Probability in life and art

Although people talk of the restraints of fact and the freedom of fiction, the case for most artistic purposes is quite the other way. Nature is as free as air: art is forced to look probable. There may be a million things that do happen, and yet only one thing that convinces us as likely to happen. Out of a million possible things there may be only one appropriate thing. I fancy, therefore, that many stiff, unconvincing characters are copied from the wild freak-show of real life.

— Charles Dickens (1906).

Published in: on September 25, 2013 at 9:58 am  Leave a Comment  

That word ‘Conservatism’

I see that Mr. H.G. Wells has been describing the ideal of myself and some of my friends, with great good-humour and considerable accuracy, as “a conception of vinous, loudly-singing, earthy, toiling, custom-ruled, wholesome and insanitary men.” And a very jolly conception too, I think. But it is not of this egotistic truth that I wish to write here, but of a curious point of more public interest, which attaches to what followed. I did not read the words I have quoted in Mr. Wells’s book, but in a review of it in an excellent weekly paper. And after these words, the critic, not quoting further from Mr. Wells, but summarizing him (as I suppose), proceeds: “But we are not really driven back on this Conservatism, or upon the planless progress of the ordinary Radical or Socialist.” Look at that word Conservatism and think — think hard, and England may yet be saved.


Now, what did this critic mean by calling me “Conservative” (confound his impudence; his article was very good)? What, I repeat, did he mean by calling it “Conservative” to want men vinous, loudly-singing, custom-ruled, earthy, wholesome, and so on? Conservatism, presumably, means trying to keep your country as it is. How is our country this morning?

Is it loudly-singing? Apart from the fact that it has precious little to sing about, it is notorious that it does not sing: it is notorious that now, as for long past, the Englishman rather prides himself on not showing his feelings in a loud or lyric or symbolic way.

Is it even vinous? There have been no vines here since the Middle Ages; and not one man in forty could afford the cheapest claret. And though there is soaking in the slums, and much worse drugging in the Smart Set, Mr. Wells is much too magnanimous and understanding a man to suggest that I want people “vinous” in that style.

Is it earthy? Obviously it is not earthy. Sooty would be more in the manner of the mot juste. Our whole framework of Civilisation is industrial and not agricultural; it will need almost to be burst in pieces in order to be put together again as agricultural.

Is it toiling? Yes; without song, without wine, without the sight of Nature: but it is toiling all right — or, rather, all wrong. That is the only thing our progress has managed to “conserve”: the curse after the Fall. But even here the phrase is not happy: for the largest fact of our life to-day is that abstention from work (that jolly thing) has been so much abused by one class as a pleasure, that it is being used by the other class as a weapon.

Is it custom-ruled? Quite the contrary, of course. In the great determining cities and increasingly in the counties all round them, people have grown more and more nomadic; and a rolling stone gathers no customs. Parents and children are probably more loosened from each other, and different in manners (and even in class) than in any society ever known before.

Is it, to use Mr. Wells’s last and delightful antithesis, “wholesome and insanitary”? It would be hard to conceive a society where there was so much sanitation and so little wholesomeness.

So that it comes to this, and may be summed up calmly as follows: Because I want almost anything that doesn’t yet exist; because I want to turn a silent people into a singing people; because I should rejoice if a wineless country could be a wine-growing country; because I would change a world of wage-slaves into a world of free-holders; because I would have healthy employment instead of hideous unemployment; because I wish folk, now ruled by other people’s fads, to be ruled by their own laws and liberties; because I hate the established dirt and hate more the established cleanliness; because, in short, I want to alter nearly everything there is — a cursed, haughty, high-souled, well-informed, world-worrying, skyscraping, hair-splitting, head-splitting, academic animal of a common quill-driving social reformer gets up and calls me a Conservative!

The Illustrated London News, 6 July 1912.

Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 9:12 am  Comments (1)  

“A great deal of difference”

There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book, and the tired man who wants a book to read.

— Charles Dickens (1906).

Published in: on September 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Crazy Writing and Crazy Prophecies

I wonder where this profound modern conviction arose that our descendants are all going to be off their heads. We were used to the notion that the human race would some day be tipped into the sun, to the New Deluge theory that men would all be drowned. But where did our sociological reasoners and romancers get this idea that they will all be cracked? For no other phrase will fit the predictions that are very common in essays and novels just now. The study of natural history in its simplest form might presumably lead us to suppose that our sons and daughters will be men and women, and not sphinxes and minotaurs; and that men and women will be interested in the usual things — chiefly in each other. Sex, self-defence, the peril of childbed, the peril of battle, will always dwarf everything else. Births, deaths, and marriages will always be on the front page. Special conveniences, striking inventions will grow till they have fitted into the framework of these gigantic things, and then they will stop growing. But to hear the social prophets talk, one would think these inventions and conveniences would grow vaster and vaster in a sort of void, and would swallow up everything, including the humanity that made them.

