Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter XV

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Chapter XIV Autobiography
Chapter XV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter XVI



Chapter XV: The Incomplete Traveller

If these my memoirs are not exactly lavishly dated, as indeed my letters are never dated at all, I hope no one will suspect me of any lack of reverence for that great academic school of history now generally known as 1066 and All That. I have some rudiments of knowledge about what may be called 1066; for instance, I know that the Conquest did not really happen until 1067. But I think the point somewhat unimportant, as compared, let us say, with the current view that the Normans reared towers over Galilee and reigned in Sicily, and helped to give birth to St. Thomas Aquinas, solely that they might make Anglo-Saxons yet more Anglo-Saxon, in the far-off hope of their becoming Anglo-American. In short, I have the deepest respect for 1066; but I shall continue in a humble way to wage a relentless war with All That.

But for me, in any case, compromise and amendment would come too late. I have written several books that were supposed to be biographies; and lives of really great and remarkable men, meanly refusing them the most elementary details of chronology; and it would be a more than mortal meanness that I should now have the arrogance to be accurate about my own life, when I have failed to be thus accurate about theirs. Who am I that I should be dated more carefully than Dickens or Chaucer? What blasphemy if I reserved for myself what I had failed to render to St. Thomas and St. Francis of Assisi. It seems to be a clear case, in which common Christian humility commands me to continue in a course of crime.

But if I do not date my letters, or my literary sketches, when I am at home and am to some extent regulated by the clock and the calendar, still less do I feel capable of such punctuality when the timeless spirit of holiday travel has not only hurled me through space, but knocked me out of time. I shall give only this short chapter to a few notes of travel; because most of the notebooks have already been turned into some other sort of books; on Ireland and America, on Palestine and Rome. I will only touch here on a few things that I happen not to have recorded elsewhere; a visit to Spain; my second visit to America; and my first, but I hope not my last, visit to Poland.

Let me first feed the hunger for dates upon the date-palm of Palestine, if the flippancy be forgiven; and so at least get the first few journeys in their right order; even if I consider some of the subsequent cases in more general style. I can proudly claim that I do know the date of my pilgrimage to Jerusalem; partly because it was a year after the close of the Great War, and partly because when my publishers suggested my going to the Holy Land, it sounded to me like going to the moon. It was the first of my long journeys, through a country still imperilled and under arms; it involved crossing the desert at night in something like a cattle-truck; and parts even of the Promised Land had some of the qualities of a lunar landscape. One incident in that wilderness still stands out in my memory for some strange reason; there is no need to recur here to Palestinian politics; but I was wandering about in the wilderness in a car with a zealous little Zionist; he seemed at first almost monomaniac, of the sort who answers the statement, "It's a fine day," with the eager reply, "Oh, yes, the climate is perfect for our project." But I came to sympathise with his romance; and when he said, "It's a lovely land; I should like to put the Song of Solomon in my pocket and wander about," I knew that, Jew or Gentile, mad or sane, we two were of the same sort. The lovely land was a wilderness of terraced rock to the horizon, and really impressive; there was not a human thing in sight but ourselves and the chauffeur, who was a black-browed giant, the rare but real Jewish type that turns prizefighter. He was an excellent driver; and the rule in those parts is that a Ford can go anywhere if it keeps off the road. He had gone ahead to clear some fallen stones and I remarked on this efficiency. The swarthy little professor beside me had taken a book from his pocket, but replied dispassionately, "Yes; I only know him slightly; between ourselves, I believe he is a murderer; but I made no indelicate enquiries." He then continued to read the Song of Solomon, and savoured those spices that rise when the south wind blows upon the garden. The hour was full of poetry; and not without irony.

The dates of my first and second visits to America have some true significance; for one was about a year after the Palestinian visit, and the other was comparatively recently; in 1930. This is not only because the first was very near the beginning and the second very near the end of the prolonged freak of Prohibition. I will not stop here to argue with any fool who thinks there is something funny about objecting to Prohibition. What is part of the same process is this; that one began with the Boom and the other saw the start of the Slump and what is more important, a profound revolution in the highly intelligent American people. It is not trivial that, touching Prohibition, they had wholly changed; at the beginning even those who disliked it believed in it; at the end even those who liked it disbelieved in it. But it is much more important that, by the end, life-long Republicans told me of their intention to vote for Franklin Roosevelt; even those who had cursed the demagogy of Theodore Roosevelt. The Americans have seen more plutocracy than anybody; but I am not sure they may not see through it sooner than anybody else.

