Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Reward Of Letters

IT HAS often been remarked that while all countries in the world possess some sort of literature, as Iceland her Sagas, England her daily papers, France her prose writers and dramatists, and even Prussia her railway guides, one nation and one alone, the Empire of Monomotopa, is utterly innocent of this embellishment or frill.

No traveller records the existence of any Monomotopan quill-driver; no modern visitor to that delightful island has come across a litterateur whether in the worse or in the best hotels; and such reading as the inhabitants enjoy is entirely confined to works imported by large steamers from the neighbouring Antarctic Continent.

The causes of this singular and happy state of affairs were unknown (since the common histories did not mention them) until the recent discovery by Mr. Paley, the chief authority upon Monomotopan hieratic script, of a very ancient inscription which clearly sets forth the whole business.

It seems that an Emperor of Monomotopa, whose date can be accurately fixed by internal evidence to lie after the universal deluge and before the building of the Pyramid of Cheops, was, upon his accession to the throne, particularly concerned with the just repartition of taxes among his beloved subjects.

It would seem (if we are to trust the inscription) that in a past still more remote the taxes were so light that even the richest men would meet them promptly and without complaining, but this was at a period when the enemies of Monomotopa were at once distant and actively engaged in quarrelling among themselves. With sickening treachery these distant rival nations had determined to produce wealth and to live in amity, so that it was incumbent upon the Monomotapans not only to build ships, but actually to provide an army, and at last (what broke the camel's back) to establish fortifications of a very useless but expensive sort upon a dozen points of their Imperial coast.

Under the increasing strain the old fiscal system broke down. The poor were clearly embarrassed, as might be seen in their emaciated visages and from the terrible condition of their boots. The rich had reached the point after which it was inconvenient to them to pay any more. The middle classes were spending the greater part of their time in devising methods by which the exorbitant and intempestive demands of the collectors could be either evaded or, more rarely, complied with. In a word, a new and juster system of taxation was an imperative need, and the Emperor, who had just ascended the throne at the age of eighteen, and whom a sort of greenness had preserved from the iniquities of this world, was determined to effect the great reform.

With the advice of his Ministers (all of whom had had considerable experience in the handling of money), the Emperor at last determined that each man and woman should pay to the State one-tenth and no more of the wealth which he or she produced; those who produced nothing it was but common justice and reason to exempt, and the effect of this tardy act of justice upon the very rich was observed in the sudden increase of the death-rate from all those diseases that are the peculiar product of luxury and evil living. Paupers also, the unemployed, cripples, imbeciles, deaf mutes, and the clergy escaped under this beneficent and equable statute, and we may sum up the whole policy by saying that never was a law acclaimed with so much happy bewilderment nor subject to less expressed criticism than this.

It was, moreover, easy to estimate in this new fashion the total revenue of the State, since its produce had been accurately set down by statisticians of the utmost eminence, and one of these diverse documents had been taken for the basis of the new fiscal regime.

In practice also the collection was easy. Overseers would attend the harvest with large carts, prong the tenth turnip, hoick up the tenth sheaf of wheat, bucket out the tenth gallon of ale, and so forth. In the markets every tenth animal was removed by Imperial officers, every tenth newspaper was impounded as it left the press, and every tenth drink about to be consumed in the hostelries of the Empire was, after a simulacrum of proffering it, suddenly removed by the waiter and poured into a receptacle, the keys of which were very jealously guarded.

It was the same with the liberal professions: of the fee received by a barrister in the Criminal Courts a tenth was regularly demanded at the door when the verdict had been given and the prisoner whom he had defended passed out to execution. The tenth knock-out in the prize ring received by the professional pugilist was followed by the immediate sequestration of his fee for that particular encounter, and the tenth aria vibrating from the lips of a prima donna was either compounded for at a certain rate or taken in kind by the official who attended at every performance of grand opera.

One form of wealth alone puzzled the beneficent monarch and his Napoleonic advisers, and this was the production (for it then existed) of literary matter.

