Sarcasm in journalism by Sri Aurobindo

 

In Praise of Honest John

 

Mr. John Morley is a very great man, a very remarkable and

exceptional man. I have been reading his Arbroath speech again

and my admiration for him has risen to such a boiling point that

I am at last obliged to let it bubble over into the columns of

the Bande Mataram. Mr. Morley rises above the ordinary ruck

of mortals in three very important respects; first, he is a literary

man; secondly, he is a philosopher; thirdly, he is a politician.

This would not matter much if he kept his literature, politics

and philosophy apart in fairly water-tight compartments; but

he doesn’t. He has not only doubled his parts, he has trebled

them; he is not merely a literary philosopher and philosophic

litterateur, he is a literary philosopher-politician. Now this is a

superlative combination; God cannot better it and the devil does

not want to. For if an ordinary man steals, he steals and there

are no more bones made about it; he gets caught and is sent

to prison, or he is not caught and goes on his way rejoicing.

In either case the matter is a simple one without any artistic

possibilities. But if a literary philosopher steals he steals on the

basis of the great and eternal verities and in the choicest English.

*

And so all along the line. An ordinary man may be illogical and

silly and everybody realises that he is illogical and silly; but the

literary man when he goes about the same business will be brilliantly

foolish and convincingly illogical while the philosopher

will be logically illogical and talk nonsense according to the

strictest rules of philosophical reasoning. An ordinary man may

turn his back on his principles and he will be called a turncoat,

or he may break all the commandments and he will be punished

by the law and society,—unless of course he is an American

millionaire or a member of the ruling race in India;—but the

literary philosopher will reconcile his principles with his conduct

by an appeal to a fur-coat or a syllogism from a pair of jackboots;

he will abrogate all the commandments on the strength

of a solar topee. A politician again will lie and people will take

it as a matter of course, especially if he is in office, but a literary

philosopher-politician will easily prove to you that when he is

most a liar, then he is most truthful and when he is juggling

most cynically with truth and principle, then he most deserves

the name of Honest John; and he will do it in such well-turned

periods that one must indeed have a very bad ear for the rhythm

of a sentence before one can quarrel with his logic. Oh yes, a

literary philosopher-politician is the choicest work of God,—

when he is not the most effective instrument in the hands of

the Prince of Darkness. For the Prince of Darkness is not only a

gentleman as Shakespeare discovered, but a gentleman of artistic

perceptions who knows a fine and carefully-worked tool when

he sees it and loves to handle it with the best dexterity and grace

of which he is capable.

*

Of course it is not his speeches alone for which I admire John

Morley. I admire him for what he has done almost as much as

for the way in which he has done it. He is not so great a man as

his master Gladstone who was the biggest opportunist and most

adroit political gambler democracy has yet engendered and yet

persuaded himself and the world that he was an enthusiast and a

man of high religious principle. But Gladstone was a genius and

his old henchman is only a man of talent. Still Mr. Morley has

done the best of which he is capable and that is not a poor best.

He has served the devil in the name of God with signal success

on two occasions. The first was when he championed the cause

of the financiers in Egypt, themen who gamble with the destinies

of nations, who make money out of the groans of the people and

coin into gold the blood of patriots and the tears of widows and

orphans,—when abusing his influence as a journalist, he lied to

the British public about Arabi and urged on Gladstone to crush

the movement of democratic and humanitarian Nationalism in

Egypt, the movement in which all that is noble, humane and

gracious in Islam sought fulfilment and a small field on earth

for the fine flowering of a new Mahomedan civilisation. The

second is now when he is trying in the sordid interests of British

capital to crush the resurgent life of India and baffle the attempt

of the children of Vedanta to recover their own country for the

development of a revivified Indian civilisation. The two foulest

crimes against the future of humanity of which any statesman

in recent times could possibly have been guilty, have been engineered

under the name and by the advocacy of honest John

Morley. Truly, Satan knows his own and sees to it that they do

not their great work negligently.

*

Mr. Morley is a great bookman, a great democrat, a great exponent

of principles. No man better fitted than he to prove

that when the noblest human movements are being suppressed

by imprisonment and the sword, it is done in the interests of

humanity; that when a people struggling to live is trampled

down by repression, pushed back by the use of the Gurkha and

the hooligan, the prison walls and the whipping-post into the

hell of misery, famine and starvation, the black pit of insult,

ignominy and bonds from which it had dared to hope for an

escape, the motive of the oppressor finds its root in a very agony

of conscientiousness and it is with a sobbing and bleeding heart

that he presses his heel on the people’s throat for their own

good; that the ruthless exploitation and starvation of a country

by foreign leeches is one of the best services that can be done

to mankind, the international crimes of the great captains of

finance a supreme work of civilisation and the brutal and selfish

immolation of nations to Mammon an acceptable offering on

the altar of the indwelling God in humanity. But these things

have been done and said before; they are the usual blasphemous

cant of nineteenth century devil-worship formulated when

Commerce began to take the place once nominally allowed to

Christ and the ledger became Europe’s Bible. Mr. Morley does

it with more authority than others, but his own particular and

original faculty lies in the direction I indicated when drawing

the distinction between the ordinary man and the extraordinary

Morley. What he has done has been after all on the initiative of

others; what he has said about it is his own, and nothing more his

own than the admirably brilliant and inconsequential phrases in

which he has justified wickedness to an admiring nation.

