The Narrowness of Novelty

IT is easy to miss the point of certain modern quarrels, in which I have occasionally intervened; quarrels about things that are labelled Ancient and Modern, like the hymns. Or perhaps, in the case of some of the things, not very like the hymns. Anyhow, the point of the position is this. The real objection to certain novelties is not novelty. It is something that most people do not very much associate with novelty; something which might rather be called narrowness. It is something that fixes the mind on a fashion, until it forgets that it is a fashion. Novelty of this sort narrows the mind, not only by forgetting the past, but also by forgetting the future. There is a certain natural relief and refreshment in altering things, but a wise man will remember that the things that can be altered will be altered again. There is a certain type of Modernist who manages to accept a thing at the same time as fashionable and as final. Indeed, there is a fine shade of difference between something new and something fresh. The former word may be used of something like the New Testament, which is new for ever. But the idea of Something Fresh belongs rather to the exhilarating but less stable world of Mr P. G. Wodehouse.

We pick up a novelty as we pick up a novel; because we think we shall enjoy it, especially if it is a novel by Mr P. G. Wodehouse. But these things are fresh as the flowers of spring are fresh; that is, they are delightful when they come; but we do not disguise from ourselves that they will eventually go. Now it seems to me that much of the modern mind is narrowed by seeing some thing sacred in the mode or mood of the moment. Thus critics are not content to say that they are not in the mood for Wordsworth or for Tennyson; they talk as if Wordsworth had become worthless, intrinsically and finally worthless, because of the appearance of the stark and ruthless Mr Binks, who does happen to answer at the moment to their mood, and perhaps to the mood of the world. Thus a younger generation, which is now rapidly becoming an older generation, revolted against the Victorian poets, with a sort of illogical logic in their minds; to the effect that they could not really have been poets because they were Victorians. They were not content to say, what is perfectly reasonable, that they were tired of Tennyson. They tried to imply, what is something totally different, that Tennyson is always tiresome. But as between the man who is alleged to be tiresome and the man who is admitted to be tired, there is always the possible inference that he is too tired to enjoy anything. I am not a special worshipper either of Wordsworth or Tennyson; the point is that such merits as they have are unaffected by the accidental nervous fatigue of somebody else. Mr Binks also will some day be a venerable and traditional figure looming out of the past. He also will gain, by respectability and repetition, the formidable power of fatiguing people, and new generations shall rise up and call him tiresome. But surely we cannot admit for a moment that the brilliant — nay, blazing — qualities of Mr Binks, his stabbing actuality, his subversive subconscious attack, his instant vortical violence, his cold incandescence of intellectuality, his death-ray of blank hiatus, his dynamite explosion of dots . . . surely we cannot admit for a moment that our own Mr Binks is worthless, or ever will be worthless, merely because the world will probably pass into some other emotional atmosphere, to which his terrific talents will be less suited; in which his unique type of truth will be less seen; or in which his dazzling but concentrated spotlight will be less on the spot. Yet these tides and times of mood and fashion are moving even as we talk about them. I have already seen here and there notes written by a new generation, newer than the generation that was tired of Tennyson. I have seen critics beginning once more to praise Tennyson and strangely enough to show a most extraordinary contempt for Swinburne. I do not complain of the change to admiration; I do not even complain of the change to contempt. What I complain of is the shallowness of people who only do things for a change, and then actually talk as if the change were unchangeable. That is the weakness of a purely progressive theory, in literature as in science. The very latest opinion is always infallibly right and always inevitably wrong. It is right because a new generation of young people are tired of things, and wrong because another generation of young people will be tired of them.

I do not call any man imaginative unless he can imagine something different from his own favourite sort of imagery. I do not call any man free unless he can walk backwards as well as forwards. I do not call any man broadminded unless he can include minds that are different from his own normal mind, let alone moods that are different from his own momentary mood. And I do not call any man bold or strong or possessed of stabbing realism or startling actuality unless he is strong enough to resist the merely neurotic effects of his own fatigue, and still see things more or less as they are; big mountains as big, and great poets as great, and remarkable acts and achievements as remarkable, even if other people are bored with them, or even if he is bored with them himself. The preservation of proportion in the mind is the only thing that keeps a man from narrow-mindedness. And a man can preserve the proportion of great things in his mind, even if they do not happen at a particular moment to be tickling his senses or exciting his nerves. Therefore I do not mind the man adoring novelties, but I do object to his adoring novelty. I object to this sort of concentration on the immortal instant, be cause it narrows the mind, just as gazing at a minute object, coming nearer and nearer, narrows the vision.

What is wanted is the truly godlike imagination which makes all things new, because all things have been new. That would really be something like a new power of the mind. But the modern version of broadening the mind has very little to do with broadening the powers of the mind. It would be a great gift of historical imagination to be able to see everything that has happened as if it were just happening, or just about to happen. This is quite as true of literary as of political history. For literary history is full of revolutions, and we do not realize them unless we realize them as revolutionary. To admire Wordsworth merely as an antiquity is stupid, and to despise Wordsworth as an antiquity is worse than stupid; it is silly. But to admire Wordsworth as a novelty — that would be a real vision and re-creation of the past. For it is solid fact, if any fact be solid, that nearly all the young who were most alert and alive, and eager for a sort of revolutionary refreshment, men like Lamb and Hazlitt and the rest, did feel something in the first fresh gust of the new naturalism; something even in the very baldness and crudity of Wordsworth’s rural poetry, which made them feel that he had flung open the gates of freedom more widely than the French Revolution. I do not think it will be any injustice to Mr Binks (always supposing we give him also his proper welcome when he arrives) if we try to understand some of those feelings of our fathers about their favourite authors, and so learn to see those authors as they really ought to be seen. For poets are not stale; it is only critics who are stale; often excusably enough, but even then they need not brag of their own staleness.

~G.K. Chesterton (1932)

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