CHARLIE CHAPLIN: PORTRAIT OF THE MORALIST – Essay by Robert Payne

2017-12-14T15:58:21-08:00 December 14th, 2017|Categories: CINEMA|Tags: |
  • Charlie Chaplin sleeps in a bathtub in a scene from his 1922 film Pay Day

The genius of Charlie Chaplin has resulted in a vast literature on the subject. Hundreds of articles and scores of books and monographs have been written on his achievements. He is one of the very few movie figures to transcend his métier and become a global personality. The following selection is taken from The Great God Pan (Hermitage House, New York, 1952), a book on Chaplin by Robert Payne. There are several other books on Chaplin worth reading— notably those by Louis Delluc, R. J. Minney, Theodore Huff and Parker Tyler.

We live in ridiculous and desperate times; we are catching up with the Keystone comedies. We know that world only too well. The incompetent flat-footed cops, the mad bank presidents, the thugs in the alleyway, the piecrusts which are disguised sticks of dynamite, the perpetual vision of peace in a world where every stone marks a hidden detonator and every road leads nowhere, all these we know because they are part of the world we now travel in. We travel blind, sustained by the hope that the blindness may miraculously fall from our eyes, and we do our best to remain deadpan in spite of the possibility that our cities and all the people in them and all the works of art may be instantaneously transformed in a rainbow-colored cloud. There was something prophetic in Mack Sennett’s world, that world which Charlie explored with the utmost abandon. There was a time not long ago when we laughed at the television face in the factory, at the mechanical feeders and the cogwheels that forgot which way they were going. We do not laugh so much now. Today the thugs are waiting down the alleyway, and the cops overwhelm us always, and sooner than we think we may be living in flophouses or wandering down uninviting empty roads. The world is bleak and cold, with the wind coming through the worn rafters. In this dilemma, where do we stand?
We may, of course, take our consolations where we can. We pay our income tax regularly and read the books on child psychology; it is up to God and society to protect us. It is pleasant to repose in the justice of our cause, but it is no longer sufficient. We live in desperate times. We have no real assurance of victory. We blunder, and do not know where we are going. The roads ahead are blacker than they have ever been. In this extremity the only certain weapon is defiance, the purely human and instinctive courage to go on, whatever the cost, however many bodies we stumble on. Like the hanged highwayman who kicks off his shoes in a final gesture of invincibility, we may find that the only final consolation lies in our determination to go on dancing to the end.
Charlie, who represents to such an extraordinary degree the whole human race caught in its habitual rattrap, does kick off his shoes, and we are abundantly convinced of the validity of his gesture of invincibility. But the matter is not so simple. The joyful contempt he flings at the face of his enemies has many origins. It is partly pure braggadocio. There is warmth in it, and extreme cold. There is a sense of human dignity and a splendid nonchalance. He will whistle to himself and take pleasure in the sudden panic-stricken look on the face of his conquerors when they see he is unconquerable. All his life Charlie has lived on the edge of things, as today we live on the edge of things, but he has behaved with decorum—the decorum is only too plainly underscored—and when the last moment arrives he has no regrets, because he has a clear conscience. (He has stolen occasionally, but to steal food when one is hungry is, as St. Ambrose observed long ago, one of those sins which are immediately pardoned in heaven). Indeed, far more than Sir Galahad, he represents the heroic figure of the man who remains pure and undefiled, and he is all the more credible because he is reduced to a human scale. And since human heroism consists in the refusal, even the absolute rejection, of all those things which tend to degrade the human splendor, Charlie emerges as the knight-errant of the back streets, the knight of faith, the devout tightrope walker who, simply by maintaining his balance on the tightrope, holds the circus tent and everyone in it from falling into a bottomless abyss, and he can only do this out of his sense of impudent defiance—that complex defiance which, as we have seen, derives from so many different sources. He is a master of defiance, but some times when the highwayman kicks off his shoes he will imitate defiance by accident—there must be many times when what seemed to be defiance was no more than the nervous spasms of the trembling bones.
