The habitual austerity of the Cordatian regime is always softened a bit in Easter Week, and so in recent days I have watched two Alfred Hitchcock films from the 1940’s, Spellbound and Notorious. In each, the heroine was played by Mrs Petter Lindström, better known by her maiden name, Ingrid Bergman.

One can see why this actress stood out in her generation: the particular cast of her beauty, at once wholesome and vulnerable, and the intelligence of her acting. She was ‘not like’ the other Hollywood stars, so the papers said, implying that these others were no better than they ought to be. She had a happy home life wholly separate from her career, and was glad to regard her Swedish husband, a neurosurgeon, as the head of their household.

Then in 1950 she revealed that she was leaving him for an Italian film director whose child she was carrying, and a nation mourned. Perhaps in America the 1960’s began in 1950.

The habit grew on her. The Italian was divorced after a few years, and then she ‘married’ another Swede. They divorced as well. She died officially unmarried in 1982, although her real husband, who had also married again invalidly, lived till the year 2000. They burned her body and threw the ashes into the sea.

Reading all this made me wonder about the dangers of acting. It’s not just that some of the scenes, even in films from 75 years ago, could not be performed without violating the virtue of modesty. But the very practice of mimicking romantic love, attentively and at length, is bound to make the reality of it sometimes spring up. Then what happens to the domestic life, especially if that has grown monotonous? ‘There are some occupations’, says St Gregory the Great, ‘which either hardly or never can be followed without sinning’.

Her husband revealed later that the Italian had not been the first man. It seems that Ingrid too had all along been no better than she ought to have been. But then who is, I wonder? In later life she came out with some sad stuff about having been true to herself. Rousseau is probably at the bottom of it all. I suppose she was simply trying to be happy.

One great idea on which all tragedy builds is the idea of the continuity of human life. The one thing a man cannot do is exactly what all modern artists and free lovers are always trying to do. He cannot cut his life up into separate sections. The case of the modern claim for freedom in love is the first and most obvious that occurs to the mind; therefore I use it for this purpose of illustration. You cannot have an idyll with Maria and an episode with Jane; there is no such thing as an episode. There is no such thing as an idyll. It is idle to talk about abolishing the tragedy of marriage when you cannot abolish the tragedy of sex. Every flirtation is a marriage; it is a marriage in this frightful sense; that it is irrevocable.

I have taken this case of sexual relations as one out of a hundred; but of any case in human life the thing is true. The basis of all tragedy is that man lives a coherent and continuous life. It is only a worm that you can cut in two and leave the severed parts still alive. You can cut a worm up into episodes and they are still living episodes. You can cut a worm up into idylls and they are quite brisk and lively idylls. You can do all this to him precisely because he is a worm. You cannot cut a man up and leave him kicking, precisely because he is a man. We know this because man even in his lowest and darkest manifestation has always this characteristic of physical and psychological unity. His identity continues long enough to see the end of many of his own acts; he cannot be cut off from his past with a hatchet; as he sows so shall he reap.

This then is the basis of all tragedy, this living and perilous continuity which does not exist in the lower creatures. This is the basis of all tragedy, and this is certainly the basis of Macbeth. The great ideas of Macbeth, uttered in the first few scenes with a tragic energy which has never been equalled perhaps in Shakespeare or out of him, is the idea of the enormous mistake a man makes if he supposes that one decisive act will clear his way. Macbeth’s ambition, though selfish and someway sullen, is not in itself criminal or morbid. He wins the title of Glamis in honourable war; he deserves and gets the title of Cawdor; he is rising in the world and has a not ignoble exhilaration in doing so. Suddenly a new ambition is presented to him (of the agency and atmosphere which presents it I shall speak in a moment) and he realizes that nothing lies across his path to the Crown of Scotland except the sleeping body of Duncan. If he does that one cruel thing, he can be infinitely kind and happy.

Here, I say, is the first and most formidable of the great actualities of Macbeth. You cannot do a mad thing in order to reach sanity. Macbeth’s mad resolve is not a cure even for his own irresolution. He was indecisive before his decision. He is, if possible, more indecisive after he has decided. The crime does not get rid of the problem. Its effect is so bewildering that one may say that the crime does not get rid of the temptation. Make a morbid decision and you will only become more morbid; do a lawless thing and you will only get into an atmosphere much more suffocating than that of law. Indeed, it is a mistake to speak of a man as `breaking out.’ The lawless man never breaks out; he breaks in. He smashes a door and finds himself in another room, he smashes a wall and finds himself in a yet smaller one. The more he shatters the more his habitation shrinks. Where he ends you may read in the end of Macbeth (G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Macbeths’)

May the divine mercy have released her from it before the end.

Belloc’s book The Cruise of the Nona is not as well-known as it should be. It is a sort of counterpart to The Path to Rome, only that was written when he was in his early 30’s and this one was written when he was in his mid 50’s. Each of them is an account of a voyage interspersed with – as he puts it in the sub-title of the Nona – “Reflections and Judgements on Life and Letters, Men and Manners”. But whereas in The Path to Rome he is going to an obvious destination on foot, here he is meandering round the bottom part of the British coastline in his boat with no special goal. I don’t know if this is a kind of metaphor of how he saw his career in youth and in middle age.

At one point he reflects on a long, private meeting that he had with Mussolini, newly come to power in Italy (the Nona was published in 1925.) He has a good deal of sympathy with the dictator. They both share a contempt for the parliamentary system, which Belloc saw as a sham battle that did not represent the populace and served to conceal the real powers within the State. He is even enthusiastic about Mussolini: “What a sense of decision, of sincerity, of serving the nation, and of serving it towards a known end with a definite will!” But he also disagrees with him on one important point:-

One thing, however, struck me in his comments which was, as I thought, extreme and ill-founded; and that was his contempt for all majorities. Mussolini laid it down to me that the conception of majority government is as ridiculous as it is immoral, and should be fiercely combated as a lie and an evil in itself. I do not agree; it seems to me that the rational basis of a majority government stands firm upon certain conditions.

On many points, Belloc says, it would indeed be ridiculous to hold referenda. “What would a majority vote do with bimetallism, or the appointment of admirals?” But if five conditions are fulfilled, then, he contends, a ruler is morally obliged to follow the majority.

(1) When the question arises from a homogenous community; (2) when there is an active popular demand for its settlement; (3) when the matter under discussion is reasonably familiar to all; (4) when it concerns all, or nearly all, directly, and in much the same degree; (5) when the majority is substantial.

You must be dealing with a homogenous community – for in one made up of various races, or fundamentally different religions, a majority means nothing towards a decision. It is a mere affirmation of discord. You must have a real and popular demand for a decision, and it must proceed from the people themselves: not from a body claiming the right to frame the question: a vote on matters of no popular interest – as a vote on Welsh disestablishment in North London, or on mining regulations in Brighton – is a manifest abuse. Even on a burning matter, discussed by, known to, and affecting all, no small majority can possibly be decisive, or make an accord – for a half is not the general will. But when a community of one stuff votes by a large majority in favour of something they both understand, and desire, and that something close to their own lives, then that majority is of true effect.

This seems pretty sound to me, only Belloc apparently thinks that the ruler would be bound in justice to follow the majority if all five conditions were met, as is suggested by his use of the phrase ‘the general will’ (he loved Rousseau’s book, and yet how he would have disliked the man!) I should think the obligation is rather one of political prudence. Also, he misses out a sixth and very necessary condition – that the thing voted for be not against the Law of God.