Our Enemies


WE all know the ancient saying, and most of us hold it to be true, that “ old wines, old books, and old friends are best.” But to this fair list would it not be well to add “ old enemies ” too ? For, consider the importance, nay, the very necessity, of our enemies in the just economy of life ! What would we do without our old enemies, whom we have been fighting all our lives ? It is hard to conceive what life would be without them.

There are, for instance, my old enemies, the ascetics. If it were not for their unceasing opposition to all the joys of life, for me at least half the zest of my delight in the good things that are the direct gift of God or the fruit of man’s ingenuity would be taken away. I love to pursue with my maledictions these cursers of gladness, from the Buddhists of Asia and the monks of mediæval Europe to the latter-day saints of America. Shall there be no more cakes and ale, because these crazy zealots have interdicted pleasure in the name of the Lord ? Sometimes they war against meat diet, sometimes against marriage. They have now a mystic reason for warning us against wine and all the beverages that uplift the heart, and now against dance and song. Here they plant their batteries against all forms of dramatic art, and there against luxury in dress. They scout tobacco, and they rage against monuments. Would you have them cease these madnesses altogether ? Would you have no revilers of the arts, no sticklers for Sunday laws ? What would there be left us then to laugh at ? The sane would hardly be conscious of their sanity if all these forms of lunacy were removed from the world.

Then, there are my old enemies, the literalists. These are the men who comprehend no figure of speech To them metaphor is fact and hyperbole is the quintessence of doctrine. See what they make of Holy Scripture, turning into incontrovertible dogmas every Oriental trope they come across ! It is needless to specify. Every sect can see clearly enough where the other sects commit this logical fallacy.

To the literalists humor is as the schedule A in the array of specifications. Statistics can give no stronger warrant. They see into the heart of humor ? No, indeed ; they have an admirable knowledge of its rough rind, and can give you a scientific demonstration of its texture, color, protuberances; but of its inner richness they know as little as the unborn babe. Cervantes “ laughed Spain’s chivalry away,” forsooth! Horace played the coward at Philippi, it seems, the witness being that playful reference of his to the parmula non bene relicta ! What good to tell these dull fellows that no knight errant that ever lived excelled Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in daring courage, self-sacrificing devotion to his comrades, heroic fortitude ? What good to tell them that of all the Romans of his time none could compare with Horatius Flaccus in loving admiration for the heroes of the olden days, none sang so divinely of men like Regulus, none so lamented the ruin of the republic ?

Then, there are the enemies of literary art, the men who hold any form of knowledge, however dry and choky, to be superior to fiction. Unaware that a work of creative genius is the rarest of gems, they rank the droningest old compiler of facts above a Fielding or a Thackeray, and rebuke the sensible boy who is poring over Ivanhoe or The Maid of Sker instead of some third-rate pretense of a history. To these slaves of the treadmill, these devotees of the divinity that presides over public school ideals of education, a textbook is really a book, and all that Charles Lamb has written seems no doubt the mere syllabub of literature. James Payn once had a good laugh somewhere in print over these folk who love to “stodge themselves with information ; ” but his glee had no effect on the tribe of grovelers after fact and grubbers for statistics, since I find them growling savagely to-day at the numbers who are taking delight in Richard Carvel, The Battle of the Strong, and To Have and To Hold.

Close akin to these enemies of mine are those sciolists who would have art put on the garb of science, and utterly ignore the great truth that art is in its very nature selective.

I cannot relish these people, and must make war on them with pellets of the brain and gusts of Homeric laughter to the very verge of the grave.

Yet, as I have said, life would be but a dreary round of unappetizing pleasures without the stimulus afforded by the pricks and stabs of these enemies of mine. The ascetics, the literalists, the denouncers of fiction, the adorers of photographic minuteness in art, — all these have done, it is true, a vast deal of harm at critical periods of human development ; but, on the whole, what a precious hoard of mirth has been gathered into literature at their expense ! what a fund of exquisite amusement they afford at all times ! how diverting their antics ! Sidney and Shakespeare, Molière and Fielding, Sydney Smith and Erasmus (the clergy should go in pairs), Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to name a few among the cohorts of those whom I count on my side, have helped me to make sport of these Philistines ; and if the sons of folly were rooted out altogether, where would be the game for such keen and blithesome hunters any more forever ?

No, no, for Mourns’ sake, let us keep our old enemies.