The Spice of Life and Other Essays/On Fragments

As I have said before I am a believer in staring blankly at things; if you do it something always happens. For instance, I am staring blankly at this sheet of paper and I firmly believe that something more or less intelligible will happen soon. Men stared at the blank blue sky and invented a million mythologies. Staring stupidly at live people is more dangerous; but even this has its fascination; and if you ever see your companion's face turned towards you with the rounded and complete expression of a congenital idiot, you may be certain again that he is nearer at that moment than at any other to knowing what you really are; which I fancy is the last thing that you desire. When we cast `an intelligent look' (as they say in books) at a thing, it only means that we stamp our own significance upon it. When we look wisely at a post we see what we mean by a post. But when we look stupidly at a post we see what a post means.

In such a trance of divine imbecility I remember once staring at the paving-stones under my feet, until I went off into a sort of dream of paving-stones. They passed perpetually under my feet like flat and silent waves of stones, and all the time I was asking myself what they were. Street after street I passed, looking at the ground like a cow. And then it suddenly seemed to me that they were all gravestones; the gravestones of innumerable and utterly forgotten men. For under every one of them, almost certainly, there was human dust. I seemed to see fantastic epitaphs on them, commemorating the deeds of heroes who are too old and too great to be remembered. There, for instance, was the man who found fire and the man who made the first wheel; men too necessary to be ever named. There were the dim poets who gave names to the flowers, and have utterly lost their own.

And among those imaginary benefactors in all ages I seemed to see one class especially predominant. I mean the people who in the dim beginning of time united one thing artificially, but permanently, with another. What primeval priest, for instance, married bread and cheese? Who was the wild visionary (of later times) who, after ransacking all the forests, and counting all the fruits of the earth, discovered that almonds and raisins had been looking for each other since the world began? Who, above all, discovered such a thing as the happy marriage between music and literature? The men who are least known from the past are certainly the men who made this combination. And the men who are best known at the present day are certainly those who are tearing such combinations in pieces.

This is the worst element in our anarchic world of today. The whole is one vast system of separation - an enormous philosophical Divorce Court. The theory of art for art's sake, for instance, as applied to painting, was a proposal to separate a picture from the subject of the picture. Sentiment would be better without art, art would be better without sentiment. In other words, a picture would be a better picture if it were not a picture of anything. And a subject would be all the better subject if you did not paint it. Such moderns easily might, I think some moderns really have, applied the same principle to that ancient combination called a song. A very modern poet might easily say that the words would convey their own natural rhythms much better without a tune. A very modern musician might easily say that the only perfectly musical songs would be songs without words. No one has yet had the star-defying audacity to hint at a separation between bread and cheese. But we must be prepared to have it said before long by some profligate aesthete that bread would be more breadish without cheese, and that cheese would be more exquisitely and penetratingly cheesy without bread. We must be prepared, I say, for a perpetual tendency towards such cleavages; and we must be prepared to answer them by insisting on the immemorial right of mankind to perpetuate such alliances. Man has from the beginning joined spoken words to an air, and the two have grown old and wise together. Those whom man hath joined let no man sunder.

This endless process of separation of everything from everything else has a good example, for instance, in the case of religion. Religion, a human and historic religion, like Christianity or Buddhism or some great periods of Paganism was, as a matter of fact, a combination of all the important parts of life. Every one of the main human interests was in old times made a part of the creed. Every one of those human interests is now put apart by itself, as if it were a monomania like collecting stamps. A religion, as understood by humanity in the past, always consisted at least of the following elements. First, of a theory of ultimate truth and of the nature of the universe. That is now put by itself and called Metaphysics. Second, of a groping communication with some being other than man. This is now put by itself and called Psychical Research. Third, of a strict rule of behaviour, with many irritating vetoes. This is now put by itself and called Ethics. Fourth, of a certain flamboyant tendency to break out into colours and symbols, to do wild and beautiful things with flowers or with garments or with fire. This is now put by itself and called Art. Fifth, of a tendency to feel that matter and locality can be sacred, that certain soils or features of the landscape can be a part of the peace of the soul. This is now put by itself and called Patriotism. And the typically modern men are mainly proud of having thus torn up the original unity of the religious idea. Ethics for ethics' sake, and art for art's sake are like the tatters of what was once the seamless robe. They have parted his garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots.