"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for May, 2011

Who is G. K. Chesterton?

I talk about somebody named G. K. Chesterton quite a bit, in case you haven’t noticed.  I don’t just talk about him on my blog.  I talk about him in real life, too.  As a result, several of my friends and relatives are wondering who this  guy is.  Perhaps you are too.  Thus I will now do my humble best to introduce Chesterton.  This will take several posts; I can’t say in advance exactly how many.

Many people, when they’re young, pick up on a certain author and decide that he (or she) is all that and that they’ll plan their life around the writings of that author.  My brother went in for Orson Scott Card during his high school years, though it would be unfair to call it an obsession.  Ayn Rand is a popular choice among teenagers in some circles.  Joseph Heller still gets converts once in a while, as do Robert Jordan and others.  I knew a girl in college who obsessed over Jacqueline Carey.  The movie Little Miss Sunshine features a teenage character who takes a vow of silence because of Friedrich Nietzsche.  As a college student, I, of course, knew better.  Life is too complex for any one author to capture it all.  True intellectualism and wisdom comes only from plunging into the works of many different authors, comparing and contrasting, filtering out the worthiness of each, etc…  It was only after leaving college, in my second year of graduate school, that I discovered my author.

In addition to being an author, G. K. Chesteron was an editor and publisher at several different newspapers, a speaker, an artist, and an activist.  He is rarely remembered for those things any more, however.  These days, those who remember Chesterton remember his writing.

What can I say about his writing?  For most authors it’s possible to at least give a broad categorization of their writing.  Shakespeare was a playwright, Dickens a novelist, Thomas Paine a pamphleteer.  Chesterton is tough to categorize because he wrote so much.  Ignatius Press is currently publishing his complete works.  They’ve been at it for over a decade and they’re nowhere close to done.  When finished, Chesterton’s work will fill over fifty large volumes, most of which will contain multiple entire books.

If I had to describe his output, I’d have to begin by splitting it into fiction and non-fiction.  He wrote massive amounts of both.  Within fiction, he wrote prose, plays, and poetry.  Within non-fiction, he wrote books, essays, newspaper columns, speeches, and more.  Within prose, he wrote both novels and short stories, as well as some works that lie on the border between novel and short story, not to mention fables and fairy tales.  His novels and stories cover every genre from mystery to fantasy to science fiction to literary fiction, and many simply can’t be fitted into a single genre.  And so forth.  You see why categorization is difficult.

Perhaps I should try a different angle of attack, that of biography.  Chesterton was born in London in 1874 and died in 1936.  Though he traveled a great deal, he always remained an Englishman.  You can listen to him in this video and hear that he sounded extremely British:

While he was born into a middle-class family, various circumstances lead to him flirting with poverty through his adult life, especially after he married in 1901.  (His wife was named Frances Blogg Chesterton, thus making him the first author to have a blogg.)  He chose to make writing his career and he had no choice but to earn money by writing.  This is, perhaps, the only thread that ties all of Chesterton’s writing together and separated him from his contemporaries.  He had to be commercially successful in order to support his family.  Unlike James Joyce, he could not devote decades to writing a single book.  Unlike Martin Heidegger, he couldn’t write things that were only comprehensible to a small circle of academics.  Unlike Friedrich Nietzsche, he did not have the luxury of going insane.

As I see it, this commercial pressure influence Chesterton in three important ways.  First, as already noted, he had to write enormous amounts of material.  Second, he had to write plainly and directly, in ways that a popular audience could understand.  Third, his writing had to have actual appeal to ordinary people.  He could not afford to be a snob or to treat people with contempt.  This did not mean that he always caved to popular opinion or sucked up to common prejudices–far from it, as we’ll soon see.  But it did mean that when he took a stance, he needed to put forth a sound basis for that stance, and he always did so with verve and flair.

I’m Back

I have returned safely from my two-and-a-half-day adventure in West Virginia.  I camped for two nights in a tent, hung out with sixteen wonderful people, rafted on the New River, and played a drinking game for the first time in my life.  (The drinking game in question was Uno.  You may not be aware that Uno is a drinking game.  I wasn’t either and neither was anyone else, but we made up the rules as we went along.  For +2, drink twice.  For +4 wild, drink four times.  For any skip or reverse, drink once.  None of us were heavy drinkers so we didn’t stick too closely to the rules.)  A good time was had by all.

