“The Spice of Life” by G.K. Chesterton

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“ I am perfectly certain that all our world will end in despair, unless there is some way of making the mind itself, the ordinary thought we have at ordinary times, more healthy and more happy than they seem to be just now, to judge by most modern novels and poems.  You have to be happy in those quiet moments when you remember that you are alive; not in those noisy moments when you forget.  Unless we can learn again to enjoy life, we shall not long enjoy the spices of life.  ” 

~G.K. Chesterton

This short essay comes from one of the last radio broadcasts by G.K. Chesterton. It was published posthumously in a collection of the same title, The Spice of Life. With a strange but not uncharacteristic prescience, Chesterton appears to be handing off the baton to the next generation of culture shapers. He does so with a warning, though. Dale Ahlquist at The American Chesterton Society writes the following:

“It is Chesterton’s parting shot. He refers to none other than T.S. Eliot, who in many ways would be his successor as the great man of letters in the English language, who, though he shared many of Chesterton’s ideas and certainly admired him, nonetheless represents a change in outlook towards the modern world.”

Here we see Chesterton lamenting a younger generation that is not at rest; a generation that has forgotten how to enjoy the simple things of life. “Unless we can learn again to enjoy life,” he writes, “we shall not long enjoy the spices of life.” Easier said than done, of course, given that this life “under the sun” can be so fraught with difficulty and failure. Honestly, Chesterton is the only modern writer in whom I have found the ability to communicate joy, even in the midst of sorrow. In him, we get a taste of what Tolkien called “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

I strongly suspect that joy did not come any more naturally to Chesterton than it does to the rest of us. As with any virtue, joy must be sought with discipline. It begins with a fierce determination to find the wonder in everyday things. We see Chesterton continually practicing the art of joy in his writing. For instance, notice how he turns the saying “dull as ditch-water” on its head. In his book Heretics, Chesterton wrote that “there is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” He was never uninterested in anything “under the sun,” therefore, Chesterton never found anything dull, even ditch-water.

“The Spice of Life”

by G.K. Chesterton

Forgive me if I begin by enacting the part which I have played at so many dinner-parties, I mean the part of the skeleton at the feast.  Pardon me if the first few words that reach you resemble a hollow voice from the tomb.  For the truth is that the very title of this series makes me feel a little funereal.  When I was asked to speak on the Spice of Life, I am sorry to say that the first thought that crossed my perverse and morbid mind was that spices, as spices, are quite as much associated with death as with life.  Corpses embalmed and preserved were always swathed amid spices; mummies also, I suppose.  I am no Egyptologist to decide the point.  But even if they were, you would hardly go sniffing round a mummy in the British Museum, drawing deep breaths and saying, “This is indeed the spice of life.” Egypt was almost a civilization organized as a funeral procession; it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the living lived to serve the dead.  And yet I suppose that an actual Egyptian walking about alive, was in no hurry to be spiced.  Or take a homelier scene nearer home.  Suppose you are chased by a mad bull; we will not debate which animal enjoys more of the spice of life; but both at the moment will give unmistakable signs of life.  But the quadruped must wait until he is killed and cut up into cold beef, before he can have the pride and privilege of being spiced beef.  In short, I want you to remember first of all that there has been in history, not only the spice of life, but something else that may fairly be called the spice of death.  And I mention it first because it is a sort of parable; and there are a good many things in the modern world that seem to me to be dead, not to say damned, and yet are considered very spicy.

I will not dwell on this morbid parallel.  Heaven forbid that I should suggest that some ladies are rather like mummies walking about, with very beautiful faces painted on the mummy-cases: or that some young gentlemen going the pace exhibit all the culture and selective subtlety of mad bulls.  I am concerned with a much more important question at the back of this one.  It seems to me that a great many people, whom I am far from calling mummies or mad bulls, are at this moment paying rather too much attention to the spice of life, and rather too little attention to life.  Do not misunderstand me.  I am very fond of spiced beef and all the spices; I always dread that the Puritan reformers will suddenly forbid mustard and pepper as they did malt and hops; on the absurd ground that salt and mustard are as unnecessary as music.  But while I resist the suggestion that we must eat beef without mustard, I do recognize that there is now a much deeper and more subtle danger that men may want to eat mustard without beef.  I mean that they may lose their appetite; their appetite for beef and bread and cheese and the broad daylight of life; and depend entirely on spices and condiments.  I have even been blamed for defending the spices of life against what was called the Simple Life.  I have been blamed for making myself a champion of beer and skittles.  Fortunately, if I was a champion of skittles, there was never any danger of my being a champion at skittles.  But I have played ordinary games like skittles, always badly; but all healthy people will agree that you never enjoy a game till you enjoy being beaten at the game.  I have even played golf in Scotland before Arthur Balfour brought it to England and it became a fashion and then a religion.  I have been since inhibited by a difficulty in regarding a game as a religion, and the horrid secret of my failure is that I never could quite see the difference between cricket and golf, as I played them when I was a boy, and puss-in-the-corner and honey-pots as I played them when I was a child.  Perhaps those nursery games are now forgotten; anyhow, I will not reveal what good games they were, lest they should become fashionable.  If once they were taken seriously in that most serious world, the world of Sport, enormous results will follow.  The shops will sell a special Slipper for Hunt-the-Slipper, or a caddy will follow the player with a bag full of fifteen different slippers.  Honey-pots will mean money-pots; and there will be a ‘corner’ in puss-in-the-corner.

