Post-Prandial Philosophy Part 7

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We English, coming to Italy with our ideas fully formed about everything on heaven and earth, naturally say to ourselves, “Great heart alive, what sadly degraded frescoes! To think the art of Raphael and Andrea del Sarto should degenerate even here, in their own land, to such a childish level!” But we are wrong, for all that. It is Raphael and Andrea who rose, not my poor nameless Sa.s.so artists who sank and degenerated. Italy was capable of producing her great painters in her own great day, just because in thousands of such Italian villages there were work-a-day artisans in form and colour capable of turning out such ridiculous daubs as those that decorate this tawdry church on the Ligurian hilltop.

We English, in short, think of it all the wrong way uppermost. We think of it topsy-turvy, beginning at the end, while evolution invariably begins at the beginning. The Raphaels and Andreas, to put it in brief, were the final flower and fullest outcome of whole races of church decorators in infantile fresco.

Everywhere you go in Italy, this truth is forced upon your attention even to the present day. Art here is no exotic. It smacks of the soil; it springs spontaneous, like a weed; it burgeons of itself out of the heart of the people. Not high art, understand well; not the art of Burne-Jones and Whistler and Puvis de Chavannes and Sar Peladan.

Commonplace everyday art, that is a trade and a handicraft, like the joiner’s or the shoemaker’s. Look up at your ceiling; it’s overrun with festoons of crude red and blue flowers, or it’s covered with cupids and graces, or it bristles with arabesques and unmeaning phantasies. Every wall is painted; every grotto decorated. Sham landscapes, sham loggias, sham parapets are everywhere. The sham windows themselves are provided, not only with sham blinds and sham curtains, but even with sham coquettes making sham eyes or waving sham handkerchiefs at pa.s.sers-by below them. Open-air fresco painting is still a living art, an art practised by hundreds and thousands of craftsmen, an art as alive as cookery or weaving. The Italian decorates everything; his pottery, his house, his church, his walls, his palaces. And the only difference he feels between the various cases is, that in some of them a higher type of art is demanded by wealth and skill than in the others. No wonder, therefore, he blossomed out at last into Michael Angelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel!

To us English, on the contrary, high art is something exotic, separate, alone, _sui generis_. We never think of the plaster star in the middle of our ceiling as belonging even to the same range of ideas as, say, the frescoes in the Houses of Parliament.

A nation in such a condition as that is never truly artistic. The artist with us, even now, is an exceptional product. Art for a long time in England had nothing at all to do with the life of the people. It was a luxury for the rich, a curious thing for ladies’ and gentlemen’s consumption, as purely artificial as the stuccoed Italian villa in which they insisted on shivering in our chilly climate. And the pictures it produced were wholly alien to the popular wants and the popular feelings; they were part of an imported French, Italian, and Flemish tradition. English art has only slowly outgrown this stage, just in proportion as truly artistic handicrafts have sprung up here and there, and developed themselves among us. Go into the Cantagalli or the Ginori potteries at Florence, and you will see mere boys and girls, untrained children of the people, positively disporting themselves, with childish glee, in painting plates and vases. You will see them, not slavishly copying a given design of the master’s, but letting their fancy run riot in lithe curves and lines, in griffons and dragons and floral twists-and-twirls of playful extravagance. They revel in ornament. Now, it is out of the loins of people like these that great artists spring by nature–not State-taught, artificial, made-up artists, but the real spontaneous product, the Lippi and Botticelli, the hereditary craftsmen, the born painters. And in England nowadays it is a significant fact that a large proportion of the truest artists–the innovators, the men who are working out a new style of English art for themselves, in accordance with the underlying genius of the British temperament, have sprung from the great industrial towns–Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester–where artistic handicrafts are now once more renascent. I won’t expose myself to further ridicule by repeating here (what I nevertheless would firmly believe, were it not for the scoffers) that a large proportion of them are of Celtic descent–belong, in other words, to that section of the complex British nationality in which the n.o.ble traditions of decorative art never wholly died out–that section which was never altogether enslaved and degraded by the levelling and cramping and soul-destroying influences of manufacturing industrialism.

