‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes. But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it. But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable. When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself: But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy. Chesterton would have us never say that something is not good; he would prefer that we say, for instance, ‘This is a good knife, but not good enough for the purpose at hand.’ There are objects in this world that are sold as knives, allegedly for use, but that will not cut any substance under the sun, including butter. I have been cursed with such objects at picnics; it takes about three ounces of force to bend them, and five to break them, and thereafter you have to eat with your fingers; and so I cannot quite agree with Chesterton’s categorical generosity. But perhaps Aquinas (whose philosophy G.K.C. was striving to follow) can help us over this difficulty. He would have said, no doubt with justice, that the horrid plastic thing I was given at the picnic may have had the form of a knife, but it had not the substance; it was no more a real knife than Madame Tussaud’s waxwork Queen Elizabeth is the real Queen. A real metal knife may be very dull, but it is at any rate good for something; and with this caveat, I think we can let Chesterton’s dictum stand. We have all seen plenty of this kind of ersatz: books that contain no information and tell no tale, records (supposedly of songs) that contain no singing and no music, public services that deliver no service and have open contempt for the public. Such things are sold to us (sometimes very expensively) as a kind of placeholder; often enough, we are told that if we want the actual function of the object, we have to pay extra. The thing actually sold is a formal equivalent, but not a functional equivalent, of the thing we think we are buying. But there is no merely formal equivalent to a human being. The most gullible customer can quickly spot the difference between Mme Tussaud’s Queen and the genuine article. He has never met the real Queen, but at least he has a vague general knowledge (derived, perhaps, from fairy tales) that real queens are apt to move about and talk. What Aquinas calls the substance of the Queen is not there. Substance in this connection does not mean matter; it is not (directly) a question of the organic molecules that a body is made of. The substance of a human being is what makes it human: what makes it capable of functioning as the thing that it is. There are certain things that a human being is good for; and the qualities that make one good for those things are the substance of humanness. When you say ‘good for those things’, you are at once admitting the general question of goodness, and answering it in the affirmative. Every living thing, as such, is good; life itself is a type of good. The mosquito may be very inconvenient to us, but it is a delicacy to the catfish; and indispensable to the mosquito. Every living creature is useful to itself; its purpose may be fair or foul, but whatever it is, if you take away the creature, the purpose is utterly defeated. It is often hard to see this with human beings, because a human is a very dangerous animal. If we were judged simply by the harm we might do, we would probably be against the law. Many persons wish to ban guns because they are sometimes used to kill people. The gun-owner responds to this by saying, ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ And the more consistent kind of gun-controller is apt to reply, ‘Well, in that case, maybe we should ban people, too.’ The Human Extinction Movement is a real thing, and a real nuisance. It may seem odd that the people who wish to abolish humans should also wish to abolish guns, which could be so useful to them in their noble mission; but they are fastidious, and stick to their principles, and do not wish to have truck with anything that might be harmful. Their consistency does them credit – I think. Eventually they may become consistent enough to have the same kind of objections to plague germs and predators and politicians and pamphlets; but it seems unlikely at present. They have not got it in them to perceive the central paradox of existence. Every thing that exists, as such, is good; but every thing, just because it exists, can be used to do evil. I have yet to see the rise of a Movement to Abolish Everything; but I continue in good hope. The fact is, the only way to completely extinguish the good that there is in a man, is to extinguish the man himself. We talk of dehumanizing our enemies, and sometimes we accuse them of dehumanizing themselves; but really they are only dangerous – only capable of being our enemies – because they are so thoroughly human. This is true even of the worst specimens. A rather saintly German pastor, who had suffered terrible things at the hands of the Nazis, was once brought before Hitler himself. When asked what the Führer looked like, he said, ‘Like any man; that is, like Christ.’ He was capable of seeing the image of God even in his most dangerous enemy. He would not have said to Hitler, ‘You’re no good’; he would have been more likely to say, ‘You have a great capacity for good; why don’t you use it?’ It probably would not have averted the war or the Holocaust, because Hitler was convinced that these things actually were good; but it would at any rate have left the door open for a miracle. Years later, another visitor came away with a hauntingly human image of Hitler. Siegfried Knappe, a young Wehrmacht officer (he was twenty-eight when the war ended) who was briefly the youngest divisional commander in German history, was in Berlin during the final agony of 1945. His superiors sent him to Hitler’s bunker to deliver some bad news, fearing (with justification) that he would do drastic things to them if they delivered it personally. Knappe, who had briefly met Hitler once before the war, was moved to pity and horror by what he saw. The great dictator’s hair had turned white, and his teeth were falling out; he shook with an uncontrollable palsy, and could hardly use his hands. He was a man visibly falling to pieces. As Knappe said, he had been the symbol of Germany; and now he was the symbol of what Germany had become – a thing reduced to ruin by its own uncontrolled rage against the world. Knappe (so he says) thought of shooting Hitler and ending the nation’s agony, but somehow he could not bring himself to do it. It was not merely that he feared punishment, though the SS guards would certainly have caught him and executed him. Hitler’s humanity, though poisoned and ravaged, was still there, and still capable of eliciting a response. Knappe felt sorry for him. That faculty of pity, however, was one thing Hitler had expunged from himself. For decades he had disciplined himself, in the name of the ‘Higher Morality’ of Nazism, to deny every moral or humanitarian impulse; to make himself hard and lethal, like a knife. The plastic thing at the picnic table is a contemptible knife, because it is soft and flexible, and easy to break. People are not contemptible because they are flexible, or even (necessarily) because they are soft; we do not expect them to be made of stainless steel. But Hitler judged people as if they were knives. One weapon after another broke in his fanatic grip; and the last one to break was himself. When it did, he showed no more pity for himself than for any of his other victims. A few days after Knappe’s visit, Hitler dehumanized himself in the only way the thing can really be done. He shot himself in the brain, and for good measure, bit down on a vial of prussic acid as he pulled the trigger. From that moment he was no longer functionally human, even in a partial and damaged sense. He did retain a merely formal resemblance to a human being, like a figure at Madame Tussauds. Even that was lost a few hours later, when his SS bodyguards poured petrol over him and reduced him to bone and ashes. It was only on that day that he truly began to be no good.

