A Commentary (Dec 1927)
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[ 293 A Commentary The Monthly Criterion: A Literary Review, 6 (Dec 1927) 481-83 The Dean’s English A minor consequence of the doctrine of evolution – or rather, of the “time philosophy” based upon it – is an attitude of unconscious fatalism which we adopt toward many processes.1 We are accustomed, for instance, to the belief that the English language deteriorates, and that it must deteriorate. We like to think that this deterioration began somewhere near the bottom, that it is largely due to cheap newspapers and such modern inventions, and that it is working its way slowly but inevitably towards the top. As a matter of fact, the language is probably in a healthier condition among the lower classes of society – who do not really read newspapers at all – than it is among the middle and upper classes. For among the latter, language can only be maintained if it is the vehicle for thinking; and recent events seem to indicate that language is more and more used for every other purpose except thought. Thought, it may be said, has taken an unsatisfactory refuge in mathematical symbols, and language is chiefly employed for the purpose of publicity. The most alarming signs of rot in the language appear in the upper strata where it is by no means inevitable and might be checked. A few months ago, we had occasion to call attention to symptoms of decay in the wording of the Preface to the Revised Prayer Book.2 It is a pity when eminent ecclesiastics fail to think clearly, for if they cannot think clearly they cannot write well. And the English language owes a great deal, in the past, to the Church and the Bench. English Law, in spite of its jargon , has exercised an important influence towards lucidity and precision; and there are still Judges and Barristers who can speak and write well. And to such men as Cranmer, and Hooker, and Andrewes (even without the translation of the Bible) our debt is almost incalculable. And there was once a Dean (of St. Patrick’s) who formed the purest, the most supple, the most useful type of English prose style.3 It is possible, of course, that evolution will bring the human race to such a point of perfection that thinking will no longer be necessary. Thinking is painfulandrequirestoil,andisamarkofhumanincompleteness.Theology will no doubt become obsolete: the day is already at hand when we shall be 1927 294 ] able, for a few shillings, with the approval of the London County Council and to the sounds of soft music, to contemplate with vacant minds the newest close-up of the Crucifixion.4 But in this painful “meanwhile,” as Mr. Wellswouldsay,5 duringwhichwearestillobligedtothinkthatwethink, a great many theological works are being published, and presumably being read by somebody; a great many speeches are being made, which play with whatarestillknownasideas,andprobablyafewauditorswith“headphones” now and then attend to what is being said. And some persons still believe that if words are not to be applied to the purpose of thought for which they have been used in the past, they should not be used at all. There are other noises available. “Slum Areas” It is stated that more “slums” of small houses in various parts of London are to be demolished.6 Such wholesale hygiene always calls for scrutiny. We should not go so far as Mr. Chesterton (or is it Mr. Belloc?) who draws those charming pictures of the London workman with his cottage, his chicken coop and his vegetable marrows. The small house is certainly more pleasant to look upon than the “workman’s dwellings” such as those which disfigure a part of the Isle of Dogs.7 If the families who now sleep three or four in a room are to have habitations with a room apiece, there is everything to be said for the readjustment. But will they? If they are still going to sleep three or four in a room in a sanitary flat instead of in an unsanitary house, not much is gained. In other words, it is the space, rather than the sanitation, that seems to us important: one would like to know whether the London workman can be given enough room for all his family, at a rent that he can pay? or will he merely increase his family? It is not really the business of The Criterion to enquire into these matters, except that the improvement is certain to make London more hideous; and...