There was one thing about the trip that was a little bit sad.  The New River valley is one of the most popular places in the country for rafting and other outdoor adventures.  In the past there were more than a dozen rafting companies running the river.  Our group has been going with one company, Songer, for several years.

Like many such companies, Songer and the other rafting companies have been struggling to stay afloat (yuk yuk) for the past couple years due to the economy.  Last year they merged with several other rafting companies including Rivermen and Class VI.  They all ditched their old locations and went together on a massive lodge near the New River Gorge Bridge, right across the gorge from Fayettesville.  The lodge features two large campgrounds, three restaurants, two bars, and lots of other jazz.

Personally, I don’t like the new place.  I believe that outdoor adventures should be outdoorsy.  They should take place in rustic, primitive locations; that’s part of the fun.  Traditionally all rafting companies did it that way.  The building was somewhere between a shack and a cabin, usually tucked away in some small town on the riverside.  Nowadays, such small, low-key operations are gradually getting swallowed up by large conglomerates.  Any outdoor adventure area now has its own lodge, complete with bars, live music, televisions, and all the other conveniences of home.  But vacation destinations shouldn’t have the comforts of home; that’s why we leave home to go to them.  Gradually, the special little places are all turning into indistinguishable copies of the same generic place.

No blogging this weekend.

Hello there, loyal readers.  I’m about to take off for three days of camping, hiking, and white-water rafting in West Virginia’s New River Gorge.  As I find that separating myself from technology is necessary for relaxation, I will be entirely out of touch with the internet.  Fear not, though, for I shall return!  This return shall take place either on Monday night or on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here’s another hymn to tide you over: O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, by the great Charles Wesley.  He wrote in on the first anniversary of his conversion to Christianity and in preparation for Pentecost Sunday.  Wesley wrote over 6,500 hymns in his life, but this may well be the best.


Chesterton writes the screenplay for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie

So there’s a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie in theaters.  It’s number four, if my count is correct.  I won’t be bothering to see it.  As far as I’m concerned, there is only one true Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and that’s The Curse of the Black Pearl.  But there will always be some people who will line up for any number of sequels, and hence, as long as Hollywood is driven by the quest for profits rather than artistic integrity there will always be far more sequels than there should be.  With that in mind, the following from Chesterton could serve as a basis for the next entry in the franchise, much as Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides did for the current offering.

Of the Dangers Attending Altruism on the High Seas

Observe these Pirates bold and gay,
that sail a gory sea
notice their bright expression: —
the handsome one is me.

We plundered. ships and harbours,
we spoiled the Spanish main;
but Nemesis watched over us,
for it began to rain.

Oh all well-meaning folk take heed
Our Captain’s fate was sore
a more well-meaning Pirate,
had never dripped with gore.

The rain was pouring long and loud,
the sea was drear and dim;
a little fish was floating there
our Captain pitied him.

“How sad,” he said, and dropped a tear,
splash on the cabin roof,
“that we are dry, while he is there
without a waterproof.”

“We’ll get him up on board at once;
for Science teaches me,
he will be wet if he remains
much longer in the sea.

They fished him out; the First Mate wept,
and came with rugs and ale:
the Boatswain brought him one golosh,
and fixed it on his tail.

But yet he never loved the ship;
against the mast he’d lean:
if spoken to, he coughed and smiled,
and blushed a pallid green.

Though plied with hardbake, beef and beer,
he showed no wish to sup:
the neatest riddles they could ask,
he always gave them up.

They seized him and court-martialled him,
in some excess of spleen,
for lack of social sympathy,
(Victoria XII. 18).

They gathered every evidence
that might remove a doubt:
they wrote a postcard in his name,
and partly scratched it out.

Till, when his guilt was clear as day,
with all formality,
they doomed the traitor to be drowned,
and threw him In the sea.

The flashing sunset, as he sank,
made every scale a gem;
and, turning with a graceful bow,
he kissed his fin to them.


I am, I think I have remarked,
terrifically old
(the second Ice-age was a farce,
the first was rather cold).

A friend of mine, a Trilobite,
had gathered in his youth,
when Trilobites were Trilobites,
this all-important truth.

We aged ones play solemn parts —
sire — guardian — uncle — king.
Affection is the salt of life,
kindness a noble thing.

The old alone may comprehend
a sense in my decree;
but — if you find a fish on land,
oh throw it in the sea.

