The Glass Walking Stick

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THE English People have a peculiar appetite for paradox. I suppose such a statement will itself be called a paradox; for the phrase is commonly applied, for some reason or other, not to Englishmen generally, but to the one sad and solitary Englishman who bears alone, in this column, the doom or judgement upon his race. Both he and his race, however, remain reasonably cheerful under it; and, though it is rather a bore to be called paradoxical, it is rather a compliment to be recognized as national. Nevertheless, there are shades of variety, and the mad English man may wear his wild rose with a difference. The curious thing about the representative Englishman of the last few centuries is that he instinctively pursued the wildest paradox and then accepted it as a solid truism. He said he was hard-headed, and stood on his head to prove it.

For instance, saying, ‘We may not understand political theories, but our constitution works well in practice’, is a piece of wild paradox and only loved as such, like a non sense rhyme of Lear or Lewis Carroll. It is exactly like saying, ‘We cannot add up figures correctly; we are quite Content if the result comes out right.’ It is like saying, ‘It is true that we got the wrong longitude and the wrong latitude; but what does that matter when it means that we find the place we are looking for?’ There is no answer to this beautiful nonsense, except to say that we do not get the right result or find the right place, except in the Great Gromboolian Plain or the Land Where the Jumblies Live. But it is a beautiful land to live in, and it is remarkably like England. Of course, anything in England that was really practical was achieved in spite of neglecting the theoretical, and not because of it. But anything in England that was poetical, as distinct from practical, really did owe something to this taste for paradox. In this sense the other name of England is Elfland. From this spirit comes all that quaintness in the names of places or in the very plan of towns which is so delightful a feature of England and which is now being steadily destroyed.

Even in the nonsense rhymes to which I have referred, there is a constant unconscious groping after this native tradition. Not for nothing did even the nonsense rhymer bear a name out of ancient British legend and literature; so that the merry madman was a sort of parody of the melancholy madman. One might almost write another grim and grotesque scene of madness, of the meeting between the tragic Lear and the comic Lear. But both are full of that quality of quaintness; that quality that pre vents the tragic hero, even when he is most tragic, from being entirely heroic; or, at any rate, from being entirely classic. The height from which a man in King Lear looks dizzily down is not a mountain or a Tower of Babel, but only one of those chalk cliffs that are to us the white walls of home. And when the nonsense rhymer invents a nonsense place and calls it The Chankley Bore, we feel by the very sound of it that it might be in Sussex.

Or, again, there is nothing but paradox in the whole legend of the Strong Silent Man, as in the legend of the Dong with the Luminous Nose. Indeed, I remember suggesting that historical students may some day explain the inexplicable lyric by calling it a contemporary satire on Oliver Cromwell, who was jeered at in his own time for having a red nose, and revered in our time, far less reason ably, for being a Strong Silent Man. As a matter of fact, he may have been strong, but he was the very reverse of silent. He talked a great deal; and that is one of the things that makes me think there was really something in him. But anyhow, it is nonsense to assume that a man must have something in him merely because you cannot get anything out of him. It is a pure paradox itself. The natural and sensible assumption would be that a man who has anything to say will want to say it. And, nine times out of ten, anybody who really has anything to say does want to say it. He would be rather an unpleasant fellow if he did not. Indeed, he would be not much more reputable than a miser. It is no more admirable to have valuable suggestions to make and not put them into circulation than it is to have valuable coin of the realm and keep it stuffed into a greasy old stocking.

Of course it is quite true that various accidents or conditions may keep a worthy man silent when he really is in the right; such as his being shy, his being born deaf and dumb, his being gagged by burglars and left alone in the coal-cellar, his being entrusted with a secret, or his being afflicted with a stammer. But these are exceptions. There may be strong silent men, as there may be strong deaf men, or strong short-sighted men. But deafness does not strengthen anybody; nor does strength in itself obscure the eyesight. The truth is that the whole of this notion is, if not entirely nonsensical, at least entirely poetical. The fancy fascinates the English temper, because there is in it a purely romantic effect of transition and surprise. It is obvious that it makes a better story, and especially a better play, if the quiet man in the corner suddenly takes the centre of the stage and reveals the secret of the drama. It is not unnatural that the nation which produced the greatest of dramatists should have a taste for such effects of drama.

What is curious about the English psychology is this; that it has this purely artistic appetite and then persuades itself that it is practical. The notion of the vainglorious person, with his heart on his sleeve, defeated by the strong man, who has something more valuable up his sleeve, is a story that had been the foundation of a hundred farces and fanciful comedies and romantic melodramas before it was made the basis of a scientific theory of races or a scheme of the British Constitution. The strong silent gentleman had been in all sorts of shoddy or shabby theatrical parts; he had been the good brother and the bad baronet and the stranger and the first walking gentleman, and even Charles’s Friend, before it was discovered by science that he was the Nordic man and the sane and practical Anglo-Saxon.

In other words, we have as a nation got our ideas out of novels and plays and poetical romances, much more than out of economic textbooks or even commercial ledgers. That sort of fiction is naturally full of paradox; or, in other words, full of surprise. It is the whole point of a fairy-tale to say that the fool found a windfall of amazing good fortune. Therefore we said that a politician who did not think about politics would somehow or other muddle through. It is the whole point of a melodrama that the man whose lips have been sealed until the last moment comes forward and declares the innocence of the heroine or the hiding-place of the will. Therefore we said that any politician who was incompetent to speak must always be competent to act.

All this belongs to a world of wild and yet subtle in version with which I can sympathize; which, in its proper place, I am even prepared to defend. But practical politics is not its proper place; and our politics have not been more practical for following only this flying gleam of paradox. In this matter we really do need a little more of the iron common sense of the Latins, who know that schemes and systems are made with logic, just as machines and engines are made with mathematics. Just as they know that two and two make four, so they know that thinking is really necessary to acting. There is really some thing to be said for platitudes and plain intellectual processes; and the French peasant has remained very invincible in his own kitchen garden by dint of knowing how many beans make five. But it takes all sorts to make a world; and France has not produced Shakespeare or a nonsense rhyme.

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