Part 3 out of 4
however, has, I think, another and subtler aspect, an aspect
more difficult to understand and more worth understanding.
The modern gentleman, particularly the modern English gentleman,
has become so central and important in these books, and through
them in the whole of our current literature and our current mode
of thought, that certain qualities of his, whether original or recent,
essential or accidental, have altered the quality of our English comedy.
In particular, that stoical ideal, absurdly supposed to be
the English ideal, has stiffened and chilled us. It is not
the English ideal; but it is to some extent the aristocratic ideal;
or it may be only the ideal of aristocracy in its autumn or decay.
The gentleman is a Stoic because he is a sort of savage,
because he is filled with a great elemental fear that some stranger
will speak to him. That is why a third-class carriage is a community,
while a first-class carriage is a place of wild hermits.
But this matter, which is difficult, I may be permitted to approach
in a more circuitous way.
The haunting element of ineffectualness which runs through so much
of the witty and epigrammatic fiction fashionable during the last
eight or ten years, which runs through such works of a real though
varying ingenuity as "Dodo," or "Concerning Isabel Carnaby,"
or even "Some Emotions and a Moral," may be expressed in various ways,
but to most of us I think it will ultimately amount to the same thing.
This new frivolity is inadequate because there is in it no strong sense
of an unuttered joy. The men and women who exchange the repartees
may not only be hating each other, but hating even themselves.
Any one of them might be bankrupt that day, or sentenced to be shot
the next. They are joking, not because they are merry, but because
they are not; out of the emptiness of the heart the mouth speaketh.
Even when they talk pure nonsense it is a careful nonsense--a nonsense
of which they are economical, or, to use the perfect expression
of Mr. W. S. Gilbert in "Patience," it is such "precious nonsense."
Even when they become light-headed they do not become light-hearted.
All those who have read anything of the rationalism of the moderns know
that their Reason is a sad thing. But even their unreason is sad.
The causes of this incapacity are also not very difficult to indicate.
The chief of all, of course, is that miserable fear of being sentimental,
which is the meanest of all the modern terrors--meaner even than
the terror which produces hygiene. Everywhere the robust and
uproarious humour has come from the men who were capable not merely
of sentimentalism, but a very silly sentimentalism. There has been
no humour so robust or uproarious as that of the sentimentalist
Steele or the sentimentalist Sterne or the sentimentalist Dickens.
These creatures who wept like women were the creatures who laughed
like men. It is true that the humour of Micawber is good literature
and that the pathos of little Nell is bad. But the kind of man
who had the courage to write so badly in the one case is the kind
of man who would have the courage to write so well in the other.
The same unconsciousness, the same violent innocence, the same
gigantesque scale of action which brought the Napoleon of Comedy
his Jena brought him also his Moscow. And herein is especially
shown the frigid and feeble limitations of our modern wits.
They make violent efforts, they make heroic and almost pathetic efforts,
but they cannot really write badly. There are moments when we
almost think that they are achieving the effect, but our hope
shrivels to nothing the moment we compare their little failures
with the enormous imbecilities of Byron or Shakespeare.
For a hearty laugh it is necessary to have touched the heart.
I do not know why touching the heart should always be connected only
with the idea of touching it to compassion or a sense of distress.
The heart can be touched to joy and triumph; the heart can be
touched to amusement. But all our comedians are tragic comedians.
These later fashionable writers are so pessimistic in bone
and marrow that they never seem able to imagine the heart having
any concern with mirth. When they speak of the heart, they always
mean the pangs and disappointments of the emotional life.
When they say that a man's heart is in the right place,
they mean, apparently, that it is in his boots. Our ethical societies
understand fellowship, but they do not understand good fellowship.
Similarly, our wits understand talk, but not what Dr. Johnson called
a good talk. In order to have, like Dr. Johnson, a good talk,
it is emphatically necessary to be, like Dr. Johnson, a good man--
to have friendship and honour and an abysmal tenderness.
Above all, it is necessary to be openly and indecently humane,
to confess with fulness all the primary pities and fears of Adam.
Johnson was a clear-headed humorous man, and therefore he did not
mind talking seriously about religion. Johnson was a brave man,
one of the bravest that ever walked, and therefore he did not mind
avowing to any one his consuming fear of death.
The idea that there is something English in the repression of one's
feelings is one of those ideas which no Englishman ever heard of until
England began to be governed exclusively by Scotchmen, Americans,
and Jews. At the best, the idea is a generalization from the Duke
of Wellington--who was an Irishman. At the worst, it is a part
of that silly Teutonism which knows as little about England as it
does about anthropology, but which is always talking about Vikings.
As a matter of fact, the Vikings did not repress their feelings in
the least. They cried like babies and kissed each other like girls;
in short, they acted in that respect like Achilles and all strong
heroes the children of the gods. And though the English nationality
has probably not much more to do with the Vikings than the French
nationality or the Irish nationality, the English have certainly
been the children of the Vikings in the matter of tears and kisses.
It is not merely true that all the most typically English men
of letters, like Shakespeare and Dickens, Richardson and Thackeray,
were sentimentalists. It is also true that all the most typically English
men of action were sentimentalists, if possible, more sentimental.
In the great Elizabethan age, when the English nation was finally
hammered out, in the great eighteenth century when the British
Empire was being built up everywhere, where in all these times,
where was this symbolic stoical Englishman who dresses in drab
and black and represses his feelings? Were all the Elizabethan
palladins and pirates like that? Were any of them like that?
Was Grenville concealing his emotions when he broke wine-glasses
to pieces with his teeth and bit them till the blood poured down?
Was Essex restraining his excitement when he threw his hat into the sea?
Did Raleigh think it sensible to answer the Spanish guns only,
as Stevenson says, with a flourish of insulting trumpets?
Did Sydney ever miss an opportunity of making a theatrical remark in
the whole course of his life and death? Were even the Puritans Stoics?
The English Puritans repressed a good deal, but even they were
too English to repress their feelings. It was by a great miracle
of genius assuredly that Carlyle contrived to admire simultaneously
two things so irreconcilably opposed as silence and Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell was the very reverse of a strong, silent man.
Cromwell was always talking, when he was not crying. Nobody, I suppose,
will accuse the author of "Grace Abounding" of being ashamed
of his feelings. Milton, indeed, it might be possible to represent
as a Stoic; in some sense he was a Stoic, just as he was a prig
and a polygamist and several other unpleasant and heathen things.
But when we have passed that great and desolate name, which may
really be counted an exception, we find the tradition of English
emotionalism immediately resumed and unbrokenly continuous.
Whatever may have been the moral beauty of the passions
of Etheridge and Dorset, Sedley and Buckingham, they cannot
be accused of the fault of fastidiously concealing them.
Charles the Second was very popular with the English because,
like all the jolly English kings, he displayed his passions.
William the Dutchman was very unpopular with the English because,
not being an Englishman, he did hide his emotions. He was, in fact,
precisely the ideal Englishman of our modern theory; and precisely
for that reason all the real Englishmen loathed him like leprosy.
With the rise of the great England of the eighteenth century,
we find this open and emotional tone still maintained in letters
and politics, in arts and in arms. Perhaps the only quality
which was possessed in common by the great Fielding, and the
great Richardson was that neither of them hid their feelings.
Swift, indeed, was hard and logical, because Swift was Irish.
And when we pass to the soldiers and the rulers, the patriots and
the empire-builders of the eighteenth century, we find, as I have said,
that they were, If possible, more romantic than the romancers,
more poetical than the poets. Chatham, who showed the world
all his strength, showed the House of Commons all his weakness.
Wolfe walked. about the room with a drawn sword calling himself
Caesar and Hannibal, and went to death with poetry in his mouth.
Clive was a man of the same type as Cromwell or Bunyan, or, for the
matter of that, Johnson--that is, he was a strong, sensible man
with a kind of running spring of hysteria and melancholy in him.
Like Johnson, he was all the more healthy because he was morbid.
The tales of all the admirals and adventurers of that England are
full of braggadocio, of sentimentality, of splendid affectation.
But it is scarcely necessary to multiply examples of the essentially
romantic Englishman when one example towers above them all.
Mr. Rudyard Kipling has said complacently of the English,
"We do not fall on the neck and kiss when we come together."
It is true that this ancient and universal custom has vanished with
the modern weakening of England. Sydney would have thought nothing
of kissing Spenser. But I willingly concede that Mr. Broderick
would not be likely to kiss Mr. Arnold-Foster, if that be any proof
of the increased manliness and military greatness of England.
But the Englishman who does not show his feelings has not altogether
given up the power of seeing something English in the great sea-hero
of the Napoleonic war. You cannot break the legend of Nelson.
And across the sunset of that glory is written in flaming letters
for ever the great English sentiment, "Kiss me, Hardy."
This ideal of self-repression, then, is, whatever else it is, not English.
It is, perhaps, somewhat Oriental, it is slightly Prussian, but in
the main it does not come, I think, from any racial or national source.
It is, as I have said, in some sense aristocratic; it comes
not from a people, but from a class. Even aristocracy, I think,
was not quite so stoical in the days when it was really strong.
But whether this unemotional ideal be the genuine tradition of
the gentleman, or only one of the inventions of the modern gentleman
(who may be called the decayed gentleman), it certainly has something
to do with the unemotional quality in these society novels.
From representing aristocrats as people who suppressed their feelings,
it has been an easy step to representing aristocrats as people who had no
feelings to suppress. Thus the modern oligarchist has made a virtue for
the oligarchy of the hardness as well as the brightness of the diamond.
Like a sonneteer addressing his lady in the seventeenth century,
he seems to use the word "cold" almost as a eulogium, and the word
"heartless" as a kind of compliment. Of course, in people so incurably
kind-hearted and babyish as are the English gentry, it would be
impossible to create anything that can be called positive cruelty;
so in these books they exhibit a sort of negative cruelty.
They cannot be cruel in acts, but they can be so in words.
All this means one thing, and one thing only. It means that the living
and invigorating ideal of England must be looked for in the masses;
it must be looked for where Dickens found it--Dickens among whose glories
it was to be a humorist, to be a sentimentalist, to be an optimist,
to be a poor man, to be an Englishman, but the greatest of whose glories
was that he saw all mankind in its amazing and tropical luxuriance,
and did not even notice the aristocracy; Dickens, the greatest
of whose glories was that he could not describe a gentleman.
XVI On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity
A critic once remonstrated with me saying, with an air of
indignant reasonableness, "If you must make jokes, at least you need
not make them on such serious subjects." I replied with a natural
simplicity and wonder, "About what other subjects can one make
jokes except serious subjects?" It is quite useless to talk
about profane jesting. All jesting is in its nature profane,
in the sense that it must be the sudden realization that something
which thinks itself solemn is not so very solemn after all.
If a joke is not a joke about religion or morals, it is a joke about
police-magistrates or scientific professors or undergraduates dressed
up as Queen Victoria. And people joke about the police-magistrate
more than they joke about the Pope, not because the police-magistrate
is a more frivolous subject, but, on the contrary, because the
police-magistrate is a more serious subject than the Pope.
The Bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this realm of England;
whereas the police-magistrate may bring his solemnity to bear quite
suddenly upon us. Men make jokes about old scientific professors,
even more than they make them about bishops--not because science
is lighter than religion, but because science is always by its
nature more solemn and austere than religion. It is not I;
it is not even a particular class of journalists or jesters
who make jokes about the matters which are of most awful import;
it is the whole human race. If there is one thing more than another
which any one will admit who has the smallest knowledge of the world,
it is that men are always speaking gravely and earnestly and with
the utmost possible care about the things that are not important,
but always talking frivolously about the things that are.
