Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Mad Official

Going mad is the slowest and dullest business in the world. I have very
nearly done it more than once in my boyhood, and so have nearly all my
friends, born under the general doom of mortals, but especially of moderns;
I mean the doom that makes a man come almost to the end of thinking
before he comes to the first chance of living.

But the process of going mad is dull, for the simple reason that a man
does not know that it is going on. Routine and literalism and a certain
dry-throated earnestness and mental thirst, these are the very atmosphere
of morbidity. If once the man could become conscious of his madness, he
would cease to be man. He studies certain texts in Daniel or cryptograms
in Shakespeare through monstrously magnifying spectacles, which are on his
nose night and day. If once he could take off the spectacles he would
smash them. He deduces all his fantasies about the Sixth Seal or the
Anglo-Saxon Race from one unexamined and invisible first principle. If
he could once see the first principle, he would see that it is not there.

This slow and awful self-hypnotism of error is a process that can occur
not only with individuals, but also with whole societies. It is hard to
pick out and prove; that is why it is hard to cure. But this mental
degeneration may be brought to one test, which I truly believe to be a
real test. A nation is not going mad when it does extravagant things, so
long as it does them in an extravagant spirit. Crusaders not cutting
their beards till they found Jerusalem, Jacobins calling each other
Harmodius and Epaminondas when their names were Jacques and Jules, these
are wild things, but they were done in wild spirits at a wild moment.

But whenever we see things done wildly, but taken tamely, then the State
is growing insane. For instance, I have a gun license. For all I know,
this would logically allow me to fire off fifty-nine enormous field-guns
day and night in my back garden. I should not be surprised at a man doing
it; for it would be great fun. But I should be surprised at the
neighbours putting up with it, and regarding it as an ordinary thing
merely because it might happen to fulfill the letter of my license.

Or, again, I have a dog license; and I may have the right (for all I know)
to turn ten thousand wild dogs loose in Buckinghamshire. I should not be
surprised if the law were like that; because in modern England there is
practically no law to be surprised at. I should not be surprised even at
the man who did it; for a certain kind of man, if he lived long under the
English landlord system, might do anything. But I should be surprised at
the people who consented to stand it. I should, in other words, think the
world a little mad if the incident, were received in silence.

Now things every bit as wild as this are being received in silence every
day. All strokes slip on the smoothness of a polished wall. All blows
fall soundless on the softness of a padded cell. For madness is a passive
as well as an active state: it is a paralysis, a refusal of the nerves to
respond to the normal stimuli, as well as an unnatural stimulation. There
are commonwealths, plainly to be distinguished here and there in history,
which pass from prosperity to squalor, or from glory to insignificance, or
from freedom to slavery, not only in silence, but with serenity. The face
still smiles while the limbs, literally and loathsomely, are dropping from
the body. These are peoples that have lost the power of astonishment at
their own actions. When they give birth to a fantastic fashion or a
foolish law, they do not start or stare at the monster they have brought
forth. They have grown used to their own unreason; chaos is their cosmos;
and the whirlwind is the breath of their nostrils. These nations are
really in danger of going off their heads en masse; of becoming one vast
vision of imbecility, with toppling cities and crazy country-sides, all
dotted with industrious lunatics. One of these countries is modern
England.

Now here is an actual instance, a small case of how our social conscience
really works: tame in spirit, wild in result, blank in realisation; a
thing without the light of mind in it. I take this paragraph from a daily
paper:--"At Epping, yesterday, Thomas Woolbourne, a Lambourne labourer,
and his wife were summoned for neglecting their five children. Dr. Alpin
said he was invited by the inspector of the N.S.P.C.C. to visit
defendants' cottage. Both the cottage and the children were dirty. The
children looked exceedingly well in health, but the conditions would be
serious in case of illness. Defendants were stated to be sober. The man
was discharged. The woman, who said she was hampered by the cottage
having no water supply and that she was ill, was sentenced to six weeks'
imprisonment. The sentence caused surprise, and the woman was removed
crying, 'Lord save me!'"

I know no name for this but Chinese. It calls up the mental picture of
some archaic and changeless Eastern Court, in which men with dried faces
and stiff ceremonial costumes perform some atrocious cruelty to the
accompaniment of formal proverbs and sentences of which the very meaning
has been forgotten. In both cases the only thing in the whole farrago
that can be called real is the wrong. If we apply the lightest touch of
reason to the whole Epping prosecution it dissolves into nothing.

I here challenge any person in his five wits to tell me what that woman
was sent to prison for. Either it was for being poor, or it was for being
ill. Nobody could suggest, nobody will suggest, nobody, as a matter of
fact, did suggest, that she had committed any other crime. The doctor was
called in by a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Was
this woman guilty of cruelty to children? Not in the least. Did the
doctor say she was guilty of cruelty to children? Not in the least. Was
these any evidence even remotely bearing on the sin of cruelty? Not a rap.
The worse that the doctor could work himself up to saying was that
though the children were "exceedingly" well, the conditions would be
serious in case of illness. If the doctor will tell me any conditions
that would be comic in case of illness, I shall attach more weight to his
argument.

Now this is the worst effect of modern worry. The mad doctor has gone mad.
He is literally and practically mad; and still he is quite literally and
practically a doctor. The only question is the old one, Quis docebit
ipsum doctorem? Now cruelty to children is an utterly unnatural thing;
instinctively accursed of earth and heaven. But neglect of children is a
natural thing; like neglect of any other duty, it is a mere difference of
degree that divides extending arms and legs in calisthenics and extending
them on the rack. It is a mere difference of degree that separates any
operation from any torture. The thumb-screw can easily be called Manicure.
Being pulled about by wild horses can easily be called Massage. The
modern problem is not so much what people will endure as what they will
not endure. But I fear I interrupt.... The boiling oil is boiling; and
the Tenth Mandarin is already reciting the "Seventeen Serious Principles
and the Fifty-three Virtues of the Sacred Emperor."

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


Plays