Friday, March 27, 2015

An Essay upon Essays upon Essays

THERE has been a pretty little quarrel lately—it will probably be forgotten by the time this appears, but no matter—a quarrel between those who write essays and those who have written an essay or two to show that the writing of essays is futile. These last seem to be particularly annoyed by the foison of essays in the present generation. They say it has burst all restraint and is choking us under a flood.

Of old, the essay appeared here and there in some stately weekly paper. Then it dignified once a week some of the more solemn of the daily papers. Then it appeared in another, and another more vulgar. Then, not once a week, but twice a week, in these last: finally, every day. And now (say they) it is everywhere. And the enemies of the essay—or at least of this excess of essay, this spate of essays, this monstrous regiment of essays—are particularly annoyed by the gathering of the same into little books, which they think a further shocking sin against taste. It is bad enough (they say) to drivel away week by week, or even day after day, for your living, but you may be excused (poor devil!), for a living, you must get. What is quite unpardonable is to give this drivel the dignity of covers and to place it upon shelves.

The enemies of the modern essay go on to say that it cannot possibly find sufficient subject-matter for so excessive an output. And so on.

Now here let me break modern convention at once, and say that I am a good witness and in a good position also to plead in the matter. I have written this sort of essay for many weary years. I know the motive, I know the method, I know the weakness, but also all that is to be said for it. And I think that, upon the whole, the modern practice is to be supported.

I certainly do not say that with enthusiasm. It would be better for literature, no doubt, and for the casual reader (who reads a great deal too much), if the output were less. It would certainly be better for the writer if he could afford to restrict that output. But I know that, in the first place, the level remains remarkably high in this country (where there are a dozen such things turned to one in any other), and that it does so remain high is an argument in favour of the medium. For a sufficient standard maintained in any form of writing should be proof that there is material and effort sufficient to that form: that there is a need for that form to supply, and that it is supplied.

These modern essays of ours may be compared to conversation, without which mankind has never been satisfied, which is ever diverse (though continually moving through the same themes), and which finds in the unending multiplicity of the world unending matter for discussion and contemplation. It lacks the chief value of conversation, which is the alternative outlook—the reply. That cannot be helped. But I fancy the reader supplies this somewhat in his own mind, by the movements of appreciation or indignation with which he receives what is put before him. Indeed, sometimes his indignation moves him to provide free copy in protest; though I am afraid that the corresponding pleasure does not get the same chance of expression. I do indeed note, especially in the daily papers nowadays, continual letters from correspondents approving (usually) the more horribly commonplace pronouncements, or those which have been put in to order, as part of some propaganda or other undertaken by the owner of the sheet. These letters I suspect. I believe they are arranged for. But the letters of indignation are certainly are certainly genuine, and editors get a good many more than they print. When such letters are written in disapproval of what I myself have written, I nearly always agree with them.

I can also claim to give evidence as a reader of other people’s essays. For I can read this kind of matter with less disgust than any other in the modern press. Yes, I prefer it even to murders. And I cannot tell you how much I prefer it to ignorant comment upon the affairs of Europe or conventional rubbish upon the domestic: the presentation of little men as great, of falsehood as truth, of imaginaries as realities.

As for the dearth of subject, I see no sign of it at all. If I consider any one man of that half-dozen or so whom I read regularly, my colleagues in this same trade. I can name one except myself who tends to repetition. And there is no reason why a fairly well-read man, still active and enjoying occasional travel, let alone the infinite experience of daily life, should lack a subject. Stuff is infinite. The danger lies not in the drying up of matter but in the fossilization of manner. Nor do I find much trace of that in my contemporaries.

I have, indeed, the contrary fault to find with the English essay-to-day, and that is the restriction of matter. There are whole departments of the highest interest to man which are, by convention, avoided. For instance, until quite lately (when the ice was courageously broken by one group of newspapers) a discussion of the ultimate truths and of whether those truths could be discovered or stated—in other words, a discussion of what is generically called “religion”—was forbidden. Now that the ice has been broken, editors have discovered—a little to their astonishment, I think—that the pioneer was right—that there is nothing for which the public has a stronger appetite than theology.

Another form of restriction is the absence of a devil’s advocate, and that absence is more clearly marked and of worse effect here than abroad. The really unpopular, or the really unusual, point of view cannot get stated in pages of general circulation. And that means the absence of creative friction; for conflict is the mother of all things.

The opposition is, indeed, allowed to appear in small, obscure sheets which are devoted to nothing else. But that is of no great public service. What would be of public service would be eager and general discussion, and the perpetual presentation of argument and fact, which the public are not allowed to have.

Take such a simple point as that of Communism. It is a very living issue in our time. It is an active threat in the French commonwealth, a triumphant one in the Russian; it is a subject of immediate anxiety to every government in Europe, and though it has less place here than in any other industrial country, it does indirectly leaven a wide area of thought even here.

But to get it stated—to have said in its favour all that can be said in its favour—one must turn to small publications which are ignored by the principal newspapers and reviews. In these last you never get the Communist position fully and strongly put. You get it vaguely if violently abused—but without definitions and without concrete details; you feel that it was always there in the background, and you are never allowed to see it.

Let no one flatter himself that opposition can be hear because certain points of view supposedly unpopular are sometimes put in what are called “daring” or “paradoxical” essays. These are never true opposition. They are always a jest or that worst form of demagogic flattery which consists in telling people that what they really think but what they have not hitherto dared to day. Of true opposition in English letters we have to-day none. And English letters are badly worse for the lack of it.

~Hilaire Belloc (1929). Published in One Thing and Another (1955).

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Crooked Streets

WHY do they pull down and do away with the Crooked Streets, I wonder, which are my delight, and hurt no man living?

Every day the wealthier nations are pulling down one or another in their capitals and their great towns: they do not know why they do it; neither do I. 

It ought to be enough, surely, to drive the great broad ways which commerce needs and which are the life-channels of a modern city, without destroying all the history and all the humanity in between: the islands of the past. For, note you, the Crooked Streets are packed with human experience and reflect in a lively manner all the chances and misfortunes and expectations and domesticity and wonderment of men. One marks a boundary, another the kennel of an ancient stream, a third the track some animal took to cross a field hundreds upon hundreds of years ago; another is the line of an old defence, another shows where a rich man's garden stopped long before the first ancestor one's family can trace was born; a garden now all houses, and its owner who took delight in it turned to be a printed name.

Leave men alone in their cities, pester them not, with futilities of great governments, nor with the fads of too powerful men, and they will build you Crooked Streets of their very nature as moles throw up the little mounds or bees construct their combs. There is no ancient city but glories, or has gloried, in a whole foison and multitude of Crooked Streets. There is none, however, wasted and swept by power, which, if you leave it alone to natural things, will not breed Crooked Streets in less than a hundred years and keep for a thousand more.

I know a dead city called Timgad which the sand or the barbarians of the Atlas overwhelmed fourteen centuries ago. It lies between the desert and the Algerian fields, high up upon a mountain-side. Its columns stand. Even its fountains are apparent, though their waterways are choked. It has a great forum or market-place, all flagged and even, and the ruined walls of its houses mark its emplacement on every side. All its streets are straight, set out with a line, and by this you may judge how a Roman town lay when the last order of Rome sank into darkness.

Well, take any other town which has not thus been mummified and preserved but has lived through the intervening time, and you will find that man, active, curious, intense, in all the fruitful centuries of Christian time has endowed them with Crooked Streets, which kind of streets are the most native to Christian men. So it is with Arles, so it is with Nimes, so it is with old Rome itself, and so it is with the City of London, on which by a special Providence the curse of the Straight Street has never fallen, so that it is to this day a labyrinth of little lanes. It was intended after the Great Fire to set it all out in order with "piazzas" and boulevards and the rest—but the English temper was too strong for any such nonsense, and the streets and the courts took to the natural lines which suit us best.The Renaissance indeed everywhere began this plague of vistas and of avenues. It was determined three centuries ago to rebuild Paris as regular as a chessboard, and nothing but money saved the town—or rather the lack of money. You may to this day see in a square called the "Place des Vosges" what was intended. But when they had driven their Straight Street two hundred yards or so the exchequer ran dry, and thus was old Paris saved. But in the last seventy years they have hurt it badly again. I have quarrel with what is regal and magnificent, with splendid ways of a hundred feet or more, with great avenues and lines of palaces; but why should they pull down my nest beyond the river—Straw Street and Rat Street and all those winding belts round the little Church of St Julien the Poor, where they say that Dante studied and where Danton in the madness of his grief dug up his dead love from the earth on his returning from the wars?

