THE PRESENT POSITION of the Bright Young Thing, or Brilliant Young Cynic of a hard and realistic epoch, is so heartrendingly sad and pitiable that aged sentimentalists can only gaze at it through floods of senile tears. The cynics themselves, of course, do not believe in sentiment, but they embody a most poignant example of pathos. No orphan child, sprinkled with stage snow in a Victorian melodrama, was ever more obviously out in the cold; no Mariana in a moated grange, or highborn maiden in a palace tower, had ever so conspicuously got left.
The stages of the strange and tragic story are worthy of some sort of simple summary. To begin with, the modern cynic was in the position of a man whose father has quarrelled with his grandfather; and who is himself filled with a pious and filial yearning to quarrel with them both. The yearning is indeed pious in the sense of traditional, in so far as this family quarrel seems to be a tradition in the family. But for him the practical problem is the double problem of quarrelling with them both. And it is not easy to quarrel with them both. If in wandering about the moated grange or the ancestral garden, he is struck with horror at the sight of some feature recalling the peculiar tastes of his grandfather in his Classical or his Pre-Raphaelite period, he may perhaps break out into curses against his ancestor, and express his disagreement with his grandfather in the most disagreeable language he can command. And just as he is beginning to enjoy himself, he will realize with a shock that he is in the shameful and unnatural position of agreeing with his father. In a desperate attempt to balance this, he will fall back on the more natural and genial occupation of recalling in detail all the more repulsive vices and follies of his own father. And then he will realize abruptly that he is only repeating the catalogue of curses and crimes once uttered by the more quavering voice of his aged grandfather.
This curious tragicomedy is always being re-enacted, especially in recent times, when any debate turns on philosophy as displayed in history. Thus, the young man who associated himself with the famous Pacifist vote at Oxford will, of course, affirm the ideal of Internationalism, and treat Nationalism as a prehistoric superstition handed down from anthropoid ages. He may often be heard saying that arms and armaments (two rather different things) are a relic of mediaevalism, and that an internationalist of the twentieth century cannot be expected to go back to the Middle Ages. And then, perhaps, some friend of his who happens to know something about history will point out to him that going forward to Internationalism is going back to the Middle Ages. For the very deep chasms that now divide the different nations only appeared like cracks when the mediaeval system broke up. It is absurd to class modern armaments with mediaeval armaments, for gunpowder even did more to destroy the mediaeval system than to preserve it. And the indignant intellectual cannot make up his mind whether to admire gunpowder because it was a scientific discovery or to deplore gunpowder because it is a patriotic weapon. He is dizzy with the effort to keep at an equal distance from his thirteenth-century grandfather and his seventeenth-century father. We see a compact case of this contradiction in the rather morbid talk that may be heard here and there in connexion with what is called "the next war." Oddly enough, it is the same people who always teach us, in their Outlines of History and Encyclopaedias of Everything, that everything is always getting better and better, and that even our most miserable contemporaries are more happy than their fathers—it is these same people who always tell us that one slip in modern diplomacy, or one falsehood in modern journalism, may precipitate a towering and toppling horror of torture and panic far worse than anything the world has ever known before. It might well be asked, with a certain abstract curiosity, why our civilization must produce the very worst in the way of war, if it must produce the very best in the way of everything else.
I found another example of this strange parable of son, father, and grandfather in a book I happen to have read on a totally different subject. It is by Mr. Don Marquis, the eminent American writer, and contains many quaint and amusing ideas; though it rather tends to get into the rut of that sort of ridicule, by way of flippancies about Jehovah and Satan and saints and angels, which was rather funnier when it began in Voltaire than when it ended in Mark Twain. But what interests me about the book is this: that, while it resembles Mr. Shaw's Black Girl in Search of God in this sort of professional profanity, the writer is much more in earnest, and, therefore, much more lively and amusing, in emphasizing another idea, which has also been adumbrated by Mr. Shaw. I mean all that notion of Woman the Huntress, with terrified males fleeing before her nets and darts, or reluctant captives of her bow and spear. All of which is supposed to sound very modern, though in itself it is rather anti-feminist than anti-clerical. But I do not suppose it ever occurred to the anti-clerical author that this is exactly the attitude for which the world has reproached the more fanatical sort of clerics. It was precisely this "modern" view of Woman that really was expressed, and often exaggerated, by the first hermits fleeing into the desert, or the most fanatical monks only too near the borderline of the madness of the Manichees. To regard Woman wildly as an Unholy Terror, instead of rightly as a Holy Terror, was the abuse of asceticism; but it seems to have become quite useful and usual in modernity.
Here, again, the brilliant modern is bringing in as modernity something that was rather like one of the antics of antiquity; he is rushing back to his ascetical grandfather to escape from his romantic father. And the confusion in both cases is due to the same pathetic quality in his whole position. He is staggering about from century to century, because he has no real standing-ground of his own; and he has no standing-ground because he has destroyed anything on which he could stand. Modern youth has been blamed for bringing in a fashion of negro dances; but the one nigger antic I really regret is the dance which was once called "The Breakdown," which breaks down the dancing-floor and ends with the disappearance of the dancer and the dance. The objection to all this merely destructive thought is that eventually such destruction is self-destruction. The game of "breaking up the happy home," even when it is, really a bright and breezy pastime, is necessarily a brief pastime; and in the end it is the players who come out of the ruins, houseless and homeless, to become broken men. That is why the first thing to be felt for them is a profound and genuine pity; a pity that is not in the least an ironic term for patronage. As we should be genuinely sorry for tramps and paupers who are materially homeless, so we should be sorry for those who are morally homeless, and who suffer a philosophical starvation as deadly as physical starvation. Not only is it true that some of the most modern philosophers are only trying to prove that we cannot have a philosophy; it is even more true that the most modern among the physical scientists are only trying to prove that science is not physical. It would be even truer to say that some of them are trying to prove that science is not science. For science is only an old word for knowledge; and knowledge is exactly what some of the new scientists say we can never obtain. All this, right or wrong, has left that generation in an unprecedented degree unprepared with any axioms on which to act, or any tests on which it could really rely. And it is especially awkward, when the young man who has never learned anything except how to hate his own father and grandfather, is suddenly called upon to love all men like brothers.
~G.K. Chesterton: As I Was Saying, XI.