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

Archive for June, 2011

Bad stuff in El Salvador

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not a big fan of corporations and global capitalism.  I have many reasons for this stance.  My cousin and his girlfriend, who currently live in El Salvador, have just given me another reason.  They explained it on their blog here:


The short version is this.  A major Canadian corporation is seeking to start a large mining operation in El Salvador.  Many of the locals are protesting because they’re aware of how mines have devastated communities and the environment in many places throughout Latin America.  Leading them is the Cabanas Environmental Committee (CAC).  The CAC seeks to keep people informed via radio, distributing literature, and other means.  However, it is dangerous work, as the corporate agents, working with some local mayors, use violence to shut them down.  Below is a dispatch from one radio station:

Dear Friends, i am very sorry to report the following:

On June 2, in the city of Ilobasco, Cabañas, thirty year-old Juan Francisco Duran Ayala was putting up flyers and banners that asked for the approval of a law against metal mining and for the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim to leave Cabañas as part of a Cabañas Environmental Committee (CAC) campaign. The CAC reports that the mayor of Ilobasco, José Maria Dimas Castellano, ordered members of the municipal police to remove the banners and intimidate the activists that were hanging them. The next day Juan Francisco left for his classes at the Technological University in San Salvador and was not heard from again.

Yesterday we received word that Juan Francisco Duran Ayala’s body was located and today there has been a positive identification of his body. The Coroner says he died from a bullet in the head.

This murder comes 2 years after the kidnapping and murder of anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera, and the murders of 2 other CAC activists, Ramiro Rivera y Dora Alica Sorto.

Reports like these, which are largely ignored in the United States, give the lie to the idea that global capitalism is a peaceful, voluntary system.  Major corporations use violence all the time to get what they want.  This is just one incident among a great many that could be cited in Central America alone.

Fortunately there are ways to fight back.  My cousin is encouraging people to e-mail the Attorney General and investigate these murders.  You can find details in the post that I linked to above.  Please help out with this good cause.

Introduction to Chesterton: The Poetry

(This is part of my series entitled “Who is G. K. Chesterton”, which started here.)

Today G. K. Chesterton is known for his works on philosophy and religion, his detective stories, his novels, his history books, his literary and artistic criticism, his speeches, his debates, his newspaper columns, and his travelogues, among other things.  During his lifetime, he was best known for his poetry.  It is hard to imagine how a man who wrote prose so prolifically also found time to be a great poet, but that’s Chesterton for you.

How many poems did Chesterton write?  Nobody knows; just as with the cells in the human body, there are so many that no one bothers to count.  Certainly he wrote well over a thousand poems, and most of them were not short.  All of them are tied together by a strong understanding of what poetry should be.  First and foremost it should rhyme and have meter.

So moderns believe that rhyme and meter are bad things, that they’re cumbersome, limit the poet, and stifle his expression.  Chesterton is a one-man rebuttal to this argument.  His poetry ranges over every imaginable subject and every imaginable style and mood.  He wrote poetry about depressing issues in a dark and somber mood.  He wrote about the joy of living in a light and playful mood.  He also wrote about depressing issues in a light and playful mood.

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Followed a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.

This marvelous little bit of doggerel captures the spirit of Chesterton’s poetry in twelve short lines.  It is quick and amusing but it has a point, and it comes to a point in the final line.  Just as with his prose, Chesterton did not write poetry with no purpose.  The same teeming mind that made him one of the most skilled debaters and commentators of his day also gave his poetry special oomph, as he packed his feeling about everything from politics to religion to poverty, war, and aesthetics into his lines.

Much of Chesterton’s poetry is humorous; much is not.  When he wanted to, he could write verse with dramatic flair to match the greatest poets of any age.

A word came forth in Galilee, a word like to a star;
It climbed and rang and blessed and burnt wherever brave hearts are;
A word of sudden secret hope, of trial and increase
Of wrath and pity fused in fire, and passion kissing peace.
A star that o’er the citied world beckoned, a sword of flame;
A star with myriad thunders tongued: a mighty word there came.

(This comes from A Word, which is well worth reading in its entirety.)

If the fact that the lines in this passage are much longer than in the first one caught your notice, it should.  Chesterton was remarkably versatile, and was able to beat trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, and even heptameter into submission.  He was equally versatile with his rhyme schemes,  Though couplets or a standard ABAB pattern were his favorites, he could employ just about any other that you’d care to name.

