1/31/16

Shevolution

The Speaker, September 7, 1901

IT IS some time now since Comte and his followers called upon humanity to perform the difficult gymnastic feat of kneeling to itself. But it remains a remarkable thing that in mentioning the claims which this many-headed beast has to worship they omitted entirely the one claim that it really possesses, that of its mystery, its complete unreasonableness. They dwelt upon the orderly development of humanity, the obvious nature of its progress, the chains of unalterable causation in which it is bound, as if anyone could worship a god who was nothing but a pompous underling. A god must at least be something spontaneous and self-willed, something that can play house-breaker and play truant. Verily thou art a god that hidest thyself, said the wise old Hebrew. The essential of a divinity is mystery. Magnificent old civilisations grovelled before cats and beetles, crowned the birds and oxen which we kill for food, sought the ultimate sanctity in the dark and brutal underworld of creatures without brains or stomachs, merely because there is a mystery in the eyes of the brutes, and to the human sight a dog is more mystical than a man. The one genuine claim of humanity to be considered a god lies in the fact that it is a monster. Indeed, it is something more fierce and secret than a monster, it is a she-monster. So far from exhibiting the business-like and systematic self-improvement which Positivism attributed to it, it exhibits the dumb cravings and clamorous necessities, the crazy holidays and the burning penances, of a woman in a psychological novel. Humanity as a whole is feminine, like most other institutions, as the practice of personification attests. Men are male, but Man is female.

Woman, it is generally felt, is a relic of the supernatural age. She is left to confound our reason like a sign in heaven or a man raised from the dead. Most of us form some opinions and base them upon some reasons. Not only do we base our conviction upon reason, but we cannot imagine it being done in any other way. But a woman builds like an architect who should begin a church by putting the spire on first. To modify the image, the reasons, the evidence, the proof, are with her mere fantastic gargoyles and flying buttresses added in the exultation of artistic success. The foundation, which she lays first in solid and irrevocable masonry, is the conclusion to which she intends to come. Clever women may easily learn to be logical, for it is a mere trick like single-stick, but the essential difference will always remain that she will not use her weapon to discover and conquer new continents, but to defend that patch of ground which descends to her by a divine right. But that these things are characteristic of female humanity has often been noticed, but it has scarcely ever, I think, been remarked that they are characteristic of all humanity. Viewed in detail the history of mankind appears a series of most lucid philosophies and constitutions. But viewed as a whole, after the ages of slow and brainless evolution, the movement of humanity towards perfection has had all the inscrutable suddenness and vivacity of a boy's running away to sea. A woman, as I have said, varies in her arguments, but never in her conclusions. Nothing is more profoundly astonishing in the general character of human history than the way in which various nations and ages and civilisations have agreed in their conclusions, and consistently contradicted each other in their arguments. Immense and lonely civilisations exist, separated from each other almost as utterly as if they were different planets. Civilisations which have never crossed each other's path, since their ancestors separated in the form of something closely resembling apes, civilisations whose gods and temples appear to themselves solemn and beautiful, and to each other too hideous for a comic paper, these civilisations, when all is said and done, have not greatly differed in morality. Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt keep thine own festivals, thou shalt worship thine own gods: these are almost as familiar to every age and country as the sun rising in the east. There are divergences between races which fill us at first sight with horror, with a kind of atheistic panic of the unmeaning richness and multiplicity of things. But, when we come to think of it, there are not the divergences that one might have had a right to expect. There are pessimists who maintain that life is an evil; yet there is no such thing as a pessimistic civilisation where men are canonised for destroying life and pilloried for sparing it. There are professors of paradox who maintain that falsehood is more artistic than truth, but there is no such thing as an artistic civilisation where judges reward men for perjury, and commit them to prison for being grossly and repeatedly accurate. There is no theology of which the heaven is entirely populated with liars and assassins wearing wings and white robes; no theology in which the saints and the patriots are in hell. Nietzsche's idea that Christian purity and charity are new and abnormal things is a dream. There never was a cult of tyranny. If we could penetrate to the most faded scripture and the most forgotten god we should find, as we find in Egypt and Israel, that they inculcated the truisms of judgment and mercy which might serve as the official objects of the London County Council.

