“Every honest scout ought to praise the enemy”

Political and social satire is a lost art, like pottery and stained glass. It may be worth while to make some attempt to point out a reason for this.

It may seem a singular observation to say that we are not generous enough to write great satire. This, however, is approximately a very accurate way of describing the case. To write great satire, to attack a man so that he feels the attack and half acknowledges its justice, it is necessary to have a certain intellectual magnanimity which realises the merits of the opponent as well as his defects. This is, indeed, only another way of putting the simple truth that in order to attack an army we must know not only its weak points, but also its strong points. England in the present season and spirit fails in satire for the same simple reason that it fails in war: it despises the enemy. In matters of battle and conquest we have got firmly rooted in our minds the idea (an idea fit for the philosophers of Bedlam) that we can best trample on a people by ignoring all the particular merits which give them a chance of trampling upon us. It has become a breach of etiquette to praise the enemy; whereas when the enemy is strong every honest scout ought to praise the enemy. It is impossible to vanquish an army without having a full account of its strength. It is impossible to satirise a man without having a full account of his virtues. It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhumane, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world.

This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly even touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach. He knows that such a description of him is not true. He knows that he is not utterly unpatriotic, or utterly self-seeking, or utterly barbarous and revengeful. He knows that he is an ordinary man, and that he can count as many kindly memories, as many humane instincts, as many hours of decent work and responsibility as any other ordinary man. But behind all this he has his real weaknesses, the real ironies of his soul: behind all these ordinary merits lie the mean compromises, the craven silences, the sullen vanities, the secret brutalities, the unmanly visions of revenge. It is to these that satire should reach if it is to touch the man at whom it is aimed. And to reach these it must pass and salute a whole army of virtues.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on May 27, 2015 at 11:55 am  Leave a Comment  

“For want of wonder”

I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering, in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything. Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects at his feet. It is from the valley that things look large; it is from the level that things look high; I am a child of the level and have no need of that celebrated Alpine guide. I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help; but I will not lift up my carcass to the hills, unless it is absolutely necessary. Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on May 20, 2015 at 11:55 am  Leave a Comment  

“Indifference is the armour of sanity”

If I wanted to introduce Democracy into the modern world (a staggering innovation), and if I were considering such schemes as the Referendum or the Second Ballot, there is one reform I should make which I do not remember to have been suggested anywhere: I should count all the citizens who had not voted for an important change as having voted against it. That would knock the Earnest fellows in the wind. For it is not just, and it is not even useful, that only the earnestness of the nation should count. There is much moral value in the indifference of a nation; indifference can be healthy, just as excitement can be unhealthy. The normal citizen should be allowed to grumble at a thing and to laugh at a thing; but he should also be allowed to yawn at a thing. And his yawn should count as well as his yell. A healthy democracy should yawn in chorus; and when the Earnest people introduced some fussy bit of boredom or other, all who were of the contrary opinion should signify the same by holding up their hands — in front of their mouths. For it is a criticism, and a powerful criticism, of any project that it leaves vast varieties of men quite negligent and contemptuous. Indifference is the armour of sanity.

— The Illustrated London News, 15 June 1912.

Published in: on May 13, 2015 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

“It should be public and monumental”

Religious services, the most sacred of all things, have always been held publicly; it is entirely a new and debased notion that sanctity is the same as secrecy. A great many modern poets, with the most abstruse and delicate sensibilities, love darkness, when all is said and done, much for the same reason that thieves love it. The mission of a great spire or statue should be to strike the spirit with a sudden sense of pride as with a thunderbolt. It should lift us with it into the empty and ennobling air. Along the base of every noble monument, whatever else may be written there, runs in invisible letters the lines of Swinburne: ‘This thing is God: To be man with thy might, To go straight in the strength of thy spirit, and live out thy life in the light.’ If a public monument does not meet this first supreme and obvious need, that it should be public and monumental, it fails from the outset.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on May 6, 2015 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment