Part 2 out of 3
And then I remembered how the artistic critics have always praised
the grave tints and the grim shadows of the crumbling cloisters and
abbey towers, and how they themselves often dress up like Gothic ruins
in the sombre tones of dim grey walls or dark green ivy. I remembered
how they hated almost all primary things, but especially primary colours.
I knew they were appreciating much more delicately and truly than I
the sublime skeleton and the mighty fungoids of the dead Glastonbury.
But I stood for an instant alive in the living Glastonbury,
gay with gold and coloured like the toy-book of a child.
It was a warm golden evening, fit for October, and I was watching
(with regret) a lot of little black pigs being turned out of my garden,
when the postman handed to me, with a perfunctory haste which doubtless
masked his emotion, the Declaration of Futurism. If you ask me what
Futurism is, I cannot tell you; even the Futurists themselves seem
a little doubtful; perhaps they are waiting for the future to find out.
But if you ask me what its Declaration is, I answer eagerly;
for I can tell you quite a lot about that. It is written by an
Italian named Marinetti, in a magazine which is called Poesia.
It is headed "Declaration of Futurism" in enormous letters; it is
divided off with little numbers; and it starts straight away like this:
"1. We intend to glorify the love of danger, the custom of energy,
the strengt of daring. 2. The essential elements of our poetry
will be courage, audacity, and revolt. 3. Literature having up
to now glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and slumber,
we wish to exalt the aggressive movement, the feverish insomnia,
running, the perilous leap, the cuff and the blow." While I am
quite willing to exalt the cuff within reason, it scarcely seems
such an entirely new subject for literature as the Futurists imagine.
It seems to me that even through the slumber which fills the Siege
of Troy, the Song of Roland, and the Orlando Furioso, and in spite
of the thoughtful immobility which marks "Pantagruel," "Henry V,"
and the Ballad of Chevy Chase, there are occasional gleams
of an admiration for courage, a readiness to glorify the love
of danger, and even the "strengt of daring," I seem to remember,
slightly differently spelt, somewhere in literature.
The distinction, however, seems to be that the warriors of
the past went in for tournaments, which were at least dangerous
for themselves, while the Futurists go in for motor-cars,
which are mainly alarming for other people. It is the Futurist
in his motor who does the "aggressive movement," but it is the
pedestrians who go in for the "running" and the "perilous leap."
Section No. 4 says, "We declare that the splendour of the world
has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed.
A race-automobile adorned with great pipes like serpents
with explosive breath. ... A race-automobile which seems
to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the Victory
of Samothrace." It is also much easier, if you have the money.
It is quite clear, however, that you cannot be a Futurist at
all unless you are frightfully rich. Then follows this lucid
and soul-stirring sentence: "5. We will sing the praises of man
holding the flywheel of which the ideal steering-post traverses
the earth impelled itself around the circuit of its own orbit."
What a jolly song it would be--so hearty, and with such a simple
swing in it! I can imagine the Futurists round the fire in a tavern
trolling out in chorus some ballad with that incomparable refrain;
shouting over their swaying flagons some such words as these:
A notion came into my head as new as it was bright
That poems might be written on the subject of a fight;
No praise was given to Lancelot, Achilles, Nap or Corbett,
But we will sing the praises of man holding the flywheel of which the ideal
steering-post traverses the earth impelled itself around the circuit
of its own orbit.
Then lest it should be supposed that Futurism would be so weak
as to permit any democratic restraints upon the violence and levity
of the luxurious classes, there would be a special verse in honour
of the motors also:
My fathers scaled the mountains in their pilgrimages far,
But I feel full of energy while sitting in a car;
And petrol is the perfect wine, I lick it and absorb it,
So we will sing the praises of man holding the flywheel of which the ideal
steering-post traverses the earth impelled itself around the circuit
of its own orbit.
Yes, it would be a rollicking catch. I wish there were space to finish
the song, or to detail all the other sections in the Declaration.
Suffice it to say that Futurism has a gratifying dislike both of
Liberal politics and Christian morals; I say gratifying because,
however unfortunately the cross and the cap of liberty have quarrelled,
they are always united in the feeble hatred of such silly
megalomaniacs as these. They will "glorify war--the only true
hygiene of the world--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture
of Anarchism, the beautiful ideas which kill, and the scorn of woman."
They will "destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism,
feminism, and all utilitarian cowardice." The proclamation ends with
an extraordinary passage which I cannot understand at all, all about
something that is going to happen to Mr. Marinetti when he is forty.
As far as I can make out he will then be killed by other poets,
who will be overwhelmed with love and admiration for him.
"They will come against us from far away, from everywhere,
leaping on the cadence of their first poems, clawing the air with
crooked fingers and scenting at the Academy gates the good smell
of our decaying minds." Well, it is satisfactory to be told,
however obscurely, that this sort of thing is coming to an end
some day, to be replaced by some other tomfoolery. And though
I commonly refrain from clawing the air with crooked fingers,
I can assure Mr. Marinetti that this omission does not disqualify me,
and that I scent the good smell of his decaying mind all right.
I think the only other point of Futurism is contained in this
sentence: "It is in Italy that we hurl this overthrowing and
inflammatory Declaration, with which to-day we found Futurism,
for we will free Italy from her numberless museums which cover
her with countless cemeteries." I think that rather sums it up.
The best way, one would think, of freeing oneself from a museum
would be not to go there. Mr. Marinetti's fathers and grandfathers
freed Italy from prisons and torture chambers, places where people
were held by force. They, being in the bondage of "moralism,"
attacked Governments as unjust, real Governments, with real guns.
Such was their utilitarian cowardice that they would die in hundreds
upon the bayonets of Austria. I can well imagine why Mr. Marinetti
in his motor-car does not wish to look back at the past. If there
was one thing that could make him look smaller even than before it
is that roll of dead men's drums and that dream of Garibaldi going by.
The old Radical ghosts go by, more real than the living men,
to assault I know not what ramparted city in hell. And meanwhile
the Futurist stands outside a museum in a warlike attitude,
and defiantly tells the official at the turnstile that he will never,
never come in.
There is a certain solid use in fools. It is not so much that they
rush in where angels fear to tread, but rather that they let out
what devils intend to do. Some perversion of folly will float
about nameless and pervade a whole society; then some lunatic
gives it a name, and henceforth it is harmless. With all really
evil things, when the danger has appeared the danger is over.
Now it may be hoped that the self-indulgent sprawlers of Poesia
have put a name once and for all to their philosophy. In the case
of their philosophy, to put a name to it is to put an end to it.
Yet their philosophy has been very widespread in our time; it could
hardly have been pointed and finished except by this perfect folly.
The creed of which (please God) this is the flower and finish
consists ultimately in this statement: that it is bold and spirited
to appeal to the future. Now, it is entirely weak and half-witted
to appeal to the future. A brave man ought to ask for what he wants,
not for what he expects to get. A brave man who wants Atheism in
the future calls himself an Atheist; a brave man who wants Socialism,
a Socialist; a brave man who wants Catholicism, a Catholic.
But a weak-minded man who does not know what he wants in the future
calls himself a Futurist.
They have driven all the pigs away. Oh that they had driven away
the prigs, and left the pigs! The sky begins to droop with darkness
and all birds and blossoms to descend unfaltering into the healthy
underworld where things slumber and grow. There was just one true
phrase of Mr. Marinetti's about himself: "the feverish insomnia."
The whole universe is pouring headlong to the happiness of the night.
It is only the madman who has not the courage to sleep.
The Duc de Chambertin-Pommard was a small but lively relic of a really
aristocratic family, the members of which were nearly all Atheists
up to the time of the French Revolution, but since that event
(beneficial in such various ways) had been very devout.
He was a Royalist, a Nationalist, and a perfectly sincere patriot
in that particular style which consists of ceaselessly asserting
that one's country is not so much in danger as already destroyed.
He wrote cheery little articles for the Royalist Press entitled
"The End of France" or "The Last Cry," or what not, and he gave
the final touches to a picture of the Kaiser riding across a pavement
of prostrate Parisians with a glow of patriotic exultation.
He was quite poor, and even his relations had no money.
He walked briskly to all his meals at a little open cafe,
and he looked just like everybody else.
Living in a country where aristocracy does not exist, he had a high
opinion of it. He would yearn for the swords and the stately
manners of the Pommards before the Revolution--most of whom had been
(in theory) Republicans. But he turned with a more practical
eagerness to the one country in Europe where the tricolour has
never flown and men have never been roughly equalized before the
State. The beacon and comfort of his life was England, which all
Europe sees clearly as the one pure aristocracy that remains.
He had, moreover, a mild taste for sport and kept an English
bulldog, and he believed the English to be a race of bulldogs,
of heroic squires, and hearty yeomen vassals, because he read all
this in English Conservative papers, written by exhausted little
Levantine clerks. But his reading was naturally for the most part
in the French Conservative papers (though he knew English well),
and it was in these that he first heard of the horrible Budget.
There he read of the confiscatory revolution planned by the
Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer, the sinister Georges Lloyd.
He also read how chivalrously Prince Arthur Balfour of Burleigh
had defied that demagogue, assisted by Austen the Lord Chamberlain
and the gay and witty Walter Lang. And being a brisk partisan
and a capable journalist, he decided to pay England a special visit
and report to his paper upon the struggle.
He drove for an eternity in an open fly through beautiful woods,
with a letter of introduction in his pocket to one duke, who was
to introduce him to another duke. The endless and numberless avenues
of bewildering pine woods gave him a queer feeling that he was driving
through the countless corridors of a dream. Yet the vast silence
and freshness healed his irritation at modern ugliness and unrest.
It seemed a background fit for the return of chivalry. In such
a forest a king and all his court might lose themselves hunting
or a knight errant might perish with no companion but God. The castle
itself when he reached it was somewhat smaller than he had expected,
but he was delighted with its romantic and castellated outline.
He was just about to alight when somebody opened two enormous gates
at the side and the vehicle drove briskly through.
"That is not the house?" he inquired politely of the driver.
"No, sir," said the driver, controlling the corners of his mouth.
"The lodge, sir."
"Indeed," said the Duc de Chambertin-Pommard, "that is where
the Duke's land begins?"
"Oh no, sir," said the man, quite in distress. "We've been in his
Grace's land all day."
The Frenchman thanked him and leant back in the carriage,
feeling as if everything were incredibly huge and vast, like Gulliver
in the country of the Brobdingnags.
He got out in front of a long facade of a somewhat severe building,
and a little careless man in a shooting jacket and knickerbockers
ran down the steps. He had a weak, fair moustache and dull, blue,
babyish eyes; his features were insignificant, but his manner
extremely pleasant and hospitable, This was the Duke of Aylesbury,
perhaps the largest landowner in Europe, and known only as a horsebreeder
until he began to write abrupt little letters about the Budget.
He led the French Duke upstairs, talking trivialties in a hearty way,
and there presented him to another and more important English oligarch,
who got up from a writing-desk with a slightly senile jerk.
He had a gleaming bald head and glasses; the lower part of his
face was masked with a short, dark beard, which did not conceal
a beaming smile, not unmixed with sharpness. He stooped
a little as he ran, like some sedentary head clerk or cashier;
and even without the cheque-book and papers on his desk would
have given the impression of a merchant or man of business.
He was dressed in a light grey check jacket. He was the Duke
of Windsor, the great Unionist statesman. Between these two loose,
amiable men, the little Gaul stood erect in his black frock coat,
with the monstrous gravity of French ceremonial good manners.