Kierkegaard has spoken at great length of the knight of the faith, the simple person who arrived at faith without difficulty, without ever having to cross the abysses, the man with no chink in his armor, the most enviable of the saints. It occurred to Kierkegaard that the knights of faith were subtly disguised. The great prelates who attained to holiness by the use of hair shirts and midnight flagellations, the philosophers who pushed thought to the very end of thought, the nuns who sacrificed themselves—yes, thev possessed an admirable holiness, and it would be folly to dispute their love of God. But did God love them? It seemed to Kierkegaard that God loved most of all the tobacconist at the corner, the man who puffed at his pipe and had a little joke for his customers and took his family along the shore every Sunday afternoon. In such a man it might be possible to find a faith so final that it put the faith of the nuns and the theologians to shame. Something of the same thought must have passed through the mind of Flaubert when, seeing some peasants in the evening gathered at table, he said, “Ils sont dans le vrai.” The man who had spent his life in a titanic struggle with art, producing it little by little, chipping it from his breastbone, came to see at the end of his days that art flowered naturally round the peasants’ table, so naturally that they were hardly aware of its presence and took its existence for granted.
In all this Charlie has his place, and there is nothing at all fanciful in seeing him as one of those rare archetypal figures like Don Juan, Pierrot and Faust, who arise unexpectedly and flower and take on the colors of their time, and inevitably there will be more Charlies later. Faust, passing through the hands of Marlowe, Goethe and a hundred others, demonstrated the human spirit’s hunger for experience and power at periods when that hunger was keenest. Don Juan emerged from the hands of Father Gabriel Tellez, the dramatist Tirso de Molina, already a rounded figure, though he was to acquire a forest of cock’s feathers in the year to come, and he was born anew, with a fierce aplomb and a studied indifference to harm, in the hands of the obscure Da Ponte. As for Pierrot, he had, lived through a hundred lives before he was blessed with maturity from the hands of Deburau; and like Don Juan, who descended from the figure of Larva in the Jesuit tragedies and even beyond, he had a respectable ancestry. Don Juan demonstrated the human spirit’s appetite for the conquest of women, but of Pierrot a more subtle claim must be made: He represented an awareness of pity, the knowledge that failure is important and often desired, and that out of failure arise the most triumphant conquests. Pierrot partakes of the glory of Don Juan, for all men in a sense fail to accomplish the one thing they most desire, which is to possess a woman, and Don Juan fails more tragically than most.
The dancing figure of Charlie represents a human and more practical quest. He has no desire for conquests. His desire is for freedom in a trammeled world. He is the virgin spirit of liberty who refuses to be oppressed, refuses to talk in mock profundities, refuses to concern himself with the origin of the universe or with anything except the practical things of the moment, l’homme moyen sensuel raised to the pitch of perfection, desiring above all that the world should provide him with sleep, rest, food and amusement, bewildered by machines, and still more bewildered by himself, by the fact that a man is a man. He is the least dangerous of the great archetypes, the most human, the most incorrigibly concerned with things as they are. His characteristics are a terrible enthusiasm and an odd mania for laughing at the world’s incongruities, and in his own capricious way he is determined, like Cinderella, that the last should be first, but he goes further, for with the crook of his bamboo cane or a jab in the eye he ensures that the guilty are condemned. And since he is nothing more than the great god Pan reduced to human size and wearing a human dress, there is no reason why we should be surprised to find him among the archetypes, and of all the archetypes he is the one whose emergence is fraught with most consequence, for he is the only one who is not evil.
