7/27/15

Portrait of a Friend

[On Hilaire Belloc:  27 July 1870 – 16 July 1953]

APART from vanity or mock modesty (which healthy people always use as jokes) my real judgment of my own work is that I have spoilt a number of jolly good ideas in my time. There is a reason for this; and it is really rather a piece of autobiography than of literary criticism. I think The Napoleon of Notting Hill was a book very well worth writing; but I am not sure that it was ever written. I think that a harlequinade like The Flying Inn was an extremely promising subject, but I very strongly doubt whether I kept the promise. I am almost tempted to say that it is still a very promising subject—for somebody else. I think the story called The Ball and the Cross had quite a good plot, about two men perpetually prevented by the police from fighting a duel about the collision of blasphemy and worship, or what all respectable people would call, "a mere difference about religion." I believe that the suggestion that the modern world is organised in relation to the most obvious and urgent of all questions, not so much to answer it wrongly, as to prevent it being answered at all, is a social suggestion that really has a great deal in it; but I am much more doubtful about whether I got a great deal out of it, even in comparison with what could be got out of it. Considered as stories, in the sense of anecdotes, these things seem to me to have been more or less fresh and personal; but considered as novels, they were not only not as good as a real novelist would have made them, but they were not as good as I might have made them myself, if I had really even been trying to be a real novelist. And among many more abject reasons for not being able to be a novelist, is the fact that I always have been and presumably always shall be a journalist.

But it was not the superficial or silly or jolly part of me that made me a journalist. On the contrary, it is such part as I have in what is serious or even solemn. A taste for mere fun might have led me to a public-house, but hardly to a publishing-house. And if it led me to a publishing-house, for the publishing of mere nonsense-rhymes or fairytales, it could never thus have led me to my deplorable course of endless articles and letters in the newspapers. In short, I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women. But I could be a journalist because I could not help being a controversialist. I do not even know if this would be called mock modesty or vanity, in the modern scale of values; but I do know that it is neither. It occurs to me that the best and most wholesome test, for judging how far mere incompetence or laziness, and how far a legitimate liking for direct democratic appeal, has prevented me from being a real literary man, might be found in a study of the man of letters I happen to know best; who had the same motives for producing journalism, and yet has produced nothing but literature.

In the days when Belloc was known to Bentley and Oldershaw, but not to me, when they were all together in the Radical group at Oxford, Belloc himself chiefly frequented a much smaller group which called itself the Republican Club. So far as I can make out, the Republican Club never consisted of more than four members, and generally of less; one or more of them having been solemnly expelled either for Toryism or for Socialism. This was the club which Belloc celebrated in the fine dedication of his first book; of which two lines have passed into some popular celebrity: "There's nothing worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends;" but in the course of which he also described in more detail the ideals of this fastidious fellowship.

We kept the Rabelaisian plan
We dignified the dainty cloisters
With Natural Law, the Rights of Man,
Song, Stoicism, Wine and Oysters.

We taught the art of writing things
On men we still would like to throttle,
And where to get the blood of kings
At only half-a-crown a bottle.

Of the three other corners of this very Four-Square Gospel of Citizenship, that is of Belloc's three constant colleagues in the old Republican club, one is still, I believe, a distinguished exile and official in Burma; or as his old friends loved to say with sour smiles of affectionate resignation, "a Satrap"; as if he had somehow Medised, or condescended to the oriental barbarism which we call Imperialism. I have no doubt that as a fact he was a happy and highly satisfactory Satrap; but he was the one member of the group whom I never met. The other two Republicans, who were Belloc's most intimate friends at Oxford, have both in different ways played a considerable part in my own life. One was John Swinnerton Phillimore, son of the old Admiral whose name made a sort of background for the Kensington of my boyhood, afterwards Latin Professor at Glasgow University and one of the first classical authorities of his time; now, alas, only an ever-deepening memory. The other was Francis Yvon Eccles, the distinguished French scholar, whom I now meet all too seldom through his gravitation towards living in France.

Eccles, like Belloc, was the child of one French and one English parent; but there was a certain misleading comedy about the names, as if they had been interchanged like labels. For Eccles, who happened to have the English surname, looked much more like a Frenchman, and Belloc, with the French surname, looked much more like an Englishman; indeed he ended by being the one solitary but symbolic Englishman really looking like the traditional John Bull. It is true that he reached this traditional type through the possession of a square chin like that of the great Emperor of the French, and the subsequent assumption of side-whiskers to satisfy the conventions of the Spaniards. But the combined effect of these foreign influences was that he looked exactly like what all English farmers ought to look like; and was, as it were, a better portrait of Cobbett than Cobbett was. Moreover, the symbol was true; for the roots that hold him to the Downs and the deep ploughlands of South England were even deeper, so far as instinct is concerned, than the marble foundations of the abstract Republic of the Republican Club. I remember drinking a pot of beer with a publican not far from Horsham and mentioning my friend's name; and the publican, who obviously had never heard of books or such bosh, merely said, "Farms a bit, doesn't he?" and I thought how hugely flattered Belloc would be.