In Italy, art is endemic. In England, in spite of all we have done to stimulate it of late years with guano and other artificial manures, it is still sporadic.

The case of music affords us an apt parallel. Till very lately, I believe, our musical talent in Britain came almost entirely from the cathedral towns. And why? Because there, and there alone, till quite a recent date, there existed a hereditary school of music, a training of musicians from generation to generation among the ma.s.s of the people.

Not only were the cathedral services themselves a constant school of taste in music, but successive generations of choristers and organists gave rise to something like a musical caste in our episcopal centres. It is true, our vocalists have always come mainly from Wales, from the Scotch Highlands, from Yorkshire, from Ireland. But for that there is, I believe, a sufficient physical reason. For these are clearly the most mountainous parts of the United Kingdom; and the clear mountain air seems to produce on the average a better type of human larynx than the mists of the level. The men of the lowland, say the Tyrolese, croak like frogs in their marshes; but the men of the upland sing like nightingales on their tree-tops. And indeed, it would seem as if the mountain people were always calling to one another across intervening valleys, always singing and whistling and shouting over their work in a way that gives tone to the whole vocal mechanism. Witness Welsh penillion singing. And wherever this fine physical endowment goes hand in hand with a delicate ear and a poetic temperament, you get your great vocalist, your Sims Reeves or your Patti. But in England proper it was only in the cathedral towns that music was a living reality to the people; and it was in the cathedral towns, accordingly, during the dark ages of art, that exceptional musical ability was most likely to show itself. More particularly was this so on the Welsh border, where the two favouring influences of race and practice coincided–at Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford, long known for the most musical towns in England.

Cause and effect act and react. Art is a product of the artistic temperament. The artistic temperament is a product of the long hereditary cultivation of art. And where a broad basis of this temperament exists among the people, owing to intermixture of artistically-minded stocks, one is liable to get from time to time that peculiar combination of characteristics–sensuous, intellectual, spiritual–which results in the highest and truest artist.

XXIII.

_A GLIMPSE INTO UTOPIA._

You ask me what would be the position of women in an ideal community.

Well, after dinner, imagination may take free flight. Suppose, till the coffee comes, we discuss that question.

Woman, I take it, differs from man in being the s.e.x sacrificed to reproductive necessities.

Whenever I say this, I notice my good friends, the women’s-rights women, with whom I am generally in pretty close accord, look annoyed and hurt.

I can never imagine why. I regard this point as an original inequality of nature, which it should be the duty of human society to redress as far as possible, like all other inequalities. Women are not on the average as tall as men; nor can they lift as heavy weights, or undergo, as a rule, so much physical labour. Yet civilised society recognises their equal right to the protection of our policemen, and endeavours to neutralise their physical inequality by the collective guarantee of all the citizens. In the same way I hold that women in the lump have a certain disadvantage laid upon them by nature, in the necessity that some or most among them should bear children; and this disadvantage I think the men in a well-ordered State would do their best to compensate by corresponding privileges. If women endure on our behalf the great public burden of providing future citizens for the community, the least we can do for them in return is to render that burden as honourable and as little onerous as possible. I can never see that there is anything unchivalrous in frankly admitting these facts of nature; on the contrary, it seems to me the highest possible chivalry to recognise in woman, as woman, high or low, rich or poor, the potential mother, who has infinite claims on that ground alone to our respect and sympathy.

Nor do I mean to deny, either, that the right to be a mother is a sacred and peculiar privilege of women. In a well-ordered community, I believe, that privilege will be valued high, and will be denied to no fitting mother by any man. While maternity is from one point of view a painful duty, a burden imposed upon a single s.e.x for the good of the whole, it is from another point of view a privilege and a joy, and from a third point of view the natural fulfilment of a woman’s own instincts, the complement of her personality, the healthy exercise of her normal functions. Just as in turn the man’s part in providing physically for the support of the woman and the children is from one point of view a burden imposed upon him, but from another point of view a precious privilege of fatherhood, and from a third point of view the proper outlet for his own energy and his own faculties.

