The Private Lives of the Moderns
How the Phrase "The Sanctity of the Home" Has Little Meaning in the World of Today
by G. K. Chesterson
THE most essential educational product is Imagination. It is in a wandering and even wild Imagination that all schools should chiefly instruct all school-children. For Imagmation will teach them how to live a quiet and humdrum life.
This simple truth is now much neglected by both the fashionable and the old fashioned. The way to make people contented is to make them creative, not to make them barren. I have no desire to lock people up in the parlour or the pantry, or deny them excursions and excitements. But it is strictly true that the larger is their Imagination, the less they sill mind being locked up at home in the parlour; or, for that matter, in the coal-cellar. The child who can see the pictures in the fire will need less to see the pictures in the film theatres. The man who can make up stories about his next-door neighbour will be the less dependent upon the next day's newspaper. So long as the minds of the poor were perpetually stirred and enlivened by ghost stories, fairy-stories and legends of wild and wonderful things, they remained comparatively contented; possibly too contented, but still contented. The moment modern science and instruction stopped all these things, we had a Labour Question and the huge discontent of today. Both for good and evil, but especially for good, it is Imagination that keeps people quiet.
On the other hand, dull people always want excitement. Three-quarters of the real luxury or prodigality or profligacy that is complained of in modern life is due to the dullness of people who cannot imagine anything they do not experience. They are so miserably, dismally stupid that they actually have to do things. They are so poor in spirit that they have to have things. They have to have a flying-machine fitted up with every luxury, because they cannot send their souls up while flying a kite. They have to be in a racing-car in order to believe that it really races. If this principle of the inner life were understood, we might today restore the sanity of civilization; and especially the poetry of home life.
I am trying to suggest a criticism of the new generation that shall not merely suggest a complacency about my own generation. I am not a venerable Victorian objecting to plusfours because they are different from peg-top trousers; but rather because they are not different enough. I should not complain of Oxford bags because they would have caused a mild surprise to Tom Brown at Oxford', but because they would have caused a mild surprise to almost anybody Use. Alexander about to conquer the world, Alfred called upon to reconquer the Wessex kingdom, would certainly have received them with the fervent expression: "Not in these trousers." But it is less true of trifles than of serious truths. And this distinction especially applies to the blunders made by both generations about the fundamental human institution called the Family or the Household.
HALF the trouble has arisen from two falsehoods; both of them current, not so much among those who are young enough to be troublesome, as among those who are old enough to know better. But in both generations there is a fixed idea: first, that what is called the Victorian Age was a golden age of domestic respectability and unity; and' second, that there was something specially fine about this solid and conventional family life. The very name of Queen Victoria is supposed in some way to stamp a sacred domesticity upon the period and the place, and to suggest that the idea of the family was at its highest or strongest in that age and in that country.
Both these ideas are quite false The Victorian age was not one in which domesticity was at its highest. On the contrary, it was one at which domesticity was at its lowest. Half the present evil arises from the fact that the Victorians never did understand the virtues that they were vaguely supposed to defend.
The Victorians were people who had lost the sense of the sacredness of the home. They still believed in the respectability of the home; but that is only another way of saying that they wanted to be respected by other people for reverencing what they did not really reverence. If we compare Victorian customs with the customs of the mass of mankind, the first thing that will strike us is that the purely domestic customs have been cut down to next to nothing; that they are duller and not brighter, colder and not more convivial. It is as if we were to say that because a Victorian banker generally disapproved of walking about naked, therefore his age was the golden age of glorious ant flamboyant costume. The truth is that he had cut down costume to something meaner and more prosaic and less significant and important than costume had ever been before. He wore chimney-pot hats and mutton-chop whiskers because he thought less and not more about the possibilities of dress than did a gallant of Giorgione or a cavalier of Van Dyck. He preferred the chimney-pot hats as he preferred the chimney-pots to the Tower of Giotto He tolerated the mutton-chop whiskers as he tolerated the mutton chops; because he de" spised French cookery along with French culture. It is quite possible for a sympathetic imagination to see something manly and bracing about such a Philistine. But nobody, however sympathetic, would say that he understood the real meaning and possibilities of dress. Nor did he understand the meaning and possibilities of domesticity.