This stiffness led the Duke of Windsor to put him at his ease
(like a tenant), and he said, rubbing his hands:
"I was delighted with your letter ... delighted. I shall be very
pleased if I can give you--er--any details."
"My visit," said the Frenchman, "scarcely suffices for
the scientific exhaustion of detail. I seek only the idea.
The idea, that is always the immediate thing."
"Quite so," said the other rapidly; "quite so ... the idea."
Feeling somehow that it was his turn (the English Duke having done all
that could be required of him) Pommard had to say: "I mean the idea
of aristocracy. I regard this as the last great battle for the idea.
Aristocracy, like any other thing, must justify itself to mankind.
Aristocracy is good because it preserves a picture of human dignity
in a world where that dignity is often obscured by servile necessities.
Aristocracy alone can keep a certain high reticence of soul and body,
a certain noble distance between the sexes."
The Duke of Aylesbury, who had a clouded recollection of having squirted
soda-water down the neck of a Countess on the previous evening,
looked somewhat gloomy, as if lamenting the theoretic spirit
of the Latin race. The elder Duke laughed heartily, and said:
"Well, well, you know; we English are horribly practical.
With us the great question is the land. Out here in the country
... do you know this part?"
"Yes, yes," cried the Frenchmen eagerly. "I See what you mean.
The country! the old rustic life of humanity! A holy war upon
the bloated and filthy towns. What right have these anarchists to attack
your busy and prosperous countrysides? Have they not thriven under
your management? Are not the English villages always growing larger
and gayer under the enthusiastic leadership of their encouraging squires?
Have you not the Maypole? Have you not Merry England?"
The Duke of Aylesbury made a noise in his throat, and then said
very indistinctly: "They all go to London."
"All go to London?" repeated Pommard, with a blank stare. "Why?"
This time nobody answered, and Pommard had to attack again.
"The spirit of aristocracy is essentially opposed to the greed
of the industrial cities. Yet in France there are actually
one or two nobles so vile as to drive coal and gas trades,
and drive them hard." The Duke of Windsor looked at the carpet.
The Duke of Aylesbury went and looked out of the window.
At length the latter said: "That's rather stiff, you know.
One has to look after one's own business in town as well."
"Do not say it," cried the little Frenchman, starting up.
"I tell you all Europe is one fight between business and honour.
If we do not fight for honour, who will? What other right have we
poor two-legged sinners to titles and quartered shields except
that we staggeringly support some idea of giving things which
cannot be demanded and avoiding things which cannot be punished?
Our only claim is to be a wall across Christendom against the Jew
pedlars and pawnbrokers, against the Goldsteins and the--"
The Duke of Aylesbury swung round with his hands in his pockets.
"Oh, I say," he said, "you've been readin' Lloyd George.
Nobody but dirty Radicals can say a word against Goldstein."
"I certainly cannot permit," said the elder Duke, rising rather shakily,
"the respected name of Lord Goldstein--"
He intended to be impressive, but there was something in the Frenchman's
eye that is not so easily impressed; there shone there that steel
which is the mind of France,
"Gentlemen," he said, "I think I have all the details now.
You have ruled England for four hundred years. By your own
account you have not made the countryside endurable to men.
By your own account you have helped the victory of vulgarity and smoke.
And by your own account you are hand and glove with those very
money-grubbers and adventurers whom gentlemen have no other business
but to keep at bay. I do not know what your people will do;
but my people would kill you."
Some seconds afterwards he had left the Duke's house, and some hours
afterwards the Duke's estate.
The Glory of Grey
I suppose that, taking this summer as a whole, people will not
call it an appropriate time for praising the English climate.
But for my part I will praise the English climate till I die--
even if I die of the English climate. There is no weather
so good as English weather. Nay, in a real sense there is no
weather at all anywhere but in England. In France you have much
sun and some rain; in Italy you have hot winds and cold winds;
in Scotland and Ireland you have rain, either thick or thin;
in America you have hells of heat and cold, and in the Tropics you have
sunstrokes varied by thunderbolts. But all these you have on a broad
and brutal scale, and you settle down into contentment or despair.
Only in our own romantic country do you have the strictly romantic
thing called Weather; beautiful and changing as a woman.
The great English landscape painters (neglected now like everything
that is English) have this salient distinction: that the Weather is not
the atmosphere of their pictures; it is the subject of their pictures.
They paint portraits of the Weather. The Weather sat to Constable.
The Weather posed for Turner, and a deuce of a pose it was.
This cannot truly be said of the greatest of their continental
models or rivals. Poussin and Claude painted objects, ancient
cities or perfect Arcadian shepherds through a clear medium
of the climate. But in the English painters Weather is the hero;
with Turner an Adelphi hero, taunting, flashing and fighting,
melodramatic but really magnificent. The English climate,
a tall and terrible protagonist, robed in rain and thunder and snow
and sunlight, fills the whole canvas and the whole foreground.
I admit the superiority of many other French things besides French art.
But I will not yield an inch on the superiority of English weather and
weather-painting. Why, the French have not even got a word for Weather:
and you must ask for the weather in French as if you were asking
for the time in English.
Then, again, variety of climate should always go with stability of abode.
The weather in the desert is monotonous; and as a natural consequence
the Arabs wander about, hoping it may be different somewhere.
But an Englishman's house is not only his castle; it is his fairy castle.
Clouds and colours of every varied dawn and eve are perpetually
touching and turning it from clay to gold, or from gold to ivory.
There is a line of woodland beyond a corner of my garden
which is literally different on every one of the three hundred
and sixty-five days. Sometimes it seems as near as a hedge,
and sometimes as far as a faint and fiery evening cloud.
The same principle (by the way) applies to the difficult problem
of wives. Variability is one of the virtues of a woman.
It avoids the crude requirement of polygamy. So long as you have
one good wife you are sure to have a spiritual harem.
Now, among the heresies that are spoken in this matter is the habit
of calling a grey day a "colourless" day. Grey is a colour,
and can be a very powerful and pleasing colour. There is also an
insulting style of speech about "one grey day just like another"
You might as well talk about one green tree just like another.
A grey clouded sky is indeed a canopy between us and the sun;
so is a green tree, if it comes to that. But the grey umbrellas differ
as much as the green in their style and shape, in their tint and tilt.
One day may be grey like steel, and another grey like dove's plumage.
One may seem grey like the deathly frost, and another grey
like the smoke of substantial kitchens. No things could seem
further apart than the doubt of grey and the decision of scarlet.
Yet grey and red can mingle, as they do in the morning clouds:
and also in a sort of warm smoky stone of which they build the little
towns in the west country. In those towns even the houses that are wholly
grey have a glow in them; as if their secret firesides were such furnaces
of hospitality as faintly to transfuse the walls like walls of cloud.
And wandering in those westland parts I did once really find a sign-post
pointing up a steep crooked path to a town that was called Clouds.
I did not climb up to it; I feared that either the town would not be
good enough for the name, or I should not be good enough for the town.
Anyhow, the little hamlets of the warm grey stone have a geniality
which is not achieved by all the artistic scarlet of the suburbs;
as if it were better to warm one's hands at the ashes of Glastonbury
than at the painted flames of Croydon.
Again, the enemies of grey (those astute, daring and evil-minded men)
are fond of bringing forward the argument that colours suffer in
grey weather, and that strong sunlight is necessary to all the hues
of heaven and earth. Here again there are two words to be said;
and it is essential to distinguish. It is true that sun is needed
to burnish and bring into bloom the tertiary and dubious colours;
the colour of peat, pea-soup, Impressionist sketches, brown velvet
coats, olives, grey and blue slates, the complexions of vegetarians,
the tints of volcanic rock, chocolate, cocoa, mud, soot, slime, old boots;
the delicate shades of these do need the sunlight to bring out
the faint beauty that often clings to them. But if you have a
healthy negro taste in colour, if you choke your garden with poppies
and geraniums, if you paint your house sky-blue and scarlet,
if you wear, let us say, a golden top-hat and a crimson frock-coat,
you will not only be visible on the greyest day, but you will notice
that your costume and environment produce a certain singular effect.
You will find, I mean, that rich colours actually look more
luminous on a grey day, because they are seen against a sombre
background and seem to be burning with a lustre of their
own. Against a dark sky all flowers look like fireworks.
There is something strange about them, at once vivid and secret,
like flowers traced in fire in the phantasmal garden of a witch.
A bright blue sky is necessarily the high light of the picture;
and its brightness kills all the bright blue flowers. But on a
grey day the larkspur looks like fallen heaven; the red daisies
are really the red lost eyes of day; and the sunflower is the
vice-regent of the sun.
Lastly, there is this value about the colour that men call colourless;
that it suggests in some way the mixed and troubled average of existence,
especially in its quality of strife and expectation and promise.
Grey is a colour that always seems on the eve of changing to some
other colour; of brightening into blue or blanching into white
or bursting into green and gold. So we may be perpetually reminded
of the indefinite hope that is in doubt itself; and when there is
grey weather in our hills or grey hairs in our heads, perhaps they
may still remind us of the morning.
I have now lived for about two months in the country, and have gathered
the last rich autumnal fruit of a rural life, which is a strong desire
to see London. Artists living in my neighbourhood talk rapturously
of the rolling liberty of the landscape, the living peace of woods.
But I say to them (with a slight Buckinghamshire accent), "Ah, that is
how Cockneys feel. For us real old country people the country
is reality; it is the town that is romance. Nature is as plain
as one of her pigs, as commonplace, as comic, and as healthy.
But civilization is full of poetry, even if it be sometimes
an evil poetry. The streets of London are paved with gold;
that is, with the very poetry of avarice." With these typically
bucolic words I touch my hat and go ambling away on a stick,
with a stiffness of gait proper to the Oldest Inhabitant;
while in my more animated moments I am taken for the Village Idiot.
Exchanging heavy but courteous salutations with other gaffers, I reach
the station, where I ask for a ticket for London where the king lives.
Such a journey, mingled of provincial fascination and fear,
did I successfully perform only a few days ago; and alone and
helpless in the capital, found myself in the tangle of roads around
the Marble Arch.
A faint prejudice may possess the mind that I have slightly exaggerated
my rusticity and remoteness. And yet it is true as I came to that corner
of the Park that, for some unreasonable reason of mood, I saw all London
as a strange city and the civilization itself as one enormous whim.
The Marble Arch itself, in its new insular position, with traffic
turning dizzily all about it, struck me as a placid monstrosity.
What could be wilder than to have a huge arched gateway, with people
going everywhere except under it? If I took down my front door
and stood it up all by itself in the middle of my back garden,
my village neighbours (in their simplicity) would probably stare.
Yet the Marble Arch is now precisely that; an elaborate entrance
and the only place by which no one can enter. By the new arrangement
its last weak pretence to be a gate has been taken away. The cabman
still cannot drive through it, but he can have the delights of riding
round it, and even (on foggy nights) the rapture of running into it.
It has been raised from the rank of a fiction to the dignity
of an obstacle.
As I began to walk across a corner of the Park, this sense of what
is strange in cities began to mingle with some sense of what is
stern as well as strange. It was one of those queer-coloured
winter days when a watery sky changes to pink and grey and green,
like an enormous opal. The trees stood up grey and angular,
as if in attitudes of agony; and here and there on benches under
the trees sat men as grey and angular as they. It was cold even for me,
who had eaten a large breakfast and purposed to eat a perfectly
Gargantuan lunch; it was colder for the men under the trees.
