Page:Saturdayeveningp1935unse.djvu/976

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
14
April 30, 1921
THE SATURDAY EVENING POST

The Salvaging of Civilization
By H. G. WELLS
ILLUSTRATED BY M. L. BLUMENTHAL

The Bible of Civilization: II

IN THE preceding sections we have discussed Genesis and the historical books generally as they would appear in a modernized Bible, and we have dealt with the law. But these are only the foundations and openings of the Bible as we know it. We come now to the Psalms and Proverbs, the Song of Songs, the Book of Job—and the Prophets. What are the modern equivalents of these books?

Well, what were they?

They were the entire Hebrew literature down to about the time of Ezra; they include sacred songs, love songs, a dramatic dialogue, a sort of novel in the books of Ruth and Esther, and so forth. What would be our equivalent of this part of the Bible to-day? What would be the equivalent for the Bible of a world civilization?

I suppose that it would be the whole world literature.

That, I admit, is a rather tremendous proposition. Are we to contemplate the prospect of a modern Bible in twenty or thirty thousand volumes? Such a vast Bible would defeat its own end.

We want a Bible that everyone will know; which will be grasped by the mind of everyone. That is essential to our idea of a Bible as a social cement.

Fortunately, our model Bible, as we have it to-day, gives us a lead in this matter. Its contents are classified. We have first of all the canonical books, which are treated as the vitally important books; they are the books, to quote the phrase used in the English Prayer Book, which are "necessary to salvation." And then we have a collection of other books, the Apocrypha, the books set aside, books often admirable and beautiful, but not essential, good to be read for "example of life and instruction of manners," yet books that everyone need not read and know. Let us take this lead, and let us ask whether we can—with the whole accumulated literature of the world as our material—select a bookful or so of matter, of such exceptional value that it would be well for all mankind to read it and know it. This will be our equivalent for the canonical books. I will return to that in a moment.

And outside this canonical book or books, shall we leave all the rest of literature in a limitless Apocrypha? I am doubtful about that. I would suggest that we make a second intermediate class between the canonical books, that everyone in our civilization ought to read, and the outer Apocrypha, that you may read or not, as you choose. This intermediate class I would call the great books of the world. It would not be a part of our Bible, but it would come next to our Bible. It would not be what one must read, but only what it is desirable the people should read.


Making Up the Canonical Books

NOW this canonical literature we are discussing is to be the third vital part of our modern Bible. I conceive of it as something that would go into the hands of every man and woman in that coming great civilization which is the dream of our race. Together with the book of world history and the book of law and righteousness and wisdom that I have sketched out to you, and another book of which I shall have something to say later, this canonical literature will constitute the intellectual and moral cement of the world society, that intellectual and moral cement for the want of which our world falls into political and social confusion and disaster to-day. Upon such a basis, upon a common body of ideas, a common moral teaching and the world-wide assimilation of the same emotional and æsthetic material, it may still be possible to build up humanity into one coöperative, various and understanding community.

Now if we bear this idea of a cementing function firmly in mind we shall have a criterion by which to judge what shall be omitted from and what shall be included in the books of literature in this modern Bible of ours. We shall begin, of course, by levying toll upon the Old and New Testaments. I do not think I need justify that step. I suppose that there will be no doubt of the inclusion of many of the Psalms—but I question if we should include them all—and of a number of splendid passages from the Prophets. Should we include the Song of Songs? I am inclined to think that the compilers of a new Bible would hesitate at that. Should we include the Book of Job? That, I think, would be a very difficult question indeed for our compilers. The Book of Job is a very wonderful and beautiful discussion of the profound problem of evil in the world. It is a tremendous exercise to read and understand, but is it universally necessary? I am disposed to think that the Book of Job, possibly with the wonderful illustrations of Blake, would not make a part of our canon, but would rank among our great books. It is a part of a very large literature of discussion, of which I shall have more to say in a moment. So, too, I question if we should make the story of Ruth, or the story of Esther fundamental teaching for our world civilization. Daniel, again, I imagine relegated to the Apocrypha. But this I will return to later.


The Place of Shakspere

THE story of the Gospels would, of course, be incorporated in our historical book, but in addition, as part of our first canon, each of the four Gospels—with the possible omission of the genealogies—would have a place for the sake of their matchless directness, simplicity and beauty. They give a picture, they convey an atmosphere of supreme value to us all, incommunicable in any other form or language. Again, there is a great wealth of material in the Epistles. It is, for example, inconceivable that such a passage as that of Saint Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians—"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal," the whole of that wonderful chapter—should ever pass out of the common heritage of mankind.

So much from the ancient Bible for our modern Bible, all its inspiration and beauty and fire. And now what else?

Speaking in English to an English-speaking audience one name comes close upon the Bible—Shakspere. What are we going to do about Shakspere? If you were to waylay almost any Englishman or American and put this project of a modern Bible before him, and then begin your list of ingredients with the Bible and the whole of Shakspere, he would almost certainly say, "Yes, yes."

But would he be right?

On reflection he might, perhaps, recede and say, "Not the whole of Shakspere, but—well—Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream." But even these, are they "generally necessary to salvation"? We run our minds through the treasures of Shakspere as we might run our fingers through the contents of a box of very precious and beautiful jewels before equipping a youth for battle.

No; these things are for ornament and joy. I doubt if we could have a single play, a single scene of Shakspere's in our canon.

He goes altogether into the great books—all of him; he joins the aristocracy of the Apocrypha. And, I believe, nearly all the great plays of the world would have to join him there—Euripides and Sophocles, Schiller and Ibsen. Perhaps some speeches and such-like passages might be quoted in the canon, but that is all.

Our canon, remember, is to be the essential cementing stuff of our community, and nothing more. If once we admit merely beautiful and delightful things, then I see an overwhelming inrush of jewels and flowers. If we admit Midsummer Night's Dream, then I must insist that we also admit such lovely nonsense as:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Our canon, I am afraid, cannot take in such things, and with the plays we must banish also all the novels—the greater books of such writers as Cervantes, Defoe, Dickens, Fielding, Tolstoy, Hardy, Hamsun, that great succession of writers. They are all good for "example of life and instruction of manners," and to the Apocrypha they must go. And so it is that since I would banish Romeo and Juliet I would also banish the Song of Songs; and, since I must put away Vanity Fair and the Shabby Genteel Story, I would also put away Esther and Ruth. And I find myself most reluctant to exclude not only novels written in English but one or two great sweeping books by non-English writers. It seems to me that Tolstoy's War and Peace and Hamsun's Growth of the Soil are books on an almost Biblical scale; that they deal with life so greatly as to come nearest to the idea of a universally inspiring and illuminating literature, which underlies the idea of our canon. If we put any whole novels into the canon I would plead for these. But I will not plead now even for these. I do not think any novels at all can go into our modern Bible as whole works. The possibility of long passages going in is, of course, quite a different matter.
Is It Too Much to Suggest That We Should Make Some Organized Attempt to Gather Up


Selections From the Philosophers

AND passing now from great plays and great novels and romances, we come to the still more difficult problem of great philosophical and critical works. Take Gulliver's Travels, an intense, dark, stirring criticism of life and social order, and the Dialogues of Plato, full of light and inspiration. In these latter we might quarry for beautiful passages for our canon, but I do not think we could take them in as wholes, and if we do not take them in as complete books, then I think that great Semitic parallel to these