Upon these four of five matters, therefore, the various great branches of humanity are practically unanimous. The true rationalist cannot but be struck by this fact, and find in it an indication that there must be some very common central ground, some definite logical reason of very wide application, behind all these things. But here comes in the extraordinary fact. They all agree, indeed, that these things are right, but they each profess that their conclusion rests upon some entirely different line of argument. Each commonly explains that it is right in discouraging theft upon grounds which clearly show that all the others must be wrong in discouraging theft. One set of men maintain that we should spare life because it is immortal, and the slayer interferes with some splendid destiny. Another set of men maintain that we should spare life because it is not immortal, and the slayer nails down for ever the coffin-lid of annihilation. One class of thinkers maintains that we should avoid lying because there is a mystical quality in words and ideas; another, that we should avoid lying because words and ideas are unimportant in comparison to material fact. In short, these queer old scruples stand alone and undisputed in the centre of human life. Some say they are right because they are black, some say they are right because they are white. Some excitedly draw attention to their solid and decisive squareness, some ecstatically pin their faith to their exquisite and voluptuous roundness. Some say they are right because the moon is made of silver, and some because it is made of green cheese. This is the strange, humorous, and romantic condition of men. They are still on an expedition, and will always be on an expedition, in search of arguments and data. But their conclusion they formed long ago, before the darkest beginnings of the history of the world. In other words, we may fall back upon the modest and reasonable proposition involved in this article, the proposition that Man is a woman.

~G.K. Chesterton

by G. K. Chesterton (Author), Mike Miles (Compiler)

1/29/16

The Turkey and the Turk

Cast of Characters

 ● Father Christmas
 ● The Doctor
 ● The Princess of the Mountains
 ● The Turkish Knight
 ● St. George

Father Christmas:
Here am I, Father Christmas; well you know it,
Though critics say it fades, my Christmas Tree,
Yet was it Dickens who became my poet
And who the Dickens may the critics be?

St. George:
I am St. George, whose cross in scutcheon scored,
Red as the Rose of England on me glows,
The Dragon who would pluck it, found this sword [draws sword]
Which is the thorn upon the English Rose.

Doctor:
I am the Doctor from Berlin. I kill
Germs and diseases upon handsome terms
There are so many ways of being ill —
Some trust the Germans. Some prefer the Germs.

The Turkish Knight:
I am the Turkish Knight: to sink and rise
In every Mummer's Play has been my work.
I am that Wrath that falls but never flies,
A Turkish Knight — but a most knightly Turk.

The Princess of the Mountains:
I am the Princess come from mountains shady
That are the world's last wall against the Turk.
I had to come; or there would be no lady
In this remarkable dramatic work.

[Enter Father Christmas with Christmas Pudding, Turkey, Flagons, etc.]

Father Christmas:
I will not drink; let the great flagon here
Till the great toasts are drunk, stand where it is.
But Christmas pudding comes but once a year
But many times a day. And none amiss [cuts off a piece]
The Christmas Pudding, round as the round sky,
Speckled with better things than stars.

Doctor [rushes in and arrests his hands]:
Forgive my haste. But men who eat that pudding die.

Father Christmas:
And men who do not eat it do not live. [eats]

Doctor:
Our last proofs show, for perils that appal,
A Christmas pudding is a cannon ball.
But you grow old—

Father Christmas:
And you grow always new
And every year you take a different view.
My every Christmas brings, with change and chills,
New doctors' doctrines with new doctors' bills.
Next year this pudding where I plant my knife
Will be the only food sustaining life.
The proverb holds; who shall decide or choose
When doctors disagree — with their own views?
Your drugs turn poisons and your poisons food.
And still this round and solid fact holds good —
While with themselves the doctors disagree
No Christmas pudding disagrees with me.

Doctor:
Progress is change; so is the whole world's youth
Afoot betimes to catch the newest truth,
While you in night-long wassail waste your breath
The early bird catches the worm of death,
Conquers the grave; and doth the secret know
Of life immortal.

Father Christmas:
For a month or so.
That, too, will change. Soon you will tell us all
That early rising is a daily fall,
That fever waits in fiery morning skies,
And Bed is the most bracing exercise.
You'll find for sluggards some more pleasing term
And cry "The Early Bird catches the Germ".

[Enter the Princess of the Mountains.]

Princess:
Save me and harbour me, all Christian folk,
For I am fleeing from the heathen might.
My mountain city is a trail of smoke,
My track is trampled by the Turkish Knight,
Already where I sink they shake the ground,
The flying towers, the horsemen of Mahound.

