Shamelessness is Tastelessness: Chesterton on Shamelessness

From his As I was saying, Source: cse.dmu.ac.uk

For one of the deepest troubles of the day is this fact: that something is being commended as a new taste which is simply the condition which finds everything tasteless. It is sometimes offered almost as if it were a new sense; but it is not really even a new sensibility; it is rather a pride in new insensibility. For instance, when some old piece of decorum is abolished, rightly or wrongly, it is always supposed to be completely justified if people become just as dull in accepting the indecency as they were in accepting the decency. If it can be said that the grandchildren “soon get used” to something that would have made the grandfathers fight duels to the death, it is always assumed that the grandchildren have found a new mode of living, whereas those who fought the duel to the death were already dead. But the psychological fact is exactly the other way.

The duellists may have been fastidious or even fantastic, but they were frightfully alive. That is why they died. Their sensibilities were vivid and intense, by the only true test of the finer sensibilities, or even of the five senses. And that is that they could feel the difference between one thing and another. It is the livelier eye that can see the difference between peacock-blue and peacock-green; it is the more fatigued eye that may see them both as something very like grey. It is the quicker ear that can detect in any speech the shade between innocence and irony, or between irony and insult. It is the duller ear that hears all the notes as monotone, and therefore monotonous. Even the swaggering person, who was supposed to turn up his nose at everything, was at least in a position to sniff the different smells of the world, and perhaps to detect their difference.

There is the drearier and more detached sort of pride of the other sort of man, who may be said to turn his nose down at everything. For that also is only a more depressing way of turning everything down. It is not a mark of purity of taste, but of absence of taste, to think that cocoa is as good as claret; and in the field of morals it may well have the ultimate Nemesis of thinking cocaine as good as cocoa. Even the mere senses, in the merely sensual sense, attest to this truth about vivacity going with differentiation. It is no answer, therefore, to say that you have persuaded a whole crowd of hygienic hikers to be content with cocoa any more than to say that you have persuaded a whole crowd of drug-fiends to be content with cocaine. Neither of them is the better for pursuing a course which spoils
the palate, and probably robs them of a reasonable taste in vintages. But what most modern people do not see is that this dullness in diet, and similar things, is exactly parallel to the dull and indifferent anarchy in manners and morals. Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.

We are constantly told, for instance, by the very prosaic paralytics who call themselves Nudists, that people “soon get used” to being degraded, in that particular, to the habits of the beasts of the field. I have no doubt they do; just as they soon get used to being drunkards or drug-fiends or jail-birds or people talking Cockney instead of talking English. Where the argument of the apologist entirely fails is in showing that it is _better_ to get used to an inferior status after losing a superior one. In a hundred ways, recent legislation has ridden roughshod over the instincts of innocent and simple and yet very sensible people. There was a feeling, strangely enough, that men and women might not feel very comfortable when they met as total strangers to discuss some depraved and perhaps disgusting aspect of their natural sex relation. This has already given a good deal of quiet trouble on juries, and we have not seen the end of the trouble yet. Now, it will be noted that the objection to female juries never was an objection to juries being female. There always were female juries. From the first days of legislation a number of matrons were empanelled to decide certain points among each other. The case against mixed juries was a case of embarrassment; and that embarrassment is far more intelligent, far more civilized, far more subtle, far more psychological than the priggish brutality that disregards it.
But, in any case, it will serve here as an illustration of what I mean. The question is not whether the embarrassment can be so far overcome somehow that a good many people can discharge the duty somehow. The question is whether the blunting of the sentiment really is a victory for human culture, and not rather a defeat for human culture. Just as the question is not whether millions of little boys, in different districts with different dialects, can all be taught the same dialect of the Whitechapel Road, but whether that dialect is better than others; and whether it is a good thing to lose the sense of difference between dialects.

