their gods which is quite queer and puzzling to men in the Christian era. There seems to be an admitted conflict between the god and the man; but everybody seems to be doubtful about which is the hero and which is the villain.  This doubt does not merely apply to a doubter like Euripides in the Bacchae; it applies to a moderate conservative like Sophocles in the Antigone; or even to a regular Tory and reactionary like Aristophanes in the Frogs.  Sometimes it would seem that the Greeks believed above all things in reverence, only they had nobody to revere. But the point of the puzzle is this, that all this vagueness and variation arise from the fact that the whole thing began in fancy and in dreaming; and that there are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on June 17, 2009 at 7:29 am  Leave a Comment  

“His extra limbs”

For there is nothing that is really cut off from man or really independent of him in the whole human world. All tools are, as it were, his extra limbs. The chair he sits on is only a system of wooden legs. When he lies on a bed he does not turn himself into a quadruped which (like the elephant) sleeps standing up. If any of these limbs or props of man were to fail him it would be a failure of man. When he invents the most fantastic monstrosities of mechanism, he is only turning himself, as it were, into a monstrosity, into a Briareus, or a centipede. The wooden railway signals are only the wild arms of man waving warnings to his children. The lamps of gas or electricity are only the innumerable eyes of man peering into every dark place and every corner of crime. His passionate pulse is throbbing in the pulse of every passionless machine; his nerves are tingling in the last faint filaments of thread or wire. All the mills of the world labour swiftly because the swiftest thing of all is the ancient desire of the heart. If ever man is to die, these things will die long before him. So long as man lives and has human faith and hope, these things will in innumerable forms continually go forth from him.

The Illustrated London News, 4 August 1906.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:33 am  Leave a Comment  

“Things seen through the veil”

. . .the first fact is that the most simple people have the most subtle ideas.  Everybody ought to know that, for everybody has been a child.  Ignorant as a child is, he knows more than he can say and feels not only atmospheres but fine shades. And in this matter there are several fine shades. Nobody understands it who has not had what can only be called the ache of the artist to find some sense and some story in the beautiful things he sees; his hunger for secrets and his anger at any tower or tree escaping with its tale untold. He feels that nothing is perfect unless it is personal. Without that the blind unconscious beauty of the world stands in its garden like a headless statue.  One need only be a very minor poet to have wrestled with the tower or the tree until it spoke like a titan or a dryad.  It is often said that pagan mythology was a personification of the powers of nature. The phrase is true in a sense, but it is very unsatisfactory; because it implies that the forces are abstractions and the personification is artificial.  Myths are not allegories. Natural powers are not in this case abstractions.  It is not as if there were a God of Gravitation.  There may be a genius of the waterfall; but not of mere falling, even less than of mere water. The impersonation is not of something impersonal.  The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance. Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man.  He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens, so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold.  The test therefore is purely imaginative.  But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false.  Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on June 3, 2009 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment