The Philosophy Of Topsy-Turveydom by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

My friends, topsy-turveydom is not so easy as it looks. The trouble is not in inverting, but in finding what to invert. Our language is full of ancient saws, but it takes wit to discover which to turn upside down. Anybody can stand anything on its head, but it is only the real humourist who knows which thing can stand on its head without falling or looking foolish. ‘T is the same in stage dialogue. Many a man of moderate wit can find a repartee when the joke is unconsciously led up to by another speaker. It is the preparation for the joke that is the dramatist’s difficulty. To borrow a term from the Greek grammars, the protasis of the repartee is more troublesome than the apodosis. The puzzle is, therefore, find the protasis. When Barry Pain says that sometimes the glowing fire in the grate stares at you from behind its bars, as if it could read pictures in you, you cannot help laughing. If he had given you the protasis, “You gaze into the fire as if you could read pictures in it,” even you could have invented the inversion. Topsy-turveydom is, I repeat, no laughing matter. It is an art–and must be studied. When Besant’s School of Literature is founded, there will be


1. Invert the following commonplaces humorously:
Honesty is the best policy.
The cup that cheers but not inebriates.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Like a child in its mother’s arms.
(Not so easy, you see!)

2. Invert the following motifs humorously:

(a) A parted husband and wife reconciled by their little child. (Stock Poetry.)

(b) A patient marrying his nurse on recovery. (Stock Story.)

(c) A mother-in-law who comes to stay six months. (The Old Humour.)

Inversion may be applied, you see, both to ideas and to phrases. Let me contribute a specimen of either sort to the literary primer of the future:


I must really give up not smoking, at least till the American Copyright Act works smoothly, and I am in a position to afford luxuries. At present this habit of not smoking is a drain upon my resources which I can ill support. Whenever a man comes to my house, I have to give him cigars, or else gain the reputation of a churly and ill-mannered host. In the olden days, when I was economical and smoked all day long, I could go to that man’s house and get those cigars back. Very often, too, I used to get the best of the bargain, and thus effect considerable economies in the purchase of good tobacco. Nowadays, not only have I got to give away cigars for nothing, but they must be good ones. Formerly if I gave my friends bad cigars, it was from a box I was obviously smoking myself, and therefore they had at least the consolation of knowing I was a companion in misfortune. But to give others “evils from which you are yourself exempt” (to quote Lucretius) would be a terrible blend of bad taste and inhospitality. Under such circumstances a man looks on a bad cigar as an insult, and the greater insult because it is a gratuitous one. But my losses from these sources are trivial compared with the item for theatres. In the pure, innocent days, when I could not bear to let my pipe out of my mouth even for a moment, I was unable to go to theatres; but now that I have taken to not smoking, I have fallen a victim to my other craving–the passion for the play. Three stalls a week tot up frightfully in a year. No, decidedly I must check this extravagant habit of not smoking before I am irretrievably ruined.

This is forced, but Truth often dwells the bottom of a paradox.


The danger of drowning arises mainly from being able to swim. The ability to swim is of little use as a safeguard against drowning, for it is only in a minority of cases that the accident thoughtfully allows you every facility for displaying your powers of natation; you are not conceded calm stream, a calm mind, and a bathing-costume; usually you are disorganised, ab initio, by the unexpectedness of the thing, you are weighed down by your clothes and your purse, you are entangled with sails, or clutched at by fellow-passengers, or sucked into vortices. In a big steamer accident, what chance is there for those who can swim? Only an occasional Hercules can keep afloat in a heavy sea, and he not for long. The most that swimming can do for you is to enable you to save yourself in circumstances where you would very probably be saved by somebody else. On the other hand, the ability to swim exposes you to many risks you w|uld never have run had you been helpless in the water. You swim in perilous places, you go out too far and cannot get back, you expose yourself to the possibilities of cramp, you try to save other people’s lives and lose your own. There is also the temptation to go to the Bath Club in Piccadilly and die of a too luxurious lunch. On the whole, I believe as many swimmers are drowned as non-swimmers when a general accident occurs, while the swimmers invite special accidents of their own. Do you deduce from this that I advise you not to learn to swim? Quite the contrary: it is a delightful and invigorating exercise. Only you must not imagine you are thereby armed against fate. Swimming for amusement is as different from swimming for life as yachting on the Thames is from crossing the Atlantic.

