On paradoxes

There are two kinds of paradoxes. They are not so much the good and the bad, nor even the true and the false. Rather they are the fruitful and the barren; the paradoxes which produce life and the paradoxes that merely announce death. Nearly all modern paradoxes merely announce death. I see everywhere among the young men who have imitated Mr. Shaw a strange tendency to utter epigrams which deny the possibility of further life and thought. A paradox may be a thing unusual, menacing, even ugly — like a rhinoceros. But, as a live rhinoceros ought to produce more rhinoceri, so a live paradox ought to produce more paradoxes. Nonsense ought to be suggestive; but nowadays it is abortive. The new epigrams are not even fantastic finger-posts on a wild road: they are tablets, each set into a brick wall at the end of a blind alley. So far as they concern thought at all, they cry to men, ‘Think no more’, as the voice says ‘Sleep no more’ to Macbeth. These rhetoricians never speak except to move the closure. Even when they are really witty (as in the case of Mr. Shaw), they commonly commit the one crime that cannot be forgiven among free men. They say the last word.

I will give such instances as happen to lie before me. I see on my table a book of aphorisms by a young Socialist writer, Mr. Holbrook Jackson; it is called Platitudes in the Making, and curiously illustrates this difference between the paradox that starts thought and the paradox that prevents thought. Of course, the writer has read too much Nietzsche and Shaw, and too little of less groping and more gripping thinkers. But he says many really good things of his own, and they illustrate perfectly what I mean here about the suggestive and the destructive nonsense.

Thus in one place he says, ‘Suffer fools gladly: they may be right’. That strikes me as good; but here I mean specially that it strikes me as fruitful and free. You can do something with the idea; it opens an avenue. One can go searching among one’s more solid acquaintances and relatives for the fires of a concealed infallibility. One may fancy one sees the star of immortal youth in the somewhat empty eye of Uncle George; one may faintly follow some deep rhythm of nature in the endless repetitions with which Miss Bootle tells a story; and in the grunts and gasps of the Major next door may hear, as it were, the cry of a strangled god. It can never narrow our minds, it can never arrest our life, to suppose that a particular fool is not such a fool as he looks. It must be all to the increase of charity, and charity is the imagination of the heart.

I turn the next page, and come on what I call the barren paradox. Under the hed of ‘Advices’, Mr. Jackson writes, ‘Don’t think — do.’ This is exactly like saying, ‘Don’t eat — digest.’ All doing that is not mechanical or accidental involves thinking; only the modern world seems to have forgotten that there can be such a thing as decisive and dramatic thinking. Everything that comes from the will must pass through the mind, though it may pass quickly. The only sort of thing the strong man can ‘do’ without thinking of something like falling over a doormat. This is not even making the mind jump; it is simply making it stop. I take another couple of cases at random. ‘The object of life is life.’ That affects me as ultimately true; always presuming the author is liberal enough to include eternal life. But even if it is nonsense, it is thoughtful nonsense.

On another page I read, ‘Truth is one’s own conception of things’. That is thoughtless nonsense. A man would never have had any conception of things at all unless he had thought they were things and there was some truth about them. Here we have the black nonsense, like black magic, that shuts down the brain. ‘A lie is that which you do not believe’. That is a lie; so perhaps Mr. Jackson does not believe it.

The Illustrated London News, 11 March 1911.

(A note to readers of The Hebdomadal Chesterton: A version of Mr. Jackson’s Platitudes in the Making with Chesterton’s own marginal comments has been published by Ignatius Press. It is quite interesting.)

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 6:23 am  Comments (2)  

Holy week

I would be better if every Monday, instead of being Black Monday, were always Bright Monday, to commemorate the creation of the Light. It would be better if Tuesday, at present a word of colourless connotation, represented a great feast of fountains, and rivers and rolling streams; because it was the Day of the Division of the Waters. It would be better if every Wednesday were an occasion for hanging the house with green boughs or blossoms; because these things were brought forth on the third day of Creation; or that Thursday were sacred to the sun and the moon, and Friday sacred to fish and fowl; and so on. Then you might begin to have some notion of the importance of the week; and what a high and imaginative civilisation might really do with the week. If it had the creative power to produce such a pageant of creation, it would not bother with cinemas.

Radio Broadcast.

(Hat-tip: G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland)

Published in: on August 17, 2011 at 6:49 am  Leave a Comment  

“Write his oath upon the heavens”

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words — ‘free-love’ — as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-flavoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

The Defendant (1901).

(Hat-tip: The Imaginative Conservative)

Published in: on August 10, 2011 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  

“Deep and tenacious human habits”

The sexes tend, without any coercion, to come together. Consequently, in all moralising or legislating about sex, we must constantly allow for an element that does not exist in any other caste, section, or division. When we see that a chief wears a sword, while his serf does not wear a sword, we shall be roughly safe in supposing that this is because the lord prefers the serf swordless. When we see (in pretty recent Irish history) an Englishman allowed to carry firearms, but an Irishman not allowed to carry firearms, we may venture timidly to suppose that it is the Englishman who has arranged this, and not the Irishman. But it is not true that when we find the man smoking a pipe and the woman not smoking one that the veto must have come from the man. It may have come from the differentiation demanded on each side by the desire to attract the other.

No tyrants wish to please their slaves, and few sensible slaves do much to please their tyrants; and for this reason men and women never have been, and never can be, merely in the relationship of tyrants and slaves. There may have been a good deal of tyranny mixed up with it; there has been, and not male tyranny only. But this evil element can never be detected or destroyed but by a sane analysis, which will recognize the element of inevitable attraction. Marriage is not a hammer, but a magnet. The family does not rest on force, but on sex. And the upshot of it is that most of the ancient customs of the sexes are conveniences: not things imposed by one party, but things equally desired by both. I am not here speaking of laws and statutes (many of which, I think, are really unjust), but of certain deep and tenacious human habits, as the disproportionate emphasis on bodily dignity in the female or bodily hardihood in the male. These were never imposed; they are the oldest and freest things in the world.

The Illustrated London News, 29 April 1911.

Published in: on August 3, 2011 at 9:17 am  Comments (1)