Monday, February 13, 2006

Great news

It's good news for me, because it gives me enough content for the next month of posting, at least. It's good news for you for the same reason!

Yes, my copy of Chesterton's The Coloured Lands arrived in the mail yesterday, in all its colourful glory. Contained within are rare essays, poems and images produced by Chesterton at various stages of his life, and collected into a single volume by his biographer, Maisie Ward. The most thrilling gems in this gaudy crown include several coloured plates produced merely as an excuse to use a certain colour (such as "Prussian Blue" and "Burnt Siena"). More intriguing still is a lengthy illustrated demonology that Chesterton wrote at the age of 17.

We shall see much of these as time passes (including scans of the artwork), but we will not take the book in order. For now, we shall merely bear witness to a short tale which may prove appropriate for the morrow - St. Valentine's Day.

The Whale's Wooing
By G.K. Chesterton

A newspaper famous for its urgency about practical and pressing affairs recently filled a large part of its space with the headline, "Do Whales Have Two Wives?" There was a second headline saying that Science was about to investigate the matter in a highly exact and scientific fashion. And indeed it may be hoped that science is more exact than journalism. One peculiarity of that sentence is that it really says almost the opposite of what it intended to say. We might suppose that, before printing a short phrase in large letters, a man might at least look at it to see whether it said what he meant. But behind all this hustle there is not only carelessness but a great weariness. Strictly speaking, the phrase, "Do Whales Have Two Wives?" could only mean, if it meant anything, "Do all whales, in their collective capacity, have only two wives between them?" But the journalist did not mean to suggest this extreme practice of polyandry. He only meant to ask whether the individual whale can be reproached with the practice of bigamy. At first sight there is something rather quaint and alluring about the notion of watching a whale to see whether he lives a double life. A whale scarcely seems designed for secrecy or for shy and furtive flirtation. The thought of a whale assuming various disguises, designed to make him inconspicuous among other fishes, puts rather a strain on the imagination. He would have to keep his two establishments, one at the North Pole and the other at the South, if his two wives were likely to be jealous of each other; and if he really wished to becoming a bone (or whale-bone) of contention. In truth the most frivolous philanderer would hardly wish to conduct his frivolities on quite so large a scale; and the loves of the whales may well appear a theme for a bolder pen than any that has yet traced the tremendous epic of the loves of the giants.

But we have a sort of fancy or faint suspicion about where it may end. Science, or what journalism calls Science, is always up to its little games; and this might possibly be one of them. We know how some people perpetually preach to us that there is no morality in nature and therefore nothing natural in morality. We know that we have been told to learn everything from the herd instinct or the law of the jungle; to learn our manners from a monkey-house and morals from a dog-fight. May we not find a model in a far more impressive and serene animal? Shall we not be told that Leviathan refuses to put forth his nose to the hook of monogamy, and laughs at the shaking of the chivalric spear? To the supine and superstitious person, who has lingered with one wife for a whole lifetime, will not the rebuke be uttered in ancient words; "Go to the whale, thou sluggard." Contemplating the cetaceous experiments in polygamy, will not the moralist exclaim once more: "How doth the little busy whale improve the shining hour!" Will not the way of this superior mammal be a new argument for the cult of the new Cupid; the sort of Cupid who likes to have two strings to his bow? For we are bound to regard the monster as a moral superior, according to the current moral judgments. We are perpetually told that the human being is small, that even the earth itself is small, compared with the splendid size of the solar system. If we are to surrender to the size of the world, why not to the size of the whale? If we are to bow down before planets which are large than our own, why not before animals that are larger than ourselves? Why not, with a yet more graceful bow, yield the pas (if the phrase be sufficiently aquatic) to the great mountain of blubber? In many ways, he looks very like the highest moral ideal of our time.

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