Illustrated London News, April 19, 1930

by G. K. Chesterton

As it seems to be generally understood that nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-fifty-seven novels, twelve-thousand-five-hundred-and-eighty-three plays, and several million reminiscences in prose, verse, and free verse, are shortly to appear on the virgin and untouched topic of the Great War, it will perhaps be well to be prepared with some general principles for the criticism of the problem, as well as for the criticism of the particular solutions of it. Should any books or plays appear during the next few years on any other topic except that of the Great War, such daring departures and exceptional experiments will of themselves be sufficiently conspicuous. But we need something like a general rule of reading to correct the general tendency of writing; and I will venture to offer some suggestions for it here.

When the old popular complaint was made against the Novel with a Purpose, it was almost always based on the idea that the purpose would hurt the novel. It was not sufficiently realised that the novel can also hurt the purpose. When jolly old playgoers protested against the Problem Play, it was always on the ground that the play was spoiled by the problem. It was not enough emphasised that the problem can be spoiled by the play. There is a very good case for those who really are concerned about purposes and problems, and who find that they are very falsely and crookedly presented in dramas and stories. There is always a moral idea of some sort inhering in any great play or romance, because man is a moral being in his inmost and not merely in his external existence. But a play or a story is often an exceedingly bad way of presenting any practical moral problem that requires a practical solution. The writer either exhibits a sham fight of dialogue, taking care that the Whig dogs shall not have the best of it; or else he is almost forced to leave the moral of his story much more obscure and doubtful than a clear call to public duty or social justice ought to be. If we have really come to hold a strong moral conviction, we want to shout it much more loudly than is artistic in any work of art. Since the world has discarded Rhetoric as something false, it has lost the only natural expression of anything that is true. We want more of the orator, and even more of the demagogue; but not the demagogue masked and muffled by the disguise of a dramatist.

I would suggest, therefore, that, when hundreds of suggestions and half-suggestions are thus made to us on the subject of war, peace, and patriotism, we should keep certain maxims in mind as a corrective to mere suggestion: which, by itself, is as undignified as mesmerism. In these things we want to have reasons that can be stated as reasons, and not as catchwords or phrases or fragments of dialogue. We want to beware of certain fallacies that could not be maintained in argument but can easily be implied in art. Here are a few of these fallacies, which do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

First, if we really desire peace or any other good thing, let us make a pious resolution that we will not talk nonsense. In other words, let us agree that we will not use newspaper mottoes like "War Is Unthinkable. " Slogans of that sort are invented because they are nonsense. A man gets up and says that war is unthinkable at the very moment when everybody is thinking about war, and because everybody is thinking about war. They are, as we have already noted, writing, preaching, scribbling, and screaming about war, and almost about nothing else. Let us say that war is unbearable, or that war is unjustifiable, or that war is invariably indefensible, if we think so. But to say that it is unthinkable is to say that we refuse to think.@ Second, do not let us be satisfied with the sort of argument that can be made very vivid, not to say horrid, in fiction: the sort of argument that says, "If only you knew what war is really like!" If we were logically limited to that argument, it would be easy to apply it to all sorts of things. You could make large numbers of refined maiden aunts living in Bath and Cheltenham feel very ill with a realistic novel having the motto, "If you only knew what surgery is like!" You could send shudders all over Upper and Lower Tooting with a detailed and documentary novel headed "If You Only Knew What Scavenging Is Like!" If there are any people silly enough to suppose that all wounds on the battlefield are elegant and picturesque, they may be capable of supposing that all wounds in a hospital are elegant and picturesque. There may have been soldiers who mistakenly entered the army on the former assumption; there have probably been nurses who mistakenly entered the hospital on the latter. But that does not prove by itself that nobody has a noble vocation of nursing; nor does it prove by itself that nobody has a noble vocation of soldiering. Whether war attains its object, whether it is a legitimate object, whether war is a legitimate means - all those are different questions, lying beyond this particular question. But if armed conflict can be as useful or necessary as amputation, it is no answer to say that it is as ugly as amputation.

Third, I would respectfully remind most of those who have written, are writing, and will resolutely and unceasingly continue to write novels and plays about the War and the Armistice and Ten Years After, that they should try to encourage a real friendship with foreigners. And a friendship with foreigners does not mean a friendship with Germans. It means a friendship with Germans and with everybody else, including those who are extremely likely to quarrel with Germans. I would suggest to them, what they seem to have entirely forgotten, that if they describe the reaction towards Peace as if it were solely and entirely a reaction towards Prussians, they will not be encouraging Peace but very definitely encouraging War. They will be doing, in a much more dangerous form, exactly what they themselves denounced the Government for doing when it tied us up in a one-sided alliance; with the addition (as I should say) of our being tied to the wrong side instead of the right. But the point is that, whatever their romantic suggestions of reconciliation may favour, they do not favour the cause of Peace. The same sort of man who could only fight by writing sentimental lies against all Germans is now writing sentimental fiction in favour of all Germans. But he is not writing it in favour of Peace. The only chance of peace in the world lies in the possibility of our understanding the other side also. And so long as it is the fashion of the moment to talk as if all Italians were bullies, all Frenchmen braggarts, all Poles futile lunatics, and the rest, it is perhaps something of a stretch of language to say that we are making friends with foreigners. In fact, we are not making friends at all. We are doing something much more terrible and ominous. We are making Allies.

Lastly, let us remember as a general principle that opinions should be stated as opinions and convictions as convictions. We must not be impatient because these statements are called abstract. Whereas some charming romance about mud and blood and disembowelled horses is in comparison beautifully concrete. We are not savages, to express ourselves only in picture-writing. We are civilised men, acquainted with mathematics and metaphysics, and presumably capable of thinking in terms of thought. Certainly if we ever lose that power, it will be a worse relapse into barbarism than the worst war in the world.

(Illustrated London News, 19th April, 1930)

[home] Up to G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web.
Last modified: 7th February 2007
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.