Crooked Streets will never tire a man, and each will have its character, and each will have a soul of its own. To proceed from one to another is like travelling in a multitude or mixing with a number of friends. In a town of Crooked Streets it is natural that one should be the Moneylender’s Street and another that of the Burglars, and a third that of the Politicians, and so forth through all the trades and professions.

Then also, how much better are not the beauties of a town seen from Crooked Streets! Consider those old Dutch towns where you suddenly come round a corner upon great stretches of salt water, or those towns of Central France which from one street and then another show you the Gothic in a hundred ways.

It is as it should be when you have the back of Chartres Cathedral towering up above you from between and above two houses gabled and almost meeting. It is what the builders meant when one comes out from such fissures into the great Place, the parvis of the cathedral, like a sailor from a river into the sea. Not that certain buildings were not made particularly for wide approaches and splendid roads, but that these, when they are the rule, sterilize and kill a town. Napoleon was wise enough when he designed that there should lead up all beyond the Tiber to St Peter's a vast imperial way. But the modern nondescript horde, which has made Rome its prey, is very ill advised to drive those new Straight Streets foolishly, emptily, with mean facades of plaster and great gaps that will not fill.

You will have noted in your travels how the Crooked Streets gather names to themselves which are as individual as they, and which are bound up with them as our names are with all our own human reality and humour. Thus I bear in mind certain streets of the town where I served as a soldier. There was the Street of the Three Little Heaps of Wheat, the Street of the Trumpeting Moor, the Street of the False Heart, and an exceedingly pleasant street called "Who Grumbles at It?" and another short one called "The Street of the Devil in his Haste," and many others.

From time to time those modern town councillors from whom Heaven has wisely withdrawn all immoderate sums of money, and who therefore have not the power to take away my Crooked Streets and put Straight ones in their places, change old names to new ones. Every such change indicates some snobbery of the time: some little battle exaggerated to be a great thing; some public fellow or other in Parliament or what not; some fad of the learned or of the important in their day.

Once I remember seeing in an obscure comer a twist of dear old houses built before George III was king and on the corner of this row was painted "Kipling Street: late Nelson Street."Upon another occasion I went to a little Norman market up among the hills, where one of the smaller squares was called "The Place of the Three Mad Nuns," and when I got there after so many years and was beginning to renew my youth I was struck all of a heap to see a great enamelled blue and white affair upon the walls. They had renamed the triangle. They had called it "The Place Victor Hugo"! However, all you who love Crooked Streets, I bid you lift up your hearts. There is no power on earth that can make man build Straight Streets for long. It is a bad thing, as a general rule, to prophesy good or to make men feel comfortable with the vision of a pleasant future; but in this case I am right enough. The Crooked Streets will certainly return.

Let me boldly borrow a quotation which I never saw until the other day, and that in another man's work, but which having once seen it, I shall retain all the days of my life. "O passi graviora, dabit Deus his quoque finem," or words to that effect. I can never be sure of a quotation, still less of scansion, and anyhow, as I am deliberately stealing it from another man, if I have changed it so much the better.

~Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, March 5, 2015

On A Dog And A Man Also

THERE LIVES in the middle of the Weald upon the northern edge of a small wood where a steep brow of orchard pasture goes down to a little river, a Recluse who is of middle age and possessed of all the ordinary accomplishments; that is, French and English literature are familiar to him, he can himself compose, he has read his classical Latin and can easily decipher such Greek as he has been taught in youth. He is unmarried, he is by birth a gentleman, he enjoys an income sufficient to give him food and wine, and has for companion a dog who, by the standard of dogs, is somewhat more elderly than himself.