For the rest, my last American tour consisted of inflicting no less than ninety-nine lectures on people who never did me any harm; and the remainder of the adventure, which was very enjoyable, breaks up like a dream into isolated incidents. An aged negro porter, with a face like a walnut, whom I discouraged from brushing my hat, and who rebuked me saying, "Ho, young man. Yo's losing yo dignity before yo time. Yo's got to look nice for de girls." A grave messenger who came to me in a Los Angeles hotel, from a leading film magnate, wishing to arrange for my being photographed with the Twenty-Four Bathing-Beauties; Leviathan among the Nereids; an offer which was declined amid general surprise. An agonising effort to be fair to the subtleties of the evolutionary controversy, in addressing the students of Notre Dame, Indiana, in a series on "Victorian Literature," of which no record remained except that one student wrote in the middle of his blank notebook, "Darwin did a lot of harm." I am not at all certain that he was wrong; but it was something of a simplification of my reasons for being agnostic about the agnostic deductions, in the debates about Lamarck and Mendel. A debate about the history of religion with a very famous sceptic; who, when I tried to talk about Greek cults or Asiatic asceticism, appeared to be unable to think of anything except Jonah and the Whale. But it is the curse of this comic career of lecturing that it seems to bring on the lighted stage nothing except comedies; and I have already said that I do not think America takes them any more seriously than I do. The real American commentary was serious and sound; and none more so than that of an industrial master of machinery, who said to me, "People must go back to the farm."

I had pottered about in France ever since my father took me there as a boy; and Paris was the only foreign capital I knew. I owe it to him that I was at least a traveller and not a tripper. The distinction is not snobbish; indeed it is one rather of epoch than education; half the trouble about the modern man is that he is educated to understand foreign languages and misunderstand foreigners. The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. A true traveller in a primitive epic or folk-tale did not pretend to like a beautiful princess because she was beautiful. It is still true of a poor sailor; of a tramp; in short, of a traveller. Thus he need form no opinion of Paris newspapers; but if he wanted to, he would probably read them. The tripper never reads them, calls them rags, and knows as much about the rags as the chiffonnier who picks them up with a spike. I will give only one case, since it recalls my connection with a very early controversy. All England came to two great moral conclusions about a man called Zola; or rather about two men both called Zola. The first was merely a filthy Frenchman; a pornographer we jailed by proxy even in his publisher. The second was a hero and martyr for the truth, presumably tortured by the Inquisition--just like Galileo. The truth concerned the Dreyfus Case; and as a journalist behind the scenes I soon found out the truth was not so simple. Déroulède said, "Dreyfus may or may not be guilty; but France is not guilty." I say Dreyfus may have been innocent, but Dreyfusards were not always innocent; even when they were English editors. It was my first awful eye-opener about our press propaganda. I am not talking of the conclusion but of the methods of the Dreyfusards. A quite independent intelligent Scot, an Oxford friend of Oldershaw, told me they had practically proposed forgery, by falsifying the size of handwriting. But the only point here is Zola, who was first nasty and then noble; even in his very pictures, his brow grew loftier and his neck less thick. Now I would not go to either extreme about poor Zola; but I happened to be in Paris on the day of his funeral at the Pantheon. Paris was fiercely divided; and I bought one of the fanatical rags in a cafe, in which Maurice Barrès, a pretty detached littérateur, gave his reasons for having voted against the apotheosis; and wrote in one sentence all that I have tried to say here about the pessimists and the atheists and the realists and the rest. He said he did not object to obscenity; "I do not care how far down you force the mind of man; so long as you do not break the spring."

Most of us would not look at such rags as that, of course; but they are full of remarks like that, for anyone who, not content even with condescending to look at them, has the morbid curiosity to read them. And the remark seems to me a more important comment on what Zola stood for than the mere fact that he stood for the Dreyfusard Party, even if he was as trustworthy about Dreyfus as he was certainly untrustworthy about Lourdes. Now we have not that sort of comment in England; for bulk and business methods and good printing do not provide it. But we have good things of our own to balance its absence; and the best of them are things we hardly ever hear anything about.