Men talk for hours with the faces of a college of cardinals about
things like golf, or tobacco, or waistcoats, or party politics.
But all the most grave and dreadful things in the world are the oldest
jokes in the world--being married; being hanged.
One gentleman, however, Mr. McCabe, has in this matter made
to me something that almost amounts to a personal appeal;
and as he happens to be a man for whose sincerity and intellectual
virtue I have a high respect, I do not feel inclined to let it
pass without some attempt to satisfy my critic in the matter.
Mr. McCabe devotes a considerable part of the last essay in
the collection called "Christianity and Rationalism on Trial"
to an objection, not to my thesis, but to my method, and a very
friendly and dignified appeal to me to alter it. I am much inclined
to defend myself in this matter out of mere respect for Mr. McCabe,
and still more so out of mere respect for the truth which is, I think,
in danger by his error, not only in this question, but in others.
In order that there may be no injustice done in the matter,
I will quote Mr. McCabe himself. "But before I follow Mr. Chesterton
in some detail I would make a general observation on his method.
He is as serious as I am in his ultimate purpose, and I respect
him for that. He knows, as I do, that humanity stands at a solemn
parting of the ways. Towards some unknown goal it presses through
the ages, impelled by an overmastering desire of happiness.
To-day it hesitates, lightheartedly enough, but every serious
thinker knows how momentous the decision may be. It is, apparently,
deserting the path of religion and entering upon the path of secularism.
Will it lose itself in quagmires of sensuality down this new path,
and pant and toil through years of civic and industrial anarchy,
only to learn it had lost the road, and must return to religion?
Or will it find that at last it is leaving the mists and the quagmires
behind it; that it is ascending the slope of the hill so long dimly
discerned ahead, and making straight for the long-sought Utopia?
This is the drama of our time, and every man and every woman
should understand it.
"Mr. Chesterton understands it. Further, he gives us
credit for understanding it. He has nothing of that paltry
meanness or strange density of so many of his colleagues,
who put us down as aimless iconoclasts or moral anarchists.
He admits that we are waging a thankless war for what we
take to be Truth and Progress. He is doing the same.
But why, in the name of all that is reasonable, should we,
when we are agreed on the momentousness of the issue either way,
forthwith desert serious methods of conducting the controversy?
Why, when the vital need of our time is to induce men
and women to collect their thoughts occasionally, and be men
and women--nay, to remember that they are really gods that hold
the destinies of humanity on their knees--why should we think
that this kaleidoscopic play of phrases is inopportune?
The ballets of the Alhambra, and the fireworks of the Crystal Palace,
and Mr. Chesterton's Daily News articles, have their place in life.
But how a serious social student can think of curing the
thoughtlessness of our generation by strained paradoxes; of giving
people a sane grasp of social problems by literary sleight-of-hand;
of settling important questions by a reckless shower of
rocket-metaphors and inaccurate `facts,' and the substitution
of imagination for judgment, I cannot see."
I quote this passage with a particular pleasure, because Mr. McCabe
certainly cannot put too strongly the degree to which I give him
and his school credit for their complete sincerity and responsibility
of philosophical attitude. I am quite certain that they mean every
word they say. I also mean every word I say. But why is it that
Mr. McCabe has some sort of mysterious hesitation about admitting
that I mean every word I say; why is it that he is not quite as certain
of my mental responsibility as I am of his mental responsibility?
If we attempt to answer the question directly and well, we shall,
I think, have come to the root of the matter by the shortest cut.
Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny,
because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious.
Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.
The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque
or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology,
is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question
of instinctive language and self-expression. Whether a man chooses
to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem
analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.
Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely
like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse.
The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort
of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism.
Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny
"Gulliver" is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object.
The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities
of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other,
they are no more comparable than black and triangular.
Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is
funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny.
The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.
In short, Mr. McCabe is under the influence of a primary fallacy
which I have found very common m men of the clerical type.
Numbers of clergymen have from time to time reproached me for
making jokes about religion; and they have almost always invoked
the authority of that very sensible commandment which says,
"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
Of course, I pointed out that I was not in any conceivable sense
taking the name in vain. To take a thing and make a joke out of it
is not to take it in vain. It is, on the contrary, to take it
and use it for an uncommonly good object. To use a thing in vain
means to use it without use. But a joke may be exceedingly useful;
it may contain the whole earthly sense, not to mention the whole
heavenly sense, of a situation. And those who find in the Bible
the commandment can find in the Bible any number of the jokes.
In the same book in which God's name is fenced from being taken in vain,
God himself overwhelms Job with a torrent of terrible levities.
The same book which says that God's name must not be taken vainly,
talks easily and carelessly about God laughing and God winking.
Evidently it is not here that we have to look for genuine
examples of what is meant by a vain use of the name. And it is
not very difficult to see where we have really to look for it.
The people (as I tactfully pointed out to them) who really take
the name of the Lord in vain are the clergymen themselves. The thing
which is fundamentally and really frivolous is not a careless joke.
The thing which is fundamentally and really frivolous is a
careless solemnity. If Mr. McCabe really wishes to know what sort
of guarantee of reality and solidity is afforded by the mere act
of what is called talking seriously, let him spend a happy Sunday
in going the round of the pulpits. Or, better still, let him drop
in at the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Even Mr. McCabe
would admit that these men are solemn--more solemn than I am.
And even Mr. McCabe, I think, would admit that these men are frivolous--
more frivolous than I am. Why should Mr. McCabe be so eloquent
about the danger arising from fantastic and paradoxical writers?
Why should he be so ardent in desiring grave and verbose writers?
There are not so very many fantastic and paradoxical writers.
But there are a gigantic number of grave and verbose writers;
and it is by the efforts of the grave and verbose writers
that everything that Mr. McCabe detests (and everything that
I detest, for that matter) is kept in existence and energy.
How can it have come about that a man as intelligent as Mr. McCabe
can think that paradox and jesting stop the way? It is solemnity
that is stopping the way in every department of modern effort.
It is his own favourite "serious methods;" it is his own favourite
"momentousness;" it is his own favourite "judgment" which stops
the way everywhere. Every man who has ever headed a deputation
to a minister knows this. Every man who has ever written a letter
to the Times knows it. Every rich man who wishes to stop the mouths
of the poor talks about "momentousness." Every Cabinet minister
who has not got an answer suddenly develops a "judgment."
Every sweater who uses vile methods recommends "serious methods."
I said a moment ago that sincerity had nothing to do with solemnity,
but I confess that I am not so certain that I was right.
In the modern world, at any rate, I am not so sure that I was right.
In the modern world solemnity is the direct enemy of sincerity.
In the modern world sincerity is almost always on one side, and solemnity
almost always on the other. The only answer possible to the fierce
and glad attack of sincerity is the miserable answer of solemnity.
Let Mr. McCabe, or any one else who is much concerned that we should be
grave in order to be sincere, simply imagine the scene in some government
office in which Mr. Bernard Shaw should head a Socialist deputation
to Mr. Austen Chamberlain. On which side would be the solemnity?
And on which the sincerity?
I am, indeed, delighted to discover that Mr. McCabe reckons
Mr. Shaw along with me in his system of condemnation of frivolity.
He said once, I believe, that he always wanted Mr. Shaw to label
his paragraphs serious or comic. I do not know which paragraphs
of Mr. Shaw are paragraphs to be labelled serious; but surely
there can be no doubt that this paragraph of Mr. McCabe's is
one to be labelled comic. He also says, in the article I am
now discussing, that Mr. Shaw has the reputation of deliberately
saying everything which his hearers do not expect him to say.
I need not labour the inconclusiveness and weakness of this, because it
has already been dealt with in my remarks on Mr. Bernard Shaw.
Suffice it to say here that the only serious reason which I can imagine
inducing any one person to listen to any other is, that the first person
looks to the second person with an ardent faith and a fixed attention,
expecting him to say what he does not expect him to say.
It may be a paradox, but that is because paradoxes are true.
It may not be rational, but that is because rationalism is wrong.
But clearly it is quite true that whenever we go to hear a prophet or
teacher we may or may not expect wit, we may or may not expect eloquence,
but we do expect what we do not expect. We may not expect the true,
we may not even expect the wise, but we do expect the unexpected.
If we do not expect the unexpected, why do we go there at all?
If we expect the expected, why do we not sit at home and expect
it by ourselves? If Mr. McCabe means merely this about Mr. Shaw,
that he always has some unexpected application of his doctrine
to give to those who listen to him, what he says is quite true,
and to say it is only to say that Mr. Shaw is an original man.
But if he means that Mr. Shaw has ever professed or preached any
doctrine but one, and that his own, then what he says is not true.
It is not my business to defend Mr. Shaw; as has been seen already,
I disagree with him altogether. But I do not mind, on his behalf
offering in this matter a flat defiance to all his ordinary opponents,
such as Mr. McCabe. I defy Mr. McCabe, or anybody else, to mention
one single instance in which Mr. Shaw has, for the sake of wit
or novelty, taken up any position which was not directly deducible
from the body of his doctrine as elsewhere expressed. I have been,
I am happy to say, a tolerably close student of Mr. Shaw's utterances,
and I request Mr. McCabe, if he will not believe that I mean
anything else, to believe that I mean this challenge.
All this, however, is a parenthesis. The thing with which I am here
immediately concerned is Mr. McCabe's appeal to me not to be so frivolous.
Let me return to the actual text of that appeal. There are,
of course, a great many things that I might say about it in detail.
But I may start with saying that Mr. McCabe is in error in supposing
that the danger which I anticipate from the disappearance
of religion is the increase of sensuality. On the contrary,
I should be inclined to anticipate a decrease in sensuality,
because I anticipate a decrease in life. I do not think that under
modern Western materialism we should have anarchy. I doubt whether we
should have enough individual valour and spirit even to have liberty.
It is quite an old-fashioned fallacy to suppose that our objection
to scepticism is that it removes the discipline from life.
Our objection to scepticism is that it removes the motive power.
Materialism is not a thing which destroys mere restraint.
Materialism itself is the great restraint. The McCabe school
advocates a political liberty, but it denies spiritual liberty.
That is, it abolishes the laws which could be broken, and substitutes
laws that cannot. And that is the real slavery.
The truth is that the scientific civilization in which Mr. McCabe
believes has one rather particular defect; it is perpetually tending
to destroy that democracy or power of the ordinary man in which
Mr. McCabe also believes. Science means specialism, and specialism
means oligarchy. If you once establish the habit of trusting
particular men to produce particular results in physics or astronomy,
you leave the door open for the equally natural demand that you
should trust particular men to do particular things in government
and the coercing of men. If, you feel it to be reasonable that
one beetle should be the only study of one man, and that one man
the only student of that one beetle, it is surely a very harmless
consequence to go on to say that politics should be the only study
of one man, and that one man the only student of politics.
As I have pointed out elsewhere in this book, the expert is more
aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only
the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better.
But if we look at the progress of our scientific civilization we see
a gradual increase everywhere of the specialist over the popular function.
Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man
sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better.
If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable)
only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest.
I do not know that I can express this more shortly than by taking
as a text the single sentence of Mr. McCabe, which runs as follows:
"The ballets of the Alhambra and the fireworks of the Crystal Palace
and Mr. Chesterton's Daily News articles have their places in life."
I wish that my articles had as noble a place as either of the other
two things mentioned. But let us ask ourselves (in a spirit of love,
as Mr. Chadband would say), what are the ballets of the Alhambra?
The ballets of the Alhambra are institutions in which a particular
selected row of persons in pink go through an operation known
as dancing. Now, in all commonwealths dominated by a religion--
in the Christian commonwealths of the Middle Ages and in many
rude societies--this habit of dancing was a common habit with everybody,
and was not necessarily confined to a professional class.
A person could dance without being a dancer; a person could dance
without being a specialist; a person could dance without being pink.
And, in proportion as Mr. McCabe's scientific civilization advances--
that is, in proportion as religious civilization (or real civilization)
decays--the more and more "well trained," the more and more pink,
become the people who do dance, and the more and more numerous become
the people who don't. Mr. McCabe may recognize an example of what I
mean in the gradual discrediting in society of the ancient European
waltz or dance with partners, and the substitution of that horrible
and degrading oriental interlude which is known as skirt-dancing.
That is the whole essence of decadence, the effacement of five
people who do a thing for fun by one person who does it for money.
Now it follows, therefore, that when Mr. McCabe says that the ballets
of the Alhambra and my articles "have their place in life,"
it ought to be pointed out to him that he is doing his best
to create a world in which dancing, properly speaking, will have
no place in life at all. He is, indeed, trying to create a world
in which there will be no life for dancing to have a place in.
The very fact that Mr. McCabe thinks of dancing as a thing
belonging to some hired women at the Alhambra is an illustration
of the same principle by which he is able to think of religion
as a thing belonging to some hired men in white neckties.
Both these things are things which should not be done for us,
but by us. If Mr. McCabe were really religious he would be happy.
If he were really happy he would dance.
Briefly, we may put the matter in this way. The main point of modern
life is not that the Alhambra ballet has its place in life.
The main point, the main enormous tragedy of modern life,
is that Mr. McCabe has not his place in the Alhambra ballet.
The joy of changing and graceful posture, the joy of suiting the swing
of music to the swing of limbs, the joy of whirling drapery,
the joy of standing on one leg,--all these should belong by rights
to Mr. McCabe and to me; in short, to the ordinary healthy citizen.
Probably we should not consent to go through these evolutions.
But that is because we are miserable moderns and rationalists.
We do not merely love ourselves more than we love duty; we actually
love ourselves more than we love joy.
When, therefore, Mr. McCabe says that he gives the Alhambra dances
(and my articles) their place in life, I think we are justified
in pointing out that by the very nature of the case of his philosophy
and of his favourite civilization he gives them a very inadequate place.
For (if I may pursue the too flattering parallel) Mr. McCabe thinks
of the Alhambra and of my articles as two very odd and absurd things,
which some special people do (probably for money) in order to amuse him.
But if he had ever felt himself the ancient, sublime, elemental,
human instinct to dance, he would have discovered that dancing
is not a frivolous thing at all, but a very serious thing.
He would have discovered that it is the one grave and chaste
and decent method of expressing a certain class of emotions.
And similarly, if he had ever had, as Mr. Shaw and I have had,
the impulse to what he calls paradox, he would have discovered that
paradox again is not a frivolous thing, but a very serious thing.
He would have found that paradox simply means a certain defiant
joy which belongs to belief. I should regard any civilization
which was without a universal habit of uproarious dancing as being,
from the full human point of view, a defective civilization.
And I should regard any mind which had not got the habit
in one form or another of uproarious thinking as being,
from the full human point of view, a defective mind.
It is vain for Mr. McCabe to say that a ballet is a part of him.
He should be part of a ballet, or else he is only part of a man.
It is in vain for him to say that he is "not quarrelling
with the importation of humour into the controversy."
He ought himself to be importing humour into every controversy;
for unless a man is in part a humorist, he is only in part a man.
To sum up the whole matter very simply, if Mr. McCabe asks me why I
import frivolity into a discussion of the nature of man, I answer,
because frivolity is a part of the nature of man. If he asks me why
I introduce what he calls paradoxes into a philosophical problem,
I answer, because all philosophical problems tend to become paradoxical.
If he objects to my treating of life riotously, I reply that life
is a riot. And I say that the Universe as I see it, at any rate,
is very much more like the fireworks at the Crystal Palace than it
is like his own philosophy. About the whole cosmos there is a tense
and secret festivity--like preparations for Guy Fawkes' day.
Eternity is the eve of something. I never look up at the stars
without feeling that they are the fires of a schoolboy's rocket,
fixed in their everlasting fall.
XVII On the Wit of Whistler
That capable and ingenious writer, Mr. Arthur Symons,
has included in a book of essays recently published, I believe,
an apologia for "London Nights," in which he says that morality
should be wholly subordinated to art in criticism, and he uses
the somewhat singular argument that art or the worship of beauty
is the same in all ages, while morality differs in every period
and in every respect. He appears to defy his critics or his
readers to mention any permanent feature or quality in ethics.
This is surely a very curious example of that extravagant bias
against morality which makes so many ultra-modern aesthetes as morbid
and fanatical as any Eastern hermit. Unquestionably it is a very
common phrase of modern intellectualism to say that the morality
of one age can be entirely different to the morality of another.
And like a great many other phrases of modern intellectualism,
it means literally nothing at all. If the two moralities
are entirely different, why do you call them both moralities?
It is as if a man said, "Camels in various places are totally diverse;
some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have feathers,
some have horns, some have wings, some are green, some are triangular.
There is no point which they have in common." The ordinary man
of sense would reply, "Then what makes you call them all camels?
What do you mean by a camel? How do you know a camel when you see one?"
Of course, there is a permanent substance of morality, as much
as there is a permanent substance of art; to say that is only to say
that morality is morality, and that art is art. An ideal art
critic would, no doubt, see the enduring beauty under every school;
equally an ideal moralist would see the enduring ethic under every code.
But practically some of the best Englishmen that ever lived could see
nothing but filth and idolatry in the starry piety of the Brahmin.
And it is equally true that practically the greatest group of artists
that the world has ever seen, the giants of the Renaissance,
could see nothing but barbarism in the ethereal energy of Gothic.
This bias against morality among the modern aesthetes is nothing
very much paraded. And yet it is not really a bias against morality;
it is a bias against other people's morality. It is generally
founded on a very definite moral preference for a certain sort
of life, pagan, plausible, humane. The modern aesthete, wishing us
to believe that he values beauty more than conduct, reads Mallarme,
and drinks absinthe in a tavern. But this is not only his favourite
kind of beauty; it is also his favourite kind of conduct.
If he really wished us to believe that he cared for beauty only,
he ought to go to nothing but Wesleyan school treats, and paint
the sunlight in the hair of the Wesleyan babies. He ought to read
nothing but very eloquent theological sermons by old-fashioned
Presbyterian divines. Here the lack of all possible moral sympathy
would prove that his interest was purely verbal or pictorial, as it is;
in all the books he reads and writes he clings to the skirts
of his own morality and his own immorality. The champion of l'art
pour l'art is always denouncing Ruskin for his moralizing.
If he were really a champion of l'art pour l'art, he would be always
insisting on Ruskin for his style.
The doctrine of the distinction between art and morality owes
a great part of its success to art and morality being hopelessly
mixed up in the persons and performances of its greatest exponents.
Of this lucky contradiction the very incarnation was Whistler.
No man ever preached the impersonality of art so well;
no man ever preached the impersonality of art so personally.
For him pictures had nothing to do with the problems of character;
but for all his fiercest admirers his character was,
as a matter of fact far more interesting than his pictures.
He gloried in standing as an artist apart from right and wrong.
But he succeeded by talking from morning till night about his
rights and about his wrongs. His talents were many, his virtues,
it must be confessed, not many, beyond that kindness to tried friends,
on which many of his biographers insist, but which surely is a
quality of all sane men, of pirates and pickpockets; beyond this,
his outstanding virtues limit themselves chiefly to two admirable ones--
courage and an abstract love of good work. Yet I fancy he won
at last more by those two virtues than by all his talents.
A man must be something of a moralist if he is to preach, even if he is
to preach unmorality. Professor Walter Raleigh, in his "In Memoriam:
James McNeill Whistler," insists, truly enough, on the strong
streak of an eccentric honesty in matters strictly pictorial,
which ran through his complex and slightly confused character.
"He would destroy any of his works rather than leave a careless
or inexpressive touch within the limits of the frame.
He would begin again a hundred times over rather than attempt
by patching to make his work seem better than it was."
No one will blame Professor Raleigh, who had to read a sort of funeral
oration over Whistler at the opening of the Memorial Exhibition,
if, finding himself in that position, he confined himself mostly
to the merits and the stronger qualities of his subject.
We should naturally go to some other type of composition
for a proper consideration of the weaknesses of Whistler.
But these must never be omitted from our view of him.
Indeed, the truth is that it was not so much a question of the weaknesses
of Whistler as of the intrinsic and primary weakness of Whistler.
He was one of those people who live up to their emotional incomes,
who are always taut and tingling with vanity. Hence he had
no strength to spare; hence he had no kindness, no geniality;
for geniality is almost definable as strength to spare.
He had no god-like carelessness; he never forgot himself;
his whole life was, to use his own expression, an arrangement.
He went in for "the art of living"--a miserable trick.
In a word, he was a great artist; but emphatically not a great man.
In this connection I must differ strongly with Professor Raleigh upon
what is, from a superficial literary point of view, one of his most
effective points. He compares Whistler's laughter to the laughter
of another man who was a great man as well as a great artist.
"His attitude to the public was exactly the attitude taken up by
Robert Browning, who suffered as long a period of neglect and mistake,
in those lines of `The Ring and the Book'--
"`Well, British Public, ye who like me not,
(God love you!) and will have your proper laugh
At the dark question; laugh it! I'd laugh first.'
"Mr. Whistler," adds Professor Raleigh, "always laughed first."
The truth is, I believe, that Whistler never laughed at all.
There was no laughter in his nature; because there was no thoughtlessness
and self-abandonment, no humility. I cannot understand anybody
reading "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies" and thinking that there
is any laughter in the wit. His wit is a torture to him.
He twists himself into arabesques of verbal felicity; he is full
of a fierce carefulness; he is inspired with the complete seriousness
of sincere malice. He hurts himself to hurt his opponent.
Browning did laugh, because Browning did not care; Browning did
not care, because Browning was a great man. And when Browning
said in brackets to the simple, sensible people who did not like
his books, "God love you!" he was not sneering in the least.
He was laughing--that is to say, he meant exactly what he said.
There are three distinct classes of great satirists who are also great men--
that is to say, three classes of men who can laugh at something without
losing their souls. The satirist of the first type is the man who,
first of all enjoys himself, and then enjoys his enemies.
In this sense he loves his enemy, and by a kind of exaggeration of
Christianity he loves his enemy the more the more he becomes an enemy.
He has a sort of overwhelming and aggressive happiness in his
assertion of anger; his curse is as human as a benediction.
Of this type of satire the great example is Rabelais. This is
the first typical example of satire, the satire which is voluble,
which is violent, which is indecent, but which is not malicious.
The satire of Whistler was not this. He was never in any of his
controversies simply happy; the proof of it is that he never talked
absolute nonsense. There is a second type of mind which produces satire
with the quality of greatness. That is embodied in the satirist whose
passions are released and let go by some intolerable sense of wrong.
He is maddened by the sense of men being maddened; his tongue
becomes an unruly member, and testifies against all mankind.
Such a man was Swift, in whom the saeva indignatio was a bitterness
to others, because it was a bitterness to himself. Such a satirist
Whistler was not. He did not laugh because he was happy, like Rabelais.
But neither did he laugh because he was unhappy, like Swift.
