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In Topsy-Turvy Land


Last week, in an idle metaphor, I took the tumbling of trees
and the secret energy of the wind as typical of the visible world
moving under the violence of the invisible. I took this metaphor
merely because I happened to be writing the article in a wood.
Nevertheless, now that I return to Fleet Street (which seems to me,
I confess, much better and more poetical than all the wild woods
in the world), I am strangely haunted by this accidental comparison.
The people's figures seem a forest and their soul a wind.
All the human personalities which speak or signal to me seem to have
this fantastic character of the fringe of the forest against the sky.
That man that talks to me, what is he but an articulate tree?
That driver of a van who waves his hands wildly at me to tell me
to get out of the way, what is he but a bunch of branches stirred
and swayed by a spiritual wind, a sylvan object that I can continue
to contemplate with calm? That policeman who lifts his hand
to warn three omnibuses of the peril that they run in encountering
my person, what is he but a shrub shaken for a moment with that
blast of human law which is a thing stronger than anarchy?
Gradually this impression of the woods wears off. But this
black-and-white contrast between the visible and invisible, this deep
sense that the one essential belief is belief in the invisible as against
the visible, is suddenly and sensationally brought back to my mind.
Exactly at the moment when Fleet Street has grown most familiar (that is,
most bewildering and bright), my eye catches a poster of vivid violet,
on which I see written in large black letters these remarkable words:
"Should Shop Assistants Marry?"

. . . . .

When I saw those words everything might just as well
have turned upside down. The men in Fleet Street might
have been walking about on their hands. The cross of
St. Paul's might have been hanging in the air upside down.
For I realise that I have really come into a topsy-turvy country;
I have come into the country where men do definitely believe
that the waving of the trees makes the wind. That is to say,
they believe that the material circumstances, however black
and twisted, are more important than the spiritual realities,
however powerful and pure. "Should Shop Assistants Marry?" I am
puzzled to think what some periods and schools of human history
would have made of such a question. The ascetics of the East
or of some periods of the early Church would have thought
that the question meant, "Are not shop assistants too saintly,
too much of another world, even to feel the emotions of the sexes?"
But I suppose that is not what the purple poster means.
In some pagan cities it might have meant, "Shall slaves so vile
as shop assistants even be allowed to propagate their abject race?"
But I suppose that is not what the purple poster meant.
We must face, I fear, the full insanity of what it does mean.
It does really mean that a section of the human race is asking
whether the primary relations of the two human sexes are particularly
good for modern shops. The human race is asking whether Adam
and Eve are entirely suitable for Marshall and Snelgrove.
If this is not topsy-turvy I cannot imagine what would be.
We ask whether the universal institution will improve our
(please God) temporary institution. Yet I have known many
such questions. For instance, I have known a man ask seriously,
"Does Democracy help the Empire?" Which is like saying,
"Is art favourable to frescoes?"

I say that there are many such questions asked.
But if the world ever runs short of them, I can suggest
a large number of questions of precisely the same kind,
based on precisely the same principle.

"Do Feet Improve Boots?"--"Is Bread Better when Eaten?"--"Should
Hats have Heads in them?"--"Do People Spoil a Town?"--"Do Walls
Ruin Wall-papers?"--"Should Neckties enclose Necks?"--"Do Hands
Hurt Walking-sticks?"--"Does Burning Destroy Firewood?"--"Is
Cleanliness Good for Soap?"--"Can Cricket Really Improve
Cricket-bats?"--"Shall We Take Brides with our Wedding Rings?"
and a hundred others.

Not one of these questions differs at all in intellectual purport
or in intellectual value from the question which I have quoted from
the purple poster, or from any of the typical questions asked by
half of the earnest economists of our times. All the questions they
ask are of this character; they are all tinged with this same initial
absurdity. They do not ask if the means is suited to the end; they
all ask (with profound and penetrating scepticism) if the end is suited
to the means. They do not ask whether the tail suits the dog.
They all ask whether a dog is (by the highest artistic canons)
the most ornamental appendage that can be put at the end of a tail.
In short, instead of asking whether our modern arrangements,
our streets, trades, bargains, laws, and concrete institutions are
suited to the primal and permanent idea of a healthy human life,
they never admit that healthy human life into the discussion
at all, except suddenly and accidentally at odd moments;
and then they only ask whether that healthy human life is suited
to our streets and trades. Perfection may be attainable or
unattainable as an end. It may or may not be possible to talk
of imperfection as a means to perfection. But surely it passes
toleration to talk of perfection as a means to imperfection.
The New Jerusalem may be a reality. It may be a dream.
But surely it is too outrageous to say that the New Jerusalem
is a reality on the road to Birmingham.

. . . . .

This is the most enormous and at the same time the most secret
of the modern tyrannies of materialism. In theory the thing ought
to be simple enough. A really human human being would always put
the spiritual things first. A walking and speaking statue of God
finds himself at one particular moment employed as a shop assistant.
He has in himself a power of terrible love, a promise of paternity,
a thirst for some loyalty that shall unify life, and in the ordinary
course of things he asks himself, "How far do the existing conditions
of those assisting in shops fit in with my evident and epic destiny
in the matter of love and marriage?" But here, as I have said,
comes in the quiet and crushing power of modern materialism.
It prevents him rising in rebellion, as he would otherwise do.
By perpetually talking about environment and visible things,
by perpetually talking about economics and physical necessity,
painting and keeping repainted a perpetual picture of iron
machinery and merciless engines, of rails of steel, and of
towers of stone, modern materialism at last produces this
tremendous impression in which the truth is stated upside down.
At last the result is achieved. The man does not say as
he ought to have said, "Should married men endure being modern
shop assistants?" The man says, "Should shop assistants marry?"
Triumph has completed the immense illusion of materialism.
The slave does not say, "Are these chains worthy of me?"
The slave says scientifically and contentedly, "Am I even worthy
of these chains?"

Gilbert Keith Chesterton