And to eastward through the opalescent haze, the warmer whites
and yellows of the houses in Park-lane shone as unsubstantially
as if the clouds themselves had taken on the shape of mansions to mock
the men who sat there in the cold. But the mansions were real--
like the mockery.
No one worth calling a man allows his moods to change his convictions;
but it is by moods that we understand other men's convictions.
The bigot is not he who knows he is right; every sane man knows
he is right. The bigot is he whose emotions and imagination
are too cold and weak to feel how it is that other men go wrong.
At that moment I felt vividly how men might go wrong, even unto dynamite.
If one of those huddled men under the trees had stood up and asked
for rivers of blood, it would have been erroneous--but not irrelevant.
It would have been appropriate and in the picture; that lurid grey
picture of insolence on one side and impotence on the other.
It may be true (on the whole it is) that this social machine
we have made is better than anarchy. Still, it is a machine;
and we have made it. It does hold those poor men helpless:
and it does lift those rich men high ... and such men--good Lord!
By the time I flung myself on a bench beside another man I was half
inclined to try anarchy for a change.
The other was of more prosperous appearance than most of the men
on such seats; still, he was not what one calls a gentleman,
and had probably worked at some time like a human being. He
was a small, sharp-faced man, with grave, staring eyes, and
a beard somewhat foreign. His clothes were black; respectable
and yet casual; those of a man who dressed conventionally
because it was a bore to dress unconventionally--as it is.
Attracted by this and other things, and wanting an outburst
for my bitter social feelings, I tempted him into speech,
first about the cold, and then about the General Election.
To this the respectable man replied:
"Well, I don't belong to any party myself. I'm an Anarchist."
I looked up and almost expected fire from heaven.
This coincidence was like the end of the world. I had sat down
feeling that somehow or other Park-lane must be pulled down;
and I had sat down beside the man who wanted to pull it down.
I bowed in silence for an instant under the approaching apocalypse;
and in that instant the man turned sharply and started talking
like a torrent.
"Understand me," he said. "Ordinary people think an Anarchist means
a man with a bomb in his pocket. Herbert Spencer was an Anarchist.
But for that fatal admission of his on page 793, he would be a
complete Anarchist. Otherwise, he agrees wholly with Pidge."
This was uttered with such blinding rapidity of syllabification
as to be a better test of teetotalism than the Scotch one of saying
"Biblical criticism" six times. I attempted to speak, but he began
again with the same rippling rapidity.
"You will say that Pidge also admits government in that tenth chapter
so easily misunderstood. Bolger has attacked Pidge on those lines.
But Bolger has no scientific training. Bolger is a psychometrist,
but no sociologist. To any one who has combined a study of Pidge with
the earlier and better discoveries of Kruxy, the fallacy is quite clear.
Bolger confounds social coercion with coercional social action."
His rapid rattling mouth shut quite tight suddenly, and he looked
steadily and triumphantly at me, with his head on one side.
I opened my mouth, and the mere motion seemed to sting him to
fresh verbal leaps.
"Yes," he said, "that's all very well. The Finland Group has
accepted Bolger. But," he said, suddenly lifting a long finger as
if to stop me, "but--Pidge has replied. His pamphlet is published.
He has proved that Potential Social Rebuke is not a weapon of
the true Anarchist. He has shown that just as religious authority
and political authority have gone, so must emotional authority
and psychological authority. He has shown--"
I stood up in a sort of daze. "I think you remarked,"
I said feebly, "that the mere common populace do not quite
understand Anarchism"--"Quite so," he said with burning swiftness;
"as I said, they think any Anarchist is a man with a bomb, whereas--"
"But great heavens, man!" I said; "it's the man with the bomb that
I understand! I wish you had half his sense. What do I care how many
German dons tie themselves in knots about how this society began?
My only interest is about how soon it will end. Do you see those fat
white houses over in Park-lane, where your masters live?"
He assented and muttered something about concentrations of capital.
"Well," I said, "if the time ever comes when we all storm
those houses, will you tell me one thing? Tell me how we shall
do it without authority? Tell me how you will have an army
of revolt without discipline?"
For the first instant he was doubtful; and I had bidden him farewell,
and crossed the street again, when I saw him open his mouth and begin
to run after me. He had remembered something out of Pidge.
I escaped, however, and as I leapt on an omnibus I saw again the enormous
emblem of the Marble Arch. I saw that massive symbol of the modern mind:
a door with no house to it; the gigantic gate of Nowhere.
How I found the Superman
Readers of Mr. Bernard Shaw and other modern writers may be
interested to know that the Superman has been found. I found him;
he lives in South Croydon. My success will be a great blow to Mr. Shaw,
who has been following quite a false scent, and is now looking
for the creature in Blackpool; and as for Mr. Wells's notion
of generating him out of gases in a private laboratory, I always
thought it doomed to failure. I assure Mr. Wells that the Superman
at Croydon was born in the ordinary way, though he himself, of course,
is anything but ordinary.
Nor are his parents unworthy of the wonderful being whom they
have given to the world. The name of Lady Hypatia Smythe-Browne
(now Lady Hypatia Hagg) will never be forgotten in the East End,
where she did such splendid social work. Her constant cry of "Save
the children!" referred to the cruel neglect of children's eyesight
involved in allowing them to play with crudely painted toys.
She quoted unanswerable statistics to prove that children allowed
to look at violet and vermilion often suffered from failing eyesight
in their extreme old age; and it was owing to her ceaseless crusade
that the pestilence of the Monkey-on-the-Stick was almost swept
from Hoxton. The devoted worker would tramp the streets untiringly,
taking away the toys from all the poor children, who were often
moved to tears by her kindness. Her good work was interrupted,
partly by a new interest in the creed of Zoroaster, and partly
by a savage blow from an umbrella. It was inflicted by a dissolute
Irish apple-woman, who, on returning from some orgy to her ill-kept
apartment, found Lady Hypatia in the bedroom taking down an oleograph,
which, to say the least of it, could not really elevate the mind.
At this the ignorant and partly intoxicated Celt dealt the social
reformer a severe blow, adding to it an absurd accusation of theft.
The lady's exquisitely balanced mind received a shock, and it was
during a short mental illness that she married Dr. Hagg.
Of Dr. Hagg himself I hope there is no need to speak.
Any one even slightly acquainted with those daring experiments
in Neo-Individualist Eugenics, which are now the one absorbing
interest of the English democracy, must know his name and often
commend it to the personal protection of an impersonal power.
Early in life he brought to bear that ruthless insight into the history
of religions which he had gained in boyhood as an electrical engineer.
Later he became one of our greatest geologists; and achieved that bold and
bright outlook upon the future of Socialism which only geology can give.
At first there seemed something like a rift, a faint, but perceptible,
fissure, between his views and those of his aristocratic wife.
For she was in favour (to use her own powerful epigram) of protecting
the poor against themselves; while he declared pitilessly,
in a new and striking metaphor, that the weakest must go to the wall.
Eventually, however, the married pair perceived an essential union
in the unmistakably modern character of both their views, and in this
enlightening and intelligible formula their souls found peace.
The result is that this union of the two highest types of
our civilization, the fashionable lady and the all but vulgar
medical man, has been blessed by the birth of the Superman,
that being whom all the labourers in Battersea are so eagerly
expecting night and day.
I found the house of Dr. and Lady Hypatia Hagg without much difficulty;
it is situated in one of the last straggling streets of Croydon,
and overlooked by a line of poplars. I reached the door towards
the twilight, and it was natural that I should fancifully see something
dark and monstrous in the dim bulk of that house which contained
the creature who was more marvellous than the children of men.
When I entered the house I was received with exquisite courtesy
by Lady Hypatia and her husband; but I found much greater
difficulty in actually seeing the Superman, who is now about
fifteen years old, and is kept by himself in a quiet room.
Even my conversation with the father and mother did not quite
clear up the character of this mysterious being. Lady Hypatia,
who has a pale and poignant face, and is clad in those impalpable
and pathetic greys and greens with which she has brightened
so many homes in Hoxton, did not appear to talk of her offspring
with any of the vulgar vanity of an ordinary human mother.
I took a bold step and asked if the Superman was nice looking.
"He creates his own standard, you see," she replied, with a slight sigh.
"Upon that plane he is more than Apollo. Seen from our lower plane,
of course--" And she sighed again.
I had a horrible impulse, and said suddenly, "Has he got any hair?"
There was a long and painful silence, and then Dr. Hagg said smoothly:
"Everything upon that plane is different; what he has got is
not... well, not, of course, what we call hair... but--"
"Don't you think," said his wife, very softly, "don't you think
that really, for the sake of argument, when talking to the mere public,
one might call it hair?"
"Perhaps you are right," said the doctor after a few moments' reflection.
"In connexion with hair like that one must speak in parables."
"Well, what on earth is it," I asked in some irritation, "if it
isn't hair? Is it feathers?"
"Not feathers, as we understand feathers," answered Hagg in
an awful voice.
I got up in some irritation. "Can I see him, at any rate?" I asked.
"I am a journalist, and have no earthly motives except curiosity
and personal vanity. I should like to say that I had shaken hands
with the Superman."
The husband and wife had both got heavily to their feet,
and stood, embarrassed. "Well, of course, you know," said Lady Hypatia,
with the really charming smile of the aristocratic hostess.
"You know he can't exactly shake hands ... not hands, you know....
The structure, of course--"
I broke out of all social bounds, and rushed at the door of
the room which I thought to contain the incredible creature.
I burst it open; the room was pitch dark. But from in front of me
came a small sad yelp, and from behind me a double shriek.
"You have done it, now!" cried Dr. Hagg, burying his bald brow
in his hands. "You have let in a draught on him; and he is dead."
As I walked away from Croydon that night I saw men in black carrying
out a coffin that was not of any human shape. The wind wailed above me,
whirling the poplars, so that they drooped and nodded like the plumes
of some cosmic funeral. "It is, indeed," said Dr. Hagg, "the whole
universe weeping over the frustration of its most magnificent birth."
But I thought that there was a hoot of laughter in the high wail
of the wind.
The New House
Within a stone's throw of my house they are building another house.
I am glad they are building it, and I am glad it is within
a stone's throw; quite well within it, with a good catapult.
Nevertheless, I have not yet cast the first stone at the new house--
not being, strictly speaking, guiltless myself in the matter
of new houses. And, indeed, in such cases there is a strong
protest to be made. The whole curse of the last century has
been what is called the Swing of the Pendulum; that is.
the idea that Man must go alternately from one extreme to the other.
It is a shameful and even shocking fancy; it is the denial of
the whole dignity of mankind. When Man is alive he stands still.
It is only when he is dead that he swings. But whenever one meets
modern thinkers (as one often does) progressing towards a madhouse,
one always finds, on inquiry, that they have just had a splendid escape
from another madhouse. Thus, hundreds of people become Socialists,
not because they have tried Socialism and found it nice, but because
they have tried Individualism and found it particularly nasty.
Thus, many embrace Christian Science solely because they are quite
sick of heathen science; they are so tired of believing that
everything is matter that they will even take refuge in the revolting
fable that everything is mind. Man ought to march somewhere.
But modern man (in his sick reaction) is ready to march nowhere--
so long as it is the Other End of Nowhere.
The case of building houses is a strong instance of this.
