Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Love and Fables

In the most recent issue of Gilbert (the most recent which *I* have had delivered, --if only I could catch that Chestertonian mailman!-- which is the anniversary issue, all covered in silver) there is an essay entitled Love and Fables, which I enjoyed but considered it too short. I felt something was missing. So, as it read Illustrated London News, July 2, 1910, I decided to look it up and see if I could put the whole thing here for your consideration. Here it is:

I pointed out last week that our makers of ultramodern moralities (and

immoralities) do not really grasp how problematical a problem is.

They are not specially the people who see the difficulties of modern

life; rather, they are the people who do not see the difficulties. These

innovators make life insanely simple; making freedom or knowledge a

universal pill. I remarked it in connection with a clever book by Miss

Florence Farr, and took as an instance the proposition (which she

seemed to support) that marriage is good for the common herd, but

can be advantageously violated by special "experimenters" and

pioneers. Now, the weakness of this position is that it takes no

account of the problem of the disease of pride. It is easy enough to

say that weaker souls had better be guarded, but that we must give

freedom to Georges Sand or make exceptions for George Eliot. The

practical puzzle is this: that it is precisely the weakest sort of lady

novelist who thinks she is Georges Sand; it is precisely the silliest

woman who is sure she is George Eliot. It is the small soul that

is sure it is an exception; the large soul is only too proud to be the

rule. To advertise for exceptional people is to collect all the sulks and

sick fancies and futile ambitions of the earth. The good artist is he

who can be understood; it is the bad artist who is always

"misunderstood." In short, the great man is a man; it is always the

tenth-rate man who is the Superman. Read more.

But in Miss Farr's entertaining pages there was another instance of

the same thing which I had no space to mention last week. The writer

disposes of the difficult question of vows and bonds in love by

leaving out altogether the one extraordinary fact of experience on

which the whole matter turns. She again solves the problem by

assuming that it is not a problem. Concerning oaths of fidelity, etc.,

she writes: "We cannot trust ourselves to make a real love-knot unless

money or custom forces us to 'bear and forbear.' There is always the

lurking fear that we shall not be able to keep faith unless we swear

upon the Book. This is, of course, not true of young lovers. Every

first love is born free of tradition; indeed, not only is first love

innocent and valiant, but it sweeps aside all the wise laws it has been

taught, and burns away experience in its own light. The revelation is

so extraordinary, so unlike anything told by the poets, so absorbing,

that it is impossible to believe that the feeling can die out."

Now this is exactly as if some old naturalist settled the bat's place in

nature by saying boldly, "Bats do not fly." It is as if he solved the

problem of whales by bluntly declaring that whales live on land.

There is a problem of vows, as of bats and whales. What Miss Farr

says about it is quite lucid and explanatory; it simply happens to be

flatly untrue. It is not the fact that young lovers have no desire to

swear on the Book. They are always at it. It is not the fact that every

young love is born free of traditions about binding and promising,

about bonds and signatures and seals. On the contrary, lovers wallow

in the wildest pedantry and precision about these matters. They do the

craziest things to make their love legal and irrevocable. They tattoo

each other with promises; they cut into rocks and oaks with their

names and vows; they bury ridiculous things in ridiculous

places to be a witness against them; they bind each other with rings,

and inscribe each other in Bibles; if they are raving lunatics (which is

not untenable), they are mad solely on this idea of binding and on

nothing else. It is quite true that the tradition of their fathers and

mothers is in favour of fidelity; but it is emphatically not true that the

lovers merely follow it; they invent it anew. It is quite true that the

lovers feel their love eternal, and independent of oaths; but it is

emphatically not true that they do not desire to take the oaths. They

have a ravening thirst to take as many oaths as possible. Now this is

the paradox; this is the whole problem. It is not true, as Miss Farr

would have it, that young people feel free of vows, being confident of

constancy; while old people invent vows, having lost that confidence.

That would be much too simple; if that were so there would be no

problem at all. The startling but quite solid fact is that young people

are especially fierce in making fetters and final ties at the very

moment when they think them unnecessary. The time when they want

the vow is exactly the time when they do not need it. That is worth

thinking about.

Nearly all the fundamental facts of mankind are to be found in its

fables. And there is a singularly sane truth in all the old stories of the

monsters - such as centaurs, mermaids, sphinxes, and the rest. It will

be noted that in each of these the humanity, though imperfect in its

extent, is perfect in its quality. The mermaid is half a lady and half a

fish; but there is nothing fishy about the lady. A centaur is half a

gentleman and half a horse. But there is nothing horsey about the

gentleman. The centaur is a manly sort of man - up to a certain point.

The mermaid is a womanly woman - so far as she goes. The human

parts of the monsters are handsome, like heroes, or lovely, like

nymphs; their bestial appendages do not affect the full perfection of

their humanity - what there is of it. There is nothing humanly wrong

with the centaur, except that he rides a horse without a head. There is

nothing humanly wrong with the mermaid; Hood put a good comic

motto to his picture of a mermaid: "All's well that ends well." It

is, perhaps, quite true; it all depends which end. Those old wild

images included a crucial truth. Man is a monster. And he is all the

more a monster because one part of him is perfect. It is not true, as

the evolutionists say, that man moves perpetually up a slope from

imperfection to perfection, changing ceaselessly, so as to be suitable.

The immortal part of a man and the deadly part are jarringly distinct

and have always been. And the best proof of this is in such a case as

we have, considered - the case of the oaths of love.

A man's soul is as full of voices as a forest; there are ten thousand

tongues there like all the tongues of the trees: fancies, follies,

memories, madnesses, mysterious fears, and more mysterious hopes.

All the settlement and sane government of life consists in coming to

the conclusion that some of those voices have authority and others

not. You may have an impulse to fight your enemy or an impulse to

run away from him; a reason to serve your country or a reason to

betray it; a good idea for making sweets or a better idea for poisoning

them. The only test I know by which to judge one argument or

inspiration from another is ultimately this: that all the noble

necessities of man talk the language of eternity. When man is doing

the three or four things that he was sent on this earth to do, then he

speaks like one who shall live for ever. A man dying for his country

does not talk as if local preferences could change. Leonidas does not

say, "In my present mood, I prefer Sparta to Persia." William Tell

does not remark, "The Swiss civilisation, so far as I can yet see, is

superior to the Austrian." When men are making commonwealths,

they talk in terms of the absolute, and so they do when they are

making (however unconsciously) those smaller commonwealths which

are called families. There are in life certain immortal moments,

moments that have authority. Lovers are right to tattoo each other's

skins and cut each other's names about the world; they do belong to

each other in a more awful sense than they know.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of a scene in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. The police inspector Porfiry Petrovich is questioning Raskolnikov, who has recently murdered an old pawnbroker and her sister. Porfiry Petrovich doesn't appear to suspect Raskolnikov yet, but it's clear throughout the novel that despite his unprepossessing exterior, he's shrewder than the intellectual student. (He actually reminds me of Father Brown, a bit.) The two men fall into a discussion of an article that Raskolnikov has recently published, arguing that the rules of common morality are not binding on 'superior men.' Porfiry raises the same point that Chesterton makes here: namely -- granting the argument -- how can anyone know whether he, or anyone else, is one of these superior men? And supposing someone committed a crime in the belief that he was a superior man -- but was mistaken? Porfiry speaks in a disarmingly light, almost flippant, way, but of course his question goes to the heart of Raskolnkov's predicament.


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