Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The History of the Beaconsfield War Memorial

This blog has been a long time neglected, while the Facebook page of the group has been quite active. I'm hoping to resucitate the blog! All contributions welcome.

This is an entertaining and quite profound episode from Chesterton's Autobiography, in which he describes the discussions that went on in his home town of Beaconsfield over whether a WWI memorial should be erected, and what form it takes. But, as you'll see, the episode has many more depths to it than that...

I have lived in Beaconsfield from the time when it was almost a village to the time when, as the enemy profanely says, it is almost a suburb. It would be truer to say that the two things in some sense still exist side by side; and the popular instinct has recognised the division by actually talking about the Old Town and the New Town. I once planned a massive and exhaustive sociological work, in several volumes, which was to be called "The Two Barbers of Beaconsfield" and based entirely upon the talk of the two excellent citizens to whom I went to get shaved. For those two shops do indeed belong to two different civilisations. The hairdresser of the New Town belongs to the new world and has the spotlessness of the specialist; the other has what may be called the ambidexterity of the peasant, shaving (so to speak) with one hand while he stuffs squirrels or sells tobacco with the other. The latter tells me from his own recollection what happened in Old Beaconsfield; the former, or his assistants, tell me from the Daily Mail what has not happened in a wider world. But I suggest this comparison, merely as an introduction to a parallel matter of local interest; which happens to embody, better perhaps than any other emblem, all those large matters that are more than local. If I wanted to write a book about the whole of this great passage in the history of England, including the Great War and many other changes almost as great, I should write it in the form of a History of the Beaconsfield War Memorial.

The plain primary proposal was that a cross should be set up at the cross-roads. Before the discussion was half over there had entered into it the following subjects of debate: (1) The Position of Woman in the Modern World, (2) Prohibition and the Drink Question, (3) The Excellence or Exaggeration of the Cult of Athletics, (4) The Problem of Unemployment, Especially in Relation to Ex-Service Men, (5) The Question of Support for Hospitals and the General Claims of Surgery and Medicine, (6) The Justice of the War, (7) Above all, or rather under all, for it was in many ways masked or symbolically suggested, the great war of religion which has never ceased to divide mankind, especially since that sign was set up among them. Those who debated the matter were a little group of the inhabitants of a little country town; the rector and the doctor and the bank manager and the respectable trades-men of the place, with a few hangers-on like myself, of the more disreputable professions of journalism or the arts. But the powers that were present there in the spirit came out of all the ages and all the battlefields of history; Mahomet was there and the Iconoclasts, who came riding out of the East to ruin the statues of Italy, and Calvin and Rousseau and the Russian anarchs and all the older England that is buried under Puritanism; and Henry the Third ordering the little images for Westminster and Henry the Fifth, after Agincourt, on his knees before the shrines of Paris. If one could really write that little story of that little place, it would be the greatest of historical monographs.

The first thing to note, as typical of the modern tone, is a certain effect of toleration which actually results in timidity. Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it. There is a further qualification of some interest; that in this, as in many things, there is an immense intellectual superiority in the poor, and even in the ignorant. The cottagers of the Old Town either liked the Cross because it was Christian and said so, or else disliked the Cross because it was Popish and said so. But the leaders of the No-Popery Party were ashamed to talk No-Popery. They did not say in so many words that they thought a Crucifix a wicked thing; but they said, in any number of words, that they thought a parish pump or a public fountain or a municipal motor-bus a good thing. But the greater number of them tended to the proposal of a Club Building, especially for ex-service men; where the latter could have refreshment (that is where the Drink Question came in) or play games (that is where the Athletic Question came in) or possibly even share the Club on equal terms with their wives and women-folk (that is where the Wrongs of Women came in) and generally, in fact, enjoy all that we should desire ex-soldiers to enjoy, if there were really any chance of letting them do so. The scheme was in that sense admirable; but, as it proceeded, it became almost too admirable, in the original Latin sense of astonishing. Those who had propounded it called themselves, I need hardly say, the Practical Party. They justly condemned us of the other group as dreamers and mystical visionaries. They set to work to draw up their plans for the Club; and they were certainly plans of the most magnificent completeness. There were to be cricket-fields and football-fields and swimming-baths and golf-courses, for all I know. The incident has a primary moral, with reference to that strange modern notion about what is practical and constructive, which seems merely to mean what is large and largely advertised. By the end of the controversy the plan of the Practical Party had swelled to the ends of the earth and taken on the dimensions of Aladdin's Palace. There was not the remotest chance of collecting subscriptions for such a scheme; at the rate it was developing it might run to millions. Meanwhile, the vision of the mere visionaries could be realised easily for a few hundred pounds.

