Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I've Met Real People Like This Dickie Fellow

The ordinary hearty human being, whom the humanitarian originally set out to like, became a sort of tyrant and persecutor to whome the artistic temperament need not even be just, let alone sympathetic. The Victorian hero became the villain of the modern novel, the man who was so sane and sensible that his very existence was an insult to the beautiful and precious lunatic for whom alone the world was made.

Out of a hundred such passages in a hundred such novels, I take one which I have just come upon by chance. A novelist describes with bitter irony and indignation the sad fate of a poet who had married a good housekeeper—

“Beauty was spoilt for Lesbia if there was untidiness about.

“Lesbia! Lesbia! Come and look at the sunset!” Often he would call to her, never thinking that she might be busy. But she was never impatient.

“One minute, Dickie, till I have finished tying down the jam; then I shall enjoy the sunset.’ “

This is supposed to be a tragedy. It is written with withering sarcasm at the expense of Lesbia. It seems to me a good deal more of a comedy than the student of sunsets deserved. If she had said, “One minute, Dickie, till I have finished tying down the jam; and then I will clout you over the head with an old jam-pot”, it may be that this would have been more soothing to the artistic temperament, and it would certainly have been more soothing to the feminine temper. But I strongly suspect that Dickie would have made a tragedy out of that too. But, really, one may well ask, what is humanity and the human fellowship coming to, if it is supposed to be unendurable torture to a man that his wife should tie down the jam, and a perfectly fiendish and heart-rending addition to the torture that she should do it without losing her temper? What is humanitarianism if it cannot reconcile two human beings because one of them is patient? If it were suggested that there were something trying, not in the wife’s patience but in the husband’s impatience, it would at least be a conceivable through hardly a considerable cause of offence. But why are we only to be humane to the unreasonable person, and never humane to the reasonable person? Yet any number of novels about rising geniuses and misunderstood women are founded entirely on that antithesis. It seems to me very good-natured of Lesbia to promise to enjoy the sunset; especially as I have very little doubt that Dickie was prepared to enjoy the jam.

Our Intellectual Novelists, Illustrated London News, 1926

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Was Chesterton a Libertarian?

I'm interested to know people's opinions on this one.

He certainly had some libertarian tendencies. He was opposed to compulsory education, criticized Sunday trading restrictions, opposed social insurance, ridiculed the censorship of the stage, thundered against Prohibition, and carried a gun around him.

In fact, I can't think of many arguments against the thesis-- which doesn't please me that much, since I am rather anti-libertarian myself.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Auden on Chesterton

Chesterton’s negative criticisms of modern society, his distrust of bigness, big business, big shops, his alarm at the consequences of undirected and uncontrolled technological development, are even more valid today than in his own. His positive political beliefs, that a good society would be a society of small property-owners, most of them living on the land, attractive as they sound, seem to me open to the same objections that he brings against the political ideas of the Americans and French in the eighteenth century: “Theirs was a great ideal; but no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great.” In the twentieth century, the England he wanted would pre-suppose the strictest control of the birth rate, a policy which both his temperament and his religion forbade him to recommend.

That is from “GK Chesterton’s Non-Fictional Prose” a review written by WH Auden in 1970. Leaving aside the reference to the birth rate, I think he has a point about Distributism. I share the Distributist’s vision of an ideal society; but how to bring it about when our own society is so radically different, and seems locked into the globalized economy, is rather baffling.

There is much else of interest in the review. Auden is a fair-minded and balanced critic, and his affection for Chesterton is obvious. But there were several things I couldn’t agree with.

This, for instance, which Auden gives as an example of Chesterton’s refusal to keep abreast of the times:

He was, for example, certainly intelligent enough and, judging by his criticism of contemporary anthropology, equipped enough, to have written a serious critical study of Freud, had he taken the time and trouble to read him properly; his few flip remarks about dreams and psycho-analysis are proof that he did not.

Today it seems rather less obvious that Freud is worthy of anything save a “few flip remarks”.

Auden’s views are the complete opposite of mine when it comes to the topical and occasional nature of much of Chesterton’s work:

Chesterton’s insistence upon the treadmill of weekly journalism after it ceased to be financially necessary seems to have puzzled his friends as much as it puzzles me...Whatever Chesterton’s reasons and motives for his choice, I am quite certain it was a mistake. “A journalist”, said Karl Kraus, “is stimulated by a deadline; he writes worse if he had time.” If this is correct, then Chesterton was not, by nature, a journalist. His best thinking and best writing are to be found, not in his short weekly essays, but in his full-length books where he could take as much time and space as he pleased.

I guess it’s a matter of taste. It’s certainly the case that Chesterton’s book-length non-fiction works, Orthodoxy and Heretics and What’s Wrong with the World, are of a calibre way above his weekly articles. But Chesterton was always flexing his intellectual muscles in these articles; much of Orthodoxy came from his debate about Christianity, conducted in newspaper columns, with Robert Blatchford. Besides, I like the topicality of Chesterton’s newspaper pieces; it is very interesting to see how timeless ideas intersect with the passing news and trends of a bygone age.

Auden also weighs in on the long-running “Was Chesterton anti-semitic?” debate. His contribution is rather predictable, given his leftist views (of course Auden would probably be considered a hopeless reactionary now, but then, that’s the nature of leftist “progress”). I don’t agree with what Auden says here—not that I want to support Chesterton’s claims that certain types of Jews tend to be tyrants or traitors. I do, however, agree with Chesterton’s basic point that, if it’s acceptable to criticize the national or ethnic character of the English or American or Chinese or French races, it should certainly be acceptable to criticize the Jewish character. Auden’s hairsplitting over “race” and “nation” is beside the point.(The passage in italics is a quotation from Chesterton.)

Though he denied the charge and did, certainly, denounce Hitler’s persecution, he cannot, I fear, be completely exonerated.

I said that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and another particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. I say it again. Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of an other nation on the planet; it is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual...I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.

The disingenuousness of this argument is revealed by the quiet shift from the term nation to race. It is always permissible to criticize a nation (including Israel) a religion (including Orthodox Judaism) or a culture, because these are the creations of human thought and will; a nation,a religion, a culture can always reform themselves, if they so choose. A man’s ethnic heritage, on the other hand, is not in his power to alter. If it were true, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suppose that it is, that certain moral defects or virtues are racially inherited, they could not become the subject of moral judgement for others.