On Seriousness by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

I do not like seriousness. I think it is irreligious. Or, if you prefer the phrase, it is the fashion of all false religions. The man who takes everything seriously is the man who makes an idol of everything: he bows down to wood and stone until his limbs are as rooted as the roots of the tree or his head as fallen as the stone sunken by the roadside. It has often been discussed whether animals can laugh. The hyena is said to laugh: but it is rather in the sense in which the M.P. is said to utter “an ironical cheer.” At the best, the hyena utters an ironical laugh. Broadly, it is true that all animals except Man are serious. And I think it is further demonstrated by the fact that all human beings who concern themselves in a concentrated way with animals are also serious; serious in a sense far beyond that of human beings concerned with anything else. Horses are serious; they have long, solemn faces. But horsey men are also serious–jockeys or trainers or grooms: they also have long, solemn faces. Dogs are serious: they have exactly that combination of moderate conscientiousness with monstrous conceit which is the make-up of most modern religions. But, however serious dogs may be, they can hardly be more serious than dog-fanciers–or dog-stealers. Dog-stealers, indeed, have to be particularly serious, because they have to come back and say they have found the dog. The faintest shade of irony, not to say levity, on their features, would evidently be fatal to their plans. I will not carry the comparison through all the kingdoms of natural history: but it is true of all who fix their affection or intelligence on the lower animals. Cats are as serious as the Sphinx, who must have been some kind of cat, to judge by the attitude. But the rich old ladies who love cats are quite equally serious, about cats and about themselves. So also the ancient Egyptians worshipped cat, also crocodiles and beetles and all kinds of things; but they were all serious and made their worshippers serious. Egyptian art was intentionally harsh, clear, and conventional; but it could very vividly represent men driving, hunting, fighting, feasting, praying. Yet I think you will pass along many corridors of that coloured and almost cruel art before you see a man laughing. Their gods did not encourage them to laugh. I am told by housewives that beetles seldom laugh. Cats do not laugh–except the Cheshire Cat (which is not found in Egypt); and even he can only grin. And crocodiles do not laugh. They weep.

This comparison between the sacred animals of Egypt and the pet animals of to-day is not so far-fetched as it may seem to some people. There is a healthy and an unhealthy love of animals: and the nearest definition of the difference is that the unhealthy love of animals is serious. I am quite prepared to love a rhinoceros, with reasonable precautions: he is, doubtless, a delightful father to the young rhinoceroses. But I will not promise not to laugh at a rhinoceros. I will not worship the beast with the little horn. I will not adore the Golden Calf; still less will I adore the Fatted Calf. On the contrary, I will eat him. There is some sort of joke about eating an animal, or even about an animal eating you. Let us hope we shall perceive it at the proper moment, if it ever occurs. But I will not worship an animal. That is, I will not take an animal quite seriously: and I know why.

Wherever there is Animal Worship there is Human Sacrifice. That is, both symbolically and literally, a real truth of historical experience. Suppose a thousand black slaves were sacrificed to the black-beetle; suppose a million maidens were flung into the Nile to feed the crocodile; suppose the cat could eat men instead of mice–it could still be no more than that sacrifice of humanity that so often makes the horse more important than the groom, or the lap-dog more important even than the lap. The only right view of the animal is the comic view. Because the view is comic it is naturally affectionate. And because it is affectionate, it is never respectful.

I know no place where the true contrast has been more candidly, clearly, and (for all I know) unconsciously expressed than in an excellent little book of verse called Bread and Circuses by Helen Parry Eden, the daughter of Judge Parry, who has inherited both the humour and the humanity in spite of which her father succeeded as a modern magistrate. There are a great many other things that might be praised in the book, but I should select for praise the sane love of animals. There is, for instance, a little poem on a cat from the country who has come to live in a flat in Battersea (everybody at some time of their lives has lived or will live in a flat in Battersea, except, perhaps, the “prisoner of the Vatican”), and the verses have a tenderness, with a twist of the grotesque, which seems to me the exactly appropriate tone about domestic pets:

And now you’re here. Well, it may be
The sun does rise in Battersea
Although to-day be dark;
Life is not shorn of loves and hates
While there are sparrows on the slates
And keepers in the Park.
And you yourself will come to learn
The ways of London; and in turn
Assume your Cockney cares
Like other folk that live in flats,
Chasing your purely abstract rats
Upon the concrete stairs.

That is like Hood at his best; but it is, moreover, penetrated with a profound and true appreciation of the fundamental idea that all love of the cat must be founded on the absurdity of the cat, and only thus can a morbid idolatry be avoided. Perhaps those who appeared to be witches were those old ladies who took their cats too seriously. The cat in this book is called “Four-Paws,” which is as jolly as a gargoyle. But the name of the cat must be something familiar and even jeering, if it be only Tom or Tabby or Topsy: something that shows man is not afraid of it. Otherwise the name of the cat will be Pasht.

But when the same poet comes accidentally across an example of the insane seriousness about animals that some modern “humanitarians” exhibit, she turns against the animal-lover as naturally and instinctively as she turns to the animal. A writer on a society paper had mentioned some rich woman who had appeared on Cup Day “gowned” in some way or other, and inserted the tearful parenthesis that “she has just lost a dear dog in London.” The real animal-lover instantly recognizes the wrong note, and dances on the dog’s grave with a derision as unsympathetic as Swift:

Dear are my friends, and yet my heart still light is,
Undimmed the eyes that see our set depart,
Snatched from the Season by appendicitis
Or something quite as smart.
But when my Chin-Chin drew his latest breath
On Marie’s outspread apron, slow and wheezily,
I simply sniffed, I could not take his death
So Pekineasily….
…Grief courts these ovations,
And many press my sable-sueded hand,
Noting the blackest of Lucile’s creations
Inquire, and understand.

It is that balance of instincts that is the essence of all satire: however fantastic satire may be, it must always be potentially rational and fundamentally moderate, for it must be ready to hit both to right and to left at opposite extravagances. And the two extravagances which exist on the edges of our harassed and secretive society to-day are cruelty to animals and worship of animals. They both come from taking animals too seriously: the cruel man must hate the animal; the crank must worship the animal, and perhaps fear it. Neither knows how to love it.

from The Uses of Diversity

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