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The Separatist and Sacred Things

In the very laudable and fascinating extensions of our interest in Asiatic
arts or faiths, there are two incidental injustices which we tend nowadays
to do to our own records and our own religion. The first is a tendency to
talk as if certain things were not only present in the higher Orientals,
but were peculiar to them. Thus our magazines will fall into a habit of
wondering praise of Bushido, the Japanese chivalry, as if no Western
knights had ever vowed noble vows, or as if no Eastern knights had ever
broken them. Or again, our drawing-rooms will be full of the praises of
Indian renunciation and Indian unworldliness, as if no Christians had been
saints, or as if all Buddhists had been. But if the first injustice is to
think of human virtues as peculiarly Eastern, the other injustice is a
failure to appreciate what really is peculiarly Eastern. It is too much
taken for granted that the Eastern sort of idealism is certainly superior
and convincing; whereas in truth it is only separate and peculiar. All
that is richest, deepest, and subtlest in the East is rooted in Pantheism;
but all that is richest, deepest, and subtlest in us is concerned with
denying passionately that Pantheism is either the highest or the purest
religion.

Thus, in turning over some excellent books recently written on the spirit
of Indian or Chinese art and decoration, I found it quietly and curiously
assumed that the artist must be at his best if he flows with the full
stream of Nature; and identifies himself with all things; so that the
stars are his sleepless eyes and the forests his far-flung arms. Now in
this way of talking both the two injustices will be found. In so far as
what is claimed is a strong sense of the divine in all things, the Eastern
artists have no more monopoly of it than they have of hunger and thirst.

I have no doubt that the painters and poets of the Far East do exhibit
this; but I rebel at being asked to admit that we must go to the Far East
to find it. Traces of such sentiments can be found, I fancy, even in
other painters and poets. I do not question that the poet Wo Wo (that
ornament of the eighth dynasty) may have written the words: "Even the most
undignified vegetable is for this person capable of producing meditations
not to be exhibited by much weeping." But, I do not therefore admit that
a Western gentleman named Wordsworth (who made a somewhat similar remark)
had plagiarised from Wo Wo, or was a mere Occidental fable and travesty of
that celebrated figure. I do not deny that Tinishona wrote that exquisite
example of the short Japanese poem entitled "Honourable Chrysanthemum in
Honourable Hole in Wall." But I do not therefore admit that Tennyson's
little verse about the flower in the cranny was not original and even
sincere.

It is recorded (for all I know) of the philanthropic Emperor Bo, that when
engaged in cutting his garden lawn with a mower made of alabaster and
chrysoberyl, he chanced to cut down a small flower; whereupon, being much
affected, he commanded his wise men immediately to take down upon tablets
of ivory the lines beginning: "Small and unobtrusive blossom with ruby
extremities." But this incident, touching as it is, does not shake my
belief in the incident of Robert Burns and the daisy; and I am left with
an impression that poets are pretty much the same everywhere in their
poetry--and in their prose.

I have tried to convey my sympathy and admiration for Eastern art and its
admirers, and if I have not conveyed them I must give it up and go on to
more general considerations. I therefore proceed to say--with the utmost
respect, that it is Cheek, a rarefied and etherealised form of Cheek, for
this school to speak in this way about the mother that bore them, the
great civilisation of the West. The West also has its magic landscapes,
only through our incurable materialism they look like landscapes as well
as like magic. The West also has its symbolic figures, only they look
like men as well as symbols. It will be answered (and most justly) that
Oriental art ought to be free to follow its own instinct and tradition;
that its artists are concerned to suggest one thing and our artists
another; that both should be admired in their difference. Profoundly true;
but what is the difference? It is certainly not as the Orientalisers
assert, that we must go to the Far East for a sympathetic and
transcendental interpretation of Nature. We have paid a long enough toll
of mystics and even of madmen to be quit of that disability.

Yet there is a difference, and it is just what I suggested. The Eastern
mysticism is an ecstasy of unity; the Christian mysticism is an ecstasy of
creation, that is of separation and mutual surprise. The latter says,
like St. Francis, "My brother fire and my sister water "; the former says,
"Myself fire and myself water." Whether you call the Eastern attitude an
extension of oneself into everything or a contraction of oneself into
nothing is a matter of metaphysical definition. The effect is the same,
an effect which lives and throbs throughout all the exquisite arts of the
East. This effect is the Sing called rhythm, a pulsation of pattern, or
of ritual, or of colours, or of cosmic theory, but always suggesting the
unification of the individual with the world. But there is quite another
kind of sympathy the sympathy with a thing because it is different. No
one will say that Rembrandt did not sympathise with an old woman; but no
one will say that Rembrandt painted like an old woman. No one will say
that Reynolds did not appreciate children; but no one will say he did it
childishly. The supreme instance of this divine division is sex, and that
explains (what I could never understand in my youth) why Christendom
called the soul the bride of God. For real love is an intense
realisation of the "separateness" of all our souls. The most heroic and
human love-poetry of the world is never mere passion; precisely because
mere passion really is a melting back into Nature, a meeting of the waters.
And water is plunging and powerful; but it is only powerful downhill.
The high and human love-poetry is all about division rather than identity;
and in the great love-poems even the man as he embraces the woman sees her,
in the same instant, afar off; a virgin and a stranger.

For the first injustice, of which we have spoken, still recurs; and if we
grant that the East has a right to its difference, it is not realised in
what we differ. That nursery tale from nowhere about St. George and the
Dragon really expresses best the relation between the West and the East.
There were many other differences, calculated to arrest even the
superficial eye, between a saint and a dragon. But the essential
difference was simply this: that the Dragon did want to eat St. George;
whereas St. George would have felt a strong distaste for eating the Dragon.
In most of the stories he killed the Dragon. In many of the stories he
not only spared, but baptised it. But in neither case did the Christian
have any appetite for cold dragon. The Dragon, however, really has an
appetite for cold Christian--and especially for cold Christianity. This
blind intention to absorb, to change the shape of everything and digest it
in the darkness of a dragon's stomach; this is what is really meant by the
Pantheism and Cosmic Unity of the East. The Cosmos as such is cannibal;
as old Time ate his children. The Eastern saints were saints because they
wanted to be swallowed up. The Western saint, like St. George, was
sainted by the Western Church precisely because he refused to be swallowed.
The same process of thought that has prevented nationalities
disappearing in Christendom has prevented the complete appearance of
Pantheism. All Christian men instinctively resist the idea of being
absorbed into an Empire; an Austrian, a Spanish, a British, or a Turkish
Empire. But there is one empire, much larger and much more tyrannical,
which free men will resist with even stronger passion. The free man
violently resists being absorbed into the empire which is called the
Universe. He demands Home Rule for his nationality, but still more Home
Rule for his home. Most of all he demands Home Rule for himself. He
claims the right to be saved, in spite of Moslem fatalism. He claims the
right to be damned in spite of theosophical optimism. He refuses to be
the Cosmos; because he refuses to forget it.


Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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