Doctor:
Mahound. More properly Muhammad. Quaint!
The wars of creeds — or demons — smoke and smother.
Each of the demons calls himself a saint —
Until two men can tolerate each other.

Princess:
So were we taught by many Turkish kings
To tolerate intolerable things.

Father Christmas:
I have a creed. Its name is charity
And at my table all men may agree.

Princess:
Folk of the West, bethink you, far from strife,
Through what more weary ages than you think,
Our broken swords covered your carving knife
And with our blood you bought the wine you drink,
That you might ply your kindlier Christmas work
And kill the Turkey while we killed the Turk.

Father Christmas:
I see one from the mounts ride amain
Who rather comes to slay than to be slain.

[Enter Turkish Knight.]

Turkish Knight:
I am the master of the sons of battle,
The cohorts of the Crescent of the night,
I for whom queens are slaves and slaves are cattle,
I claim this queen and slave out of my right.
I have burned her town and slain her sire in strife,
Is there a better way to earn a wife?

Princess:
A wife! This Turkish dog, like sheep in pen,
May herd a hundred wives — or bondwomen.

Doctor:
Consider, Set above the smoke of passion
Where high philosophy and reason reign.
I can give counsel in a cooler fashion
Who am the friend of peace, the foe of pain.
Consider — should this gentleman insist —
He might be worse than a polygamist.

Princess:
What could be worse, and what unworthier?

Doctor:
He might, like Bluebeard, be a widower.
The habit which enjoys a hundred wives
Suggests at least, that every wife — survives.

Princess:
Such are not things that such as I survive,
Nor shall such bridal see us both alive,
Nor I consent—

Turkish Knight:
Nor did I ask consent.
I did not ask your banner to be rent;
Your sire to fall, your battle-line to break,
I do not ask for anything I take.

Doctor:
She will find comfort in Philosophy.

Father Christmas:
You were right, Doctor; I am old. Woe's me,
My knife is a clown's sword for cutting grease. [flings down his carving knife]

Doctor [looking piously upward]:
Peace! Is not this the certain road to Peace?

[Enter St. George]

St. George:
Stop! For the doors are shut upon your treason,
I, George of Merry England, bar the way.
Not all so easily, not for a season,
You brave the anger of the saints at bay.
Red shall your cohorts be, your Crescent faint,
The hour you find — what will provoke a Saint.

Doctor:
Who is this mad Crusader?

Father Christmas [lifting his flagon]:
He is come!
Let burst the trumpets, dance upon the drum!
Shout till you deafen the dead! I drain the flagon.
England in arms! St. George that beat the Dragon!

Doctor:
You dream, old dotard, and your drunken tales
Are fumes of Yuletide vintages and ales.
The wine is in your head. Water and wine.
A Dragon! Snapdragon is more your line.

Father Christmas:
It may be. Who shall choose between us twain
Wine in the head or water on the brain?
But what of you, most prudent paragon,
You are frightened of the snapdragon
As of the Dragon, that St. George has beaten,
More scared to eat than he was to be eaten.

St. George:
At least I come in time to do redress
On a new Dragon for a new Princess.

Turkish Knight:
Sir, if my hundred wives indeed be sheep
I am the shepherd, who can count and keep,
And I keep this; had you a hundred lives
This sword should teach you to respect my wives.

St. George:
I will respect your widows.
Turkish Knight:
They that keep
The oracles of the Prophet see you sleep
Dead on your shield.

St. George:
I bear upon my shield
Death, and a certain lesson how to die —
Your Prophet lived to late to prophesy.

Princess:
See how the face of your strange Doctor sneers!

Doctor:
How should Peace stay when Piety appears
And men do murder for a change of words?
Yet might the Peace be held. Ere you cross swords
Knights of the Cross and Crescent, count the loss —

St. George:
Two swords in crossing make the sign of the cross
That frightens fiends.

[Doctor leaps back from the dash of swords.]

He's wounded in the hand;
Doctor, a Doctor — let the battle stand.

Doctor:
I am a doctor, sir, and I can cure
Complaints and maladies such Turks endure;
In Turkish camps where air and
water taints —

Turkish Knight:
You will find maladies, but not complaints.

Doctor:
But who will pay me if I cure the Turk?

St. George:
This hand will give you pay, which gives you work.

[He hangs his Red Cross shield up behind the Turkish Knight and Doctor.]