And the second moral to the story is this; that the modern mind finds it very difficult to understand the idea of an aim or object. When I was speaking on behalf of the simple stone monument at the cross-roads, I quoted the excellent saying of Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, when his sister asks him, just before the ball, whether it would not be much more rational if conversation at a ball took the place of dancing; and he answers, "Much more rational, but not half so like a ball." I pointed out that a parish-pump might seem to some more rational than a Cross, but it was not half so like a War Memorial. A club, or a hospital ward, or anything having its own practical purpose, policy and future, would not really be a War Memorial at all; it would not be in practice a memory of the War. If people thought it wrong to have a memory of the War, let them say so. If they did not approve of wasting money on a War Memorial, let us scrap the War Memorial and save the money. But to do something totally different which we wanted to do, on pretence of doing something else that we did not do, was unworthy of Homo sapiens and the dignity of that poor old anthropoid. I got some converts to my view; but I think that many still thought I was not practical; though in fact I was very specially practical, for those who understand what is really meant by a Pragma. The most practical test of the problem of unmemorial memorials was offered by the Rector of Beaconsfield, who simply got up and said, "We already have a ward in the Wycombe Hospital which was supposed to commemorate something. Can anybody here tell me what it commemorates?"

Anyhow, the Cross was the crux; and it is no pun but a plain truth to put it so. But the curious point is that few of those who found the Cross crucial would admit in so many words that it was crucial because it was the Cross. They advanced all sorts of alternative objections or made all sorts of alternative proposals. One lady wished to have a statue of a soldier, and I shuddered inwardly, knowing what such statues can be; fortunately another lady, with a nephew in the Navy, called out indignantly, "What about the sailors?" Whereupon the first lady said with hasty but hearty apology, "Oh, yes; and a sailor as well." Whereupon a third lady, with a brother in the Air Force, proposed that this also should be included in the group; and the first lady with large and generous gestures accepted all and every addition of the kind; so that this magnificent sculptural monument was soon towering into tanks and toppling with aeroplanes. It seemed a little dangerous; but it was safer than a market-cross. Other objections to the latter symbol were adduced, probably to cover the real objection; such as the monument as an obstacle to traffic. The local doctor, an admirable physician but a sceptic of rather a schoolboy sort, observed warmly, "If you do stick up a thing like this, I hope you'll stick a light on it, or all our cars will smash into it in the dark." Whereupon my wife, who was then an ardent Anglo-Catholic, observed with an appearance of dreamy rapture, "Oh, yes! How beautiful! A lamp continually burning before the Cross!" Which was not exactly what the man of science had proposed; but it could not have been more warmly seconded.

Lastly, the most significant part of this social episode was the end of it. If anyone fails to realise how lasting, or lingering, in spite of everything, are the old social forms of England and its structure as an ancient aristocratic state, he could not do better than consider the last quiet and ironic ending of the great battle of the Beaconsfield War Memorial. There was a huge paper plebiscite in which hardly anybody knew what he was voting for, but which turned up somehow with a narrow numerical majority for the building of the Club. The Club, for which the practical majority had voted was never built. The Cross, for which the more mystical minority had largely forgotten to vote, was built. When the whole fuss of papers and public meetings was over, and everybody was thinking about other things, the rector of the parish raised a quiet subscription of his own among his own co-religionists and sympathisers; got enough money to put up a Cross and put it up. Meanwhile Lord Burnham, the chief landlord of the neighbourhood, equally casually informed the Ex-Service Men and their sympathisers that they could use a hall, which was his property, for their Club, if they liked, they appeared to be perfectly contented; and so far from demanding any other Club, seemed to have become fairly indifferent about the use of this one. So did the Great War pass over Beaconsfield, making the world safe for Democracy and the holding of any number of public meetings full of the revolutionary hopes of the Modern World; and so in the end the whole matter was decided at the private discretion of the Squire and Parson, as it was in the days of old.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Next Chesterton Society Meeting

Mark your diaries; the next meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland will be held on Saturday the 15th of November, from 11:30 to 1:30 (approx.) and will be held in the reading room on the first floor (upstairs) of the Central Catholic Library, 74 Merrion Square, Dublin. From this meeting onwards, we are going to start reading through Chesterton's works book by book, so please read the three chapters (they're very short chapters) of What's Wrong with the World. If you can't get your hands on a copy, the text is easy to find online. (But if you never get round to reading it, just come anyway!) Free of charge, all welcome.