For what we do at least know, in the most fundamental fashion, is that man is man by the possession of these fastidious fancies; from which the freethinking haddock is entirely emancipated, and by which the latitudinarian turnip is never troubled.To lose the sense of repugnance from one thing, or regard for another, is exactly so far as it goes to relapse into the vegetation or to return to the dust. But for about fifty or sixty years nearly all our culture and controversial trend has been conducted on the assumption that, as long as we could get used to any sort of caddishness, we could be perfectly contented in being cads. I do not say that all the results of the process have been wrong. But I do say that the test of the process has been wrong from first to last; for it is not a case against the citizen that a man can grow _accustomed_ to being either a savage or a slave.

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12 Responses to Shamelessness is Tastelessness: Chesterton on Shamelessness

  1. toadspittle says:

    .
    Why on earth did CP&S run this drivel?
    Must I pick it apart sentence by sentence? Boring.

    However:
    “The duellists may have been fastidious or even fantastic, but they were frightfully alive. That is why they died.”
    I suggest we consider this bit of gibberish. Then try and justify it.

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  2. The Raven says:

    It’s a sad fact, Toad, that one either loves Chesterton or finds him unreadable. You and I clearly fall into the latter camp.

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  3. toadspittle says:

    .
    Now you make me feel a bit guilty Raven,
    I do pick on poor old porky boy Gil rather more than I should.
    He and C.S. Lewis have a heavy load to bear as the only two “Christian” writers in the last century that can be considered intelligent. Apparently, there are none in this century.
    Which is why those two are constantly being wheeled out, propped up, and dusted off.
    Oops! Done it again!
    .

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  4. The Raven says:

    There was Solzhenitsyn too, Toad, although he did not make Christianity his explicit subject.

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  5. toadspittle says:

    .
    Absolutely. “The First Circle,” a hugely underreated book, is as good as practically anything by Tolstoi, including “Resurrection.” But not as good as “Anna Karenina”. Thinks Toad, whose alternatives might well include Waugh and Greene, though both are, shall we say, theologically problematical or dubious? Greene, certainly.

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  6. The Raven says:

    Curses, I was forgetting Greene! Other than “Scoop”, I can’t say that I’ve read Waugh (put off by the teddy-bear in the TV adaptation of Brideshead, no doubt).

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  7. kathleen says:

    Don’t forget the indomitable Hilaire Belloc (particularly his marvellous series on the Reformation), Robert Hugh Benson, Henryk Sienkiewicz (whose ‘Quo Vadis’ is one of the best books I’ve ever read), Monsignor Ronald Knox, Tolkien, Michael Davies (perhaps little known, but highly recommendable), Fr. Paul O’Sullivan ……. And many many more brilliant – and ‘intelligent’ – Christian writers of the 20th century; I feel I would need more than one lifetime in order to read them all!

    I agree with Toad and Raven about good old ‘Gil’ being pretty ‘unreadable’ most of the time. I enjoyed his ‘Everlasting Man’ though, but had to struggle with some of his prose.

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  8. toadspittle says:

    .
    The is a decent enough English translation of “The Cypresses Believe In God,” by a man called Gironella, about the Civil War. Although the main character fights for the Nationalists, the book is remarkably even-handed, and a very good read, and deserves to be better known outside Spain. It was a best seller there in the early 50’s, I think. A problem is that it is one of a planned series that was never completed.
    Greene’s “private” life renders him quite unsuitable as a Catholic ikon, alas. Waugh is not much better. Nancy Mitford once asked him how, as a Catholic, he could be so horrible. “Just imagine how horrible I’d be, if I wasn’t a Catholic,” he said.
    “Vile Bodies,” and “Decline and Fall,” both pre his conversion, are short and very funny.

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  9. The Raven says:

    Thank you for the recommendation: I have Gironella on order (although I’ll have to improve my Spanish if I want to read the rest of his books – the English translations of the others are going for £80-£90 a go).

    I think that Greene’s private life makes him a perfect Catholic author: he was a sinner and a dissenter; we are all sinners and most of us have a little worm of dissent disfiguring the bud of our faith.

