G. K. Chesterton on the Novel With a Purpose

Quoted from G. K. Chesterton



I SEE that Mr. Patrick Braybrooke and others, writing to the
CATHOLIC TIMES, have raised the question of Catholic propaganda
in novels written by Catholics. The very phrase, which we are all
compelled to use, is awkward and even false. A Catholic putting
Catholicism into a novel, or a song, or a sonnet, or anything else,
is not being a propagandist; he is simply being a Catholic.
Everybody understands this about every other enthusiasm in the world.
When we say that a poet’s landscape and atmosphere are full
of the spirit of England, we do not mean that he is necessarily
conducting an Anti-German propaganda during the Great War.
We mean that if he is really an English poet, his poetry cannot
be anything but English. When we say that songs are full of
the spirit of the sea, we do not mean that the poet is recruiting
for the Navy or even trying to collect men for the merchant service.
We mean that he loves the sea; and for that reason would like
other people to love it. Personally, I am all for propaganda;
and a great deal of what I write is deliberately propagandist.
But even when it is not in the least propagandist, it will
probably be full of the implications of my own religion;
because that is what is meant by having a religion. So the jokes
of a Buddhist, if there were any, would be Buddhist jokes.
So the love-songs of a Calvinistic Methodist, should they burst
from him, would be Calvinistic Methodist love-songs. Catholics have
produced more jokes and love-songs than Calvinists and Buddhists.
That is because, saving their holy presence, Calvinists and Buddhists
have not got so large or human a religion. But anything they did
express would be steeped in any convictions that they do hold;
and that is a piece of common sense which would seem to be
quite self-evident; yet I foresee a vast amount of difficulty
about it in the one isolated case of the Catholic Church.

To begin with, what I have said would be true of any other
real religion; but so much of the modern world is full of a
religiosity that is rather a sort of unconscious prejudice.
Buddhism is a real religion, or at any rate, a very real philosophy.
Calvinism was a real religion, with a real theology.
But the mind of the modern man is a curious mixture of decayed
Calvinism and diluted Buddhism; and he expresses his philosophy without
knowing that he holds it. We say what it is natural to us to say;
but we know what we are saying; therefore it is assumed that we
are saying it for effect. He says what it is natural to him to say;
but he does not know what he is saying, still less why he is saying it.
So he is not accused of uttering his dogma with the purpose of revealing
it to the world; for he has not really revealed it to himself.
He is just as partisan; he is just as particularist; he is just as much
depending on one doctrinal system as distinct from another. But he has
taken it for granted so often that he has forgotten what it is.
So his literature does not seem to him partisan, even when it is.
But our literature does seem to him propagandist, even when it isn’t.

Suppose I write a story, let us hope a short story, say, about a wood
that is haunted by evil spirits. Let us give ourselves the pleasure
of supposing that at night all the branches have the appearance
of being hung with hundreds of corpses, like the orchard of Louis
the Eleventh, the spirits of travellers who have hanged themselves
when they came to that spot; or anything bright and cheery like that.
Suppose I make my hero, Gorlias Fitzgorgon (that noble character)
make the sign of the cross as he passes this spot; or the friend
who represents wisdom and experience advise him to consult
a priest with a view to exorcism. Making the sign of the cross
seems to me not only religiously right, but artistically
appropriate and psychologically probable. It is what I should do;
it is what I conceive that my friend Fitzgorgon would do;
it is also aesthetically apt, or, as they say, “in the picture.”
I rather fancy it might be effective if the traveller saw
with the mystical eye, as he saw the forest of dead men, a sort
of shining pattern or silver tangle of crosses hovering in the dark,
where so many human fingers had made that sign upon the empty air.
But though I am writing what seems to me natural and appropriate
and artistic, I know that the moment I have written it,
a great roar and bellow will go up with the word “Propaganda”
coming from a thousand throats; and that every other critic,
even if he is kind enough to commend the story, will certainly add:
“But why does Mr. Chesterton drag in his Roman Catholicism?”

Now let us suppose that Mr Chesterton has not this disgusting habit.
Let us suppose that I write the same story, or the same sort of story,
informed with a philosophy which is familiar and therefore unobserved.
Let us suppose that I accept the ready-made assumptions of the hour,
without examining them any more than the others do. Suppose I get
into the smooth rut of newspaper routine and political catchwords;
and make the man in my story act exactly like the man in the average
magazine story. I know exactly what the man in the average
magazine story would do. I can almost give you his exact words.
In that case Fitzgorgon, on first catching a glimpse of the crowds
of swaying spectres in the moon, will almost inevitably say:
“But this is the twentieth century!”