In an ideal State, then, I take it, almost every woman would be a mother, and almost every woman a mother of not more than about four children. An average of something like four is necessary, we know, to keep up population, and to allow for infant mortality, inevitable celibates, and so forth. Few women in such a State would abstain from maternity, save those who felt themselves physically or morally unfitted for the task; for in proportion as they abstained, either the State must lack citizens to carry on its life, or an extra and undue burden would have to be cast upon some other woman. And it may well be doubted whether in a well-ordered and civilised State any one woman could adequately bear, bring up, and superintend the education of more than four young citizens. Hence we may conclude that while no woman save the unfit would voluntarily shirk the duties and privileges of maternity, few (if any) women would make themselves mothers of more than four children. Four would doubtless grow to be regarded in such a community as the moral maximum; while it is even possible that improved sanitation, by diminishing infant mortality and adult ineffectiveness, might make a maximum of three sufficient to keep up the normal strength of the population.

In an ideal community, again, the woman who looked forward to this great task on behalf of the race would strenuously prepare herself for it beforehand from childhood upward. She would not be ashamed of such preparation; on the contrary, she would be proud of it. Her duty would be no longer “to suckle fools and chronicle small beer,” but to produce and bring up strong, vigorous, free, able, and intelligent citizens.

Therefore, she must be n.o.bly educated for her great and important function–educated physically, intellectually, morally. Let us forecast her future. She will be well clad in clothes that allow of lithe and even development of the body; she will be taught to run, to play games, to dance, to swim; she will be supple and healthy, finely moulded and knit in limb and organ, beautiful in face and features, splendid and graceful in the native curves of her lissom figure. No cramping conventions will be allowed to cage her; no worn-out moralities will be tied round her neck like a mill-stone to hamper her. Intellectually she will be developed to the highest pitch of which in each individual case she proves herself capable–educated, not in the futile linguistic studies which have already been tried and found wanting for men, but in realities and existences, in the truths of life, in recognition of her own and our place among immensities. She will know something worth knowing of the world she lives in, its past and its present, the material of which it is made, the forces that inform it, the energies that thrill through it. Something, too, of the orbs that surround it, of the sun that lights it, of the stars that gleam upon it, of the seasons that govern it. Something of the plants and herbs that clothe it, of the infinite tribes of beast and bird that dwell upon it. Something of the human body, its structure and functions, the human soul, its origin and meaning. Something of human societies in the past, of inst.i.tutions and laws, of creeds and ideas, of the birth of civilisation, of progress and evolution. Something, too, of the triumphs of art, of sculpture and painting, of the literature and the poetry of all races and ages. Her mind will be stored with the best thoughts of the thinkers. Morally, she will be free; her emotional development, instead of being narrowly checked and curbed, will have been fostered and directed. She will have a heart to love, and be neither ashamed nor afraid of it. Thus nurtured and trained, she will be a fit mate for a free man, a fit mother for free children, a fit citizen for a free and equal community.

Her life, too, will be her own. She will know no law but her higher instincts. No man will be able to buy or to cajole her. And in order that she may possess this freedom to perfection, that she may be no husband’s slave, no father’s obedient and trembling daughter, I can see but one way: the whole body of men in common must support in perfect liberty the whole body of women. The collective guarantee must protect them against individual tyranny. Thus only can women be safe from the bribery of the rich husband, from the dictation of the father from whom there are “expectations.” In the ideal State, I take it, every woman will be absolutely at liberty to dispose of herself as she will, and no man will be able to command or to purchase her, to influence her in any way, save by pure inclination.

In such a State, most women would naturally desire to be mothers. Being healthy, strong, and free, they would wish to realise the utmost potentialities of their own organisms. And when they had done their duty as mothers, they would not care much, I imagine, for any further outlets for their superfluous energy. I don’t doubt they would gratify to the full their artistic sensibilities and their thirst for knowledge. They would also perform their duties to the State as citizens, no less than the men. But having done these things I fancy they would have done enough; the margin of their life would be devoted to dignified and cultivated leisure. They would leave to men the tilling of the soil, the building and navigation of marine or aerial ships, the working of mines and metals, the erection of houses, the construction of roads, railways, and communications, perhaps even the entire manufacturing work of the community. Medicine and the care of the sick might still be a charge to some; education to most; art, in one form or another, to almost all. But the hard work of the world might well be left to men, upon whom it more naturally and fitly devolves. No hateful drudgery of “earning a livelihood.” Women might rest content with being free and beautiful, cultivated and artistic, good citizens to the State, the mothers and guardians of the coming generations. If any woman asks more than this, she is really asking less–for she is asking that a heavier burden should be cast on some or most of her s.e.x, in order to relieve the minority of a duty which to well-organised women ought to be a privilege.