Early in the nineteenth century our civilization chose to abandon
the Greek and medieval idea of a town, with walls, limited and defined,
with a temple for faith and a market-place for politics;
and it chose to let the city grow like a jungle with blind cruelty
and bestial unconsciousness; so that London and Liverpool are
the great cities we now see. Well, people have reacted against that;
they have grown tired of living in a city which is as dark
and barbaric as a forest only not as beautiful, and there has
been an exodus into the country of those who could afford it,
and some I could name who can't. Now, as soon as this quite
rational recoil occurred, it flew at once to the opposite extreme.
People went about with beaming faces, boasting that they
were twenty-three miles from a station. Rubbing their hands,
they exclaimed in rollicking asides that their butcher only called
once a month, and that their baker started out with fresh hot
loaves which were quite stale before they reached the table.
A man would praise his little house in a quiet valley, but gloomily admit
(with a slight shake of the head) that a human habitation on
the distant horizon was faintly discernible on a clear day.
Rival ruralists would quarrel about which had the most completely
inconvenient postal service; and there were many jealous heartburnings
if one friend found out any uncomfortable situation which the other
friend had thoughtlessly overlooked.
In the feverish summer of this fanaticism there arose the phrase
that this or that part of England is being "built over."
Now, there is not the slightest objection, in itself, to England
being built over by men, any more than there is to its being
(as it is already) built over by birds, or by squirrels, or by spiders.
But if birds' nests were so thick on a tree that one could see nothing
but nests and no leaves at all, I should say that bird civilization
was becoming a bit decadent. If whenever I tried to walk down the road
I found the whole thoroughfare one crawling carpet of spiders,
closely interlocked, I should feel a distress verging on distaste.
If one were at every turn crowded, elbowed, overlooked, overcharged,
sweated, rack-rented, swindled, and sold up by avaricious and
arrogant squirrels, one might at last remonstrate. But the great towns
have grown intolerable solely because of such suffocating vulgarities
and tyrannies. It is not humanity that disgusts us in the huge cities;
it is inhumanity. It is not that there are human beings;
but that they are not treated as such. We do not, I hope, dislike men
and women; we only dislike their being made into a sort of jam:
crushed together so that they are not merely powerless but shapeless.
It is not the presence of people that makes London appalling.
It is merely the absence of The People.
Therefore, I dance with joy to think that my part of England
is being built over, so long as it is being built over in
a human way at human intervals and in a human proportion.
So long, in short, as I am not myself built over, like a pagan
slave buried in the foundations of a temple, or an American clerk
in a star-striking pagoda of flats, I am delighted to see the faces
and the homes of a race of bipeds, to which I am not only attracted
by a strange affection, but to which also (by a touching coincidence)
I actually happen to belong. I am not one desiring deserts.
I am not Timon of Athens; if my town were Athens I would stay in it.
I am not Simeon Stylites; except in the mournful sense that every
Saturday I find myself on the top of a newspaper column.
I am not in the desert repenting of some monstrous sins;
at least, I am repenting of them all right, but not in the desert.
I do not want the nearest human house to be too distant to see; that is
my objection to the wilderness. But neither do I want the nearest human
house to be too close to see; that is my objection to the modern city.
I love my fellow-man; I do not want him so far off that I can
only observe anything of him through a telescope, nor do I want
him so close that I can examine parts of him with a microscope.
I want him within a stone's throw of me; so that whenever it is
really necessary, I may throw the stone.
Perhaps, after all, it may not be a stone. Perhaps, after all,
it may be a bouquet, or a snowball, or a firework, or a Free Trade Loaf;
perhaps they will ask for a stone and I shall give them bread.
But it is essential that they should be within reach: how can I
love my neighbour as myself if he gets out of range for snowballs?
There should be no institution out of the reach of an indignant
or admiring humanity. I could hit the nearest house quite well
with the catapult; but the truth is that the catapult belongs to a
little boy I know, and, with characteristic youthful 'selfishness,
he has taken it away.
The Wings of Stone
The preceding essay is about a half-built house upon my
private horizon; I wrote it sitting in a garden-chair; and as,
though it was a week ago, I have scarcely moved since then
(to speak of), I do not see why I should not go on writing about it.
Strictly speaking, I have moved; I have even walked across a field--
a field of turf all fiery in our early summer sunlight--and studied
the early angular red skeleton which has turned golden in the sun.
It is odd that the skeleton of a house is cheerful when the skeleton
of a man is mournful, since we only see it after the man is destroyed.
At least, we think the skeleton is mournful; the skeleton himself
does not seem to think so. Anyhow, there is something strangely
primary and poetic about this sight of the scaffolding and main
lines of a human building; it is a pity there is no scaffolding
round a human baby. One seems to see domestic life as the daring
and ambitious thing that it is, when one looks at those open staircases
and empty chambers, those spirals of wind and open halls of sky.
Ibsen said that the art of domestic drama was merely to knock one wall
out of the four walls of a drawing-room. I find the drawing-room
even more impressive when all four walls are knocked out.
I have never understood what people mean by domesticity
being tame; it seems to me one of the wildest of adventures.
But if you wish to see how high and harsh and fantastic an adventure
it is, consider only the actual structure of a house itself.
A man may march up in a rather bored way to bed; but at least
he is mounting to a height from which he could kill himself.
Every rich, silent, padded staircase, with banisters of oak,
stair-rods of brass, and busts and settees on every landing,
every such staircase is truly only an awful and naked ladder
running up into the Infinite to a deadly height. The millionaire
who stumps up inside the house is really doing the same thing
as the tiler or roof-mender who climbs up outside the house;
they are both mounting up into the void. They are both making an
escalade of the intense inane. Each is a sort of domestic mountaineer;
he is reaching a point from which mere idle falling will kill a man;
and life is always worth living while men feel that they may die.
I cannot understand people at present making such a fuss about
flying ships and aviation, when men ever since Stonehenge and
the Pyramids have done something so much more wild than flying.
A grasshopper can go astonishingly high up in the air, his
biological limitation and weakness is that he cannot stop there.
Hosts of unclean birds and crapulous insects can pass through the sky,
but they cannot pass any communication between it and the earth.
But the army of man has advanced vertically into infinity,
and not been cut off. It can establish outposts in the ether,
and yet keep open behind it its erect and insolent road.
It would be grand (as in Jules Verne) to fire a cannon-ball at the moon;
but would it not be grander to build a railway to the moon?
Yet every building of brick or wood is a hint of that high railroad;
every chimney points to some star, and every tower is a Tower
of Babel. Man rising on these awful and unbroken wings of stone
seems to me more majestic and more mystic than man fluttering
for an instant on wings of canvas and sticks of steel. How sublime
and, indeed, almost dizzy is the thought of these veiled ladders
on which we all live, like climbing monkeys! Many a black-coated
clerk in a flat may comfort himself for his sombre garb by
reflecting that he is like some lonely rook in an immemorial elm.
Many a wealthy bachelor on the top floor of a pile of mansions
should look forth at morning and try (if possible) to feel like
an eagle whose nest just clings to the edge of some awful cliff.
How sad that the word "giddy" is used to imply wantonness or levity!
It should be a high compliment to a man's exalted spirituality
and the imagination to say he is a little giddy.
I strolled slowly back across the stretch of turf by the sunset,
a field of the cloth of gold. As I drew near my own house,
its huge size began to horrify me; and when I came to the porch of it
I discovered with an incredulity as strong as despair that my house
was actually bigger than myself. A minute or two before there
might well have seemed to be a monstrous and mythical competition
about which of the two should swallow the other. But I was Jonah;
my house was the huge and hungry fish; and even as its jaws darkened
and closed about me I had again this dreadful fancy touching the dizzy
altitude of all the works of man. I climbed the stairs stubbornly,
planting each foot with savage care, as if ascending a glacier.
When I got to a landing I was wildly relieved, and waved my hat.
The very word "landing" has about it the wild sound of some one washed
up by the sea. I climbed each flight like a ladder in naked sky.
The walls all round me failed and faded into infinity; I went up
the ladder to my bedroom as Montrose went up the ladder to the gallows;
sic itur ad astro. Do you think this is a little fantastic--
even a little fearful and nervous? Believe me, it is only one of
the wild and wonderful things that one can learn by stopping at home.
The Three Kinds of Men
Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world.
The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably
the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on,
the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we
come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves.
The second class may be called for convenience the Poets;
they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking,
a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors
or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people;
and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and
also to mankind. Of course, the classification sometimes overlaps,
like all classification. Some good people are almost poets and
some bad poets are almost professors. But the division follows
lines of real psychological cleavage. I do not offer it lightly.
It has been the fruit of more than eighteen minutes of earnest
reflection and research.
The class called People (to which you and I, with no little pride,
attach ourselves) has certain casual, yet profound, assumptions,
which are called "commonplaces," as that children are charming,
or that twilight is sad and sentimental, or that one man fighting
three is a fine sight. Now, these feelings are not crude;
they are not even simple. The charm of children is very subtle;
it is even complex, to the extent of being almost contradictory.
It is, at its very plainest, mingled of a regard for hilarity and a
regard for helplessness. The sentiment of twilight, in the vulgarest
drawing-room song or the coarsest pair of sweethearts, is, so far
as it goes, a subtle sentiment. It is strangely balanced between
pain and pleasure; it might also be called pleasure tempting pain.
The plunge of impatient chivalry by which we all admire a man
fighting odds is not at all easy to define separately, it means
many things, pity, dramatic surprise, a desire for justice, a delight
in experiment and the indeterminate. The ideas of the mob are really
very subtle ideas; but the mob does not express them subtly.
In fact, it does not express them at all, except on those occasions
(now only too rare) when it indulges in insurrection and massacre.
Now, this accounts for the otherwise unreasonable fact of the existence
of Poets. Poets are those who share these popular sentiments,
but can so express them that they prove themselves the strange
and delicate things that they really are. Poets draw out the shy
refinement of the rabble. Where the common man covers the queerest
emotions by saying, "Rum little kid," Victor Hugo will write "L'art
d'etre grand-pere"; where the stockbroker will only say abruptly,
"Evenings closing in now," Mr. Yeats will write "Into the twilight";
where the navvy can only mutter something about pluck and being
"precious game," Homer will show you the hero in rags in his own hall
defying the princes at their banquet. The Poets carry the popular
sentiments to a keener and more splendid pitch; but let it always be
remembered that it is the popular sentiments that they are carrying.
No man ever wrote any good poetry to show that childhood was shocking,
or that twilight was gay and farcical, or that a man was
contemptible because he had crossed his single sword with three.
The people who maintain this are the Professors, or Prigs.
The Poets are those who rise above the people by understanding them.
Of course, most of the Poets wrote in prose--Rabelais, for instance,
and Dickens. The Prigs rise above the people by refusing
to understand them: by saying that all their dim, strange
preferences are prejudices and superstitions. The Prigs make
the people feel stupid; the Poets make the people feel wiser
than they could have imagined that they were. There are many
weird elements in this situation. The oddest of all perhaps
is the fate of the two factors in practical politics. The Poets
who embrace and admire the people are often pelted with stones
and crucified. The Prigs who despise the people are often loaded
with lands and crowned. In the House of Commons, for instance,
there are quite a number of prigs, but comparatively few poets.
There are no People there at all.
