The Glass Walking Stick



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PLAYING WITH AN IDEA


1909

THE serious magazines, without having any convictions to speak of, are just sufficiently stern or bigoted to forbid irreverence. The frivolous magazines are even more stern and bigoted; for they forbid reverence. They actually veto the instinctive mention of mighty and holy things. Thus the sincere journalist is kept constantly in a state of roaring inaction; having been forced to make his theology dry he plunges with a far more boyish ardour into the pleasures of pure folly. But the swing of the pendulum is some times rather wild and dizzy. My meaning is this: that a good man ought to love nonsense; but he ought also to see nonsense — that is, to see that it is not sense. Our very pleasure in pure fancies should consist partly in the certainty that they are not facts. Nothing is more perilous and unmanly in modern thought than the way in which people will be led a dance by some dexterous and quite irresponsible suggestion, some theory in which even the theorist does not believe, some intellectual levity which is not honest enough even to be called a lunacy. They hear some flying notion — as that Cromwell wrote Milton, or that Christianity was stolen from the Aztecs; they receive it first laughingly, then fancifully, then speculatively, then seriously, then idolatrously, even to slaying; and yet all the time with nothing to go on but the fourth-hand version of a few entertaining coincidences. Exactly that sort of neat and fantastic solution which would make a glorious detective story is employed to make an utterly preposterous book of history or criticism.

No, I do not think it is wrong to play with these nonsensical hypotheses; I have had great fun out of fitting them together. One of my friends maintains that Tacitus never lived and that his works are a forgery of the sixteenth century; another explains the whole life of St Paul in terms of an unabated hatred for Christianity. I am not against playing the fool with these fancies, but I am against letting them play the fool with me. To take one case at random, one could certainly make a huge theory, upheld by many coincidences, that men’s surnames have constantly suited them. It really is a remarkable thing to reflect how many frightfully fine men have had frightfully fine names. How could we have rounded off our sentences without such names as ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Napoleon’, or ‘Attila’ and ‘Charlemagne’? But there are more startling cases. There is one great artist whose art was ultimately sacred and seraphic, yet in its labour and technique peculiarly strenuous and military; if one looked at his work only one would think of a harsh angel, an angel in armour. How comes it that this man actually bore the name of the Archangel Michael — Michelangelo? How comes it that a contemporary and more gracious artist happened to be christened after a more gracious archangel — Raphael?

Or take another case. If you or I had to invent out of our own heads a really shattering and shining name, a name fit for some flaming hero defying the stars, a name on horseback and high in the saddle — could we think of any so chivalrous or so challenging as Shakespeare? The very word is like Lancelot at his last tournament with a touch of the divine impotence of Don Quixote. In fact, I know only one surname that is really finer than Shakespeare, and that is Brakespear, the only English Pope. A pleasing lyric in prose might be built up about the two of them; the one Englishman who rose to the highest of all official places, and the other who rose to the highest of all unofficial. Much eloquence and irony (if I had time to write them) might be uttered about the contrast between the English Pope, so humble and silent in his splendid publicity, and the English poet, so hearty and swaggering in his obscurity and neglect. It is at least certain that there was only one Englishman on the highest platform of priests, and only one on the highest platform of poets; and it is certain that each of their names is the only exact rhyme to the other one.

That is what you might call a coincidence; but the coincidence goes further. The actual meaning of the two names is appropriate to the two men in their two positions. If there was one thing more than another that the Renaissance did it was to shake the spear, to brandish the lance even more than to use it, to value the lance more for its flapping pennon than its point. If there was one thing, on the other hand, that a Pope in the twelfth century had to do, it was to break the spear — to bend the thick necks of the throned fighters who could not otherwise have conceived anything so fine as fighting. William Shakespeare is really very like the exultant monster in the Old Testament, who laughs at the shaking of the spear. But Nicholas Brakespear stood in the Dark Ages for a simpler and more searching reminder, of Him who snappeth the spear in twain and takes off the wheel of the chariot.

The above is an impromptu instance of what I call playing with an idea; but the question is, what does one think of the idea? I will tell you what I think of it; I think it is complete bosh. I am almost certain that Raphael and Michelangelo are a coincidence. I am almost certain that Shakespeare and Brakespear are an accidental rhyme. I will carry the fancy as far as I choose; but if it tries to carry me as far as it chooses, I will remind it of several things. I will point out to it that in plain fact the names of literary men are often quite arrestingly unsuitable. Newman was by no means a worshipper of novelty; and one of the most energetic and intelligent atheists of my acquaintance is saddled with the surname of Priest.

Or take a classic example. Can anyone read the cold and cutting work of Swift without feeling that his surname should have been Steele? Can anyone read the impetuous work of Steele without feeling that his surname should have been Swift? We should really feel much happier if we could talk of the brilliant blunders of Dick Swift and the cool, saturnine strength of Jonathan Steele. In other words, my speculation about surnames is just large enough to fill a magazine article, but is not large enough to fill even a moderate-sized brain. It is this power of recovery after extravagance that I urgently recommend. Indulge in all the most decadent or futile fantasies, as long as you can curb the indulgence, like that of alcohol. Ride on the nightmare, if you prefer such horse flesh; only do not let the nightmare ride on you. Find the mare’s nest which rocks on the tallest and darkest trees, and steal the addled eggs; but do not make your breakfast off them every morning for ever. Learn to be nonsensical and then to be sensible again; to create strange things and still to be independent of them. Learn to suggest a thing, to urge it, to prove it, and still to disbelieve it. For the very few things that are really worth believing are not worth proving.





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