Faust’s sin, like the sin of Don Juan, was one of blazing spiritual pride. They knew no limits to their power. They were determined upon rebellion and presumption, on the breaching of divine law; and in the popular imagination they were always conceived in the glare of infernal fires. They were dark spirits, with the look of demonic majesty on their faces, cruel, merciless and terribly real, so that people recognized themselves in the flame-lit characters. They were cruel not in order to be kind or because they saw virtue in cruelty for cruelty’s sake, but because they regarded other people as in their way; they must destroy others to achieve their victory, and every virgin and every honorable man was their legitimate prey. But Charlie is no hunter, desires no prey, is in quest of no El Dorados, and he remains a great personage because he transcends life and the limitations of ordinary life by his infinite resource in dealing with life as it is lived. In this sense he is a far more heroic figure than Faust, who merely transacts a legal document with Mephistopheles, or Don Juan, who goes out of his way to erect barriers between himself and the women he inconveniently desires; for he lives in the real world, his enemies real enemies, his blunders real blunders from which he can extricate himself only by real and human acts. He is no Don Quixote wandering in a land of dreams. He desires the princess, and he knows that she is already married to her prince, and therefore he must go on his way. No windmills fall before him. He has a gypsy’s love for simple things, the open road, flowers, the flesh of women, a good meal, and all the excitements of incongruity and irony. It is odd that it has been rarely recorded of him that he is essentially a moral figure, and that he came to birth in an age when morality was in decline and he could have come to birth only in such an age. What is even more astonishing is that the author of this prodigious archetype has been so bitterly attacked.
The failure of the public to recognize the validity and delicacy of Monsieur Verdoux springs from many causes; not the least of them was the blunting of our sensibilities by the war. Charlie was playing dangerously in the shadow of total annihilation, that shadow which we fear above all things; even in that shadow he dared to laugh, and not only because he was himself wearing the faintly sinister disguise of someone who pretends to be the agent of annihilation. Refusing to face such a shadow, we become a little like the resourceful Countess Aurelie who, living in her underground cellar, habitually read Le Gaulois of March 22, 1903, because this was the best issue the editors ever published, though she added that it was always a shock to see in the columns reserved for the lists of the dead the name of a close acquaintance who seemed to die every morning. When Monsieur Verdoux appeared we were still living in the past. “Who wants to have imaginary people staring at us, especially strangers?’’ says one of the other characters in Giraudoux’s wonderful play, and something very similar must have been said by the people who saw Monsieur Verdoux and went away disgusted. If they had looked a little closer they would have noticed that the imaginary person was no stranger, but someone who lived far too close to their hearts for comfort.
It had been like that from the very beginning: Charlie had leaped out of space to find his home in the human heart. The man who acted the part, and who was terror-stricken by the creation of his imagination, was a prodigious actor who acted with his whole body, limbs and torso, but it was Charlie rather than Chaplin who gave back to the soul its earthly covering of body. In time Chaplin will be forgotten, but Charlie will remain. He will have a place in the cosmography of the imagination which every generation maps afresh, but in every thousand years only a few new legends are permitted to enter. He will live in the world inhabited by Alexander the Great, Napoleon and the Borgias, with Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Wandering Jew as his companions; Punch, Pierrot and Harlequin will be his accomplices in mischief, and somewhere to the north of his favor there will be Faustus and Don Juan, wearing their legendary masks, striking their legendary attitudes, and like them he will disappear out of history into masquerade. Don Quixote lives there, and so does Ulysses. In this world, where Nausicaa is forever playing ball by the seashore and Falstaff is forever quaffing his flagons of rude ale, Charlie’s place is assured. It is even possible that his place is at the very center of the fabulous island, since of all the heroes he is most like ourselves once we have removed our false beards, ear trumpets and magnifying spectacles and show’ ourselves more naked than we care to be. The formula for Charlie was potent. The elements have been so mixed in him that the recreative activities of latter-day actors will hardly be able to change him. For all the foreseeable future he will walk down the brightly lit roads of the mind, swinging his cane and dexterously picking up cigarette butts, flaunting his absurdly human dignity in the face of the w’orld’s importunity, a pirate nailing his flag to the mast, but instead of crossed bones and a skull the flag show’s a pair of battered boots and a polished derby, those signs of our human dignity and waywardness.