I knew Eccles in Fleet Street, from the first days of the old Pro-Boer Speaker, of which he was largely the literary adviser; yet it was always inevitable to think of him as sitting outside a café in Paris rather than London. His head, his hat, his arched eyebrows and wrinkled forehead of quite disinterested curiosity, his Mephistophelean tuft, his type of patient lucidity, were far more French than his friend with the French name. Whether or no these externals commonly correspond to characters, they certainly do not always correspond to careers. Thus, John Phillimore, the son of a sailor and coming largely of a family of sailors, himself looked very much more like a sailor than like a don. His dark compact figure and bright brown face might have been on any quarter-deck. On the other hand, by another such carnival comedy of exchange, I always thought that his cousin, who is, I believe, a distinguished Admiral looked much more like a don or a professor. But John Phillimore, as things fell out, had to be a rather unique sort of don; and at once a popular and a pugnacious professor. You could not conduct classes amid the racial and religious chaos of Glasgow, full of wild Highlanders and wild Irish, and young fanatical Communists and old fanatical Calvinists, without possessing some of the qualities of the quarter-deck. Most of the stories about Phillimore read like tales of mutiny on the high seas. It was shrewdly said of him that the effect of the word "gentlemen," as said by him, was like the famous effect of the word "Quirites!", as said by Caesar. On a similar occasion an insubordinate but intelligent Glasgow crowd seems to have instantly grasped the gratifying irony of his appeal, "Gentlemen, gentlemen! I have not yet ceased casting my pearls."

The chief fact relevant to this chapter, however, is that Belloc's career began with the ideals of the Republican Club. To those who talk about ideals, but do not think about ideas, it may seem odd that both he and Eccles have ended as strong Monarchists. But there is a thin difference between good despotism and good democracy; both imply equality, with authority; whether the authority be impersonal or personal. What both detest is oligarchy; even in its more human form of aristocracy, let alone its present repulsive form of plutocracy. Belloc's first faith was in the impersonal authority of the Republic, and he concentrated on its return in the eighteenth century, but rather specially touching its military aspect. His first two books were the very fine monographs on the two most famous of the French Revolutionists; and he was, in that sense, very heartily revolutionary. But I mention the matter here for a special reason, in connection with something in which he was and is rather unique in this country; native and rooted as is his real relation to this country. I have already remarked that to know him well is to know that, as a man, he is English and not French. But there is another aspect in his curious case. In so far as he is a traditionalist, he is an English traditionalist. But when he was specially a revolutionist, he was in the very exact sense a French Revolutionist. And it might be roughly symbolised by saying that he was an English poet but a French soldier.

Now I thought I knew all about Revolutionists long before I met the representative of the Republican Club. I had talked to them in dirty taverns or untidy studios, or more depressing vegetarian hostels. I knew there were differences in cut and colour; and that some were more really revolutionary than others. I knew that some wore pale green neckties and gave lectures on decorative art; while some wore red neckties and made speeches on Trade Union platforms. I have sung "The Red Flag" in hearty chorus with the latter, and William Morris's "England, Awake" in more refined accents with the former. And though I knew nothing of the comparison with another method, I did more and more realise, with an ever sinking heart, that for some reason we had not got a decent revolutionary song to our name; and that in the matter of producing any respectable sort of Hymn of Hate, my countrymen were a washout.

One weakness of these popular war-songs was that they were not war-songs. They never gave the faintest hint of how anybody could ever make war on anything. They were always waiting for the Dawn; without the least anticipation that they might be shot at dawn, or the least intelligent preparation for shooting anybody else at dawn. "England awake; the long long night is over; faint in the east behold the dawn appear." They were all like that; they were all Songs Before Sunrise; as if the sun that rose on the just and the unjust did not also rise on the conquered and the conqueror. But the English revolutionary poet wrote as if he owned the sun and was certain to be the conqueror. In other words, I found that the Socialist idea of war was exactly like the Imperialist idea of war; and I was strengthened and deepened in my detestation of both of them. I have heard many arguments against the idea of a Class War; but the argument which discredits it for me is the fact that the Socialists, like the Imperialists, always assumed that they would win the war. I am no Fascist; but the March on Rome gave them the surprise they needed. To say the least, it considerably halted the inevitable proletarian triumph; just as the Boers had halted the inevitable British triumph. And I do not like inevitable triumphs. Also I do not believe in them. I do not think that any social solution, even a more manly one like that of Morris, should be called "as sure as that tomorrow's sun will rise."

And then Belloc wrote a poem called "The Rebel," and nobody noticed the interesting point about it. It is a very violent and bitter poem; it would be much too revolutionary for most of the revolutionists; even those with red ties would blush, and those with pale green ties would turn pale and green with sickness, at such threats against the rich as break out here—"and hack their horses at the knees and hew to death their timber trees," and the very fine ending, "and all these things I mean to do; for fear perhaps my little son should break his hands as I have done."

That is not a Song Before Sunrise. That is an attack before sunrise. But the peculiar point I wish to note here, appears in the previous verse about the actual nature of the attack. It is the only revolutionary poem I ever read, that suggested that there was any plan for making any attack. The first two lines of the verse run: "When we shall find them where they stand, a mile of men on either hand?" The Comrades of the Dawn always seemed to be marching in column, and singing. They never seemed to have heard of deploying; into the long line that faces the foe for battle. The next two lines are: "I mean to charge from right away, and force the flanks of their array." Whoever heard of the Comrades of the Dawn having so complicated an idea as that of turning the enemy's flank? Then comes the encirclement:

And press them inward from the plains
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.

—The Pursuit; and then the Holding of the Bridgehead.

Now that is the only Song of the Class War I ever read that has the haziest notion of what a war would be like. In this wild lyric, full of vindictive violence and destruction, there is also in quite swift lyrical form a perfectly clear tactical plan and military map; a definite description of how men may storm a fortress, if it has to be stormed. The violence of this democratic, though doubtless dramatic, utterance goes far beyond anything that any Communist will reach in a hundred years. But it involves also the real character of battle; and a battle, like every human work, is at once designed in its beginning and doubtful in its end. Now the Comrades of the Dawn already annoyed me; because their revolution was wildly undesigned in its beginning, but had no doubt about its end. Just like Imperialism; and the South African War.