By poets, as I have said, I do not mean people who write poetry,
or indeed people who write anything. I mean such people as,
having culture and imagination, use them to understand and share
the feelings of their fellows; as against those who use them
to rise to what they call a higher plane. Crudely, the poet
differs from the mob by his sensibility; the professor differs
from the mob by his insensibility. He has not sufficient
finesse and sensitiveness to sympathize with the mob. His only
notion is coarsely to contradict it, to cut across it, in
accordance with some egotistical plan of his own; to tell
himself that, whatever the ignorant say, they are probably wrong.
He forgets that ignorance often has the exquisite intuitions of
Let me take one example which may mark out the outline of the contention.
Open the nearest comic paper and let your eye rest lovingly upon
a joke about a mother-in-law. Now, the joke, as presented for
the populace, will probably be a simple joke; the old lady will be
tall and stout, the hen-pecked husband will be small and cowering.
But for all that, a mother-in-law is not a simple idea.
She is a very subtle idea. The problem is not that she is big
and arrogant; she is frequently little and quite extraordinarily nice.
The problem of the mother-in-law is that she is like the twilight:
half one thing and half another. Now, this twilight truth,
this fine and even tender embarrassment, might be rendered,
as it really is, by a poet, only here the poet would have to be
some very penetrating and sincere novelist, like George Meredith,
or Mr. H. G. Wells, whose "Ann Veronica" I have just been reading
with delight. I would trust the fine poets and novelists
because they follow the fairy clue given them in Comic Cuts.
But suppose the Professor appears, and suppose he says (as he almost
certainly will), "A mother-in-law is merely a fellow-citizen.
Considerations of sex should not interfere with comradeship.
Regard for age should not influence the intellect. A mother-in-law
is merely Another Mind. We should free ourselves from these tribal
hierarchies and degrees." Now, when the Professor says this
(as he always does), I say to him, "Sir, you are coarser than Comic Cuts.
You are more vulgar and blundering than the most elephantine
music-hall artiste. You are blinder and grosser than the mob.
These vulgar knockabouts have, at least, got hold of a social shade
and real mental distinction, though they can only express it clumsily.
You are so clumsy that you cannot get hold of it at all.
If you really cannot see that the bridegroom's mother and the bride
have any reason for constraint or diffidence, then you are neither
polite nor humane: you have no sympathy in you for the deep
and doubtful hearts of human folk." It is better even to put
the difficulty as the vulgar put it than to be pertly unconscious
of the difficulty altogether.
The same question might be considered well enough in the old
proverb that two is company and three is none. This proverb
is the truth put popularly: that is, it is the truth put wrong.
Certainly it is untrue that three is no company. Three is
splendid company: three is the ideal number for pure comradeship:
as in the Three Musketeers. But if you reject the proverb altogether;
if you say that two and three are the same sort of company;
if you cannot see that there is a wider abyss between two
and three than between three and three million--then I regret
to inform you that you belong to the Third Class of human beings;
that you shall have no company either of two or three, but shall
be alone in a howling desert till you die.
The Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds
The other day on a stray spur of the Chiltern Hills I
climbed up upon one of those high, abrupt, windy churchyards
from which the dead seem to look down upon all the living.
It was a mountain of ghosts as Olympus was a mountain of gods.
In that church lay the bones of great Puritan lords, of a time when most
of the power of England was Puritan, even of the Established Church.
And below these uplifted bones lay the huge and hollow valleys
of the English countryside, where the motors went by every now
and then like meteors, where stood out in white squares and oblongs
in the chequered forest many of the country seats even of those
same families now dulled with wealth or decayed with Toryism.
And looking over that deep green prospect on that luminous
yellow evening, a lovely and austere thought came into my mind,
a thought as beautiful as the green wood and as grave as the tombs.
The thought was this: that I should like to go into Parliament,
quarrel with my party, accept the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds,
and then refuse to give it up.
We are so proud in England of our crazy constitutional anomalies
that I fancy that very few readers indeed will need to be told
about the Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds. But in case there
should be here or there one happy man who has never heard of such
twisted tomfooleries, I will rapidly remind you what this legal
fiction is. As it is quite a voluntary, sometimes even an eager,
affair to get into Parliament, you would naturally suppose
that it would be also a voluntary matter to get out again.
You would think your fellow-members would be indifferent,
or even relieved to see you go; especially as (by another exercise
of the shrewd, illogical old English common sense) they have carefully
built the room too small for the people who have to sit in it.
But not so, my pippins, as it says in the "Iliad." If you are
merely a member of Parliament (Lord knows why) you can't resign.
But if you are a Minister of the Crown (Lord knows why) you can.
It is necessary to get into the Ministry in order to get out
of the House; and they have to give you some office that doesn't
exist or that nobody else wants and thus unlock the door.
So you go to the Prime Minister, concealing your air of fatigue,
and say, "It has been the ambition of my life to be Steward of the
Chiltern Hundreds." The Prime Minister then replies, "I can imagine
no man more fitted both morally and mentally for that high office."
He then gives it you, and you hurriedly leave, reflecting how
the republics of the Continent reel anarchically to and fro for lack
of a little solid English directness and simplicity.
Now, the thought that struck me like a thunderbolt as I sat on
the Chiltern slope was that I would like to get the Prime Minister
to give me the Chiltern Hundreds, and then startle and disturb him
by showing the utmost interest in my work. I should profess a general
knowledge of my duties, but wish to be instructed in the details.
I should ask to see the Under-Steward and the Under-Under-Steward,
and all the fine staff of experienced permanent officials who are
the glory of this department. And, indeed, my enthusiasm would
not be wholly unreal. For as far as I can recollect the original
duties of a Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds were to put down
the outlaws and brigands in that part of the world. Well, there are
a great many outlaws and brigands in that part of the world still,
and though their methods have so largely altered as to require
a corresponding alteration in the tactics of the Steward, I do
not see why an energetic and public-spirited Steward should not
nab them yet.
For the robbers have not vanished from the old high forests
to the west of the great city. The thieves have not vanished;
they have grown so large that they are invisible. You do not
see the word "Asia" written across a map of that neighbourhood;
nor do you see the word "Thief" written across the countrysides
of England; though it is really written in equally large letters.
I know men governing despotically great stretches of that country,
whose every step in life has been such that a slip would have sent
them to Dartmoor; but they trod along the high hard wall between right
and wrong, the wall as sharp as a swordedge, as softly and craftily
and lightly as a cat. The vastness of their silent violence itself
obscured what they were at; if they seem to stand for the rights
of property it is really because they have so often invaded them.
And if they do not break the laws, it is only because they make them.
But after all we only need a Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds
who really understands cats and thieves. Men hunt one animal
differently from another; and the rich could catch swindlers
as dexterously as they catch otters or antlered deer if they
were really at all keen upon doing it. But then they never have
an uncle with antlers; nor a personal friend who is an otter.
When some of the great lords that lie in the churchyard behind me
went out against their foes in those deep woods beneath I wager
that they had bows against the bows of the outlaws, and spears against
the spears of the robber knights. They knew what they were about;
they fought the evildoers of their age with the weapons of their age.
If the same common sense were applied to commercial law,
in forty-eight hours it would be all over with the American Trusts
and the African forward finance. But it will not be done:
for the governing class either does not care, or cares very much,
for the criminals, and as for me, I had a delusive opportunity
of being Constable of Beaconsfield (with grossly inadequate powers),
but I fear I shall never really be Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds.
The Field of Blood
In my daily paper this morning I read the following interesting
paragraphs, which take my mind back to an England which I do not
remember and which, therefore (perhaps), I admire.
"Nearly sixty years ago--on 4 September, 1850--the Austrian
General Haynau, who had gained an unenviable fame throughout the world
by his ferocious methods in suppressing the Hungarian revolution in 1849,
while on a visit to this country, was belaboured in the streets
of London by the draymen of Messrs. Barclay, Perkins and Co.,
whose brewery he had just inspected in company of an adjutant.
Popular delight was so great that the Government of the time
did not dare to prosecute the assailants, and the General--
the 'women-flogger,' as he was called by the people--had to leave
these shores without remedy.
"He returned to his own country and settled upon his estate at Szekeres,
which is close to the commune above-mentioned. By his will the estate
passed to his daughter, after whose death it was to be presented
to the commune. This daughter has just died, but the Communal Council,
after much deliberation, has declined to accept the gift,
and ordered that the estate should be left to fall out of cultivation,
and be called the 'Bloody Meadow.'"
Now that is an example of how things happen under an honest democratical
impulse. I do not dwell specially on the earlier part of the story,
though the earlier part of the story is astonishingly interesting.
It recalls the days when Englishmen were potential lighters; that is,
potential rebels. It is not for lack of agonies of intellectual anger:
the Sultan and the late King Leopold have been denounced as heartily
as General Haynau. But I doubt if they would have been physically
thrashed in the London streets.
It is not the tyrants that are lacking, but the draymen. Nevertheless, it
is not upon the historic heroes of Barclay, Perkins and Co. that I build
all my hope. Fine as it was, it was not a full and perfect revolution.
A brewer's drayman beating an eminent European General with a stick,
though a singularly bright and pleasing vision, is not a complete one.
Only when the brewer's drayman beats the brewer with a stick shall
we see the clear and radiant sunrise of British self-government.
The fun will really start when we begin to thump the oppressors
of England as well as the oppressors of Hungary. It is, however,
a definite decline in the spiritual character of draymen that
now they can thump neither one nor the other.
But, as I have already suggested, my real quarrel is not
about the first part of the extract, but about the second.
Whether or no the draymen of Barclay and Perkins have degenerated,
the Commune which includes Szekeres has not degenerated.
By the way, the Commune which includes Szekeres is called
Kissekeres; I trust that this frank avowal will excuse me from
the necessity of mentioning either of these places again by name.
The Commune is still capable of performing direct democratic actions,
if necessary, with a stick.
I say with a stick, not with sticks, for that is the whole argument
about democracy. A people is a soul; and if you want to know
what a soul is, I can only answer that it is something that can
sin and that can sacrifice itself. A people can commit theft;
a people can confess theft; a people can repent of theft.
That is the idea of the republic. Now, most modern people have got
into their heads the idea that democracies are dull, drifting things,
a mere black swarm or slide of clerks to their accustomed doom.
In most modern novels and essays it is insisted (by way of contrast)
that a walking gentleman may have ad-ventures as he walks.
It is insisted that an aristocrat can commit crimes, because an aristocrat
always cultivates liberty. But, in truth, a people can have adventures,
as Israel did crawling through the desert to the promised land.
A people can do heroic deeds; a people can commit crimes;
the French people did both in the Revolution; the Irish people
have done both in their much purer and more honourable progress.
But the real answer to this aristocratic argument which seeks to
identify democracy with a drab utilitarianism may be found in action
such as that of the Hungarian Commune--whose name I decline to repeat.
This Commune did just one of those acts that prove that a separate
people has a separate personality; it threw something away.
A man can throw a bank note into the fire. A man can fling a sack
of corn into the river. The bank-note may be burnt as a satisfaction
of some scruple; the corn may be destroyed as a sacrifice to some god.
But whenever there is sacrifice we know there is a single will.
Men may be disputatious and doubtful, may divide by very narrow
majorities in their debate about how to gain wealth. But men have
to be uncommonly unanimous in order to refuse wealth. It wants
a very complete committee to burn a bank note in the office grate.
It needs a highly religious tribe really to throw corn into the river.
This self-denial is the test and definition of self-government.