Charlie was not, of course, the only clown to show an appreciation of human dignity and thereby launch himself into eternity. In our own age at least one other has appeared. Raimu, with his equatorial waistline, his buttony mustache and his foolscap of knitted wool, had some of Falstaff fervor and Falstaff’s inability to recognize the harshness of the world, even though he complained about it. He takes his pleasure where he can. He, too, covers the soul with flesh, and he knows Charlie’s trick of claiming a place in both worlds, the world of bouillabaisse and Provencal women and the timeless world of contemplation. In The Baker’s Wife Raimu is the proud possessor of a young and pneumatic wife. He is the friend of everyone in the village, and he even has a good word to say for an exasperating and long-necked priest, who is a model of the young curé who is determined to change the ways of the village. He is a baker and therefore possesses a sacramental function in the village, but the baker’s wife is a jade who runs away with a handsome farm hand. The villagers attempt to comfort Raimu, and while comforting him they get drunk, and when in their drunkenness they bring him a pair of antlers, he refuses to accept their mockery. He refuses indeed to understand them. Why have they come? What are these antlers in comparison with what he has lost; and so he falls to bed, dreaming of his wife, patting and smoothing down the bedclothes where he expects her to be, and then jumping up in the middle of the night to hurl imprecations on a world so unjust that it removes from him his chief source of felicity. Even when he attempts to commit suicide, he is responsible only to himself, for no one else must suffer. The antlers, the drunken friends have nothing to do with his death. The act of suicide is no more than a bewildered recognition of the tumult in his own soul, a gesture of despair wrung from his heart rather than from their deeds. But in the middle of this nightmare he remembers the bread, and with a steadfast air of dignity he wanders from the bedroom to the bakery. There, at a slower pace and without the staccato rhythm which Charlie has made peculiarly his own, we are aware that we are in the presence of the same theme which runs providentially through The Bank, The Kid, City Lights, and half the intervening films. It is odd that in none of Chaplin’s films except A Woman of Paris is there an unfaithful wife, for in the history of Charlie infidelity clearly has a place. An unfaithful wife is promised in Limelight, and this is perhaps as it should be, for only at the very end can Charlie be expected to reveal all his secrets.
Raimu and Chaplin share the eminence. Fernandel with his charming leer and his horse face belongs to carnival; it is a face copied from the painted ten-foot dolls. The Marx brothers possessed an anarchic fire until the seeds of Brooklyn respectability addled them. W. C. Fields was wholly given over to anarchic fire, but the fire alone is hardly sufficient. Donald Duck, the one great creation of the Disney studios, died of the weariness of repeating a single barking cackle, but he was majestic while he lasted, and in Elysium he follows on Charlie’s heels. Close to the eminence are Ben Turpin, Slim Summerville, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton, and Roscoe Arbuckle is not far behind. The great deadpan faces of the Keystone and Roach comedies were wonderful evocations of American legend, the stone faces springing out of the folklore of the tramps, the bums and the I. W. W. They came from the same cradle which produced the man so lean that he cast no shadow; six rattlesnakes struck at him once, and every one missed him. Charlie was not deadpan, though he would sometimes with great effort suggest that he could be. As for Chaplin, who can clown as well as Charlie, he is, as Mack Sennett has said repeatedly, “simply the greatest actor who has ever lived,” but this is probably the least important fact about him.
As he grows older, reflecting on the impermanence of fame and the permanence of legends, Chaplin has not lost his love of clowning. The great clown tends to be lost in the greater Charlie. It is probably a pity. There are times when Chaplin at his eternal game of mimicry could hoot Charlie off the stage; and there is as much magic about the man as in the character he invented. Charlie was an accident—we remember Mack Swain’s mustache and Roscoe Arbuckle’s trousers. What if they had not been there? There are a hundred comic characters which Chaplin could have played, if he had ever allowed himself to dwell for more than a few moments on the imps which crowd in his brain. I have seen him do things which I thought only Indian fakirs could do. His deep-blue smoky eyes can change color. In a moment his splendidly arched brow can become low and mean. His face and neck can swell out until he resembles to perfection the latest news photograph of Winston Churchill, or he can suck in his cheeks until he resembles some poor devil in a prison camp, and by some unwarranted process of magic he can speak the very words they would utter. He still enters a room so superbly quiet that you hardly notice he is there, and there is nothing about him in the least like Charlie. As in his youth he resembled Keats, so in age he bears (in the rare moments when his face is in repose) an astonishing resemblance to the elder Yeats, with a great mane of white hair, the face bronzed, the lips pursed, the hands at rest; and just as he enters quietly, so he can disappear as quietly—gone like a flash, leaving the air quivering behind him.
