We advocate the preservation of conditions favourable to the growth of beautiful things — imposing palaces, beautiful cities, elegant literature, reposeful art and music, and a physically select human type.
What is more important, is to perpetuate those things of beauty which are of real value because involving actual sense-impressions rather than vapid theories. “Equality” is a joke — but a great abbey or cathedral, covered with moss, is a poignant reality. It is for us to safeguard and preserve the conditions which produce great abbeys, and palaces, and picturesque walled towns, and vivid sky-lines of steeples and domes, and luxurious tapestries, and fascinating books, paintings, and statuary, and colossal organs and noble music, and dramatic deeds on embattled fields… these are all there is of life; take them away and we have nothing which a man of taste or spirit would care to live for. Take them away and our poets have nothing to sing — our dreamers have nothing to dream about. […]
What we must do is to shake off our encumbering illusions and false values — banishing sonorous platitudes in a civilised realisation that the only things of value in the world are those which promote beauty, colour, interest, and heightened sensation. The one great crusade worthy of an enlightened man is that directed against whatever impoverishes imagination, wonder, sensation, dramatic life, and the appreciation of beauty. Nothing else matters. And not even this really matters in the great void, but it is amusing to play a little in the sun before the blind universe dispassionately pulverises us again into that primordial nothingness from whence it moulded us for a second’s sport.
All the life we can ever imagine is the artificial and arbitrary network of illusions with which we may happen to surround ourselves. We know that all are the mere result of accident and perspective, but we gain nothing by tearing them down. ’Tis indeed uncommon senseless to tear down with a rusty dung-fork a mirage which never really existed. I think it best becomes a man of sense to chuse whatever sort of agreeable fancies best amuse him, and thenceforward to revel innocently in them; sensible that they are not real, but equally aware that since reality does not exist, he can gain nothing and lose much by brushing them away.
The keynote of the modern doctrine is the dissociation of ideas and the resolving of our cerebral contents into its actual chaotic components, as distinguished from the conventional patterns visible on the outside. This is supposed to form a closer approach to reality, but I cannot see that it forms any sort of art at all. It may be good science—but art deals with beauty rather than fact, and must have the liberty to select and arrange according to traditional patterns which generations of belief and reverence have marked with the seal of empirical loveliness. Beyond or behind this seeming beauty lies only chaos and weariness, so that art must preserve illusions and artificialities rather than try to sweep them away.
[Catholicism] is the inheritor of ancient and beautiful rhythms of thought, cadence, and gesture which thousands of years of human feeling have woven symbolically and expressively around the various significant points of mortal experience; and as such it cannot help having a profound and genuine artistic importance and satisfyingness.
It is because I am a complete sceptic & cynic, recognising no such qualities as good or evil, beauty or ugliness, in the ultimate structure of the universe, that I insist on the artificial & traditional values of each particular cultural stream — proximate values which grew out of the special instincts, associations, environment, & experiences of the race in question, & which are the sole available criteria for the members of that race & culture, though of course having no validity outside it. These backgrounds of tradition against which to scale the objects & events of experience are all that lend such objects & events the illusion of meaning, value, or dramatic interest in an ultimately purposeless cosmos — hence I preach & practice an extreme conservatism in art forms, society, & politics, as the only means of averting the ennui, despair, & confusion of a guideless & standardless struggle with unveiled chaos.
Anti-humanism, in its extreme phases, becomes exceedingly ridiculous, since it assumes as many values of purely arbitrary unreality as does pro-humanism
In a cosmos without absolute values, we have to rely on the relative values affecting our daily sense of comfort, pleasure, & emotional satisfaction. What gives us relative painlessness & contentment we may arbitrarily call “good,” & vice versa. This local nomenclature is necessary to give us that benign illusion of placement, direction, & stable background on which the still more important illusions of “worthwhileness,” dramatic significance in events, & interest in life depend. Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply on the psychological side from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore “good” is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of “values” which we need in order to feel settled & contented — & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time & space.
It is because the cosmos is meaningless that we must secure our individual illusions of values, direction, and interest by upholding the artificial streams which give us such worlds of salutary illusion. That is—since nothing means anything in itself, we must preserve the proximate and arbitrary background which makes things around us seem as if they did mean something..
The truth is that the cosmos is blind & unconscious — not giving a hang about any of its denizens, nor even knowing that they exist. It doesn’t try to pain them any more than it tries to help or please them — & if any of them can manage to have a good time somehow, in spite of the chaotic jumble of conditions & emotions around & within them, that’s quite all right with the universal powers that be.
Art has been wrecked by a complete consciousness of the universe which shews that the world is to each man only a rubbish-heap limned by his individual perception. It will be saved, if at all, by the next and last step of disillusion; the realisation that complete consciousness and truth are themselves valueless, and that to acquire any genuine artistic titillation we must artificially invent limitations of consciousness and feign a pattern of life common to all mankind—most naturally the simple old pattern which ancient and groping tradition first gave us. When we see that the source of all joy and enthusiasm is wonder and ignorance, we shall be ready to play the old game of blindman’s buff with the mocking atoms.
It is then that we shall worship afresh the music and colour of divine language, and take an Epicurean delight in those combinations of ideas and fancies which we know to be artificial. Not that we can resume a serious attitude toward emotion—there is too much intellect abroad for that—but that we can revel in the Dresden-china Arcadia of an author who will play with the old ideas, atmospheres, types, situations, and lighting effects in a deft pictorial way; a way tinged with affectionate reminiscence as for fallen gods, yet never departing from a cosmic and gently satirical realisation of the true microscopic insignificance of the man-puppets and their petty relations to one another.
Contrary to what you may assume, I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist—that is, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the resultant of the natural forces surrounding and governing organic life will have any connexion with the wishes or tastes of any part of that organic life-process. Pessimists are just as illogical as optimists; insomuch as both envisage the aims of mankind as unified, and as having a direct relationship (either of frustration or of fulfilment) to the inevitable flow of terrestrial motivation and events. That is—both schools retain in a vestigial way the primitive concept of a conscious teleology—of a cosmos which gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitos, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy.