As I Was Saying/Essay XXVII

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Essay XXVI As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXVII: About Change

THIS would be no place to inquire too closely why those bright youths who are so superior to eternity seem to be so subject and submissive to time; why they proclaim with such wild pagan gestures that they can pull down the cross; but assure us, with such anxious and agitated motions, that we cannot put back the clock. They seem to suppose that it is a sort of new religion to worship the clock; and that without even noticing that it is generally a grandfather's clock. For Time, whatever else he is, is rather an old gentleman by now; his hour-glass is a very antiquated sort of clock, and his scythe a rustic and archaic instrument quite unworthy of an exhibition of agricultural machinery. In other words, all this talk about things being suited to the times must, by its very nature, have been uttered hundreds of times before. And any one who listens in a meditative mood to the grandfather's clock will find it difficult to say that there is so very much difference between one tick and another; and may perhaps suspect that there was not quite so much difference between one time and another. I am well aware that some have hyphenated the name of Father Time, and that calling him Space-Time may make him seem rather more spacious. But, for all that, there is a little trick of logic, like a trick of clockwork, by which the young philosopher is caught in time as in a trap. His own time closes on him with a click; as in a creepy murder story I once read, in which a man was caught and crushed in an old clock. For the fallacy which entraps him is this: that he cannot apparently resist the temptation to base his argument on the mere moment of time at which the argument takes place.

I have just read a very vivid short story about an aged _grande dame_ in a country place and a young novelist whom she regarded as an upstart and a revolutionist. I hold no brief for the old lady; I entirely decline to become the grim and gaunt family solicitor who must certainly have been attached to her aristocratic family. I think she must have been a decidedly unpleasant old lady; and I think, as strongly as the strongest of youthful novelists or revolutionists, that she was stupidly priding herself upon the accident of birth. But what the young ass of a novelist could not see, and what the author of that author also could not see, was that he also was priding himself, and quite as stupidly, on the mere accident of birth. For she was only proud of having been born in a particular place; and he was only proud of having been born at a particular time. For what he said, and all he could apparently say, again and again and waving his arms about, was: "Your day is past; can't you see that your day is past? To-day is ours; to-morrow is ours," and so on; as repeatedly and relentlessly as the ticking of a clock. But this does not affect, in the smallest degree, the actual question of whether his day was worse or better than her day. If I advance the thesis that the weather on Monday was better than the weather on Tuesday (and there has not been much to choose between most Mondays and Tuesdays of late), it is no answer to tell me that the time at which I happen to say so is Tuesday evening, or possibly Wednesday morning.

It is vain for the most sanguine meteorologist to wave his arms about and cry: "Monday is past; Mondays will return no more; Tuesday and Wednesday are ours; you cannot put back the clock." I am perfectly entitled to answer that the changing face of the clock does not alter the recorded facts of the barometer. Doubtless, the old lady, when she was a young lady, declared that the present and future were hers, and that her aged aunt was very aged. But these pleasant and polite comparisons do not make it impossible to establish objective historical comparisons. And anybody is intellectually entitled to say, if he thinks so, that there was better social weather on the old woman's Monday than on the young man's Tuesday; or even on the quiet Sunday of the aged aunt. I do not say so; anyhow not about that old woman; and, as Archbishop Temple said, "I never knew her aunt." But to be rude and contemptuous to the old woman, merely on the ground that she was old, is even more unworthy of a philosopher than it is of a gentleman. And all this assumption of the superiority of the advancing hours, based on the accident of the hour that is passing, is in its nature unintelligent; in the sense in which a gross error in mathematics is unintelligent. The theory of progress may be argued; but it must be proved. It is necessary to show that certain social stages are superior to previous social stages on their own merits; and in many cases it may be possible to prove it. In some cases it is certainly possible to disprove it. But it is absurd for a young man to base his argument upon the mere fact that he began to join in the discussion in the year 1930 instead of the year 1830. That is no more valid than the fact that he joined up with his controversial companions at Turnham Green, when they had been arguing all the way from Hammersmith. The one is a mere point in time; as the other is a mere point in space; and each of them is as idle and irrelevant as any tick of the clock.

Naturally, in this tale here taken as a text, the novelist regarded himself as novel. But some study, even of the history of novelists, would have shown him that there is no such simple issue between novelty and antiquity. The novelist claims to be a realist; and he has as much right to defend realism as other novelists had to defend romanticism. But he is out by a thousand miles if he supposes that there has been a general progress from romanticism to realism; or, indeed, from anything to anything else. The great history of the great English novelists would alone be enough to show that the story was never a pure story of progress; but of rebellions and reactions; revolutions and counter-revolutions. When England began to escape from a Puritanism which forbade all romances, the great Richardson rejoiced in being able to pour out floods of tears and tenderness about the most delicate forms of love. When he had done it, the great Fielding rejoiced even more to pour out floods of derision, believing that his coarse candour and common sense was a part of enlightenment and liberty; though often concerned with less delicate forms of love.

A generation later, the great Jane Austen confessed herself disgusted by the coarseness even of Addison, and created a restrained comedy of which half the humour is its deliberate decorum. Then we went on to Dickens and Thackeray, the latter especially dismissing as barbarism what Swift and Smollett had regarded as realism, and even as liberalism. Nothing is now important about these great English novelists except that they were all great. Nobody discusses whether they were all novel; yet each in turn believed himself to be novel. Any one who goes by dates may find himself defending brutality against Richardson or prudery against Fielding. The worst argument in the world is a date. For it is actually taking as fixed the one thing that we really know is fugitive and staking all upon to-day at the moment when it is turning into yesterday. The clock-worshipper has a heavy creed of predestination; and it is only as the tavern closes that its priest cries aloud upon his god; saying, like all the sad modern sages: "Time, gentlemen, time!"