I have seen him many times, and it was always the same—the odd quietness, and the curious passion for disappearing, so that he gives at times the appearance of a man who desires to watch, and only to watch. He is not tall, but he gives the impression of tallness. He still talks with the faintest of Cockney accents, but the mellowness of southern American accents—w’here did he learn them?—is also there, a professor’s voice, or a scholar’s, the voice of a man w’ho is accustomed to live alone, and is surprised to hear himself speaking. You are not conscious of his clothes; you are conscious only of that head, glowing in the sun, a head which grows stronger and more leonine as the years pass, so that you wonder how it was ever possible that a man who looks like a president of a vast company or a poet should be remembered as the little chalk-white tramp with the long boots and the waving cane, running madly in the face of authority, as a moth runs at a candle flame.
But when the mood takes him another Chaplin appears who is infinitely remote from the presiding genius of United Artists. Chaplin the clown has all of Beckmann’s powers. He comes into the room unobserved and unannounced, very casually, with that curious power of self-effacement, and then suddenly, no one knows how it begins, he is the center of the stage. He begins to gesture. He tells a story. It may be a story about a fishing trip to Santa Barbara or Catalina Island, but the story becomes something else—it becomes pure comedy. With gestures Chaplin outlines the fish, the line, the ship, the watching sea gulls, the way the line is thrown, the way the fish with greedy eyes runs scampering after the bait. You are no longer conscious of the presence of Chaplin, but of the roar of the sea, the desperate struggles of the fish, the creaking of the ship’s timbers. The fight goes on. The fish butts the boat, the fisherman falls overboard, and now the fish has become as large as Leviathan. The tremendous battle is waged in the room, and you are convulsed and helpless with laughter, and at the moment when you can bear the sight of the comic battle no longer, he introduces another fish which comes to the rescue of the first, and then the ship springs a leak, and then crowds of small fishing boats come out of now’here, and somewhere in the sea he is struggling in mortal combat with Leviathan, and there is no end to it, for always at the moment when you think the story is coming to its conclusion Chaplin has introduced from nowhere some miraculous element, some new and outrageous adventure which must be followed to its conclusion, but there is no conclusion, and it is only when you are sick with laughing and crying that he will pause long enough to let you breathe again. Give him a lace handkerchief; he will become an old dowager, a senorita, a Russian noblewoman congratulating Chaliapin on his voice, the lace handkerchief becoming a fichu, a mantilla, the little square of silk in. which the Russian noblewoman drowns her sobs. In the end, of course, with something of Charlie’s nonchalance, he may wipe his nose very brusquely with the handkerchief, and so put an end to the performance, but when he was taking the part of the old dowager, she was there, and like Beckmann she brought with her the air she lived in, the whole furniture of her mind, her hobbling walk, the delicate way in which her fingertips touched the furniture in her room. With relish he will play the part of one of those girls who haunt Japanese bathhouses, or a city stockbroker, or any politician. They are all observed minutely, with love and irony. He could, if he wanted to, mimic the New York telephone book or the Selective Service Act, and at once they would become both ideally true and hilariously funny.
There are blind beggars who wander over North China with bells fixed to their knees and clapboards attached to their legs and a great collection of musical instruments slung over their chests or tied to their ankles; one blind beggar alone tells a story to the sound of a full orchestra. When Chaplin tells a story, you are conscious of the presence of a full orchestra. Somehow, by some miracle, he conveys the story in all its depths. There will be ten or twelve characters in the story. By a gesture, by a tone of voice, by some trick of shading, you come to know each of them as you know your friends. Then, when the story is over, it is quite likely that he will disappear from the room, vanishing as mysteriously as he entered it; it is only long afterward that you remember he was wearing an outrageous red velvet coat and a pair of gray slacks.
