As I Was Saying/Essay I

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As I Was Saying
Essay I
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay II

Essay I: About Mad Metaphors

OVER and above the horrible rubbish-heap of the books I have written, now filling the pulping-machines or waste-paper baskets of the world, there are a vast number of books that I have never written, because a providential diversion interposed to protect the crowd of my fellow-creatures who could endure no more. Among these, I remember, there was one particularly outrageous narrative, something between a pantomime and a parable on a variation of what the new psychologists would call a wish-fulfilment. Like most of the notions of the new psychologists, it is a notion familiar to the most far-off and antiquated fabulists. It is found in every book of folk-lore under the title of "The Three Wishes"; especially that excellent essay on the Vanity of Human Wishes, in which a man had to waste the brief omnipotence of a god in establishing right relations with a black pudding. But in my story, the black pudding was not so black or so indigestible as that producing the nightmares of Freud. Mine, like his, was such stuff as dreams are made of; but mine was only stuff and nonsense and not that perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart. So far as I remember it, it was an exceedingly mad sort of story; but _that_ would not have saved it from the serious libraries of modern mental science.

It was something about some people who had reached so sensitized and transparent a state of imagination that when they mentioned anything it materialized before their eyes; and this applied even to metaphors or figures of speech which they had not consciously conceived as material. Thus, if two lovers were talking and taking tea in a rose-covered cottage in a quiet English village, and one of them happened to say, "Of course, it may be rather a white elephant," a huge and hulking white elephant immediately strode up the street, trampled down the roses, and put his head in at the rose-wreathed window. Or if the genial old squire, walking under the quiet elms of his ancestral park, crumpled up a newspaper containing a political scandal, and said impatiently, "The man's got hold of a mare's-nest," he would instantly behold, high above him in the tossing top of the elm tree, the familiar form of Black Bess out of the stables, kicking and plunging in a well-meant effort to lay eggs. The most harmless comic man would be unable to say "Strike me sky-blue scarlet," without a complex change in his complexion, or even to say "Till all is blue," without transforming the whole landscape to a monochrome tint, with blue cows or blue babies disporting themselves under a blue moon.

The effect of this, I conceive, would be to introduce a certain austerity and restraint into human speech. A plain and unadorned style would prevail in literary circles. Fastidious writers would be even more in terror of introducing a mixed metaphor; for a mixed metaphor walking down the street would be even more terrifying than such hybrids as a centaur or a griffin. But he would observe considerable economy even in making metaphors, let alone mixing them. For him, as for Mrs. Malaprop, an allegory would be as devouring as an alligator. It is a very old moral that when we get what we want we sometimes find that we do not want it; but it would be an alarming addition to the prospect if we always got anything, not only when we wanted it, but whenever we mentioned it. And the vague idea at the back of my undeveloped vision was to describe a sort of dizzy whirlwind of wish-fulfilments and dreams come true; and to suggest how intolerable such imaginative omnipotence would really be. It would be like walking upon ever-sinking and shifting shingle; on ground in which we could get no purchase for our movements or activities. A world in which the whole solidity of things had gone soft would be the essential environment of softening of the brain. We should end by shrieking aloud for the resistance of reality; ready to give up all our paradise of magic powers for the pleasure of planting our foot on a sharp nail or barking our shins upon a box. Something very like that nightmare of luxury and liberty may be felt in much of the more irresponsible or lawless literature of our own time, in which a man is driven to deny everything because he has been denied nothing; and discovers in an omnipotence to which he has no claim, an impotence for which he has no cure.

It may seem rather far-fetched to connect the nonsense about the physical metaphors with the notion about the philosophical despair. Figures of speech are risky; for in art, as in arithmetic, many have no head for figures. I will meekly claim more suitability in my symbols than there is in some of those wonderful modern analyses of the meaning of dreams; in which digging up a cabbage and putting it in a hat-box is the spontaneous spiritual expression of a desire to murder your father; or watching a green cat climb a yellow lamp-post the clearest possible way of conveying that you want to bolt with the barmaid. And metaphor does really play a special part in the sort of mad metaphysics that I have in mind. Those who suffer this particular sort of modern softening of the brain have a great tendency to preserve the metaphor long after they have lost the meaning. The figures of speech are like fossil figures of archaic fowls or fishes, made of some stonier deposit and set in the heart of more sandy or crumbling cliffs. The abstract parts of the mind, which should be the strongest, become the weakest; and the mere figures of the fancy, which should be the lightest, become the most heavy and the most hard.

Many must have noticed this in a newspaper report, and still more in a newspaper criticism. Images that are used as illustrations are repeated without any reference to anything that they illustrate. If the incident of the Rich Young Man in the Gospels had been reported by a local newspaper, we should only be told that the Teacher had called him a camel, and invited him to jump through a needle. We should know nothing of the point of the needle--or the story. If the Death of Socrates were condensed into a journalistic paragraph, there would be no room for the remarks on immortality, and not much even for the cup of hemlock; but only a special mention of a request to somebody to buy a cock--perhaps turned by the report into a cocktail. This often makes the art of illustrative argument a somewhat delicate and even dangerous occupation. When we know that people will remember the metaphor, even when they cannot realize the meaning, it is a little perilous to choose metaphors with mere levity, even if they are quite consistent with more logic. Suppose I say in some political case that England had better go the whole hog, as did, indeed, some of those followers of Tariff Reform who were called Whole-Hoggers. I shall have to be very careful to explain, somehow, that I am not really identifying the English with hogs, but that it is only some bright facets of the hog that I compare with my beloved country, and that the quality in question is only a special and spiritual sort of hoggishness. Otherwise the audience, remembering everything I said about the pig, and forgetting ever thing I said about the point, will go away under the impression that I addressed them all as swine. They will attribute to me certain familiar and even old-fashioned depreciations of the English; as that England is stupid, or England is stubborn; in short, that England is, in the apt and appropriate phrase, pig-headed. There will go along with this other notions, equally true and trustworthy; as that England has four trotters and a snout, not to mention a little curly tail behind. But, in fact, I may, in a pure spirit of lyric praise, compare my country to a pig, so long as I explain it is in the noble and exalted aspects of a pig; as that he gives us the glorious gift of bacon, or that he is said to be highly delicate and chivalrous in his relations to his lady-love; or that, being rejected by Turks and Jews, he has almost become a sacred emblem of Christendom. Otherwise, if you talk about hogs, even Hampshire hogs, you will sound like a traitor to Hampshire.

You think the mere mention of hogs could raise no such storm. I mention that the mere mention of dogs really did. I once remarked that a new religion sometimes dies before the old one; and used Goldsmith's phrase for the unexpected: "The dog it was that died." A publicist denounced me in public for calling all my religious opponents dogs! It marks the folly of fixing on figures of speech. For had he followed the meaning, and not the metaphor, he might have made a real repartee, by retorting that it was the man who survived who was mad.