The third type of great satire is that in which he satirist is enabled
to rise superior to his victim in the only serious sense which
superiority can bear, in that of pitying the sinner and respecting
the man even while he satirises both. Such an achievement can be
found in a thing like Pope's "Atticus" a poem in which the satirist
feels that he is satirising the weaknesses which belong specially
to literary genius. Consequently he takes a pleasure in pointing
out his enemy's strength before he points out his weakness.
That is, perhaps, the highest and most honourable form of satire.
That is not the satire of Whistler. He is not full of a great sorrow
for the wrong done to human nature; for him the wrong is altogether
done to himself.
He was not a great personality, because he thought so much
about himself. And the case is stronger even than that.
He was sometimes not even a great artist, because he thought
so much about art. Any man with a vital knowledge of the human
psychology ought to have the most profound suspicion of anybody
who claims to be an artist, and talks a great deal about art.
Art is a right and human thing, like walking or saying one's prayers;
but the moment it begins to be talked about very solemnly, a man
may be fairly certain that the thing has come into a congestion
and a kind of difficulty.
The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs.
It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of
expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being.
It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him;
it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him
at all costs. Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid
of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily.
But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure,
and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament.
Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men--
men like Shakespeare or Browning. There are many real tragedies
of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear.
But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot
produce any art.
Whistler could produce art; and in so far he was a great man.
But he could not forget art; and in so far he was only a man with
the artistic temperament. There can be no stronger manifestation
of the man who is a really great artist than the fact that he can
dismiss the subject of art; that he can, upon due occasion,
wish art at the bottom of the sea. Similarly, we should always
be much more inclined to trust a solicitor who did not talk about
conveyancing over the nuts and wine. What we really desire of any
man conducting any business is that the full force of an ordinary
man should be put into that particular study. We do not desire
that the full force of that study should be put into an ordinary man.
We do not in the least wish that our particular law-suit should
pour its energy into our barrister's games with his children,
or rides on his bicycle, or meditations on the morning star.
But we do, as a matter of fact, desire that his games with his children,
and his rides on his bicycle, and his meditations on the morning star
should pour something of their energy into our law-suit. We do desire
that if he has gained any especial lung development from the bicycle,
or any bright and pleasing metaphors from the morning star, that the should
be placed at our disposal in that particular forensic controversy.
In a word, we are very glad that he is an ordinary man, since that
may help him to be an exceptional lawyer.
Whistler never ceased to be an artist. As Mr. Max Beerbohm pointed
out in one of his extraordinarily sensible and sincere critiques,
Whistler really regarded Whistler as his greatest work of art.
The white lock, the single eyeglass, the remarkable hat--
these were much dearer to him than any nocturnes or arrangements
that he ever threw off. He could throw off the nocturnes;
for some mysterious reason he could not throw off the hat.
He never threw off from himself that disproportionate accumulation
of aestheticism which is the burden of the amateur.
It need hardly be said that this is the real explanation of the thing
which has puzzled so many dilettante critics, the problem of the extreme
ordinariness of the behaviour of so many great geniuses in history.
Their behaviour was so ordinary that it was not recorded;
hence it was so ordinary that it seemed mysterious. Hence people say
that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. The modern artistic temperament cannot
understand how a man who could write such lyrics as Shakespeare wrote,
could be as keen as Shakespeare was on business transactions in a
little town in Warwickshire. The explanation is simple enough;
it is that Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a real lyric,
and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business.
Being an artist did not prevent him from being an ordinary man,
any more than being a sleeper at night or being a diner at dinner
prevented him from being an ordinary man.
All very great teachers and leaders have had this habit
of assuming their point of view to be one which was human
and casual, one which would readily appeal to every passing man.
If a man is genuinely superior to his fellows the first thing
that he believes in is the equality of man. We can see this,
for instance, in that strange and innocent rationality with which
Christ addressed any motley crowd that happened to stand about Him.
"What man of you having a hundred sheep, and losing one, would not leave
the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which was lost?"
Or, again, "What man of you if his son ask for bread will he give
him a stone, or if he ask for a fish will he give him a serpent?"
This plainness, this almost prosaic camaraderie, is the note of all
very great minds.
To very great minds the things on which men agree are so immeasurably
more important than the things on which they differ, that the latter,
for all practical purposes, disappear. They have too much in them
of an ancient laughter even to endure to discuss the difference
between the hats of two men who were both born of a woman,
or between the subtly varied cultures of two men who have both to die.
The first-rate great man is equal with other men, like Shakespeare.
The second-rate great man is on his knees to other men, like Whitman.
The third-rate great man is superior to other men, like Whistler.
XVIII The Fallacy of the Young Nation
To say that a man is an idealist is merely to say that he is
a man; but, nevertheless, it might be possible to effect some
valid distinction between one kind of idealist and another.
One possible distinction, for instance, could be effected by saying that
humanity is divided into conscious idealists and unconscious idealists.
In a similar way, humanity is divided into conscious ritualists and.
unconscious ritualists. The curious thing is, in that example as
in others, that it is the conscious ritualism which is comparatively
simple, the unconscious ritual which is really heavy and complicated.
The ritual which is comparatively rude and straightforward is
the ritual which people call "ritualistic." It consists of plain
things like bread and wine and fire, and men falling on their faces.
But the ritual which is really complex, and many coloured, and elaborate,
and needlessly formal, is the ritual which people enact without
knowing it. It consists not of plain things like wine and fire,
but of really peculiar, and local, and exceptional, and ingenious things--
things like door-mats, and door-knockers, and electric bells,
and silk hats, and white ties, and shiny cards, and confetti.
The truth is that the modern man scarcely ever gets back to very old
and simple things except when he is performing some religious mummery.
The modern man can hardly get away from ritual except by entering
a ritualistic church. In the case of these old and mystical
formalities we can at least say that the ritual is not mere ritual;
that the symbols employed are in most cases symbols which belong to a
primary human poetry. The most ferocious opponent of the Christian
ceremonials must admit that if Catholicism had not instituted
the bread and wine, somebody else would most probably have done so.
Any one with a poetical instinct will admit that to the ordinary
human instinct bread symbolizes something which cannot very easily
be symbolized otherwise; that wine, to the ordinary human instinct,
symbolizes something which cannot very easily be symbolized otherwise.
But white ties in the evening are ritual, and nothing else but ritual.
No one would pretend that white ties in the evening are primary
and poetical. Nobody would maintain that the ordinary human instinct
would in any age or country tend to symbolize the idea of evening
by a white necktie. Rather, the ordinary human instinct would,
I imagine, tend to symbolize evening by cravats with some of the colours
of the sunset, not white neckties, but tawny or crimson neckties--
neckties of purple or olive, or some darkened gold. Mr. J. A. Kensit,
for example, is under the impression that he is not a ritualist.
But the daily life of Mr. J. A. Kensit, like that of any ordinary
modern man, is, as a matter of fact, one continual and compressed
catalogue of mystical mummery and flummery. To take one instance
out of an inevitable hundred: I imagine that Mr. Kensit takes
off his hat to a lady; and what can be more solemn and absurd,
considered in the abstract, than, symbolizing the existence of the other
sex by taking off a portion of your clothing and waving it in the air?
This, I repeat, is not a natural and primitive symbol, like fire or food.
A man might just as well have to take off his waistcoat to a lady;
and if a man, by the social ritual of his civilization, had to take off
his waistcoat to a lady, every chivalrous and sensible man would take
off his waistcoat to a lady. In short, Mr. Kensit, and those who agree
with him, may think, and quite sincerely think, that men give too
much incense and ceremonial to their adoration of the other world.
But nobody thinks that he can give too much incense and ceremonial
to the adoration of this world. All men, then, are ritualists, but are
either conscious or unconscious ritualists. The conscious ritualists
are generally satisfied with a few very simple and elementary signs;
the unconscious ritualists are not satisfied with anything short
of the whole of human life, being almost insanely ritualistic.
The first is called a ritualist because he invents and remembers
one rite; the other is called an anti-ritualist because he obeys
and forgets a thousand. And a somewhat similar distinction
to this which I have drawn with some unavoidable length,
between the conscious ritualist and the unconscious ritualist,
exists between the conscious idealist and the unconscious idealist.
It is idle to inveigh against cynics and materialists--there are
no cynics, there are no materialists. Every man is idealistic;
only it so often happens that he has the wrong ideal.
Every man is incurably sentimental; but, unfortunately, it is so often
a false sentiment. When we talk, for instance, of some unscrupulous
commercial figure, and say that he would do anything for money,
we use quite an inaccurate expression, and we slander him very much.
He would not do anything for money. He would do some things for money;
he would sell his soul for money, for instance; and, as Mirabeau
humorously said, he would be quite wise "to take money for muck."
He would oppress humanity for money; but then it happens that humanity
and the soul are not things that he believes in; they are not his ideals.
But he has his own dim and delicate ideals; and he would not violate
these for money. He would not drink out of the soup-tureen, for money.
He would not wear his coat-tails in front, for money. He would
not spread a report that he had softening of the brain, for money.
In the actual practice of life we find, in the matter of ideals,
exactly what we have already found in the matter of ritual.
We find that while there is a perfectly genuine danger of fanaticism
from the men who have unworldly ideals, the permanent and urgent
danger of fanaticism is from the men who have worldly ideals.
People who say that an ideal is a dangerous thing, that it
deludes and intoxicates, are perfectly right. But the ideal
which intoxicates most is the least idealistic kind of ideal.
The ideal which intoxicates least is the very ideal ideal; that sobers
us suddenly, as all heights and precipices and great distances do.
Granted that it is a great evil to mistake a cloud for a cape;
still, the cloud, which can be most easily mistaken for a cape,
is the cloud that is nearest the earth. Similarly, we may grant
that it may be dangerous to mistake an ideal for something practical.
But we shall still point out that, in this respect, the most
dangerous ideal of all is the ideal which looks a little practical.
It is difficult to attain a high ideal; consequently, it is almost
impossible to persuade ourselves that we have attained it.
But it is easy to attain a low ideal; consequently, it is easier
still to persuade ourselves that we have attained it when we
have done nothing of the kind. To take a random example.
It might be called a high ambition to wish to be an archangel;
the man who entertained such an ideal would very possibly
exhibit asceticism, or even frenzy, but not, I think, delusion.
He would not think he was an archangel, and go about flapping
his hands under the impression that they were wings.
But suppose that a sane man had a low ideal; suppose he wished
to be a gentleman. Any one who knows the world knows that in nine
weeks he would have persuaded himself that he was a gentleman;
and this being manifestly not the case, the result will be very
real and practical dislocations and calamities in social life.
It is not the wild ideals which wreck the practical world;
it is the tame ideals.
The matter may, perhaps, be illustrated by a parallel from our
modern politics. When men tell us that the old Liberal politicians
of the type of Gladstone cared only for ideals, of course,
they are talking nonsense--they cared for a great many other things,
including votes. And when men tell us that modern politicians
of the type of Mr. Chamberlain or, in another way, Lord Rosebery,
care only for votes or for material interest, then again they are
talking nonsense--these men care for ideals like all other men.
But the real distinction which may be drawn is this, that to
the older politician the ideal was an ideal, and nothing else.
To the new politician his dream is not only a good dream, it is a reality.
The old politician would have said, "It would be a good thing
if there were a Republican Federation dominating the world."
But the modern politician does not say, "It would be a good thing
if there were a British Imperialism dominating the world."
He says, "It is a good thing that there is a British Imperialism
dominating the world;" whereas clearly there is nothing of the kind.
The old Liberal would say "There ought to be a good Irish government
in Ireland." But the ordinary modern Unionist does not say,
"There ought to be a good English government in Ireland." He says,
"There is a good English government in Ireland;" which is absurd.