St. George:
For proof that Christian men war not as cattle
Above my foeman's head I hang my shield,
That shows far off o'er hideous wastes of battle
My sword has shattered but my shield has healed.

Father Christmas:
They say to every shield there are two sides.
So shall our champion show them as he rides,
And milder servants follow him in fight,
The Red Cross nurses to the Red Cross Knight.

Doctor:
Nurses and knights and all your chivalry
Would still be barren mercies but for me.
While you with liberal words would mend the Turk,
The healing hand of Science does your work,
While you show generous gestures, vague or grand
The healing hand of Science finds a hand.

[Produces a Mailed Fist — any sort of big pantomime glove of armour.]

Father Christmas:
Here is the sort of trick the doctors love
To take a hand and give us back a glove.

Turkish Knight:
What would you do? I do not understand.

Doctor:
The Gauntlet shall be mightier than the hand,
Science has found the hand of your desire
An iron hand, a hand for flinging fire,
A mailed fist, the ensign of your legions,
And from the fingers of it flames shall go,
Smoke and thick flames that poison vasty regions,
And blight the fields as well as blight the foe.
Fool and fantastic in your red-cross coat,
A more than human hand is at your throat,
A hand that chokes.

St. George:
I know that this is sure
Whatever man can do, man can endure,
Though you shall loose all laws of fight, and fashion
A torture-chamber from a tilting-yard,
Though iron hard as doom grow hot as passion,
Man shall be hotter, man shall be more hard,
And when an army in your hell-fire faints,
You shall find martyrs who were never saints.

Doctor:
I am weary of your sainthood. If you knew
You would, as even I do, quake. But you
Who in a painted halo put reliance
Fear naught.

St. George:
Not even the healing hand of science.

Doctor [furiously]:
Then at him, wound him, waste him utterly.

[They fight.]

Turkish Knight:
Ere I could wound him he has wounded me.

Princess:
The Turk is wounded in the leg —

Father Christmas:
Well fought!

Turkish Knight:
A Doctor, quick, a Doctor! It is naught,
To heal such scathe should be a petty task.
I answer for my answering of it. Ask
The Princess of the Mountains, for she knows,
How long wars wage in Eastern sands or snows.
No splitting of a slender tilting lance
For a crowd's gaping or a lady's glance,
War to the knife!

Doctor:
The surgeon's knife, my lord
The surgeon's knife is mightier than the sword.
Answer me now, old driveller, as you can,
When your great carving-knife has cured a man,
Or if these bones the war-dogs crush and crunch
Can be patched up with pudding or with punch.
Lady, I tell you all your mountain dead
Who on Kossovo of the Blackbirds bled,
There were the hero dies as a dog dies,
Might have re-risen as this man shall rise,
Answer me now, proud lady, as you can
Does Science help? Can Science save a man?
What do you see, for all your savage pride?

Princess:
I see always helping the wrong side.

Father Christmas [to St. George]:
This is not just. You fight not one but three,
I think that you grew wearier than he.

Princess:
Why should we patch this pirate up again?
Why should you always win, and win in vain?
Bid him not cut the leg, but cut the loss.

St. George:
I will not fire upon my own Red Cross.

Princess:
If you lay there, would he let you escape?

St. George:
I am his Conqueror and not his ape.

Doctor:
Be not so sure of conquering. He shall rise
On lighter feet, on feet that vault the skies.
Science shall make a mighty foot and new,
[Produces a sort of pantomime leg in armour and with wings.]
Light as the feather feet of Perseus flew,
Long as the seven-leagued boots in tales gone by,
This shall bestride the sea and ride the sky.
Thus shall he fly, and beat above your nation
The clashing pinions of Apocalypse,
Ye shall be deep-sea fish in pale prostration
Under the sky-foam of his flying ships.

[The Turkish Knight advances with the new leg, to fight again.]

When terror above your cities, dropping doom,
Shall shut all England in a lampless tomb,
Your widows and your orphans now forlorn
Shall be no safer than the dead they mourn.
When all their lights grow dark, their lives grow grey,
What will those widows and those orphans say?

St. George:
St. George for Merry England!

[They fight again, with more doubtful effect, but St. George at last smites the Turkish Knight on the head and he falls.]

Princess:
Down is the Crescent and its crest abased!

Doctor:
A head is very easily replaced.

Father Christmas:
More of this ironmongery that he hires.