The opposite of funny

Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.
The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German. Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse. The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism. Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny ‘Gulliver’ is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object. The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular. Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny. The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.

—G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

A song for Chesterton

And a little while afterwards, when my sea journey was over, the sight of men working in the English fields reminded me again that there are still songs for the harvest and for many agricultural routines. And I suddenly wondered why if this were so it should be quite unknown for any modern trade to have a ritual poetry. How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody do anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things? Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus? Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing?

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing’

Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.

—Elbert Hubbard

Chesterton was a man of many gifts, but presence of mind was not always among them. He was, in fact, so famously absent-minded that he is remembered (among his many other achievements) for sending a telegram to his wife: ‘Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?’ And this absence of presence, if I may put it so, led him occasionally to behave as a damn fool, and sometimes, I am afraid, he exceeded Hubbard’s limit. His little excursus into the musical habits of shopmen and printers stands as a fair example. At bottom, the trouble is that Chesterton had never himself worked at one of what may be called the singing trades. He had never been an agricultural labourer, a navvy, or a sailor; he had never indulged in the hobby of building railways by manual toil – a pernicious habit in itself, maybe, but very good for one’s physical fitness. Rail-laying gangs had a rich store of work-songs all their own, of which perhaps the best known is ‘Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill’. Men were still working at that trade in 1909, when Chesterton wrote the passage above; they were definitely a modern trade, producing modern things. Nevertheless, they sang; and printers and shopmen did not sing. At least Chesterton asks the right question first – Why do manual labourers sing? But evidently he meant the question to be rhetorical, for he did not stop for an answer. If he had, he would have seen at once that the second question is a foolish one. Men swinging hammers and scythes, and other such implements of destruction, sing for a simple reason: to keep time. The work has a natural rhythm, and singing to that rhythm keeps the men working in unison and at a measured and sustainable speed. It is the same with oars and paddles, which is why sailors have so many sea-shanties, and why the voyageurs of New France sang endless songs as they paddled their canoes up the wild rivers all the way to the Canadian Rockies. A newspaper press, in Chesterton’s time, was a creature of steam and steel; it ran under its own power, and kept its own rhythm without singing. What it did instead was make a deafening noise, which echoed from the metal roofs and rafters of the printing plant; and to sing in such an environment would take the stamina of an ox and lungs of oxhide. The steam is gone, now, but the steel and the noise remain; I worked in a newspaper plant myself once, for part of a while, and I would not have undertaken to sing there for double my wages. As for shopmen, they can’t sing, for the excellent reason that they are nearly always talking, or listening to other people talk. You cannot talk and sing at the same time, and if you sing whilst listening, your interlocutor is apt to take it as an impertinence. I am quite sure that Chesterton was aware of this; and it was all very well for him to pretend that he was not, for the sake of a joke. But he tried to make the joke into an earnest criticism of the Evils of Industrial Society; and the strain of it pushed him over a line into Hubbard’s category of damn fools. For in the very next paragraph, Chesterton lets his fancy cut a pigeon-wing:
If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking? If there are songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there not songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a bank? … I tried to write a few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen. Thus, the work of bank clerks when casting up columns might begin with a thundering chorus in praise of Simple Addition.

'Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o’er. Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: “Two and Two are Four.” Though the creeds and realms are reeling, though the sophists roar, Though we weep and pawn our watches, Two and Two are Four.’

This is all very fine and silly; but Mr. Chesterton will not ask me to believe, I hope, that it is any condemnation of the banking industry that clerks do not carry on in this way. The fact is, like shopmen, bank clerks can’t sing whilst they work. When you are adding up a string of numbers in your head (or keying them into a machine), your attention is on the numbers; you cannot simultaneously attend to the words of a song. And since there is no particular rhythm to the numbers, some being short and some long, some round and some pernickety and precise, you cannot attend to the music either. I have never been a bank clerk, but I have done my Income Tax, which is, I trust, a similar enough task to serve the purposes of Science. I therefore got out my last year’s return and tried to sing to it. Work-songs always have a good strong bouncing rhythm to them, and a good deal of repetition in the lyrics. I therefore chose the tune of the old voyageur song, ‘En roulant ma boule,’ and made up words to match. But somehow the task at hand seemed to get mixed with the song, and I felt, upon reflection, that the result was rather unsatisfactory:—
Eleven thrice is thirty-three, En roulant ma boule. Eleven thrice is thirty-three, En roulant ma boule. Add Line 16 from Schedule D, Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant ma boule. Subtract it from line 309, En roulant ma boule. Subtract it from line 309, En roulant ma boule. The taxman is a greedy swine, Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant ma boule. Deduct the cost of light and heat, En roulant ma boule. And movie tickets, there’s a cheat, En roulant ma boule. Where did I put the damned receipt? Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant ma boule. Take Box 15 from Form T-5, En roulant ma boule. I can’t come up with a decent rhyme, En roulant ma boule. The name of my investment broker is too long to fit in the space provided, Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant, tabernac’!
I thereupon gave up and chucked it in the fire. No, there are no working songs for bank clerks, and I fear there never will be. Any task that requires close attention to numbers is a poor candidate to be set to music. The same goes for words. I listen to music when I write, sometimes, but I never sing, because the words I am trying to type will come out of my mouth instead and spoil the metre. Not even songwriters can sing while they compose; for the excellent reason that you can’t write a song down in real time. The melody in your head goes:
Rumpty tiddly umpty-pum,
and you can’t jot down the notes on the staff as fast as they come. The problem is far worse for arrangers; I have dabbled at it just enough to know. For once you have that bit down, you have to go back and fill in the strings, which are playing a rhythm line a fifth apart, and the horns are filling the intervals in between to complete the chords, all going at the same time:
Hoom, hum, zoom, zum, Wah, wah, wah, waah, Hoom, hum, zoom, zum, Wah, wah, wah, waah,
while the percussionist is going
and all that has got to be written down as well, on separate staves, and you can’t do it with one pair of hands, any more than you can play the whole orchestra by yourself. No, a composer has got to stay grimly mute while he works, and let the music in his head play silently until he gets it all scribbled down. Then he plays it back on the piano and discovers where the chords are discords and when the counterpoint doesn’t point, and crosses out and re-scribbles until it all comes together. But Chesterton need not have looked to a bank clerk, or a tax accountant, or a composer, or an arranger. He knew very well from his own experience why people don’t sing while they work at a desk: he was a journalist. So when he came to his marvellously illogical conclusion—
Bank-clerks are without songs, not because they are poor, but because they are sad.
—he should have known better at once; and would have known, if presence of mind had been among his many gifts. For Chesterton himself did not sing while he worked, and he was neither poor nor sad.

