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The Superstition of Divorce 3: The Superstition of Divorce III

By Gilbert K. Chesterton


      There has long been a curiously consistent attempt to conceal the fact that France is a Christian country. There have been Frenchmen in the plot, no doubt, and no doubt there have been Frenchmen-- though I have myself only found Englishmen--in the derivative attempt to conceal the fact that Balzac was a Christian writer. I began to read Balzac long after I had read the admirers of Balzac; and they had never given me a hint of this truth. I had read that his books were bound in yellow and "quite impudently French"; though I may have been cloudy about why being French should be impudent in a Frenchman. I had read the truer description of "the grimy wizard of the Comedie humaine," and have lived to learn the truth of it; Balzac certainly is a genius of the type of that artist he himself describes, who could draw a broomstick so that one knew it had swept the room after a murder. The furniture of Balzac is more alive than the figures of many dramas. For this I was prepared; but not for a certain spiritual assumption which I recognised at once as a historical phenomenon. The morality of a great writer is not the morality he teaches, but the morality he takes for granted. The Catholic type of Christian ethics runs through Balzac's books, exactly as the Puritan type of Christian ethics runs through Bunyan's books. What his professed opinions were I do not know, any more than I know Shakespeare's; but I know that both those great creators of a multitudinous world made it, as compared with other and later writers, on the same fundamental moral plan as the universe of Dante. There can be no doubt about it for any one who can apply as a test the truth I have mentioned; that the fundamental things in a man are not the things he explains, but rather the things he forgets to explain. But here and there Balzac does explain; and with that intellectual concentration Mr. George Moore has acutely observed in that novelist when he is a theorist. And the other day I found in one of Balzac's novels this passage; which, whether or no it would precisely hit Mr. George Moore's mood at this moment, strikes me as a perfect prophecy of this epoch, and might also be a motto for this book: "With the solidarity of the family society has lost that elemental force which Montesquieu defined and called 'honour.' Society has isolated its members the better to govern them, and has divided in order to weaken."

      Throughout our youth and the years before the War, the current criticism followed Ibsen in describing the domestic system as a doll's house and the domestic woman as a doll. Mr. Bernard Shaw varied the metaphor by saying that mere custom kept the woman in the home as it keeps the parrot in the cage; and the plays and tales of the period made vivid sketches of a woman who also resembled a parrot in other particulars, rich in raiment, shrill in accent and addicted to saying over and over again what she had been taught to say. Mr. Granville Barker, the spiritual child of Mr. Bernard Shaw, commented in his clever play of "The Voysey Inheritance" on tyranny, hypocrisy and boredom, as the constituent elements of a "happy English home." Leaving the truth of this aside for the moment, it will be well to insist that the conventionality thus criticised would be even more characteristic of a happy French home. It is not the Englishman's house, but the Frenchman's house that is his castle. It might be further added, touching the essential ethical view of the sexes at least, that the Irishman's house is his castle; though it has been for some centuries a besieged castle. Anyhow, those conventions which were remarked as making domesticity dull, narrow and unnaturally meek and submissive, are particularly powerful among the Irish and the French. From this it will surely be easy, for any lucid and logical thinker, to deduce the fact that the French are dull and narrow, and that the Irish are unnaturally meek and submissive. Mr. Bernard Shaw, being an Irishman who lives among English men, may be conveniently taken as the type of the difference; and it will no doubt be found that the political friends of Mr. Shaw, among Englishmen, will be of a wilder revolutionary type than those whom he would have found among Irishmen. We are in a position to compare the meekness of the Fenians with the fury of the Fabians. This deadening monogamic ideal may even, in a larger sense define and distinguish all the flat subserviency of Clare from all the flaming revolt of Clapham. Nor need we now look far to understand why revolutions have been unknown in the history of France; or why they happen so persistently in the vaguer politics of England. This rigidity and respectability must surely be the explanation of all that incapacity for any civil experiment or explosion, which has always marked that sleepy hamlet of very private houses which we call the city of Paris. But the same things are true not only of Parisians but of peasants; they are even true of other peasants in the great Alliance. Students of Serbian traditions tell us that the peasant literature lays a special and singular curse on the violation of marriage; and this may well explain the prim and sheepish pacifism complained of in that people.