TO begin at the beginning, we can invoke not merely the Christian but the Pagan idea of the family. The Pagans actually had Household Gods. They worshipped the house; they treated it as a temple; not metaphorically but literally. They sacrificed to gods who were conceived as present in that place, as distinct from other places. The gods presided over the most material and even grotesque features of domestic life. Now the more modern man did not go on like that. He did it less than any other man of any other time. He was never tempted to bow down in worship to the door-scraper. He was never known to offer sacrifices to the umbrella-stand But in the old heathen culture, the door-scraper would really have been an idol or the umbrella-stand a god. The umbrella-stand would at least have been dedicated to some deity who might be supposed to be interested in umbrellas; presumably Jupiter Plavius. The door scraper would have stood for a ceremony; and the ceremony of scraping the feet would have been one of purification or lustralion, a ceremony symbolic of discarding the dust and mire of the world.
So far from the Victorian heavy father having these traditional feelings, he had them far less than the majority of mankind. The satirists who poked fun at him talked about his furniture as his household gods. But the satirists who poked fun at him paid him far to fine a compliment. He did not see any special significance, artistic or religious, in the Victorian furniture around him. He did not have mahogany tables because his dreams brooded on the dark red forests filled with the mysterious red men of the West. He did not have black horsehair sofas because there rushed through his imagination a gallop of wild black horses. He did not even have cut-glass chandeliers to express his lofty meditations on the mystery of the Prism, which shatters the daylight into colours and stains the white radiance of eternity. Any enquiry addressed to a prosperous banker about the year 1855, upon these points, would substantiate my statement. The banker was not thinking poetically about his furniture; and he was not really thinking mystically about his home. He wrote letters to the news" papers, or read Editorials, in which was conventionally used the phrase, "the sanctity of the home".
But he never really meant sanctity; he only meant security. I mean that he had not the idea of sacredness, as compared with his own Christian forefathers, or his own Pagan forefathers or even his own Pagan contemporaries. When he went to China (which he did occasionally, in search of money) he saw a Pagan civilisation very like the old Greek and Roman civilization. There also the house was a temple. There the religion of the family flowered or flamed into all sorts of fantastic expressions which the merchant class thought very ridiculous. Coloured lanterns glowed on days of domestic festivity and gorgeous paper dragons were waved like banners. But the Victorian did not want to wave any dragon. The Victorian was never known to dance about with a coloured lantern. The notion of the poetry of private life had faded from him and his generation; and seemed to be something not merely alien but barbarous. In order to understand what can be made of the religion of the family, he would have had to learn from a yellow Chinaman; the last thing he would be likely to do. True; he had something at home called Family Prayers; and the mere memory of them has murdered religion for two generations.
This was the real Victorian hypocrisy; at least, this was the real falsity of the Victorian claim. They did to some extent pose to their children and grandchildren as the traditionalists. But they had in fact been the great anti- traditionalists; and it was their time that destroyed a thousand traditions. They did sometimes quote Horace or Virgil about hearth and altar, but there was never any flame upon their altar, even if there were a dying fire upon their hearth. They did sometimes talk about household gods, as if their houses had been full of holy images. But in truth it was they, and not their children, who were the iconoclasts. Nineteenth century England had destroyed the last legends of the fireside, long before twentieth century England had a chance of feeling the full poetry of the legend. The Philistines were the images breakers; they shattered the household gods and the patron saints. Puritanism combined with Industrialism threw away the Lares and Penates like the disused dolls of a dead infancy and went on to what was counted the manhood of the moderns; with what results we see today And so completely did they dry up that fountain of fairy-tales which flows from China to Peru, that I shall now probably be charged with uttering a "paradox", because I say something so self-evident as that it is homestead, and the inner chamber, that is the dwelling place of Imagination.
The generation in revolt fled from a cold hearth and a godless shrine. That is the historical fact that is really hidden by both sides in this controversy. It is supposed that they revolted against what their elders called religion and they called superstition; against what their elders called domesticity and they called drudgery. But those elders were not really religious; they were not even really domestic. This was notably the case in the middle classes, which puffed themselves out with preposterous spiritual pride about its domesticity. It actually had the impudence to talk about French immorality; when the French sense of the family was twenty times stronger than ours. We had our own special merits of sport and adventure; but we were definitely undomestic as compared with nearly everybody else. We exiled all our children to boarding-school; and thought any boy a milk-sop who admitted any affection for his mother. The chief reason for regarding a Frenchman as a fool (a thing essential to self-respect of other nations) was that he confessed to a certain respect for his mother. It was from this sort of chilly and half-inhabited house that the modern rebels escaped to conduct their revels in hotels and night-clubs. Someday I shall aflectionately explain to them what fools they are for doing anything of the sort.