The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it | “On the Return of the Dead,” Hilaire Belloc

“On the Return of the Dead”


Hilaire Belloc

from On Nothing and Kindred Subjects (1908)


The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it.

In the old time they would come casually, as suited them, without fuss and thinly, as it were, which is their nature; but when such visits were doubted even by those who received them and when new and false names were given them the Dead did not find it worth while. It was always a trouble; they did it really more for our sakes than for theirs and they would be recognised or stay where they were.

I am not certain that they might not have changed with the times and come frankly and positively, as some urged them to do, had it not been for Rabelais’ failure towards the end of the Boer war. Rabelais (it will be remembered) appeared in London at the very beginning of the season in 1902. Everybody knows one part of the story or another, but if I put down the gist of it here I shall be of service, for very few people have got it quite right all through, and yet that story alone can explain why one cannot get the dead to come back at all now even in the old doubtful way they did in the ’80’s and early ’90’s of the last century.

There is a place in heaven where a group of writers have put up a colonnade on a little hill looking south over the plains. There are thrones there with the names of the owners on them. It is a sort of Club.

Rabelais was quarrelling with some fool who had missed fire with a medium and was saying that the modern world wanted positive unmistakable appearances: he said he ought to know, because he had begun the modern world. Lucian said it would fail just as much as any other way; Rabelais hotly said it wouldn’t. He said he would come to London and lecture at the London School of Economics and establish a good solid objective relationship between the two worlds. Lucian said it would end badly. Rabelais, who had been drinking, lost his temper and did at once what he had only been boasting he would do. He materialised at some expense, and he announced his lecture. Then the trouble began, and I am honestly of opinion that if we had treated the experiment more decently we should not have this recent reluctance on the part of the Dead to pay us reasonable attention.

In the first place, when it was announced that Rabelais had returned to life and was about to deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics, Mrs. Whirtle, who was a learned woman, with a well-deserved reputation in the field of objective psychology, called it a rumour and discredited it (in a public lecture) on these three grounds:

(a) That Rabelais being dead so long ago would not come back to life now.

(b) That even if he did come back to life it was quite out of his habit to give lectures.

(c) That even if he had come back to life and did mean to lecture, he would never lecture at the London School of Economics, which was engaged upon matters principally formulated since Rabelais’ day and with which, moreover, Rabelais’ “essentially synthetical” mind would find a difficulty in grappling.

All Mrs. Whirtle’s audience agreed with one or more of these propositions except Professor Giblet, who accepted all three saving and excepting the term “synthetical” as applied to Rabelais’ mind. “For,” said he, “you must not be so deceived by an early use of the Inducto-Deductive method as to believe that a sixteenth-century man could be, in any true sense, synthetical.” And this judgment the Professor emphasized by raising his voice suddenly by one octave. His position and that of Mrs. Whirtle were based upon that thorough summary of Rabelais’ style in Mr. Effort’s book on French literature: each held a sincere position, nevertheless this cold water thrown on the very beginning of the experiment did harm.

The attitude of the governing class did harm also. Lady Jane Bird saw the announcement on the placards of the evening papers as she went out to call on a friend. At tea-time a man called Wantage-Verneyson, who was well dressed, said that he knew all about Rabelais, and a group of people began to ask questions together: Lady Jane herself did so. Mr. Wantage-Verneyson is (or rather was, alas!) the second cousin of the Duke of Durham (he is—or rather was, alas!—the son of Lord and Lady James Verneyson, now dead), and he said that Rabelais was written by Urquhart a long time ago; this was quite deplorable and did infinite harm. He also said that every educated man had read Rabelais, and that he had done so. He said it was a protest against Rome and all that sort of thing. He added that the language was difficult to understand. He further remarked that it was full of footnotes, but that he thought these had been put in later by scholars. Cross-questioned on this he admitted that he did not see what scholars could want with Rabelais. On hearing this and the rest of his information several ladies and a young man of genial expression began to doubt in their turn.

A Hack in Grub Street whom Painful Labour had driven to Despair and Mysticism read the announcement with curiosity rather than amazement, fully believing that the Great Dead, visiting as they do the souls, may also come back rarely to the material cities of men. One thing, however, troubled him, and that was how Rabelais, who had slept so long in peace beneath the Fig Tree of the Cemetery of St. Paul, could be risen now when his grave was weighed upon by No. 32 of the street of the same name. Howsoever, he would have guessed that the alchemy of that immeasurable mind had in some way got rid of the difficulty, and really the Hack must be forgiven for his faith, since one learned enough to know so much about sites, history and literature, is learned enough to doubt the senses and to accept the Impossible; unfortunately the fact was vouched for in eight newspapers of which he knew too much and was not accepted in the only sheet he trusted. So he doubted too.