For instance, I heard the other day a quite sober and scientific lecture about Aviation. The lecturer said calmly, in a kind of parenthesis, that one could not actually fix the period when flying would be the ordinary mode of daily movement; but it was pretty certain to come. Now this is just as if, when railways were invented, some railway director had written that we should all end by dining and sleeping all our lives in the train, but he could not as yet make public the date when the new arrangement would begin. Obviously, the aeroplane will increase till it fills a particular place in civilisation, as the railway-train has increased; then it will stop, as the railway-train has stopped. If an early railway speculator had prophesied that railways would become a million times more general and necessary than most people supposed, he would have been right. But if had prophesied that these moving houses would soon be the only houses left, he would have been in error. If he had said that St. Paul’s Cathedral and the General Post Office would some day go by on wheels with a piston-rod, he would have been under a misapprehension. Steam has had its epoch of wealth and power, about as long as it is likely to have it. And strangely enough, there are still dining-rooms that are not dining-cars, and bedrooms (I am glad to say) that are not wagons de lit. If the first projector of automobiles had said that they would not always be confined to projectors, nor even exclusively to the very rich, he would have been right. But if he had said that by 1911 every man would motor downstairs to breakfast in the morning and motor upstairs to bed at night, motor round the library to choose a book, and motor across the drawing-room to ring a bell, then it would be possible by this time to detect in his prediction a faint trace of exaggeration. And in the same way, of course, a man who says that aviation will become much more important than it is, is probably right. But a man who says that it will become a normal human habit is not only mad himself, but evidently believes that he can bequeath his mental malady to his descendants.

One marked character in the madman is this mentioning of the most preposterous things, in passing, in a parenthesis. If a piece of writing is wild and raving from the first page to the last, it is not a sign of insanity. Nay, it may even be a sign of sanity. It may be the top point of some howling hilarity that comes out of pure health: there are many pages by very sane writers, from Rabelais to Dickens, that are of this type, But when a man writes ten mild pages and one monstrous thing in brackets, then I think there is a strange spot on his brain, and it might be humane to communicate with his family. Anyone might write anything in high spirits; and most probably if it were all impossible it would all be true. But if I wrote some ordinary information, as “Beaconsfield is a town in South Bucks, with four chief streets called ‘ends,’ one pointing to Windsor, one to Wycombe, one to Aylesbury (where I ate ninety negroes), and one to London” — then I think the parenthesis would stand out with some special improbability from the rest of the narrative.  Of if a historian wrote, “In the year 1649 Charles I was tried before a special court presided over by Bradshaw (whose mother was a walrus), and executed at Whitehall” — once more the accuracy of the rest would be accentuate the quaintness of the assertion. Or if a geographer were to write, “England is bounded on the east by the German Ocean, on the north by Scotland, on the west by St. George’s Channel and Ireland (where the people are unfit for self-government), and on the south by the English Channel and France” — then we should all feel that the writer was mad, though, perhaps, only mad on one point.

I am always coming across, in the most cultured quarters, in the most careful writings, this odd element of what I may call the crazy casual allusion. A man will, as it were, introduce a twelve-headed ostrich among the simplest birds of our hedgerows. He will take a whale walking on the legs of an elephant, and he will take it quite lightly. And in no department is this more quietly startling than in the department of discussions about the future of which I spoke above. It was right in the thick of thoroughly prosaic details about head resistances and gliding angles, landing chassis and vol plane, that my aviating lecturer spoke as if he expected people to fly out of their bedroom windows and flutter down into their garden-parties. To take another case. I read recently a very just and clear-headed article about the philosophy of some German, applauding him on this point, differing from him on that. Suddenly, and quite placidly, appeared a paragraph in which the critic said (with a sort of gratified blush) that the German Professor seemed almost to suggest a view which he (the critic) had long held. And what was this view? Ah, what indeed! It was that all mankind will soon turn into one enormous animal, each individual having no more conscious life than the corpuscles in the blood. It was, really. Now, why should anybody’s rational hope and curiosity about the human future be distorted and blackened by such brainless nightmares? This one, for instance, has no sort of scientific basis that I can conceive; it is as absurdly impossible as it is abominably undesirable. Why should the poor gentleman anticipate that we shall all melt into one organic being any more than that our legs will drop off and dance down the street on their own account? Long before I went in for this appalling form of Imperialism, by which we should all become, not merely one people, but one person — long before I yielded to that bestial enslavement, I should be inclined to agitate for “Liberty for Legs” and “Home Rule for Noses.” But before that, in turn, I should enter a humble and hesitating suggestion that the young of the human species may possibly grow up human, and bear such a general resemblance to their ancestors as we do to ours. It is already our experience that when educationists have done their worst, boys will be boys; it is not beyond the range of speculation that when the sociologists have done their worst, men will still be men.

It is very important for the purposes of practical reform that these fantastic pictures of futurity should be painted out as quickly as possible. We have real tyrannies to fight, tyrannies that have quietly increased through decades and centuries; and we cannot afford, while we are oppressed by the past, to be also depressed by the future.

— The Illustrated London News, 12 August 1911 [*].

[*] This is the whole text of Chesterton’s article for this date. The title of this post is taken from Ignatius Press’ Collected Works.

Published in: on September 4, 2013 at 8:27 am  Comments (5)