That is what I mean by saying that Belloc is an English poet but a French soldier. The man at rest, and therefore the man in reality, is the man of Sussex; but he has been enlarged, or some would say infected, by the foreign influence of those who have known real revolutions and invasions; and if he were called upon to conduct a revolution, he would conduct it as logically as a Parisian mob still conducts a riot. As he once remarked, such a democratic mob can deploy. But I have only taken this chance example to illustrate a general truth about a very remarkable man. I have taken the fact that the ordinary song of revolt is only militant, but his is also military. I mean that it is full of the notion, not only of fighting for the faith, but of getting to grips with the fact. If we are going to fight the rich, or fight the revolt against the rich, or fight resistance to a reasonable redistribution of riches, or fight anything else, this is how it is done. And when I remember all the other romantic revolutionary songs it does not at all surprise me, at least in this country, to realise that no fighting has been done.

Now that is exactly how his contemporaries have missed the whole point about Belloc at every point of his action; for instance, in his historic study, The Servile State. Because the English, of whom I am one, are romantic, and because they delight in the romance that the French are romantic, and delight in the more delirious romance that Belloc is French, they have simply been stone-blind to him when he is entirely scientific. His study of the Servile State is as strictly scientific as a military map is military. There is nothing romantic about it; nothing rollicking about it; nothing even particularly amusing about it, except the two admirable words, "this fool," which occur in the calm procession of a thousand impartial words in the chapter on The Practical Man. And even excepting that is like accusing Euclid of making a joke, when he proves a proposition with a reductio ad absurdum. Anyone who knows the place of reason in the modern scheme, can imagine what happened. First, before reading what Belloc wrote, the critics started to criticise what Belloc would probably write. They said he threatened us with a horrible nightmare called the Servile State. As a fact, it was his whole point that it was not a nightmare, but something that we were already almost as habituated to accepting as to accepting the daylight. All the time, a thesis as pivotal as that of Adam Smith or Darwin is hardly realised, or even criticised, by anybody as what it is, though it has been criticised quite wildly, conjecturally and at random, as everything that it isn't. Bernard Shaw roundly asserted that it was a mere revival of Herbert Spencer's description of all dependence on the State as slavery. And when we pointed out that he could not have read a page of Belloc's book if he really thought it was like Herbert Spencer's book, he replied with characteristic gaiety that it was Herbert Spencer's that he had not read. Many supposed that it was a sort of satiric description of a Socialist State; something between Laputa and Brave New World. Others seem still to suppose that the Servile State is a general term for any tyranny or oppressive official State; and even use the term currently in that sense. For it is typical of our time and country that, while no one could say the book was popular, the title of the book was immediately and vastly popular. There was a time when errand-boys and railway-porters said "Servile State"; they did not know what it meant; but they knew about as much as the book-reviewers and even the dons.

The thesis of the book is that the Socialist movement does not lead to Socialism. This is partly because of compromise and cowardice; but partly also because men have a dim indestructible respect for property, even in its disgusting disguise of modern monopoly. Therefore, instead of the intentional result, Socialism, we shall have the unintentional resultant: Slavery. The compromise will take the form of saying, "We must feed the poor; we won't rob the rich; so we will tell the rich to feed the poor, handing them over to be the permanent servants of a master-class, to be maintained whether they are working or no, and in return for that complete maintenance giving a complete obedience." All this, or the beginnings of it, can be seen in a hundred modern changes, from such things as Insurance Acts, which divide citizens by law into two classes of masters and servants, to all sorts of proposals for preventing strikes and lock-outs by compulsory arbitration. Any law that sends a man back to his work, when he wants to leave it, is in plain fact a Fugitive Slave Law.

Now I take that one example of a scientific thesis, maintained in a purely scientific way, to show how very little the intellectual importance of Belloc's work has been understood. The reason of that misunderstanding lies in the other fact about him, which is really foreign and relatively French; the habit of separating in his own mind the scientific from the artistic; the ornamental from the useful. It is true that when a Frenchman designs a park as an ornamental park the paths are very curly indeed because they are only ornamental. When he designs a road, he makes it as straight as a ramrod, like the roads down which French soldiers used to march with all their ramrods; because a road is meant to be useful and is most short when it is straight. Belloc's little Arcadian lyric, "When I was not much older than Cupid and bolder," is very like an ornamental French garden; and his book on the Servile State is very like a French military road. No man is more instinctively witty; and no man can be more intentionally dull.

These two voices of Belloc, so to speak, were so distinct that he could sometimes pass from one to the other and make it seem like two persons speaking; effecting a transition on a platform almost as dramatic as the dialogue of a ventriloquist with his doll. When he stood as a Liberal member for Salford, he often managed to bewilder his hecklers by spraying them with these sharply alternated showers of cold and hot water. Salford was a poor and popular constituency, in which there were many strata of simple and provincial people, retaining the prejudices of our great-grandfathers; one of them being the touching belief that anybody with a French name could be made to cower and grovel by any allusion to the Battle of Waterloo. This was probably the only battle of which the heckler himself had ever heard; and his information about it was limited to the partly inaccurate statement that it was won by the English. He therefore used to call out at intervals, "Who won Waterloo?" And Belloc would affect to take this with grave exactitude, as a technical question put to him upon a tactical problem, and would reply with the laborious lucidity of a lecturer, "The issue of Waterloo was ultimately determined, chiefly by Colborne's manoeuvre in the centre, supported by the effects of Van der Smitzen's battery earlier in the engagement. The Prussian failure in synchrony was not sufficiently extensive, etc." And then, while the unfortunate patriot in the audience was still endeavouring to grapple with this unexpected growth of complexity in the problem he had propounded, Belloc would suddenly change his own note to the ringing directness of the demagogue, would openly boast of the blood of that Pyrenean soldier who had followed the revolutionary army of Napoleon, and risen in its ranks, through all the victories that established a code of justice all over a continent and restored citizenship to civilisation. "It is good democratic blood; and I am not ashamed of it."

