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The Public Post by :tcloyes Category :Essays Author :Hilaire Belloc Date :April 2011 Read :1804

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The Public

I notice a very curious thing in the actions particularly of business men to-day, and of other men also, which is the projection outward from their own inward minds of something which is called "The Public"--and which is not there.

I do not mean that a business man is wrong when he says that "the public will demand" such and such an article, and on producing the article finds it sells widely; he is obviously and demonstrably right in his use of the word "public" in such a connexion. Nor is a man wrong or subject to illusion when he says, "The public have taken to cinematograph shows," or "The public were greatly moved when the Hull fishermen were shot at by the Russian fleet in the North Sea." What I mean is "The Public" as an excuse or scapegoat; the Public as a menace; the Public as a butt. That Public simply does not exist.

For instance, the publisher will say, as though he were talking of some monster, "The Public will not buy Jinks's work. It is first-class work, so it is too good for the Public." He is quite right in his statement of fact. Of the very small proportion of our people who read only a fraction buy books, and of the fraction that buy books very few indeed buy Jinks's. Jinks has a very pleasant up-and-down style. He loves to use funny words dragged from the tomb, and he has delicate little emotions. Yet hardly anybody will buy him--so the publisher is quite right in one sense when he says, "The Public" won't buy Jinks. But where he is quite wrong and suffering from a gross illusion is in the motive and the manner of his saying it. He talks of "The Public" as something gravely to blame and yet irredeemably stupid. He talks of it as something quite external to himself, almost as something which he has never personally come across. He talks of it as though it were a Mammoth or an Eskimo. Now, if that publisher would wander for a moment into the world of realities he would perceive his illusion. Modern men do not like realities, and do not usually know the way to come in contact with them. I will tell the publisher how to do so in this case.

Let him consider what books he buys himself, what books his wife buys; what books his eldest son, his grandmother, his Aunt Jane, his old father, his butler (if he runs to one), his most intimate friend, and his curate buy. He will find that not one of these people buys Jinks. Most of them will talk Jinks, and if Jinks writes a play, however dull, they will probably go and see it once; but they draw the line at buying Jinks's books--and I don't blame them.

The moral is very simple. You yourselves are "The Public," and if you will watch your own habits you will find that the economic explanation of a hundred things becomes quite clear.

I have seen the same thing in the offices of a newspaper. Some simple truth of commanding interest to this country, involving no attack upon any rich man, and therefore not dangerous under our laws, comes up for printing. It is discussed in the editor's room. The editor says, "Yes, of course, we know it is true, and of course it is important, but the Public would not stand it."

I remember one newspaper office of my youth in which the Public was visualized as a long file of people streaming into a Wesleyan chapel, and another in which the Public was supposed to be made up without exception of retired officers and maiden ladies, every one of whom was a communicant of the English Established Church, every one of good birth, and yet every one devoid of culture.

Without the least doubt each of these absurd symbols haunted the brain of each of the editors in question. The editor of the first paper would print at wearisome length accounts of obscure Catholic clerical scandals on the Continent, and would sweat with alarm if his sub-editors had admitted a telegram concerning the trial of some fraudulent Protestant missionary or other in China.

Meanwhile his rather dull paper was being bought by you and me, and bank clerks and foreign tourists, and doctors, and publicans, and brokers, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, "peculiar people," and every kind of man for many reasons--because it had the best social statistics, because it had a very good dramatic critic, because they had got into the habit and couldn't stop, because it came nearest to hand on the bookstall. Of a hundred readers, ninety-nine skipped the clerical scandal and either chuckled over the fraudulent missionary or were bored by him and went on to the gambling news from the Stock Exchange. But the type for whom all that paper was produced, the menacing god or demon who was supposed to forbid publication of certain news in it, did not exist.

So it was with the second paper, but with this difference, that the editor was right about the social position of those who read his sheet, but quite wrong about the opinions and emotions of people in that social position.

It was all the more astonishing from the fact that the editor was born in that very class himself and perpetually mixed with it. No one perhaps read "The Stodge" (for under this device would I veil the true name of the organ) more carefully than those retired officers of either service who are to be found in what are called our "residential" towns. The editor was himself the son of a colonel of guns who had settled down in a Midland watering-place. He ought to have known that world, and he did know that world, but he kept his illusion of his Public quite apart from his experience of realities.

Your retired officer (to take his particular section of this particular paper's audience) is nearly always a man with a hobby, and usually a good scientific or literary hobby at that. He writes many of our best books demanding research. He takes an active part in public work which requires statistical study. He is always a travelled man, and nearly always a well-read man. The broadest and the most complete questioning and turning and returning of the most fundamental subjects--religion, foreign policy, and domestic economics--are quite familiar to him. But the editor was not selecting news for that real man; he was selecting news for an imaginary retired officer of inconceivable stupidity and ignorance, redeemed by a childlike simplicity. If a book came in, for instance, on biology, and there was a chance of having it reviewed by one of the first biologists of the day, he would say: "Oh, our Public won't stand evolution," and he would trot out his imaginary retired officer as though he were a mule.

Artists, by which I mean painters, and more especially art critics, sin in this respect. They say: "The public wants a picture to tell a story," and they say it with a sneer. Well, the public does want a picture to tell a story, because you and I want a picture to tell a story. Sorry. But so it is. The art critic himself wants it to tell a story, and so does the artist. Each would rather die than admit it, but if you set either walking, with no one to watch him, down a row of pictures you would see him looking at one picture after another with that expression of interest which only comes on a human face when it is following a human relation. A mere splash of colour would bore him; still more a mere medley of black and white. The story may have a very simple plot; it may be no more than an old woman sitting on a chair, or a landscape, but a picture, if a man can look at it all, tells a story right enough. It must interest men, and the less of a story it tells the less it will interest men. A good landscape tells so vivid a story that children (who are unspoilt) actually transfer themselves into such a landscape, walk about in it, and have adventures in it.

They make another complaint against the public, that it desires painting to be lifelike. Of course it does! The statement is accurate, but the complaint is based on an illusion. It is you and I and all the world that want painting to imitate its object. There is a wonderful picture in the Glasgow Art Gallery, painted by someone a long time ago, in which a man is represented in a steel cuirass with a fur tippet over it, and the whole point of that picture is that the fur looks like fur and the steel looks like steel. I never met a critic yet who was so bold as to say that picture was a bad picture. It is one of the best pictures in the world; but its whole point is the liveliness of the steel and of the fur.

Finally, there is one proper test to prove that all this jargon about "The Public" is nonsense, which is that it is altogether modern. Who quarrelled with the Public in the old days when men lived a healthy corporate life, and painted, wrote, or sang for the applause of their fellows?

If you still suffer from the illusion after reading these magisterial lines of mine, why, there is a drastic way to cure yourself, which is to go for a soldier; take the shilling and live in a barracks for a year; then buy yourself out. You will never despise the public again. And perhaps a better way still is to go round the Horn before the mast. But take care that your friends shall send you enough money to Valparaiso for your return journey to be made in some comfort; I would not wish my worst enemy to go back the way he came.


(The end)
Hilaire Belloc's essay: The Public

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