Chesterton’s poetry was also not limited to merely to making points and jokes.  He lamented the fact that modern poetry had abandoned character and story, and he sought to reverse that trend.  In various poems he took readers inside the mind of a barbarian warrior, a Belgian widow, and old man, an unborn child, a donkey, and a skeleton, just to name a few.  He could put narrative into verse with the same skill that he displayed in his short stories; perhaps even a little bit more skill.  Consider the opening verse from The Last Hero.

The wind blew out from Bergen from the dawning to the day,
There was a wreck of trees and fall of towers a score of miles away,
And drifted like a livid leaf I go before its tide,
Spewed out of house and stable, beggared of flag and bride.
The heavens are bowed about my head, shouting like seraph wars,
With rains that might put out the sun and clean the sky of stars,
Rains like the fall of ruined seas from secret worlds above,
The roaring of the rains of God none but the lonely love.
Feast in my hall, O foemen, and eat and drink and drain,
You never loved the sun in heaven as I have loved the rain.

This establishes the setting, main character, and plot right off the bat.  Once again, I urge you not to deprive yourself of reading the entire poem.

In the year 1911, all the qualities that make Chesterton’s poetry great rolled together in one epic masterpiece.  Lepanto tells the true story of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the Ottoman Empire sought to conquer Italy and eventually push westward to destroy western civilization.  Most of the monarchs in western Europe were too corrupt or self-absorbed to come to Italy’s defense, but then a solitary hero, Don John of Austria stepped forward to lead a fleet of ships.  As Chesterton puts it:

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

This parade of sounds and images, metaphors and historical references is just one verse in a poem of several hundred lines.  One of Chesterton’s master stroke during this poem was to constantly rotate perspective, telling the story from the vantage point of many different characters, some historical, some mythological.  In the grand conclusion, Chesterton sets things up the same way that epic poets have set up battle scenes since the time of Homer and Virgil, by introducing the leaders on both sides.  He brings us a picture of the Pope in Rome praying for victory, then sweeps across the sea to show us  the Ottoman Sultans on their ships.  Then, in a move of triumph and daring, Chesterton takes us below decks to meet a group that’s never been mentioned in epic poetry before: the hopeless galley slaves of the Ottoman fleet, enslaved after their cities were captured by the Turks and now chained to oars, living in their own filth, given barely enough to keep them alive and working the oars.  With this unexpected picture, typical of how Chesterton uses perspectives that no else cares for, Chesterton brings the poem to a crescendo.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign–
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

No other English poet wrote like this during the twentieth century.  One would have to head back to Shakespeare and Milton to find anyone from previous centuries who could match it.

Let’s contemplate Abraham

In the Episcopal Church we have four Bible readings each Sunday.  Typically there’s an Old Testament Reading, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel lesson, in that order, though occasionally there’s some variation on that pattern.  Today’s Old Testament reading was the story of Abraham and Isaac, as found in Genesis 22.  The pastor chose instead to preach a sermon about the Gospel reading, which was the passage from Matthew where Jesus says “Whoever gives a cup of water to one of these little ones will not lose his reward.”  Perhaps this is not too surprising, given that the Matthew passage fits into warm and fuzzy, feel-good theology much better than the Genesis one.

The story of Abraham almost-but-not-quite sacrificing Isaac should not be brushed aside, though.  It remains one of the most famous and talked-about tales from Genesis, probably third behind the Creation and Noah’s Ark.  That picture of a man almost-but-not-quite plunging a knife into his only son has a way of gripping the mind.  As with with any Bible story, this one has been subject to multiple interpretations over the years.

The Straightforward Interpretation: God wanted to test Abraham’s faith, so he told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Once Abraham had made an altar, stacked wood on it, bound Isaac, put him on the altar, and taken the knife in hand, God was satisfied that Abraham was faithful to His commands, at which point he called off the sacrifice.  This is probably the oldest interpretation and may be still common among the Orthodox Jews and perhaps some of the more rigid Calvinist-style Christians.  It would make atheists shout with glee and would make most people in a modern-day Episcopal Church feel rather queasy.