John Bowles, of Lombard Street, read the placards and wrought himself up into a fury saying, “In what other country would these cursed Boers be allowed to come and lecture openly like this? It is enough to make one excuse the people who break up their meetings.” He was a little consoled, however, by the thought that his country was so magnanimous, and in the calmer mood of self-satisfaction went so far as to subscribe £5 to a French newspaper which was being founded to propagate English opinions on the Continent. He may be neglected.

Peter Grierson, attorney, was so hurried and overwrought with the work he had been engaged on that morning (the lending of £1323 to a widow at 5 1/4 per cent., [which heaven knows is reasonable!] on security of a number of shares in the London and North-Western Railway) that he misread the placard and thought it ran “Rabelais lecture at the London School Economics”; disturbed for a moment at the thought of so much paper wasted in time of war for so paltry an announcement, he soon forgot about the whole business and went off to “The Holborn,” where he had his lunch comfortably standing up at the buffet, and then went and worked at dominoes and cigars for two hours.

Sir Judson Pennefather, Cabinet Minister and Secretary of State for
Public Worship, Literature and the Fine Arts—

But what have I to do with all these; absurd people upon whom the news of Rabelais’ return fell with such varied effect? What have you and I to do with men and women who do not, cannot, could not, will not, ought not, have not, did, and by all the thirsty Demons that serve the lamps of the cavern of the Sibyl, shall not count in the scheme of things as worth one little paring of Rabelais’ little finger nail? What are they that they should interfere with the great mirific and most assuaging and comfortable feast of wit to which I am now about to introduce you!—for know that I take you now into the lecture-hall and put you at the feet of the past-master of all arts and divinations (not to say crafts and homologisings and integrativeness), the Teacher of wise men, the comfort of an afflicted world, the uplifter of fools, the energiser of the lethargic, the doctor of the gouty, the guide of youth, the companion of middle age, the vade mecum of the old, the pleasant introducer of inevitable death, yea, the general solace of mankind. Oh! what are you not now about to hear! If anywhere there are rivers in pleasant meadows, cool heights in summer, lovely ladies discoursing upon smooth lawns, or music skilfully befingered by dainty artists in the shade of orange groves, if there is any left of that wine of Chinon from behind the Grille at four francs a bottle (and so there is, I know, for I drank it at the last Reveillon by St. Gervais)—I say if any of these comforters of the living anywhere grace the earth, you shall find my master Rabelais giving you the very innermost and animating spirit of all these good things, their utter flavour and their saving power in the quintessential words of his incontestably regalian lips. So here, then, you may hear the old wisdom given to our wretched generation for one happy hour of just living and we shall learn, surely in this case at least, that the return of the Dead was admitted and the Great Spirits were received and honoured.

* * * * *

But alas! No. (which is not a nominativus pendens, still less an anacoluthon but a mere interjection). Contrariwise, in the place of such a sunrise of the mind, what do you think we were given? The sight of an old man in a fine red gown and with a University cap on his head hurried along by two policemen in the Strand and followed by a mob of boys and ruffians, some of whom took him for Mr. Kruger, while others thought he was but a harmless mummer. And the magistrate (who had obtained his position by a job) said these simple words: “I do not know who you are in reality nor what foreign name mask under your buffoonery, but I do know on the evidence of these intelligent officers, evidence upon which I fully rely and which you have made no attempt to contradict, you have disgraced yourself and the hall of your kind hosts and employers by the use of language which I shall not characterise save by telling you that it would be comprehensible only in a citizen of the nation to which you have the misfortune to belong. Luckily you were not allowed to proceed for more than a moment with your vile harangue which (if I understand rightly) was in praise of wine. You will go to prison for twelve months. I shall not give you the option of a fine: but I can promise you that if you prefer to serve with the gallant K. O. Fighting Scouts your request will be favourably entertained by the proper authorities.”

Long before this little speech was over Rabelais had disappeared, and was once more with the immortals cursing and swearing that he would not do it again for 6,375,409,702 sequins, or thereabouts, no, nor for another half-dozen thrown in as a makeweight.

There is the whole story.

I do not say that Rabelais was not over-hasty both in his appearance and his departure, but I do say that if the Physicists (and notably Mrs. Whirtle) had shown more imagination, the governing class a wider reading, and the magistracy a trifle more sympathy with the difference of tone between the sixteenth century and our own time, the deplorable misunderstanding now separating the dead and the living would never have arisen; for I am convinced that the Failure of Rabelais’ attempt has been the chief cause of it.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.