“Sincere and wrong”

When I was very young I wrote a novel — Lord, what a bad novel! — in which I made the hero say: “There were never any just wars but the religious wars.” It was, perhaps, the only quite sound remark in the whole book. Yet though it was in the mouth of a fictitious character in a fantastic story, it was severely criticized as a reactionary paradox. In a very fine article in the Nation recently, Mr Wells has seen and said that war is sometimes a horrible necessity, in order to put true ideas in the place of false ones. I do not say this for any cheap controversial purpose. I do not urge Mr Wells to apologise to the paladins and persecutors whom he has probably reviled all his life. Yet is is certain if the Crusades had succeeded, there would have been no Balkan Wars; and if the Southern effort in the Thirty Years’ War had succeeded, there would have been no Prussia. I merely welcome the first great truth gathered of this horrible harvest: the truth that if you think wrong, you go wrong.

Mr Wells thinks, and I think so, too, that in the case of the Prussian we are really warring against a delusion. He is like a lunatic with plenty of pistols and a good aim, but liable to shoot a dog out of hatred of cats. Thus he sees the Russian as a yellow-skinned Oriental. He sees the Briton as a yellow-haired deserter. But “they ain’t”. It is one of the innumerable shallow phrases of the modern and mercantile peace, that when people are sincere they should not be attacked. Why, it is exactly because they are sincere that they should be attacked. If a man pretends to be your wife’s previous and lawful husband, you can laugh at him as at any other amusing fraud. If he really believes that he is, you will take prompt action to prevent his acting on his belief. An insincere polygamist is an ornament in any modern house: we use him to carry tea-cups. But a sincere polygamist we will blow to hell, if we can, with horse, foot, and artillery. And if you ask us why, we can only answer — because he is sincere and wrong.

The Prussian is sincere and wrong. He really does think that he could do everything better than everybody; like Bottom the Weaver. I have no doubt he thinks that Prussians could play the bag-pipes better than Highlanders; or dive for pearls better than the pearl-fishers. Prussians already say they understand Shakespeare; from which manifest scream of madness it will be but one note higher to say that they understand Burns. They understand everything: there was never a madman who did not. So that our work with the Prussians is not so much a pulling-down of thrones as a casting-out of devils; not only out of the land, but out of the enemy.

Illustrated London News, 12 September 1914.

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Published in: on January 30, 2019 at 4:36 pm  Comments (2)  

“The superficial impression of the world”

It is quite right to invent subtle analyses and detached criticisms, but it is unreasonable to expect them to be punctuated with roars of popular applause. It is possible to conceive of a mob shouting any central and simple sentiment, good or bad, but it is impossible to think of a mob shouting a distinction in terms. In the matter of eloquence, the whole question is one of the immediate effect of greatness, such as is produced even by fine bombast. It is absurd to call it merely superficial; here there is no question of superficiality; we might as well call a stone that strikes us between the eyes merely superficial. The very word ‘superficial’ is founded on a fundamental mistake about life, the idea that second thoughts are best. The superficial impression of the world is by far the deepest. What we really feel, naturally and casually, about the look of skies and trees and the face of friends, that and that alone will almost certainly remain our vital philosophy to our dying day.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on January 16, 2019 at 11:13 am  Leave a Comment  

“A person born in a black hat”

It cannot be denied that the world lost something finally and most unfortunately about the beginning of the nineteenth century. In former times the mass of the people was conceived as mean and commonplace, but only as comparatively mean and commonplace; they were dwarfed and eclipsed by certain high stations and splendid callings. But with the Victorian era came a principle which conceived men not as comparatively, but as positively, mean and commonplace. A man of any station was represented as being by nature a dingy and trivial person—a person born, as it were, in a black hat. It began to be thought that it was ridiculous for a man to wear beautiful garments, instead of it being—as, of course, it is—ridiculous for him to deliberately wear ugly ones. It was considered affected for a man to speak bold and heroic words, whereas, of course, it is emotional speech which is natural, and ordinary civil speech which is affected. The whole relations of beauty and ugliness, of dignity and ignominy were turned upside down. Beauty became an extravagance, as if top-hats and umbrellas were not the real extravagance—a landscape from the land of the goblins. Dignity became a form of foolery and shamelessness, as if the very essence of a fool were not a lack of dignity. And the consequence is that it is practically most difficult to propose any decoration or public dignity for modern men without making them laugh. They laugh at the idea of carrying crests and coats-of-arms instead of laughing at their own boots and neckties. We are forbidden to say that tradesmen should have a poetry of their own, although there is nothing so poetical as trade. A grocer should have a coat-of-arms worthy of his strange merchandise gathered from distant and fantastic lands; a postman should have a coat-of-arms capable of expressing the strange honour and responsibility of the man who carries men’s souls in a bag; the chemist should have a coat-of-arms symbolizing something of the mysteries of the house of healing, the cavern of a merciful witchcraft.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on January 9, 2019 at 6:30 pm  Comments (1)