Anyhow, I have enjoyed like everybody else those sports and spices of life.  But I am more and more convinced that neither in your special spices nor in mine, neither in honey-pots nor quart-pots, neither in mustard nor in music, nor in any other distraction from life, is the secret we are all seeking, the secret of enjoying life.  I am perfectly certain that all our world will end in despair, unless there is some way of making the mind itself, the ordinary thought we have at ordinary times, more healthy and more happy than they seem to be just now, to judge by most modern novels and poems.  You have to be happy in those quiet moments when you remember that you are alive; not in those noisy moments when you forget.  Unless we can learn again to enjoy life, we shall not long enjoy the spices of life.  I once read a French fairy-tale that expressed exactly what I mean.  Never believe that French wit is shallow; it is the shining surface of French irony, which is unfathomable.  It was about a pessimist poet who decided to drown himself; and as he went down to the river, he gave away his eyes to a blind man, his ears to a deaf man, his legs to a lame man, and so on, up to the moment when the reader was waiting for the splash of his suicide; but the author wrote that this senseless trunk settled itself on the shore and began to experience the joy of living: la joie de vivre.  The joy of being alive.  You have to go deep, and perhaps to grow old, to know how true that story is.

If I were to ask myself where and when I have been happiest, I could of course give the obvious answers, as true of me as of everybody else; at some dance or feast of the romantic time of life; at some juvenile triumph of debate; at some sight of beautiful things in strange lands.  But it is much more important to remember that I have been intensely and imaginatively happy in the queerest because the quietest places.  I have been filled with life from within in a cold waiting-room in a deserted railway junction.  I have been completely alive sitting on an iron seat under an ugly lamp-post at a third-rate watering place.  In short, I have experienced the mere excitement of existence in places that would commonly be called as dull as ditch-water. And by the way, is ditch-water dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.  Even that proverbial phrase will prove that we cannot always trust what is proverbial, when it professes to describe what is prosaic.  I doubt whether the fifteen gushing fountains to be found in your ornamental garden contain creatures so amusing as those the miscroscope reveals; like the profiles of politicians in caricature.  And that is only one example out of a thousand, of the things in daily life we call dull that are not really so dull after all.  And I am confident that there is no future for the modern world, unless it can understand that it has not merely to seek what is more and more exciting, but rather the yet more exciting business of discovering the excitement in things that are called dull.

What we have to teach the young man of the future, is how to enjoy himself.  Until he can enjoy himself, he will grow more and more tired of enjoying everything else.  What we have to teach him is to amuse himself.  At this moment he is more and more dependent upon anything which he thinks will amuse him.  And, to judge by the expression of his face, it does not amuse him very much.  When we consider what he receives, it is indeed a most magnificent wonder and wealth and concentration of amusement.  He can travel in a racing-car almost as quick as a cannon-ball; and still have his car fitted up with wireless from all the ends of the earth.  He can get Vienna and Moscow; he can hear Cairo and Warsaw; and if he cannot see England, through which he happens to be travelling, that is after all a small matter.  In a century, no doubt, his car will travel like a comet, and his wireless will hear the noises in the moon.  But all this does not help him when the car stops; and he has to stand stamping about in a line, with nothing to think about.  All this does not help him even when the wireless stops and he has to sit still in a silent car with nothing to talk about.  If you consider what are the things poured into him, what are the things he receives, then indeed they are colossal cataracts of things, cosmic Niagaras that have never before poured into any human being are pouring into him.  But if you consider what comes out of him, as a result of all this absorption, the result we have to record is rather serious.  In the vast majority of cases, nothing.  Not even conversation, as it used to be.  He does not conduct long arguments, as young men did when I was young.  The first and startling effect of all this noise is silence.  Second, when he does have the itch to write or say something, it is always an itch in the sense of an irritation.

Everything has its better and baser form; and there is irritation and irritation.  There is a great deal of difference between the irritation of Aldous Huxley and the irritation of some nasty little degenerate in a novel by Aldous Huxley.  But honestly I do not think I am unfair to the whole trend of the time, if I say that it is intellectually irritated; and therefore without that sort of rich repose in the mind which I mean, when I say that a man when he is alone can be happy because he is alive.  For instance, a man of genius of the same generation, for whom I have a very special admiration, is Mr. T. S. Eliot.  But nobody will deny that there was a sense in which, originally, even his inspiration was irritation.  He began with pure pessimism; he has since found much finer and more subtle things; but I hardly think he has found repose.  And it is just here that I will have the effrontery to distinguish between his generation and mine.  It used to be thought impudent for a boy to criticize an old gentleman, it now requires far more sublime impudence for an older man to criticize a younger.  Yet I will defend my own idea of the spiritual spice of life against even the spirituality that finds this ordinary life entirely without spice.  I know very well that Mr. Eliot described the desolation he found more than the desolation he felt.  But I think that ‘The Waste Land’ was at least a world in which he had wandered.  And as I am describing the recent world, I may as well describe it as he has described it, in ‘The Hollow Men’— though nobody would describe him as a hollow man.  This is the impression of many impressions.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Now forgive me if I say, in my old-world fashion, that I’m damned if I ever felt like that.  I recognize the great realities Mr. Eliot has revealed; but I do not admit that this is the deepest reality.  I am ready to admit that our generation made too much of romance and comfort, but even when I was uncomfortable I was more comfortable than that.  I was more comfortable on the iron seat.  I was more happy in the cold waiting-room.  I knew the world was perishable and would end, but I did not think it would end with a whimper, but if anything with a trump of doom.  It is doubtless a grotesque spectacle that the great-grandfathers should still be dancing with indecent gaiety, when the young are so grave and sad; but in this matter of the spice of life, I will defend the spiritual appetite of my own age.  I will even be so indecently frivolous as to break into song, and say to the young pessimists:

Some sneer; some snigger; some simper;

In the youth where we laughed and sang,

And they may end with a whimper

But we will end with a bang.

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