As I Was Saying/Essay V

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

Essay V: About the Censor

ALL my life long the noise of battle rolled, chiefly between dramatic critics and theatrical managers, about the rights and wrongs of the Censorship of Plays; and I have no doubt the noise is still going on over any corresponding Censorship of Films. But though there were incessant differences between those who agreed with the Censor and those who disagreed with him, none of the differences were so great as the difference between two reasons for disagreeing. There were some who seemed to hold that any artistic experiment, however anarchical or abnormal, or manifestly and even medically insane, had a mysterious right of its own to override any social custom or convenience, any common-sense or ordinary civic dignity. The artistic experiment had this right because it was an artistic experiment; not even because the art was artistic; still less because the experiment was successful. Even the worst play must take precedence of the best law. If the artists had wanted to have real blood in their murders, as some other artists used real mud on their landscapes, one can only suppose that these critics would have agreed to sacrifice a few human lives to the thrill of realism. If the actor-manager were working on the old lavish scale, he might be encouraged to turn the theatre into an amphitheatre. He might make a feature of real lions, which would be expensive; and real Christians, who would be rare.

Anyhow, the theory of the thing seemed to be that supreme spiritual authority in this world belongs to art, or rather, to anybody who chooses to say that he is attempting something new in art. I was never able to accept this highly modern and credulous conception; because I am unable to imagine any human being accepting any authority that he has not originally reached by reason. And I cannot conceive what reason there could possibly be for accepting the authority of artists; not to mention bad artists. But it was a very common attitude thirty or forty years ago; and it covers large spaces of society still. There is a great deal that is amusing about this arbitrary sort of artist, as well as the more obvious joke of his art. Perhaps the funniest thing of all about him is that he sometimes calls himself a Pagan. He is the sort of man who might be murdered almost anywhere, even in an English Socialist revolution; but if there is one place where he would be killed quite instantly for defying the gods and disregarding the dignity of the republic, it is in a city of the Pagans.

But there always was, and there still is, an exactly contrary case against the Censor and the Censorship. It is that the rules of the Censorship encourage anarchy, and that the worst sort of anarchy, which is anarchy in the mind. There is an obvious example, which I mentioned long ago, when this debate was more topical. By the old rule of Censorship, we must not put Jesus on the stage. It would be much easier to put Judas on the stage. It would be perfectly easy to justify Judas on the stage. There is now no form of blasphemy or bad morals that anybody is really forbidden to justify on the stage. A modern drama may be one wild dance of all the devils and all the swine. It may contain anything or anybody, except anybody who can cast out devils or destroy swine. Generally speaking, in the whole spirit of the thing, the one thing that the Censor can really cut out is God. He has no particular reason to cut out Satan; and no reason at all to cut out Satanism. No doubt the actual wielders of such powers try to soften their insane regulations by behaving as sanely as they can. But I am not talking about the Censor, but about the rules of the Censorship. And though they are by this time an old example, they are still perhaps the most distinct and disputable example of a certain moral muddle into which this country has managed to stumble during the last half-century. One other example is "Divorce Law Reform." One may think Divorce wrong; and yet feel it almost worse if men cannot even do wrong without a tangle of quibbles and lies.

Now, since the days when the Censorship quarrel existed in that form, the whole social situation has changed. I was about to say that much water has flowed under the bridges; but it would perhaps be truer to say that it has flowed over the bridges and overwhelmed the world with a flood. In those earlier days to which I have just referred, there was any amount of the artistic revolt and riot I have just described. But the revolt of artists was almost entirely a revolt of artists; or, rather, of a minority of artists. There was also, as I have said, a still smaller minority of those who rebelled, as I did, not so much because we revered art as because we respected reason. But all the rest of the people, that is the overwhelming majority of the people, were still traditional in their ethics though rather vague in their religion. Allowing for all exaggeration, we may fairly say of the new generation that it is the ethics that are vague; except in certain cases where they are decidedly vivid. And a real problem arises, about what we should do, in face of such a change of proportion even in the vague moral opinion of modern society. When I say a problem, I do not in the least mean what is meant by a doubt. I do not mean that I have a shadow of doubt about what we personally should do; and especially what we should not do. We should not do as they do; any more than we should beat Jews because we are in Prussia, or murder priests because we are in Mexico. There is no question of doubt about what is right for us to do, or to say; it is rather a question of what it is possible for us to prevent. Now, I think those who hold the old view of right should stand firm, stand apart and even realize they stand alone. They should attack. England looks much more hopeful as a Pagan country calling for conversion than as a Christian country calling for compromise. The roast beef of Old England will last longer when it is salted beef. But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?

We may fall back on the historic base of modern progress, on the fundamentals not yet formally reversed; and there is a case for it. We might say that if six undiscovered murders this year become sixty undiscovered murders next year, the commonwealth none the less rests on the idea that murder is wrong. We may say that three thieves to-day and thirty to-morrow and three hundred the day after to-morrow do not turn us into a Communist society. On the other hand, we may admit that, though not a Communist society, it is no longer a Christian society. And then, if we are Christians, we can launch a crusade to convert or conquer it. Now I think, after some sincere thought, that this latter course is by far the better. I do not believe in ignoring the Pagan morals all around us: it does not diminish the Paganism; and it only deprives us of the pleasure and advantage of denouncing it as Pagan. The assumption that tradition, and even convention, that virtue and even Victorian virtue, is still the rule, and anything else an exception, is all on the side of the sophists who defend vice. It is a rule by which we carry all the unpopular emblems of power, while they enjoy all the practical fruits of victory. They can flout us, because they profess that there is nothing to conceal; and we cannot fight them, because we pretend that there is nothing to fight. But, above all, from the point of the honest orthodox, the present one-sided truce has this enormous disadvantage: it prevents us from pointing out the one solid, staring, stupendous fact which is before all our eyes. It is the fact that we have not only seen a modern materialist civilization rise, but we have seen it fall. We have seen industrial imperialism and individualism a _practical_ failure. It is no longer a question of using the modern machinery; but of cutting loose from the wreck of it.