“But all this has no practical bearing!” I beg your pardon. An ideal has often two practical uses. In the first place, it gives us a pattern towards which we may approximate. In the second place, it gives us a standard by which we may judge whether any step we propose to take is a step forward or a step backward.

XXIV.

_OF SECOND CHAMBERS._

A Second Chamber acts as a drag. Progress is always uphill work. So we are at pains to provide a drag beforehand–for an uphill journey.

There, in one word, you have the whole philosophy of Second Chambers.

How, then, did the nations of Europe come to hamper their legislative systems with such a useless, such an illogical adjunct? In sackcloth and ashes, let us confess the truth–we English led them astray: on us the shame; to us the dishonour. Theorists, indeed (wise after the fact, as is the wont of theorists), have discovered or invented an imaginary function for Second Chambers. They are to preserve the people, it seems, from the fatal consequences of their own precipitancy. As though the people–you and I–the vast body of citizens, were a sort of foolish children, to be cla.s.sed with infants, women, criminals, and imbeciles (I adopt the chivalrous phraseology of an Act of Parliament), incapable of knowing their own minds for two minutes together, and requiring to be kept straight by the fatherly intervention of Dukes of Marlborough or Marquises of Ailesbury. The ideal picture of the level-headed peers restraining the youthful impetuosity of the representatives of the people from committing to-day some rash act which they would gladly repent and repeal to-morrow, is both touching and edifying. But it exists only in the minds of the philosophers, who find a reason for everything just because it is there. Members of Parliament, I have observed, seem to know their own minds every inch as well as earls–nay, even as marquises.

The plain fact of the matter is, all the Second Chambers in the world are directly modelled upon the House of Lords, that Old Man of the Sea whom England, the weary t.i.tan, is now striving so hard to shake off her shoulders. The mother of Parliaments is responsible for every one of them. Senates and Upper Houses are just the result of irrational Anglomania. When const.i.tutional government began to exist, men turned unanimously to the English Const.i.tution as their model and pattern. That was perfectly natural. Evolutionists know that evolution never proceeds on any other plan than by reproduction, with modification, of existing structures. America led the way. She said, “England has a House of Commons; therefore we must have a House of Representatives. England has also a House of Lords; nature has not dowered us with those exalted products, but we will do what we can; we will imitate it by a Senate.”

Monarchical France followed her lead; so did Belgium, Italy, civilisation in general. I believe even j.a.pan rejoices to-day in the august dignity of a Second Chamber. But mark now the irony of it. They all of them did this thing to be entirely English. And just about the time when they had completed the installation of their peers or their senators, England, who set the fashion, began to discover in turn she could manage a great deal better herself without them.

And then what do the philosophers do? Why, they prove to you the necessity of a Second Chamber by pointing to the fact that all civilised nations have got one–in imitation of England. Furthermore, it being their way to hunt up abstruse and recondite reasons for what is on the face of it ridiculous, they argue that a Second Chamber is a necessary wheel in the mechanism of popular representative government. A foolish phrase, which has come down to us from antiquity, represents the populace as inevitably “fickle,” a changeable mob, to be restrained by the wisdom of the seniors and optimates. As a matter of fact, the populace is never anything of the sort. It is dogged, slow, conservative, hard to move; it advances step by step, a patient, sure-footed beast of burden; and when once it has done a thing, it never goes back upon it. I believe this silly fiction of the “fickleness” of the mob is mainly due to the equally silly fictions of prejudiced Greek oligarchs about the Athenian a.s.sembly–which was an a.s.sembly of well-to-do and cultivated slave-owners. I do not swallow all that Thucydides chooses to tell us in his one-sided caricature about Cleon’s appointment to the command at Sphacteria, or about the affair of Mitylene; and even if I did, I think it has nothing to do with the question. But on such utterly exploded old-world ideas is the whole modern argument of the Second Chamber founded.