The Symbolic Lesson about Sin: Isaac, like any human born under original sin, deserved death for his sins, and hence it would have been just if the sacrifice had gone forward.  It was only God’s mercy in providing a ram as a substitute that saved him.  The symbolism is clear enough.  This interpretation may not jive with most modern folk much better than the last one, however.  We don’t like hearing about sacrifice very much these days, nor about original sin and the need for redemption.  If we can skip the sin and sacrifice and get straight to the redemption, that tends to make us happier.  However, if original sin is in fact a fact, it would be worthy to remember it more, as denying it can accomplish nothing.

The Prophecy Interpretation: Isaac serves as a type of Christ.  First, he carries the wood up to the altar for his own sacrifice, just as Christ carried the cross.  Second, only Abraham and Isaac were aware that a scarifice was taking place while the servants were left in the dark, just as only Christ and God the Father knew what was taking place on Calvary.  The two episodes diverge at the final moment, when Abraham is not required to actually sacrifice his son, while God the Father does sacrifice Christ.  This interpretation is a godsend (ahem) for those who would like to elide around thorny questions such as whether the event actually took place and how we should feel about it.  However, if we are to believe that the Old Testament prefigures and ‘makes the way straight’ for the New Testament then it is an interpretation well worth considering.

A Different Interpretation: I first heard this on an internet message board and I’m still not quite sure what I think about.  The basic thesis is that even as Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac he was aware that God wouldn’t actually order him to do it.  Consequently he remained alert, listening for God’s voice, even as he took up the knife, and heard God’s word interceding to prevent the event.  Thus it becomes God’s  way of saying: “If you ever hear someone asking for a human sacrifice, or think you hear someone asking for it, or get any inkling that somebody desires a human sacrifice, it’s not me!”

A Quick Foray into the Tax-Hike Debate

Right now the United States in 14.3 trillion dollars in debt with an annual deficit of almost 2 trillion.  With three wars still ongoing there seems little hope of cutting back on military expenditure and corporations certainly aren’t trimming their demands for handouts.  Next year the Baby Boomers will begin retiring, which puts added stress on Social Security and Medicare.  These grim facts have caused some to speculate that we should raise taxes on the rich.

Some, on the other hand, don’t want to.  They say that we can’t simply can’t afford to demand another nickel from people who are worth billions of dollars.  If we tax the rich more, the theory goes, they’ll respond by working less.

Now I can think of several things to say in response.  First, given that Bush pushed through billions in tax cuts for the rich during his presidency and didn’t exactly get stellar economic results, I’m skeptical that low taxes for the rich are all they’re cracked up to be.  I also have to ask, given the performance of rich people from Wall Street to Hollywood, whether we really want them to work hard.  But for the sake of argument let’s lay those thoughts aside for the moment.  Let’s ask, instead, whether it’s actually true that taxing the rich more will cause them to work less.

Consider a hypothetical scenario.  Bob Dewey, from the illustrious law office of Dewey, Cheatam, and Howe, is paid $500 an hour to prepare lawsuits.  Currently he’s taxed at 35%, so he takes home $350 per hour.  Now imagine that we raise his taxes to 40%, so he’ll instead take home $300 per hour.  The question is, will this cause him to work less.  Will society no longer get the productive benefit of being sued by him?

I simply don’t see why that would happen.  I don’t believe that Mr. Dewey carefully allots effort based on the money he’s taking home.  I think that he either works or does not work.  As long as he thinks he’s being paid enough to justify working, he’ll continue working.  I highly doubt that he’ll consider $300 an hour too little.  If anything, he may work more in order to make up for the income that he’s lost and maintain his lavish lifestyle.  There’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that he, or any other rich person, will work less if taxed more.

I’m not claiming to be an expert economist.  I don’t know whether raising taxes on the rich is a good idea or not.  But this particular argument against doing so fails.

Chesterton on Flooding

I already posted one poem by Chesterton on the subject of flooding earlier this year, when parts of Memphis were underwater.  I thought at the time that one would be good enough, and that there couldn’t possibly be another occasion where more flooding would require more commentary.  I assumed that high water marks had reached their high water mark.  Now, however, I learn that the Souris River in North Dakota is going nuts and that the residents of the town of Minot will have to move.  Hence I find myself once more flipping through Chesterton’s works to find something about floods.  As it happens, Chesterton’s own home in the London neighborhood of Battersea was flooded in 1908, and he had this to say about it.