For my example of phrase-inversion I cannot do better than reprint the open letter addressed by me–in the height of his success, and in parody of his manner–to the great phraseur and farunix of his little day; especially as some have thought to see in it proof that prophecy has not yet died out of Israel.

MY DEAR SIR: I have never for one moment doubted that you are a thinker, a poet, an art critic, a dramatist, a novelist, a wit, an Athenian, and whatever else you say you are. You are all these things–I confess it to your shame. I have always looked down upon you with admiration. As an epigrammatist I consider you only second to myself, though I admit that in the sentiment, “to be intelligible is to be found out,” I had the disadvantage of prior publication. When you point out that Art is infinitely superior to Nature, I feel that you are cribbing from my unpublished poems, and I am quite at one with you in regarding the sunset as a plagiarism. Nature is undoubtedly a trespasser, and should be warned off without the option of a fine. I say these things to make it quite clear that I speak to you more in anger than in sorrow. You are much too important to be discussed seriously, and if I take the trouble to give you advice, it is only because I am so much younger than you. I am certain you are ruining yourself by cigarette cynicism; far better the rough, clay-pipe cynicism of a Swift. There is no smoke without fire, but it requires very little fire to keep a cigarette going. The art of advertising oneself by playful puffs is not superior to Nature. But you are not really playful and innocent; it would be ungracious to deny that you have all the corruption which the Stage has so truly connected with the cigarette. Still, isn’t it about time you got divorced and settled down? At present there are only two good plays in the world–“The Second Book of Samuel” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan”; surely you have power to add to their number. Try a quiet life of artistic production, and don’t talk so much about Art. We are tired of missionaries, whether they wear the white tie of the Church or of Society, and it is a great pity we have not the simple remedy of the savages, who eat theirs. These few words of admonition would be incomplete if I did not impress upon you that policy is the only honesty. Art is short and life is long, and a stitch in time debars one from having a new coat. You can take a drink to the horse, but you can’t make him well; and nothing succeeds like failure. Vice is the only perfect form of virtue, and virtue—- Easy there! Steady! Avast! Belay! Which!

The Boeotians are dull folk, no doubt, but life would be dull without them. Imagine a wilderness of Wildes! It would be like a sky all rainbows. Then what beautiful whetstones the Boeotians are! Abuse them, by all means, so long as they will pay for it. But what a blessing that the minds capable of taking the artistic view of life are rare enough to keep the race sane! The coarser forms of egotism seem less baneful to the brain-tissue. You claim to be an Athenian, but the Athenians did not smoke cigarettes. It is true that tobacco had not been invented, but this is a sordid detail If Athens stands for anything in the history of culture, it is for sanity, balance, strength. Aristotle, at least as much an Athenian as any native of Ireland, meditated about aesthetics, but he meditated also about politics, logic, philosophy, political economy, ethics–everything. Socrates was a causeur, but he was also a martyr. No, after all the Beautiful is not so important as you imagine you are. No doubt for a few billion years painters and musicians and epigrammatists will remain the centre cf creation; but when the sun grows cold it is conceivable that invaluable canvases may be used up as fuel, and that humanity may sacrifice even your printed paradoxes to keep warmth a little longer in its decrepit bones. The fact is, you are too borne, too one-sided, to be accepted as as a “king of men.” You take such broad views that you grow narrow. What you want is a little knowledge of life, and twelve months’ hard labour.

But though topsy-turveydom may be attained with comparative ease, it performs a lofty philosophical function. Everything rusts by use. Our moral ideals grow mouldy if preached too much; our stories stale if told too often. Conventionality is but a living death. The other side of everything must be shown, the reverse of the medal, the silver side of the shield as well as the golden. Convex things are equally concave, and concave things convex. The world was made round so that one man’s “up” should be another man’s “down.” The world is the Earthly Paradox, with four cardinal points of mutual contradiction, all equally N., S., E., and W. ‘T is thus a symbol of all paradoxes, of all propositions in which mutually contradictory things are true. Nay, paradox is the only truth, for it cannot be denied; including, like the world, its own contradiction. Topsy-turveydom unfolds our musty ideas to the sun and spreads them out the other way. The man who reverses the Fifth Commandment and says that parents should honour their children is not a flippant jester, but a philosophic thinker. This is the true inwardness of the topsy-turvey humourist.

