As I Was Saying/Essay XXX

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Essay XXIX As I Was Saying
Essay XXX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXXI



Essay XXX: About the Telephone

I READ a chance phrase in a daily paper the other day; indeed, I had read it in a great many other daily papers on a great many other days. But it suddenly revealed to me the deep disagreement that divides most modern people about the nature of progress; even those who are so superficial as to imagine that they all agree. The sentence ran something like this: "The time will come when communicating with the remote stars will seem to us as ordinary as answering the telephone."

To which I answer, by way of a beginning: "Yes, that is what I object to." Now, if you could say to me: "The time will come when answering the telephone will seem to us as extraordinary as communicating with the remote stars...," then I should admit that you were a real, hearty, hopeful, encouraging progressive. Though a progressive, you would still be a prophet; which some have considered to be a rather antiquated trade. It would still be very arguable that a prophet is either a man divinely inspired or a man who, by the nature of the case, is talking about things he does not understand. But, assuming, for the sake of argument, that a progressive can be sufficiently convinced and assured to talk like a prophet, I should say that this prophet was really prophesying the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and this progressive was promising us a real and substantial progress. To tell us that we shall find as much joy in a telephonic voice as we might find in a starry vision-- that would be a gospel in the very practical sense of good news. But to tell us that we shall be as much bored by the stars as we are by the telephone--that is not good news at all. It only means that something which is still a sort of vague inspiration will become, in due course, a very ordinary irritation. When the morning stars sing together and the sons of God shout for joy, when the mightiest music of the spheres reaches our earth as a new revelation of the depths and heights of sound, we should not exactly wish that the starry choir should cry in one united chorus: "Sorry you've been troubled." For in that pathetic cry from the exchange, the tragedy of our human lot is philosophically conceded. It is admitted, in the very words, that being called upon to answer the telephone _is_ being troubled.

It is admitted, even by the official mind, that in this sense man is born for trouble as the electric sparks fly upward, or wherever the electric sparks may fly; it is even hinted, though perhaps mystically and indirectly, that a life of peace, perfect peace, would be one in which the telephone ceased from troubling and the subscribers were at rest. But the truth goes deeper than any incidental irritations that might arise from the mismanagement of the instrument; it implies some degree of indifference even in the management of it. We are incessantly told, indeed, that the modern scientific appliances, even those like the telephone, which are now universally applied, are the miracles of man, and the marvels of science, and the wonders of the new world. But though the inventions are talked of in this way, they are not treated in this way. Or, rather, if they are so talked of in theory, they are not so talked of in practice. There has certainly been a rush of discovery, a rapid series of inventions; and, in one sense, the activity is marvellous and the rapidity might well look like magic. But it has been a rapidity in things going stale; a rush downhill to the flat and dreary world of the prosaic; a haste of marvellous things to lose their marvellous character; a deluge of wonders to destroy wonder. This may be the improvement of machinery, but it cannot possibly be the improvement of man. And since it is not the improvement of man, it cannot possibly be progress. Man is the creature that progress professes to improve; it is not a race of wheels against wheels, or a wrestling match of engines against engines. Improvement implies all that is commonly called education; and education implies enlargement; and especially enlargement of the imagination. It implies exactly that imaginative intensity of appreciation which does not permit anything that might be vivid or significant to become trivial or vulgar. If we have vulgarized electricity on the earth, it is no answer to boast that, in a few years more, we can vulgarize the stars in the sky.

Tell me that the bustling business man is struck rigid in prayer at the mere sound of the telephone-bell, like the peasants of Millet at the Angelus; tell me that he bows in reverence as he approaches the shrine of the telephone-box; tell me even that he hails it with Pagan rather than with Christian ritual, that he gives his ear to the receiver as to an Oracle of Delphi, or thinks of the young lady on an office-stool at the Exchange as of a priestess seated upon a tripod in a distant temple; tell me even that he has an ordinary poetical appreciation of the idea of that human voice coming across hills and valleys-- as much appreciation as men had about the horn of Roland or the shout of Achilles--tell me that these scenes of adoration or agitation are common in the commercial office on the receipt of a telephone call, and _then_ (upon the preliminary presumption that I believe a word you say), _then_ indeed I will follow your bustling business man and your bold, scientific inventor to the conquest of new worlds and to the scaling of the stars. For then I shall know that they really do find what they want and understand what they find; I shall know that they do add new experiences to our life and new powers and passions to our souls; that they are like men finding new languages, or new arts, or new schools of architecture. But all they can say, in the sort of passage I quoted, is that they can invent things which are generally commonplace conveniences, but very often commonplace inconveniences. And all that they can boast, in answer to any intelligent criticism, is that they may yet learn how to make the sun and moon and the everlasting heavens equally commonplace, and probably equally inconvenient.

Let it be noted that this is _not,_ as is always loosely imagined, a reaction against material science; or a regret for mechanical invention; or a depreciation of telephones or telescopes or anything else. It is exactly the other way. I am not depreciating telephones; I am complaining that they are not appreciated. I am not attacking inventions; I am attacking indifference to inventions. I only remark that it is the same people who brag about them who are really indifferent to them. I am not objecting to the statement that the science of the modern world is wonderful; I am only objecting to the modern world because it does not wonder at it. It is true that, in connexion with certain other political or moral questions, I doubt whether these mechanical tricks can be used as moral tests. But that has nothing to do with the question of the dazzling brilliancy of the conjuring trick, considered as a conjuring trick. Whether such a thing is an ultimate social test is really a question of whether it is a necessity or a luxury. And nobody ever doubted that a conjuring trick is a luxury. The ideal of a peasantry, enunciated by a French king, that there should always be a chicken in the pot, is doubtless different from the ideal that there should always be a rabbit in the hat. But there is no reason to doubt that the French king and the French peasant are capable of enjoying the purely artistic and scientific pleasure of seeing the rabbit rapidly and dexterously produced from the hat. Now I may, and do, doubt whether there is very much purely _practical_ superiority in the extraordinary rabbit over the ordinary chicken. I doubt whether great masses of men will get much more food off the magical rabbit than greyhounds will get off the mechanical hare. I doubt whether rabbit tastes any nicer out of the hat of a professor in evening dress than out of the pot of a French peasant's wife who happens to know how to cook it. In short, my doubts about modern materialistic machinery are doubts about its ultimate utility in practice. But I never questioned its poetry, its fantasy; the fitness of so sublime a conjuring trick for a children's party. What I complain of is that the modern children have forgotten how to shriek.