There arc mysteries in Chaplin which no one will ever dare to plumb. The perfection of the technique is bewildering; he is over sixty, but the casual sureness of gesture and mime remains, increasing in brilliance with every day that passes; and like the elder Yeats he seems to acquire power with age. There are moments when he wearies of Charlie. He will say, “I am so sick of him. I’d like to wring his neck. I’ll never make another film with him.” The next moment he is drawing out of the air the most impossible situations, the most ridiculous distortions, and through all these mazes he pictures Charlie at his wrecker’s game, humbling the proud, falling in love with all the pretty women, almost delighting to be repulsed, at odds with the malevolence and idiocies of the world. Whole volumes concerning the life of Charlie have been left on the cutting-room floor; more volumes have been told by Chaplin with that quietly disingenuous air of someone revealing the sacred mysteries. I asked him once where Charlie was going during the fade-out, when he wanders down an empty lane, shrugging his shoulders and kicking at a stone. He said darkly, ‘‘He is going nowhere. He is only the blind mole digging into his hole.” The blaze of neon lights from a deserted sandwich joint on Wilshire Boulevard fell on his face. For a moment he looked like Mephistopheles.
It was one answer; there were a thousand others. Like Proteus, Chaplin can assume a thousand shapes, hint at a thousand ironies, balance his thousand legs upon a thousand tightropes. Chaplin at his clowning has a wider range than Charlie, but in some subtle fashion Charlie always included those possibilities which the clown has explored, and we know that when he is amusing himself quietly in some evil-smelling doss-house, where all the misery of the world is accumulating, Charlie will invent for himself those creatures who are continually being invented by Chaplin with prodigious abandon. Chaplin and Charlie have one thing in common: they are concerned with ultimates. The dowager is the ultimate of dowagers. The fish caught off Catalina Island is the ultimate of fishes. The Japanese bath girl is the ultimate of Japanese bath girls. And the mole digging into his hole is the ultimate of moles.
Because he deals with ultimates, Chaplin is inevitably the child of paradox. He will say, for example, “Why shouldn’t I mock poverty? The poor deserve to be mocked. What fools they are!” He will say this savagely, the face becoming a mask of horror-stricken accusation. “Why don’t they rebel against poverty’? Why do they accept it? It is the ultimate stupidity to accept poverty when there are all the riches of the world—every man should have them.” The next moment, confronted with human misery, knowing that it is there, knowing that there is almost nothing he can do about it, he will say, “The whole world is full of poor devils caught in the trap. How will they ever get out? I’ve tried to help them to forget the trap in my films, but the trap is still there.” He once told the Russian producer Eisenstein, “You remember the scene in Easy Street where I scatter food from a box to poor children as if they were chickens? You see, I did this because I despise them. I don’t like children.” Those were the words which Eisenstein remembered, and it is likely enough that Chaplin said them, but it would be absurd to accuse Chaplin of a savage intolerance on the basis of a remembered phrase. He has shown too many times a tenderness for children so real, so overwhelming that it is like a wound. It is possible to go insane by loving too much, by being tender too much. The tortured sensitivity of the artist is the price he pays for the abundance of his love, and when he scattered food to the poor children he was remembering, and subtly transforming, the way in which food had been served to him at an orphanage in London.
The presence of a comic genius in our civilization presents almost as many problems as the presence of Charlie. What role is to be played by the comic genius? The Roman emperors took care that the great mimes should be close to the throne. Every manner of honor was showered upon them. They were known to be dangerous. They were like walking explosives. They had the power to turn the people against the Emperor, and they were known to be afraid of nothing. Two clowns were executed by the Emperor Tiberius for mimicking him and so bringing his rule into jeopardy. The court jesters of the Middle Ages were sometimes roped to the throne by little golden chairs, perhaps for fear they might escape and jest before the people. Dimly, it was recognized that they possessed powers denied to the Emperor. They were closer to the sources of life. They spoke, when they spoke at all—for mostly they claimed a prodigious indifference and were silent for long periods—only at moments of illumination, and so they were cousins to the Sybils, who lived mysteriously in caves and uttered prophecies over braziers. The Emperor was thought to have absolute power over the empire, but he knew that with one word, with one laugh pitched to the exact pitch, the clown could destroy the kingdom, as a singer will destroy a wineglass. It has never happened, of course, but it is conceivable that it might happen; in the totalitarian states comedians may never approach a live microphone. The dangers and triumphs of comedy are very real, and they are especially real in totalitarian times. The opposite of the dictator is the clown. Between them there can be no peace; hence Chaplin’s dilemma when he attempted to play both roles. Because he is the opposite of the dictator the clown is dedicated to playing a heroic role, perhaps the most heroic of all, for since his moral function is to remind us of our common humanity and take delight in it, he is the enemy of bureaucracy equally, of all the pigeonholes into which governments, acknowledging their incompetence to deal with human beings, attempt to squeeze us. Secretly the clown rules. More than the poet he is the unacknowledged legislator of our lives, and we may thank God that this is so. Out of the nettle danger he plucks a sense of our real humanity each for the other. There was a time when this was called morality.