*

Man has been defined sometimes as a political animal and

sometimes as a reasoning animal, but he has become still more

pre-eminently a literary animal. He is a political animal who

has always made a triumphant mess of politics, a reasoning

animal whose continual occupation it is to make a system out

of his blunders, a literary animal who is always the slave of a

phrase and not the least so when the phrase means nothing. The

power of the phrase on humanity has never been sufficiently

considered. The phrase is in the nostrils of the vast unruly mass

of mankind like the ring in the nose of a camel. It can be led

by the phrasemaker wherever he wishes to lead it. And the only

distinction between the sage and the sophist is that the phrases

of the sage mean something while the phrases of the sophist only

seem to mean something. Now Mr. Morley is an adept in the

making of phrases which seem to mean something.

*

Take for instance his phrase “My anchor holds.” Mr. Morley

complains that he who has served Liberalism so long and so

well, is not allowed to be illiberal when he likes, that when he

amuses himself with a little reaction he is charged with deserting

his principles! “It is true, gentlemen,” says Mr. Morley, “that I

am doing things which are neither liberal nor democratic; but,

then, my anchor holds. Yes, gentlemen, I dare to believe that

my anchor holds.” So might a clergyman detected in immorality

explain himself to his parishioners, “It is true I have preached

all my life continence and chastity, yet been found in very awkward

circumstances; but what then?My anchor holds. Yes, dear

brethren in Christ, I dare to believe that my anchor holds.” So

might Robespierre have justified himself for the Reign of Terror,

“It is true, Frenchmen, that I have always condemned capital

punishment as itself a crime, yet am judicially massacring my

countrymen without pause or pity; but my anchor holds. Yes,

citizens, I dare to believe that my anchor holds.” So argues Mr.

Morley and all England applauds in a thousand newspapers and

acquits him of political sin.

But of course Mr. Morley’s crowning mercy is the phrase

about the fur coat. It is true that the simile about the coat

is not new in the English language; for a man who abandons

his principles has always been said to turn his coat; but never

has that profitable manoeuvre been justified in so excellently

literary and philosophic a fashion before. Mr. Morley has given

us the philosophy of the turncoat. “Principles”, he has said in

effect, “are not a light by which you can guide your steps in

all circumstances, but a coat which is worn for comfort and

convenience. In Canada, which is cold, you have to wear a fur

coat, there is no help for it; in Egypt which is hot, you can

change it for thin alpaca; in India where it is very hot indeed,

you need not wear a coat at all; the natives of the country did

not before we came and we should not encourage them to go in

for such an uncomfortable luxury. It is just so with principles,

democratic and other.” The reasoning is excellent and of a very

wide application. For instance it may be wrong in England to

convict a political opponent for political reasons of an offence

of which you know him to be innocent and on evidence you

know to be false, or to sentence a man to be hanged for a

murder which you are quite aware somebody else committed,

or to disregard the plainest evidence and allow a bestial ravisher

to go free because he happens to be a hog with a white skin,

but it is absurd to suppose that such principles can keep in

the heat of the Indian sun. It is difficult to know what iniquity

reasoning of this sort would not cover. “I thoroughly believe in

the ten Commandments,” Caesar Borgia might have said in his

full career of political poisonings and strangulations, “but they

may do very well in one country and age without applying at

all to another. They suited Palestine, but mediaeval Italy is not

Palestine. Principles are a matter of chronology and climate, and

it would be highly unphilosophical and unpractical of me to be

guided by them as if I were Christ or Moses. So I shall go on

poisoning and strangling for the good of myself and Italy and

leave ‘impatient idealists’ to their irresponsible chatter. Still I am

a Christian and the nephew of a pope, so my anchor holds, yes,

my anchor holds.”

*

Mr.Morley’s fur coat is one of themost comprehensive garments

ever discovered. All the tribe of high-aiming tyrants and patriotic

pirates and able political scoundrels and intelligent turncoats

that the world has produced, he gathers together and covers up

their sins and keeps them snug and comforted against the cold

blasts of censure blowing from a too logical and narrow-minded

world, all in the shelter of a single fur coat. And the British conscience

too, that wondrous production of a humorous Creator,

seeking justification for the career of cynical violence its representatives

have entered on in India, rejoices in Mr. Morley’s fur

coat and snuggles with a contented chuckle into its ample folds.

Am I wrong in saying that Honest John is a wonder-worker of

the mightiest and that Aaron’s magic rod was a Brummagem

fraud compared withMr. Morley’s phrases? Vivat John Morley!

VOLUME 6 and 7

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO P752-756

 

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