On Modern "Paganism"

THERE is a section, perhaps a small section, of Modern Youth which certainly strikes its elders as hard and sceptical and selfish. And of these it is customary to say that they are Pagans. It suddenly flashed across me yesterday (as one of those obvious truths that evade us even when they are obvious) that of course what is really the matter with them is that they have lost their Paganism.

I do not say, as so many journalists say, that they have lost their Christianity. For it is the quite simple and sober truth that most of them never had any. It is not their fault, though every day that passes convinces me more and more that it is their misfortune. But the notion, so common in novels and newspapers, that this new generation has rebelled against old-fashioned orthodoxy is sheer stark historical ignorance. It is the worst of all kinds of historical ignorance; ignorance of the historical events we have seen ourselves. It is absurd to say that a young man of nineteen who mixes cocktails and Communism in a studio rag in Chelsea is rebelling against Victorian Virtue or the Family Bible. You might as well say that a young buck of the Regency who wrenched off door-knockers and fought with watchmen was rebelling against the Puritans of 1649 or the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell. You might as well say that the Cavaliers who revelled at The Cock in the reign of Charles II were rising in just revolt against the usurpation of Richard III. No very laborious historical learning will be needed to perceive that there is something wrong in the calculation somewhere, if only because it skips about four or five generations that come in between. So does the cant explanation about Youth breaking away from grim old religious dogmas skip several generations in between. The boys and girls who are painting the town piebald today are not the children of the old Puritan bankers with their Family Prayers or the old Protestant parsons with their Family Bibles. They are the children of fathers and mothers who themselves grew up on Bernard Shaw and felt like infants in the presence of Thomas Hardy. The Young today are themselves the children of a whole generation of sceptics and agnostics; fathers and mothers themselves still relatively young, and themselves brought up to all such talk. All the talk about free thought and free love; all about Tess and Truth; all about Candida and Candour. Even the grandfathers and grandmothers of the children now just beginning to play the goat were mostly of a generation that conceived itself as liberal and progressive; like the old Radical who argues with Tanner in Man and Superman. Even his generation thought itself advanced; Tanner and the next generation thought itself more advanced. And we are dealing now with the children of Tanner; perhaps with the grandchildren of Tanner.

Of course, these young people do not know anything about historical Christianity; they are rather limited sort of people in a good many ways. They have heard only the latest jargon of their own generation; the last heresy that has rebelled against the last heresy but one. They are so innocent that some of them, especially the more intelligent, are actually beginning to get into touch with orthodoxy without even knowing it is orthodox. It can be seen in many casual journalistic allusions to the study of Thomism in Oxford or Paris. But it remains true that there is the other section; by no means the most intelligent, but certainly the most impudent. And of these it is true to say, as I have already said, that the whole story has moved a stage forward; or perhaps a stage back. There is no question at all of their losing Christianity. There is no question at present of their finding Christianity. But the reason why they all look as miserable as monkeys (and they do) is in this tragic and deplorable disaster: that they have all lost their Paganism.

Paganism may be compared to that diffused light that glows in a landscape when the sun is behind a cloud. So when the true centre of worship is for some reason invisible or vague, there has always remained for healthy humanity a sort of glow of gratitude or wonder or mystical fear, if it were only reflected from ordinary objects or natural forces or fundamental human traditions. It was the glory of the great Pagans, in the great days of Paganism, that natural things had a sort of projected halo of the supernatural. And he who poured wine upon the altar, or scattered dust upon the grave, never doubted that he dealt in some way with something divine; however vague or fanciful or even sceptical he might be about the names and natures of the divinities. Wine was more than wine; it was a god. Corn was more than corn; it was a goddess. There is much doubt and dispute about how literally they understood these statements; but they certainly understood the first half of the sentence as meaning exactly what it said. They were not satisfied with realism, because they never quite lost the sense of something more real than realism. They were not content to call a spade a spade, because it was almost always a sacred spade; not only when it dug the graves of the dead, but even when it dug the garden to grow fruit for the living. They were not content with the dead certainty that eggs are eggs, because they were full of divine uncertainty about the birds, which were their signals and auguries. And this natural magic in things, mixed and modified with things greater and things less, has descended through the civilized centuries to men of every sort; not only to the mass of men who are traditionalists, but generally also to the few men who are revolutionists. Men like Shelley or Heine might get rid of religion, but they would not get rid of this great glamour of natural things, which seemed to make them preternatural. That legend still lingers from Shelley to Swinburne, from Heine to Wilde, and after that something begins to go wrong with it. It is what has gone wrong with a whole section of the rising generation.

They are not the first generation of rebels to be Pagans. They are the first generation of rebels not to be Pagans. The young fool, the flower of all our cultural evolution, the heir of all the ages, and the precious trust we have to pass on to posterity—the young fool can no longer be trusted to be a Pantheist, let alone a good hearty Pagan. He does not realize in the least that Bacchus has mixed his cocktail, and Pomona dropped the cherry into it. He is under the strange delusion that eggs are eggs and that spades are only spades. He entertains a perfectly extraordinary idea that wine is wine and that women are just women. He is cut off from all the secret secondary meanings and messages of things; the truths that come to the sensitive in silence; the atmosphere around every object, that is almost visible like a halo. He has lost the traditions of humanity, and rather especially the traditions of heathenry. I suppose it would not do to send out missionaries to convert him to Paganism. But he is a much more stupid and stunted and limited person since he left off being a Pagan.

~G.K. Chesterton, All I Survey.