This dog is called Argus, not that he has a hundred eyes nor even two, indeed he has but one; for the other, or right eye, he lost the sight of long ago from luxury and lack of exercise. This dog Argus is neither small nor large; he is brown in colour and coveredthough now but partiallywith curly hair. In this he resembles many other dogs, but he differs from most of his breed in a further character, which is that by long association with a Recluse he has acquired a human manner that is unholy. He is fond of affected poses. When he sleeps it is with that abandonment of fatigue only naturally to be found in mankind. He watches sunsets and listens mournfully to music. Cooked food is dearer to him than raw, and he will eat nutsa monstrous thing in a dog and proof of corruption.

Nevertheless, or, rather, on account of all this, the dog Argus is exceedingly dear to his master, and of both I had the other day a singular revelation when I set out at evening to call upon my friend.

The sun had set, but the air was still clear and it was light enough to have shot a bat (had there been bats about and had one had a gun) when I knocked at the cottage door and opened it. Right within, one comes to the first of the three rooms which the Recluse possesses, and there I found him tenderly nursing the dog Argus, who lay groaning in the arm-chair and putting on all the airs of a Christian man at the point of death.

The Recluse did not even greet me, but asked me only in a hurried way how I thought the dog Argus looked. I answered gravely and in a low tone so as not to disturb the sufferer, that as I had not seen him since Tuesday, when he was, for an elderly dog, in the best of health, he certainly presented a sad contrast, but that perhaps he was better than he had been some few hours before, and that the Recluse himself would be the best judge of that.

My friend was greatly relieved at what I said, and told me that he thought the dog was better, compared at least with that same morning; then, whether you believe it or not, he took him by the left leg just above the paw and held it for a little time as though he were feeling a pulse, and said, "He came back less than twenty-four hours ago!" It seemed that the dog Argus, for the first time in fourteen years, had run away, and that for the first time in perhaps twenty or thirty years the emotion of loss had entered into the life of the Recluse, and that he had felt something outside books and outside the contemplation of the landscape about his hermitage.

In a short time the dog fell into a slumber, as was shown by a number of grunts and yaps which proved his sleep, for the dog Argus is of that kind which hunts in dreams. His master covered him reverently rather than gently with an Indian cloth and, still leaving him in the armchair, sat down upon a common wooden chair close by and gazed pitifully at the fire. For my part I stood up and wondered at them both, and wondered also at that in man by which he must attach himself to something, even if it be but a dog, a politician, or an ungrateful child.

When he had gazed at the fire a little while the Recluse began to talk, and I listened to him talking:

"Even if they had not dug up so much earth to prove it I should have known," said he, "that the Odyssey was written not at the beginning of a civilisation nor in the splendour of it, but towards its close. I do not say this from the evening light that shines across its pages, for that is common to all profound work, but I say it because of the animals, and especially because of the dog, who was the only one to know his master when that master came home a beggar to his own land, before his youth was restored to him, and before he got back his women and his kingship by the bending of his bow, and before he hanged the housemaids and killed all those who had despised him."

"But how," said I (for I am younger than he), "can the animals in the poem show you that the poem belongs to a decline?"

"Why," said he, "because at the end of a great civilisation the air gets empty, the light goes out of the sky, the gods depart, and men in their loneliness put out a groping hand, catching at the friendship of, and trying to understand, whatever lives and suffers as they do. You will find it never fail that where a passionate regard for the animals about us, or even a great tenderness for them, is to be found there is also to be found decay in the State."

"I hope not," said I. "Moreover, it cannot be true, for in the Thirteenth Century, which was certainly the healthiest time we ever had, animals were understood; and I will prove it to you in several carvings."

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, saying, "In the rough and in general it is true; and the reason is the reason I have given you, that when decay begins, whether of a man or of a State, there comes with it an appalling and a torturing loneliness in which our energies decline into a strong affection for whatever is constantly our companion and for whatever is certainly present upon earth. For we have lost the sky."

"Then if the senses are so powerful in a decline of the State there should come at the same time," said I, "a quick forgetfulness of the human dead and an easy change of human friendship?"

"There does," he answered, and to that there was no more to be said.