Does anybody really believe great nations are so incapable of managing their own affairs for themselves through their duly-elected representatives that they are compelled to check their own boyish ardour by means of the acts of an irresponsible and non-elective body? Does anybody believe that the House of Commons works too fast, and gets through its public business too hurriedly? Does anybody believe we improve things in England at such a break-neck pace that we require the a.s.sistance of Lord Salisbury and Lord St. Leonards to prevent us from rushing straight down a steep place into the sea, like the swine of Gadara? If they do, I congratulate them on their psychological ac.u.men and their political wisdom.

What the Commons want is not a drag, but a goad–nay, rather, a snow-plough.

No; the plain truth of the matter is this: all the Second Chambers in the world owe their existence, not to any deliberate plan or reason, but to the mere accident that the British n.o.bles, not having a room big enough to sit in with the Commons, took to sitting separately, and transacted their own business as a distinct a.s.sembly. With so much wisdom are the kingdoms of the earth governed! How else could any one in his senses have devised the idea of creating one deliberative body on purpose to mutilate or destroy the work of another? to produce from time to time a periodical crisis or a periodical deadlock? There is not a country in the world with a Second Chamber that doesn’t twice a year kick and plunge to get rid of it.

The House of Lords was once a reality. It consisted of the ecclesiastical hierarchy–the bishops and mitred abbots; with the official hierarchy–the great n.o.bles, who were also great satraps of provinces, and great military commanders. It was thus mainly made up of practical life-members, appointed by merit. The peers, lay and spiritual, were the men who commended themselves to the sovereign as able administrators. Gradually, with prolonged peace, the hereditary element choked and swamped the nominated element. The abbots disappeared, the lords multiplied. The peer ceased to be the leader of a shire, and sank into a mere idle landowner. Wealth alone grew at last to be a t.i.tle to the peerage. The House of Lords became a House of Landlords. And the English people submitted to the claim of irresponsible wealth or irresponsible acres to exercise a veto upon national legislation. The anomaly, utterly indefensible in itself, had grown up so slowly that the public accepted it–nay, even defended it.

And other countries, accustomed to regard England–the Pecksniff among nations–as a perfect model of political wisdom, swallowed half the anomaly, and all the casuistical reasoning that was supposed to justify it, without a murmur. But if we strip the facts bare from the glamour that surrounds them, the plain truth is this–England allows an a.s.sembly of hereditary n.o.bodies to r.e.t.a.r.d or veto its legislation nowadays, simply because it never noticed the moment when a practical House of administrative officers lapsed into a nest of plutocrats.

Mend or end? As it stands, the thing is a not-even-picturesque mediaeval relic. If we English were logical, we would arrange that any man who owned so many thousand acres of land, or brewed so many million bottles of beer per annum, should _ipso facto_ be elevated to the peerage. Why should not gallons of gin confer an earldom direct, and Brighton A’s be equivalent to a marquisate? Why not allow the equal claim of screws and pills with coal and iron? Why disregard the native worth of annatto and nitrates? Baron Beecham or Lord Sunlight is a first-rate name. As it is, we make petty and puerile distinctions. Beer is in, but whiskey is out; and even in beer itself, if I recollect aright, Dublin stout wore a coronet for some months or years before English pale ale attained the dignity of a barony. No Minister has yet made chocolate a viscount. At present, banks and minerals go in as of right, while soap is left out in the cold, and even cotton languishes. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer put up t.i.tles to auction, while abolishing the legislative function of the Lords, there would be millions in it. But as we English are not logical, our mending would probably resolve itself into fatuous tinkering. We might get rid of the sons, but leave the fathers. We might flood the Lords with life peers, but leave the veto. Such tactics are too Britannic. “Stone dead hath no fellow!”

XXV.

_A POINT OF CRITICISM._

A few pages back, I ventured to remark that in Utopia or the Millennium the women of the community would probably be supported in common by the labour of the men, and so be secured complete independence of choice and action. When these essays first appeared in a daily newspaper, a Leader among Women wrote to me in reply, “What a paradise you open up to us!