Doctor:
Here is a Head no headache ever tires
Which never wants its hair cut, singed or curled,
The Business Head of all the Working World.

[Produces pantomime head of a German with a spiked helmet and spectacles — perhaps rather like the Doctor's own.]

Father Christmas:
Shall we again grant respite to our foe?

St. George:
I tell you Yes, man!

[The Turkish Knight suddenly lifts himself on his elbow.]

Turkish knight:
And I tell you No.
I'll have no more of your pale wizardry,
Leave me my wounded head and let me be.

Doctor:
What do you mean? A wound is only pain.
And why should I who twice, and now again,
Lead you to conquer, leave you now to die?

Turkish Knight:
Something may conquer. It will not be I.
If always thus you mend me when I fall,
There will be nothing of myself at all.
You arm me and you tame me and you trim,
Each time I gain a tool and lose a limb.
In wings and wheels all that I was will fade
And I shall be a monster You have made.

Doctor:
You hoped to have his head when you began.

Turkish Knight:
Base leech, I hoped to be the better man
And not the better mantrap. Leave alone!
I hoped to have his head — and keep my own [rousing himself].
When I came riding from the tents of morning
Clean as an arrow from my bended bow,
I had not need of such dead things' adorning,
No, by the panoply of the Prophet, no! [rises]
Lady, if we be less than you in love,
At least our hate as high as your shall stand.
And I have lost. The Devil take my glove [flings away the mailed hand],
And George of Merry England take my hand.

Princess:
Now is the Turkish Knight a knight at least.

Doctor:
A knight! They will be snivelling for a priest
To wed you to your Red Cross cut-throat here,
With all the mummeries of Faith — and Fear —
To suit this medieval mummery,
These fighting-cocks are caught in — Chivalry!
That in a tangle of fantastic rules
Makes them first foes, then friends, and always fools;
I would have rapt your souls to clearer rages,
On the top wave of Time, alive, alert.
I had done all that could outdare the ages.

Father Christmas [poking him with the carving knife]:
Friend, did you ever laugh? And did it hurt?
No matter — if you cannot laugh, my friend,
You can be laughed at: let us laugh — and end.
Dragon and snapdragon alike take flight
With cockcrow. Take a slash at Turkish Knight,
Or take a slice of Turkey, as you choose,
And have the German Doctor for the goose —
And if the goose must cackle — if he tease
With talk of medieval mummeries,
Ask him what else but Mummery, I pray,
He asks from Mummers upon Christmas Day?

1/18/16

ECCLESIASTES

There is one sin: to call a green leaf grey,
  Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth.
There is one blasphemy: for death to pray,
  For God alone knoweth the praise of death.

There is one creed: 'neath no world-terror's wing
  Apples forget to grow on apple-trees.
There is one thing is needful—everything—
  The rest is vanity of vanities.


~G.K. Chesterton

"A void is made in the heart of Islam"

"THERE is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplicity in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets. Of these the mightiest in modern times were the man whose name was Ahmed, and whose more famous title was the Mahdi; and his more ferocious successor Abdullahi, who was generally known as the Khalifa. These great fanatics, or great creators of fanaticism, succeeded in making a militarism almost as famous and formidable as that of the Turkish Empire on whose frontiers it hovered, and in spreading a reign of terror such as seldom can be organised except by civilisation. With Napoleonic suddenness and success the Mahdist hordes had fallen on the army of Hicks Pasha, when it left its camp at Omdurman, on the Nile opposite Khartoum, and had cut it to pieces in a fashion incredible. They had established at Omdurman, their Holy City, the Rome of their nomadic Roman Empire."

~G.K. Chesterton: Lord Kitchener. (1917)


1/13/16

"Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense"

"MOREOVER, not only did the poetry grow more immoral, but the immorality grew more indefensible. Greek vices, oriental vices, hints of the old horrors of the Semitic demons began to fill the fancies of decaying Rome, swarming like flies on a dung heap. The psychology of it is really human enough to anyone who will try that experiment of seeing history from the inside. There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilisation when the man is tired at playing at mythology and pretending that a tree is a maiden or that the moon made love to a man. The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They seek after mad oriental religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man, Part 1 Ch. 8 ─The End of the World.

The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 2:
The Everlasting Man, St. Francis of Assisi, St Thomas Aquinas.

