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    The Mystagogue

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    Whenever you hear much of things being unutterable and indefinable and
    impalpable and unnamable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your
    aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is
    perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond
    all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all
    good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and
    though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is
    always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are
    that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.

    Thus Giotto or Fra Angelieo would have at once admitted theologically that
    God was too good to be painted; but they would always try to paint Him.
    And they felt (very rightly) that representing Him as a rather quaint old
    man with a gold crown and a white beard, like a king of the elves, was
    less profane than resisting the sacred impulse to express Him in some way.
    That is why the Christian world is full of gaudy pictures and twisted
    statues which seem, to many refined persons, more blasphemous than the
    secret volumes of an atheist. The trend of good is always towards
    Incarnation. But, on the other hand, those refined thinkers who worship
    the Devil, whether in the swamps of Jamaica or the salons of Paris, always
    insist upon the shapelessness, the wordlessness, the unutterable character
    of the abomination. They call him "horror of emptiness," as did the black
    witch in Stevenson's Dynamiter; they worship him as the unspeakable name;
    as the unbearable silence. They think of him as the void in the heart of
    the whirlwind; the cloud on the brain of the maniac; the toppling turrets
    of vertigo or the endless corridors of nightmare. It was the Christians
    who gave the Devil a grotesque and energetic outline, with sharp horns and
    spiked tail. It was the saints who drew Satan as comic and even lively.
    The Satanists never drew him at all.

    And as it is with moral good and evil, so it is also with mental clarity
    and mental confusion. There is one very valid test by which we may
    separate genuine, if perverse and unbalanced, originality and revolt from
    mere impudent innovation and bluff. The man who really thinks he has an
    idea will always try to explain that idea. The charlatan who has no idea
    will always confine himself to explaining that it is much too subtle to be
    explained. The first idea may really be very outree or specialist; it may
    really be very difficult to express to ordinary people. But because the
    man is trying to express it, it is most probable that there is something
    in it, after all. The honest man is he who is always trying to utter the
    unutterable, to describe the indescribable; but the quack lives not by
    plunging into mystery, but by refusing to come out of it.

    Perhaps this distinction is most comically plain in the case of the thing
    called Art, and the people called Art Critics. It is obvious that an
    attractive landscape or a living face can only half express the holy
    cunning that has made them what they are. It is equally obvious that a
    landscape painter expresses only half of the landscape; a portrait painter
    only half of the person; they are lucky if they express so much. And
    again it is yet more obvious that any literary description of the pictures
    can only express half of them, and that the less important half. Still,
    it does express something; the thread is not broken that connects God With
    Nature, or Nature with men, or men with critics. The "Mona Lisa" was in
    some respects (not all, I fancy) what God meant her to be. Leonardo's
    picture was, in some respects, like the lady. And Walter Pater's rich
    description was, in some respects, like the picture. Thus we come to the
    consoling reflection that even literature, in the last resort, can express
    something other than its own unhappy self.

    Now the modern critic is a humbug, because he professes to be entirely
    inarticulate. Speech is his whole business; and he boasts of being
    speechless. Before Botticelli he is mute. But if there is any good in
    Botticelli (there is much good, and much evil too) it is emphatically the
    critic's business to explain it: to translate it from terms of painting
    into terms of diction. Of course, the rendering will be inadequate--but
    so is Botticelli. It is a fact he would be the first to admit. But
    anything which has been intelligently received can at least be
    intelligently suggested. Pater does suggest an intelligent cause for the
    cadaverous colour of Botticelli's "Venus Rising from the Sea." Ruskin
    does suggest an intelligent motive for Turner destroying forests and
    falsifying landscapes. These two great critics were far too fastidious
    for my taste; they urged to excess the idea that a sense of art was a sort
    of secret; to be patiently taught and slowly learnt. Still, they thought
    it could be taught: they thought it could be learnt. They constrained
    themselves, with considerable creative fatigue, to find the exact
    adjectives which might parallel in English prose what has been clone in
    Italian painting. The same is true of Whistler and R. A. M. Stevenson
    and many others in the exposition of Velasquez. They had something to say
    about the pictures; they knew it was unworthy of the pictures, but they
    said it.

    Now the eulogists of the latest artistic insanities (Cubism and
    Post Impressionism and Mr. Picasso) are eulogists and nothing else. They
    are not critics; least of all creative critics. They do not attempt to
    translate beauty into language; they merely tell you that it is
    untranslatable--that is, unutterable, indefinable, indescribable,
    impalpable, ineffable, and all the rest of it. The cloud is their banner;
    they cry to chaos and old night. They circulate a piece of paper on which
    Mr. Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it
    with his boots, and they seek to terrify democracy by the good old
    anti-democratic muddlements: that "the public" does not understand these
    things; that "the likes of us" cannot dare to question the dark decisions
    of our lords.

    I venture to suggest that we resist all this rubbish by the very simple
    test mentioned above. If there were anything intelligent in such art,
    something of it at least could be made intelligible in literature. Man is
    made with one head, not with two or three. No criticism of Rembrandt is
    as good as Rembrandt; but it can be so written as to make a man go back
    and look at his pictures. If there is a curious and fantastic art, it is
    the business of the art critics to create a curious and fantastic literary
    expression for it; inferior to it, doubtless, but still akin to it. If
    they cannot do this, as they cannot; if there is nothing in their eulogies,
    as there is nothing except eulogy--then they are quacks or the
    high-priests of the unutterable. If the art critics can say nothing about
    the artists except that they are good it is because the artists are bad.
    They can explain nothing because they have found nothing; and they have
    found nothing because there is nothing to be found.
    If you're writing a The Mystagogue essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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