"I know it by my own experience," he continued. "When, yesterday, at sunset, I looked for my dog Argus and could not find him, I went out into the wood and called him: the darkness came and I found no trace of him. I did not hear him barking far off as I have heard him before when he was younger and went hunting for a while, and three times that night I came back out of the wild into the warmth of my house, making sure he would have returned, but he was never there. The third time I had gone a mile out to the gamekeeper's to give him money if Argus should be found, and I asked him as many questions and as foolish as a woman would ask. Then I sat up right into the night, thinking that every movement of the wind outside or of the drip of water was the little pad of his step coming up the flagstones to the door. I was even in the mood when men see unreal things, and twice I thought I saw him passing quickly between my chair and the passage to the further room. But these things are proper to the night and the strongest thing I suffered for him was in the morning.

"It was, as you know, very bitterly cold for several days. They found things dead in the hedgerows, and there was perhaps no running water between here and the Downs. There was no shelter from the snow. There was no cover for my friend at all. And when I was up at dawn with the faint light about, a driving wind full of sleet filled all the air. Then I made certain that the dog Argus was dead, and what was worse that I should not find his body: that the old dog had got caught in some snare or that his strength had failed him through the cold, as it fails us human beings also upon such nights, striking at the heart.

"Though I was certain that I would not see him again yet I went on foolishly and aimlessly enough, plunging through the snow from one spinney to another and hoping that I might hear a whine. I heard none: and if the little trail he had made in his departure might have been seen in the evening, long before that morning the drift would have covered it.

"I had eaten nothing and yet it was near noon when I returned, pushing forward to the cottage against the pressure of the storm, when I found there, miserably crouched, trembling, half dead, in the lee of a little thick yew beside my door, the dog Argus; and as I came his tail just wagged and he just moved his ears, but he had not the strength to come near me, his master."

[Greek: ourae men rh ho g esaene kai ouata kabbalen ampho, asson d ouket epeita dunaesato oio anaktos elthemen.]

"I carried him in and put him here, feeding him by force, and I have restored him."

All this the Recluse said to me with as deep and as restrained emotion as though he had been speaking of the most sacred things, as indeed, for him, these things were sacred.

It was therefore a mere inadvertence in me, and an untrained habit of thinking aloud, which made me say:

"Good Heavens, what will you do when the dog Argus dies?"

At once I wished I had not said it, for I could see that the Recluse could not bear the words. I looked therefore a little awkwardly beyond him and was pleased to see the dog Argus lazily opening his one eye and surveying me with torpor and with contempt. He was certainly less moved than his master.

Then in my heart I prayed that of these two (unless The God would make them both immortal and catch them up into whatever place is better than the Weald, or unless he would grant them one death together upon one day) that the dog Argus might survive my friend, and that the Recluse might be the first to dissolve that long companionship. For of this I am certain, that the dog would suffer less; for men love their dependents much more than do their dependents them; and this is especially true of brutes; for men are nearer to the gods.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects..

"The Reformation"

“THE bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancestral doctrines—the very structure of our society is dissolving.”

~Hilaire Belloc: The Great Heresies.

"The Eiffel"

"LOOK at the great line before you and note these evidences of a mind at work. Here, on your right, monstrous, grotesque, and dramatic in the extreme, rises that great ladder of iron, the Eiffel, to its thousand feet; it was meant to be merely engineering, and therefore christened at its birth by all the bad fairies, but it yet contrives (as though the spirit of the city had laughed at its own folly) to assume something of grace, and loses, in a very delicate grey, in a good curve, and in a film of fine lines, the grossness which its builders intended. It stands up, close to our western standpoint, foolishly. It is twice as high as this hill of Valerian from which we are looking; its top is covered often in hurrying clouds, and it seems to be saying perpetually: "I am the end of the nineteenth century; I am glad they built me of iron; let me rust." It is far on the outskirts of the town, where all the rest of the things that Paris has made can look at it and laugh contentedly. It is like a passing fool in a crowd of the University, a buffoon in the hall; for of all the things that Paris has made, it alone has neither wits nor soul."

~Hilaire Belloc: Paris, p. 5. (1900)
● Free e-book, Paris

Eiffel Tower, c. 1900. (photographer ?)

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