Fireworks and Fame

AFTER dozing over the cheerful platitudes of Macaulay and his literary kinsmen, it is with a gasp of relief that sve turn to some of the inspired absurdities of the younger generation. The ethical code of the aforesaid generation may or may not be an improvement on that of past decades, but its exponents have at least the merit of keeping themselves and their readers awake. Indeed, if any one characteristic may be called the distinguishing element in modern social criticism, it is this spirit of alertness on the part of the critics, — a tendency to stand squarely on their own feet, rather than to drop themselves against the eminently respectable and comfortable shoulder of conventionality — and there go to sleep. It is true that the discovery of their own powers of locomotion has surprised a few into fantastic gambols and occasional tumbles, alarming perhaps to the occupants of wheel-chairs, but welcome to the healthy citizens as signs of growth, to be greeted, not deplored.

And yet, after we have chuckled over the precocity of our contemporaries, we begin to be haunted by the doubt as to whether the originality of their style has root in a corresponding originality of thought. A few there are, perhaps, — Ibsen, Nietzsche, Gorky, — whose individuality we may not question, although one or two more drastic critics have murmured that Ibsen smacks of Shakespeare. But then, so does humanity. The great body of later novelists, essayists, dramatists, however, particularly those of English origin, have borrowed wholesale from the treasure-vaults of earlier thinkers, and their enlivening influence would seem to be due to the dazzling raiment in which they clothe a theory, rather than to the newness of the theory itself. The political economy of Bernard Shaw, for instance, is more or less of a hash, — composed chiefly of the ingredients Karl Marx, Proudhon, Brissot, — but, served up with the true Shavian pepper and sauce, it becomes a dish to tempt the epicure in search of variety.

But the man who succeeded in really bringing home to me the truth of this generalization about old wine in new bottles, was that master of paradox, Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Mr. Chesterton is a most genially caustic and entertaining critic; the kaleidoscope of his mind amuses even while it irritates; the effect on our mental vision is illuminating if taxing. Had Mr. Chesterton written nothing but Heretics, that brilliant but jumbled display of sky-rockets, the decade would still owe him the gratitude due to any effective eye-opener.

And yet, Mr. Chesterton’s methods are far more novel than are his ideas, though it is only after several readings that this fact becomes patent. Theories which we had received stolidly enough from the lips of Carlyle or of Arnold, come to us decked out in such fantastic garb by our more modern critic that we either bar their way, dubiously, or else receive them as visitants from another and better world than ours. As a matter of fact, it is this strangeness of garb, rather than any innate individuality which attracts attention. What other men have given us in sermon, Mr. Chesterton has reduced to epigram. That is all the difference.

His essay on “The Negative Spirit” will illustrate, as well as any, my meaning. In brilliant metaphor, he has derided the passivity of our minds, the passivity which calls itself tolerance, progress, because it neither accepts nor rejects any one creed. Now, to Mr. Chesterton, progress without firm convictions is an impossibility. If we have no goal in sight, whither would we progress, he queries, and adds, —

“Nobody has any business to use the word ‘progress,’ unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal . . . for progress, by its very name, indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never, perhaps, since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word ‘progress,’ than we.”

Whereupon we lay down the book, with an appreciation of the author’s acuteness in solving so patly for us the troublesome question of progress. It is only later that the words begin to sound like a familiar echo, and we ask ourselves whether we have not heard all this before. Was it not Carlyle who thundered against the passivity, the nonchalance of our lives ? Did not Cardinal Newman lament our indifference to decisions, and urge upon us the necessity of pledging ourselves to a definite conviction of some kind ? And, unless my memory plays me false, it was Arnold, the apostle of the intellect, who cried unto us to awake, and search for the truth in all things.

Even the two elements in Mr. Chesterton’s work which appeal to us as the most significant, his optimistic sense of romance, and his love for humanity at large, are really only developed phases of the romantic and fraternal instincts of Charles Dickens or of William Morris.

“ We may love negroes because they are black, or German Socialists because they are pedantic,” he cries, “ but we have to love our neighbor because he is there.

An interesting statement, yet, after all, only a crystallization in epigram of the code preached by Dickens in the histories of Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, or David Copperfield. Indeed, echoes from the world of Dickens are not infrequent in Heretics. “ Omar and the Sacred Vine ” is a veritable pæan in honor of social drinking — not the drinking of Khayyam, indeed, but that of Norse Vikings, of Falstaff, of Mr. Pickwick, of all boonfellows. The joy of fraternity, of a festival brimming with brotherhood and beer, is the motif of this essay, and a motif which has gladdened the hearts of all Dickens lovers for half a century and more.

As for Chesterton’s romantic optimism, — the faith which finds all things ultimately good, which envelops the chimney-sweep in a halo of glory, and exults in the mysterious nobility of boot-blacks, — may we not hold both Dickens and Morris responsible for this philosophy : Dickens who opened the door of his sympathies and let us catch a glimpse through it of the lives of workmen, beggars, and prisoners; and Morris, who looked yet further, and prophesied their entrance into a common heritage of freedom and beauty ?

A master of fireworks this critic undoubtedly is, and one to whom we owe a most royal welcome; and yet, in justice to the dreamers of preceding decades — now somewhat scornfully shelved — we must admit that Mr. Chesterton, in common with most of our critics, is deeply indebted to the early Victorians. His hand has lighted the fuse, but other men have supplied the powder for Mr. Chesterton’s display.