“Raillery on the Beach”

gk3Illustrated London News – October 27, 1905


Every nation has a soul and every soul has a secret: hence there are some incommunicable things in every people; some national virtues must always seem vices to the foreigner. Thus it is really true that no Continental thinker understands the English idea of liberty, even if he admires it. But there are other international misunderstandings which arise from the opposite fault. They arise not because we fail to realise how unlike nations are, but actually because we fail to realise how like nations are. We may pass as pardonable the deadlock of peoples who quarrel because their sentiments are different; but we need have no patience with the deadlock of those who quarrel because their sentiments are the same. Thus (to take an instance of the two misconceptions) we can understand a patriotic Englishman being astonished at the absence of patriotism of China. But, unfortunately, he is generally astonished at the presence of patriotism in France. In many cases an Englishman can understand France easily by the simple operation of supposing it to be England. For example, every normal Englishman is disgusted at the French duel. But he can never make up his mind whether the duel is disgusting because it is dangerous, or disgusting because it is not dangerous. But if he would simply recall that English fight with the fists which with his fathers practised and the poorer English still practice, he would find that, good or bad, it was a thing very like the duel, a thing generally harmless, occasionally mortal.

In the same way Englishmen wandering abroad see the violent caricatures in the comic papers of the Continent and are always especially struck by their anti-clericalism – by the fact that priests are there perpetually presented with monstrous visages, in degraded postures, tortured and torn to rags by the demoniac pencil of the artist; an inferno full of clergymen. And the English travellers always return to England and say that the whole of France or Italy is raging with atheism and that the Church is tottering to its fall. Yet it never occurs to them to look at the English comic papers and see what would happen here if the same principle were applied. An intelligent man from Mars turning over some stack or volumes (poor devil!) of our English comic papers, would in the same manner form one firm and clear opinion. He would believe that the whole English people were on the point of rising against the institution of marriage and of destroying it for ever. He wold find every paper covered with jeers and sneers at the man who was contemptible enough to tie himself to a wife and a perambulator. He would find the married man invariably represented as a man of improbably small stature and manifest mental deficiency. He would find that these million jokes were all variations of two jokes: the glee of the married man when he escapes from his married life, and the woe of the married man while he is tied to it. And, finding our popular humour one long scream against the married state, the man from Mars would naturally, in his intellectual innocence, suppose that the country was really raging with this revolutionary passion. He would suppose that mobs were battering upon the doors of the Divine Court, demanding, en masse, to be admitted and divorced. He would imagine that wedding-rings were being melted down publicly in a great pot in Trafalgar Square. He would suppose that any couple daring to get married would be assaulted at the church-door by the infuriated populace and pelted with bricks instead of confetti. He would suppose that those tireless satirists and enthusiasts, the editors of Snaps and Wheezes, would go about to everybody’s wedding and forbid everybody’s banns. “For what else,” he would say, “what else except the most passionate moral purpose and the most relentless intellectual policy, what else but a crusading earnestness and an adamantine sense of duty could induce men thus to fill fourteen mortal volumes of Snippy Bits with the same joke on the same subject?

Well, we know that this is not quite the case. We know that there is no immediate likelihood of the English people pulling down St. George’s, Hanover Square, or filling the streets with a sudden slaughter of mother-in-law. In short, we know that marriage is attacked in this way not because it is a vanishing institution, but because it is an enduring institution. People jeers at it because they will not change it. People batter it because it will not fall. And a very little reflection will enable us to realise that what is true of the relation between Snaps and the strength of marriage is true also of the relations between the anti-clerical caricatures and the Catholic Church in Europe. If a man is resolved to part with anything or anybody, he can generally take leave of it with a fair amount of dignity and delicacy and even regret. So people who break off an engagement are often sympathetic and always serious. A thing that is departing is necessarily solemn. But if a man is going to live with it, he must learn to laugh at it.