The achievement of Chaplin was a singularly moral achievement. He has invented an archetype whose purpose was a moral one, and he gave the game away when he came to utter the anguished and impassioned cry which concludes The Great Dictator:

The good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.
The way of life can be free and beautiful,
But we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls,
Has barricaded the world with hate,
Has goosestepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed,
But we have shut ourselves in.
Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical.
Our cleverness, hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little.
More than machinery we need humanity.
To those who can hear me, I say—Do not despair!
The misery that has come upon us is but the passing of greed,
The bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.
The hate of men will pass, and dictators die.
And the power they took from the people will return to the people.
And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

So long as men die . . . We might have known from the beginning that a clown’s confession of faith would implicate mortality.
We arc hungrier for morality than we know, so hungry that we leave the flesh outside and go spinning after peace of mind. It is not peace of mind so much as peace of body which will put an end to our miseries; and we have not begun to learn to comfort others bodily. The clown does it by making us laugh, by pulling the curtain aside and showing us the world as it really is, the joyful abandon underneath the frigid mask; and Charlie, hungry to the point of undiscriminating excess, feverishly in love with love, points the way to the substance of the moral life. He knows that men create themselves by their acts, not by their conventions; therefore he acts with the freshness of a child and asks why one should act in any other way. He makes his conventions as he goes along, and always with daring, and always with courage. He cares not a fig for the dictators and bullies; he will throw them down as calmly as he will kick a lump of mud in the road. If we are frightened and would like to sleep because we are afraid, he will tell stories to keep us awake. He knows, as the elders of the Church once knew and then forgot, that divine grace is not conferred on all the schoolmen or even on all the prophets; the charwoman may be the possessor of a saint’s nimbus; grace is not conferred only on certain individuals but on all alike. The moral of his story is that there is no moral except the dignity of man under heaven. As for Chaplin’s own achievement, as distinguished from Charlie’s (which belongs to another order), he knows mortality too well to care very much for recognition—to seek recognition as a person is foolishly to deny one’s own doubleness. The world is as it is; men turn into clay; the canisters of film will also perish. But at least for a brief while he has held up a candle which dazzles with a joyful light. In the end his achievement is a part of the divine love in mankind which will one day succeed in abolishing the idea of particular persons altogether, those individual ghosts who haunt us all, packaged and labeled with our names, as though names were more than scratches haphazardly put together. Scotus Erigena believed that in the end we become mere points of light swimming in the divine consciousness, an unhappy fate, for the sunlit waves can do this sort of thing better. St. Paul and earlier schoolmen believed in a nobler destiny: that on the Day of Judgment we shall arise in flesh and in joy. A pity we should have to wait so long.
Now that we live in the long shadow of the rainbow-colored clouds, it is good to remember Charlie, who arises in flesh and in joy and impudence and sheer delight of the world around him, fiercely jubilant, as men often arc when under fire, and with no cares to speak of, no guilt to wash clean. Like St. Francis he tips his hat at the birds and trees, and will sing a song with the farm girls. Smitten by the moon, he comes with the gifts of Pan, and in these treacherous days one can do worse than fall into step and beat a drum beside him.

Published in The Great God Pan, Hermitage House 1952

Republished in Film, an anthology, compiled and edited by Daniel Talbot, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969, pp. 361-374

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