The Speaker, August 31, 1901
There has often arisen before my mind the image of an individual who should collect with laborious care articles which no other person valued and make an exhaustive classification of things which everyone else regarded as insignificant and inane. This being might have a magnificent and futile pre-eminence in many enterprises. He might have the finest collection of disused cigar ends in the world. He might accumulate pipe ashes and the parings of lead pencils with an enthusiasm and a poetry worthy of a better cause. He might, if he were a millionaire, carry this immense crusade into even larger matters. He might build great museums in which nothing was exhibited except lost umbrellas and bad pennies. He might found important papers and magazines in which nothing was recorded except unimportant things; in which stunning head lines announced the loss of three burnt matches out of an ash tray and long and philosophical leading articles were devoted to such questions as the Christian names of the Fulham omnibus conductors, or the number of green window-blinds in the Harrow Road. If a man did seriously devote himself to these inanities he would unquestionably be the object of a great deal of derision. Nevertheless, if he chose to turn round upon us and defend his position, we should suddenly realise that our whole civilisation was as moonstruck as his hobby. He would say with truth that there was, philosophically speaking, as much to be said for collecting the ferrules of gentlemen's umbrellas as for collecting books or banknotes. For all essential purposes there is no reason which can be offered for the preference which mankind exhibits for one material rather than another. It is impossible to suggest a single valid reason why gold should be more expensive than a genuinely rich red mud. It is impossible to say why a precious stone should be more valued than a copying-ink pencil or an old green bottle, which are both more useful and more picturesque. Almost all the theories which profess to explain this paradox from the metaphysical point of view have failed entirely. It is commonly said, for example, that materials are valued on account of their rarity. Clearly, however, this cannot be maintained. There are a great many things more rare than gold and silver; however small may be the chances for anyone of us of picking up half-a-sovereign in the gutter, the chances that we should pick up a latch-key tied up with red ribbon, or a copy of the Times descriptive of the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill, are even less. Yet people do not make a private museum of latchkeys with red ribbons or boast of a unique collection of copies of the Times for that particular date of 1885. Those who speak of rarity as the essence of value seem scarcely to realise how prodigious are the consequences of their view. The things in this world which are thoroughly insignificant are precisely the things which are singularly rare. It is very rare for a solicitor with a red moustache born in Devonshire to lend 1s. 6d. to the nephew of a Scotch cloth-merchant residing in Clement's Inn; such a thing perhaps has only happened once, if at all; yet we do not write the incident in letters of gold, or attach any particular importance to any incidentals, rags or relics, which may have been found to be commemorative of the spot where it occurred. Mere rarity certainly is not the test of value. If it were so, gold would be less valuable than many varieties of street mud, and beautiful things upon the whole much less valuable than ugly ones. The fact of the matter is, that mankind has selected certain unmeaning objects as things of value without either intrinsic or comparative criticism. It has made one material infinitely more valuable than another material by a mere process of selecting one kind of mud from another. In many respects the current conception of the substance which is valuable is decidedly an inferior one. Value, for example, almost entirely centres around metals, which are the dullest and most uncommunicative, the most material, of all earthly things. They belong to the mineral creation, which is the very canaille of the cosmic order. It is extraordinary when one comes to think of it that so thoroughly base a thing as gold metal should be the form in which all our most human and humanising tendencies are bound up. Whenever we apply for payment in cash, we fulfil almost to the point of detail the word of the parable, we ask for bread and we receive a stone.
Again, the theory that materials are valued on account of their beauty will not support criticism. There are a great many objects which are more beautiful than precious objects. Peacocks' feathers are more beautiful, and autumn leaves and split firewood and clean copper. Nevertheless, it has not occurred to any person to swagger in a purse-proud manner over his possession of firewood or to cling to every advantage which could be founded upon copper. The miser who should spend a laborious life in hoarding and counting the autumn leaves has, I think, yet to be born.
Substances have, however, a real intrinsic spirituality. Materials are not likely to be despised except by materialists. Children, for example, are fully conscious of a certain mystical, and yet practical, quality in the things they handle; they love the essential quality of an object chivalrously, and for its own sake. A child has an ingrained fancy for coal, not for the gross materialistic reason that it builds up fires by which we cook and are warmed, but for the infinitely nobler and more abstract reason that it blacks his fingers. In almost all the old primitive literatures we find the presence of this splendid love of materials for their own sake. We find no delicate and cunning combinations of colour, such as those which are the essence of our latter-day art, but we find a gigantic appetite for materials linked with their own natural characteristics, for red gold, and green grass; not the taste for green gold and red grass which marks so much contemporary literature. They did not require either contrast or harmony to tickle their aesthetic hunger. They loved the redness of wine or the white splendour of the sword in all their virginity and loveliness, a single splash of crimson or silver upon the black background of old Night.The poetry of substances exists, and it takes no account of the ordinary codes of value. Gold is certainly a less fascinating substance than silver. And even silver is to the spirit which retains its childhood less fascinating than lead. Lead is a truly epic substance; it contains every quality that could be required for that purpose. In colour it is the most delicate tint of dimmed silver, a kind of metallic splendour under a perpetual cloud; in consistency again it unites two of the antagonistic and indispensable elements of a fascinating substance. It is at once robust and malleable, it bends and it resists; we have the same feeling towards a stiff layer of lead that we have towards destiny. It is stiff, yet it yields sufficiently to make us fancy that it might yield altogether. Another substance which presents in a somewhat different way the same contradiction is common wood. It is the most fascinating and the most symbolic of substances, since it has just enough essential toughness to resist the amateur, and just enough pliability to become like a musical instrument in the hands of the expert. Working in wood is the supreme example of creation; creation in a material which resists just enough and not an iota too much. It was surely no wonder that the greatest who ever wore the form of man was a carpenter.
There remains one definite order of materials which have to the imaginative eye far more essential value than any jewels. All pigments and colour materials have one supreme advantage over mere diamonds and amethysts. They are, so to speak, ancestors as well as descendants; they propagate an infinite progeny of images and ideas. If we look at a solid bar of blue chalk we do not see a thing merely mechanical and final. We see bound up in that blue column a whole fairyland of potential pictures
and tales. No other material object gives us this sense of multiplying itself. If we leave a cigar in a corner we do not expect that we shall find it next day surrounded by a family of cigarettes. A diamond ring does not contribute in any way to the production of innumerable necklaces and bracelets. But the chalks in a box, or the paints in a paint-box, do actually embrace in themselves an infinity of new possibilities. A cake of Prussian blue contains all the sea stories in the world, a cake of emerald green encloses a hundred meadows, a cake of crimson is compounded of forgotten sunsets. Some day, for all we know, this eternal metaphysical value in chalks and paints may be recognised as of monetary value; men will proudly show a cake of chrome yellow in their rings, and a cake of ultramarine in their scarfpins. There is no saying what wild fashions the changes of time may make; a century may find us economising in pebbles and collecting straws. But whatever may come, the essential ground of this habit will remain the same as the essential ground of all the religions, that we can only take a sample of the universe, and that that sample, even if it be a handful of dust (which is also a beautiful substance), will always assert the magic of itself, and hint at the magic of all things.