This transition of tone had a tremendous effect, the whole hall rose at him roaring with applause and the investigator of the Belgian campaign was left isolated. But that is exactly the point; that he really was isolated. It is a point, not only in the subtlety of that blend of French and English blood; but also of the rather special subtlety of the English. The English are insular, not so much in the sense of being insolent but simply of being ignorant; but they are not spiteful. Other things being equal, they would rather cheer a Frenchman who was proud of being a Frenchman, as they cheered Napoleon's Marshal at the Coronation of Queen Victoria, than remind him of Napoleon's misfortune at Waterloo. And the same interesting distinction cuts the other way also. We have been told in a tiresome way from childhood about something that was called French rhetoric. To our shame, we have forgotten that there was until very lately a noble thing called English rhetoric. And as distinct from his irony or his objective scientific militarism, the rhetoric of Belloc was thoroughly English rhetoric. There was nothing in it that could not have been said by Cobbett or even by Fox, in the days when the genuine English Radical could address the genuine English crowd. What has weakened that direct popular appeal has been the change that turned nearly all Englishmen into a sort of imitation Londoners; and the rhetoric of Westminster grew more and more pompous and hypocritical while the wit of Whitechapel grew more and more acrid and flippant. But it has been possible, even in my own time, to hear occasionally the voice historic and a virile English demagogue; talking in plain English about primary emotions. Nobody ever did it better, when he chose, than old John Burns, for whom I have spoken and voted so often in the days when I lived in Battersea. To mention one case, as a sort of model; it was natural enough that the old Dock-Strike agitator, having become a Cabinet Minister and in many ways a rather Conservative force, should be assailed by more revolutionary groups as an extinct volcano if not a surrendered fortress. But Burns knew how to deal with that sort of thing when speaking to democrats; by cutting deeper into human facts instead of sliding away upon legal fictions. He was taunted by some Socialists at a Battersea meeting with not having opposed the Royal Grant to Queen Mary or some princess at the celebrations on the appearance of an heir. I can imagine how the smoother sort of Lib-Lab social climber, passing through Parliament into the governing class, would explain away his position in terms of the etiquette of the House. John Burns said, "I am the son of my mother and the husband of my wife. And if you ask me to put a public insult upon a woman who has just borne a child, I will not do it." That is English rhetoric: and it is as good as any in the world.

But while it is quite a mistake to suppose that there was anything particularly French about the direct democratic oratory that Belloc used in those days, there was another quality which he also used, which I think may really be called a rather French speciality. We generally have some very silly and inadequate notion in our minds when we talk about French wit; and the full richness of that fruit of culture is seldom covered even when we talk of French irony. For the best French irony is nothing so simple as merely saying one thing and meaning the opposite. It is at once exhibiting and withdrawing, in one flash, a series of aspects of a thing; like a man twirling a jewel with twenty facets. And the more brief it is, the more flippant it is, the more seemingly superficial it is, the more there is in that irony an element of mystery. There is always a touch of bewilderment, for the simple, in the tale of such tags as that of Voltaire: "To succeed in the world it is not sufficient to be stupid, you must be well-mannered." Curiously enough, there is exactly that quality in an ordinary military dispatch, sent out by a very silent and practical soldier; by Foch at the supreme crisis of the Marne. "My right is hard pressed; my left is retreating; situation excellent; I attack." For it might be all sorts of things besides the quite prosaic and practical thing that it is; it might be a paradox; or a boast; or a bitter jest of despair; and all the time it is in fact a quite correct description of the advantage of his own immediate tactical situation, as exact as a military map. I have never so vividly felt that there was really something French about Belloc, as when he would from time to time suddenly say things like that on a public platform before an entirely puzzled audience. I remember once when he was lecturing on the same campaign in the Great War; a purely technical lecture full of plans and figures. And he paused to say parenthetically that perhaps nobody would ever understand why Von Kluck made his one big blunder before Paris. "Perhaps," said Belloc, like a man for a moment bemused, "perhaps he was inspired."

Now you can make all sorts of things out of that; in all sorts of opposite directions. You could make it a Voltairean sneer at divine inspiration, and the disasters it brings; or a dark mysterious judgment like that suggested when "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart," or all kinds of other fine shades between the two. But you could never be quite certain that you had got to the bottom of it. So that shining ornamental pond which looks so shallow, and is called French wit, is indeed the deepest of all wells and truth lies at the bottom of it. Finally, it may be remarked, that this very diversity in one man's methods, and his own habit of keeping these diverse things distinct, is the explanation of the accident by which many people have been disappointed or bewildered or even bored by Belloc in different aspects; because they were looking for the revelation of one of the legends about him, when he happened to be concentrating with cold ferocity on something much more prosaic or precise. In debating with Bernard Shaw about the Law of Rent, he observed austerely that if they were discussing economics, he would discuss economics, but if Mr. Shaw was making jokes he would be happy to reply in comic verse. To which Mr. Shaw, ever ready to rise to a sporting event, pursued the subject in some delightful doggerel; which Belloc acknowledged with the song about "the strip to the south of the Strand"; then including the Adelphi. But it is typical that his song simply was a song, and could have been sung in any pub as a drinking-song.

