As I Was Saying/Essay IV

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Essay III As I Was Saying
Essay IV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay V

Essay IV: About Traffic

HISTORIANS will probably mark the present epoch by the problem of the Traffic. Unless, indeed, the historians, who are an absent-minded race of men, have all been killed by the traffic before they can write any histories of it. It seems an almost fitting fate for almost any literary man in such a chaos. I hope there is no irreverence to one of the most beautiful spiritual lyrics in the world if I say that that starry and blazing phrase of Francis Thompson, "Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross," has sometimes raised in me an irrelevant wondering about whether a man could now safely fix his eyes on the angelic ladder in the middle of Charing Cross and its more earthly traffic; especially if he were a man like Francis Thompson. Anyhow, we are now primarily confronted with a problem of Traffic as Traffic; in the most ordinary meaning of the term. Social reformers of the last generation used the term as referring to the Drink Traffic; a little later there was a moral but slightly morbid panic about the White Slave Traffic; and the writers of detective stories, that blameless and industrious race, still frequently make their murders and mysteries turn upon the Drug Traffic. I may say, in passing, that I rather regret this recent habit of criminological romancers. I like a murder to be committed by a murderer for the serious moral and spiritual reasons which make the murder immediately, though erroneously, satisfactory to his soul and his inner life. I do not like to think that he is a mere proletarian, dealing out poisons in the impersonal manner of a wholesale chemist. I dislike official organization even in real life; and it is dreadful to think of it invading romantic and imaginative life. It is profoundly disappointing to suspect that somebody, let us say a curate or a governess, is torn with seven devils of hate or pride or fear or envy; and then discover that this promising demoniac is only a bright and efficient salesman, receiving a commission for delivering the goods--if they can be so described. But this is only a parenthesis, called forth by my permanent passion for the topic of detective stories. I only mentioned the drug traffic in incidental comparison with the driving traffic; and the latter has become a problem quite as big and practically quite as deadly.

I am not going to propound here any practical solution for the traffic problem. I am not a rising politician; and not from my hand, or the waving of my wand, will there ever arise all over London a new forest of fantastic posts, surmounted by pumpkins or pineapples. But there is an inference from these things, which is none the less practical because most practical people will call it theoretical. Indeed, when matters are in such a muddle as the modern traffic, the only really practical thing is to find the right theory. Or, at any rate, to be able to detect the wrong theory; and to form a general judgment upon how far a particular theory is right or wrong. When these difficulties first appeared, there was always a bustling, business-like person who went about cursing and swearing and saying that all that is wanted is organization. But in one sense it is easy enough to have organization, so long as you have obedience; and especially obedience to the police. But the limits of this theoretical truth can be seen at once if we pass from the case of policemen to the case of soldiers. There must be organization and obedience in an army. But battles are lost as well as won by concerted movements of disciplined troops. The question still remains in what order things are organized; or what orders men have to obey. In the traffic problem there are now complications of strategy that would have staggered Hannibal or Napoleon. But we are not yet certain whether they are part of a victory or a defeat. It is easy to organize traffic, by ordering that vehicles making the difficult advance from Piccadilly to Charing Cross had better make a detour round Hampstead Heath and turn up again somewhere in Cheapside. It is strictly systematic that every wheeled thing which is to pass from the Strand to Fleet Street should cross Waterloo Bridge, visit the charming suburbs of South London, look in on Croydon, and return triumphantly by the Tower Bridge. That is organization all right; bless its heart--and improve its head. But neither in military nor in social strategy is there much advantage in the unity and discipline that means making everybody make the same mistake at the same moment. The comment I would make is more casual and general; but it is not without its importance in other problems besides the problem of traffic.

Just now, for instance, it has a great deal to do with what may be called the problem of Progress. Many have accused people of my way of thinking of being merely hostile to Progress; especially in such scientific forms as petrol traffic. Many, but ill-acquainted with my habits, seem to suppose that I recoil in horror from a motor-car and insist on being wheeled about, like Mr. Pickwick, in a wheel-barrow. But that is not at all the part of Progress that I find problematical. I have no particular objection to people going about in cars; though I may regret the curious evolution of the human form in America, where wheels have completely taken the place of legs. What was not adequately realized, by those who merely talked about Progress, is simply this: that Progress is never merely the solving of problems, it is always also the setting of problems.

Men of the philosophic phase represented by Mr. H. G. Wells always tended to talk as if we should soon disentangle the knots of past problems merely by more science and experiment. What they did not see is that we are always tying new knots and making new tangles, actually because of science and experiment. Progress is the mother of Problems. I do not say that Progress is therefore undesirable; or that the problems are therefore insoluble. I only say there will always be numberless new problems to solve. Mr. Wells himself has uttered a magnificently defiant faith that his scientific Utopianism will win through and survive the reaction against it all over Europe; because, as he says, intelligence cannot ultimately be defeated. I might say, in passing, that I see no purely rationalist proof that intelligence cannot be defeated. And I should rather like to know who decides that Mussolini and Maurras of the _Action Francaise_ are unintelligent. But the point at the moment is that men like Mr. Wells did talk as if Progress would be so intelligent as to relieve us of one problem after another; and did not allow enough for the fact that Progress itself might add yet another problem. We may, as a scientific prophet lately said, fly to the stars; though I for one find the earth far more mysterious. But if we do fly to the stars, there will be a traffic problem about flying-ships, exactly as there is now a traffic problem about taxicabs.

That is perhaps the most lasting lesson of the petrol traffic problem. The problem may disappear. The petrol traffic may disappear. But meanwhile we pass through what is a nightmare of mere nonsense; everybody made to have motor-horns; everybody forbidden to use motor-horns; everybody going round in circles as something straighter than a straight line; all the utter unreason of the mind when fronted with a riddle that seems insoluble. By all means go on progressing, if it amuses you; go on inventing machines for anything or everything. But always remember that you are not only inventing machines; you are inventing riddles.

Few people, I fancy, can feel very happy about motoring conditions in this country of late; unless it be in the rather curious sense which Matthew Arnold attributed to Goethe, in a very obvious imitation of Virgil:

And he was happy, if to know
Causes of things and far below
His feet to see the insensate flow
Of folly and insane distress
And headlong fate, be happiness.

The above lines embody a very exact description of the condition of motoring on our roads during recent years. There has been plenty of folly and headlong fate; and not a little insane distress and, what is perhaps more terrible, entirely sane distress. But I doubt if even the most detached could regard the contemplation of it as a condition of happiness. Nevertheless, I confess that I have a fancy for thinking about the causes of things; if I may presume so far to put myself in the company of Virgil or Goethe or Matthew Arnold. For the rest, I am not a motorist or a motor, or one specially to be described by any term indicating rapid or frequent motion. I am not enough of a traveller to find that traffic problem a very pressing problem; still less the problem which is not so much the motion as the stopping of traffic. In fact, I fear I never like the traffic quite so much as when it stands still. In the middle of a prolonged block in the Uxbridge Road, I have been known to exhibit a gaiety and radiant levity which has made me loathed and detested for miles round. I always feel a faint hope, after a few hours of it, that the vehicles may never move on at all; but may sink slowly into the road and take on the more rooted character of a large and prosperous village. Perhaps, after all, it is thus that our culture may return to the stability and sanity of the earth, which is now its only hope. I have sometimes felt inclined to get out of the car and make a little garden just outside it, staking out a claim and symbolically renouncing all hope of any further advance.