So I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: “Wine is good with everything except water,” and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine. – G. K. Chesterton, On Running After One’s Hat

My favorite musician

The video for PerformThis Way, Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of Born This Way, is now up on YouTube.  I haven’t watched it yet.  I doubt that I’d get too much amusement out of watching it, given that I’ve never listened to any song by Lady Gaga, nor paid any attention to her, and I don’t intend to start doing so anytime soon.  I feel confident, however, that both the song and the video for Perform This Way are brilliant.  After all, they were made by Weird Al Yankovic.

Weird Al has been making parodies for about thirty years now.  Many trends in music have come and gone during that time, but his technique has remained remarkably stable.  First he takes a song that’s hip and popular among young people.  Then he takes a topic that is completely unhip and not at all popular among young people, such as obesity, surgery, the Flintstones, Amish people, plumbing, or personal computers.  Lastly he mashes the song and the topic together and comes up with comedy gold.

If the approach is always the same, the variety of musical styles that he’s gone after is remarkably varied.  Furthermore, he has talent.  In most cases he doesn’t write the music, though in a few cases he does.  His talent lies in writing the lyrics and is picking the particular jokes to include.  His videos are particularly noteworthy simply because of their energy.  Weird Al never does things by half measure.  He throws himself whole-heartedly into the task of imitating the style and flair of the original while apparently taking everything with total seriousness.  There is no self-reference and no winking at the audience.  At the same time, his satire is never biting or bitter.  You could never think that the man actually dislikes any of the musicians he’s parodying–or, for that matter, the uncool subject matter that he’s linking it too.  Here are a few of his best efforts.

My brother and I started listening to Weird Al around 1992, when I was ten and my brother was eleven.  He’d already been doing his stuff for almost twenty years by then, and he’s still popular today.  Few musicians can claim as much.  I’m not talking about groups like Santana, who disappear for decades and then reappear.  And I not talking about acts like KISS, who stay “popular” by hawking Diet Dr. Pepper.  I’m talking about musicians who continuously release new music that is worth listening to.  Weird Al has talent, and with that in mind I’m not surprised to learn that (according to Wikipedia) he was valedictorian of his high school class.

Intro to Chesterton: The Literature

(This is part of my series entitled Who is G. K. Chesterton, which started here.)

The past few posts about Chesterton looked in depth at his worldview on issues including religion, politics, economics, and so forth.  I supplemented the summaries with liberal helpings of quotes from the man himself.  Most of the quotes I picked came from his non-fiction, either his books or his essays.  However, I could have written a summary of Chesterton’s thought using only his fiction, because his thought shaped his fiction every bit as much as his non-fiction.  That is not to imply that his fiction is didactic.  His literature is not sermons; at most, he’ll have a character off a one- or two-sentence summary of any point he wanted to make.  His literature is literature, shaped around the needs of good story-telling.  But at the same time, the themes that he wanted to make clear were woven directly into the very structure of the piece.

In considering Chesterton’s fiction, we risk being buried by the numbers.  While the situation isn’t as bad as the scores of books and thousands of essays that make up his non-fiction, we still have to deal with seven novels, one full-length play and several short ones, and over a hundred short stories.  (And that doesn’t even include the poetry, which we’ll look at separately.)  Nonetheless, common threads run through all of Chesterton’s fiction and make it easy to identify a piece as his.  I have personal habit of looking at fiction through four different angles: character, plot, theme, and language, and will proceed in that way.

Chesterton used stereotypes throughout his fiction often and shamelessly.  Germans are always grim a militaristic, Italians are dashing and romantic, Irish will be poor and hard-drinking but full of wisdom.  It wasn’t just national stereotypes either.  Bankers are always greedy, lawyers sleazy, innkeepers boisterous, and so on.  But while he built nearly every character from these easily recognizable blocks, he did not necessarily make them simplistic.  While Chesterton’s characters may not have deep psychological issues to tackle or childhood traumas to wrestle with, they are three-dimensional characters who you might actually meet on the street.  Chesterton’s literary skill brings them off the page.