– G. K. Chesterton, Greybeard at Play

Shall we Gather at the River

One of the great benefits of converting to Christianity was that it opened up new worlds of music.  I have known since I was a kid that there were a bunch of hymns out there but I never paid attention to them.  In the world at large there’s little opportunity to hear hymns outside of church, except during the Christmas season when Christmas music gets poured out in excessive quantities almost everywhere.  Even then, the part that one hears in malls and other public places is only a small fraction of what’s out there.

I’ve been a Christian for six years as of this month and I’m still discovering new hymns all the time.  One of my most recent finds is Shall we Gather at the River.  This hymn is not at all complicated is terms of music, writing, or rhyming.  Indeed, its very simplicity is part of its appeal.  For any well-known hymn, you can search on YouTube and find numerous performances and arrangements.  This is one of my favorites:


The site that hosts this blog, wordpress.com, provides each blogger with a page known as the “Dashboard”, which functions as a control panel of a sort.  My dashboard allows me to easily find all the tools necessary to organize my posts in any number of ways, change the blog’s appearance, and so forth.  It also provides statistics about my readers.  I can see how many people are reading my blog.  I can know how many are reading each individual post.  I can learn what people are searching for that leads to my blog.  I can even know what links there are from other blogs to mine.  (Currently there’s a grand total of one such link.)  I could doubtlessly get even more stats if I really wanted them.

Should I care about any of this stuff?  The high-minded answer would be ‘no’.  My blog is about self-expression, isn’t it?  I say what I want and everybody else can take it or leave it; isn’t that right?  Such is the attitude taken by many.  I recall Andrew Sullivan once said, “I’ve always assumed that losing readers is a good sign that you’re committing journalism.”  That’s the attitude, there.  If folks avoid my blog, then forget about them.

Well, I will tell you right now, that’s not my attitude.  Whenever I log onto my account here at wordpress, I go straight to the dashboard to see how many hits I’ve had.  Were I a proper, self-respecting writer it would be the writing alone that matters, but in reality I can’t deny that I get a little kick whenever my readership rises.  Yesterday it spiked to an all-time high: thirty readers.  Of course I can’t be sure that it’s thirty separate people, because someone may have logged on twice.  Nonetheless, thirty looks pretty good to me.  Huffingtonpost may get millions of hits each day, but that’s because they stuff their front page with trashy celebrity news and other stuff that caters to the lowest common denominator.  I have my thirty or so readers and I still have my integrity.

What amusement parks tell us about ourselves.

On Friday I took a group of physics students to King’s Dominion, Virginia’s largest and most famous amusement park.  It was ‘Education Days’. during which the park sets up tables with various fun, museum-style demonstrations of concepts from physics, biology, and so forth.  My students and those from other schools ignored the educational part and headed straight for the roller coasters.  This tells us that children generally prefer entertainment to education; hence the only hope for educating kids is to keep them away from entertaining things.  But that’s obvious enough even when we’re not at amusement parks.

So what do amusement parks tell us about ourselves?  Rides are intended to be ‘thrilling’, which is the same as ‘frightening’ or ‘scary’, and the good rides do indeed meet that qualification.  When you’re going down a big drop on a roller coaster you feel scared.  You can try telling yourself that rationally the engineers design the coaster with the goal of no one dieing or being injured, that thousands of people have ridden it without being hurt, and so forth.  Nonetheless, instinct will shove aside such rational considerations and take over.  You will be scared.

Why do we have such instincts?  Some say that the instincts come from our evolutionary past.  Back in the caveman days, things such as falls from great heights, snakes, drowning, and so forth killed people.  Hence people were more likely to survive and propagate their genes if they were afraid of those things, and here we are, millions of years later, with instinctual aversions to those things.

The only problem with this hypothesis is that it’s obviously wrong, or at least not the whole story.  If we inherited genes that made us avoid scary things, then we’d avoid scary things.  But we don’t.  We go to amusement parks with the specific intention of imersing ourselves in scary things.  And we watch horror movies.  And we go white-water rafting.  And so forth.  So obviously there’s something in us that craves the very experiences that scare us.  It’s almost as if we have an instinct to go against our instincts.

Some of us, that is.  Others, such as myself, wimp out when confronted with a roller coast.  I’ll ride the lesser ones such as Rebel Yell, but when confronted with something like the Intimidator 305 I get slightly ill just by looking at it.

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