As I Was Saying/Essay XIII

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Essay XII As I Was Saying
Essay XIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XIV



Essay XIII: About Blondes

PRESENTED in very large letters on the leader page of a leading daily paper, I find the statement that "the problem that besets the most limpid of all America's blonde actresses . . . is too many riches." Gazing at this announcement, I fell into a trance of reflection, like those in which many modern writers have seen visions of the future. But I was only wondering in a vague way what an average society, supposing it to be restored to an average sanity, would really make of a sentence like that--if it were preserved like a papyrus or a hieroglyphic in some museum of the future. It is true, and our remote descendants might from other sources have discovered it to be true, that Americans in the nineteenth and even twentieth century have had a curious passion for competitions. Nothing is more popular as a topic in the transatlantic Press than the action of somebody who has been insane enough to select the Six Best Songs or the Seven Best Sonnets or the Ten Best Tales of True Romance. In some moral matters Americans have a real enthusiasm for equality; and their democratic instincts are very deep and will not easily be uprooted, even in these undemocratic days. But in other intellectual matters, perhaps because they really care less about intellectual matters, they may be said to have a passion for inequality. That is, they have a passion for classification; and they treat it as a sort of prodigiously and portentously solemn sport. Some complain that their sport is not sporting. I would not go so far; but I think it is even truer of them than of us that their sport is not sportive. Therefore they enter with excitement upon these scientific sports, which are supposed to deal with statistics and averages, but draw their inner life from an intense love of comparison and competition. All these scientific judgments are really modelled on the simple artistic judgment, which I once heard from a most charming American amid the landscape of the Alps: "Well, I can't see, when you've seen the highest mountain in Switzerland, what you want to see any more for." In his view the various Alpine peaks had run a sort of race, and the peak that reached the highest point was superior in that and every other respect. When we really understand that, we can sympathize with pie-eating contests or men sitting for weeks on end in a tree--or even with less intelligent enterprises, like committees for Eugenic legislation or Intelligence Tests designed to discover whether immigrants from the countries of Dante or Copernicus are or are not human beings.

So far all is clear; or shall we say limpid? This appetite for competition and comparison is a national characteristic like any other; sometimes inspiriting, sometimes amusing; we can sympathize with it, and our posterity might in some degree sympathize with it. So long as it measures the height of foreign mountains or the contour of foreigners' skulls, it is at least measuring things that are measurable. And there is a good deal of innocent fun in it, even when it is applied where it is obviously inapplicable; to measure things that are in their nature immeasurable. It might be quite amusing to capture every wandering Pegasus, ridden by every lonely poet, and organize them all with weights and handicaps as a horse-race. It might be entertaining to record that the sea-shanty of The Drunken Sailor has closed in a dead heat with the _Dies Irae,_ or that "Sally in Our Alley" has beaten "I'll Sing Thee Songs of Araby" by a length and a half. I have no very clear idea what it means, but those who organize it certainly mean no harm. Also, to do them justice, they are generally thinking about things that are to some extent practical and real; such as popularity or power of emotional effectiveness on particular occasions; sometimes, I fear, they are thinking about things still more practical, such as money. Up to a point, I am willing to be excited when they discuss what is the most popular song or the most beautiful woman; though I never saw the picture of a prizewinner in any Beauty Competition without thinking that I knew several better-looking women living in my own street. I should therefore accept, with a slight sigh, the statement that somebody was the most beautiful of all America's blonde actresses. But surely it is by some more curious convolutions of thought that anybody can reach so firm and fixed a belief that she is "the most limpid of all America's blonde actresses."

It seems to be assumed that all America's blonde actresses are engaged in a fierce competition for limpidity--whatever that may be. Not without bitter rivalries and breathless jealousies has the peculiar palm been won. Challenges have been issued to the multitudinous towns and villages of the vast prairies and the wide, open spaces where blondes are blondes. Indignant families have declared that our Sadie is as limpid as any of these dames down east; and Clytie has told her sisters that she means to be just as limpid as she knows how. The cry of "Limpid is my middle name" has resounded from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and numberless aspirants have assured themselves that they are just too limpid to live--before this tremendous trial of strength was decided. Possibly its echoes may have been heard even in foreign lands, and inspired the blondes of other races; except, I presume, the negro race, among whom blondes are said to be comparatively rare. The French soldier, sinking to repose to the charming tune of "Aupres de ma blonde qui fait bon dormi," may rouse himself with a start of suspicion and hiss the fatal question: "But is she limpid?" The German Hitlerite, now prostrate in worship of the Blonde Beast, which is his version of the Blonde Beauty, may wonder for a moment whether it is wholly, utterly, and completely limpid; which, to judge by the new German ideals as explained in the old German literary style, it is not. But in that respect the most obscure German diction is not much more bewildering than our own journalistic diction. What are we to say about that indescribable sort of newspaper writing to be noted in the example I have given? What in the world does all this sort of thing mean; and what are the vague and vast implications behind it? Why is the writer so frightfully certain that the lady is the most limpid of all American blondes, and what precisely does he mean by the epithet? The present age may be producing the most limpid blondes, but hardly the most limpid writers.

The truth is that the sort of journalism which now specially professes to be fresh, up to date, on the spot, and as new as the latest news, is, in a very peculiar sense, a residuum of stale things out of the past; an accumulation of antiquated associations of which the very origin is lost, and more like the end of everything than the beginning of anything. It is always using terms that have grown colourless through oblivion of their original context, which are now used rather with a hazy appreciation of their sound than a logical appreciation of their sense. I have called it indescribable; and it is really very difficult to describe. It goes far beyond what was once condemned as journalese, in the sense of being jaunty and even vulgar. It is a sort of jargon drawn from all sorts of languages, some of them aesthetic or scientific in origin; all these scraps of culture are now loose in the world; but, though everything is loose, nothing is lost, except the tradition of how to treat them reasonably. We have turned scientific language into a sort of slang; the sort of slang that is used to save trouble. Anybody can talk about problems and nobody need bother about solutions; anybody is free to talk about a complex so long as he can ignore its complexity; anybody can borrow a word from the studios or the workshops, so long as he does not pay it back by making any study or doing any work.

Some people seem ready to call this limpid; but I should be inclined to call it limp. The increasing inconclusiveness of most articles in the Press and elsewhere seems to me the most disquieting mark of our mental development. It is not found only in sentimental and sensational headlines, such as that I have quoted; indeed, the end of such an article is even more limp than the beginning. We may yet live to regret the passing of the political party slanging-match or the mere newspaper sensation. They were at least limpid.