11/11/14

The Unknown Warrior

THE recent ritual of Armistice Day was overshadowed, as everyone knows, by the shadowy figure of the Unknown Warrior. And this was well; for that figure, however like a shadow, alone possesses something of the character of a statue. It is one of the very few monumental things in modern civilisation. The world will never forget that altar which St Paul saw as he passed by, where the Greeks had built a shrine to the Unknown God. So it is in this case, almost alone among all modern cases; it is really possible that the world may never forget that we built a shrine to the Unknown Man.

For whatever the future is like, it will not be Futurist. The very notion of always talking in terms of tomorrow is a passing taste that will soon be a thing of yesterday. Those who are concerned for the coming thing are really rather concerned for the vanishing thing, concerned to catch a fashion before it vanishes. Most of the artistic experiments and social prophecies which appeal to the next age, are in fact stamped with all the special marks and limitations of this age. Our Utopian predictions may not be very easily fulfilled, but they will be very easily dated. Our Futurist pictures may be mistaken at the first glance for the primitive drawings of the Sandwich Islanders, but a more expert examination will certainly reveal the characteristic conventions of the twentieth century. This is as true of War Memorials as of everything else; and those who insisted on things of immediate usefulness were mostly denying and destroying the whole of their ultimate use. Whatever else might be said of such War Memorials, they do not happen to discharge the function of being memorials of the war. With a changing Society these practical things will become impracticable; these useful things will be disused. The building of cottages, let us say, is vital to the present shortage of housing; but it might become almost unintelligible in a society with a decently distributed power over the means of production, where a common man could afford to build his own cottage. A club or institute may be established with enthusiasm and applause; it may be regarded as a mere saving of wealth and life by 'keeping people out of the public house'. But it may be regarded as a meaningless waste by people who will, perhaps, have restored the public house to the proper public dignity, and made the old Christian inn a place for Christian men. These things are at best modern medicines for modern maladies. They will appear to another age like some special provisions against the Black Death, or some particular warning against the Norse pirates. But though the advanced ideas of our own age are the very last that are likely to endure into another age, neither is it enough to express common ideas in the sense of conventional ideas. That is, it is not enough to express common ideas in a conventional way.

If there are many mad pamphlets and queer pictures and fantastic flags of revolt in the dust-bin of the ages, it is equally true that there are whole rubbish-heaps of lost Latin epitaphs and dead English epics, and pompous monuments like the urns and nymphs in a deserted garden. The thing that survives is that which has a certain combination of normality with distinction. It has simplicity with a slight touch of strangeness; as has the style of Milton or Michelangelo. It is a tale just sufficiently unusual to be worth telling, and yet immediately intelligible when told. It is what the hero is to the human being; a thing magnified but made to scale. Of this really enduring quality I know no other modern example except the burial of the Unknown Warrior, with a King for his chief Mourner.

It is a tale that could be told in any future society, and remain simple and striking. It is a monument that could be looked at by any future generation, with any customs or costumes, and looked at with the same mixture of mystery and familiarity. If we wish to imagine the feelings of the future, the best approximation to it is not to trust the fancies of our own futurism, but to note the facts of our own attitude towards the past, especially the remote past. Now this story of the Unknown Warrior would have a point and a pathos if it were told about a prehistoric tribe burying a man in a barrow, or an ancient Egyptian procession bearing a faceless mummy to a pyramid. If we read that a nameless legionary was buried high upon the Capitol, and that the Roman Emperor offered some sacrifice or libation to his manes, we should understand what was meant. If we were told that some great medieval king spent wealth on masses to be sung in some great cathedral for the soul of some unknown archer, picked up at random on the field of Courtrai or Crecy, we should feel what we were meant to feel. We should feel what we felt on Armistice Day in London. It is something perhaps better expressed, in any age, by the silent symbol of gesture and action than by any definition of a thing so deep. It is strange that the same thinkers who disapprove of dogma often disapprove of ritualism. For ritualism is the only possible alternative to dogma. In this case the dogma is so deep and vital that its verbal definition invariably leads to disputes and absurd misunderstandings. It is a truth that worries people when put into words; so that they talk the wildest nonsense about it, and especially against it. Perhaps, therefore, it is just as well that their subconscious faith in this dogma should only be expressed in a grave and graceful ceremonial action. But the dogma itself, the truth symbolised itself, is something that was almost rediscovered in the realities of war: it is that in the darkness of battle, and in the very heart of the whirlwind of death, is discovered that mystery whose name is the quality of men.

Men are not equal in their realisation of equality. They are really equal in many other essentials of the true egalitarian idea, but they are not equal in that. Certain conditions favour the growth of plutocratic fashions obscuring our brotherhood; certain other conditions make intensely vivid the great things we have in common, as compared with the small things that divide us. And anyone who understands the real doctrine of equality (there are not very many in the modern world who do) will understand that some sense of it vaguely but invariably comes to the surface under the hideous conditions of war. An army, which in one sense would seem the very home of subordination, has nevertheless an ultimate tendency to encourage equality; because, whatever may be the rule or the orders, the facts are those of an intense independence. If any man really fails to understand the mystical dogma of the equality of man, he can immediately test it by thinking of two men, of totally different types and fortunes, falling on the same field at some terrible crisis in the war which saved our country. One might be, and often was, a gentleman of the finer tradition, fortunate in his friends, in his tastes, in his culture as well as his character.

Another might be some stunted serf of our servile industrial slums, a man whom all modern life conspired to crush and deform. In the hour when the flag of England was saved, there was no man who dared to say, or would have dreamed of saying, that one death was less glorious than the other.

~G.K. Chesterton: from The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and other essays.

The British tomb of The Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during WWI. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, London on 11 November 1920.

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