In short, the modern politicians seem to think that a man becomes
practical merely by making assertions entirely about practical things.
Apparently, a delusion does not matter as long as it is a
materialistic delusion. Instinctively most of us feel that,
as a practical matter, even the contrary is true. I certainly
would much rather share my apartments with a gentleman who thought
he was God than with a gentleman who thought he was a grasshopper.
To be continually haunted by practical images and practical problems,
to be constantly thinking of things as actual, as urgent, as in process
of completion--these things do not prove a man to be practical;
these things, indeed, are among the most ordinary signs of a lunatic.
That our modern statesmen are materialistic is nothing against
their being also morbid. Seeing angels in a vision may make a man
a supernaturalist to excess. But merely seeing snakes in delirium
tremens does not make him a naturalist.
And when we come actually to examine the main stock notions of our
modern practical politicians, we find that those main stock notions are
mainly delusions. A great many instances might be given of the fact.
We might take, for example, the case of that strange class of notions
which underlie the word "union," and all the eulogies heaped upon it.
Of course, union is no more a good thing in itself than separation
is a good thing in itself. To have a party in favour of union
and a party in favour of separation is as absurd as to have a party
in favour of going upstairs and a party in favour of going downstairs.
The question is not whether we go up or down stairs, but where we
are going to, and what we are going, for? Union is strength;
union is also weakness. It is a good thing to harness two horses
to a cart; but it is not a good thing to try and turn two hansom cabs
into one four-wheeler. Turning ten nations into one empire may happen
to be as feasible as turning ten shillings into one half-sovereign.
Also it may happen to be as preposterous as turning ten terriers
into one mastiff . The question in all cases is not a question of
union or absence of union, but of identity or absence of identity.
Owing to certain historical and moral causes, two nations may be
so united as upon the whole to help each other. Thus England
and Scotland pass their time in paying each other compliments;
but their energies and atmospheres run distinct and parallel,
and consequently do not clash. Scotland continues to be educated
and Calvinistic; England continues to be uneducated and happy.
But owing to certain other Moral and certain other political causes,
two nations may be so united as only to hamper each other;
their lines do clash and do not run parallel. Thus, for instance,
England and Ireland are so united that the Irish can
sometimes rule England, but can never rule Ireland.
The educational systems, including the last Education Act, are here,
as in the case of Scotland, a very good test of the matter.
The overwhelming majority of Irishmen believe in a strict Catholicism;
the overwhelming majority of Englishmen believe in a vague Protestantism.
The Irish party in the Parliament of Union is just large enough to prevent
the English education being indefinitely Protestant, and just small
enough to prevent the Irish education being definitely Catholic.
Here we have a state of things which no man in his senses would
ever dream of wishing to continue if he had not been bewitched
by the sentimentalism of the mere word "union."
This example of union, however, is not the example which I propose
to take of the ingrained futility and deception underlying
all the assumptions of the modern practical politician.
I wish to speak especially of another and much more general delusion.
It pervades the minds and speeches of all the practical men of all parties;
and it is a childish blunder built upon a single false metaphor.
I refer to the universal modern talk about young nations and new nations;
about America being young, about New Zealand being new. The whole thing
is a trick of words. America is not young, New Zealand is not new.
It is a very discussable question whether they are not both much
older than England or Ireland.
Of course we may use the metaphor of youth about America or
the colonies, if we use it strictly as implying only a recent origin.
But if we use it (as we do use it) as implying vigour, or vivacity,
or crudity, or inexperience, or hope, or a long life before them
or any of the romantic attributes of youth, then it is surely
as clear as daylight that we are duped by a stale figure of speech.
We can easily see the matter clearly by applying it to any other
institution parallel to the institution of an independent nationality.
If a club called "The Milk and Soda League" (let us say)
was set up yesterday, as I have no doubt it was, then, of course,
"The Milk and Soda League" is a young club in the sense that it
was set up yesterday, but in no other sense. It may consist
entirely of moribund old gentlemen. It may be moribund itself.
We may call it a young club, in the light of the fact that it was
founded yesterday. We may also call it a very old club in the light
of the fact that it will most probably go bankrupt to-morrow.
All this appears very obvious when we put it in this form.
Any one who adopted the young-community delusion with regard
to a bank or a butcher's shop would be sent to an asylum.
But the whole modern political notion that America and the colonies
must be very vigorous because they are very new, rests upon no
better foundation. That America was founded long after England
does not make it even in the faintest degree more probable
that America will not perish a long time before England.
That England existed before her colonies does not make it any the less
likely that she will exist after her colonies. And when we look at
the actual history of the world, we find that great European nations
almost invariably have survived the vitality of their colonies.
When we look at the actual history of the world, we find, that if
there is a thing that is born old and dies young, it is a colony.
The Greek colonies went to pieces long before the Greek civilization.
The Spanish colonies have gone to pieces long before the nation of Spain--
nor does there seem to be any reason to doubt the possibility or even
the probability of the conclusion that the colonial civilization,
which owes its origin to England, will be much briefer and much less
vigorous than the civilization of England itself. The English nation
will still be going the way of all European nations when the Anglo-Saxon
race has gone the way of all fads. Now, of course, the interesting
question is, have we, in the case of America and the colonies,
any real evidence of a moral and intellectual youth as opposed
to the indisputable triviality of a merely chronological youth?
Consciously or unconsciously, we know that we have no such evidence,
and consciously or unconsciously, therefore, we proceed to make it up.
Of this pure and placid invention, a good example, for instance,
can be found in a recent poem of Mr. Rudyard Kipling's. Speaking of
the English people and the South African War Mr. Kipling says that
"we fawned on the younger nations for the men that could shoot and ride."
Some people considered this sentence insulting. All that I am
concerned with at present is the evident fact that it is not true.
The colonies provided very useful volunteer troops, but they did not
provide the best troops, nor achieve the most successful exploits.
The best work in the war on the English side was done,
as might have been expected, by the best English regiments.
The men who could shoot and ride were not the enthusiastic corn
merchants from Melbourne, any more than they were the enthusiastic
clerks from Cheapside. The men who could shoot and ride were
the men who had been taught to shoot and ride in the discipline
of the standing army of a great European power. Of course,
the colonials are as brave and athletic as any other average white men.
Of course, they acquitted themselves with reasonable credit.
All I have here to indicate is that, for the purposes of this theory
of the new nation, it is necessary to maintain that the colonial
forces were more useful or more heroic than the gunners at Colenso
or the Fighting Fifth. And of this contention there is not,
and never has been, one stick or straw of evidence.
A similar attempt is made, and with even less success, to represent the
literature of the colonies as something fresh and vigorous and important.
The imperialist magazines are constantly springing upon us some
genius from Queensland or Canada, through whom we are expected
to smell the odours of the bush or the prairie. As a matter of fact,
any one who is even slightly interested in literature as such (and I,
for one, confess that I am only slightly interested in literature
as such), will freely admit that the stories of these geniuses smell
of nothing but printer's ink, and that not of first-rate quality.
By a great effort of Imperial imagination the generous
English people reads into these works a force and a novelty.
But the force and the novelty are not in the new writers;
the force and the novelty are in the ancient heart of the English.
Anybody who studies them impartially will know that the first-rate
writers of the colonies are not even particularly novel in their
note and atmosphere, are not only not producing a new kind
of good literature, but are not even in any particular sense
producing a new kind of bad literature. The first-rate writers
of the new countries are really almost exactly like the second-rate
writers of the old countries. Of course they do feel the mystery
of the wilderness, the mystery of the bush, for all simple and honest
men feel this in Melbourne, or Margate, or South St. Pancras.
But when they write most sincerely and most successfully, it is not
with a background of the mystery of the bush, but with a background,
expressed or assumed, of our own romantic cockney civilization.
What really moves their souls with a kindly terror is not the mystery
of the wilderness, but the Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
Of course there are some exceptions to this generalization.
The one really arresting exception is Olive Schreiner, and she
is quite as certainly an exception that proves the rule.
Olive Schreiner is a fierce, brilliant, and realistic novelist;
but she is all this precisely because she is not English at all.
Her tribal kinship is with the country of Teniers and Maarten Maartens--
that is, with a country of realists. Her literary kinship is with
the pessimistic fiction of the continent; with the novelists whose
very pity is cruel. Olive Schreiner is the one English colonial who is
not conventional, for the simple reason that South Africa is the one
English colony which is not English, and probably never will be.
And, of course, there are individual exceptions in a minor way.
I remember in particular some Australian tales by Mr. McIlwain
which were really able and effective, and which, for that reason,
I suppose, are not presented to the public with blasts of a trumpet.
But my general contention if put before any one with a love
of letters, will not be disputed if it is understood. It is not
the truth that the colonial civilization as a whole is giving us,
or shows any signs of giving us, a literature which will startle
and renovate our own. It may be a very good thing for us to have
an affectionate illusion in the matter; that is quite another affair.
The colonies may have given England a new emotion; I only say
that they have not given the world a new book.
Touching these English colonies, I do not wish to be misunderstood.
I do not say of them or of America that they have not a future,
or that they will not be great nations. I merely deny the whole
established modern expression about them. I deny that they are "destined"
to a future. I deny that they are "destined" to be great nations.
I deny (of course) that any human thing is destined to be anything.
All the absurd physical metaphors, such as youth and age,
living and dying, are, when applied to nations, but pseudo-scientific
attempts to conceal from men the awful liberty of their lonely souls.
In the case of America, indeed, a warning to this effect is instant
and essential. America, of course, like every other human thing,
can in spiritual sense live or die as much as it chooses.
But at the present moment the matter which America has very seriously
to consider is not how near it is to its birth and beginning,
but how near it may be to its end. It is only a verbal question
whether the American civilization is young; it may become
a very practical and urgent question whether it is dying.
When once we have cast aside, as we inevitably have after a
moment's thought, the fanciful physical metaphor involved in the word
"youth," what serious evidence have we that America is a fresh
force and not a stale one? It has a great many people, like China;
it has a great deal of money, like defeated Carthage or dying Venice.
It is full of bustle and excitability, like Athens after its ruin,
and all the Greek cities in their decline. It is fond of new things;
but the old are always fond of new things. Young men read chronicles,
but old men read newspapers. It admires strength and good looks;
it admires a big and barbaric beauty in its women, for instance;
but so did Rome when the Goth was at the gates. All these are
things quite compatible with fundamental tedium and decay.
There are three main shapes or symbols in which a nation can show
itself essentially glad and great--by the heroic in government,
by the heroic in arms, and by the heroic in art. Beyond government,
which is, as it were, the very shape and body of a nation,
the most significant thing about any citizen is his artistic
attitude towards a holiday and his moral attitude towards a fight--
that is, his way of accepting life and his way of accepting death.
Subjected to these eternal tests, America does not appear by any means
as particularly fresh or untouched. She appears with all the weakness
and weariness of modern England or of any other Western power.
In her politics she has broken up exactly as England has broken up,
into a bewildering opportunism and insincerity. In the matter of war
and the national attitude towards war, her resemblance to England
is even more manifest and melancholy. It may be said with rough
accuracy that there are three stages in the life of a strong people.
First, it is a small power, and fights small powers. Then it is
a great power, and fights great powers. Then it is a great power,
and fights small powers, but pretends that they are great powers,
in order to rekindle the ashes of its ancient emotion and vanity.
After that, the next step is to become a small power itself.
England exhibited this symptom of decadence very badly in the war with
the Transvaal; but America exhibited it worse in the war with Spain.