After all, the strangest country I ever visited was England; but I visited it at a very early age, and so became a little queer myself. England is extremely subtle; and about the best of it there is something almost secretive; it is amateur even more than aristocratic in tradition; it is never official. Among its very valuable and hardly visible oddities is this. There is one type of Englishman I have very frequently met in travel and never met in books of travel. He is the expiation for the English tripper; he may be called the English exile. He is a man of good English culture quite warmly and unaffectedly devoted to some particular foreign culture. In some sense, he has already figured in this story; for Maurice Baring had exactly that attitude towards Russia and Professor Eccles towards France. But I have met a particularly charming Anglo-Irish academic gentleman doing exactly the same work of penetrating with sympathy the soul of Poland; I have met another searching out the secrets of Spanish music in Madrid; and everywhere they are dotted about on the map, doing not only something for Europe but very decidedly something for England; proving to Lithuanian antiquaries or Portuguese geographers that we are not all bounders and boosters; but come of the people that could interpret Plutarch and translate Rabelais. They are a microscopically small minority; like nearly every English group that really knows what is going on; but they are a seed and therefore a secret. It can only be a comic coincidence, but it is a curious fact, that they are mostly of a certain personal type; tending to slight baldness and agreeable smiles under old-fashioned moustaches. If sociology were a science, which is absurd, I would set up a claim like a Darwinian scientist to have discovered a species. It is remembering these men that I find it easiest to range rapidly, for the purpose of this short chapter, over the different countries in which they are our very unofficial diplomatists.

I love France; and I am glad I saw it first when I was young. For if an Englishman has understood a Frenchman, he has understood the most foreign of foreigners. The nation that is nearest is now the furthest away. Italy and Spain and rather especially Poland are much more like England than that square fortress of equal citizens and Roman soldiers; full of family councils and patria potestas and private property under the Roman Law; the keep and citadel of Christendom. This is evident, for a first example, in the case of Italy. When I first went to Florence, I had only a confused impression that this Italian city was full of English ladies; and that they were all Theosophists. But when I first went to Assisi after I had been to Rome (in more senses than one), I saw that this is not quite fair. There really is a sympathy between English and Italian culture, which there is not as yet between English and French culture. There is really something warm-hearted and romantic gilding those stark cliffs that look across the plain to Perugia; and it is in touch with two nations. The English do appreciate St. Francis as they do not appreciate Pascal or the Curé d'Ars. The English can read Dante in a translation, even when they cannot read Italian, they cannot read Racine, even when they can read French. In short, they have some comprehension of medievalism in Italy; when they have not a glimmer of the granite grandeur of classicism in France. The surname of Rossetti was not altogether an accident. The devotion of my old friend Philip Wicksteed to Dante was an excellent example of what I mean by the typical Englishman with a foreign hobby.

I felt the same when I went to lecture in Madrid; and met that shy and polite Englishman who could have lectured to the Spaniards on their own Spanish tunes and songs. I did not feel that Spanish people were in a difficult sense different from English people; but only that a stupid Puritanism had forbidden the English to show the hearty and healthy emotions the Spanish are allowed to show. The most manifest emotion, as it struck me, was the pride of fathers in their little boys. I have seen a little boy run the whole length of the tree-lined avenues in the great streets, in order to leap into the arms of a ragged workman, who hugged him with more than maternal ecstasy. It may of course be said that this is un-English; which seems an ungenerous reflection on the English. I prefer to say that the Spanish workman, only too probably, had not been to an English public school. But really there are very few English people who would not like it to happen. Puritanism is only a paralysis; which stiffens into Stoicism when it loses religion. That sort of warmth and casualness was my impression of Spain. Oh yes, I saw the Escorial. Yes, thank you I visited Toledo; it is glorious, but I remember it best by a more glorious peasant woman who poured out wine by the gallon and talked all the time.

I recently revisited Spain, if the Catalans will allow me to call it Spain (opinions apart, I am sincerely sympathetic with such sensitive points), for I revisited it with a rush in a car that could only charge down the eastern coast to Tarragona. If I say that I charged, the motion is metaphorical; the motive power was a motor driven by Miss Dorothy Collins who acted as secretary, courier, chauffeuse, guide, philosopher and above all friend, without whom my wife and I would have often been without friends and in need of philosophy. For after crossing France and cresting the Pyrenees like Charlemagne and the Alps like Napoleon (or like Hannibal accompanied by an elephant) she brought me again to Florence, to deliver some lecture, and then returned through Switzerland to Calais, where the great campaign began.

In the course of it, I had two curious experiences in two foreign cafés. One was outside Barcelona, where the proprietor was an authentic American gangster, who had actually written a book of confessions about his own organised robbing and racketeering. Modest, like all great men, about the ability he had shown in making big business out of burglary and highway robbery, he was very proud of his literary experiment, and especially of his book; but, like some other literary men, he was dissatisfied with his publishers. He said he had rushed across just in time to find that they had stolen nearly all his royalties. "It was a shame," I said sympathetically, "why it was simply robbery." "I'll say it was," he said with an indignant blow on the table. "It was just plain robbery."

