All I Survey/Essay XXVI

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Essay XXV All I Survey
Essay XXVI
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXVI: On the Contiguous Past

ALMOST immediately after the end of the Great War a German wrote a highly successful or widely boomed book called _The Decline of the West._ The most human inference (in the opinion of many) was that the German, having assisted at the spectacle of the Decline and Fall of the German Empire, naturally wanted all the rest of us to decline and fall with him. He felt it would be obviously a breach of taste and tact for any nation to flourish if Germany had declined; if, indeed, he was even aware of the existence of such fringes of his Empire as France or Flanders or England. Anyhow, he applied his doctrine to all that is most active in our civilization, whether we are so constituted as to call it the Indo-Germanic race or prefer to call it Christendom. But there was more in this theory of his about a general collapse; which was also a theory of a recurrent collapse. In this, indeed, and in his general idea of a modern phase of decline, his view was quite reasonable and very persuasively stated. But there was bound up with it another set of ideas which are not necessarily any part of the theory, either that civilizations periodically weaken or that our civilization has weakened in our period. Those two theses may quite well be true; but the thesis of the book was false.

For me, at least, it was false because it was fatalist; false because it was unhistoric; and false because it involved a particular falsity about the very spirit of the great culture which the critic criticized. It is the whole point of that culture that it has been continuous; it was the whole point of the critic that it had been discontinuous and disconnected. He was not content to say that civilizations revolve in separate cycles, in the sense in which we might be said to belong to a different civilization from the Druids. He cut up ordinary European history into chunks, that were supposed to have no more to do with each other than Chinese history and Aztec history. He chopped ordinary Christian history in two in the middle, in order to deny that either part of it was Christian. So far as I remember, he attributed the first half of it entirely to the Moslem Arabs, because they were not Christians; and the second half of it to people of the type of Faust, because they were rather fishy sort of Christians, and German as well. And he talked about these divisions as if they were like the abysses that might separate a stratum full of primordial crystals from a stratum, æons afterwards, containing the first fantastic traces of marsupial life.

Now, I am quite certain, as a matter of mere common sense, that the history of Christendom, or even the history of Europe, was never so fragmentary as that. We are much more connected with the ancient Greeks than the German writer would allow us to be with the later mediævals, or even the earlier moderns. The sort of distinction he suggested only happens when a cycle of civilization really dies, and then fossilizes and remains as inscrutable as an ammonite. We have no idea what was the religion of the Cro-Magnans, though we infer from certain pictures of ritual dances (as well as from our own common sense) that they had one. We do not know the significance of the Cup and Ring Stones, though the fortunate and civilized of us still use rings, as in the case of wedding-rings, or cups even in the sense of wine-cups. We do not even know if we interpret the signs rightly, or whether they are signs at all. Now, the Greek gods have never died in that fashion; and the Roman Empire has never died at all. Of the most modern industrial cities in England, many have in their very names the title of the Roman Camp; and wherever there stood the Roman Camp, there stood afterwards the Christian Cathedral. There was never one moment, in the long history from Herodotus to Herr Spengler, when all the men who counted in any age did not talk of The Fall of Troy; there was never a generation when young poets did not make that old tale a topic for new poems. I wonder whether a poem by Heredia about Antony, or a poem by Morris about Arthur, belongs to the dead Greek period or the dead Arabic period? There was never a generation when poets did not invoke Virgil, if only to imitate him. There was never a generation in which philosophers did not refer to Aristotle, if only to contradict him. The thread of our cultural continuity has never been broken.

I think the fact worth recording at the moment for two reasons. The first is that the same energetic German author has launched yet another book, of much less dignity and of much more dogmatism, reaffirming his theory, and especially the most gloomy and barbaric parts of it. The other is that there is a horrible possibility that what he says falsely about our past may be said truly about our present and our future. I mean that, hitherto, the men of our ancient tradition have done everything except forget. Whatever might be fanatical or ill-balanced about their religions or their revolutions, they have each, in turn, taken particular care to remember the deeds of their fathers. Even when they poisoned the purer Paganism of Homer and Pindar, they did not destroy it; they left it standing for ever against them as a reproach. Even when they dethroned the Greek gods they did not dismiss them; in the first just fury they denounced them as devils, but in the long run they let them remain as elves. They let them remain as fanciful and fabulous figures, for literary metaphor or plastic decoration, so that Christendom has left the nymph in poetry or the cupid in sculpture. It is true that now, for the first time, the race that has always remembered is invited on every side to forget.

Yes; it is true that today, for the first time, our newspapers and our new politicians have asked us to forget, not what happened a thousand years ago or a hundred years ago, but what happened twenty years ago. When it is a question of shifting a policy or rehabilitating a politician, they will ask us to forget what happened two years ago or two months ago. Here, indeed, we have the great Spengler System, of total separation of one historical episode from another. Here is the true trick of regarding ourselves as divided by æons and abysses, not only from our fathers, but from ourselves. Thus, by reading the daily paper every day, and forgetting everything that it said on the previous day, we can divide human history into self-contained cycles; each consisting, not of five hundred years, but of twenty-four hours. By this means we can regard the politician we trusted last week as we regard the cave-man whose carvings we could not decipher in a hundred years. By this means we can consider the slogans and swaggering policies which we ourselves cheered only recently, as if they were hieroglyphics as unintelligible as the Cup and Ring Stones. This new quality of forgetfulness, in our current culture, does give some justification to the pessimism of the German professor; and if we accept such oblivion, then doubtless our "cycle" will really curl up like a worm on the floor and lie still for ever.