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  10. toadspittle says:

    .
    The trouble with Gironella’s books is that he wrote, as you know, three volumes of what was to be a five-volums series. “One Million Dead,” and “After The Peace” are, in my opinion, considerably inferior to “Cypresses.” Not only that, but the last one ends with one of the main characters (can’t remember his name) going off to fight in Russia in the Blue Division…and that’s that. Dozens of loose ends and no more books. Very frustrating.

    Greene is reputed (and he must have told this himself, or maybe she did) to have bonked Catherine Walston, his long-time lover and wife of a millionaire friend of his and, like Greene, a Catholic convert – – on the altar of a church which happened to be empty at the time. Bit outre. Thinks Toad. De trop, in fact.
    At least she was a woman, though. Small mercies. Hope this link works.

    http://amsaw.org/amsaw-ithappenedinhistory-100203-greene.html

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  11. The Raven says:

    The same story is told about Nikos Kazantzakis: I suspect it may have been attached to others before he was born too.

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  12. NIGEL is a TEAPOT says:

    Imagine my disappointment when I realize I cannot respond to specific comments directly.

    toad and raven, thank you for providing specific examples about what Chesterton was talking about. I do apologize for being 7 and a half years late to smack you around as you deserve, but neither of you were important.

    toad:
    you first begin with the 2 year old sneer of “boring” for things you cannot understand. something common for “men of your age” I suppose. This also explains why you cannot understand them and think no Christian intelligent, one cannot give what they do not have and how can the ant understand the foot? I think you are just angry you got crushed, and are trying to attack the Faith of people in the manner your own was taken from you: sexually and pedantically and with mere novelty. you were weak, I am not. This circus of yours is *actually* boring.

    Also explains why you wished to resort to “fisking.” you HAVE to go line-by-line to quote things out of context as the whole of Chesterton’s argument (and he has an argument unlike yourself) because you cannot handle let alone fathom it. Seems you were just projecting from the start.

    As for your first quote, that meaning is so simple only an “intellectual” (the opposite of actual intelligence) is dull enough to miss it: it means that one can only die because they were alive in the first place.

    Or as Chesterton himself put it in this very essay:
    “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”

    As for your attempt to try to deflect your own sexual sin (which we can attribute to the cause of your own “skeptical catholicism” as you put it in comments elsewhere) by apparently attributing old gossip to every Catholic writer you can find in the hopes of absolving yourself and damning them in your place (the mortal sin of despair), we have Chesterton from this very essay *again*:
    “But for about fifty or sixty years nearly all our culture and controversial trend has been conducted on the assumption that, as long as we could get used to any sort of caddishness, we could be perfectly contented in being cads. I do not say that all the results of the process have been wrong. But I do say that the test of the process has been wrong from first to last; for it is not a case against the citizen that a man can grow accustomed to being either a savage or a slave.”

    If only you had read the bloody article instead of trying to rationalize your unmitigated evil and sin. you would have noticed that Chesterton not only predicted your miserable existence, but also pre-empted and answered every sneer and question (though you mistakenly think questions shut out answers) BEFORE YOU WERE EVEN BORN.

    Heh. Thought not hard, I deal with those like you by the thousands, and often deal with them daily. nothing has changed from Chesterton’s time until today. so much for your delusion of “progess” you hoped would let you overcome God and therefore your shame over sin.

    Believe me when I conclusively tell you this: shame is the natural response to doing the unnatural, and it is possibly the singular natural thing left about you.

    raven:
    As Venerable Fulton Sheen said:
    “Conscience, Christ, and the gift of faith make evil men uneasy in their sin. They feel that if they could drive Christ from the earth, they would be free from “moral inhibitions.” They forget that it is their own nature and conscience which makes them feel that way. Being unable to drive God from the heavens, they would drive his ambassadors from the earth. In a lesser sphere, that is why many men sneer at virtue–because it makes vice uncomfortable.”

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