Mr. Rudyard Kipling has asked in a celebrated epigram what they can know of England who only England know. It is a far deeper and sharper question to ask, ‘what can they know of England who know only the world?’ For the world does not include England any more than it includes the church. The moment we care for anything deeply, the world—that is, all the other miscellaneous interests—becomes our enemy…
Thus Mr. Kipling does certainly know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice. He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of England as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.
The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe not an air of locality, but all the winds of the world.
The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of things that divide men—diet, dress, decorum… The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men—hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky…
The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down, and the High Commissioner in South Africa. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile…
It is inspiring no doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them, it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – Gosh, I love this book. As I said two days ago, I am mostly doing this series on the blog in a spirit of total self-indulgence – this is such a fun book. My temptation is to just keep quoting more and more of it, testing the limits of ‘fair use’ in copyright law. Anyhow, if you want the rest of it, you can buy it here.
I have always loved this chapter in particular, for the simple reason that I am a thorough-going homebody, designed by nature and nurture both to emphatically park myself in one place and just stay there, preferably for the rest of my life, without ever going anywhere for any reason. Travel? Yuck!
Ironically and somewhat to my dismay, after many years in Madonna House doing just that—I honestly barely set foot off the property from 1989-2000—I have been on some kind of weird world tour the last few years, going from Spain to England to Italy to a variety of Canadian and American cities. While
I’m reconciled at this point to the good points of being a globe trotter (well, a globe ambler, anyhow), I am still profoundly and seriously the man in the cabbage field of this passage who sees nothing but thinks of the things that unite all people. And I can honestly say that I know exactly what GKC means here – for me, Combermere is not a ‘place’, but indeed the universe itself, the hills surrounding it the very cradle of life and the Madawaska the river of life itself.
This rejection of cosmopolitanism flies very much in the face of so much of our modern ideas. Our general idea today is that ‘experience’ consists in cramming as many different sensory inputs as possible into ourselves, that the way to become the most rounded and knowing person is to go everywhere one can, try everything at least once, and in general cast one’s net out for as broad and varied an experience of the world as possible.
Chesterton’s point is well taken then, that all of that is as likely to make a person shallow and superficial as it is to make them a deep rounded individual. But there is something deeper yet, something he doesn’t say here.
Namely, there is a strong message given to young people in particular today urging them not to settle down, not to make any commitments, not to tie themselves down to anything at all-not until they have tried a half dozen to a dozen different possibilities. In plain fact, this means ‘don’t get married until you’ve had sex with a half dozen different people’, but of course it is not usually phrased that way by guidance counselors and parents.
YOLO, and all that. But what is missed here is that the person who flees from commitment and adult life until they are in their late 20s or early 30s or more is missing out on life experience just as much, if not more, than the person who gets married at 20 and starts having kids at 21. The YOLO model of early adulthood crams in endless varieties of travel, relationships, recreation, mind altering substances, and so forth. It leaves out little insignificant trifles like sacrifice, generosity, commitment, steadfastness, stability. All of that is for later… but a young adulthood spent doing just what one pleases and seeking ever-new and greater sensations in a fervor of cosmopolitan globe-trotting does not exactly equip one to embrace a settled committed life upon turning 30.