One of the most amusing events of my life occurred when I took the chair for a private celebration of Belloc's sixtieth birthday. There were about forty people assembled, nearly all of them were what is called important in the public sense, and the rest were even more important in the private sense, as being his nearest intimates and connections. To me it was that curious experience, something between the Day of Judgment and a dream, in which men of many groups known to me at many times, all appeared together as a sort of resurrection. Anybody will understand that feeling who has had, as most people have had, the experience of some total stranger stopping him in the street and saying, "And how are the old set?" On such occasions I become acutely conscious of having belonged to a large number of old sets. Most of the people I knew well enough; but some of the younger I had known quite lately and others long ago; and they included, as do all such gatherings, those whom I had intended to enquire about, and never carried out my intention. Anyhow, they were of all sorts except the stupid sort; and the renewed comradeship stirred in me the memory of a hundred controversies. There was my old friend Bentley, who dated from my first days at school; and Eccles, who reminded me of the earliest political rows of the Pro-Boers; and Jack Squire (now Sir John) who first floated into my circle in the days of the Eye-Witness and my brother's campaign against corruption; and Duff Cooper, a rising young politician I had met but a month or so before, and A. P. Herbert of somewhat similar age; and the brilliant journalist I had long known as Beachcomber, and only recently known as Morton. It was to be, and was, a very jolly evening; there were to be no speeches. It was specially impressed upon me, that there were to be no speeches. Only I, as presiding, was to be permitted to say a few words in presenting Belloc with a golden goblet modelled on certain phrases in his heroic poem in praise of wine, which ends by asking that such a golden cup should be the stirrup-cup of his farewell to friends:

And sacramental raise me the divine
Strong brother in God and last companion, wine.

I merely said a few words to the effect that such a ceremony might have been as fitting thousands of years ago, at the festival of a great Greek poet; and that I was confident that Belloc's sonnets and strong verse would remain like the cups and the carved epics of the Greeks. He acknowledged it briefly, with a sad good humour, saying he found that, by the age of sixty, he did not care very much whether his verse remained or not. "But I am told," he added with suddenly reviving emphasis, "I am told that you begin to care again frightfully when you are seventy. In which case, I hope I shall die at sixty-nine." And then we settled down to the feast of old friends, which was to be so happy because there were no speeches.

Towards the end of the dinner somebody whispered to me that it would perhaps be better if a word were said in acknowledgement of the efforts of somebody else whose name I forget, who was supposed to have arranged the affair. I therefore briefly thanked him; and he still more briefly thanked me, but added that it was quite a mistake, because the real author of the scheme was Johnnie Morton, otherwise Beachcomber, who sat immediately on his right. Morton rose solemnly to acknowledge the abruptly transferred applause; glanced to his own right, and warmly thanked whoever happened to be sitting there (I think it was Squire) for having inspired him with this grand conception of a banquet for Belloc. Squire arose, and with many courteous gestures, explained that the gentleman on his own right, Mr. A. P. Herbert, had been the true and deep and ultimate inspiration of this great idea; and that it was only fitting that the secret of his initiative should be now revealed. By this time, the logic of the jest was in full gallop and could not be restrained; even if I had wished to restrain it. A. P. Herbert rose to the occasion with superb presence of mind, and gave the series quite a new and original turn. He is an excellent speaker; and, as we all know, an admirable author; but I never knew before that he is an admirable actor. For some reason best known to himself, he chose to pretend to be the oratorical official of some sort of Workmen's Benevolent Society, like the Oddfellows or the Foresters. He did not need to tell us that he was taking this part; in the tone of his voice, he told it in the first few words. I shall never forget the exactitude of the accent with which he said, "I'm sure, friends, we're all very pleased to see Ex-Druid Chesterton among us this evening." But he also gave his speech a definite logical direction. He said it was not to 'im, but to our old and faithful friend Duff Cooper that this pleasant evening was really due. Duff Cooper, sitting next to him, then rose and in resolute and ringing tones delivered an imitation of a Liberal platform speech, full of invocations of his great leader Lloyd-George. He explained, however, that Mr. E. C. Bentley on his right, and not himself, had arranged this tribute to that pillar of political Liberalism, Mr. Belloc. Bentley gave one glance to his own right, and rose with exactly that supercilious gravity that I had seen forty years ago in the debating-clubs of our boyhood; the memory of his balanced eyeglasses and bland solemnity came back to me across my life with such intensity as stirs the tears that are born of time. He said, with his precise enunciation, that he had himself followed through life one simple and sufficient rule. In all problems that arose, he had been content to consult exclusively the opinion of Professor Eccles. In every detail of daily life, in his choice of a wife, of a profession, of a house, of a dinner, he had done no more than carry out whatever Professor Eccles might direct. On the present occasion, any appearance he might have had of arranging the Belloc banquet was in fact a mask for Professor Eccles' influence. Professor Eccles responded in a similar but even more restrained fashion, merely saying that he had been mistaken for the man next to him, the real founder of the feast; and so by fatal and unfaltering steps, the whole process went round the whole table; till every single human being had made a speech. It is the only dinner I have ever attended, at which it was literally true that every diner made an after-dinner speech. And that was the very happy ending of that very happy dinner, at which there were to be no speeches.

I did not myself make another speech; though I was far from thinking that there had been too much speechifying. Only certain fragmentary words, a memory of a late Victorian poet whom I know, Sir William Watson, floated on the surface of my mind; and it was those words that I should have said, if I had said anything. For what the poet said to his friend is all that I could have added, in a merely personal spirit, to the many things that were said that night about Hilaire Belloc; and I should not have been ashamed if the words had sounded like a vaunt:

Nor without honour my days ran,
Nor yet without a boast shall end;
for I was Shakespeare's countryman
And were not you my friend.

~G.K. Chesterton: Autobiography, Chap. XIV

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Conversation Piece (G. K. Chesterton; Maurice Baring; Hilaire Belloc), by Herbert James Gunn. The portrait was inspired by the private celebration of Belloc's sixtieth birthday (referred to in the essay above). Oil on canvas, 1932; National Portrait Gallery, London. 

