All I Survey/Essay XV

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Essay XIV All I Survey
Essay XV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XVI



Essay XV: On the Creative and the Critical

I HAVE already remarked on the American cult called Humanism. It is the creation of certain critics who, broadly speaking, would substitute a certain classicism, such as is found in the ancients, for both the romanticism and realism of the moderns. There are those, of course, who call classicism cold, especially those who like their own realism or romanticism hot and strong. As a matter of fact, classicism is by no means the vital thing in Humanism. It is especially not the human thing in Humanism. I am by no means sure that I should myself agree with the Humanist leaders in everything. But I do most heartily agree with them in one thing, and it seems to me very much the most important thing. It is substantially this. The Humanist says to the Humanitarian, "You are always telling me to forget divine things and think of human things. And then you talk to me eagerly and earnestly about the pathetic helplessness of human beings, their faulty environment, their fatal heredity, their obvious animal origins, their uncontrollable animal instincts, ending with the old fatalist cry that we must forgive everything because there is nothing to forgive. But these things are not the _human_ things. These are specially and specifically the sub-human things; the things we share with nature and the animals. The specially and outstandingly human things are exactly the things that you dismiss as merely divine things. The human things are free will and responsibility and authority and self-denial, because they exist only in humanity."

Upon this pivotal point I am entirely at one with Humanism, but I do not propose to discuss that particular point here. I only wish to record an impression about some of the more violent opponents of Humanism, and especially upon one phrase which abounds in their phraseology and presumably means something in their philosophy. Many who can look back on long and happy lives passed in the character of Young Rebels are very much annoyed at the appearance of this antiquated classicism, especially when it appears (as it generally does) in people rather younger than themselves. And I notice that the slogan to be used against the Humanist is to consist in saying that they are merely Critical, whereas all the people who happen to dislike them are Creative. And, though I have no intention of getting into a quarrel about the word Humanism, I do feel somewhat attracted to an attempt to consider what we mean, and especially what they mean, by the words Creative and Critical.

I take it that the disparagement of the Critical, as compared with the Creative, does not mean that nobody must be allowed to write unless he writes novels; that it is a sufficient condemnation to say that Professor Paul Elmer More has not yet written a murder story, or Professor Babbitt knocked the town endways with a roaring farce. The Humanists are human beings; that, at least, may be tentatively conceded to them; and human beings are allowed to think, even while they do not carve, paint, build, or play the fiddle. But when we consider Creation with a significance a little deeper, we find it a little more difficult. It is much too difficult to dogmatize about; nor am I dogmatizing: I am only asking questions, like Socrates, of people whom I suspect of not knowing what their own dogmas are. What exactly do these exquisitely modern moderns mean when they say that their modern literature is Creative? I strongly suspect that, even when it is clever, it is emphatically not Creative. It is exactly what it accuses its enemies of being: it is Critical. For instance, I have a hearty admiration for the amazing vitality and veracity of much of the work of Mr. Aldous Huxley. I think he is the most brilliant of the moderns; and he is admittedly one of the most modern of the moderns. But his work, considered as an intellectual process, seems to me almost entirely Critical.

Of course, it is not easy to point to anything that is entirely Creative. In ultimate philosophy, as in ultimate theology, men are not capable of creation, but only of combination. But there is a workable meaning of the word, which I take to be this: some image evoked by the individual imagination which might never have been evoked by any other imagination, and adds something to the imagery of the world. I call it Creative to write "the multitudinous seas incarnadine." I call it Creative by three real and even practical tests: first, that nobody need ever have thought of such a thing if Mr. William Shakspere had not happened to think of it; second, that while it is an apocalyptic, or titanic, it is not really an anarchic idea; it is gigantic, but it does not merely sprawl; it fits into the frame of thought exactly as the sea fits into all the fretted bays and creeks of the world. Also, in passing, with all its tragic occasion, it is a _jolly_ image: it gives the mere imagination a positive and passionate joy of colour, like the joy of drinking a purple sea of wine. But, thirdly and most essentially, it does reveal the moral mystery that is the whole meaning of such a tragedy; expressed by the knocking without which startles the assassins within; the notion of the thin partition between the crime that is hidden in the house and the sin that fills the universe; what was meant by saying that things said in the inner chamber should be proclaimed from the housetops; the true idea of the Day of Judgment, in which the world is, really and truly, turned inside out. It may also be added that that astonishing phrase is not only a speech, but a gesture. It is dramatic, in the vital sense, to suppose that dipping a finger could suddenly turn all the seas of the world to scarlet. But this very drama is a morality, and it would mean nothing that the seas were scarlet unless the sins were scarlet. ... But what is all this? This is not Modern. This is not Scientific. This is not in the purely experimental and realistic manner in which the Young Rebels have been writing for the last thirty or forty years. They all say they are Creative, and they ought to know. And, according to their theory of purely Creative art, there ought to be an entirely detached and unmoral attitude on the part of everybody involved. It ought not to matter whether the spot on Lady Macbeth's finger was blood or red ink; or whether she turned the multitudinous seas the colour of carnage or tomato soup. It is evidently a very soothing and insulated condition of intellect, and avoids all the disturbing currents of ethical and theological criticism. There is nothing to be said against it; except that, if everybody were in that scientific state of mind, nobody could write _Macbeth._

And there, as it seems to me, the whole theory of uncritical and uncriticized creative art breaks down. As a mere matter of fact, you cannot make any sense of _Macbeth_ unless you not only recognize but share a decided horror of murder. And how you can be shocked by Murder and not moved by Morality I do not know. And if being Critical means the tracing of these electric wires or burglar-alarms, these live wires of the laws of life which do, in fact, give shocks when they are touched or transgressed, then it is not merely the classical critics who are critical. It is Shakspere who is critical; nay, it is Lady Macbeth who is critical; she is extremely critical of Lady Macbeth. If the recognition of the real Ten Commandments of life and death is only being critical, then all the great creative artists are critical; and they would not be creative if they were not critical. Lady Macbeth would never see that blasting vision of a bloodshot world, except in the last agony of self-criticism.