There is nothing that needs more fastidious care than our choice of nonsense. Sense is like daylight or daily air, and may come from any quarter or in any quantity. But nonsense is an art. Like an art, it is rarely successful, and yet entirely simple when it is successful. Like an art, it depends on the smallest word, and a misprint can spoil it. And like an art, when it is not in the service of heaven it is almost always in the service of hell. Numberless imitators of Lewis Carroll or of Edward Lear have tried to write nonsense and failed; falling back (one may hope) upon writing sense. But certainly, as the great Gilbert said, wherever there has been nonsense it has been precious nonsense. Les Précieuses Ridicules might be translated, perhaps, in two ways. No one doubts that serious artists are absurd; but it might also be maintained that absurdity is always a serious art.
I have suffered as much as any man from the public insult of the misprint. I have seen my love of books described as a love of boots. I have seen the word “cosmic” invariably printed as “comic” ; and have merely reflected that the two are much the same. As to Nationalists and Rationalists, I have come to the conclusion that no human handwriting or typewriting can clearly distinguish them; and I now placidly permit them to be interchanged, though the first represents everything I love and the second everything I loathe. But there is one kind of misprint I should still find it hard to forgive. I could not pardon a blunder in the printing of “Jabberwock.” I insist on absolute literalism in that really fine poem of Lear,- “TheDong with the Luminous Nose.” To spoil these new nonsense words would be like shooting a great musician improvising on the piano. The sounds could never be recovered again. “And as in uffish thought he stood.” If the printer had printed it “affish” I doubt if the first edition would have sold. “Over the Great Gromboolian Plain.” Suppose I had seen it printed “Gromhoolian.” Perhaps I should never have known, as I know now, that Edward Lear was a yet greater man than Lewis Carroll.
The first principle, then, may be considered clear. Let mistakes be made in ordinary books – that is, in scientific works, established biographies, histories, and so on. Do not let us be hard on misprints when they occur merely in time-tables or atlases or works of science. In works like those of Professor Haeckel, for example, it is sometimes quite difficult to discover which are the misprints and which are the intentional assertions. But in anything artistic, anything which avowedly strays beyond reason, there we must demand the exactitude of art. If a thing is admittedly not possible, then the next best thing it can do is to be beautiful. If a thing is nonsensical, it ought to be perfectly nonsensical.
This, which applies to the nonsensical borderland of words, as in Lear and Carroll, applies also to the nonsensical borderland of thoughts, as in Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw. There also the difficulty is not to find nonsense, but to find any precious nonsense. Many accuse Mr. Shaw and others of merely saying anything opposite to the current view. But if these critics have detected such a scheme of success, why do they not merely profit by it? If they have got the key, let them use it. If they know the trick, let them do it. If a man can achieve prominence and prosperity merely by saying that the sun shines at night and the stars by day, that every man has four legs and every horse two – surely the path to success is open, for there must be many such things to say. But the truth is that, while we can all wallow in commonplaces (a thoroughly healthy thing, like a mud bath), we must all be particular in our selection of paradoxes. Here, for once, taste is really important.
For there are two kinds of paradoxes. They are not so much the good and the bad, nor even the true and the false. Rather they are the fruitful and the barren; the paradoxes which produce life and the paradoxes that merely announce death. Nearly all modern paradoxes merely announce death. I see everywhere among the young men who have imitated Mr. Shaw a strange tendency to utter epigrams which deny the possibility of further life and thought. A paradox may be a thing unusual, menacing, even ugly – like a rhinoceros. But, as a live rhinoceros ought to produce more rhinoceri, so a live paradox ought to produce more paradoxes. Nonsense ought to be suggestive; but nowadays it is abortive. The new epigrams are not even fantastic finger-posts on the wild road: they are tablets, each set into a brick wall at the end of a blind alley. So far as they concern thought at all, they cry to men, “Think no more,” as the voice said “Sleep no more” to Macbeth. These rhetoricians never speak except to move the closure. Even when they are really witty (as in the case of Mr. Shaw), they commonly commit the one crime that cannot be forgiven among free men. They say the last word.
I will give such instances as happen to lie before me. I see on my table a book of aphorisms by a young Socialist writer, Mr. Holbrook Jackson; it is called “Platitudes in the Making,” and curiously illustrates this difference between the paradox that starts thought and the paradox that prevents thought. Of course, the writer has read too much Nietzsche and Shaw, and too little of less groping and more gripping thinkers. But he says many really good things of his own, and they illustrate perfectly what I mean here about the suggestive and the destructive nonsense.
Thus in one place he says. “Suffer fools gladly: they may be right.” That strikes me as good; but here I mean specially that it strikes me as fruitful and free. You can do something with the idea, it opens an avenue. One can go searching among one´s more solid acquaintances and relatives for the fires of a concealed infallibility. One may fancy one sees the star of immortal youth in the somewhat empty eye of Uncle George; one may faintly follow some deep rhythm of nature in the endless repetitions with which Miss Bootle tells a story; and in the grunts and gasps of the Major next door may hear, as it were, the cry of a strangled god. It can never narrow our minds, it can never arrest our life, to suppose that a particular fool is not such a fool as he looks. It must be all to the increase of charity, and charity is the imagination of the heart.
I turn the next page, and come on what I call the barren paradox. Under the head of “Advices,” Mr. Jackson writes, “Don’t think – do.” This is exactly like saying “Don’t eat – digest.” All doing that is not mechanical or accidental involves thinking; only the modern world seems to have forgotten that there can be such a thing as decisive and dramatic thinking. Everything that comes from the will must pass through the mind, though it may pass quickly. The only sort of thing the strong man can “do” without thinking is something like falling over a doormat. This is not even making the mind jump; it is simply making it stop. I take another couple of cases at random. “The object of life is life.” That affects me as ultimately true; always presuming the author is liberal enough to include eternal life. But even if it is nonsense, it is thoughtful nonsense.
On another page I read, “Truth is one’s own conception of things.” That is thoughtless nonsense. A man would never have had any conception of things at all unless he had thought they were things and there was some truth about them. Here we have the black nonsense, like black magic, that shuts down the brain. “A lie is that which you do not believe.” That is a lie; so perhaps Mr. Jackson does not believe it
From the Illustrated London News, 11 March 1911. Reprinted in Lawrence J. Clipper (ed.), The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton XXIX: The Illustrated London News 1911 – 1913. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988, pp 51-54.