The Spice of Life and Other Essays/Bethlehem and the Great Cities

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I was once at the same dinner-table with a newspaper proprietor who regarded himself, and was regarded, as the dictator of Europe and who really was by far too great an extent the dictator of England. He also was interested in Palestine, and in the course of conversation I learned that he had never even heard of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. I suppose he had seen Crusaders in pictures or at fancy-dress balls; but he had no notion of what they did, and certainly no notion that what they did was to conquer and make Palestine a part of Europe for a hundred years, filling it with abbeys like those of Glastonbury or St. Andrew's and castles like those of Conway and Caernarvon. Now that is a point that interests me a great deal because the traces of it are very obvious to any traveller who happens to have been there. The first fact that strikes him about Jerusalem is that it is a medieval town; long before it strikes him specially as an oriental town. It has that curious combination of cosiness and defiance that belongs to the walled cities and painted pales and fences of the life of the Middle Ages. The latest walls were built by the successors of the Saracens but they are not in our sense Saracenic. Most of the windows and gates are in their whole spirit Gothic. The Franciscan going by with his beard and brown habit under those grey Gothic walls seems to be entirely in the picture, and even in the conventional picture. It is rather the Arab coming in with his coloured turban or burnous who seems for the moment, if only by a sort of optical illusion, to be a stranger and one straying from a far-off eastern land.

I had a rather parallel experience when I first saw Rome. In the case of Rome, as in the case of Jerusalem, people seem to have lost their own first impressions in the disproportionate emphasis of detail among guides and guide-books. The general impression of Rome is not the Forum or even the Coliseum. We might almost say that they are to St. Peter's what Stonehenge is to Salisbury Cathedral. The overwhelming impression is not that of Pagan but of Papal Rome; but especially Rome of the Renaissance Popes. I say it is the overwhelming impression; it could not be to everybody a pleasing impression. It might annoy a man, not only if he were narrowly Puritan, but also if he were too narrowly medieval. It did annoy Ruskin and might well have annoyed William Morris. Nor is their criticism a thing merely to be criticized; there is in that classical exuberance much that is really florid and false. But that is the impression; and it is quite certainly the stamp and imprint of the great Popes of the Renaissance. Renaissance Rome is not merely heathen, any more than Jerusalem is merely Jewish or merely Moslem. In those huge fountains where the Tritons look like Titans in the twilight, they have none the less been really baptized by these waters. The cross on top of the primeval obelisks is not a contradiction but a culmination. The culmination culminates on that high column where Our Lady stands at once vanquishing and exalting the symbol of Diana, with her foot upon the horns of the moon.

I have mentioned these two cases for the sake of a truth which any real traveller will have found out for himself. Our recent and rather provincial tradition greatly exaggerated the proportion of such places that is pagan or barbaric or even merely primeval. There is much more than we were taught to suppose of the traces of civilization, and even of our own civilization. But as my memory returns to Palestine by this rambling path, I remember what may really be called, in a deeper and more subtle sense, an exception. Palestine itself was filled, so to speak, with Norman castles and Catholic shrines; and in so far as Jerusalem does often suggest the Moslem, it is chiefly because the Moslem does suggest the Crusaders. But there was one experience in Palestinian travel that really is something more than merely historical; something that is too human to be historical. It is certainly not pagan but it is in a sense primeval. It is the one thing that really does seem to be connected with Christianity and not with Christendom. I have called it primeval, because there is in this greatest of all origins an atmosphere truly to be called original. This one vision really does not primarily suggest pilgrimages and shrines and medieval spires or medieval spears. It does rather suggest ancestral dawns and mystical abysses and the end of chaos and the creation of light. I mean the experience of Bethlehem.

The heart of Bethlehem is a cavern; the sunken shrine which is the traditional scene of the Nativity. Nine times out of ten these traditions are true, and this is wholly ratified by the truth about the countryside; for it is into such subterranean stables that the people have driven their cattle, and they are by far the likeliest places of refuge for such a homeless group. It is curious to consider what numberless and varied versions of the Bethlehem story have been turned into pictures. No man who .understands Christianity will complain that they are all different from each other and all different from the truth, or rather the fact. It is the whole point of the story that it happened in one particular human place that might have been any particular human place; a sunny colonnade in Italy or a snow-laden cottage in Sussex. It is yet more curious that some modern artists have prided themselves on merely topographical truth; and yet have not made much of this truth about the dark and sacred place underground. It seems strange that they have hardly emphasized the one case in which realism really touches reality. There is something beyond expression moving to the imagination in the idea of the holy fugitives being brought lower than the very land; as if the earth had swallowed them; the glory of God like gold buried in the ground. Perhaps the image is too deep for art, even in the sense of dealing in another dimension. For it might be difficult for any art to convey simultaneously the divine secret of the cavern and the cavalcade of the mysterious kings, trampling the rocky plain and shaking the cavern roof. Yet the medieval pictures would often represent parallel scenes on the same canvas; and the medieval popular theatre, which the guildsmen wheeled about the streets, was sometimes a structure of three floors, with one scene above another. A parallel can be found in those tremendous lines of Francis Thompson:

East, ah, east of Himalay
Dwell the nations underground,
Hiding from the shock of Day;
From the sun's uprising sound.

But no poetry even of the greatest poets will ever express all that is hidden in that image of the light of the world like a subterranean sun; only these prosaic notes remain to suggest what one individual felt about Bethlehem.