Alas for the reality! The question is–could women ever be really independent if men supplied the means of existence? They would always feel they had the right to control us. The difference of the position of a woman in marriage when she has got a little fortune of her own is something miraculous. Men adore money, and the possession of it inspires them with an involuntary respect for the happy possessor.”

Now I got a great many letters in answer to these Post-Prandials as they originally came out–some of them, strange to say, not wholly complimentary. As a rule, I am too busy a man to answer letters: and I take this opportunity of apologising to correspondents who write to tell me I am a knave or a fool, for not having acknowledged direct their courteous communications. But this friendly criticism seems to call for a reply, because it involves a question of principle which I have often noted in all discussions of Utopias and Millennia.

For my generous critic seems to take it for granted that women are not now dependent on the labour of men for their support–that some, or even most of them, are in a position of freedom. The plain truth of it is–almost all women depend for everything upon one man, who is or may be an absolute despot. A very small number of women have “money of their own,” as we quaintly phrase it–that is to say, are supported by the labour of many among us, either in the form of rent or in the form of interest on capital bequeathed to them. A woman with five thousand a year from Consols, for example, is in the strictest sense supported by the united labour of all of us–she has a first mortgage to that amount upon the earnings of the community. You and I are taxed to pay her. But is she therefore more dependent than the woman who lives upon what she can get out of the scanty earnings of a drunken husband? Does the community therefore think it has a right to control her? Not a bit of it. She is in point of fact the only free woman among us. My dream was to see all women equally free–inheritors from the community of so much of its earnings; holders, as it were, of sufficient world-consols to secure their independence.

That, however, is not the main point to which I desire just now to direct attention. I want rather to suggest an underlying fallacy of all so-called individualists in dealing with schemes of so-called Socialism–for to me your Socialist is the true and only individualist.

My correspondent’s argument is written from the standpoint of the cla.s.s in which women have or may have money. But most women have none; and schemes of reconstruction must be for the benefit of the many. So-called individualists seem to think that under a more organised social state they would not be so able to buy pictures as at present, not so free to run across to California or Kamschatka. I doubt their premiss, for I believe we should all of us be better off than we are to-day; but let that pa.s.s; ‘tis a detail. The main thing is this: they forget that most of us are narrowly tied and circ.u.mscribed at present by endless monopolies and endless restrictions of land or capital. I should like to buy pictures; but I can’t afford them. I long to see j.a.pan; but I shall never get there. The man in the street may desire to till the ground: every acre is appropriated. He may wish to dig coal: Lord Masham prevents him. He may have a pretty taste in Venetian gla.s.s: the flints on the sh.o.r.e are private property; the furnace and the implements belong to a capitalist. Under the existing _regime_, the vast ma.s.s of us are hampered at every step in order that a few may enjoy huge monopolies.

Most men have no land, so that one man may own a county. And they call this Individualism!

In considering any proposed change, whether imminent or distant, in practice or in day-dream, it is not fair to take as your standard of reference the most highly-favoured individuals under existing conditions. Nor is it fair to take the most unfortunate only. You should look at the average.

Now the average man, in the world as it wags, is a farm-labourer, an artisan, a mill-hand, a navvy. He has untrammelled freedom of contract to follow the plough on another man’s land, or to work twelve hours a day in another man’s factory, for that other man’s benefit–provided always he can only induce the other man to employ him. If he can’t, he is at perfect liberty to tramp the high road till he drops with fatigue, or to starve, unhindered, on the Thames Embankment. He may live where he likes, as far as his means permit; for example, in a convenient court off Seven Dials. He may make his own free bargain with grasping landlord or exacting sweater. He may walk over every inch of English soil, with the trifling exception of the millions of acres where trespa.s.sers will be prosecuted. Even travel is not denied him: Florence and Venice are out of his beat, it is true; but if he saves up his loose cash for a couple of months, he may revel in the Oriental luxury of a third-cla.s.s excursion train to Brighton and back for three shillings. Such advantages does the _regime_ of landlord-made individualism afford to the average run of British citizen. If he fails in the race, he may retire at seventy to the ease and comfort of the Union workhouse, and be buried inexpensively at the cost of his parish.

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