More Chestertonian Wit and Wisdom

Here are the latest five instalments of my Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton column from The Open Door magazine.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Last week I started writing about Chesterton’s book What I Saw in America, written after his first lecture tour in that country.  It is perhaps the most well-known of his travel books.
Chesterton liked America and Americans. He did not share the anti-Americanism which is such a common feature of life on this side of the Atlantic. (Being married to an American woman, I am particularly aware of this. So many people who consider themselves liberal and free from prejudice are quite willing to use ‘American’ as a derogatory term).

To me, the most interesting passage in What I Saw in America might be the passage in which Chesterton discusses American excitability and enthusiasm.
To [an American] excitement itself is dignified. He counts it a part of his manhood to fast or fight or rise from a bed of sickness for something, or possibly for anything… he is not only proud of his energy, he is proud of his excitement. He is not ashamed of his emotion, of the fire or even the tear in his manly eye…

Of course, there are dangers in this, and Chesterton was well aware of them.  (He was always insistent on the need for clear thought before action.) But his point here is that such excitability is a good thing in itself. To be excitable is to be receptive to the world, to be outward-looking. It is a close relative to that most Chestertonian of all emotions, wonder.
The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you.' That text has been the stay and support of more Pharisees and prigs and self-righteous spiritual bullies than all the dogmas in creation; it has served to identify self-satisfaction with the peace that passes all understanding. And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.


After writing about G.K. Chesterton’s view of America, perhaps it is time that I turned closer to home, and examined his relationship to Ireland.
Few Englishmen have been as friendly towards Ireland as Chesterton was throughout his entire life. Partly this is explained by his upbringing. His parents were ardent liberals, and supporters of the Liberal Party. Bear in mind that liberalism, at this time, was not the insane philosophy that it has become in our own era. It was, rather, a belief in freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and other basically noble ideas. In Britain, liberals also tended to be supporters of Irish Home Rule.

But it wasn’t just upbringing that made Chesterton a friend of Ireland. Ireland was, in many ways, the embodiment of all he believed in. Ireland was (at the time that he was writing) fervently Catholic—and, although Chesterton only converted to Catholicism in his forties, he had Catholic leanings long before that. As well as this, Ireland was a country of small farmers, a peasant country. This was Chesterton’s social ideal. He believed that the land and wealth of a nation should be owned by its people, rather than being owned by huge corporations. He also admired peasants for their way of life and their folklore. To quote a line I have already quoted in this series, Chesterton believed that the Irish peasant was “close to the heavens because he is close to the Earth.”
 Finally, Ireland was a country famous for its tradition of soldiery. The Wild Geese and other Irish exiles had distinguished themselves in armies all over the world, including the British army. Chesterton always preserved a rather boyish enthusiasm for soldiers and war. (His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which portrays a war between London suburbs, is an example of this. Many readers are taken aback at its almost gleeful scenes of bloodshed.) He carried a swordstick wherever he went, and the very name Swords—the village in Dublin, that is—inspired him to write a poem. (It’s a very bad poem.)

Chesterton was famous for his paradoxes, of course, and in his day there was a particularly Irish form of paradox known as an ‘Irish bull’. This was a humorous contradiction in terms, a slip to which the loquacious Irish were considered prone. (You don’t hear the term much today. More political correctness!) Chesterton often quoted (and, indeed, invented) Irish bulls. His best was: “One man is just as good as another…and a good deal better besides”!

Last week I promised to write more about G.K. Chesterton’s views on Ireland. For that purpose, I have been leafing through Irish Impressions, one of two books he wrote about Ireland. (The second book, Christendom in Dublin, is more of an extended essay than a book. It’s about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.) But I found myself feeling frustrated as I browsed its pages.
The truth is that the Ireland Chesterton wrote about is very different from the Ireland of today. For instance, Chesterton writes that “the whole trend of the modern world is directly opposite to the whole trend of the modern Irish world.” He wrote this in 1919, three years after the Easter Rising (a rebellion that Chesterton regarded as an error on the part of the rebels). Ireland at this time was exuberantly Catholic and nationalist, and was fundamentally a country of small farmers. There were high hopes that, after independence, the Irish nation would develop in a different direction than England had, that it would not copy the industrial cities, irreligion and trashy books and newspapers that—according to Irish nationalists—were typical of the England of that time. As we know, these hopes turned out to be ill-founded. It is rather saddening to read Irish Impressions and Christendom in Dublin today.