Muggle magic

Mary Catelli wonders aloud:
Read an article on Harry Potter. In which the author asked why the wizarding world didn't have TV. Duh. Because the images would go walking around and vanishing and maybe even talking to you instead of saying their lines. though, actually, the mobile pictures of the wizarding world might be fun but they aren't very useful for the basic purposes of pictures. Suppose you actually wanted a photograph of your family to show people. It would be awkward if one child's image was shy and ran off. And for historical purposes, you want an illustration that doesn't stop depicting what you want. Sculpture can be stationary. why not flat images? How much magic does it take to do what Muggles can do with mere chemistry?
I respond, with the lessons I learnt at G.K.C.’s mighty knee: The sad and solemn secret of Elfland, of which Hogwarts is an outpost, is that the fay-folk lack one great and awful power given to us Muggles by our Creator: the power of ‘Thou Shalt Not’. So it is for us to say, ‘I make a photographic image of thee, and thou shalt not walk out of it.’ When we tell a thing to stay put, it stays, backed by the colossal might of Nature and Nature’s God. It is because the fairies have not this power that all fairy-gold turns back to dust.

‘Don’ts for Dogmatists’

I should very much like to write one last roaring, raging book telling all the rationalists not to be so utterly irrational. The book would be simply a string of violent vetoes, like the Ten Commandments. I would call it ‘Don’ts for Dogmatists; or Things I Am Tired Of’.
. . . . . . . . . . Don’t say, ‘There is no true creed; for each creed believes itself right and the others wrong.’ Probably one of the creeds is right and the others are wrong. Diversity does show that most of the views must be wrong. It does not by the faintest logic show that they all must be wrong. I suppose there is no subject on which opinions differ with more desperate sincerity than about which horse will win the Derby. These are certainly solemn convictions; men risk ruin for them. The man who puts his shirt on Potosi must believe in that animal, and each of the other men putting their last garments upon other quadrupeds must believe in them quite as sincerely. They are all serious, and most of them are wrong. But one of them is right. One of the faiths is justified; one of the horses does win; not always even the dark horse which might stand for Agnosticism, but often the obvious and popular horse of Orthodoxy. Democracy has its occasional victories; and even the Favourite has been known to come in first. But the point here is that something comes in first. That there were many beliefs does not destroy the fact that there was one well-founded belief. I believe (merely upon authority) that the world is round. That there may be tribes who believe it to be triangular or oblong does not alter the fact that it is certainly some shape, and therefore not any other shape. Therefore I repeat, with the wail of imprecation, don’t say that the variety of creeds prevents you from accepting any creed. It is an unintelligent remark.

