The Well and the Shallows/Levity-or Levitation
|The Reaction of the Intellectuals|| The Well and the Shallows
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
|The Case for Hermits|
I DO not see why a man should not sometimes have a holiday, even while he is doing his work, and write about something merely because it amuses him. I know I should be doing my duty as a Distributist, doing it dismally with the pen when others are already doing it more nobly with the plough. But, for once in a way, I am going to write merely for fun; and about something only because it is funny. And the funniest thing I can find for miles round is in a paper called the Psychic News, a past issue of which was adorned with a portrait of me, accompanied with the extraordinary and rather mysterious caption, "G.K.C., the Catholic who goes up in the air." Believing as I do in miracles, I have never claimed levitation as a power particularly likely to be manifested in my own case. But though not at present drawn irresistibly towards levitation, I am much tempted to levity. The charges are rather vague, except that they all seem to be equally unfortunate in relation to the facts of the case. The writer seemed to take it for granted that an article quite plainly signed by somebody else must really have been written by me, and written by me from no other motive but a fanatical Catholicism, although the man who really wrote is not a Catholic at all and said nothing whatever to suggest in any way that he was. He, however, is supremely capable of looking after himself, and the mere facts about this absurd muddle I have dealt with elsewhere. At the moment I only wish to wallow in sheer shameless enjoyment of the way in which the Psychic News attacks the Catholic Church and attacks me. I admit that this is mere self-indulgence on my part. I know that numbers of judicious friends will tell me that I ought not to take any notice of such an article. But nothing that can be called human is uninteresting, and this involves, to begin with, one puzzle which always interests me very much. And that is why people who fly into a rage with the Catholic Church always use an extraordinary diction, or verbal style, in which all sorts of incommensurate things are jumbled up together, so that the very order of the words is a joke. "Spiritualism depends only on the evidence which people receive in their own homes. It does not require priests. Neither do enquirers have to buy rosaries or beads, or crucifixes, or pay for candles or masses." It must be a dreadful moment of indecision for the enquirers, when they have to make up their minds whether they will buy rosaries or beads. But the last term is the best; and here the order of words is especially significant. Apparently the first object of a Catholic is to get a candle. If once he can get hold of a candle, and walk about everywhere clasping his candle, he is all right. But if he cannot get a candle, he has the alternative of purchasing a mass; an instrument that is a sort of substitute for a candle.
Now I did not, as it happens, launch any grand persecuting personal spiritual attack on Spiritualism, as this writer imaginatively described. But if I did, as of course I might, I do think I could make a better job of attacking Spiritualism than he does of attacking Catholicism. I should not talk as if a Spiritualist hung suspended between the two divine dogmas of the Sacredness of Tambourines and the Return of the Dead. I should not talk as if men chose between a planchette and a Ouija-board. I should not talk about "tables or furniture," or imply that a trumpet was the same sort of thing as a seance. But I never read an attack on Catholicism without finding this ignorant gabble of terms all topsy-turvy. There is always some such medley of misused words, in which mitres, misereres, nones, albs, croziers, virgins and viaticums tumble over each other without the wildest hope that anybody could possibly know what any of them mean. That is the first curiosity about this kind of writing. We can now go back to the only sentence in the paragraph in which anything like a meaning is apparent. It is that passage in which, we are told, Spiritualism does without a priesthood.
It does not require priests. It only requires a spiritual aristocracy really much more exclusive and privileged than priests; seeing they have direct access to new revelations, and their superiority is in their personal spiritual structure; they are abnormal as priests are not necessarily abnormal. But, however that may be, the paper in question reveals some remarkable impressions about spiritual functions and degrees. There is an astonishing caption under a picture of St. Joan of Arc; saying that she did not care whether she was a saint or a witch, because "she had a job to do and did it." How refreshing this language is. How full of the fifteenth century! Joan was just all out to get that job. She reckoned she could hold down that job. Gee! Joan wasn't the sort of skirt to bother about whether it came from God or the Devil, when there was a good job to hold down. The paper informs us that its religion is entirely founded on facts; but it seems possible to manufacture a good deal of abstract vulgarity without employing them. It were vain, I suppose, to point out the historical fact that Joan debated desperately for days and days to prove she was not a witch, long after it was obvious that her job, as a job, was either done or done for. But might not the suggestion, that it does not matter whether one is a witch or a saint, explain something of the distrust that some of us feel about Spiritualism?
As I am writing this for fun, I would not say very much about the central mystery of my own religion, or the laboriously offensive terms in which the writer asks me to "prove" Transubstantiation, as he apparently claims to "prove" Spiritualism. To him I am content to say one thing. Suppose the Church had tried to give such proofs, and with such results. Suppose Pope after Pope, and Priest after Priest, had stood up at the altar rails promising on the spot to prove Transubstantiation. And suppose Pope after Pope, and Priest after Priest, had been exposed as proving it by a faked apparatus in the Communion Table, by hidden wires in the cross and candles, and all the apparatus of fraud. Suppose, while many priests were doubtless honest men and perhaps honest dupes, it was a plain, palpable historical fact that the miracle had again and again been a mere conjuring trick, and the most famous Catholic saints had been caught and exposed doing the trick. If that had happened, I venture to say that the Eucharistic Congress would not now be so much respected by the whole civilised world; or by everybody except the hooligans of Portadown and journalists of the Psychic News.