All I Survey/Essay XVIII

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Essay XVII All I Survey
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XIX

Essay XVIII: On Literary Cliques

MANY are complaining of the cliques in the literary world; and they are right for a particular reason, though I am not sure that they know it. The discontent, like so many of the present discontents, has a certain disadvantage; that it does not distinguish between the normal nuisances of human life and the special nuisances of modern life. Under no conditions should we all be equally in touch with each other, or distributing dispassionate justice to every human being like a Day of Judgment. It is natural for men to belong to a club, as it is natural for other men who do not belong to a club to call it a clique; and a great deal of what is called log-rolling is as easy as falling off a log. I have generally found that it was precisely because a man was generously and enthusiastically rolling the log of a friend that he complained so bitterly of the log-rolling among his enemies. But I am not forbidden to find that a writer is intelligent, even if he is my friend. I am permitted, perhaps, the vanity of supposing that he is my friend because he is intelligent; or at least that he became my friend partly because I thought he was intelligent. The relation is obviously open to abuse; and the method which I myself have always chosen is to praise the merit of a friend's public work as warmly as I felt inclined, but always to mention the private friendship as well as the public merit. Then anybody is free to discount it, if he thinks it ought to be discounted. But there is another and more neglected evil in the clique; in the club that cultivates some special variety in culture. The artists of such a group have a tendency not only to talk shop, but to talk workshop. They talk more about methods of production than about products of perfection. Like talkative art-students, they show each other their work before it is finished; and, like lazy art-students, they often find this an excellent excuse for not finishing it at all.

Perfect work is for the world; yes, for the stupid world. Imperfect work is for the class, for the club, for the clique; in a word, for the sympathizers. We show our worst efforts to the intelligent; we reserve our best efforts for the dull-- that is, for the supreme and sacred duty of all creative expression; that of being sufficiently pointed to pierce at last even the mind of the dull. For, whatever be the nature of creation, it is certainly of the nature of translation; it is translating something from the dumb alphabet and dim infantile secret language in our own souls into the totally different public language that we talk with our tongues. If that translation were perfect if the ideas and idioms did really correspond correctly, it would all be as plain to the man in the street as to the man in the club. It certainly would not be necessary to show it in fragmentary hints to the man in the clique. But because our expression is imperfect we need friendship to fill up the imperfections. A man of our own type or tastes will understand our meaning before it is expressed; certainly a long time before it is perfectly expressed. Thus we rather tend to lose the old idea that it is the business of the author to explain himself. We tend to adopt the idea that it is the business of the clique to understand the author; and even to explain the author, when he refuses to explain himself.

A famous æsthete of the 'nineties said that the poet who was admired by poets must be the greatest of poets. I will take the liberty to doubt it. I fancy that in such a case the poets are in fact collaborating with the poet. The beauty they behold in his work is partly their work as well as his. Just as the poets may see more than others see in every bush or cloud, so they may see more than others see in every epithet or metaphor. Above all, if they are poets of his own particular school of poetry, they will guess something of what he means by the queerest epithet or the maddest metaphor. But it does not follow that those words are the full and perfect expression of what he means; if they were, they probably would not seem mad or even queer. In short, the poet has not really travelled the whole of his pilgrimage from Paradise to Putney (with apologies to the ghost of Swinburne); an embassy of select and fastidious souls of Putney has gone out and met him halfway. He has not performed the full literary function of translating living thoughts into literature. He still needs an interpreter; and a crowd of interpreters has officiously rushed between the poet and the public. The crowd is the clique; and it does do a certain amount of harm, I think, by thus intercepting the true process of the perfecting of human expression. It is not wrong because it encourages the great man to talk. It is wrong because it actually discourages the great man from talking plainly. The priests and priestesses of the temple take a pride in the oracle remaining oracular. That vast but vague revolution that we call the modern world largely began about the time when men demanded that the Scriptures should be translated into English. It has ended in a time when nobody dares to demand that English poets should be translated into English. It has ended in a new race of pedants who are only too proud of reading the poet in the original, and merely murmur as they read, in a tantalizing fashion, that the original is so very original.

This is the paradox of the clique; that it consists of those who understand something and do not wish it to be understood; do not really wish it to be understandable. But such a group must in its nature be small, and its tendency is to make the range or realm of culture smaller. It consists of those who happen to be near enough to some unique or perverse mentality to guess that a man means something that as yet he cannot really say; just as a detective might be legitimately proud of having extracted some sort of valuable evidence from a lunatic who was deaf and dumb. But this does not make for the enlargement of the poet's power of expression or of the public's power of appreciation. The ideal condition is that the poet should put his meaning more and more into the language of the people, and that the people should enjoy more and more of the meaning of the poet. That is true popular education; and, if we really possessed that sort, we should hardly need any other. One party in the quarrel will insist that the public ought to take more trouble to understand the poet; and so it ought. But the other party can answer that the poet should take more trouble to finish his poems; and so he should. It is not a question of petty or conventional or finicking finish. It is a question of not leaving three-quarters of the poem inside the poet, with the rest of it hanging out, generally tail-foremost.

At present, even good poets often do not write good poems, but rather notes for poems. They think it enough to record, as in a sort of disjointed diary, that they _did_ feel a sense of poignant futility on seeing an old hat on a deserted hat-peg; or an indescribable surge of rebellion on observing a broken vase in a suburban dust-bin. And then comes the sympathetic critic, saying (no doubt quite truly) that he can imagine a man shuddering at the hat-peg or shedding tears into the dust-bin. But that is only saying that one individual can imagine the imagination. It is not completely communicating the imagination by means of the image. I am far from denying that a great poet might achieve a great turn of style, which would make something sublime out of a hat-peg or a dust-bin, as Shakspere did out of a bodkin or a bung-hole. But if such passages be examined, it will be found that nowhere did the great poet study the grand style more subtly than when dealing with such mean objects. Anyhow, he did not merely mention the mean objects, and then mention that they had filled him with feelings indescribable. He set out seriously to describe the indescribable. That is the whole business of literature, and it is a hard row to hoe.