In itself, of course, the remark is simply meaningless.
It is far more meaningless than making the sign of the cross could
ever be; for to that even its enemies attach some sort of meaning.
But to answer a ghost by saying, “This is the twentieth century,”
is in itself quite unmeaning; like seeing somebody commit
a murder and then saying, “But this is the second Tuesday
in August!” Nevertheless, the magazine writer who for the thousandth
time puts these words into the magazine story, has an intention in this
illogical phrase. He is really depending upon two dogmas; neither of
which he dares to question and neither of which he is able to state.
The dogmas are: first, that humanity is perpetually and permanently
improving through the process of time; and, second, that improvement
consists in a greater and greater indifference or incredulity about
the miraculous. Neither of these two statements can be proved.
And it goes without saying that the man who uses them cannot prove them,
for he cannot even state them. In so far as they are at all in the order
of things that can be proved, they are things that can be disproved.
For certainly there have been historical periods of relapse
and retrogression; and there certainly are highly organised and
scientific civilizations very much excited about the super-natural;
as people are about Spiritualism to-day. But anyhow, those two dogmas
must be accepted on authority as absolutely true before there
is any sense whatever in Gorlias Fitzgorgon saying, “But this
is the twentieth century.” The phrase depends on the philosophy;
and the philosophy is put into the story.

Yet nobody says the magazine story is propagandist. Nobody says
it is preaching that philosophy because it contains that phrase.
We do not say that the writer has dragged in his progressive
party politics. We do not say that he is going out of his
way to turn the short story into a novel with a purpose.
He does not feel as if he were going out of his way; his way
lies straight through the haunted wood, as does the other;
and he only makes Gorlias say what seems to him a sensible thing
to say; as I make him do what seems to me a sensible thing to do.
We are both artists in the same sense; we are both propagandists
in the same sense and non-propagandists in the same sense.
The only difference is that I can defend my dogma and he cannot
even define his.

In other words, this world of to-day does not know that all
the novels and newspapers that it reads or writes are in fact full
of certain assumptions, that are just as dogmatic as dogmas.
With some of those assumptions I agree, such as the ideal of human
equality implied in all romantic stories from CINDERELLA to
OLIVER TWIST; that the rich are insulting God in despising poverty.
With some of them I totally disagree; as in the curious idea
of human inequality, which is permitted about races though not
about classes. “Nordic” people are so much superior to “Dagoes,”
that a score of Spanish desperados armed to the teeth are certain
to flee in terror from the fist of any solitary gentleman who has
learned all the military and heroic virtues in Wall Street
or the Stock Exchange. But the point about these assumptions,
true or false, is that they are felt as being assumed,
or alluded to, or taken naturally as they come. They are not felt
as being preached; and therefore they are not called propaganda.
Yet they have in practice all the double character of propaganda;
they involve certain views with which everyone does not agree;
and they do in fact spread those views by means of fiction and
popular literature. What they do not do is to state them clearly
so that they can be criticised. I do not blame the writers for
putting their philosophy into their stories. I should not blame
them even if they used their stories to spread their philosophy.
But they do blame us; and the real reason is that they have not yet
realised that we have a philosophy at all.

The truth is, I think, that they are caught in a sort of
argument in a circle. Their vague philosophy says to them:
“All religion is dead; Roman Catholicism is a religious sect
which must be particularly dead, since it consists of mere external
acts and attitudes, crossings, genuflections and the rest;
which these sectarians suppose they have to perform in a particular
place at a particular time.” Then some Catholic will write
a romance or a tragedy about the love of a man and woman,
or the rivalry of two men, or any other general human affair;
and they will be astonished to find that he cannot preach these things
in an “unsectarian” way. They say, “Why does he drag in his religion?”
They mean, “Why does he drag in his religion, which consists
entirely of crossings, genuflections and external acts belonging
to a particular place and time, when he is talking about the wide
world and the beauty of woman and the anger and ambition of man?”
In other words, they say, “When we have assumed that his creed is a small
and dead thing, how dare he apply it as a universal and living thing?
It has no right to be so broad, when we all know it is so narrow.”

I conclude therefore that, while Mr. Braybrooke was quite right
in suggesting that a novelist with a creed ought not to be ashamed
of having a cause, the more immediate necessity is to find some
way of popularising our whole philosophy of life, by putting
it more plainly than it can be put in the symbol of a story.
The difficulty with a story is in its very simplicity and especially
in its swiftness. Men do things and do not define or defend them.
Gorlias Fitzgorgon makes the sign of the cross; he does not stop
in the middle of the demon wood to explain why it is at once
an invocation of the Trinity and a memorial of the Crucifixion.
What is wanted is a popular outline of the way in which ordinary
affairs are affected by our view of life, and how it is also a view
of death, a view of sex, a view of social decencies, and so on.
When people understood the light that shines for us upon all
these facts, they would no longer be surprised to find it shining
in our fictions.

2 Responses to G. K. Chesterton on the Novel With a Purpose

  1. Pingback: Vulture of Critique recommends: Pupipo~! | vulture of critique

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