There was exhibited more sharply and absurdly than anywhere
else the ironic contrast between the very careless choice
of a strong line and the very careful choice of a weak enemy.
America added to all her other late Roman or Byzantine elements
the element of the Caracallan triumph, the triumph over nobody.
But when we come to the last test of nationality, the test of art
and letters, the case is almost terrible. The English colonies
have produced no great artists; and that fact may prove that they
are still full of silent possibilities and reserve force.
But America has produced great artists. And that fact most certainly
proves that she is full of a fine futility and the end of all things.
Whatever the American men of genius are, they are not young gods
making a young world. Is the art of Whistler a brave, barbaric art,
happy and headlong? Does Mr. Henry James infect us with the spirit
of a schoolboy? No; the colonies have not spoken, and they are safe.
Their silence may be the silence of the unborn. But out of America
has come a sweet and startling cry, as unmistakable as the cry
of a dying man.
XIX Slum Novelists and the Slums
Odd ideas are entertained in our time about the real nature of the doctrine
of human fraternity. The real doctrine is something which we do not,
with all our modern humanitarianism, very clearly understand,
much less very closely practise. There is nothing, for instance,
particularly undemocratic about kicking your butler downstairs.
It may be wrong, but it is not unfraternal. In a certain sense,
the blow or kick may be considered as a confession of equality:
you are meeting your butler body to body; you are almost according
him the privilege of the duel. There is nothing, undemocratic,
though there may be something unreasonable, in expecting a great deal
from the butler, and being filled with a kind of frenzy of surprise
when he falls short of the divine stature. The thing which is
really undemocratic and unfraternal is not to expect the butler
to be more or less divine. The thing which is really undemocratic
and unfraternal is to say, as so many modern humanitarians say,
"Of course one must make allowances for those on a lower plane."
All things considered indeed, it may be said, without undue exaggeration,
that the really undemocratic and unfraternal thing is the common
practice of not kicking the butler downstairs.
It is only because such a vast section of the modern world is
out of sympathy with the serious democratic sentiment that this
statement will seem to many to be lacking in seriousness.
Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform.
Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is
founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on
fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable,
but because man is so sublime. It does not object so much
to the ordinary man being a slave as to his not being a king,
for its dream is always the dream of the first Roman republic,
a nation of kings.
Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing
in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism
in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any
nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post.
Rational despotism--that is, selective despotism--is always
a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary
man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no
brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism
is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned.
The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism,
or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because
he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative,
not because he represents them, but because he does not.
Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV.
because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him.
Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves.
But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves.
And hence the worship of great men always appears in times
of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until
the time when all other men are small.
Hereditary despotism is, then, in essence and sentiment
democratic because it chooses from mankind at random.
If it does not declare that every man may rule, it declares
the next most democratic thing; it declares that any man may rule.
Hereditary aristocracy is a far worse and more dangerous thing,
because the numbers and multiplicity of an aristocracy make it
sometimes possible for it to figure as an aristocracy of intellect.
Some of its members will presumably have brains, and thus they,
at any rate, will be an intellectual aristocracy within the social one.
They will rule the aristocracy by virtue of their intellect,
and they will rule the country by virtue of their aristocracy.
Thus a double falsity will be set up, and millions of the images
of God, who, fortunately for their wives and families, are neither
gentlemen nor clever men, will be represented by a man like Mr. Balfour
or Mr. Wyndham, because he is too gentlemanly to be called
merely clever, and just too clever to be called merely a gentleman.
But even an hereditary aristocracy may exhibit, by a sort of accident,
from time to time some of the basically democratic quality which
belongs to a hereditary despotism. It is amusing to think how much
conservative ingenuity has been wasted in the defence of the House
of Lords by men who were desperately endeavouring to prove that
the House of Lords consisted of clever men. There is one really
good defence of the House of Lords, though admirers of the peerage
are strangely coy about using it; and that is, that the House
of Lords, in its full and proper strength, consists of stupid men.
It really would be a plausible defence of that otherwise indefensible
body to point out that the clever men in the Commons, who owed
their power to cleverness, ought in the last resort to be checked
by the average man in the Lords, who owed their power to accident.
Of course, there would be many answers to such a contention,
as, for instance, that the House of Lords is largely no longer
a House of Lords, but a House of tradesmen and financiers,
or that the bulk of the commonplace nobility do not vote, and so
leave the chamber to the prigs and the specialists and the mad old
gentlemen with hobbies. But on some occasions the House of Lords,
even under all these disadvantages, is in some sense representative.
When all the peers flocked together to vote against Mr. Gladstone's
second Home Rule Bill, for instance, those who said that the
peers represented the English people, were perfectly right.
All those dear old men who happened to be born peers were at that moment,
and upon that question, the precise counterpart of all the dear old
men who happened to be born paupers or middle-class gentlemen.
That mob of peers did really represent the English people--that is
to say, it was honest, ignorant, vaguely excited, almost unanimous,
and obviously wrong. Of course, rational democracy is better as an
expression of the public will than the haphazard hereditary method.
While we are about having any kind of democracy, let it be
rational democracy. But if we are to have any kind of oligarchy,
let it be irrational oligarchy. Then at least we shall be ruled by men.
But the thing which is really required for the proper working of democracy
is not merely the democratic system, or even the democratic philosophy,
but the democratic emotion. The democratic emotion, like most elementary
and indispensable things, is a thing difficult to describe at any time.
But it is peculiarly difficult to describe it in our enlightened age,
for the simple reason that it is peculiarly difficult to find it.
It is a certain instinctive attitude which feels the things
in which all men agree to be unspeakably important,
and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains)
to be almost unspeakably unimportant. The nearest approach to it
in our ordinary life would be the promptitude with which we should
consider mere humanity in any circumstance of shock or death.
We should say, after a somewhat disturbing discovery, "There is a dead
man under the sofa." We should not be likely to say, "There is
a dead man of considerable personal refinement under the sofa."
We should say, "A woman has fallen into the water." We should not say,
"A highly educated woman has fallen into the water." Nobody would say,
"There are the remains of a clear thinker in your back garden."
Nobody would say, "Unless you hurry up and stop him, a man
with a very fine ear for music will have jumped off that cliff."
But this emotion, which all of us have in connection with such
things as birth and death, is to some people native and constant
at all ordinary times and in all ordinary places. It was native
to St. Francis of Assisi. It was native to Walt Whitman.
In this strange and splendid degree it cannot be expected,
perhaps, to pervade a whole commonwealth or a whole civilization;
but one commonwealth may have it much more than another commonwealth,
one civilization much more than another civilization.
No community, perhaps, ever had it so much as the early Franciscans.
No community, perhaps, ever had it so little as ours.
Everything in our age has, when carefully examined, this fundamentally
undemocratic quality. In religion and morals we should admit,
in the abstract, that the sins of the educated classes were as great as,
or perhaps greater than, the sins of the poor and ignorant.
But in practice the great difference between the mediaeval
ethics and ours is that ours concentrate attention on the sins
which are the sins of the ignorant, and practically deny that
the sins which are the sins of the educated are sins at all.
We are always talking about the sin of intemperate drinking,
because it is quite obvious that the poor have it more than the rich.
But we are always denying that there is any such thing as the sin of pride,
because it would be quite obvious that the rich have it more than the poor.
We are always ready to make a saint or prophet of the educated man
who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated.
But the medieval idea of a saint or prophet was something quite different.
The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked
into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated.
The old tyrants had enough insolence to despoil the poor,
but they had not enough insolence to preach to them.
It was the gentleman who oppressed the slums; but it was the slums
that admonished the gentleman. And just as we are undemocratic
in faith and morals, so we are, by the very nature of our attitude
in such matters, undemocratic in the tone of our practical politics.
It is a sufficient proof that we are not an essentially democratic
state that we are always wondering what we shall do with the poor.
If we were democrats, we should be wondering what the poor will do with us.
With us the governing class is always saying to itself, "What laws shall
we make?" In a purely democratic state it would be always saying,
"What laws can we obey?" A purely democratic state perhaps there
has never been. But even the feudal ages were in practice thus
far democratic, that every feudal potentate knew that any laws
which he made would in all probability return upon himself.
His feathers might be cut off for breaking a sumptuary law.
His head might be cut off for high treason. But the modern laws are almost
always laws made to affect the governed class, but not the governing.
We have public-house licensing laws, but not sumptuary laws.
That is to say, we have laws against the festivity and hospitality of
the poor, but no laws against the festivity and hospitality of the rich.
We have laws against blasphemy--that is, against a kind of coarse
and offensive speaking in which nobody but a rough and obscure man
would be likely to indulge. But we have no laws against heresy--
that is, against the intellectual poisoning of the whole people,
in which only a prosperous and prominent man would be likely to
be successful. The evil of aristocracy is not that it necessarily
leads to the infliction of bad things or the suffering of sad ones;
the evil of aristocracy is that it places everything in the hands
of a class of people who can always inflict what they can never suffer.
Whether what they inflict is, in their intention, good or bad,
they become equally frivolous. The case against the governing class
of modern England is not in the least that it is selfish; if you like,
you may call the English oligarchs too fantastically unselfish.
The case against them simply is that when they legislate for all men,
they always omit themselves.
We are undemocratic, then, in our religion, as is proved by our
efforts to "raise" the poor. We are undemocratic in our government,
as is proved by our innocent attempt to govern them well.
But above all we are undemocratic in our literature, as is
proved by the torrent of novels about the poor and serious
studies of the poor which pour from our publishers every month.
And the more "modern" the book is the more certain it is to be
devoid of democratic sentiment.
A poor man is a man who has not got much money. This may seem
a simple and unnecessary description, but in the face of a great
mass of modern fact and fiction, it seems very necessary indeed;
most of our realists and sociologists talk about a poor man as if
he were an octopus or an alligator. There is no more need to study
the psychology of poverty than to study the psychology of bad temper,
or the psychology of vanity, or the psychology of animal spirits.
A man ought to know something of the emotions of an insulted man,
not by being insulted, but simply by being a man. And he ought to know
something of the emotions of a poor man, not by being poor, but simply
by being a man. Therefore, in any writer who is describing poverty,
my first objection to him will be that he has studied his subject.
A democrat would have imagined it.
A great many hard things have been said about religious slumming
and political or social slumming, but surely the most despicable
of all is artistic slumming. The religious teacher is at least
supposed to be interested in the costermonger because he is a man;
the politician is in some dim and perverted sense interested in
the costermonger because he is a citizen; it is only the wretched
writer who is interested in the costermonger merely because he is
a costermonger. Nevertheless, so long as he is merely seeking impressions,
or in other words copy, his trade, though dull, is honest.
But when he endeavours to represent that he is describing
the spiritual core of a costermonger, his dim vices and his
delicate virtues, then we must object that his claim is preposterous;
we must remind him that he is a journalist and nothing else.
He has far less psychological authority even than the foolish missionary.
For he is in the literal and derivative sense a journalist,
while the missionary is an eternalist. The missionary at least
pretends to have a version of the man's lot for all time;
the journalist only pretends to have a version of it from day to day.
The missionary comes to tell the poor man that he is in the same
condition with all men. The journalist comes to tell other people
how different the poor man is from everybody else.
If the modern novels about the slums, such as novels of Mr. Arthur
Morrison, or the exceedingly able novels of Mr. Somerset Maugham,
are intended to be sensational, I can only say that that is a noble
and reasonable object, and that they attain it. A sensation,
a shock to the imagination, like the contact with cold water,
is always a good and exhilarating thing; and, undoubtedly, men will
always seek this sensation (among other forms) in the form of the study
of the strange antics of remote or alien peoples. In the twelfth century
men obtained this sensation by reading about dog-headed men in Africa.
