“A lord over ten cities”

All human beings will agree that a Specialist can be trusted too much; though this will not prevent All Political Parties from trusting him with everything they want to shirk. But, indeed, we are past the point of trusting experts as experts. We have come to trusting experts even in the things about which they are amateurs… A man is not only autocratic on one subject, but on all other subjects by right of that subject; and is allowed to be a lord over ten cities because he has been something like a monomaniac over one. This is no exaggeration; a glance at popular magazines and public controversies will give you scores of instances of it. The religion of Haeckel the biologist is more important than his biology. The journalism of a famous cricketer is more prominent than his cricket. Every week or so a paper has what is called a “Symposium,” in which all sorts of “authorities” or “representative men” give their opinions on some public question. You will always find that the “authorities” are authorities on some other subject; and that the “representative men” represent nobody and nothing except their own accidental likes and dislikes.


Now, we have all seen this sort of thing, and we all know it to be the most monstrous rubbish. We all know these people are not authorities on these subjects, even when they are really authorities on their own. We should all resent it if it were written in a clear and logical combination of ideas. Suppose Paderewski wrote, “Having played the piano diligently for twenty years, I have never come across any case against Capital Punishment.” Suppose Sir Flinders Petrie wrote, “The complete excavation of all ancient Egyptian foundations or fragments leaves us without any real light as to who wrote the Letters of Junius.” Suppose Sir Frederick Treves wrote, “I have conducted a hundred successful operations, and, believe me, there was not one that would have failed if Ireland had had Home Rule.” Set out plainly thus, such judgments are absurd, but not more absurd than that primary plutocratic or editorial judgment that calls in such judges. We really do to-day trust the learned about the things of which they are ignorant, and the traveller about the countries he has not visited.

— The Illustrated London News, 22 June 1912.

Published in: on February 24, 2016 at 12:45 pm  Comments (2)  

On New York

New York considered in itself is primarily a place of unrest, and those who sincerely love it, as many do, love it for the romance of its restlessness. A man almost looks at a building as he passes to wonder whether it will be there when he comes back from his walk; and the doubt is part of an indescribable notion, as of a white nightmare of daylight, which is increased by the very numbering of the streets, with its tangle of numerals which at first makes an English head reel. The detail is merely a symbol; and when he is used to it he can see that it is, like the most humdrum human customs, both worse and better than his own. ‘271 West 52nd Street’ is the easiest of all addresses to find, but the hardest of all addresses to remember. He who is, like myself, so constituted as necessarily to lose any piece of paper he has particular reason to preserve, will find himself wishing the place were called ‘Pine Crest’ or ‘Heather Crag’ like any unobtrusive villa in Streatham.

But his sense of some sort of incalculable calculations, as of the vision of a mad mathematician, is rooted in a more real impression. His first feeling that his head is turning round is due to something really dizzy in the movement of a life that turns dizzily like a wheel. If there be in the modern mind something paradoxical that can find peace in change, it is here that it has indeed built its habitation or rather is still building and unbuilding it. One might fancy that it changes in everything and that nothing endures but its invisible name; and even its name, as I have said, seems to make a boast of novelty.

— What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on February 17, 2016 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment  

“This cul-de-sac quality”

There is a certain spirit in the world which breaks everything off short. There may be magnificence in the smashing; but the thing is smashed. There may be a certain splendour; but the splendour is sterile: it abolishes all future splendours. I mean (to take a working example), York Minster covered with flames might happen to be quite as beautiful as York Minster covered with carvings. But the carvings produce more carvings. The flames produce nothing but a little black heap. When any act has this cul-de-sac quality it matters little whether it is done by a book or a sword, by a clumsy battle-axe or a chemical bomb.

The case is the same with ideas. The pessimist may be a proud figure when he curses all the stars; the optimist may be an even prouder figure when he blesses them all. But the real test is not in the energy, but in the effect. When the optimist has said, “All things are interesting,” we are left free; we can be interested as much or as little as we please. But when the pessimist says, “No things are interesting,” it may be a very witty remark: but it is the last witty remark that can be made on the subject. He has burnt his cathedral; he has had his blaze and the rest is ashes. The sceptics, like bees, give their one sting and die. The pessimist must be wrong, because he says the last word.

— Alarms and Discursions (1911).

Published in: on February 10, 2016 at 6:46 am  Comments (1)  

“My mother, drunk or sober”

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam.

To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on February 3, 2016 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment