“The alphabet of humanity”

By using animals in the austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger truths. That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed.

It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man. These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Aesop or began with Adam, whether they were German and mediaeval as Reynard the Fox, or as French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.

— Introduction to Aesop’s Fables (1912).

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Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  

“Similarity always means inequality”

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. And the same applies in some degree to all genuine differences. It is a great mistake to suppose that love unites and unifies men. Love diversifies them, because love is directed towards individuality. The thing that really unites men and makes them like to each other is hatred. Thus, for instance, the more we love Germany the more pleased we shall be that Germany should be something different from ourselves, should keep her own ritual and conviviality and we ours. But the more we hate Germany the more we shall copy German guns and German fortifications in order to be armed against Germany. The more modern nations detest each other the more meekly they follow each other; for all competition is in its nature only a furious plagiarism. As competition means always similarity, it is equally true that similarity always means inequality. If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.

— Charles Dickens (1906).

Published in: on January 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm  Comments (2)  

The Towers of Time

Under what withering leprous light
The very grass as hair is grey,
Grass in the cracks of the paven courts
Of gods we graved but yesterday.
Senate, republic, empire, all
We leaned our backs on like a wall
And blessed as strong as strong and blamed as stolid —
Can it be these that waver and fall?

And what is this like a ghost returning,
A dream grown strong in the strong daylight?
The all-forsaken, the unforgotten,
The ever-behind and out of sight.
We turned our backs and our blind flesh felt it
Growing and growing, a tower in height.

Ah, not alone the evil splendour
And not the insolent arms alone
Break with the ramrod, stiff and brittle,
The sceptre of the nordic throne:
But things of manlier renown
Reel in the wreck of throne and crown,
With tyrannous tyranny, tyrannous loyalty,
Tyrannous liberty, all gone down.

(There is never a crack in the ivory tower
Or a hinge to groan in the house of gold
Or a leaf of the rose in the wind to wither
And She grows young as the world grows old.
A Woman clothed with the sun returning
To clothe the sun when the sun is cold.)

Ah, who had guessed that in a moment
Great Liberty that loosed the tribes,
the Republic of the young men’s battles
Grew stale and stank of old men’s bribes;
And where we watched her smile in power
A statue like a starry tower
The stone face sneers as in a nightmare
Down on a world that worms devour.

(Archaic incredible dead dawns breaking
Deep in the deserts and waste and wealds,
Where the dead cry aloud on Our Lady of Victories,
Queen of the Eagles, aloft on the shields,
And the sun is gone up on the Thundering Legion
On the roads of Rome to the battlefields.)

Ah, who had known who had not seen
How soft and sudden on the fame
Of my most noble English ships
The sunset light of Carthage came
And the thing I never had dreamed could be
In the house of my fathers came to me
Through the sea-wall cloven, the cloud and dark,
A voice divided, a doubtful sea.

(The light is bright on the Tower of David,
The evening glows with the morning star
In the skies turned back and the days returning
She walks so near who had wandered far
And in the heart of the swords, the seven times wounded,
Was never wearied as our hearts are.)

How swift as with a fall of snow
New things grow hoary with the light.
We watch the wrinkles crawl like snakes
On the new image in our sight.
The lines that sprang up taut and bold
Sag like primordial monsters old,
Sink in the bas-reliefs of fossil
And the slow earth swallows them, fold on fold,

But light are the feet on the hills of the morning
Of the lambs that leap up to the Bride of the Sun,
And swift are the birds as the butterflies flashing
And sudden as laughter the rivulets run
And sudden for ever as summer lightning
the light is bright on the world begun.

Thou wilt not break as we have broken
The towers we reared to rival Thee.
More true to England than the English
More just to freedom than the free.
O trumpet of the intolerant truth
Thou art more full of grace and ruth
For the hopes of the world than the world that made them,
The world that murdered the loves of our youth.

Thou art more kind to our dreams, Our Mother,
Than the wise that wove us the dreams for shade.
God is more good to the gods that mocked Him
Than men are good to the gods they made.
Tenderer with toys than a boy grown brutal,
Breaking the puppets with which he played.

What are the flowers the garden guards not
And how but here should dreams return?
And how on hearths made cold with ruin
the wide wind-scattered ashes burn —
What is the home of the heart set free,
And where is the nesting of liberty,
And where from the world shall the world take shelter
And man be master, and not with Thee?

Wisdom is set in her throne of thunder,
The Mirror of Justice blinds the day —
Where are the towers that are not of the City,
Trophies and trumpetings, where are they?
Where over the maze of the world returning
The bye-ways bend to the King’s highway.

— (1925).

Published in: on January 15, 2014 at 6:46 am  Leave a Comment  

“Into something opposite”

Our forefathers in the morning of the world appear in certain ancient and, as I think, eternal attitudes; in the posture of the performance of certain primal human acts; such as hunting or dancing or feasting or sacrificing to the gods. It is right and natural that these things should grow richer and more complex with time. But it is decadent and dangerous when these things forget their origin and alter their inmost nature; when, after a stretch of centuries, they have turned into something else, sometimes into something opposite.

… Let us take the case of hunting. Sport has silently and subtly reversed its old character. The essence of the change is this: that men began with the comparatively generous idea of killing wild beasts, and have ended up with the comparatively paltry idea of preserving them. The first was heroic because it was hard and necessary: it was a just and even chivalric part of the war on anarchy, a war of self-defence. It was as moral as Jack the Giant-Killer. In fact, in the early legends the slaying of monsters and the slaying of ordinary beasts is treated as part of the same barbaric knight-errantry. Hercules, in the course of his Twelve Labours, overcomes an ordinary lion and wild boar as well as a three-headed dog and a nine-headed hydra. There is even (if I remember right) a medieval tale of a knight who covered himself with glory in overcoming a cow — a cow gigantic, indeed, but apparently female and “due to purely natural causes.” Do not, however, indulge in that superiority to mediaevalism which is the chief note in the cad. There are a great many knights who appear in Honours Lists who could not offer defiance to a cow, even if the cow were of microscopic, instead of gigantic, size.

Now it is the fragments of this primaeval epic of the slaying of the monsters that give to the earliest hunting-tales and hunting-songs an unmistakable savour of moral honesty and sound feeling. Some of the old hunting-songs, Celtic and Germanic, are great poems, poems in the grand style. The note of it lingers on the horns of Chevy Chase, where the ballad-writer, in a mood between irony and awe, speaks and thinks of the Border battle in terms of venery —

And of the rest of less account
Did many hundreds die;
So ended the hunting of Chevy Chase
Made by the Lord Percy.

The poet seems almost to think it higher praise to call it a hunt than to call it a fight. This heroic tradition came largely, of course, from the real peril of earlier sport: a boar at bay was as destructive as dynamite; and even a stag at bay was not all beer and skittles. But there was more than this; there was the vague but spirited memory of this earlier notion of destroying the huge enemies of man; the tyrants of the material universe; vermin as big as houses; vermin that moved like galleys. Outside of their enormous shadows, all sorts of subtler feelings about birds and beasts could arise. The story of St. George and the Dragon is just as Christian as the story of St. Francis and the Wolf. But they belong to different atmospheres.

Imagine the old sentiment about monsters being applied to modern sport, and you will see how enormously and silently sport has changed; has turned from a sincere notion of killing things as nuisances to a complex notion of keeping them us luxuries. Imagine Jack being asked if he “preserved” giants on his little estate. Imagine St. George “carting” the Dragon, and after every day’s sport putting it back in the cart… Over-elaborated societies end up with their tails in their mouths; in a posture not merely twisted but inverted.

Of course, there are other instances, at which I have already glanced. There was the primitive man whom we left offering sacrifice to the gods when we went off after the hunter. The sacrificer builds an altar and pours wine or blood or something on it and holds up his hands to the sky and talks to somebody he can’t see: a sensible fellow. Then, as time goes on, he turns his remarks into an ordered chant, and then, perhaps, into a written book; and he has a roof to cover the people who come to see him sacrifice, and a lectern to read the book from, and a sort of forum or pulpit to stand in and explain what he has been doing, and so on. And then, when civilisation has grown for some centuries, there comes an Ethical Society — the advance guard of barbarism. You may know it by this extraordinary fact: that it doesn’t take away the additions and accretions round the old human thing; it takes away the old human thing itself. It leaves the reading-desk and the talking-box and the people sitting still on hard seats. But it takes away the altar. It takes away the god.

The Illustrated London News, 9 March 1912.

Published in: on January 8, 2014 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  

“The thing that Dickens’ genius could never succeed in describing”

Dullness was the thing that Dickens’s genius could never succeed in describing; his vitality was so violent that he could not introduce into his books the genuine impression even of a moment of monotony. If there is anywhere in his novels an instant of silence, we only hear more clearly the hero whispering with the heroine, the villain sharpening his dagger, or the creaking of the machinery that is to give out the god from the machine. He could splendidly describe gloomy places, but he could not describe dreary places. He could describe miserable marriages, but not monotonous marriages. It must have been genuinely entertaining to be married to Mr. Quilp. This sense of a still incessant excitement he spreads over every inch of his story, and over every dark tract of his landscape. His idea of a desolate place is a place where anything can happen, he has no idea of that desolate place where nothing can happen. This is a good thing for his soul, for the place where nothing can happen is hell.

— Charles Dickens (1906).

Published in: on January 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm  Comments (1)