The purpose of the visit which Chesterton describes in Irish Impressions was one which might raise eyebrows amongst my readers. He was seeking to raise volunteers for the English war effort in World War One. Chesterton was an ardent supporter of the Allied cause. He understood why Irish men might not wish to enlist, but this was his reasoning as to why they should:

I entirely sympathise with their being in revolt against the British Government. I am in revolt in most ways against the British Government myself. But politics are a fugitive thing in the face of history. Does anybody want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side at the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten? Does anybody want to be remembered as a friend of Attila, through a breach of friendship with Aetius?  In any case, it was with a profound conviction that if Prussia won, Europe must perish, and that if Europe perished England and Ireland must perish together, that I went to Dublin in those dark days of the last year of the war.

The wrong side? As they say, Homer nods.


In this series so far, we have taken an overview of Chesterton’s fundamental ideas, the history of his spiritual development, his eventual conversion to Catholicism, and his most important relationships. We have sampled some of his writings on particular subjects such as marriage and travel. At this point we will begin a chronological tour of his long (and very industrious!) writing career. Take a deep breath…
Chesterton’s first published writing appeared, as with many writers, during his school years. He was a member of the Junior Debating Club, a club of school-friends with literary and other intellectual aspirations, who produced their own magazine. Another famous member of this club was Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the detective novelist and inventor of the poetic form called the clerihew. You’re probably familiar with clerihews even if you don’t recognise the name. Here is one of the most famous:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said “I am going to dine with some men. 
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”
The book in which these breezy little verses made their debut was Biography for Beginners (1905), and Chesterton provided the illustrations to Bentley’s text. Chesterton had a talent for drawing spiky, madcap cartoons. He also illustrated the light verse of his friend Hilaire Belloc.
Chesterton’s first proper book was also a volume of light verse and illustrations, published by his proud father in 1900, and titled Greybeards at Play. Chesterton wrote some masterful humorous verse—but not in this book!

In the same year, Chesterton’s father also financed a collection of his son’s serious poetry, The Wild Knight. The volume contains two of Chesterton’s most famous poems, ‘By the Babe Unborn’ and ‘The Donkey’. The first puts into verse the thoughts of a baby longing to be born and to experience all the wonders we take for granted.
As for ‘The Donkey’, it is Chesterton’s most famous poem and you probably know it already—perhaps even by heart. It has a school-room simplicity which has justly made it a classic. In it, we are given the supposed thoughts of a donkey, who admits to being a ‘parody on all four-footed things.’ But then comes the great final verse when the donkey recalls its finest hour:
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears, 
And palms before my feet.
Chesterton, not yet a professed Christian, was already writing about Christ.

Last week, we looked at Chesterton’s earliest publications— two volumes of verse, one comic and one (more or less) serious. His first book in prose appeared in 1901, when he was twenty-seven. The title, The Defendant, is perhaps a surprising one for a young writer. Most young writers, then as now, are more interested in attack than defence. Young people have always had a taste for trying to knock down what their elders have built up. But the paradox is that, in Chesterton’s day—and this trend has only accelerated in our own—the passion for knocking things down had become so universal, amongst both the young and the old, that the real rebel was the one who came to the protection of old institutions and traditional morality. As Chesterton put it (in The Defendant itself) “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.”
Chesterton, however, was not just rebelling against rebellion. In this book, his first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous intellectual fashions of his day, he strikes a note that he kept up throughout his entire career. There is nothing in The Defendant that would contradict anything Chesterton wrote later in life.
The book is also extraordinary for its confidence. All through his writing career, Chesterton wrote “not as the Scribes, but as one who had authority.” Here, for instance, is the paragraph that sums up the theme of The Defendant:
For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and
as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
Not for Chesterton the plodding business of quoting authorities and examples, or laboriously weighing up the ‘For’ and ‘Against’. He made bold and dazzling claims from the very first—and defended them. More on The Defendant next week.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Readings for Next Week's Meeting


First, an apology. This blog has been terribly neglected. We have a Facebook page which is so much easier to post on that the temptation is to put any Chestertonian thoughts on that rather than here.