For this reason, I, for one, can never agree with the censure often directed against joking Judges, against Mr. Justice Darling, for instance, or, to take a much better type, Mr. Plowden. It is perfectly true, as the journalists say, that when a Judge makes jokes it often happens that we do not think them very good jokes. But the error lies in supposing that the Judge himself imagines for a moment that they are good jokes. I remember a schoolmaster of mine, a moody and eccentric man, who as he stood with a long pointer in his hand explaining something on a blackboard, uttered some flippancy which was, of course, followed by an anarchy of school-boy laughter. In a flash he had swung round on his heels, and, pointing the ten-foot pole straight at me, exclaimed in a loud voice of thunder, “Do you think that’s funny?” I professed agnosticism on the point. “No, boy, no,” he said, wagging his head with an indescribably emphasis of asseveration; “I do not think it funny. Seldom in my life have I heard a more imbecile remark. I only say it in order to relieve the intolerable tedium of two hours in school.” He was a man of great acumen and scholarship, and knew the difference between good jokes and bad as well even as a journalist. But he also knew something else. He knew that, if he had not allowed himself glimpses of humane folly, and even a humane contempt for his own occupation, he would have rushed round the room screaming and brandishing a cane. He knew that if he had taken his position quite seriously for two hours, the floor would have been decorated with juvenile corpses. And so probably the Judges know this psychological necessity, and are never so wise as when they are silly. The schoolmaster knows that it is better even to lose his reputation as a wit than to lose his temper as a man and lose his position as a master. He knows that it is better to crack jokes about nothing than to crack heads about everything. And the Judge knows that the work he has to do is already so dreadful and responsible that to think of nothing but its dread and responsibility would paralyse the intellect and the will. His business is literally too serious to be seriously thought of. But he feels, as the schoolmaster felt, that it is better to become a cheap jester than to become some darkened and distorted fanatic of the law, making inhuman decrees in an inhuman atmosphere. It is better for the Judge to be a clown if that is his only way of remaining a man: that a Judge should be a clown is less shocking than that he should only be a Judge. So if he too often utters follies, do not jump to the conclusion that you have a fool on the Bench. If he did not utter them, you might have a madman there.

The fault, of course, really lives with the journalists themselves, who always feverishly report any judicial utterance which is followed by “loud laughter.” This is a monstrous injustice. Suppose every idle and vulgar raillery which was uttered in other trades were reported: everything that one miner said to another before descending the dangerous shaft, everything that one soldier said to another when advancing into the line of fire, all the jokes that beguile the time on lighthouses or in fishing fleets. Every time a corporal said to a private, “Now we shan’t be long,” his joke would be examined and adjudged like a new book. Every time one policeman told another to put his head in a bg, he would be asked if he thought that equal to the repartees of Talleyrand or Whistler. Be, therefore, more merciful in this matter: judge not, even if you can judge the Judge. You are in an awful hall of justice, no doubt. But he is only in his workshop. And be glad if he can sing at his work, as Shakspere’s clown could sing at his work, although it was digging graves.

All this rambling train of meditation began in my mind with an admirable scrap of sarcasm of Mr. Plowden, who has, very unjustly I think, been constantly reproached with his raillery. It was that incident that every reader has probably noticed, in which Mr. Plowden dealt with a boy who had made a noise in what the inimitable policeman called a street of “first-class people.” A t the first blush one feels that the magistrate should have rolled the policeman in the mud with righteous indignation, explained to him indignantly the alphabet of human fraternity, asked with holy wrath if he was the footman of a few rich houses or the servant of a great people. But nothing could really have been better than Mr. Plowden’s placid explanation to the boy, as he discharged him, “First-class people require first-class sleep.” The basis of true democracy was revealed by appealing to a primary physical experience. It was as if we were to say that a particular kind of death was reserved for refined persons.

And this is a good example of the excellent uses that a man in that position can make of the smiling method. A crime had been committed, but it was not one that could be adequately dealt with except by satire; and satire was made the punishment of the crime, Mr. Plowden wielding a rod of roses. When I speak of the crime, of course I do not mean the little boy’s: he hadn’t one. I mean the policeman’s.

–G.K. Chesterton

 

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