1/10/16

A Word

A word came forth in Galilee, a word like to a star;
It climbed and rang and blessed and burnt wherever brave hearts are;
A word of sudden secret hope, of trial and increase
Of wrath and pity fused in fire, and passion kissing peace.
A star that o'er the citied world beckoned, a sword of flame;
A star with myriad thunders tongued: a mighty word there came.

The wedge's dart passed into it, the groan of timberwains,
The ringing of the rivet nails, the shrieking of the planes;
The hammering on the roofs at morn, the busy workshop roar;
The hiss of shavings drifted deep along the windy floor;
The heat-browned toiler's crooning song, the hum of human worth—
Mingled of all the noise of crafts, the ringing word went forth.

The splash of nets passed into it, the grind of sand and shell,
The boat-hook's clash, the boat-oars' jar, the cries to buy and sell,
The flapping of the landed shoals, the canvas crackling free,
And through all varied notes and cries, the roaring of the sea,
The noise of little lives and brave, of needy lives and high;
In gathering all the throes of earth, the living word went by.

Earth's giant sins bowed down to it, in Empire's huge eclipse,
When darkness sat above the thrones, seven thunders on her lips,
The woe of cities entered it, the clang of idols' falls,
The scream of filthy Caesars stabbed high in their brazen halls,
The dim hoarse Hoods of naked men, the worldrealms snapping girth,
The trumpets of Apocalypse, the darkness of the earth:

The wrath that brake the eternal lamp and hid the eternal hill,
A world's destruction loading, the word went onward still—
The blaze of creeds passed into it, the hiss of horrid fires,
The headlong spear, the scarlet cross, the hair-shirt and the briars,
The cloistered brethren's thunderous chaunt, the errant champion's song,
The shifting of the crowns and thrones, the tangle of the strong.

The shattering fall of crest and crown and shield and cross and cope,
The tearing of the gauds of time, the blight of prince and pope,
The reign of ragged millions leagued to wrench a loaded debt,
Loud with the many throated roar, the word went forward yet.
The song of wheels passed into it, the roaring and the smoke
The riddle of the want and wage, the fogs that burn and choke.
The breaking of the girths of gold, the needs that creep and swell.
The strengthening hope, the dazing light, the deafening evangel,
Through kingdoms dead and empires damned, through changes without cease,
With earthquake, chaos, born and fed, rose,—and the word was "Peace."

~G.K. Chesterton

Scenes from the Life of Christ, by Fra Angelico.
Tempera on panel, 1451-52; Museo di San Marco, Florence.

1/3/16

Christmas and Salesmanship

I TAKE a grim and gloomy pleasure in reminding my fellow hacks and hired drudges in the dreadful trade of journalism that the Christmas which is now over ought to go on for the remainder of the twelve days. It ought to end only on the Twelfth Night, on which occasion Shakespeare has himself assured us that we ought to be doing What we Will. But one of the queerest things about our topsy-turvy time is that we all hear such a vast amount about Christmas just before it comes, and suddenly hear nothing at all about it afterwards. My own trade, the tragic guild to which I have already alluded, is trained to begin prophesying Christmas somewhere about the beginning of autumn; and the prophecies about it are like prophecies about the Golden Age and the Day of Judgement combined. Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had. I am going to make myself an exasperating exception in this matter. I am going to plead for a longer period in which to find out what was really meant by Christmas; and a fuller consideration of what we have really found. There are any number of legends, even of modern legends, about what happens before Christmas; whether it is the preparation of the Christmas tree, which is said to date only from the time of the German husband of Queen Victoria, or the vast population of Father Christmases who now throng the shops almost as quickly as the customers. But there is no modern legend of what happens just after Christmas; except a dismal joke about indigestion and the arrival of the doctor. I am the more moved to send everybody an after-Christmas greeting, or, if I had the industry, an after-Christmas card; and in truth there is a craven crowd who escape by falling back upon New Year card. But I should like to examine this problem of after-Christmas custom and festivity a little more closely.