Secondly, an apology. The next meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland is a week from tomorrow, Saturday 19th September, in the Central Catholic Library in Merrion Square, Dublin city centre.

Although I announced this already on the Facebook page, I know that it's terribly short notice here.

Given the short notice, I've kept the readings this time short. Not that you have to read them ahead of time. We'll go through them at the meeting. Here they are.

Dickens and Christmas. From Charles Dickens (1906)
 Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England. Like Chaucer he loved story within story, every man telling a tale. Like Chaucer he saw something openly comic in men's motley trades. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. Rosetti's Damozel would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too priggish by the Wife of Bath. It is said that in the somewhat sickly Victorian revival of feudalism which was called "Young England," a nobleman hired a hermit to live in his grounds. It is also said that the hermit struck for more beer. Whether this anecdote be true or not, it is always told as showing a collapse from the ideal of the Middle Ages to the level of the present day. But in the mere act of striking for beer the holy man was very much more "medieval" than the fool who employed him.
It would be hard to find a better example of this than Dickens's great defence of Christmas. In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival. Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday. He had himself the most babyish ideas about the past. He supposed the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he defended the mediæval feast which was going out against the Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad in mediævalism. But he fought for all that was good in it. And he was all the more really in sympathy with the old strength and simplicity because he only knew that it was good and did not know that it was old. He cared as little for mediævalism as the mediævals did. He cared as much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter and sad tales of good lovers and pleasant tales of good livers. He would have been very much bored by Ruskin and Walter Pater if they had explained to him the strange sunset tints of Lippi and Botticelli. He had no pleasure in looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle Ages, on a piece of the old uproarious superstition still unbroken; and he hailed it like a new religion. The Dickens character ate pudding to an extent at which the modern mediævalists turned pale. They would do every kind of honour to an old observance, except observing it. They would pay to a Church feast every sort of compliment except feasting.

And (as I have said) as were his unconscious relations to our European past, so were his unconscious relations to England. He imagined himself to be, if anything, a sort of cosmopolitan; at any rate to be a champion of the charms and merits of continental lands against the arrogance of our island. But he was in truth very much more a champion of the old and genuine England against that comparatively cosmopolitan England which we have all lived to see. And here again the supreme example is Christmas. Christmas is, as I have said, one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making. But among those feasts it is also especially and distinctively English in the style of its merry-making and even in the style of its religion. For the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things; first on the terrestrial side the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness; and on the spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy. And comfort is, like charity, a very English instinct. Nay, comfort is, like charity, an English merit; though our comfort may and does degenerate into materialism, just as our charity may and does degenerate into laxity and make-believe.

This ideal of comfort belongs peculiarly to England; it belongs peculiarly to Christmas; above all, it belongs pre-eminently to Dickens. And it is astonishingly misunderstood. It is misunderstood by the continent of Europe; it is, if possible, still more misunderstood by the English of to-day. On the Continent the restaurateurs provide us with raw beef, as if we were savages; yet old English cooking takes as much care as French. And in England has arisen a parvenu patriotism which represents the English as everything but English; as a blend of Chinese stoicism, Latin militarism, Prussian rigidity, and American bad taste. And so England, whose fault is gentility and whose virtue is geniality, England with her tradition of the great gay gentlemen of Elizabeth, is represented to the four quarters of the world (as in Mr. Kipling's religious poems) in the enormous image of a solemn cad. And because it is very difficult to be comfortable in the suburbs, the suburbs have voted that comfort is a gross and material thing. Comfort, especially this vision of Christmas comfort, is the reverse of a gross or material thing. It is far more poetical, properly speaking, than the Garden of Epicurus. It is far more artistic than the Palace of Art. It is more artistic because it is based upon a contrast, a contrast between the fire and wine within the house and the winter and the roaring rains without. It is far more poetical, because there is in it a note of defence, almost of war; a note of being besieged by the snow and hail; of making merry in the belly of a fort. The man who said that an Englishman's house is his castle said much more than he meant. The Englishman thinks of his house as something fortified and provisioned, and his very surliness is at root romantic. And this sense would naturally be strongest in wild winter nights, when the lowered portcullis and the lifted drawbridge do not merely bar people out, but bar people in. The Englishman's house is most sacred, not merely when the King cannot enter it, but when the Englishman cannot get out of it.