7/23/15

"What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics"

"WHEN the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother's knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Ch. IV—The Ethics of Elfland.

7/18/15

"Sex is an instinct that produces an institution"

"SEX is an instinct that produces an institution; and it is positive and not negative, noble and not base, creative and not destructive, because it produces this institution. That institution is the family; a small state or commonwealth which has hundreds of aspects, when it is once started, that are not sexual at all. It includes worship, justice, festivity, decoration, instruction, comradeship, repose. Sex is the gate of that house; and romantic and imaginative people naturally like looking through a gateway. But the house is very much larger than the gate. There are indeed a certain number of people who like to hang about the gate and never get any further."

~G.K. Chesterton: G.K.’s Weekly, Jan 29, 1928.

(h/t: Eric Matthews)

"If men were to live without women..."

"THERE is a pedantic phrase used in debating clubs which is strictly true to the masculine emotion; they call it "speaking to the question." Women speak to each other; men speak to the subject they are speaking about. Many an honest man has sat in a ring of his five best friends under heaven and forgotten who was in the room while he explained some system.This is not peculiar to intellectual men; men are all theoretical, whether they are talking about God or about golf. Men are all impersonal; that is to say, republican. No one remembers after a really good talk who has said the good things. Every man speaks to a visionary multitude; a mystical cloud, that is called the club.

"It is obvious that this cool and careless quality which is essential to the collective affection of males involves disadvantages and dangers. It leads to spitting; it leads to coarse speech; it must lead to these things so long as it is honorable; comradeship must be in some degree ugly. The moment beauty is mentioned in male friendship, the nostrils are stopped with the smell of abominable things. Friendship must be physically dirty if it is to be morally clean. It must be in its shirt sleeves. The chaos of habits that always goes with males when left entirely to themselves has only one honorable cure; and that is the strict discipline of a monastery. Anyone who has seen our unhappy young idealists in East End Settlements losing their collars in the wash and living on tinned salmon will fully understand why it was decided by the wisdom of St. Bernard or St. Benedict, that if men were to live without women, they must not live without rules. Something of the same sort of artificial exactitude, of course, is obtained in an army; and an army also has to be in many ways monastic; only that it has celibacy without chastity. But these things do not apply to normal married men. These have a quite sufficient restraint on their instinctive anarchy in the savage common-sense of the other sex. There is only one very timid sort of man that is not afraid of women."

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong with the World, Pt. II, Ch. II.—Wisdom and the Weather.


Crucifixion and Saints (detail: St. Benedict of Nursia), by Fra Angelico. 
Fresco, 1441-42; Convento di San Marco, Florence.

"The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason"

"EVERY one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

"The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ's."

~G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, Ch. II—The Maniac.

Patriotism and Ethics

Patriotism and Ethics. By John Godard. London:  Grant Richards. 5s.

EVERY kind of moral and personal credit is due to Mr. Godard for his courage and conscientiousness in publishing this interesting book at this time. I cannot pretend to accept his theory; which is a proposal for the dethronement of the whole virtue of patriotism. But the shock of a logical challenge can do nothing but good to a virtue like patriotism, especially when that virtue is almost trampled to death, as at present, by inanities disguised in its costume. We hear much of saying "the right thing at the right time;" but there is a considerable value in the man who says even the wrong thing at the right time.

But there is, before I proceed to any details, one error which spoils much of Mr. Godard's book from a philosophic point of view. It is that he, like His Majesty's Ministers, appears to think the present Transvaal war a great war. Judging from the enormous amount of space occupied in his pages by this silly and disastrous adventure, one would think that there never had been a national enterprise in the world before. Patriotism can be tested by the Transvaal war just about as much as Christianity could be tested by Mr. Baxter's prophecies of the end of the world. Mr. Godard had undertaken to study the whole nature of patriotism, and it was necessary for him to take some great theory of patriotism and systematically examine it. Some of the greatest men the world has seen have written upon patriotism-Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Milton, Victor Hugo, Herbert Spencer, John Ruskin. And Mr. Godard calmly selects for detailed study a lecture given by Mr. Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain does not pretend to be a philosopher; his opinion on patriotism has no more special value than his opinion on the Royal Academy. It need hardly be said that I entirely agree with Mr. Godard's spirited denunciation of the present war, of Jingo intolerance, of the brutality of the idiots who wrecked Peace meetings. But what have these things to do with patriotism? What has Imperialism to do with patriotism? What have sky-larking crowds to do with patriotism? Above all, what particular connection is there between Mr. Chamberlain and patriotism?

This is the primary and superficial objection to Mr. Godard, that he has meekly accepted the theory of the Government that the war is a great trial of English patriotism, instead of being, as it is, a vulgar and dirty experiment in a corner, different in no way from other frontier experiments except in the arrogance of its terms and the magnifying-glass of morbidity through which it is regarded. Mr. Godard, if he wished to study patriotism, should not have taken one paltry colonial squabble out of history, as one takes lots out of a hat; he should have reviewed the great wars of history in something like their proper proportion. But one thing is at least certain.