Of course it is a mark of a commercial community that it thus advertises in Advent. The whole object of such a system is to deliver the goods. When once they are delivered there is a deadly silence; at least an absence of any burst of joy over the creation of new things; a comparative silence about morning stars singing together or the shouting of the suns of God. In other words, when we have delivered the goods, it is not now quite certain that anybody has looked on them and seen that they are good. And an immense importance of announcement everywhere diminishes the corresponding importance of appreciation. I know that in the commercial case there are sometimes proofs of appreciation. I know that noble ladies and actresses (I hope this is the right order of precedence) do write testimonials about their pleasure in consuming some sort of soap; and that leading literary men are found to declare that they would have been practically half-witted but for some training of the mind. But, taking modern announcements and advertisements and assertions as a whole, there is no comparison between the bulk of promises and the bulk of acknowledgements. Everybody knows the advertisements, but few could quote the acknowledgements. This is all the more obvious in the case of Christmas, because Christmas is still rightly recognised as a feast of children. Perhaps it is natural that telling a little boy that he is going to have some toffee should be more explicit and explanatory than the little boy himself when he is eating the toffee; when he is stuffed and is stuck to his chair with toffee; and is in no mood to symbolize gratitude except by greed. One would not ask of him even a lyric cry that might become a hymn of thanksgiving; still less a perfect prose analyzing his own impressions. Little boys should be seen and not heard. In other words, they come to buy toffee, not to praise it. So long as no excessive noises are made in the mastication of that confection, we will excuse the youth from any long oratorical exercises in the way of returning thanks. And a certain amount of this natural disproportion between thrills and thanks is to be allowed for among all young people. The dreary agonies through which many a little boy must be going at this moment, in order to write three lines of thanks to his grandmother who gave him the toffee, is in itself no reflection on the toffee. Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult. And as grown-up people hardly ever think of being grateful for the sun and the moon and their own souls and bodies, it is easy to excuse the immature for finding it difficult to say thank you for a bag of sweets. Only, as I say, when all of these allowances have been made, there is still a disproportion between the promise of any great symbolic feast and the strange silence about any fulfilment of the promise. And it is connected with a certain commercial habit of certain people promising everything or anything, so that the other people have a tendency to thank them for nothing. There is a sort of silence about the absorption of many modern things, as compared with the loud shouts that heralded their arrival.

I cannot help suspecting that in this there is a snag about what is enthusiastically called the Art of Salesmanship. I do not say that salesmanship cannot be an art; nor do I say that it has become too artful. Yet it is not its foes but its friends who are always hinting that it does make people buy what they do not want.  A transaction of that sort would fully explain the happy noises of the opening negotiations as compared with the silence afterwards. It is the triumph of the salesman that he has made the customer realise that he has a long needed an electric tooth-brush or a self-starting pencil, which he has never heard of before. But it is not always the triumph of the customer when he rightly and gravely considers them afterwards. And it does seem to me that our civilisation is in some degree out of joint, at the precise point of this juncture between the fierce and eager supply and the somewhat faint and wavering demand. There is such an impressive pressure of praise and recommendation, on the one side and such a lack of reaction either of protest or praise on the other, that I doubt whether the consumer is contributing enough constructive criticism to the State. After all, the original foundation if all trade is that the ideas came from the consumer; and that he really did know what he wanted to consume. The dreams and visions of the consumer were then embodied and, as it were, incarnated, in the crafts and arts which fulfilled them. Of course, the craftsmen and the artists did something in detail which the consumer could not do for himself; but the consumer had done something not in detail but design. In a sense, he was the architect and they were the builders. But if the architect is to be covered with a totally different sort of building, and told that this what he really wanted without knowing it, then he is not being housed, but buried. My only point at the moment is that, when all is said, he is now rather silent in his tomb.

I know there is a great difficulty about organising any expression of those who really have got what they liked; chiefly because it would involve the alarming alternative of their expressing themselves about what they did not like. I suppose there has never been a really convincing advertisement of Smith’s Soap or testimonial to Tomkinson’s Tea. For the one really thrilling assertion about Smith’s Soap would be that it is much better than Brown’s Soap; and the one quite convincing commendation of Tomkinson’s Tea would be a testimonial saying, “What a relief it was after the absolutely filthy taste of Wilkinson’s Tea.” And this is forbidden by all commercial custom; and I rather fancy even by the law of the land. I do not say for a moment that it would be easy to get a real record of the reception of good things, especially when they are really good; and if the modern world were in that mood, I fancy there would be a longer period of appreciation, and perhaps even some final festival of thanks after the festival of Christmas. Puritans in America established Thanksgiving Day in order to avoid Christmas Day. It would be a real Anglo-American reconciliation to combine the two; and have a Thanksgiving Day for the Turkey we had eaten at Christmas.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Illustrated London News, Dec. 28, 1935.

The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol 37: 
The Illustrated London News, 1935-1936.