      In plain words, there is clearly something wrong in the calculation by which it was proved that a housewife must be as much a servant as a housemaid; or which exhibited the domesticated man as being as gentle as the primrose or as conservative as the Primrose League. It is precisely those who have been conservative about the family who have been revolutionary about the state. Those who are blamed for the bigotry or bourgeois smugness of their marriage conventions are actually those blamed for the restlessness and violence of their political reforms. Nor is there seriously any difficulty in discovering the cause of this. It is simply that in such a society the government, in dealing with the family, deals with something almost as permanent and self-renewing as itself. There can be a continuous family policy, like a continuous foreign policy. In peasant countries the family fights, it may almost be said that the farm fights. I do not mean merely that it riots in evil and exceptional times; though this is not unimportant. It was a savage but a sane feature when, in the Irish evictions, the women poured hot water from the windows; it was part of a final falling back on private tools as public weapons. That sort of thing is not only war to the knife, but almost war to the fork and spoon. It was in this grim sense perhaps that Parnell, in that mysterious pun, said that Kettle was a household word in Ireland (it certainly ought to be after its subsequent glories), and in a more general sense it is certain that meddling with the housewife will ultimately mean getting into hot water. But it is not of such crises of bodily struggle that I speak, but of a steady and peaceful pressure from below of a thousand families upon the framework of government. For this a certain spirit of defence and enclosure is essential; and even feudalism was right in feeling that any such affair of honour must be a family affair. It was a true artistic instinct that pictured the pedigree on a coat that protects the body. The free peasant has arms if he has not armorial bearings. He has not an escutcheon; but he has a shield. Nor do I see why, in a freer and happier society than the present, or even the past, it should not be a blazoned shield. For that is true of pedigree which is true of property; the wrong is not in its being imposed on men, but rather in its being denied to them. Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists; and so aristocracy sins not in planting a family tree, but in not planting a family forest.

      Anyhow, it is found in practice that the domestic citizen can stand a siege, even by the State; because he has those who will stand by him through thick and thin--especially thin. Now those who hold that the State can be made fit to own all and administer all, can consistently disregard this argument; but it may be said with all respect that the world is more and more disregarding them. If we could find a perfect machine, and a perfect man to work it, it might be a good argument for State Socialism, though an equally good argument for personal despotism. But most of us, I fancy, are now agreed that something of that social pressure from below which we call freedom is vital to the health of the State; and this it is which cannot be fully exercised by individuals, but only by groups and traditions. Such groups have been many; there have been monasteries; there may be guilds; but there is only one type among them which all human beings have a spontaneous and omnipresent inspiration to build for themselves; and this type is the family.

      I had intended this article to be the last of those outlining the elements of this debate; but I shall have to add a short concluding section on the way in which all this is missed in the practical (or rather unpractical) proposals about divorce. Here I will only say that they suffer from the modern and morbid weaknesses of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal. As a fact the "tyranny, hypocrisy and boredom" complained of are not domesticity, but the decay of domesticity. The case of that particular complaint, in Mr. Granville Barker's play, is itself a proof. The whole point of "The Voysey Inheritance" was that there was no Voysey inheritance. The only heritage of that family was a highly dishonourable debt. Naturally their family affections had decayed when their whole ideal of property and probity had decayed; and there was little love as well as little honour among thieves. It has yet to be proved that they would have been as much bored if they had had a positive and not a negative heritage; and had worked a farm instead of a fraud. And the experience of mankind points the other way.

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See Also:
   1: The Superstition of Divorce I
   2: The Superstition of Divorce II
   3: The Superstition of Divorce III
   4: The Superstition of Divorce IV
   5: The Story of the Famlly
   6: The Story of the Vow
   7: The Tragedies of Marrlage
   8: The Vista of Divorce
   9: Conclusion

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