The other day was dateless, even for my dateless life; for I had forgotten time and had no notion of anything anywhere, when in a small French town I strolled into a cafe noisy with French talk. Wireless songs wailed unnoted; which is not surprising, for French talk is much better than wireless. And then, unaccountably, I heard a voice speaking in English; and a voice I had heard before. For I heard the words, "... wherever you are, my dear people, whether in this country or beyond the sea," and I remembered Monarchy and an ancient cry; for it was the King; and that is how I kept the Jubilee.

Returning through France, I remembered again the riddle, that I had found those far countries so near; but that the two nations that are nearest are those we never understand; Ireland and France. About Ireland, I have already written much; and I have nothing to say because I have nothing to unsay. I have written about Ireland in the hour of her tragedy, after the red dawn of the Easter Rising and the nightmare threat of conscription; and again in the hour of her triumph, when the Eucharistic Congress blazed before millions in the Phoenix Park; and all the swords and the trumpets saluted what was a Phoenix indeed. But there is one more nation, not unlike her in that tragedy and triumph, with a note on which I will end. Some day perhaps I may attempt a fuller study. Here in this chapter I only recall one or two things; not those I could remember, but those I cannot forget.

When I visited Poland, I was honoured by an invitation from the Government; but all the hospitality I received was far too much alive to remind me of anything official. There is a sort of underground tavern in Warsaw, where men drink Tokay, which would cure any official of officialism; and there they sang the marching songs of the Poles. Cracow is now even more the national city because it is not the capital; and its secrets are better explored by men like Professor Roman Dyboski than by anybody entangled in Statecraft. But I saw something of that difficult statesmanship--enough to know that, nothing but nonsense is talked about in the newspapers which discuss what they call the Polish Corridor. The fairest generalisation is this: recent events would be better understood, if everybody saw the self-evident fact that the Poles always have a choice of evils. I met the great Pilsudski; and that grand and rather grim old soldier of fortune practically told me that, of the two, he preferred Germany to Russia. It is equally clear that his rival Dmowski, who also entertained us delightfully in his rural retreat, had decided that, of the two, he preferred Russia to Germany. I had met this interesting man before; for Dr. Sarolea brought him to my house; where the Belgian, in his impish way, had taunted the Pole with his Anti-Semitism, saying persuasively, "After all, your religion came from the Jews." To which the Pole answered, "My religion came from Jesus Christ, who was murdered by the Jews." Pilsudski was also very sympathetic with Lithuania; though Lithuanians and Poles were quarrelling at the time. He was enthusiastic for Wilno; and I afterwards found on the frontier a historic site where Poles and Lithuanians are at peace--even when they are at war.

I was driving with a Polish lady, who was very witty and well-aquainted with the whole character of Europe, and also of England (as is the barbarous habit of the Slavs); and I only noticed that her tone changed, if anything to a sort of coolness, as we stopped outside an archway leading to a side-street, and she said, "We can't drive in here." I wondered; for the gateway was wide and the street apparently open. As we walked under the arch she said in the same colourless tone; "You take off your hat here." And then I saw the open street. It was filled with a vast crowd, all facing me; and all on their knees on the ground. It was as if someone were walking behind me; or some strange bird were hovering over my head. I faced around, and saw in the centre of the arch great windows standing open, unsealing a chamber full of gold and colours; there was a picture behind; but parts of the whole picture were moving like a puppet-show, stirring strange double memories like a dream of the bridge in the puppet-show of my childhood; and then I realised that from those shifting groups there shone and sounded the ancient magnificence of the Mass.

One other memory I will add here. I made the acquaintance of a young Count whose huge and costly palace of a country house, upon the old model (for he had quite different notions himself), had been burned and wrecked and left in ruins by the retreat of the Red Army after the Battle of Warsaw. Looking at such a mountain of shattered marbles and black and blasted tapestries, one of our party said, "It must be a terrible thing for you to see your old family home destroyed like this." But the young man, who was very young in all his gestures, shrugged his shoulders and laughed, at the same time looking a little sad. "Oh, I do not blame them for that," he said. "I have been a soldier myself, and in the same campaign; and I know the temptations. I know what a fellow feels, dropping with fatigue and freezing with cold, when he asks himself what some other fellow's armchairs and curtains can matter, if he can only have fuel for the night. On the one side or the other, we were all soldiers; and it is a hard and horrible life. I don't resent at all what they did here. There is only one thing that I really resent. I will show it to you."

And he led us out into a long avenue lined with poplars; and at the end of it was a statue of the Blessed Virgin; with the head and the hands shot off. But the hands had been lifted; and it is a strange thing that the very mutilation seemed to give more meaning to the attitude of intercession; asking mercy for the merciless race of men.