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

Archive for November, 2012

Chesterton on commiting suicide

A Ballade of Suicide

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours–on the wall–
Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”
The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay–
My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall–
I see a little cloud all pink and grey–
Perhaps the Rector’s mother will not call–
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way–
I never read the works of Juvenal–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall;
Rationalists are growing rational–
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray,
So secret that the very sky seems small–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

– G. K. Chesterton

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More on The Portrait of the Artist

(continued from my first post on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

Great literature should take us away to wild and strange places.  A Portrait of the Artist takes us inside the human mind, arguably the strangest place there is.  Joyce teaches us about the strange, unpredictable, decidedly non-linear workings of the human mind.  That, in itself, makes the novel memorable, but it would hardly be worthy of greatness if that’s all it did.

Another goal of literature is to show a character with total honesty.  It’s impossible for any one human being to have direct access to the mind of any other human being.  Experiencing a character through literature is about as close as we can come to fully encountering another human mind.  Stephen Dedalus is among the most total and realistic characters in literature.  In A Portrait of the Artist, we get to know what it’s like to be him.

Stephen is a young man, as the title says.  Like all young men, he cycles rapidly through many different outlooks on life.  He is deeply into literature, then drama.  He gets religion, then loses it.  He is committed to his family, then he isn’t.  He’s an ascetic, then a free spirit.  At each stage of his mental development, he thinks he has found the thing, the one and only approach to life that is correct and which commands his total attention.  He doesn’t even seem to be aware of the fact that he’s constantly making big changes in his outlook on life.

At the same time, reality keeps intruding on Stephen’s life in so many ways.  His family’s financial situation, academic rules, the behavior of friends, and his own sexuality–all are constantly playing tricks on him and preventing him from taking a linear path through the world.  Stephen tries to be a serious intellectual, but his fellow students are more interested in crude humor and other distractions.  He beats against their indifference without any success.  In this respect as well, Stephen’s experience is something we can all relate to, particularly those of us who were once budding young intellectuals in a largely non-intellectual world.

I can’t conclude without mentioning religion.  Joyce is not a big fan, particularly not of the conservative Catholicism that dominated Ireland when he was young.  Since the novel is set largely at Catholic schools and colleges, Catholicism plays a large role throughout the novel.  It’s most important in chapter three, the novel’s central chapter.  At this point in the novel, Stephen, at the tender age of 16, is routinely visiting prostitutes in Dublin.  One of the priests at his college takes the students on a retreat, during which he gives them a lecture on the torments of Hell.  (Ironically, this same priest was kind to Stephen during childhood.)  The lectures go into excruciating details, describing the physical pain, horrendous sights and sounds and odors, burning heat, and so forth that are present in Hell for all eternity.  No mention is made of how the priest knows these facts, nor is there much attention paid to the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ.  It’s just Hell, Hell, Hell for sermon after sermon.  The experience leaves Stephen fearing for his soul to the extent that be becomes physically ill and barely able to move or function.

It’s not a pleasant scene, but it is a powerful one.  One advantage to reading A Portrait of the Artist is that it puts the religious experience of past eras in terms that moderns can understand.  These days we find it hard to comprehend how people of centuries past thought about sin, death, and judgment.  Chapter three of Portrait gives us a look at a character writhing in the throes of sin and fearing for his eternal destiny.  It lets us understand that, for those who truly believed as Stephen believed, sin took on an overwhelming, almost physical presence if it wasn’t dealt with via confession and penance.

Chesterton comments on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

What I’m reading: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce is agreed to be, to the extent that such things are ever agreed on, the greatest novelist of the 20th century.  A board of big-name academics convened by the Modern Library Association to choose the top 100 novels English novels of the century gave Joyce two of the top three spots: Ulysses was #1 and Portrait of the Artist was #3.  (You can see the entire list here.)  Most folks with a college education would probably be familiar with Joyce.  Of course one can be familiar with an author without actually reading his books.  Most folks with a college education probably haven’t read any of his books.  I hadn’t until about a week ago.

Why should we care about Joyce?  A respectable educational explanation is that we should read Joyce because his novels were important.  Their influence shows clearly in the likes to such authors as Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, and even Don Delillo.  Of course you may be among those who have never read anything by Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, or Don Delillo either.  If so, then such an explanation merely boots the question up to another level.  What’s the big deal?  Why should anyone care about these books?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of a young Irishman named Stephen Dedalus living in the early 20th century.  It covers his life from toddlerhood up to age 20, when he leaves Ireland.  The fictional life of Dedalus mirrors the real life of Joyce, even to the point of having the two attend the same schools.  What makes the book famous is its approach to realism, the famous stream of consciousness that gives us a peak inside the mind of young Dedalus.  We read the thoughts of the character, but they are not organized, linear thoughts.  Nor are they highly emotional thoughts.  They are real human thoughts.  Stephen will be in a certain situation, sitting in class or attending church or watching other people on a beach.  Suddenly his mind departs from the scene and heads to something completely different.  The text departs with him.  For readers unused to this sort of thing, this style of writing can be frustrating.  Small wonder that many people quit before reaching the end of a Joyce novel.

But there’s a purpose behind all this.  Joyce is teaching us about the human mind.  As Augustine observed in an autobiographical writing 15 centuries earlier, the human mind is not obedient in the same way as the body.  If we order our arm or leg to move, it moves; we perceive no different between the mental order and the action.  On the other hand, if we order our mind to focus on a certain task or topic, it usually doesn’t focus, or at least not for very long.  It swings wildly, bringing up memories and ideas seemingly at random.  The mind wanders.  It’s a basic part of the human condition; a truth so obvious that it’s a cliche, or at least it was until recently.

This is the first and foremost theme of A Portrait of the Artist.  The human mind is not a logical machine like a computer.  It is not even an entity that incorporates emotion along with reason to take a two-part approach to the business of living.  It is a collection of thoughts, ideas, memories, emotions, feelings, and tendencies stewed together without any organization that we can discern.  In order to learn about humanity, understand humanity, and deal with humanity, we first must accept this fact about what humanity is.  A human mind is basically Grandpa Simpson.

The Holy City

It’s been awhile since I posted a hymn.  The Holy City is absolutely one of the best songs of any sort ever written, and this rendition is amazing.  This is a very difficult song to sing since it requires incredible range.  Most of us won’t get to hear life performances of it very often.  If you do get an opportunity, consider yourself lucky.

A cold

For the past two weeks I have had a cold.  This has given me the opportunity to contemplate colds.

Objectively the word “cold” means having a low temperature.  Cold is the opposite of hot, in other words.  Yet we also use the word “cold” to describe a sickness, one characterized by a runny nose and occasionally a sore throat and other symptoms.

One immediately senses that it’s not a coincidence that wwe use the same word to indicate this disease and low temperature.  Yet what is the connection?  Having a cold doesn’t make one cold, nor does it make one feel cold.  There’s certainly no rule that colds can only occur when you’re cold.  It’s often said that colds in the summer are the very worst.

At the same time, though, we do know that if you get cold, you’re more likely to get a cold.  Like smoking and lung cancer, the first isn’t the only cause of the second, but it’s the most common cause.

Indeed, in the old days folks were much more carefule about not exposing themselves to cold , lest they get a cold.  In the opening scene of Gone with the Wind, Mammy warns Scarlet not to go running around without her shawl, lest she catch her death.  (Scarlet ignores her, needless to say.)  Nowadays, on the other hand, we’re much more nonchalant about exposing ourselves to cold.  It seems we just don’t fear cold or colds like we used to.

No why should that be?  Is it that we don’t get colds any more?  Hardly.  Colds are really the only disease that everone gets.  Other diseases that loom large in our consciousness these days are generally the rare but fatal ones: cancer, AIDS, and so forth.  Colds are unique in being the only minor disease that we pay attention to.

For lack of any other reason, it seems that we don’t fear colds because we have ways to reduce our suffering.  Any supermarket, drug store, or even gas station will yield dozens of treatments that can alleviate the symptoms if we get one.  As a result, we no longer go to great lengths to avoid colds.  Indeed, many of us probably have colds while barely being aware that we have them.  While we’re prone to thinking that technology makes us more intelligent and aware of the world around us, in some cases it actually makes us less aware.

Election results

  • For the past couple years, the Republicans have been asking for it.  On Tuesday, the American people gave it to them good and hard.
  • Earlier this year, I predicted that Obama would win by between one and two percent.  At the moment, it looks like the popular vote will break that way, or at least pretty close to it.  I obviously have great psychic powers.
  • If the Republicans want to win future elections, here’s a few bits of advice.  First, make fewer flippant remarks about rape victims.  Second, propose actual economic policies rather than asserting that cutting taxes and raising military spending will balance the budget.  Third, pick a candidate who isn’t a Mormon.  Fourth, pick a candidate who doesn’t act as if his wealth and business experience make him better than everyone else, and who isn’t so condescending to the voters.

And with that, I bid you good night.

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