In the twentieth century they obtained it by reading about pig-headed
Boers in Africa. The men of the twentieth century were certainly,
it must be admitted, somewhat the more credulous of the two.
For it is not recorded of the men in the twelfth century that they
organized a sanguinary crusade solely for the purpose of altering
the singular formation of the heads of the Africans. But it may be,
and it may even legitimately be, that since all these monsters have faded
from the popular mythology, it is necessary to have in our fiction
the image of the horrible and hairy East-ender, merely to keep alive
in us a fearful and childlike wonder at external peculiarities.
But the Middle Ages (with a great deal more common sense than it
would now be fashionable to admit) regarded natural history at bottom
rather as a kind of joke; they regarded the soul as very important.
Hence, while they had a natural history of dog-headed men,
they did not profess to have a psychology of dog-headed men.
They did not profess to mirror the mind of a dog-headed man, to share
his tenderest secrets, or mount with his most celestial musings.
They did not write novels about the semi-canine creature,
attributing to him all the oldest morbidities and all the newest fads.
It is permissible to present men as monsters if we wish to make
the reader jump; and to make anybody jump is always a Christian act.
But it is not permissible to present men as regarding themselves
as monsters, or as making themselves jump. To summarize,
our slum fiction is quite defensible as aesthetic fiction;
it is not defensible as spiritual fact.
One enormous obstacle stands in the way of its actuality.
The men who write it, and the men who read it, are men of the middle
classes or the upper classes; at least, of those who are loosely termed
the educated classes. Hence, the fact that it is the life as the refined
man sees it proves that it cannot be the life as the unrefined man
lives it. Rich men write stories about poor men, and describe
them as speaking with a coarse, or heavy, or husky enunciation.
But if poor men wrote novels about you or me they would describe us
as speaking with some absurd shrill and affected voice, such as we
only hear from a duchess in a three-act farce. The slum novelist gains
his whole effect by the fact that some detail is strange to the reader;
but that detail by the nature of the case cannot be strange in itself.
It cannot be strange to the soul which he is professing to study.
The slum novelist gains his effects by describing the same grey mist
as draping the dingy factory and the dingy tavern. But to the man
he is supposed to be studying there must be exactly the same difference
between the factory and the tavern that there is to a middle-class
man between a late night at the office and a supper at Pagani's. The
slum novelist is content with pointing out that to the eye of his
particular class a pickaxe looks dirty and a pewter pot looks dirty.
But the man he is supposed to be studying sees the difference between
them exactly as a clerk sees the difference between a ledger and an
edition de luxe. The chiaroscuro of the life is inevitably lost;
for to us the high lights and the shadows are a light grey.
But the high lights and the shadows are not a light grey in that life
any more than in any other. The kind of man who could really
express the pleasures of the poor would be also the kind of man
who could share them. In short, these books are not a record
of the psychology of poverty. They are a record of the psychology
of wealth and culture when brought in contact with poverty.
They are not a description of the state of the slums. They are only
a very dark and dreadful description of the state of the slummers.
One might give innumerable examples of the essentially
unsympathetic and unpopular quality of these realistic writers.
But perhaps the simplest and most obvious example with which we
could conclude is the mere fact that these writers are realistic.
The poor have many other vices, but, at least, they are never realistic.
The poor are melodramatic and romantic in grain; the poor all believe
in high moral platitudes and copy-book maxims; probably this is
the ultimate meaning of the great saying, "Blessed are the poor."
Blessed are the poor, for they are always making life, or trying
to make life like an Adelphi play. Some innocent educationalists
and philanthropists (for even philanthropists can be innocent)
have expressed a grave astonishment that the masses prefer shilling
shockers to scientific treatises and melodramas to problem plays.
The reason is very simple. The realistic story is certainly
more artistic than the melodramatic story. If what you desire is
deft handling, delicate proportions, a unit of artistic atmosphere,
the realistic story has a full advantage over the melodrama.
In everything that is light and bright and ornamental the realistic
story has a full advantage over the melodrama. But, at least,
the melodrama has one indisputable advantage over the realistic story.
The melodrama is much more like life. It is much more like man,
and especially the poor man. It is very banal and very inartistic when a
poor woman at the Adelphi says, "Do you think I will sell my own child?"
But poor women in the Battersea High Road do say, "Do you think I
will sell my own child?" They say it on every available occasion;
you can hear a sort of murmur or babble of it all the way down
the street. It is very stale and weak dramatic art (if that is all)
when the workman confronts his master and says, "I'm a man."
But a workman does say "I'm a man" two or three times every day.
In fact, it is tedious, possibly, to hear poor men being
melodramatic behind the footlights; but that is because one can
always hear them being melodramatic in the street outside.
In short, melodrama, if it is dull, is dull because it is too accurate.
Somewhat the same problem exists in the case of stories about schoolboys.
Mr. Kipling's "Stalky and Co." is much more amusing (if you are
talking about amusement) than the late Dean Farrar's "Eric; or,
Little by Little." But "Eric" is immeasurably more like real
school-life. For real school-life, real boyhood, is full of the things
of which Eric is full--priggishness, a crude piety, a silly sin,
a weak but continual attempt at the heroic, in a word, melodrama.
And if we wish to lay a firm basis for any efforts to help the poor,
we must not become realistic and see them from the outside.
We must become melodramatic, and see them from the inside.
The novelist must not take out his notebook and say, "I am
an expert." No; he must imitate the workman in the Adelphi play.
He must slap himself on the chest and say, "I am a man."
XX. Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy
Whether the human mind can advance or not, is a question too
little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found
our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has
not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument,
that there has been in the past, or will be in the future,
such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself,
there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against
the modern version of that improvement. The vice of the modern
notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned
with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting
away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth,
it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions,
into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming
to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.
When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of
something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms.
It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down
a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.
Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal
who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools,
in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined
as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine
and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous
scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense
of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human.
When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism,
when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has
outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality,
when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form
of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process
sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals
and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas.
Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
If then, I repeat, there is to be mental advance, it must be mental
advance in the construction of a definite philosophy of life. And that
philosophy of life must be right and the other philosophies wrong.
Now of all, or nearly all, the able modern writers whom I have
briefly studied in this book, this is especially and pleasingly true,
that they do each of them have a constructive and affirmative view,
and that they do take it seriously and ask us to take it seriously.
There is nothing merely sceptically progressive about Mr. Rudyard Kipling.
There is nothing in the least broad minded about Mr. Bernard Shaw.
The paganism of Mr. Lowes Dickinson is more grave than any Christianity.
Even the opportunism of Mr. H. G. Wells is more dogmatic than
the idealism of anybody else. Somebody complained, I think,
to Matthew Arnold that he was getting as dogmatic as Carlyle.
He replied, "That may be true; but you overlook an obvious difference.
I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong."
The strong humour of the remark ought not to disguise from us its
everlasting seriousness and common sense; no man ought to write at all,
or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other
man in error. In similar style, I hold that I am dogmatic and right,
while Mr. Shaw is dogmatic and wrong. But my main point, at present,
is to notice that the chief among these writers I have discussed
do most sanely and courageously offer themselves as dogmatists,
as founders of a system. It may be true that the thing in Mr. Shaw
most interesting to me, is the fact that Mr. Shaw is wrong.
But it is equally true that the thing in Mr. Shaw most interesting
to himself, is the fact that Mr. Shaw is right. Mr. Shaw may have
none with him but himself; but it is not for himself he cares.
It is for the vast and universal church, of which he is the only member.
The two typical men of genius whom I have mentioned here, and with whose
names I have begun this book, are very symbolic, if only because they
have shown that the fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists.
In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that
literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds.
Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the
note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories.
And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists.
The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism.
The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism.
All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside
the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.
The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be
a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher.
A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having
the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content
with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.
So we find that when real forces, good or bad, like Kipling and
G. B. S., enter our arena, they bring with them not only startling
and arresting art, but very startling and arresting dogmas. And they
care even more, and desire us to care even more, about their startling
and arresting dogmas than about their startling and arresting art.
Mr. Shaw is a good dramatist, but what he desires more than
anything else to be is a good politician. Mr. Rudyard Kipling
is by divine caprice and natural genius an unconventional poet;
but what he desires more than anything else to be is a conventional poet.
He desires to be the poet of his people, bone of their bone, and flesh
of their flesh, understanding their origins, celebrating their destiny.
He desires to be Poet Laureate, a most sensible and honourable and
public-spirited desire. Having been given by the gods originality--
that is, disagreement with others--he desires divinely to agree with them.
But the most striking instance of all, more striking, I think,
even than either of these, is the instance of Mr. H. G. Wells.
He began in a sort of insane infancy of pure art. He began by making
a new heaven and a new earth, with the same irresponsible instinct
by which men buy a new necktie or button-hole. He began by trifling
with the stars and systems in order to make ephemeral anecdotes;
he killed the universe for a joke. He has since become more and
more serious, and has become, as men inevitably do when they become
more and more serious, more and more parochial. He was frivolous about
the twilight of the gods; but he is serious about the London omnibus.
He was careless in "The Time Machine," for that dealt only with
the destiny of all things; but be is careful, and even cautious,
in "Mankind in the Making," for that deals with the day after
to-morrow. He began with the end of the world, and that was easy.
Now he has gone on to the beginning of the world, and that is difficult.
But the main result of all this is the same as in the other cases.
The men who have really been the bold artists, the realistic artists,
the uncompromising artists, are the men who have turned out, after all,
to be writing "with a purpose." Suppose that any cool and cynical
art-critic, any art-critic fully impressed with the conviction
that artists were greatest when they were most purely artistic,
suppose that a man who professed ably a humane aestheticism,
as did Mr. Max Beerbohm, or a cruel aestheticism, as did
Mr. W. E. Henley, had cast his eye over the whole fictional
literature which was recent in the year 1895, and had been asked
to select the three most vigorous and promising and original artists
and artistic works, he would, I think, most certainly have said
that for a fine artistic audacity, for a real artistic delicacy,
or for a whiff of true novelty in art, the things that stood first
were "Soldiers Three," by a Mr. Rudyard Kipling; "Arms and the Man,"
by a Mr. Bernard Shaw; and "The Time Machine," by a man called Wells.
And all these men have shown themselves ingrainedly didactic.
You may express the matter if you will by saying that if we want
doctrines we go to the great artists. But it is clear from
the psychology of the matter that this is not the true statement;
the true statement is that when we want any art tolerably brisk
and bold we have to go to the doctrinaires.
In concluding this book, therefore, I would ask, first and foremost,
that men such as these of whom I have spoken should not be insulted
by being taken for artists. No man has any right whatever merely
to enjoy the work of Mr. Bernard Shaw; he might as well enjoy
the invasion of his country by the French. Mr. Shaw writes either
to convince or to enrage us. No man has any business to be a
Kiplingite without being a politician, and an Imperialist politician.
If a man is first with us, it should be because of what is first with him.
If a man convinces us at all, it should be by his convictions.
If we hate a poem of Kipling's from political passion, we are hating it
for the same reason that the poet loved it; if we dislike him because of
his opinions, we are disliking him for the best of all possible reasons.
If a man comes into Hyde Park to preach it is permissible to hoot him;
but it is discourteous to applaud him as a performing bear.
And an artist is only a performing bear compared with the meanest
man who fancies he has anything to say.
