Monday, January 20, 2014

The Jerusalem Gate

G K Chesterton in full flight writing in The New Jerusalem (pages 54/5), published in 1920. Chesterton is describing the gates of the city of the earthly Jerusalem at this point. Note that this was written after the horrors of the First World War and before the horrors that Germany inflicted on the world through Hitler and the Second World War.

...he who walks round the walls of this city...will come suddenly upon an exception which will surprise him like an earthquake. It looks indeed rather like something done by an earthquake;  an earthquake with a half-witted sense of humour. 

Immediately at the side of one of these humble and human gateways there is a great gap in the wall, with a wide road running through it. There is something of unreason in the sight which affects the eye as well as the reason....It suggests the old joke about the man who made a small hole for the kitten as well as a large hole for the cat.  Everybody has read about it by this time;  but the immediate impression of it is not merely an effect of reading or even of reasoning.  It looks lop-sided; like something done by a one-eyed giant.  But it was done by the last prince of the great Prussian Imperial system, in what was probably the proudest moment in all his life of pride.

What is true has a way of sounding trite;  and what is trite has a way of sounding false. We shall now probably weary the world with calling the Germans barbaric, just as we very recently wearied the world with calling them cultured and progressive and scientific. But the thing is true though we say it a thousand times. And anyone who wishes to understand the sense in which it is true has only to contemplate that fantasy and fallacy in stone; a gate with an open road beside it.

The quality I mean, however, is not merely in that particular contrast; as of a front door standing by itself in an open field.  It is also in the origin, the occasion and the whole story of the thing. 

There is above all this supreme stamp of the barbarian; the sacrifice of the permanent to the temporary. When the walls of the Holy City were overthrown for the glory of the German Emperor, it was hardly even for that everlasting glory which has been the vision and the temptation of great men.  It was for the glory of a single day. It was something rather in the nature of a holiday than anything that could be even in the most vainglorious sense a heritage.  It did not in the ordinary sense make a monument or even a trophy. It destroyed a monument to make a procession. We might almost say that it destroyed a trophy to make a triumph. 

There is the true barbaric touch in this oblivion of what Jerusalem would look like a century after, or a year after, or even the day after. It is this which distinguishes the savage tribe on the march after the victory from the civilized army establishing a government, even if it be a tyranny. Hence the very effect of it, like the effect of the whole Prussian adventure in history, remains something negative and even nihilistic.

The Christians made the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Moslems made the Mosque of Omar; but this is what the most scientific culture made at the end of the great century of science. It made an enormous hole...under all the changing skies of day and night; with the shadows that gather under the narrow Gate of Humility; and beside it, blank as daybreak and abrupt as an abyss, the broad road that has led already to destruction.

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