All I Survey/Essay XI

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Essay X All I Survey
Essay XI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XII



Essay XI: On Phases of Eccentricity

THERE is still a fashion of making fun of the Victorians as very solemn people, but on that point I rather fancy they are still making fun of us. I am very far from being a mere apologist for Victorianism. But it seems to me that in many ways it is they who were frivolous and their descendants who are serious; quite unduly serious. For instance, what is hailed as a new style or a new school in literature often consists of doing as a novelty what a Victorian did long ago as a joke. Thus we have, in Mr. James Joyce or Miss Gertrude Stein, the coining of new words by the confusion of old words; the running of words together so as to suggest some muddle in the sub-consciousness. I do not recall the particular examples, but they would think nothing of saying that somebody was "drurgling," meaning "gurgling when drunk," or that somebody else was "widaslepe," meaning that he had fallen asleep at the moment of saying he was wide awake. I do not doubt that they really do this much more cleverly than I can imitate it. In expressing confused ideas, the moderns have great subtlety and sympathy. It is in expressing clear ideas that they generally find their limitations. All that concerns me here is that this literary style is offered to us, with unimpeachable solemnity; as a rebirth of language or a new power in the mind of man.

Now, Lewis Carroll was a very Victorian Victorian. But he did identically the same thing; only he happened to know that it was funny, and therefore he did it for fun. He invented what he called "portmanteau words," with the sense of two words telescoped into one. Thus he explained that "brillig" is a combination of "brilliant" and "grilling"; or that "slithy" is a portmanteau of "lithe" and "slimy." This particular instance happens to illustrate what I mean when I say that I am not a mere partisan. The author of _Alice in Wonderland_ is not an ideal being whom I revere, or hold up to be revered. In some respects he was much too Victorian a Victorian. On some matters he really was much too solemn. But he was not solemn about portmanteau words; and the admirers of Miss Stein are quite solemn about them. On an all-round view of cultural traditions and spiritual potentialities, I think it probable that I should very much prefer Mr. Joyce to Mr. Dodgson. But there is no getting over the historical fact that the Victorians could, in fact, invent these fancies, and could enjoy them for the fun of the thing. Whereas, in the general view of life suggested by the later schools, there is no fun and precious little enjoyment.

Over and above the light nonsense of the nineteenth century, which anticipated so much of the heavy nonsense of the twentieth, it is curious to note that the whole record is hardly encouraging to the more solemn sort of experiments. For the Victorian Age also had its experiments. The Victorian Age also contained men of letters, and even men of genius, who wrote in new styles regarded as uncommon, ugly, obscure, _outré,_ or over-subtle. And the extraordinary thing is that it is exactly those writers who have faded out of fashion and favour. There is much less intellectual excitement than there used to be about Browning. There is a quite startling silence and indifference about Meredith. Here again I am in no sense dealing with my own preferences, or discussing whether I regret or rejoice in these changes. It so happens that I always have been, and still am, very fond of Browning's work. It so happens that I never did become a pure and perfect Meredithian in the appreciation of Meredith's work. But I am talking about the facts of fashion and appreciation. And I confess I think it much more likely that there will be a rapid revival of Tennyson than a rapid revival of Browning. I know, as everybody knows, that there is a sort of worship (I am tempted to say a sort of idolatry) of the comparatively straightforward novels of Hardy, and something rather like a negative iconoclasm following the select idolatry once dedicated to Meredith. I do not know why this is so; I do not especially rejoice that it is so; I rather prefer the pantheism of Meredith to the pessimism of Hardy. But it does suggest that there is a mistake somewhere in the current theory that the eccentric of one age is the centre of the next. Browning has not left a dynasty of Browning's writing in Browningese. Meredith has not left a new literature, full of the typical fancies and freedoms, twists and turns, of the true Meredithian dialect. There is a moral to the Victorian Age, and it is a lesson of something to avoid. But it is rather a warning against being unconventional than merely against being conventional. We have many odd writers, writing in odd styles, in our own time; and they may or may not retain influence in later times. But I cannot remember a single Victorian with an odd style whose odd style is now of any advantage to him: not Carlyle; not Browning; not Meredith; not Doughty. The one solitary exception I remember, whose name has somewhat floated to the surface again of late, is that of Gerard Hopkins.

Thus I have a purely intellectual doubt of the future of fads, and even of fancies, unless they are treated frankly in a fanciful manner. I do not think any such experiment succeeds in twisting the tradition of language out of its common tendency. I can easily believe that a book like _Ulysses_ is a striking and original book in its place and time; like _Sartor Resartus_ in its place and time. But I do not believe that Mr. Joyce has added a new range or direction to literary expression, any more than Carlyle succeeded in turning the English language into a bastard barbaric version of the German language. I can easily suppose that Miss Stein likes having her little joke, especially at the expense of the reader; just as George Meredith certainly liked having his little joke at the expense of the reader. But the fact remains that, at the present moment, the trouble is not that the reader does not understand him, but that the reader does not read him. I grieve to say, from what I know of human nature and history, that I doubt whether posterity will even try to understand Miss Stein. So that she will share her little joke with her Creator until the end; which may be quite a good joke too. But the theory that has been so common of late, the theory that the evolution of literature branches out into new experiments, and always follows the line of those experiments, seems to me to be flatly contradicted by all the facts of literary history. It seems to me an objective fact quite apart from my own preferences; indeed, it sometimes goes against my own preferences. Crashaw and the Cavalier mystics were, in the best sense of the word, fantastics. They were fantastics of whose fantasy I am very fond. But they did not lead away English literature indefinitely to be more and more fantastic; to indulge more and more in topsy-turvy tropes and far-fetched conceits. In a generation or so, English literature was back in the channel that was normal; indeed, rather too normal. It was that poetry of good sense which began in the maturity of Dryden and died on the birthday of Burns.

Nobody knows what will be the fashion a hundred years hence, except that it will almost certainly not be anything that is considered the newest fashion today. If I know that a river has wandered in winding curves from its original fountain, I may be quite unable to guess where it eventually wanders after it has passed where I stand. The one thing I can be fairly sure of is that it will not suddenly begin to go quite straight like a canal. As a mere matter of guess-work, given the tendencies of our time, I should think it would be extremely probable that literature will give up all this notion of experiment, and not only return to type, but even to the classical type. I think it much more likely that there will then be a worship of Landor, for instance, or some rather neglected classical classic, than that the whole world will be looking back to Miss Stein as the mother of modern English prose. We see the tendency in the Thomists of France, in the Humanists of America, and I think it is likely to become rather more classical than I like. For I am a romantic person myself; and I also like my little joke, just like Miss Stein.