I wish I could feel certain that any English County Council
or Parish Council would be single enough to make that strong
gesture of a romantic refusal; could say, "No rents shall
be raised from this spot; no grain shall grow in this spot;
no good shall come of this spot; it shall remain sterile for a sign."
But I am afraid they might answer, like the eminent sociologist
in the story, that it was "wiste of spice."
The Strangeness of Luxury
It is an English misfortune that what is called "public spirit"
is so often a very private spirit; the legitimate but strictly
individual ideals of this or that person who happens to have
the power to carry them out. When these private principles are held
by very rich people, the result is often the blackest and most
repulsive kind of despotism, which is benevolent despotism.
Obviously it is the public which ought to have public spirit.
But in this country and at this epoch this is exactly what it has
not got. We shall have a public washhouse and a public kitchen
long before we have a public spirit; in fact, if we had a public
spirit we might very probably do without the other things.
But if England were properly and naturally governed by the
English, one of the first results would probably be this:
that our standard of excess or defect in property would be changed
from that of the plutocrat to that of the moderately needy man.
That is, that while property might be strictly respected, everything that
is necessary to a clerk would be felt and considered on quite a
different plane from anything which is a very great luxury to a clerk.
This sane distinction of sentiment is not instinctive at present,
because our standard of life is that of the governing class,
which is eternally turning luxuries into necessities as fast as pork
is turned into sausages; and which cannot remember the beginning
of its needs and cannot get to the end of its novelties.
Take, for the sake of argument, the case of the motor.
Doubtless the duke now feels it as necessary to have a motor as to have
a roof, and in a little while he may feel it equally necessary to have
a flying ship. But this does not prove (as the reactionary sceptics
always argue) that a motor really is just as necessary as a roof.
It only proves that a man can get used to an artificial life:
it does not prove that there is no natural life for him to get used to.
In the broad bird's-eye view of common sense there abides
a huge disproportion between the need for a roof and the need
for an aeroplane; and no rush of inventions can ever alter it.
The only difference is that things are now judged by the abnormal
needs, when they might be judged merely by the normal needs.
The best aristocrat sees the situation from an aeroplane.
The good citizen, in his loftiest moments, goes no further than
seeing it from the roof.
It is not true that luxury is merely relative. It is not true
that it is only an expensive novelty which we may afterwards come
to think a necessity. Luxury has a firm philosophical meaning;
and where there is a real public spirit luxury is generally
allowed for, sometimes rebuked, but always recognized instantly.
To the healthy soul there is something in the very nature of certain
pleasures which warns us that they are exceptions, and that if they
become rules they will become very tyrannical rules.
Take a harassed seamstress out of the Harrow Road and give her one
lightning hour in a motorcar, and she will probably feel it as splendid,
but strange, rare, and even terrible. But this is not (as the
relativists say) merely because she has never been in a car before.
She has never been in the middle of a Somerset cowslip meadow before;
but if you put her there she does not think it terrifying
or extraordinary, but merely pleasant and free and a little lonely.
She does not think the motor monstrous because it is new.
She thinks it monstrous because she has eyes in her head; she thinks it
monstrous because it is monstrous. That is, her mothers and grandmothers,
and the whole race by whose life she lives, have had, as a matter
of fact, a roughly recognizable mode of living; sitting in a green
field was a part of it; travelling as quick as a cannon ball was not.
And we should not look down on the seamstress because she mechanically
emits a short sharp scream whenever the motor begins to move.
On the contrary, we ought to look up to the seamstress, and regard her
cry as a kind of mystic omen or revelation of nature, as the old Goths
used to consider the howls emitted by chance females when annoyed.
For that ritual yell is really a mark of moral health--of swift
response to the stimulations and changes of life. The seamstress
is wiser than all the learned ladies, precisely because she can
still feel that a motor is a different sort of thing from a meadow.
By the accident of her economic imprisonment it is even possible
that she may have seen more of the former than the latter.
But this has not shaken her cyclopean sagacity as to which is
the natural thing and which the artificial. If not for her,
at least for humanity as a whole, there is little doubt about
which is the more normally attainable. It is considerably cheaper
to sit in a meadow and see motors go by than to sit in a motor
and see meadows go by.
To me personally, at least, it would never seem needful to own a motor,
any more than to own an avalanche. An avalanche, if you have luck,
I am told, is a very swift, successful, and thrilling way of coming
down a hill. It is distinctly more stirring, say, than a glacier,
which moves an inch in a hundred years. But I do not divide these
pleasures either by excitement or convenience, but by the nature
of the thing itself. It seems human to have a horse or bicycle,
because it seems human to potter about; and men cannot work horses,
nor can bicycles work men, enormously far afield of their ordinary
haunts and affairs.
But about motoring there is something magical, like going to the moon;
and I say the thing should be kept exceptional and felt
as something breathless and bizarre. My ideal hero would own
his horse, but would have the moral courage to hire his motor.
Fairy tales are the only sound guidebooks to life; I like the
Fairy Prince to ride on a white pony out of his father's stables,
which are of ivory and gold. But if in the course of his adventures
he finds it necessary to travel on a flaming dragon, I think he ought
to give the dragon back to the witch at the end of the story.
It is a mistake to have dragons about the place.
For there is truly an air of something weird about luxury; and it is
by this that healthy human nature has always smelt and suspected it.
All romances that deal in extreme luxury, from the "Arabian Nights"
to the novels of Ouida and Disraeli, have, it may be noted,
a singular air of dream and occasionally of nightmare. In such
imaginative debauches there is something as occasional as
intoxication; if that is still counted occasional. Life in
those preposterous palaces would be an agony of dullness;
it is clear we are meant to visit them only as in a flying vision.
And what is true of the old freaks of wealth, flavour and fierce
colour and smell, I would say also of the new freak of wealth,
which is speed. I should say to the duke, when I entered his house
at the head of an armed mob, "I do not object to your having
exceptional pleasures, if you have them exceptionally. I do not mind
your enjoying the strange and alien energies of science, if you feel
them strange and alien, and not your own. But in condemning you
(under the Seventeenth Section of the Eighth Decree of the Republic)
to hire a motor-car twice a year at Margate, I am not the enemy
of your luxuries, but, rather, the protector of them."
That is what I should say to the duke. As to what the duke would
say to me, that is another matter, and may well be deferred.
The Triumph of the Donkey
Doubtless the unsympathetic might state my doctrine that one should
not own a motor like a horse, but rather use it like a flying dragon
in the simpler form that I will always go motoring in somebody
else's car. My favourite modern philosopher (Mr. W. W. Jacobs)
describes a similar case of spiritual delicacy misunderstood.
I have not the book at hand, but I think that Job Brown was reproaching
Bill Chambers for wasteful drunkenness, and Henery Walker spoke up
for Bill, and said he scarcely ever had a glass but what somebody
else paid for it, and there was "unpleasantness all round then."
Being less sensitive than Bill Chambers (or whoever it was)
I will risk this rude perversion of my meaning, and concede that I
was in a motor-car yesterday, and the motor-car most certainly was
not my own, and the journey, though it contained nothing that is
specially unusual on such journeys, had running through it a strain
of the grotesque which was at once wholesome and humiliating.
The symbol of that influence was that ancient symbol of the humble
and humorous--a donkey.
When first I saw the donkey I saw him in the sunlight as the
unearthly gargoyle that he is. My friend had met me in his car
(I repeat firmly, in his car) at the little painted station in the middle
of the warm wet woods and hop-fields of that western country.
He proposed to drive me first to his house beyond the village
before starting for a longer spin of adventure, and we rattled
through those rich green lanes which have in them something
singularly analogous to fairy tales: whether the lanes produced
the fairies or (as I believe) the fairies produced the lanes.
All around in the glimmering hop-yards stood those little hop-kilns
like stunted and slanting spires. They look like dwarfish churches--
in fact, rather like many modern churches I could mention,
churches all of them small and each of them a little crooked.
In this elfin atmosphere we swung round a sharp corner and half-way
up a steep, white hill, and saw what looked at first like a tall,
black monster against the sun. It appeared to be a dark and dreadful
woman walking on wheels and waving long ears like a bat's. A
second glance told me that she was not the local witch in a state
of transition; she was only one of the million tricks of perspective.
She stood up in a small wheeled cart drawn by a donkey;
the donkey's ears were just set behind her head, and the whole
was black against the light.
Perspective is really the comic element in everything.
It has a pompous Latin name, but it is incurably Gothic and grotesque.
One simple proof of this is that it is always left out of all dignified
and decorative art. There is no perspective in the Elgin Marbles,
and even the essentially angular angels in mediaeval stained glass
almost always (as it says in "Patience") contrive to look both
angular and flat. There is something intrinsically disproportionate
and outrageous in the idea of the distant objects dwindling and
growing dwarfish, the closer objects swelling enormous and intolerable.
There is something frantic in the notion that one's own father by
walking a little way can be changed by a blast of magic to a pigmy.
There is something farcical in the fancy that Nature keeps one's uncle
in an infinite number of sizes, according to where he is to stand.
All soldiers in retreat turn into tin soldiers; all bears in rout
into toy bears; as if on the ultimate horizon of the world everything
was sardonically doomed to stand up laughable and little against heaven.
It was for this reason that the old woman and her donkey
struck us first when seen from behind as one black grotesque.
I afterwards had the chance of seeing the old woman, the cart,
and the donkey fairly, in flank and in all their length.
I saw the old woman and the donkey PASSANT, as they might have
appeared heraldically on the shield of some heroic family.
I saw the old woman and the donkey dignified, decorative, and flat,
as they might have marched across the Elgin Marbles. Seen thus
under an equal light, there was nothing specially ugly about them;
the cart was long and sufficiently comfortable; the donkey was
stolid and sufficiently respectable; the old woman was lean but
sufficiently strong, and even smiling in a sour, rustic manner.
But seen from behind they looked like one black monstrous animal;
the dark donkey cars seemed like dreadful wings, and the tall
dark back of the woman, erect like a tree, seemed to grow taller
and taller until one could almost scream.
Then we went by her with a blasting roar like a railway train,
and fled far from her over the brow of the hill to my friend's home.
There we paused only for my friend to stock the car with some kind
of picnic paraphernalia, and so started again, as it happened,
by the way we had come. Thus it fell that we went shattering down
that short, sharp hill again before the poor old woman and her donkey
had managed to crawl to the top of it; and seeing them under a
different light, I saw them very differently. Black against the sun,
they had seemed comic; but bright against greenwood and grey cloud,
they were not comic but tragic; for there are not a few things
that seem fantastic in the twilight, and in the sunlight are sad.
I saw that she had a grand, gaunt mask of ancient honour
and endurance, and wide eyes sharpened to two shining points,
as if looking for that small hope on the horizon of human life.
I also saw that her cart contained carrots.
"Don't you feel, broadly speaking, a beast," I asked my friend,
"when you go so easily and so fast?" For we had crashed by so that
the crazy cart must have thrilled in every stick of it.
My friend was a good man, and said, "Yes. But I don't think it
would do her any good if I went slower."
"No," I assented after reflection. "Perhaps the only pleasure we can
give to her or any one else is to get out of their sight very soon."
My friend availed himself of this advice in no niggard spirit;
I felt as if we were fleeing for our lives in throttling fear after
some frightful atrocity. In truth, there is only one difference
left between the secrecy of the two social classes: the poor hide
themselves in darkness and the rich hide themselves in distance.
They both hide.