If Mr. Godard does not think patriotism is a precious virtue, his sympathy with Boer resistance is inexplicable. He passionately, and most justly exclaims, "Does 'justice' decimate a nation because it refuses unconditionally to submit to a foreign yoke?" But if patriotism has no value a foreign yoke has no injustice. "Can we contemplate," he continues, "the absolute annexation of the territory of two foreign States, 'a penalty so extreme as to be without parallel in the history of modern nations since the partition of Poland?'" It is the opinion of many, including myself, that annexation is far too great a penalty. But if patriotism has no sanctity, it is not a penalty at all. If the lines between nations are really as needless and arbitrary as Mr. Godard represents, it is no more cruel to take over a Boer farm from the Republic to the Empire than to transfer a particular street from Fulham to Hammersmith. If there were a passionate patriotic feeling in Hammersmith; if the inhabitants delighted in boasting that the flag of Hammersmith had never fallen in war, that the women of Hammersmith were the most beautiful and the wines of Hammersmith the most rejoicing in the world, then I myself should thoroughly sympathize with Hammersmith, entertaining, as I probably should, similar convictions about South Kensington. But presumably Mr. Godard would not. He considers any peculiar attachment to a nation narrow and immoral. He must, therefore, I infer, consider the present resistance of the Boers a hideous and ghastly thing, the deluging of a whole country with blood by madmen fighting for a detestable prejudice. I do not.

I am very little terrified by Mr. Godard's catalogue of the wars and woes wrought by patriotism. Of all methods of testing a great idea this method seems to me the worst. Mankind have always been ready to pay a great price for anything they really thought necessary; catalogues of dead and wounded only show how necessary they thought it. Mr. Godard declares that patriotism is, on account of its cruelties and its pride, inconsistent with Christianity. But if peace is the test, how will Christianity itself stand it? Again, he declares patriotism to be inimical to liberty and democracy. But if peace is the test, how will liberty and democracy stand it? The French Revolution has led to at least as much bloodshed as any national sentiment in the world. Rosseau is at one with a greater, in that he assuredly did not bring peace but a sword.

Mr. Godard wishes us to dethrone patriotism and substitute love of all mankind, because patriotism, he says, is only "reflex egoism." I cannot comprehend this definition. In what sense is patriotism reflex egoism in which the love of humanity is not reflex egoism? If patriotism is exclusive, so is the love of humanity; it stops at the first ape. If patriotism includes pride in being an Englishman, does not the worship of humanity include pride in being a man? If the pride of being an Englishman makes a merit of something not in our control, does not the pride of being a man do the same? If patriotism asserts the interests of the nation, often cruelly, against other nations, does not the service of man assert his interests, often cruelly, against the animal world?

And does Mr. Godard really suppose that if the love of humanity became an universal popular virtue, its expression would not be as vulgar, as heated, as unscrupulous in many cases as that of patriotism? Mr. Godard quotes a list of silly and brutal remarks about President Kruger "singing psalms on the wrong side of his mouth" and puts them to the account of patriotism. They belong, not to the ethics of patriotism, but to the psychology of cads. Does Mr. Godard suppose that if the love for humanity were made the basis of national thought, the fool who had just been saying, "One in the eye for Kruger," would immediately begin to talk in the language of sublime liberality? He would merely change the cant. It would be as easy to represent Kruger as the enemy of mankind as to represent him as the enemy of England.

It would be as easy for a ring of financiers with their eyes on a gold mine to pity Outlanders as men as to pity them as Englishmen. It would be as easy to break up the meetings of your political opponents because they were enemies of their kind as because they were enemies of their country. The old cosmopolitan Romans boiled Christians in oil because they were the foes of mankind. The French Revolutionists burnt priests in straw because they were the foes of mankind. These things do not arise either from the love of country or the love of men, but simply from folly, intemperance, vagueness and the heart of man deceitful above all things. Let Mr. Godard look abroad on Europe at this moment. There exists a school who hold, doubtless with entire sincerity, the pure love of humanity which he recommends, to the exclusion of all national preferences. The form it takes is to blow to pieces with dynamite hundreds of harmless people whom they have never seen. "Let patriotism be subdued," says Mr. Godard. "Let it be removed from the pinnacle of a virtue and be replaced by humanitarianism, and there shall dawn the day of peace on earth and goodwill to men." And of this cosmopolitan philosophy the first fruits are the Dynamiters.

Of some of Mr. Godard's arguments I will not speak at length, for we think he must have employed them in some haste. We cannot see the philosophical bearing of such a remark as that "patriotism fights against the best interests of the patria." It seems to us like saying that we dislike total abstainers because we find they all drink. In that case it would not be total abstinence that we disliked, but drinking. If certain so-called "patriots" work against the patria the case against them does not lie in the charge that they are patriotic, but in the charge that they are not.

The fact is that Mr. Godard has erred by confusing two things. Christianity is a symbol, the dim and shifting symbol, of a certain love of all things, a certain loyalty to the universe to which we all rise in our higher moments. It is not the love of humanity, it goes out to cats and tadpoles. It is an inspiration far too mysterious to be bridled or counted upon; far too certain to be demonstrated; far too perfect to be praised. It has nothing to do with practical politics or material privileges; it extends itself with a calm conscience to the creatures we burden for transport and slay for food. It is a moment in which we realize our kinship with the stars and the stones in the road; in which our sensitiveness runs like a maze of nerves over the whole Cosmos until a falling star or a stricken tree is like a wound upon our bodies. But this gigantic self is a thing that even the greatest and purest only realize at certain seasons. It does not and cannot have anything to do with those working loyalties which we have to preserve in order to preserve our mode of life. That terrible truce in which the lion lies down with the lamb is a vision, not a daily rule. For natural purposes, we assert our family against our fellow-countrymen, our country against humanity, humanity against nature.

Mr. Godard never seems to realize that he does belong to a country. Great Britain is no more a geographical area than the Order of the Jesuits or the Cocoa Tree Club. Like them, it is a centre of power, numbering certain persons within its rules and responsibilities. It is not humanity which prevents Mr. Godard from being knocked down with a bludgeon; it is his country and his country alone. It is not humanity that makes Mr. Godard pay for a dog-license, it is his country and his country alone. The only real error of Mr. Godard is that he calls upon a mere abstract sentiment, however natural and beautiful, to take the place of what is a necessary working sentiment designed for certain definite relations of life. It is like saying, "Let a soldier's obedience to his officers be removed from the pinnacle of a virtue and replaced by a love of all living things." Patriotism is obviously a virtue so long as there is a patria. Mr. Godard seems to think that a nation will remain strong and independent automatically, without any assistance from patriotism. I should be inclined to ask what is keeping the Boer nation in existence at this moment.

