All I Survey/Essay XLI

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Essay XL All I Survey
Essay XLI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XLII



Essay XLI: On Eating and Sleeping

SOME time or other, I think, I will write a really thoughtful and educational article about Bed or Breakfast or Baths or Breathing, or some of those simple things, or things that seem simple to simple people. And it shall be written in the exact and peculiar style of a modern article on Marriage or the Family or Patriotism or Religion. I have read such multitudes of these modern articles, especially leading articles and articles in the lighter style of popular science; there are so many of them, and they are all so exactly alike, that I believe I could reproduce the manner pretty correctly and the type of argument, in so far as there is one. We will suppose, for the sake of argument, that I have selected the subject of "Food: Human Habit of Consuming." In which case I should be entirely safe, and even successful, if I wrote something like this:

"The progress of enlightenment, it must be admitted, tends to rob us of some of the emotional consolations which were possible to our ancestors in simpler times. Thinking men can no longer accept the ancient creeds and ecclesiastical dogmas which taught them that the virtues of an enemy whom they had eaten passed into their own bodies; the belief lingers in various forms in the common practice of eating beef and mutton, in the hope of thus absorbing the energy of the bull and the innocence of the sheep. And the modern Englishman, eating eggs and bacon at breakfast, hardly guesses that his real motive for doing so is a desire to partake mystically of the higher virtues of the pig or the bolder qualities of the chicken. It is not to be expected that these habits, resting as they do on such quaint survivals of savage superstition, should long survive the myths out of which they came; and the frequent appearance of Fasting Men at the World's Fair, in Barnum's Show, and other arenas of scientific experiment, is enough to show that science is again sending forth her pioneers to show humanity the better way. So long as the mediæval Church could impose her Feasts upon a faithful and obedient populace, the half-barbaric habit of having meals seemed almost to be a natural part of social life. There are many traces of the once-powerful tradition that bringing men together in love-feasts, or banquets of reconciliation, had a more or less magical effect of making them more friendly and more at peace with each other. And it may be that in ruder times even food itself was often useful for this psychological purpose, and was perhaps the only instrument that ignorant and primitive peoples could employ. Since the foundation of the League of Nations, men have learned the lesson that Peace Conferences can be successfully held without any of the old ceremonial gestures of eating or drinking, and any social use that such motions may once have served is now superseded by more direct and rational methods. The habit of eating may linger, here and there, among remote peasantries or rigid and reactionary individuals; but it is so clearly bound up with a whole world of ancient mystery and mummery, with the saying of grace, with the giving of thanks, with the proposing of patriotic sentiments over glasses of wine, that there can be little or no future for it now that man has reached his intellectual manhood. Gruncke, by the way, has pointed out that the cannibal notion of devouring and digesting the bodily vigour of an enemy is actually attested in the surviving popular phrase of 'drinking his health.'"

Now that is exactly like any number of newspaper and magazine articles I have read on the evolution of Marriage or Religion, only a little more sensible. The suggestion of Professor Gruncke about the anthropophagous meaning of drinking a health (though I have only just this moment made it up) is immeasurably more sensible than the suggestion of many professors on the subject of Marriage by Capture; proving that a bridegroom must be a brigand by the institution of the Best Man. They say solemnly that a chief always went out to the proposed abduction with some leading and distinguished man of his tribe. It never seems to dawn on them that he would have gone out in any case to any wedding, whether it were an abduction or not (or, indeed, to any occasion of any importance), with the leading men of his tribe. He would not be likely to select the most unpresentable and disreputable object in his tribe, when he went to visit his father-in-law. This ghastly and gaping lack of common sense, in all the attempted reconstructions of primitive humanity, is the commonest mark of all this sort of popular science and fashionable rationalism. But it would be just as easy to use it to discredit Food as to discredit Family Life, or any of the basic human things that it is used to discredit. All that is necessary is to give a string of suggestions (such as I have just reeled off without stopping for breath) in the case of the Savage Custom of Supper. Mention a number of myths that have some connexion with meals; mix them all up like a soup; leave out all the joints and bones of argument; and you can easily leave the reader with a general impression that a meal is a myth. Above all, you must keep on praising the reader, as a progressive fellow superior to his father; and you can easily make him feel superior to meals-- until next meal-time.

There is no space here for my powerful and cogent exposure of the Superstition of Sleep. It is set forth (or it might be some day) with all the exact process of thought and careful citation of facts and scientific authorities essential to this sort of work; the footnotes fill up most of the pages and the appendices are in five volumes. The recognized scientific method in such cases consists of two parts. First the writer points out that Sleep has a perfectly simple, single, and obvious origin in mythology, and then (second) he proceeds to trace it to about ten totally contradictory mythological origins. In the epoch of the Sun Myth, he will say that sleep was a sort of negative worship of the Sun God. In order to emphasize the idea that men only lived by the life and inspiration of Apollo, the priests of Apollo (acting as mesmerists or medicine-men) succeeded in making their dupes literally lose consciousness after the sun's disappearance; induced them to die daily and lie like corpses until the dawn. That is quite a good one; but there will be plenty more. When poor old Herbert Spencer still had influence, it was often suggested that Dreams were the origin of Religion. To such thinkers, it would be a mere trifle to amend it by saying that Religion was the origin of Dreams. Sleep was only the hypnosis (how fortunate and illuminating that the word hypnosis only means sleep!) imposed by the priests on the credulous savages; in which state all sorts of mythical suggestions could be made to them, thus producing what we call the phenomena of dreams. Therefore, as the world casts off priestly vestments and pontifical mitres it will also throw away bed-clothes, night-gowns and nightcaps, and everything that reminds it of the mystical trance once called sleep. Or it would be easy to show that sleep was produced among primitive men by means of a vegetable drug (still used in the Solomon Islands) that they might not spy on the secret practices of the priests before they themselves had passed the Seventh Initiation. Or there is the obvious explanation that the sacrifices demanded at the harvest ... but we need not go on with the theories of the professors for ever, even if they do. Perhaps you do not find this convincing. Perhaps you do not propose instantly to abandon the habit of eating or of sleeping at night. You say, defensively, that food and sleep are necessary to normal men. I fear it will be only too easy to apply the same argument to a belief in Free Will, to a concept of Right and Wrong, and to the perilous habit of humanity of marrying and having children.