—G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

On St. George Revivified

An essay by G. K. Chesterton, as collected in All I Survey, reproduced here in honour of St. George’s Day.
The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our own social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town. Yet this sense of the past is curiously patchy among the most intelligent and instructed people, especially in modern England. Among a hundred such scraps and snippets, I saw this morning a literary competition in an exceedingly highbrow weekly, a prize being awarded for a conversation between a modern interviewer and St. George. And I was struck by the fact that clever, and even brilliant, contributors missed much of the point, even about the modern interviewer, by missing the point about the ancient saint. I am not setting up as an authority on either. I am not pretending to be learned; nor is there here any question of learning. It is a question of quite superficial information, but of information that is fairly well spread over the whole surface. I have not been right slap-bang through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lately, any more than had Mr. Silas Wegg; I have not read every word of the Acta Sanctorum within the last week or so; I have not even read very closely the relatively modern romance of The Seven Champions of Christendom. I have nothing but general information; but it is fairly general. What surprises me in people younger, brighter, and more progressively educated than myself is that their general information is very patchy. Now, it is unfair to say that they know nothing about St. George, because it may fairly be answered that there is nothing to be known about St. George. In one sense, nobody knows who St. George was; we only know who he was not. The only clear and solid fact about him is that he certainly was not what Gibbon said he was; the contractor of Cappadocia. He was merely recorded as a common soldier of the legions martyred with multitudes under Diocletian; nor is there any particular reason to doubt that he was. All the rest is legend, though legend is often very valuable to history. And I mean by general information the sense of the life in legends; how they grow; where they come from; why they remain. I know what saints were supposed to be; what patron saints were supposed to do; how they often did it for the most diverse groups ages after their death; how other saints besides George dealt with dragons; how other nations besides England invoked St. George; how the saints were before the knights; how the knights were before the nations; and so on. In short, I have picked up quite crudely what Mr. Wells calls an Outline of History; but a more scientifically educated generation still seems to have only snippets of history: the lie out of Gibbon; the legend about the dragon; the phrase ‘St. George for Merry England,’ and such isolated items. The result is a curious sort of narrowness, even about the problem of the present or the immediate past. For instance, one quite intelligent contributor apparently identified ‘St. George’ as somebody supposed to have lived in ‘Merry England’, and explained that his period (whatever it was supposed to be) was not really merry, because there was a great deal of mud in the streets, or people lived in mud hovels. Apart from everything else, I call it narrow for a man to suppose that Mud is the opposite of Merriment. Did he never make any mud-pies? Was he not much merrier making them than contributing to intellectual weeklies? But the essential point is this. Everybody thought the joke must be found in showing how unlike St. George’s time was to ours. I think it would be a much better joke to show how extremely like St. George’s time was to ours. But the writers are hampered in this by being extremely vague about what was St. George’s time. Now, a man in the later Roman Empire, like George the Martyr, would have seen all round him an ancient world that was astonishingly like the modern world. Whether or no Merry England was a suitable phrase for mediævalism, whether or no mediævalism was all mud, it is quite certain that the Empire of Diocletian was not all mud. Imperial Rome was not all mud, but all marble, all mortar and massive building, all pipes and tanks and engineering, all sorts of elaborate equipments of luxury or hygiene. And among all those palatial baths and towering aqueducts, George would probably be thinking pretty much what many an intelligent man is thinking now – that man does not live by soap alone; and that hygiene, or even health, is not much good unless you can take a healthy view of it – or, better still, feel a healthy indifference to it. Suppose, for instance, that the soldier George had read some of the satires on fashionable society that were produced in that old Pagan world. He would find fact after fact and fashion after fashion exactly parallel to our own. He would find Juvenal making fun of fashionable ladies who join in masculine sports or adventures in a spirit of self-advertisement. The Roman satirist describes how grand Roman ladies would appear as gladiators in the arena, sacrificing not only modesty, but the manners of their rank, in order to be in the limelight. That exact fashionable blend of Feminism and Publicity did really exist in the real epoch of the real St. George: almost exactly as it exists today. Or suppose the Roman soldier read the religious and philosophical literature circulating through the Roman Empire. He would find all that we call New Religions now already called New Religions then. He would find idealists who were Vegetarians, like Apollonius of Tyana; theosophists who had learned all about Reincarnation from Brahmins and Hindu seers; prophets of the Simple Life in the drawing-rooms of duchesses, talking about the secrets of health, wealth, and wisdom; promises of a new Universal Religion, which should include all beliefs without any particular belief in any of them. If the real original St. George did find himself interviewed by a modern newspaper man, he would think that hardly anything in the newspaper was new. He would not think primarily that he had come into a strange world, far away from dragons and princesses and mediæval armour. He would think he had got back into the old bewildered and decaying world of the last phase of Paganism, loud with denials of religion and louder with the howlings of superstition. He would find everything in Juvenal – except Juvenal. He would find quite as many absurd lady gladiators – only not so many people calling them absurd. He would be quite at home, thinking himself back in the old Diocletian Empire – and he would prepare for death.

Modern Thought

These philosophers, like so many modern philosophers, do not possess the patience to see what they are taking for granted.  Have you ever seen a fellow fail at the high jump because he had not gone far enough back for his run? That is Modern Thought.  It is so confident of where it is going to that it does not know where it comes from.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

Neighbours and enemies

The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.

 —G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

Finishing sentences

I have been reading G. K. C.’s autobiography, and here and there having flashes of fellow-feeling where I least expected them. It is common enough with me to feel that I understand something that Chesterton understands, but an entire surprise to find that one of those things, even in small part, should be William Butler Yeats. Here one master of English rhetoric remarks upon another, with, I believe, exquisite and approving justice:
I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, ‘Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined.’ That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it. I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate. But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say. Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end.

—G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography

Finishing schools

There used to be, and possibly is, a mysterious institution for young ladies known as a finishing-school. The chief case against it was that, in certain instances, it meant finishing an education without ever beginning it. In any case, this is what is the matter with a great many modern institutions…. The curse of nearly all such judgements is the journalistic curse of having heard the latest news; that is, of having heard the end of the story without having even heard of the beginning. We talk of people not knowing the A B C of a subject, but the trouble with these people is that they do know the X Y Z of a subject without knowing the A B C.

—G. K. Chesterton, All I Survey

I draw just one distinguo. The latest news, in such affairs, is seldom or never the last news. Journalists, and the sort of people who take their opinions from journalism, are much more likely to walk into the middle of a conversation, hear the L M N of the subject, and suppose that it ends there; or project its ultimate outcome without ever inquiring about its grounds or origins, and hastily conclude that it will end with something like Ayin, Psi, Wum. The eventual arrival of X Y Z, so predictable to those few sensible people who inquired into the whole of the subject, nearly always leaves the journal-minded in a state of indignant surprise.