The bill which Mr. Godard counts up against modern Jingoism is long and heavy. But of all the crimes it has committed, none is so black and ruinous as this; that it has made good and able men like Mr. Godard turn against patriotism itself. About patriotism itself I will say one thing only, on behalf of those like myself who are Nationalists at home and abroad. We also have had to breathe in a stifling vulgarity; to see a thousand faces fixed in one fatuous sneer. We also have had all the temptations possible to intellectual rebellion or to intellectual pride. If we have remained steadfast in a monotonous candor, we cannot claim that we were strengthened by ethical subtlety or new-fangled emancipation. We have remained steadfast because voices older than the hills called us to this spot; here in this island was to be our glory or failure. We have eaten its bread and been made wise with all its works. And if we are indeed near the end, and the madness of cosmopolitan materialism, the spirit of the present war, be indeed dragging our country to destruction, we can only say that at the end we must be with her, to claim our portion in the wrath of God.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Speaker, May 18, 1901.

Amazon
(A collection of early Chesterton essays compiled by Mike Miles)

6/29/15

The Free Family

AS I have said, I propose to take only one central instance; I will take the institution called the private house or home; the shell and organ of the family. We will consider cosmic and political tendencies simply as they strike that ancient and unique roof. Very few words will suffice for all I have to say about the family itself. I leave alone the speculations about its animal origin and the details of its social reconstruction; I am concerned only with its palpable omnipresence. It is a necessity far mankind; it is (if you like to put it so) a trap for mankind. Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can any one contrive to talk of "free love"; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he "drew an angel down" and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man. The second element that creates the family is that its consequences, though colossal, are gradual; the cigarette produces a baby giant, the song only an infant seraph. Thence arises the necessity for some prolonged system of co-operation; and thence arises the family in its full educational sense.

It may be said that this institution of the home is the one anarchist institution. That is to say, it is older than law, and stands outside the State. By its nature it is refreshed or corrupted by indefinable forces of custom or kinship. This is not to be understood as meaning that the State has no authority over families; that State authority is invoked and ought to be invoked in many abnormal cases. But in most normal cases of family joys and sorrows, the State has no mode of entry. It is not so much that the law should not interfere, as that the law cannot. Just as there are fields too far off for law, so there are fields too near; as a man may see the North Pole before he sees his own backbone. Small and near matters escape control at least as much as vast and remote ones; and the real pains and pleasures of the family form a strong instance of this. If a baby cries for the moon, the policeman cannot procure the moon—but neither can he stop the baby. Creatures so close to each other as husband and wife, or a mother and children, have powers of making each other happy or miserable with which no public coercion can deal. If a marriage could be dissolved every morning it would not give back his night's rest to a man kept awake by a curtain lecture; and what is the good of giving a man a lot of power where he only wants a little peace? The child must depend on the most imperfect mother; the mother may be devoted to the most unworthy children; in such relations legal revenges are vain. Even in the abnormal cases where the law may operate, this difficulty is constantly found; as many a bewildered magistrate knows. He has to save children from starvation by taking away their breadwinner. And he often has to break a wife's heart because her husband has already broken her head. The State has no tool delicate enough to deracinate the rooted habits and tangled affections of the family; the two sexes, whether happy or unhappy, are glued together too tightly for us to get the blade of a legal penknife in between them. The man and the woman are one flesh—yes, even when they are not one spirit. Man is a quadruped. Upon this ancient and anarchic intimacy, types of government have little or no effect; it is happy or unhappy, by its own sexual wholesomeness and genial habit, under the republic of Switzerland or the despotism of Siam. Even a republic in Siam would not have done much towards freeing the Siamese Twins.

The problem is not in marriage, but in sex; and would be felt under the freest concubinage. Nevertheless, the overwhelming mass of mankind has not believed in freedom in this matter, but rather in a more or less lasting tie. Tribes and civilizations differ about the occasions on which we may loosen the bond, but they all agree that there is a bond to be loosened, not a mere universal detachment. For the purposes of this book I am not concerned to discuss that mystical view of marriage in which I myself believe: the great European tradition which has made marriage a sacrament. It is enough to say here that heathen and Christian alike have regarded marriage as a tie; a thing not normally to be sundered. Briefly, this human belief in a sexual bond rests on a principle of which the modern mind has made a very inadequate study. It is, perhaps, most nearly paralleled by the principle of the second wind in walking.

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender.

In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead. Whether this solid fact of human nature is sufficient to justify the sublime dedication of Christian marriage is quite an other matter, it is amply sufficient to justify the general human feeling of marriage as a fixed thing, dissolution of which is a fault or, at least, an ignominy. The essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage In both cases the point is, that if a man is bored in the first five minutes he must go on and force himself to be happy. Coercion is a kind of encouragement; and anarchy (or what some call liberty) is essentially oppressive, because it is essentially discouraging. If we all floated in the air like bubbles, free to drift anywhere at any instant, the practical result would be that no one would have the courage to begin a conversation. It would be so embarrassing to start a sentence in a friendly whisper, and then have to shout the last half of it because the other party was floating away into the free and formless ether. The two must hold each other to do justice to each other. If Americans can be divorced for "incompatibility of temper" I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong with the World, Part One, Chap. VII.


Allegorical Family Portrait, by Jan de Bray. 
Oil on canvas, 1670; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.