E. Belfort Bax January 1909

The Chestershaw

Source: New Age, 14 January 1909, p. 243-244;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It was unkind of Mr. Chesterton to go with “pitfall and with gin” to beset the path that he was inducing G.B.S. to wander in. But he apparently knows the weakness which is the badge of all the tribe of those who belong to the order of the smart-paradox. The one thing they can’t stand is to be accused of not being in the swim of the present season’s most up-to-date intellectual fashion. Call out “early Victorian” after them, and they scatter, cackling, like a flock of geese. I could not have wished for a better confirmation of my remark in my previous article that to attempt to smart-paradox a truth become a commonplace of thought simply results in silliness. Shaw’s article is an illustration of this. Shaw does not, indeed, say, as Mr. Chesterton alleges, either directly or by implication, that “the Rationalist view is bosh,” but, with the dread of that terrible bogey, the “early Victorian,” before his eyes, he does think it necessary to profess to have something much better than the plain, straightforward nineteenth century Rationalist doctrine of the alleged supernatural up his sleeve. And when he produces this wonderful Shawesque something, what does it turn out to be? A cheap verbal quibble! The “early Victorian” Rationalist divided alleged “happenings” into two orders: (I) events which were conformable to the bulk of human experience, and therefore credible, to which he gave the name natural occurrences; and (2) events which contradicted the mass of human experience, and hence were incredible, to which he gave the name supernatural occurrences or miracles.

These definitions, I may remark, coincide with those understood perfectly well by the man-in-the-street. Shaw apparently thinks he has produced a particularly smart paradox when he has merely confounded these established meanings by dubbing all events indifferently miracles, and distinguishing those termed by the nineteenth century Rationalist “natural occurrences” as “credible miracles” and the others as “incredible miracles.” Now, I absolutely fail to see any wit or wisdom in thus playing “hell and tommy” with language. Being born and living, for example, is clearly not in any sense whatever a miracle according to any definition of that word that has ever been current. Shaw’s article only shows the feeble twaddle in which the smart-paradox school peters out when hard pressed. Shaw means the same thing as the “early Victorian,” but in order to avoid the latter’s good plain English, he takes refuge in senseless thimble-rigging of words and tricks such as any paltry penny-a-liner could reel off. He knows perfectly well he doesn’t think that his belief that the sun will rise to-morrow justifies his belief that he or anyone else can turn a dog into a cat. The fact is as hinted at the outset, Chesterton taunted Shaw with being “early Victorian,” well knowing that Shaw, in the struggles he would be induced to make to shake off the hideous impeachment, would be inevitably betrayed into a very cheap product of the verbal quibble form of smart-paradoxy, and would thus, by making himself look silly, serve as a foil to G.K.C.’s own performances in the same art, many of which undoubtedly shine brilliantly as against this latest effort of Shaw’s, And Shaw walked complacently into the trap!

Mr. Chesterton is naive, however, when he gravely tells us that while Shaw distinguishes the credible from the incredible by his taste or prejudice, he distinguishes by his reason. Now, to judge from Shaw’s article, it may, I admit, be difficult to discover any rational ground for his distinction between them. But all the same, we may not be disposed, with all due respect to Mr. Chesterton, to accept his confident assurance that he distinguishes between the credible and incredible not, as other inferior mortals do, by their taste or prejudice, but by his reason. This we should most of us regard probably as a highly disputable point.

Mr. Chesterton is indignant with me for not attaching due weight to what he terms the Catholic Revival. But I have more than once referred to the fact that there is a Catholic fashion or pose prevalent nowadays. If anyone likes to call this a Catholic Revival, I will not object. Decaying systems generally have a final flare-up before they die. Notwithstanding the progress of early Christianity, there was a great Pagan revival during the second half of the second century of the Christian era. I still maintain that the said fashion or “revival,” if you like, is chiefly manned by those I call decadents (using the word in a broad sense). Mr. Chesterton has failed to show that I was wrong in this. He talks of a long procession of Agnostics who have entered the church, and gives the names of three such Agnostics, all of whom I should term decadents, and of one of them (Huysmans) I can only say if he is not to be called a decadent, then the word has no meaning at all. Decadents need not necessarily be of the broken lily, trembling aster, species.

Says Mr. Chesterton, “Every item” in the procession of converts “is as important as Wells’s conversion to Socialism.” This may be so, but if so, then all I can say is, its importance is not very great. If the Catholicism of these worthy persons isn’t more like the genuine article recognised by the International Catholic Church than Mr. Wells’ “ Socialism “ is like the principles recognised under that name by the International Socialist Party – but, well, it is no concern of mine! Mr. Wells has attained popularity as a clever writer of stories, and “fancies himself ,” having scarcely entered the Socialist Party, as already a pontifical exponent of Socialist theory. Why, he is even a little too much for the Fabian Society, a body which, as is well known, makes a speciality of collecting fearsome and wonderful Socialist wildfowl of this sort!