This comfort, then, is an abstract thing, a principle. The English poor shut all their doors and windows till their rooms reek like the Black Hole. They are suffering for an idea. Mere animal hedonism would not dream, as we English do, of winter feasts and little rooms, but of eating fruit in large and idle gardens. Mere sensuality would desire to please all its senses. But to our good dreams this dark and dangerous background is essential; the highest pleasure we can imagine is a defiant pleasure, a happiness that stands at bay. The word "comfort" is not indeed the right word, it conveys too much of the slander of mere sense; the true word is "cosiness," a word not translatable. One, at least, of the essentials of it is smallness, smallness in preference to largeness, smallness for smallness' sake. The merry-maker wants a pleasant parlour, he would not give twopence for a pleasant continent. In our difficult time, of course, a fight for mere space has become necessary. Instead of being greedy for ale and Christmas pudding we are greedy for mere air, an equally sensual appetite. In abnormal conditions this is wise; and the illimitable veldt is an excellent thing for nervous people. But our fathers were large and healthy enough to make a thing humane, and not worry about whether it was hygienic. They were big enough to get into small rooms.

Of this quite deliberate and artistic quality in the close Christmas chamber, the standing evidence is Dickens in Italy. He created these dim firelit tales like little dim red jewels, as an artistic necessity, in the centre of an endless summer. Amid the white cities of Tuscany he hungered for something romantic, and wrote about a rainy Christmas. Amid the pictures of the Uffizi he starved for something beautiful, and fed his memory on London fog. His feeling for the fog was especially poignant and typical. In the first of his Christmas tales, the popular "Christmas Carol," he suggested the very soul of it in one simile, when he spoke of the dense air, suggesting that "Nature was brewing on a large scale." This sense of the thick atmosphere as something to eat or drink, something not only solid but satisfactory, may seem almost insane, but it is no exaggeration of Dickens's emotion. We speak of a fog "that you could cut with a knife." Dickens would have liked the phrase as suggesting that the fog was a colossal cake. He liked even more his own phrase of the Titanic brewery, and no dream would have given him a wilder pleasure than to grope his way to some such tremendous vats and drink the ale of the giants.

There is a current prejudice against fogs, and Dickens, perhaps, is their only poet. Considered hygienically, no doubt this may be more or less excusable. But, considered poetically, fog is not undeserving, it has a real significance. We have in our great cities abolished the clean and sane darkness of the country. We have outlawed night and sent her wandering in wild meadows; we have lit eternal watch-fires against her return. We have made a new cosmos, and as a consequence our own sun and stars. And as a consequence also, and most justly, we have made our own darkness. Just as every lamp is a warm human moon, so every fog is a rich human nightfall. If it were not for this mystic accident we should never see darkness, and he who has never seen darkness has never seen the sun. Fog for us is the chief form of that outward pressure which compresses mere luxury into real comfort. It makes the world small, in the same spirit as in that common and happy cry that the world is small, meaning that it is full of friends. The first man that emerges out of the mist with a light, is for us Prometheus, a saviour bringing fire to men. He is that greatest and best of all men, greater than the heroes, better than the saints, Man Friday. Every rumble of a cart, every cry in the distance, marks the heart of humanity beating undaunted in the darkness. It is wholly human; man toiling in his own cloud. If real darkness is like the embrace of God, this is the dark embrace of man.

In such a sacred cloud the tale called "The Christmas Carol" begins, the first and most typical of all his Christmas tales. It is not irrelevant to dilate upon the geniality of this darkness, because it is characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than his stories. The Christmas atmosphere is more important than Scrooge, or the ghosts either; in a sense, the background is more important than the figures. The same thing may be noticed in his dealings with that other atmosphere (besides that of good humour) which he excelled in creating, an atmosphere of mystery and wrong, such as that which gathers round Mrs. Clennam, rigid in her chair, or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed as a bride. Here again the atmosphere altogether eclipses the story, which often seems disappointing in comparison. The secrecy is sensational; the secret is tame. The surface of the thing seems more awful than the core of it. It seems almost as if these grisly figures, Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. Clennam, Miss Havisham, and Miss Flite, Nemo and Sally Brass, were keeping something back from the author as well as from the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the truth. The dark house of Arthur Clennam's childhood really depresses us; it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in hell, where live the children of that unique dispensation which theologians call Calvinism and Christians devil-worship. But some stranger crime had really been done there, some more monstrous blasphemy or human sacrifice than the suppression of some silly document advantageous to the silly Dorrits. Something worse than a common tale of jilting lay behind the masquerade and madness of the awful Miss Havisham. Something worse was whispered by the misshapen Quilp to the sinister Sally in that wild, wet summer-house by the river, something worse than the clumsy plot against the clumsy Kit. These dark pictures seem almost as if they were literally visions; things, that is, that Dickens saw but did not understand.
Popular Fiction (from The Defendant 1901)