At first this seemed as simple to tax as any one of the other numerous activities upon which the Emperor's loyal and loving subjects were engaged. A brief examination of the customs of the trade, conducted by an army of officials who penetrated into the very dens and attics in which Letters are evolved, reported that the method of payment was by the measurement of a number of words.

"It is, your Majesty," wrote the permanent official of the department in his minute, "the practice of those who charitably employ this sort of person to pay them in classes by the thousand words; thus one man gets one sequin a thousand, another two byzants, a third as much as a ducat, while some who have singularly attracted the notice of the public can command ten, twenty, nay forty scutcheons, and in some very exceptional cases a thousand words command one of those beautiful pieces of stiff paper which your Majesty in his bountiful provision tenders to his dutiful subjects for acceptance as metal under diverse penalties. The just taxation of these fellows can therefore be easily achieved if your Majesty, in the exercise of his almost superhuman wisdom, will but add a schedule to the Finance Act in which there shall be set down fifteen or twenty classes of writers, with their price per thousand words, and a compulsory registration of each class, enforced by the rude hand of the police."

The Emperor of Monomotopa immediately nominated a Royal Commission (unpaid), among whose sons, nephews, and private friends the salaried posts connected with the work were distributed. This Commission reported by a majority of one ere two years had elapsed. The schedule was designed, and such litterateurs as had not in the interval fled the country were registered, while a further enactment strictly forbidding their employers to make payment upon any other system completed the scheme.

But, alas! so full of low cunning and dirty dodges is this kind of man (I mean what we call authors) that very soon after the promulgation of the new law a marked deterioration in the quality of Monomotopan letters was apparent upon every side!

The citizen opening his morning paper would be astonished to find the leading article consist of nothing more original than a portion of the sacred Scriptures. A novel bought to ease the tedium of a journey would consist of long catalogues for the most part, and when it came to descriptions of scenery would fall into the most minute and detailed category of every conceivable feature of the landscape. Some even took advantage of the new regulation so far as to repeat one single word an interminable number of times, while it was remarked with shame by the Ministers of Religion that the morals of their literary friends permitted them only to use words of one syllable, and those of the shortest kind. And this they said was the only true and original Monomotopan dialect.

Such was the public inconvenience that next year a sharper and much more drastic law was passed, by which it was laid down that every literary composition should make sense within the meaning of the Act, and should be original so far as the reading of the judge appointed for the trial of the case extended. But though after the first few executions this law was generally observed, the nasty fellows affected by it managed to evade it in spirit, for by the use of obscure terms, of words drawn from dead languages, and of bold metaphor transferred from one art to another, they would deliberately invite prosecution, and then in the witness-box make fools of those plain men, the judge and jury, by showing that this apparently meaningless claptrap could, with sufficient ingenuity, be made to yield some sort of sense, and during this period no art critic was put to death.

Driven to desperation, the Emperor changed the whole basis of the Remuneration of Literary Labour, and ordered that it should be by the length of the prose or poetry measured in inches.

This reform, however, did but add to the confusion, for while the men of the pen wrote their works entirely in short dialogue, asterisks, and blanks, the publishers, who were now thoroughly organized, printed the same in smaller and smaller type, in order to avoid the consequences of the law.

At this last piece of insolence the Emperor's mind was quickly decided. Arresting one night not only all those who had ever written, but all those who had even boasted of letters, or who were so much as suspected by their relatives of secretly indulging in them, he turned the whole two million into a large but enclosed area, and (desiring to kill two birds with one stone) offered the ensuing spectacle as an amusement to the more sober and respectable sections of the community.

It is well known that the profession of letters breeds in its followers an undying hatred of each against his fellows. The public were therefore entertained for a whole day with the pleasing sight of a violent but quite disordered battle, in which each of the wretched prisoners seemed animated by no desire but the destruction of as many as possible of his hated rivals, until at last every soul of these detestable creatures had left its puny body and the State was rid of all.

A law which carried to the universities the rule of the primary schools—to wit, that men should be taught to read but not to write—completed the good work. And there was peace.

~Hilaire Belloc: from First and Last

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