Friday, February 05, 2010

The moralist or the moral being: seeking the real person

"We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man"

Chesterton wrote this about Tolstoi in The Common Man; much of it could apply equally to Daddy. There was a side to Daddy all too familiar for being too emphatic, so much so that it tended to mask his tenderness and vulnerability. He was often angry because he cared so much; he was impatient with himself and others, with fierce desire for the good he perceived as wanting.

I am tempted to start speculating about a slavic character, sensitive, intelligent and melancholic, which also tends to the crusading, the grand romantic gesture, the tragic cavalry charge against the enemy with non-existent odds of success, but it would be too easy to fall into caricature. Chesterton makes the point better.

Daddy's moralising and "shoulding", for all their evidence, were only a part of a life whose deepest moral was not in its proclamations but in its very fabric.

I also love Chesterton's point about moralising art, but I'll leave it for another post.

    "...the truth of the matter is that an artist teaches far more by his mere background and properties, his landscape, his costume, his idiom and technique--all the part of his work, in short, of which he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions.

    The real distinction between the ethics of high art and the ethics of manufactured and didactic art lies in the simple fact that the bad fable has a moral, while the good fable is a moral. And the real moral of Tolstoi comes out constantly in his stories, the great moral which lies at the heart of all his work, of which he is probably unconscious, and of which it is quite likely that he would vehemently disapprove. The curious cold white light of morning that shines over all the tales, the folklore simplicity with which "a man or a woman" are spoken of without further identification, the love--one might almost say the lust-- for the qualities of brute materials, the hardness of wood, and the softness of mud, the ingrained belief in a certain ancient kindliness sitting beside the very cradle of the race of man-- these influences are truly moral.

    When we put beside them the trumpeting and tearing nonsense of the didactic Tolstoi, screaming for an obscene purity, shouting for an inhuman peace, hacking up human life into small sins with a chopper, sneering at men, women, and children out of respect to humanity, combining in one chaos of contradictions an unmanly Puritan and an uncivilised prig, then, indeed, we scarcely know whither Tolstoi has vanished. We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man.

    It is difficult in every case to reconcile Tolstoi the great artist with Tolstoi the almost venomous reformer. It is difficult to believe that a man who draws in such noble outlines the dignity of the daily life of humanity regards as evil that divine act of procreation by which that dignity is renewed from age to age.

    It is difficult to believe that a man who has painted with so frightful an honesty the heartrending emptiness of the life of the poor can really grudge them every one of their pitiful pleasures from courtship to tobacco.

    It is difficult to believe that a poet in prose who has so powerfully exhibited the earth-born air of man, the essential kinship of a human being with the landscape in which he lives, can deny so elemental a virtue as that which attaches a man to his own ancestors and his own land.

    It is difficult to believe that the man who feels so poignantly the detestable insolence of oppression would not actually, if he had the chance, lay the oppressor flat with his fist.

    All, however, arises from the search after a false simplicity, the aim of being, if I may so express it, more natural than it is natural to be. It would not only be more human, it would be more humble of us to be content to be complex. The truest kinship with humanity would lie in doing as humanity has always done, accepting with a sportsmanlike relish the estate to which we are called, the star of our happiness, and the fortunes of the land of our birth."

From G.K. Chesterton, The Common Man.
I have taken the liberty of adding paragraph breaks and emphasis.

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