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personæ, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that anyone had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

Equality and Difference (from Charles Dickens, 1906) (Incidentally, I think this is one of the most profound arguments that Chesterton ever made!)

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. And the same applies in some degree to all genuine differences. It is a great mistake to suppose that love unites and unifies men. Love diversifies them, because love is directed towards individuality. The thing that really unites men and makes them like to each other is hatred. Thus, for instance, the more we love Germany the more pleased we shall be that Germany should be something different from ourselves, should keep her own ritual and conviviality and we ours. But the more we hate Germany the more we shall copy German guns and German fortifications in order to be armed against Germany. The more modern nations detest each other the more meekly they follow each other; for all competition is in its nature only a furious plagiarism. As competition means always similarity, it is equally true that similarity always means inequality. If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.
The Perils of Prophecy from the Illustrated London News, 12th August 1911

I wonder where this profound modern conviction arose that our descendants are all going to be off their heads. We were used to the notion that the human race would some day be tipped into the sun, to the New Deluge theory that men would all be drowned. But where did our sociological reasoners and romancers get this idea that they will all be cracked? For no other phrase will fit the predictions that are very common in essays and novels just now. The study of natural history in its simplest form might presumably lead us to suppose that our sons and daughters will be men and women, and not sphinxes and minotaurs; and that men and women will be interested in the usual things — chiefly in each other. Sex, self-defence, the peril of childbed, the peril of battle, will always dwarf everything else. Births, deaths, and marriages will always be on the front page. Special conveniences, striking inventions will grow till they have fitted into the framework of these gigantic things, and then they will stop growing. But to hear the social prophets talk, one would think these inventions and conveniences would grow vaster and vaster in a sort of void, and would swallow up everything, including the humanity that made them.

For instance, I heard the other day a quite sober and scientific lecture about Aviation. The lecturer said calmly, in a kind of parenthesis, that one could not actually fix the period when flying would be the ordinary mode of daily movement; but it was pretty certain to come. Now this is just as if, when railways were invented, some railway director had written that we should all end by dining and sleeping all our lives in the train, but he could not as yet make public the date when the new arrangement would begin. Obviously, the aeroplane will increase till it fills a particular place in civilisation, as the railway-train has increased; then it will stop, as the railway-train has stopped. If an early railway speculator had prophesied that railways would become a million times more general and necessary than most people supposed, he would have been right. But if had prophesied that these moving houses would soon be the only houses left, he would have been in error. If he had said that St. Paul’s Cathedral and the General Post Office would some day go by on wheels with a piston-rod, he would have been under a misapprehension. Steam has had its epoch of wealth and power, about as long as it is likely to have it. And strangely enough, there are still dining-rooms that are not dining-cars, and bedrooms (I am glad to say) that are not wagons de lit. If the first projector of automobiles had said that they would not always be confined to projectors, nor even exclusively to the very rich, he would have been right. But if he had said that by 1911 every man would motor downstairs to breakfast in the morning and motor upstairs to bed at night, motor round the library to choose a book, and motor across the drawing-room to ring a bell, then it would be possible by this time to detect in his prediction a faint trace of exaggeration. And in the same way, of course, a man who says that aviation will become much more important than it is, is probably right. But a man who says that it will become a normal human habit is not only mad himself, but evidently believes that he can bequeath his mental malady to his descendants.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More of my Open Door articles on Chesterton

My weekly articles on the life and ideas of Our Author continue to appear in The Open Door magazine, which is distributed in county Kildare. I published the first five of them on this blog and also on my Irish Papist blog. The next five of them can be read on my Irish Papist blog now. I will probably publish them here, too, but I'm too lazy at the moment. (When I cut and paste in Blogger, I lose all the italics and have to add them piecemeal. It's, like, such a drag, dude.)