“Quickened and came to life”

Now, the effect of this adventure [viz. the Crusades] against a mighty and mysterious enemy was simply enormous in the transformation of England, as of all the nations that were developing side by side with England. Firstly, we learnt enormously from what the Saracen did. Secondly, we learnt yet more enormously from what the Saracen did not do. Touching some of the good things which we lacked, we were fortunately able to follow him. But in all the good things which he lacked, we were confirmed like adamant to defy him. It may be said that Christians never knew how right they were till they went to war with Moslems. At once the most obvious and the most representative reaction was the reaction which produced the best of what we call Christian Art; and especially those grotesques of Gothic architecture, which are not only alive but kicking. The East as an environment, as an impersonal glamour, certainly stimulated the Western mind, but stimulated it rather to break the Moslem commandment than to keep it. It was as if the Christian were impelled, like a caricaturist, to cover all that faceless ornament with faces; to give heads to all those headless serpents and birds to all these lifeless trees. Statuary quickened and came to life under the veto of the enemy as under a benediction. The image, merely because it was called an idol, became not only an ensign but a weapon. A hundredfold host of stone sprang up all over the shrines and streets of Europe. The Iconoclasts made more statues than they destroyed.

— A Short History of England (1917).

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Published in: on June 29, 2016 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Dead towns”

We talk of Plato or the Parthenon or the Greek passion for beauty as parts of the antique, but hardly of the antiquated. When we call them ancient it is not because they have perished, but rather because they have survived. In the same way I heard some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia or Baltimore as ‘dead towns.’ They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive, just as they are now astonished, and will be increasingly astonished, to find Poland or the Papacy or the French nation still alive. And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference to-morrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead.

— What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on June 22, 2016 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The Sphinx was disappointed in them”

Now the mistake of critics is not that they criticise the world; it is that they never criticise themselves. They compare the alien with the ideal; but they do not at the same time compare themselves with the ideal; rather they identify themselves with the ideal. I have met a tourist who had seen the great Pyramid, and who told me that the Pyramid looked small. Believe me, the tourist looked much smaller.

There is indeed another type of traveller, who is not at all small in the moral mental sense, who will confess such disappointments quite honestly, as a piece of realism about his own sensations. In that case he generally suffers from the defect of most realists; that of not being realistic enough. He does not really think out his own impressions thoroughly; or he would generally find they are not so disappointing after all. A humorous soldier told me that he came from Derbyshire, and that he did not think much of the Pyramid because it was not so tall as the Peak. I pointed out to him that he was really offering the tallest possible tribute to a work of man in comparing it to a mountain; even if he thought it was a rather small mountain. I suggested that it was a rather large tombstone. I appealed to those with whom I debated in that district, as to whether they would not be faintly surprised to find such a monument during their quiet rambles in a country churchyard. I asked whether each one of them, if he had such a tombstone in the family, would not feel it natural, if hardly necessary, to point it out; and that with a certain pride.

The same principle of the higher realism applies to those who are disappointed with the sight of the Sphinx. The Sphinx really exceeds expectations because it escapes expectations. Monuments commonly look impressive when they are high and often when they are distant. The Sphinx is really unexpected, because it is found suddenly in a hollow, and unnaturally near. Its face is turned away; and the effect is as creepy as coming into a room apparently empty, and finding somebody as still as the furniture. Or it is as if one found a lion couchant in that hole in the sand; as indeed the buried part of the monster is in the form of a couchant lion. If it was a real lion it would hardly be less arresting merely because it was near; nor could the first emotion of the traveller be adequately described as disappointment. In such cases there is generally some profit in looking at the monument a second time, or even at our own sensations a second time.

So I reasoned, striving with wild critics in the wilderness; but the only part of the debate which is relevant here can be expressed in the statement that I do think the Pyramid big, for the deep and simple reason that it is bigger than I am. I delicately suggested to those who were disappointed in the Sphinx that it was just possible that the Sphinx was disappointed in them. The Sphinx has seen Julius Caesar; it has very probably seen St. Francis, when he brought his flaming charity to Egypt; it has certainly looked, in the first high days of the revolutionary victories, on the face of the young Napoleon. Is it not barely possible, I hinted to my friends and fellow-tourists, that after these experiences, it might be a little depressed at the sight of you and me?

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on June 15, 2016 at 11:50 am  Comments (4)  

“The feeble things that we fight in vain”

We should be startled if hair-brushes instantly brushed our hair off, or pocket-handkerchiefs entirely removed the nose. Yet the strange modern waste and ruin, moral and material, is really a destruction of strong things by soft things. This is the picturesque point in the Scripture phrase about the moth and rust that corrupt. The moth is frailer than the garments. The rust is softer than the iron. We have to guard the heavy robes of Pontiffs from the wrath of a butterfly. We have to protect the swords of Paladins from a mere red dust or powder, as light as a lady’s rouge. It is the vanities that consume and the feeble things that we fight in vain.

That is true of a society and the ideas that govern a society. It is truest of all of those soft doubts and soft confusions that eat it away. These doubts are never strong, even when they are victorious. They are never cleared up and justified themselves, even when they have condemned and darkened everything else. They produce only anarchy: they cannot rise so high as usurpation.

It would not be difficult to take instances in modern England of this strange triumph of things shapeless and negative in themselves. For instance, compulsory education for the poor has come into conflict all along the line with much more popular and fundamental things. We have come very near to teaching children disobedience to fathers and mothers in order to teach them the secondary obedience to pastors and masters. That a child may be taught at school to cook in six saucepans, the child is often forbidden to boil a kettle for a sick mother or sister. We punish the parents for the usefulness of their children. We can only encourage domesticity in the schoolrooms, where it is useless. We can penalize it in any place where we can prove it is indispensable.

Now, it is here that the curious thing comes in. That an institution or policy should be found in such fanatical conflict with the first affections of human nature, would lead one to suppose that it was some very dogmatic institution, some very exacting and persecuting policy. One would expect it to be a creed for zealots; something like the rush of the hermits into the desert, or the raid of the Moslems out of it. Nothing less, one would fancy, could keep men in these constrained attitudes of exaltation in which they can ignore the family or the flesh.

But when we look at the case, we can find none of these things. The people who disregard Public Education are found and punished. The people who specially regard it are by no means so easy to find. It is rare to come across anyone enthusiastic for our system of elementary instruction. It is not common to find anyone who is even free from grave misgivings about it. One may meet enthusiasts for Eugenics; some of them so enthusiastic that they may almost be described as enthusiasts for polygamy and murder. One may meet enthusiasts for Christian Science, and even for Mrs. Eddy herself. But nobody seems very keen about education — least of all the educators. I have a huge personal respect for the teachers in the Church and State schools, in regard to their untiring cheerfulness, industry, and courage. But I never met one of them who seemed at all certain that the system was doing any good. Yet this invisible thing is visibly violating the sanctuary and the home. This unreality is fighting and subduing the oldest realities of the earth. The life of man is a very strange business.

— The Illustrated London News, 24 August 1912.

Published in: on June 8, 2016 at 7:22 am  Leave a Comment  

“Mounting up into the void”

I have never understood what people mean by domesticity being tame; it seems to me one of the wildest of adventures. But if you wish to see how high and harsh and fantastic an adventure it is, consider only the actual structure of a house itself. A man may march up in a rather bored way to bed; but at least he is mounting to a height from which he could kill himself. Every rich, silent, padded staircase, with banisters of oak, stair-rods of brass, and busts and settees on every landing, every such staircase is truly only an awful and naked ladder running up into the Infinite to a deadly height. The millionaire who stumps up inside the house is really doing the same thing as the tiler or roof-mender who climbs up outside the house; they are both mounting up into the void. They are both making an escalade of the intense inane. Each is a sort of domestic mountaineer; he is reaching a point from which mere idle falling will kill a man; and life is always worth living while men feel that they may die.

I cannot understand people at present making such a fuss about flying ships and aviation, when men ever since Stonehenge and the Pyramids have done something so much more wild than flying. A grasshopper can go astonishingly high up in the air, his biological limitation and weakness is that he cannot stop there. Hosts of unclean birds and crapulous insects can pass through the sky, but they cannot pass any communication between it and the earth. But the army of man has advanced vertically into infinity, and not been cut off. It can establish outposts in the ether, and yet keep open behind it its erect and insolent road. It would be grand (as in Jules Verne) to fire a cannon-ball at the moon; but would it not be grander to build a railway to the moon? Yet every building of brick or wood is a hint of that high railroad; every chimney points to some star, and every tower is a Tower of Babel. Man rising on these awful and unbroken wings of stone seems to me more majestic and more mystic than man fluttering for an instant on wings of canvas and sticks of steel. How sublime and, indeed, almost dizzy is the thought of these veiled ladders on which we all live, like climbing monkeys! Many a black-coated clerk in a flat may comfort himself for his sombre garb by reflecting that he is like some lonely rook in an immemorial elm. Many a wealthy bachelor on the top floor of a pile of mansions should look forth at morning and try (if possible) to feel like an eagle whose nest just clings to the edge of some awful cliff. How sad that the word “giddy” is used to imply wantonness or levity! It should be a high compliment to a man’s exalted spirituality and the imagination to say he is a little giddy.

I strolled slowly back across the stretch of turf by the sunset, a field of the cloth of gold. As I drew near my own house, its huge size began to horrify me; and when I came to the porch of it I discovered with an incredulity as strong as despair that my house was actually bigger than myself. A minute or two before there might well have seemed to be a monstrous and mythical competition about which of the two should swallow the other. But I was Jonah; my house was the huge and hungry fish; and even as its jaws darkened and closed about me I had again this dreadful fancy touching the dizzy altitude of all the works of man. I climbed the stairs stubbornly, planting each foot with savage care, as if ascending a glacier. When I got to a landing I was wildly relieved, and waved my hat. The very word “landing” has about it the wild sound of some one washed up by the sea. I climbed each flight like a ladder in naked sky. The walls all round me failed and faded into infinity; I went up the ladder to my bedroom as Montrose went up the ladder to the gallows; sic itur ad astro. Do you think this is a little fantastic—even a little fearful and nervous? Believe me, it is only one of the wild and wonderful things that one can learn by stopping at home.

— Alarms and Discursions (1911).

Published in: on June 1, 2016 at 11:09 am  Comments (1)