It is in some sense easier to describe what Chesterton doesn’t do with his characters.  He doesn’t use dialects and he doesn’t use bad grammar to make them sound ‘authentic’.  Every character speaks in perfect English, even the foreigners.  Yet the characters do not sound alike.  The precise choice of words, arrangement of sentences, and style carefully distinguishes the characters from each other, as in this passage:

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, sir,” she said, “but I had to follow Father Brown at once; it’s nothing less than life or death.”

Father Brown began to get to his feet in some disorder. “Why, what has happened, Maggie?” he said.

“James has been murdered, for all I can make out,” answered the girl, still breathing hard from her rush. “That man Glass has been with him again; I heard them talking through the door quite plain. Two separate voices: for James speaks low, with a burr, and the other voice was high and quavery.”

“That man Glass?” repeated the priest in some perplexity.

“I know his name is Glass,” answered the girl, in great impatience. “I heard it through the door. They were quarrelling–about money, I think–for I heard James say again and again, `That’s right, Mr Glass,’ or `No, Mr Glass,’ and then, `Two or three, Mr Glass.’ But we’re talking too much; you must come at once, and there may be time yet.”

“But time for what?” asked Dr Hood, who had been studying the young lady with marked interest. “What is there about Mr Glass and his money troubles that should impel such urgency?”

“I tried to break down the door and couldn’t,” answered the girl shortly, “Then I ran to the back-yard, and managed to climb on to the window-sill that looks into the room. It was an dim, and seemed to be empty, but I swear I saw James lying huddled up in a corner, as if he were drugged or strangled.”

Here Chesterton draws up obvious differences between Maggie, Father Brown, and Dr. Hood.  Maggie is plain and clear, with simple language.  Father Brown uses as few words as possible to cut to the heart of the matter.  Dr. Hood is a bit stuck-up and self-important.  (This segment, by the way, comes from The Absence of Mr. Glass, one of Chesterton’s best mystery stories.)  The best way to describe Chesterton’s characters is to say that they fulfill the demands of who they are.  Each character ahs a worldview and a personality, and each talks, acts, and reacts in the right way based on that worldview and personality.  They never step out of character, and the story plays out based upon their actions.

Chesterton is best known for writing detective fiction.  In fact he literally wrote the book on detective fiction, in an essay entitled How to Write a Detective Story,where he laid down guidelines that are still in use today for the most part.  First of all, the story begins with a crime or puzzles that needs to be solved and ends when it is solved.  The resolution must be logically consistent with the information presented in the story, and should not be a cheap rip-off.  The author should not suddenly introduce a major element at the very end to slip around the difficulties that he’s created for himself.  Lastly, quickness is good; too many delays lessen the suspense.

The Bulgarian governess is just about to mention her real reason for concealing herself with a loaded rifle inside the grand piano, when a yellow Chinamall leaps through the window and cuts off her head with a yataghan; and this trivial interruption is allowed to defer the elucidation of the whole story. Now, it is quite a simple matter to fill several volumes with adventures of this thrilling kind, without permitting the reader to advance a step in the direction of discovery.

Every single one of Chesterton’s mysteries follows these guidelines, and consequently they are great stories.  Yet Chesterton also wrote plenty of novels and stories that aren’t mysteries.  The Flying Inn is a rollicking comic epic.  The Napoleon of Notting Hill is arguably a ground-breaking science fiction novel.  The Man who was Thursday could fit into nearly any genre you’d care to name.  Yet all of them in a sense follow the same guidelines that Chesterton used for mysteries.  They have a large cast of colorful characters, a strong plot, logical coherence, and a whiz-bang ending.

Chesterton was an avid writer and also an avid reader.  He consumed books by dozens and scores and was well aware of what others were writing at the time.  One accusation against his fiction is that it’s too pat.  Everything works out just right for the mystery to take place, without any of the details and complications that intervene in real life.  Chesterton’s mysteries are what we often call “cozy mysteries”.  He was certainly well aware of the problem, but just didn’t view it as a problem.  He saw his fiction as fiction and the purpose was to give the reader a decent entertainment.  In fact, he often toyed around with expectations and made direct reference to cliches, as at the start of The Arrow of Heaven.

It is to be feared that about a hundred detective stories have begun with the discovery that an American millionaire has been murdered; an event which is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity. This story, I am happy to say, has to begin with a murdered millionaire; in one sense, indeed, it has to begin with three murdered millionaires, which some may regard as an embarras de richesse.

As far as theme is concerned, there’s very little to say.  When you read a Chesterton story you get the theme.  It’s right there and impossible to miss even though, as I said, it’s not presented in lecture form.  When we learn the fate of the murdered capitalists in The Ghost of Gideon Wise, we also learn something about capitalism.  When we see the reaction of the newspaper editor in The Purple Wig, we get a lesson about how newspapers work in the bargain.

That leaves us only with the category of language.  Here I begin with a quote that is, for once, not from Chesterton.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

When it came to picking the right word and using those words to build the right phrase, the right sentence, and the right paragraph, Chesterton was simply a grandmaster among grandmasters.  In the area of linguistic skill, he has no equal in twentieth century English literature.  I could try providing quotes to prove the point, but just about any passage from any his books will demonstrate it.

Yet more Chesterton on Chesterton

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?

To show that a faith or a philosophy is true from every standpoint would be too big an undertaking even for a much bigger book than this; it is necessary to follow one path of argument; and this is the path that I here propose to follow. I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance. For the very word “romance” has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome. Any one setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute. Beyond stating what he proposes to prove he should always state what he does not propose to prove. The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. It is THIS achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in these pages.

But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England. I do not see how this book can avoid being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth) how it can avoid being dull. Dulness will, however, free me from the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant. Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth. I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths. And I offer this book with the heartiest sentiments to all the jolly people who hate what I write, and regard it (very justly, for all I know), as a piece of poor clowning or a single tiresome joke.

For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne. I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Voyager I and II are leaving us.

Those two titans of interplanetary travel, Voyager I and Voyager II, are heading out of the Solar System, according to the BBC.  Sort of.  What the article fails to mention is that there isn’t really any well-defined “edge of the Solar System”.  If we define the solar system as being only the planets, then the probes passed Pluto years ago.  (And then Pluto was demoted from “planet” to “trans-Neptunian object” anyway.)  On the other hand, if you include comets in the Solar System, some of those orbit thousands of times further out than Pluto does, and it will be millions of years before any space probe gets past them.

Nevertheless, this seems as good a time as any to give a shout-out to the two Voyager probes.  Back in the 70’s and 80’s there beamed us some awesome images, particularly of the outer planets and their moons.

I remember being dazzled by these photos as a kid, and getting the impression that there were whole worlds of wonder to explore without even leaving the Solar System.  I consider it a great tragedy that as my education progressed, the childish joy was slowly squeezed out of science, replaced by schmucks telling me that we can’t actually travel to other planets due to ambient radiation that pervades outer space and other such joyless things.  True, obviously, but joyless.  Nonetheless, we should still be thankful that we were able to get these amazing images from the Voyager probes.

Meanwhile, though most of us have long forgotten them, those two lonely machines continue their march through space.  And it’s worth a moment’s thought to think that, if some alien race ever picks one of them up, our entire species may be judged based only on a single relic from the 1970’s.  Will they assume that we were all a bunch of polyester-wearing, disco-listening weirdos?

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 6)

(Continued from part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

In part 5 we covered the basic outline of Chesterton’s social philosophy.  A few other things are prominent enough in his thinking to be worth mentioning separately.  Chesterton loved humanity, as any good Christian should.  Nowadays some readers cast aspersions on this and suggest that he was racist.  It’s true that if you search his works thoroughly enough, you can find a few instances of the dreaded n-word and a couple other turns of phrase that wouldn’t fit in well with present-day attempts to walk on eggshells regarding race issues.  However, as a whole the charges of racism are ironic given that in his day, progressive do-gooders often accused Chesterton of liking blacks, Native Americans, and other “primitive” peoples  too much.  In fact, Chesterton first jumped to national prominence for his ferocious opposition to the Boer War at the turn of the century.  He upheld the position that Britain had no right to grab imperial possessions in Africa and that all peoples had the right to self-government–not a popular position at the time.

But while Chesterton was a humanitarian, he did not believe in knocking down all boundaries that separated people.  Indeed he knew that humanity was separated into various units for a reason.  He summed up the apparent contradiction in a famous quatrain.

Oh, how I love Humanity,
With love so pure and pringlish!
And how I hate the horrid French,
Who never will be English!

(This is part of a longer poem, which you can read here.)

