Symptoms of Cynicism and Decay

This remark GK Chesterton made in his insightful Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens:

All romances consist of three characters … For the sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilization. But of all the signs of modern feebleness, of lack of grasp on morals as they actually must be, there has been none quite so silly or so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of today have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. [But] the two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust… but it is lust, because it is wholly self-indulgent and invites no attack. On the other hand, fighting for a thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is human and unspoilt by any special sophistry, there exists this natural kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called romance. It comes upon a man especially in the great hour of youth; and every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment, this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the same thing as fighting the world.

Usage note: “Romance” here means the older sense of the word, a story of mystery and wonder, heroic adventures, chivalry and strange beauty typical of the Roman tradition, not just a love story.

My comment: Another symptom Mr Chesterton does not mention in the above passage is the absence, if not the hatred, of Romance in the older sense of the word.

Heroic tales are always competing for attention with the unheroic. In the late 50’s Heinlein’s libertine materialism, and early 60’s the New Wave and its stylish cynicism and in the 80’s cyberpunk and its techno-noir managed to shout down and crowd out the confidence heroism of the earlier days (albeit romance in media SF was was revived with the advent of STAR WARS — but vanished again with PHANTOM MENACE. The missing element which made the sequels an insult to the loyalest fans in history was the old-fashioned Romance).

Likewise in fantasy, in the late 50’s Romance was preserved with LORD OF THE RINGS, and it endless epigones and impersonators, but against it is Urban fantasy, endless recyclings of BUFFY and ANITA BLAKE yarns and the impersonators of Anne Rice.

Likewise again, in superhero comics we have almost the pure expression of old fashioned Romance — comic book worlds sacrifice all sense and logic to the lure of wonder, so that magicians, Martians, vigilantes, cowboys, Amazons, robots, and reincarnated Egyptian princes dressed as hawks might be battling time travelers, Greek gods, ghosts, pirates and Nazis in the same episode or on the same team. Over against this is Frank Miller and Alan Moore and their imitators, writers eager to desecrate and denigrate the heroism of the superheroes, or stuff the superheroines in refrigerators after breaking their spines.

The telling characteristic of all three genres is that, at least at first, they were meant for children or for those who delight in childlike wonder. Ask yourself why Romance was so entirely removed from mainstream literature, fine literature, and to serve what vision or view of life the artists have prostituted the genius granted them.

At the risk of being simplistic, I think those who are bored by Romance are the kind of men who naturally cheer for the dragon, naturally hate the knight for his chivalry and valor and most of all for his honor, and naturally hate the princess for her loveliness, her lack of vulgar manners and most of all for her femininity.