As we shot like a lost boat over a cataract down into a whirlpool of
white roads far below, I saw afar a black dot crawling like an insect.
I looked again: I could hardly believe it. There was the slow old
woman, with her slow old donkey, still toiling along the main road.
I asked my friend to slacken, but when he said of the car,
"She's wanting to go," I knew it was all up with him. For when
you have called a thing female you have yielded to it utterly.
We passed the old woman with a shock that must have shaken the earth:
if her head did not reel and her heart quail, I know not what they
were made of. And when we had fled perilously on in the gathering dark,
spurning hamlets behind us, I suddenly called out, "Why, what
asses we are! Why, it's She that is brave--she and the donkey.
We are safe enough; we are artillery and plate-armour: and she stands up
to us with matchwood and a snail! If you had grown old in a quiet valley,
and people began firing cannon-balls as big as cabs at you in your
seventieth year, wouldn't you jump--and she never moved an eyelid.
Oh! we go very fast and very far, no doubt--"
As I spoke came a curious noise, and my friend, instead of going fast,
began to go very slow; then he stopped; then he got out.
Then he said, "And I left the Stepney behind."
The grey moths came out of the wood and the yellow stars came
out to crown it, as my friend, with the lucidity of despair,
explained to me (on the soundest scientific principles, of course)
that nothing would be any good at all. We must sleep the night
in the lane, except in the very unlikely event of some one coming
by to carry a message to some town. Twice I thought I heard
some tiny sound of such approach, and it died away like wind
in the trees, and the motorist was already asleep when I heard
it renewed and realized. Something certainly was approaching.
I ran up the road--and there it was. Yes, It--and She.
Thrice had she come, once comic and once tragic and once heroic.
And when she came again it was as if in pardon on a pure errand of prosaic
pity and relief. I am quite serious. I do not want you to laugh.
It is not the first time a donkey has been received seriously,
nor one riding a donkey with respect.
In a quiet and rustic though fairly famous church in my neighbourhood
there is a window supposed to represent an Angel on a Bicycle.
It does definitely and indisputably represent a nude youth sitting
on a wheel; but there is enough complication in the wheel and sanctity
(I suppose) in the youth to warrant this working description.
It is a thing of florid Renascence outline, and belongs to the highly
pagan period which introduced all sorts of objects into ornament:
personally I can believe in the bicycle more than in the angel.
Men, they say, are now imitating angels; in their flying-machines,
that is: not in any other respect that I have heard of. So perhaps
the angel on the bicycle (if he is an angel and if it is a bicycle)
was avenging himself by imitating man. If so, he showed that high order
of intellect which is attributed to angels in the mediaeval books,
though not always (perhaps) in the mediaeval pictures.
For wheels are the mark of a man quite as much as wings are the mark
of an angel. Wheels are the things that are as old as mankind and yet
are strictly peculiar to man, that are prehistoric but not pre-human.
A distinguished psychologist, who is well acquainted with physiology,
has told me that parts of himself are certainly levers,
while other parts are probably pulleys, but that after feeling
himself carefully all over, he cannot find a wheel anywhere.
The wheel, as a mode of movement, is a purely human thing.
On the ancient escutcheon of Adam (which, like much of the rest
of his costume, has not yet been discovered) the heraldic emblem
was a wheel--passant. As a mode of progress, I say, it is unique.
Many modern philosophers, like my friend before mentioned,
are ready to find links between man and beast, and to show that man
has been in all things the blind slave of his mother earth.
Some, of a very different kind, are even eager to show it;
especially if it can be twisted to the discredit of religion.
But even the most eager scientists have often admitted in my hearing
that they would be surprised if some kind of cow approached them
moving solemnly on four wheels. Wings, fins, flappers, claws,
hoofs, webs, trotters, with all these the fantastic families
of the earth come against us and close around us, fluttering and
flapping and rustling and galloping and lumbering and thundering;
but there is no sound of wheels.
I remember dimly, if, indeed, I remember aright, that in some of
those dark prophetic pages of Scripture, that seem of cloudy purple
and dusky gold, there is a passage in which the seer beholds a violent
dream of wheels. Perhaps this was indeed the symbolic declaration
of the spiritual supremacy of man. Whatever the birds may do above
or the fishes beneath his ship, man is the only thing to steer;
the only thing to be conceived as steering. He may make the birds
his friends, if he can. He may make the fishes his gods, if he chooses.
But most certainly he will not believe a bird at the masthead;
and it is hardly likely that he will even permit a fish at the helm.
He is, as Swinburne says, helmsman and chief: he is literally
the Man at the Wheel.
The wheel is an animal that is always standing on its head;
only "it does it so rapidly that no philosopher has ever found
out which is its head." Or if the phrase be felt as more exact,
it is an animal that is always turning head over heels and progressing
by this principle. Some fish, I think, turn head over heels
(supposing them, for the sake of argument, to have heels);
I have a dog who nearly did it; and I did it once myself when I
was very small. It was an accident, and, as delightful novelist,
Mr. De Morgan, would say, it never can happen again. Since then
no one has accused me of being upside down except mentally:
and I rather think that there is something to be said for that;
especially as typified by the rotary symbol. A wheel is the
sublime paradox; one part of it is always going forward and the other
part always going back. Now this, as it happens, is highly similar
to the proper condition of any human soul or any political state.
Every sane soul or state looks at once backwards and forwards;
and even goes backwards to come on.
For those interested in revolt (as I am) I only say meekly that one cannot
have a Revolution without revolving. The wheel, being a logical thing,
has reference to what is behind as well as what is before. It has
(as every society should have) a part that perpetually leaps helplessly
at the sky and a part that perpetually bows down its head into the dust.
Why should people be so scornful of us who stand on our heads?
Bowing down one's head in the dust is a very good thing,
the humble beginning of all happiness. When we have bowed
our heads in the dust for a little time the happiness comes;
and then (leaving our heads' in the humble and reverent position)
we kick up our heels behind in the air. That is the true origin
of standing on one's head; and the ultimate defence of paradox.
The wheel humbles itself to be exalted; only it does it a little
quicker than I do.
Five Hundred and Fifty-five
Life is full of a ceaseless shower of small coincidences:
too small to be worth mentioning except for a special purpose,
often too trifling even to be noticed, any more than we notice
one snowflake falling on another. It is this that lends
a frightful plausibility to all false doctrines and evil fads.
There are always such crowds of accidental arguments for anything.
If I said suddenly that historical truth is generally told
by red-haired men, I have no doubt that ten minutes' reflection
(in which I decline to indulge) would provide me with a handsome
list of instances in support of it. I remember a riotous argument
about Bacon and Shakespeare in which I offered quite at random
to show that Lord Rosebery had written the works of Mr. W. B. Yeats.
No sooner had I said the words than a torrent of coincidences
rushed upon my mind. I pointed out, for instance, that Mr. Yeats's
chief work was "The Secret Rose." This may easily be paraphrased
as "The Quiet or Modest Rose"; and so, of course, as the Primrose.
A second after I saw the same suggestion in the combination of "rose"
and "bury." If I had pursued the matter, who knows but I might have
been a raving maniac by this time.
We trip over these trivial repetitions and exactitudes at
every turn, only they are too trivial even for conversation.
A man named Williams did walk into a strange house and murder
a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide.
A journalist of my acquaintance did move quite unconsciously
from a place called Overstrand to a place called Overroads.
When he had made this escape he was very properly pursued by a
voting card from Battersea, on which a political agent named
Burn asked him to vote for a political candidate named Burns.
And when he did so another coincidence happened to him:
rather a spiritual than a material coincidence; a mystical thing,
a matter of a magic number.
For a sufficient number of reasons, the man I know went up to vote
in Battersea in a drifting and even dubious frame of mind.
As the train slid through swampy woods and sullen skies there came
into his empty mind those idle and yet awful questions which come when
the mind is empty. Fools make cosmic systems out of them; knaves make
profane poems out of them; men try to crush them like an ugly lust.
Religion is only the responsible reinforcement of common courage
and common sense. Religion only sets up the normal mood of health
against the hundred moods of disease.
But there is this about such ghastly empty enigmas, that they always
have an answer to the obvious answer, the reply offered by daily reason.
Suppose a man's children have gone swimming; suppose he is
suddenly throttled by the senseless--fear that they are drowned.
The obvious answer is, "Only one man in a thousand has his
children drowned." But a deeper voice (deeper, being as deep
as hell) answers, "And why should not you--be the thousandth man?"
What is true of tragic doubt is true also of trivial doubt.
The voter's guardian devil said to him, "If you don't vote
to-day you can do fifteen things which will quite certainly do
some good somewhere, please a friend, please a child, please a
maddened publisher. And what good do you expect to do by voting?
You don't think your man will get in by one vote, do you?"
To this he knew the answer of common sense, "But if everybody
said that, nobody would get in at all." And then there came
that deeper voice from Hades, "But you are not settling what
everybody shall do, but what one person on one occasion shall do.
If this afternoon you went your way about more solid things,
how would it matter and who would ever know?" Yet somehow the voter
drove on blindly through the blackening London roads, and found
somewhere a tedious polling station and recorded his tiny vote.
The politician for whom the voter had voted got in by five hundred
and fifty-five votes. The voter read this next morning at breakfast,
being in a more cheery and expansive mood, and found something
very fascinating not merely in the fact of the majority, but even
in the form of it. There was something symbolic about the three
exact figures; one felt it might be a sort of motto or cipher.
In the great book of seals and cloudy symbols there is just such
a thundering repetition. Six hundred and sixty-six was the Mark
of the Beast. Five hundred and fifty-five is the Mark of the Man;
the triumphant tribune and citizen. A number so symmetrical as that
really rises out of the region of science into the region of art.
It is a pattern, like the egg-and-dart ornament or the Greek key.
One might edge a wall-paper or fringe a robe with a recurring decimal.
And while the voter luxuriated in this light exactitude of the numbers,
a thought crossed his mind and he almost leapt to his feet.
"Why, good heavens!" he cried. "I won that election; and it was
won by one vote! But for me it would have been the despicable,
broken-backed, disjointed, inharmonious figure five hundred
and fifty-four. The whole artistic point would have vanished.
The Mark of the Man would have disappeared from history. It was I
who with a masterful hand seized the chisel and carved the hieroglyph--
complete and perfect. I clutched the trembling hand of Destiny when it
was about to make a dull square four and forced it to make a nice
curly five. Why, but for me the Cosmos would have lost a coincidence!"
After this outburst the voter sat down and finished his breakfast.
Perhaps you do not know where Ethandune is. Nor do I; nor does anybody.
That is where the somewhat sombre fun begins. I cannot even tell you
for certain whether it is the name of a forest or a town or a hill.
I can only say that in any case it is of the kind that floats
and is unfixed. If it is a forest, it is one of those forests
that march with a million legs, like the walking trees that were
the doom of Macbeth. If it is a town, it is one of those towns
that vanish, like a city of tents. If it is a hill, it is
a flying hill, like the mountain to which faith lends wings.
Over a vast dim region of England this dark name of Ethandune floats
like an eagle doubtful where to swoop and strike, and, indeed,
there were birds of prey enough over Ethandune, wherever it was.
But now Ethandune itself has grown as dark and drifting as the black
drifts of the birds.
And yet without this word that you cannot fit with a meaning
and hardly with a memory, you would be sitting in a very different
chair at this moment and looking at a very different tablecloth.