Chesterton, following Aristotle and Aquinas, believed that it was natural and right for humanity to separate into nations, communities, and families.  Only within these divisions could people maintain their unique traditions and allow individuality to flourish.  By contrast, John Lennon’s idea of “no countries, no religion, no property” might sound attractive but was really a path to crushing uniformity and dictatorship.

(Perhaps you’re wondering how Chesterton could respond to Lennon when the former died before the later was born.  Chesterton was really responding to the same bad ideas as espoused by leaders of his own day.  However, he often had an uncanny ability to write in ways that exactly address future situations.)

Chesterton believed in patriotism, that everyone should love and support their country.  That did not mean blind support, though, but rather a keen awareness of both what was right and what was wrong with that country.

A man who says that no patriot should attack the management of a war until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.

He also drew fine distinctions between the right and wrong reasons for loving one’s country.  It was wrong to believing in racial superiority, or ideological superiority, or that a country had specific destiny or a mission to spread capitalism or whatever.  Rather, country should be loved with an emotional and almost mystical tie, and so should community and family.  As he put it:

Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason.

So that was the basis for politics in Chesterton’s mind.  It’s worth noting that the ties between large-scale units like England and small-scale ones like a town or a neighborhood were not arbitrary.  In Chesterton’s thinking the same logic applied all the way up and down the scale of size.  Most particularly, it applied to the family.  In the union of a husband and wife, Chesterton saw something sacred , something that was the only possible basic unit for a happy society but which could not be reduced to a practical business relationship.  Instead, a successful marriage had to be based on the creative tension between two individuals.

Marriage is a duel to the death, which no man of honor should decline.

(This comes from his book Manalive, and should be read in its proper context.)

On the topic of family life, Chesterton would once again have trouble fitting in with the most avant garde thinkers of his time or ours, not because he believed anything negative about women (or men, for that matter), but because he had a common sense approach.

As a matter of fact, it will be generally found that the popular joke is not true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit. … The same is true of the perpetual jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands.  It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood. If you read even the best of the intellectuals of to-day you will find them saying that in the mass of the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or his bed. But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth.

Broadly speaking, Chesterton supported women who did not work outside the home, but not as a strict rule.  He had plentiful respect for many working women, but wanted to ensure that women who chose not to would find it socially and economically possible.  Moreover, he pointed out the absurdity in automatically assuming that working outside the home meant freedom while staying inside it meant oppression.

But the advocates seem to want some of them to escape from it into capitalism. They seem to express a sympathy with those who prefer “the right to earn outside the home” or (in other words) the right to be a wage-slave and work under the orders of a total stranger because he happens to be a richer man. By what conceivable contortions of twisted thought this ever came to be considered a freer condition than that of companionship with the man she has herself freely accepted, I never could for the life of me make out. The only sense I can make of it is that the proletarian work, though obviously more senile and subordinate than the parental, is so far safer and more irresponsible because it is not parental. I can easily believe that there are some people who do prefer working in a factory to working in a family; for there are always some people who prefer slavery to freedom, and who especially prefer being governed to governing someone else.

(Yet another quote from a longer essay that’s well worth reading.)

Foremost among Chesterton’s concerns about the family was for the conditions under which children were raised.  He saw immediately the dangers in public schooling that many people are just starting to become aware of today: focus on menial tasks, biased lesson plans with political motivations, and  gradually dehumanizing control from the top down.

So that is a rough sketch of how Chesterton viewed society and the proper organization thereof.  In reading Chesterton one will find him referring to certain topics over and over again.  He had bugaboos which he hammered on with great frequency.  One was eugenics, the idea of the state determining who should and shouldn’t be born.  Needless to say, he strongly opposed it, and in fact wrote the only book against the British Eugenics program published while it was taking place: Eugenics and Other Evils.  He also disliked prohibition and mocked Americans for it at great length.  He took pot shots and do-gooder bureaucrats who were trying to meddle in people’s private lives.  While it may seem at times that he drags these issues into pieces of writing where they don’t belong, it was actually part of a strong and lively philosophy.  Chesterton had a clearly-defined view of where authority should reside and where it shouldn’t.  He wanted freedom for ordinary people and a society organized from the bottom up, with as much power for families as possible.  He saw a great many schemes by which politicians and industrialists were trying to strip away that freedom, and he hit back hard against those schemes.


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