I must enter a protest against the suggestion that I have any “metaphysical quarrel” with our friend G.K.C. So far as metaphysical discussion is concerned, Mr. Chesterton is “out of it “ for me. This is no discourtesy on my part. A man can’t be expected to give his attention to every subject. Mr. Chesterton, who shows by his remarks that he utterly failed to grasp the significance of the only possible ultimate definition of truth (which, by the way, he makes nonsense of by misquoting), and who apparently regards the proposition “truth is truth” as a valuable asset of human knowledge, thinks he is a metaphysician. I do not. He tells us he can think, which he says means the same thing. Now, I know I am no mathematician in the sense of being able to follow out the problems of the calculus. But were I Mr. Chesterton I suppose I should say I think I am a mathematician – that is, I know I can reckon, which is the same thing! “Why, only this morning I added up my grocer’s bill, and this surely justifies me in confidently criticising any wrangler’s formulation of a problem in fluxions or of the square root of minus 1!” For if you can but cipher, the higher mathematics need not be that “oligarchic mystery” some foolish people take them to be!

Mr. Chesterton escapes once more by a side wind to the simple language cant. According to Mr. Chesterton, you do not think when you use words of more than one syllable, or when you go outside the vocabulary of the commercial traveller. His friend Mr. Belloc seems to be of the same opinion. The word “subjective” is scorned as the “faded jargon of the universities.” What we ought to say in order to be up to early Edwardian date is “made up out of one’s head.” We are compelled, therefore, by the “simple language” freak to use six words (embodying a crude and ugly metaphor) rather than one, and that one perfectly expressive in itself and well understood by every man with education enough to comprehend an elementary psychological problem. The criticism extorted by the above passage in Mr. Belloc’s article was expressed audibly by me in two simple words which could hardly be accused of belonging to “the faded jargon of the universities,” but, on the contrary, are perfectly familiar to Fleet Street.

As for Mr. Chesterton, he has a short and easy method with controversial antagonists. It consists, apparently, in stigmatising every word or phrase as “meaningless” that he feels hits him. But, in addition to this, any word that has acquired a well-established meaning in serious literature is obnoxious to Mr. C. in his character of knight of early Edwardian pedantry. I used the excellent and expressive term Zeitgeist, not without a suspicion, correct as it proved, that being a good, acclimatised word, it would get a rise out of Mr. Chesterton. I said, I believe, something to the effect that he took himself as the measure of the Zeitgeist. All I can say is that if he regards the notion of a given age having a special intellectual character of its own (which is what is obviously meant by Zeitgeist) as meaningless, it does not speak much for his intellectual insight or his historical education. In charity, however, I am willing to treat his diatribe as not meant quite seriously.

The tendency nowadays is to think you can settle any doctrine or principle you dislike by flinging an epithet at it or its representative. There are certain Socialists we have seen who think they have achieved something by dubbing other Socialists who refuse to pronounce their shibboleth, and confine their Socialism within the four corners of an economic formula, “cranks.” This word appears to have a magical efficacy attaching to it for some minds. For me these words break no bones. They simply mean that the person who uses them disagrees with those he characterises in this way. I don’t deny that “cranks” exist, and I have my own definition of the word, but the fast and loose way in which it is used nowadays degrades it to a mere form of vulgar abuse for anyone whose views you disapprove of. Again, I do not deny that the thought of the “early Victorian” is not precisely our thought to-day, but I do deny that the thought embodied in the epigrammatic brilliances of Shaw and the smart paradoxes of Chesterton are necessarily any nearer truth than the thought of the “early Victorian.” In fact, of the two, I believe that the next generation will find the sediment of truth or availably useful theory left by “early Victorian” thought will be incomparably greater than that left by early Edwardian smartness.

As for the monosyllable mania which would condemn us all to talk about ideas “made out of our own heads” instead of calling such ideas “subjective,” setting up a pedantic purism of the vocabulary of the infant school and the small suburban householder, this does strike me as the lowest abyss of literary cant. There would be just as much, nay more, reason for going back to twelfth century English. Can anything be more perverse than to ignore the fact that language grows and adapts itself by usage to the concepts it is sought to express? To deliberately discard words and phrases which have grown to fit a given subject-matter in order to revert to a jargon of crude and clumsy circumlocutions, with a view of seeming sweetly simple, is a piece of conscious affectation which seems to me unworthy of anybody outside a guild of prigs.