As a practical modern phrase I do not commend it; if my private
critics and correspondents in whom I delight should happen to
address me "G. K. Chesterton, Poste Restante, Ethandune," I fear
their letters would not come to hand. If two hurried commercial
travellers should agree to discuss a business matter at Ethandune
from 5 to 5.15, I am afraid they would grow old in the district
as white-haired wanderers. To put it plainly, Ethandune is anywhere
and nowhere in the western hills; it is an English mirage.
And yet but for this doubtful thing you would have probably
no Daily News on Saturday and certainly no church on Sunday.
I do not say that either of these two things is a benefit;
but I do say that they are customs, and that you would not possess
them except through this mystery. You would not have Christmas
puddings, nor (probably) any puddings; you would not have Easter eggs,
probably not poached eggs, I strongly suspect not scrambled eggs,
and the best historians are decidedly doubtful about curried eggs.
To cut a long story short (the longest of all stories), you would
not have any civilization, far less any Christian civilization.
And if in some moment of gentle curiosity you wish to know why you
are the polished sparkling, rounded, and wholly satisfactory citizen
which you obviously are, then I can give you no more definite answer
geographical or historical; but only toll in your ears the tone
of the uncaptured name--Ethandune.
I will try to state quite sensibly why it is as important as it is.
And yet even that is not easy. If I were to state the mere fact
from the history books, numbers of people would think it equally
trivial and remote, like some war of the Picts and Scots.
The points perhaps might be put in this way. There is a
certain spirit in the world which breaks everything off short.
There may be magnificence in the smashing; but the thing is
smashed. There may be a certain splendour; but the splendour
is sterile: it abolishes all future splendours. I mean (to take a
working example), York Minster covered with flames might happen
to be quite as beautiful as York Minster covered with carvings.
But the carvings produce more carvings. The flames produce nothing
but a little black heap. When any act has this cul-de-sac quality it
matters little whether it is done by a book or a sword, by a clumsy
battle-axe or a chemical bomb. The case is the same with ideas.
The pessimist may be a proud figure when he curses all the stars;
the optimist may be an even prouder figure when he blesses them all.
But the real test is not in the energy, but in the effect.
When the optimist has said, "All things are interesting," we are
left free; we can be interested as much or as little as we please.
But when the pessimist says, "No things are interesting,"
it may be a very witty remark: but it is the last witty remark
that can be made on the subject. He has burnt his cathedral;
he has had his blaze and the rest is ashes. The sceptics, like bees,
give their one sting and die. The pessimist must be wrong,
because he says the last word.
Now, this spirit that denies and that destroys had at one
period of history a dreadful epoch of military superiority.
They did burn York Minster, or at least, places of the same kind.
Roughly speaking, from the seventh century to the tenth, a dense tide
of darkness, of chaos and brainless cruelty, poured on these islands
and on the western coasts of the Continent, which well-nigh cut them
off from all the white man's culture for ever. And this is the final
human test; that the varied chiefs of that vague age were remembered
or forgotten according to how they had resisted this almost cosmic raid.
Nobody thought of the modern nonsense about races; everybody thought
of the human race and its highest achievements. Arthur was a Celt,
and may have been a fabulous Celt; but he was a fable on the right side.
Charlemagne may have been a Gaul or a Goth, but he was not a barbarian;
he fought for the tradition against the barbarians, the nihilists.
And for this reason also, for this reason, in the last resort, only,
we call the saddest and in some ways the least successful of the Wessex
kings by the title of Alfred the Great. Alfred was defeated
by the barbarians again and again, he defeated the barbarians again
and again; but his victories were almost as vain as his defeats.
Fortunately he did not believe in the Time Spirit or the Trend of
Things or any such modern rubbish, and therefore kept pegging away.
But while his failures and his fruitless successes have names still in use
(such as Wilton, Basing, and Ashdown), that last epic battle which really
broke the barbarian has remained without a modern place or name.
Except that it was near Chippenham, where the Danes gave up their
swords and were baptized, no one can pick out certainly the place
where you and I were saved from being savages for ever.
But the other day under a wild sunset and moonrise I passed the place
which is best reputed as Ethandune, a high, grim upland, partly bare
and partly shaggy; like that savage and sacred spot in those great
imaginative lines about the demon lover and the waning moon.
The darkness, the red wreck of sunset, the yellow and lurid moon,
the long fantastic shadows, actually created that sense of
monstrous incident which is the dramatic side of landscape.
The bare grey slopes seemed to rush downhill like routed hosts;
the dark clouds drove across like riven banners; and the moon was
like a golden dragon, like the Golden Dragon of Wessex.
As we crossed a tilt of the torn heath I saw suddenly between
myself and the moon a black shapeless pile higher than a house.
The atmosphere was so intense that I really thought of a pile
of dead Danes, with some phantom conqueror on the top of it.
Fortunately I was crossing these wastes with a friend who knew
more history than I; and he told me that this was a barrow older
than Alfred, older than the Romans, older perhaps than the Britons;
and no man knew whether it was a wall or a trophy or a tomb.
Ethandune is still a drifting name; but it gave me a queer emotion
to think that, sword in hand, as the Danes poured with the torrents
of their blood down to Chippenham, the great king may have lifted up
his head and looked at that oppressive shape, suggestive of something
and yet suggestive of nothing; may have looked at it as we did,
and understood it as little as we.
The Flat Freak
Some time ago a Sub-Tropical Dinner was given by some
South African millionaire. I forget his name; and so, very likely,
does he. The humour of this was so subtle and haunting that it has
been imitated by another millionaire, who has given a North Pole Dinner
in a grand hotel, on which he managed to spend gigantic sums of money.
I do not know how he did it; perhaps they had silver for snow
and great sapphires for lumps of ice. Anyhow, it seems to have
cost rather more to bring the Pole to London than to take Peary
to the Pole. All this, one would say, does not concern us.
We do not want to go to the Pole--or to the hotel. I, for one,
cannot imagine which would be the more dreary and disgusting--
the real North Pole or the sham one. But as a mere matter of psychology
(that merry pastime) there is a question that is not unentertaining.
Why is it that all this scheme of ice and snow leaves us cold?
Why is it that you and I feel that we would (on the whole)
rather spend the evening with two or three stable boys in a pot-house
than take part in that pallid and Arctic joke? Why does the modern
millionaire's jest--bore a man to death with the mere thought of it?
That it does bore a man to death I take for granted, and shall do
so until somebody writes to me in cold ink and tells me that he really
thinks it funny.
Now, it is not a sufficient explanation to say that the joke
is silly. All jokes are silly; that is what they are for.
If you ask some sincere and elemental person, a woman, for instance,
what she thinks of a good sentence from Dickens, she will say
that it is "too silly." When Mr. Weller, senior, assured
Mr. Weller, junior, that "circumvented" was "a more tenderer word"
than "circumscribed," the remark was at least as silly as it
was sublime. It is vain, then, to object to "senseless jokes."
The very definition of a joke is that it need have no sense; except that
one wild and supernatural sense which we call the sense of humour.
Humour is meant, in a literal sense, to make game of man; that is,
to dethrone him from his official dignity and hunt him like game.
It is meant to remind us human beings that we have things about us
as ungainly and ludicrous as the nose of the elephant or the neck
of the giraffe. If laughter does not touch a sort of fundamental folly,
it does not do its duty in bringing us back to an enormous
and original simplicity. Nothing has been worse than the modern
notion that a clever man can make a joke without taking part in it;
without sharing in the general absurdity that such a situation creates.
It is unpardonable conceit not to laugh at your own jokes.
Joking is undignified; that is why it is so good for one's soul.
Do not fancy you can be a detached wit and avoid being a buffoon;
you cannot. If you are the Court Jester you must be the Court Fool.
Whatever it is, therefore, that wearies us in these wealthy jokes
(like the North Pole Dinner) it is not merely that men make fools
of themselves. When Dickens described Mr. Chuckster, Dickens was,
strictly speaking, making a fool of himself; for he was making
a fool out of himself. And every kind of real lark, from acting
a charade to making a pun, does consist in restraining one's nine
hundred and ninety-nine serious selves and letting the fool loose.
The dullness of the millionaire joke is much deeper. It is not
silly at all; it is solely stupid. It does not consist of
ingenuity limited, but merely of inanity expanded. There is
considerable difference between a wit making a fool of himself
and a fool making a wit of himself.
The true explanation, I fancy, may be stated thus. We can all remember it
in the case of the really inspiriting parties and fooleries of our youth.
The only real fun is to have limited materials and a good idea.
This explains the perennial popularity of impromptu private theatricals.
These fascinate because they give such a scope for invention
and variety with the most domestic restriction of machinery.
A tea-cosy may have to do for an Admiral's cocked hat; it all
depends on whether the amateur actor can swear like an Admiral.
A hearth-rug may have to do for a bear's fur; it all depends on
whether the wearer is a polished and versatile man of the world
and can grunt like a bear. A clergyman's hat (to my own private
and certain knowledge) can be punched and thumped into the exact
shape of a policeman's helmet; it all depends on the clergyman.
I mean it depends on his permission; his imprimatur; his nihil obstat.
Clergymen can be policemen; rugs can rage like wild animals;
tea-cosies can smell of the sea; if only there is at the back
of them all one bright and amusing idea. What is really funny
about Christmas charades in any average home is that there is
a contrast between commonplace resources and one comic idea.
What is deadly dull about the millionaire-banquets is that there
is a contrast between colossal resources and no idea.
That is the abyss of inanity in such feasts--it may be literally
called a yawning abyss. The abyss is the vast chasm between
the money power employed and the thing it is employed on.
To make a big joke out of a broomstick, a barrow and an old hat--
that is great. But to make a small joke out of mountains
of emeralds and tons of gold--surely that is humiliating!
The North Pole is not a very good joke to start with. An icicle
hanging on one's nose is a simple sort of humour in any case.
If a set of spontaneous mummers got the effect cleverly with cut
crystals from the early Victorian chandelier there might really be
something suddenly funny in it. But what should we say of hanging
diamonds on a hundred human noses merely to make that precious
joke about icicles?
What can be more abject than the union of elaborate and recherche
arrangements with an old and obvious point? The clown with the red-hot
poker and the string of sausages is all very well in his way.
But think of a string of pate de foie gras sausages at a guinea
a piece! Think of a red-hot poker cut out of a single ruby!
Imagine such fantasticalities of expense with such a tameness
and staleness of design.
We may even admit the practical joke if it is domestic and simple.
We may concede that apple-pie beds and butter-slides are sometimes
useful things for the education of pompous persons living
the Higher Life. But imagine a man making a butter-slide and
telling everybody it was made with the most expensive butter.
Picture an apple-pie bed of purple and cloth of gold. It is
not hard to see that such schemes would lead simultaneously
to a double boredom; weariness of the costly and complex method
and of the meagre and trivial thought. This is the true analysis,
I think of that chill of tedium that strikes to the soul of any
intelligent man when he hears of such elephantine pranks.
That is why we feel that Freak Dinners would not even be freakish.
That is why we feel that expensive Arctic feasts would probably
be a frost.
If it be said that such things do no harm, I hasten, in one sense,
at least, to agree. Far from it; they do good. They do good
in the most vital matter of modern times; for they prove and print
in huge letters the truth which our society must learn or perish.
They prove that wealth in society as now constituted does
not tend to get into the hands of the thrifty or the capable,
but actually tends to get into the hands of wastrels and imbeciles.