Topsy-turveydom has played a prodigious part in the progress of thought. The history of philosophy and science is merely a tale of development by topsy-turveydom, every new thinker simply contradicting his predecessor. Thales said water was the primitive principle of all things; so Anaximander said it was air, whereupon Anaximenes said it was matter. This made Pythagoras maintain it was not concrete matter but abstract number; whereupon Xenophanes would have it that it was not number but pure monistic being, and his disciple Zeno invented some delightful and immortal paradoxes to prove that time and motion and number and change have no existence, and only existence exists. Up comes Heraclitus, proving that existence doesn’t exist, and there is nothing in the world but becoming: that so far from change not existing, nothing exists but change. It was now about time to return to earth, and so Empedocles and Democritus came along with their Atoms; thereby provoking Anaxagoras into bringing in Soul to explain things. Things were going on thus satisfactorily when the Sophists appeared on the scene to say that we didn’t really know anything, because all our knowledge was subjective, so Socrates insisted that it didn’t matter, because conduct was three-fourths of life. Plato retorted that it did matter, and he invented an archetypal universe of which this was a faint and distorted copy. Naturally Aristotle must contradict him by founding empirical science, which concerns itself only with this world. On his heels came the Stoics, who would have nothing to do with science except in so far as it made men virtuous, and who wanted to live soberly and severely. This provoked the neo-Platonists into craving for ecstatic union with the supernatural. The transition period from ancient philosophy to modern was one long fight between Nominalists and Realises, the one school teaching the exact opposite of the other.

But it is in the history of Modern Philosophy and Modern Science that one finds the strongest examples of this progress by paradox. The triumph of topsy-turveydom was when Galileo, the Oscar Wilde of Astronomy, declared that the earth went round the sun–a sheer piece of inversion. Darwin, the Barry Pain of Biology, asserted that man rose from the brutes, and that, instead of creatures being adapted to conditions, conditions adapted creatures. Berkeley, the Lewis Carroll of Metaphysics, demonstrated that our bodies are in our minds, and Kant, the W. S. Gilbert of Philosophy, showed that space and time live in us. In Literature it is the same story. To credit the scholars, Homer is no longer a man, nor the Bible a book. As for Zechariah, it was written before Genesis. This topsy-turveydom is a valuable organon of scientific discovery. Take any accepted proposition, invert it, and you get a New Truth. Any historian who wishes to make a name has but to state that Ahab was a saint and Elijah a Philistine–that Ananias was a realist and George Washington a liar–that Charles I. was a Republican hampered by his official position, and that the Armada defeated Drake–that Socrates died of drinking, and that hemlock was what he gave Xantippe. In fact, there is no domain of intellect in which a judicious cultivation of topsy-turveydom may not be recommended. Ask why R. A.’s are invariably colour-blind, and you become a great art critic, while a random regret that Mendelssohn had no ear for music will bring you to the very front in musical circles. For the tail shall always wag the dog in the end, and Aristides will never be able to remain in Athens if men will call him “the Just.” Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse. We are bored–and then comes the topsy-turveyist’s opportunity. “To every action there is an equal and contrary reaction” is a sure law of motion, and in the seesaw of speculation the “down” of to-day is the “up” of to-morrow. Next century we shall be sick of science; and indeed the spooks are already returning for the funeral of this. I shall end with


As a synonym for sin,
I ‘ll no longer drag you in,
Now I know your glorious mission was to spread
the truths Phoenician,
Metaphoric life anew you shall begin,
Metaphoric life anew you shall begin,

Cultured Baalite, loyal wife,
Martyr in a noble strife,
Protestant for light and sweetness ‘gainst the
narrow incompleteness
Of Elijah and Elisha’s view of life,
Of Elijah and Elisha’s view of life.

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