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Friday, April 25, 2014

The Truth About Popular Literature
VI.- Comic Papers
The Speaker, August 10, 1901

In discussing the various forms of idle and common reading I had resolved, as far as possible, to shrink from nothing, however mean or ugly, that honestly fell within the scope of the subject. To ignore a popular evil because it is vulgar, is like ignoring an invading army because it is numerous. It has appeared to me that we may extend to the printed literature which informs or excites millions of white Christians of our own blood and civilisation some portion at least of that philosophic study and toleration which we extend to the mythologies of the screaming cannibals who exist in remote islands. But there is a limit where the most imaginative charity falters, and no one will blame me if it is with a somewhat sobered mien that I approach a subject so solemn and so full of tears as the comic papers.

Nevertheless the neglect of these strange literary products on the ground of their debased and depressing character is fraught with serious perils of insincerity and illusion. The bad elements of a society are protected by their own grotesqueness and triviality- virtues flourish by being respected, but vices flourish by being despised. In this age when the artistic sense is miserably prevalent we demand dignity even in our devils. But the real original orthodox devil is a grotesque thing; not a demi-god but a demi-beast. There was infinitely more common-sense and healthy morality in the mediaeval conception of devils as ugly, contemptible creatures, strong in their unblushing ignominy, than in that sublime monument of sentimentalism and polite devil-worship, the Satan of Milton. Evil to the ages of faith was a dirty, tricky thing; not a sombre sublimated man, but a deformity in which all that was not an ordinary man was stolen from a cow.

It is in this brutal, semi-human levity, like the levity of the devils in the old Cathedral carvings, which seems too far below us to be even considered, that we must look for the actual condition of the intellect of the people. And if we turn our attention to the case of comic papers, we shall find that within the last few years a revolution has taken place which may indicate a change of attitude infinitely more momentous than the Transvaal war or the American Presidential elections.

Until recently a comic paper, of the purely popular kind which is sold for a half-penny, meant a sheet crowded with clamorous and dreary hieroglyphics (which are doubtless to be found at Memphis) descriptive of the misfortunes of the intoxicated, the woes of marriage, the inscrutable omnipotence apparently residing in mothers-in-law, and other examples of that universally admitted wisdom of this world which we all hail with delight in literature and should be startled to meet in real life. This kind of thing may drive one or two sensitive persons (accidentally left alone with the paper) to needless self-slaughter, but it can hardly be maintained that it does any particular moral harm to the mass of the people who read it, if indeed (and it is a dark and searching question) any people really do. The only ethical value of a study of their incessant jokes on marriage, for example, is to remind us of how steadily and unceasingly men may make game of an institution for several centuries, without ever dreaming of ceasing to believe in it. When English people deduce the presence of secularism or blasphemy or a revolt against Catholicism from every silly book or picture in Paris proclaiming the immorality of the priests, it would perhaps be wiser if they remembered that such a conclusion is just like counting all the jokes against mothers-in-law in Comic Cuts, and concluding that the English nation disapproves of the marriage vow.

But into the domain of this honest, open, transparently imbecile English jocularity, there has entered another class of comic papers. They profess, obviously enough, to model themselves on the French sheets of the same class, and the illustrations of the two put side by side form an admirable lecture on the value and difficulty of pen and ink impressionism, the French pictures showing what an arresting effect may be produced by two or three lines put in the right place, and the English showing what a brainless vision of chaos and old night may be produced by them when put in the wrong place. It is, however, rather of their social than their merely technical side that I wish to speak. The shirt front of a dandy and the skirts of a ballet girl are the objects that recur in them with the monotony of a wall-paper, but this fact has some ethical basis; they are not solely and entirely inserted because they are easy to draw.

There is at least one definite change involved, and a deplorable change for the worse. The professor of the old barbaric picture-writing of the plebeian comic paper depicted in some sense the life of his own class. He dealt much in red-nosed heroes with patches on their trousers, whose adventures mirrored to some degree the practical joking and horseplay common among such people. For that horseplay we have a profound distaste, but there is nothing eternal or authoritative about our distaste for it; for all we know they may be right and we may be wrong. The chasm is absolute, like the chasm between two civilisations; but whether it is they who are over gross or we who are over sensitive will never be known until the Day of judgment. We realise now that there were errors in the aristocracies of strong muscles. It is not so very difficult to believe that there may be errors in what is, after all, the aristocracy of weak nerves. A vast, vulgar Saturnalia, such as that of a Bank Holiday at Margate, offends the superficial eye and ear; but there is surely in all of us a better and deeper self, which reads in it first and last the burden of Mr. Henley's verse
"Praise the generous gods for giving
In this world of sin and strife,
With some little time for living,
Unto each the joy of life."
In any case, it was this vulgar but valid and not evil life which the old comic paper chronicled, the life of the lower classes. But the new and flashy comic paper seeks primarily to be more fashionable than the Morning Post. It aims chiefly at giving to its heroes that sumptuous and asinine splendour which is not to be expressed except by the remarkable word "dude," which is, I imagine, the opposite of gentleman. This literary and pictorial tuft hunting is a most painful sign, for the working classes have not been commonly tuft hunters. That they should indulge their own vices to the full extent is bad, but human and excusable. But surely if there is a contemptible sight in this world it is a man envying the vices that he has not got. It is difficult indeed to imagine any human being preferring the yawning and simpering life of the green-room and the restaurant, which is the pabulum of Pick-me-up, to a game of "shove-halfpenny" or a pot of beer. There is no conceivable reason why any young man should be ashamed of talking to chorus girls, since they are doubtless as decent people as anyone else; but it is difficult indeed to understand why any young man should be proud of it, since they are a great deal easier to know than any ordinary ladies he might see at a conversazione. The essential pride, however, which underlies the life of the Pick-me-up chimera is the idea of having a great deal of money and losing it as quickly and as conventionally as possible. There may be a strange class in the community which really calls this by the name of enjoyment. I only say that it is a disgrace to the poorer classes that they are not content with a thoroughly vulgar comic literature in which it is possible to get twice the fun for half the money.

The first and last impression produced by this light literature of music-hall frivolity is a sense of almost insupportable desolation. In the whole world of things conceivable there is nothing so unmercifully hopeless as an infinity of mere facetiousness, a tyrannical nightmare of jesting. All the really popular humourists such as Sterne and Dickens have really owed their place by the fireside not to the fact that they were humorous, but to the fact that they were serious, that all their jokes were bubbles upon a great sea of sympathy. Without this assurance the human soul is more chilled and homeless in the world of pure humour than in the Arctic circle. There are few of us who would not prefer to find ourselves in the deepest of Dante's hells, throttled in the ice among the traitors, to finding ourselves in a world such as that which is eternally renewed by the new comic papers, with their men who care for nothing but dancing girls and their dancing girls who care for nothing but money. In the circle of the traitors, amid the black and crushing memories of perjury and oppression, it might be possible to pass a thousand years with the hope that some mellow and generous memory might awaken for a moment in the heart of one of the damned. But the world of pure levity is a world by itself; its bloodless and godless inhabitants have never had any serious moments, and to a man with any human capacity for joy their faces are all as strange and cruel as those of invaders from some other planet. To dream of such a world of unremitting and inevitable jest and luxury would be an atheistic nightmare from which a man might with a good deal of relief awake to be hanged.

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