There is, indeed, one class of modern writers and thinkers who cannot
altogether be overlooked in this question, though there is no space
here for a lengthy account of them, which, indeed, to confess
the truth, would consist chiefly of abuse. I mean those who get
over all these abysses and reconcile all these wars by talking about
"aspects of truth," by saying that the art of Kipling represents
one aspect of the truth, and the art of William Watson another;
the art of Mr. Bernard Shaw one aspect of the truth, and the art
of Mr. Cunningham Grahame another; the art of Mr. H. G. Wells
one aspect, and the art of Mr. Coventry Patmore (say) another.
I will only say here that this seems to me an evasion which has
not even bad the sense to disguise itself ingeniously in words.
If we talk of a certain thing being an aspect of truth,
it is evident that we claim to know what is truth; just as, if we
talk of the hind leg of a dog, we claim to know what is a dog.
Unfortunately, the philosopher who talks about aspects of truth
generally also asks, "What is truth?" Frequently even he denies
the existence of truth, or says it is inconceivable by the
human intelligence. How, then, can he recognize its aspects?
I should not like to be an artist who brought an architectural sketch
to a builder, saying, "This is the south aspect of Sea-View Cottage.
Sea-View Cottage, of course, does not exist." I should not even
like very much to have to explain, under such circumstances,
that Sea-View Cottage might exist, but was unthinkable by the human mind.
Nor should I like any better to be the bungling and absurd metaphysician
who professed to be able to see everywhere the aspects of a truth
that is not there. Of course, it is perfectly obvious that there
are truths in Kipling, that there are truths in Shaw or Wells.
But the degree to which we can perceive them depends strictly upon
how far we have a definite conception inside us of what is truth.
It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we
see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain
what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.
I plead, then, that we should agree or disagree with these men. I plead
that we should agree with them at least in having an abstract belief.
But I know that there are current in the modern world many vague
objections to having an abstract belief, and I feel that we shall
not get any further until we have dealt with some of them.
The first objection is easily stated.
A common hesitation in our day touching the use of extreme convictions
is a sort of notion that extreme convictions specially upon cosmic matters,
have been responsible in the past for the thing which is called bigotry.
But a very small amount of direct experience will dissipate this view.
In real life the people who are most bigoted are the people
who have no convictions at all. The economists of the Manchester
school who disagree with Socialism take Socialism seriously.
It is the young man in Bond Street, who does not know what socialism
means much less whether he agrees with it, who is quite certain
that these socialist fellows are making a fuss about nothing.
The man who understands the Calvinist philosophy enough to agree with it
must understand the Catholic philosophy in order to disagree with it.
It is the vague modern who is not at all certain what is right
who is most certain that Dante was wrong. The serious opponent
of the Latin Church in history, even in the act of showing that it
produced great infamies, must know that it produced great saints.
It is the hard-headed stockbroker, who knows no history and
believes no religion, who is, nevertheless, perfectly convinced
that all these priests are knaves. The Salvationist at the Marble
Arch may be bigoted, but he is not too bigoted to yearn from
a common human kinship after the dandy on church parade.
But the dandy on church parade is so bigoted that he does not
in the least yearn after the Salvationist at the Marble Arch.
Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have
no opinions. It is the resistance offered to definite ideas
by that vague bulk of people whose ideas are indefinite to excess.
Bigotry may be called the appalling frenzy of the indifferent.
This frenzy of the indifferent is in truth a terrible thing;
it has made all monstrous and widely pervading persecutions.
In this degree it was not the people who cared who ever persecuted;
the people who cared were not sufficiently numerous. It was the people
who did not care who filled the world with fire and oppression.
It was the hands of the indifferent that lit the faggots;
it was the hands of the indifferent that turned the rack. There have
come some persecutions out of the pain of a passionate certainty;
but these produced, not bigotry, but fanaticism--a very different
and a somewhat admirable thing. Bigotry in the main has always
been the pervading omnipotence of those who do not care crushing
out those who care in darkness and blood.
There are people, however, who dig somewhat deeper than this
into the possible evils of dogma. It is felt by many that strong
philosophical conviction, while it does not (as they perceive)
produce that sluggish and fundamentally frivolous condition which we
call bigotry, does produce a certain concentration, exaggeration,
and moral impatience, which we may agree to call fanaticism.
They say, in brief, that ideas are dangerous things.
In politics, for example, it is commonly urged against a man like
Mr. Balfour, or against a man like Mr. John Morley, that a wealth
of ideas is dangerous. The true doctrine on this point, again,
is surely not very difficult to state. Ideas are dangerous,
but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas.
He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer.
Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous
is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first
idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller.
It is a common error, I think, among the Radical idealists of my own
party and period to suggest that financiers and business men are a
danger to the empire because they are so sordid or so materialistic.
The truth is that financiers and business men are a danger to
the empire because they can be sentimental about any sentiment,
and idealistic about any ideal, any ideal that they find lying about.
just as a boy who has not known much of women is apt too easily
to take a woman for the woman, so these practical men, unaccustomed
to causes, are always inclined to think that if a thing is proved
to be an ideal it is proved to be the ideal. Many, for example,
avowedly followed Cecil Rhodes because he had a vision.
They might as well have followed him because he had a nose;
a man without some kind of dream of perfection is quite as much
of a monstrosity as a noseless man. People say of such a figure,
in almost feverish whispers, "He knows his own mind," which is exactly
like saying in equally feverish whispers, "He blows his own nose."
Human nature simply cannot subsist without a hope and aim
of some kind; as the sanity of the Old Testament truly said,
where there is no vision the people perisheth. But it is precisely
because an ideal is necessary to man that the man without ideals
is in permanent danger of fanaticism. There is nothing which is
so likely to leave a man open to the sudden and irresistible inroad
of an unbalanced vision as the cultivation of business habits.
All of us know angular business men who think that the earth is flat,
or that Mr. Kruger was at the head of a great military despotism,
or that men are graminivorous, or that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.
Religious and philosophical beliefs are, indeed, as dangerous
as fire, and nothing can take from them that beauty of danger.
But there is only one way of really guarding ourselves against
the excessive danger of them, and that is to be steeped in philosophy
and soaked in religion.
Briefly, then, we dismiss the two opposite dangers of bigotry
and fanaticism, bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism
which is a too great concentration. We say that the cure for the
bigot is belief; we say that the cure for the idealist is ideas.
To know the best theories of existence and to choose the best
from them (that is, to the best of our own strong conviction)
appears to us the proper way to be neither bigot nor fanatic,
but something more firm than a bigot and more terrible than a fanatic,
a man with a definite opinion. But that definite opinion must
in this view begin with the basic matters of human thought,
and these must not be dismissed as irrelevant, as religion,
for instance, is too often in our days dismissed as irrelevant.
Even if we think religion insoluble, we cannot think it irrelevant.
Even if we ourselves have no view of the ultimate verities,
we must feel that wherever such a view exists in a man it must
be more important than anything else in him. The instant that
the thing ceases to be the unknowable, it becomes the indispensable.
There can be no doubt, I think, that the idea does exist in our
time that there is something narrow or irrelevant or even mean
about attacking a man's religion, or arguing from it in matters
of politics or ethics. There can be quite as little doubt that such
an accusation of narrowness is itself almost grotesquely narrow.
To take an example from comparatively current events: we all know
that it was not uncommon for a man to be considered a scarecrow
of bigotry and obscurantism because he distrusted the Japanese,
or lamented the rise of the Japanese, on the ground that the Japanese
were Pagans. Nobody would think that there was anything antiquated
or fanatical about distrusting a people because of some difference
between them and us in practice or political machinery.
Nobody would think it bigoted to say of a people, "I distrust their
influence because they are Protectionists." No one would think it
narrow to say, "I lament their rise because they are Socialists,
or Manchester Individualists, or strong believers in militarism
and conscription." A difference of opinion about the nature
of Parliaments matters very much; but a difference of opinion about
the nature of sin does not matter at all. A difference of opinion
about the object of taxation matters very much; but a difference
of opinion about the object of human existence does not matter at all.
We have a right to distrust a man who is in a different kind
of municipality; but we have no right to mistrust a man who is in
a different kind of cosmos. This sort of enlightenment is surely
about the most unenlightened that it is possible to imagine.
To recur to the phrase which I employed earlier, this is tantamount
to saying that everything is important with the exception of everything.
Religion is exactly the thing which cannot be left out--
because it includes everything. The most absent-minded person
cannot well pack his Gladstone-bag and leave out the bag.
We have a general view of existence, whether we like it or not;
it alters or, to speak more accurately, it creates and involves
everything we say or do, whether we like it or not. If we regard
the Cosmos as a dream, we regard the Fiscal Question as a dream.
If we regard the Cosmos as a joke, we regard St. Paul's Cathedral as
a joke. If everything is bad, then we must believe (if it be possible)
that beer is bad; if everything be good, we are forced to the rather
fantastic conclusion that scientific philanthropy is good. Every man
in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly.
The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long
as to have forgotten all about its existence.
This latter situation is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation
of the whole modern world. The modern world is filled with men who hold
dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas.
It may be said even that the modern world, as a corporate body,
holds certain dogmas so strongly that it does not know that they
are dogmas. It may be thought "dogmatic," for instance, in some
circles accounted progressive, to assume the perfection or improvement
of man in another world. But it is not thought "dogmatic" to assume
the perfection or improvement of man in this world; though that idea
of progress is quite as unproved as the idea of immortality,
and from a rationalistic point of view quite as improbable.
Progress happens to be one of our dogmas, and a dogma means
a thing which is not thought dogmatic. Or, again, we see nothing
"dogmatic" in the inspiring, but certainly most startling,
theory of physical science, that we should collect facts for the sake
of facts, even though they seem as useless as sticks and straws.
This is a great and suggestive idea, and its utility may,
if you will, be proving itself, but its utility is, in the abstract,
quite as disputable as the utility of that calling on oracles
or consulting shrines which is also said to prove itself.
Thus, because we are not in a civilization which believes strongly
in oracles or sacred places, we see the full frenzy of those who
killed themselves to find the sepulchre of Christ. But being in a
civilization which does believe in this dogma of fact for facts' sake,
we do not see the full frenzy of those who kill themselves to find
the North Pole. I am not speaking of a tenable ultimate utility
which is true both of the Crusades and the polar explorations.
I mean merely that we do see the superficial and aesthetic singularity,
the startling quality, about the idea of men crossing a
continent with armies to conquer the place where a man died.
But we do not see the aesthetic singularity and startling quality
of men dying in agonies to find a place where no man can live--
a place only interesting because it is supposed to be the meeting-place
of some lines that do not exist.
Let us, then, go upon a long journey and enter on a dreadful search.
Let us, at least, dig and seek till we have discovered our own opinions.
The dogmas we really hold are far more fantastic, and, perhaps, far more
beautiful than we think. In the course of these essays I fear that I
have spoken from time to time of rationalists and rationalism,
and that in a disparaging sense. Being full of that kindliness
which should come at the end of everything, even of a book,
I apologize to the rationalists even for calling them rationalists.
There are no rationalists. We all believe fairy-tales, and live in them.
Some, with a sumptuous literary turn, believe in the existence of the lady
clothed with the sun. Some, with a more rustic, elvish instinct,
like Mr. McCabe, believe merely in the impossible sun itself.
Some hold the undemonstrable dogma of the existence of God;
some the equally undemonstrable dogma of the existence of the
man next door.
Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed.
Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism
of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them;
gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape.
We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism.
Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith.
We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable,
and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable,
and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great
philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until
the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march
of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied.
Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position
to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma
to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream;
it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake.
Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four.
Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.
We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues
and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still,
this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face.
We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall
look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage.