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

Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

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.

What I’m Reading: H. P. Lovecraft

It’s October.  Autumn is here.  Colored leaves are falling.  Pumpkins are appearing.  There’s a chill in the air.  What better time to curl up with a book by one of the great masters of horror: H. P. Lovecraft?

This is actually the first time I’ve read anything by Lovecraft.  When I was in college, his books were quite popular, especially with the geeky set.  I wasn’t a big fan of horror, however.  In fact, I’m still not.  But Lovecraft and his creations have gotten so deeply embedded in the pop culture landscape that I decided to give him a try.  I picked up a couple volumes from a used bookstore and decided to start with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Well, I was not impressed.  Lovecraft certainly has a large vocabulary and a penchant for images.  He has some skill for devising gothic-sounding names.  Nonetheless, his writing is packed with stuff like this:

In light slumber he descended the seventy steps to the cavern of flame and talked of this design to the bearded priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah.  And the priests shook there pshent-bearing heads and vowed it would be the death of his soul.  They pointed out that the Great Ones had shown already their wish, and that it is not agreeable to them to be harassed by insistent pleas.  They reminded him, too, that not only had no man ever been to Kadath, but no man had ever suspected in what part of space it may lie; whether it be in the dreamlands around our own world, or in those surrounding some unguessed companion of Fomalhaut or Aldebaran.  If in our dreamland, it might conceivably be reached, but only three human souls since time began had ever crossed and recrossed the black impious gulfs to other dreamlands, and of that three, two had come back quite mad.  There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity–the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic Ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless , tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.

 Either you can take such stuff seriously or you can’t.  I can’t, so no more Lovecraft for me.

Chesterton on Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit stands in Dickens’s life chiefly as a signal of how far he went down the road of realism, of sadness, and of what is called modernity. True, it was by no means the best of the books of his later period; some even think it the worst. Great Expectations is certainly the best of the later novels; some even think it the best of all the novels. Nor is it the novel most concerned with strictly recent problems; that title must be given to Hard Times. Nor again is it the most finely finished or well constructed of the later books; that claim can be probably made for Edwin Drood. By a queer verbal paradox the most carefully finished of his later tales is the tale that is not finished at all. In form, indeed, the book bears a superficial resemblance to those earlier works by which the young Dickens had set the whole world laughing long ago. Much of the story refers to a remote time early in the nineteenth century; much of it was actually recalled and copied from the life of Dickens’s father in the old Marshalsea prison. Also the narrative has something of the form, or rather absence of form, which belonged to Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. It has something of the old air of being a string of disconnected adventures, like a boy’s book about bears and Indians. The Dorrits go wandering for no particular reason on the Continent of Europe, just as young Martin Chuzzlewit went wandering for no particular reason on the continent of America. The story of Little Dorrit stops and lingers at the doors of the Circumlocution Office much in the same way that the story of Samuel Pickwick stops and lingers in the political excitement of Eatanswill. The villain, Blandois, is a very stagey villain indeed; quite as stagey as Ralph Nickleby or the mysterious Monk. The secret of the dark house of Clennam is a very silly secret; quite as silly as the secret of Ralph Nickleby or the secret of Monk. Yet all these external similarities between Little Dorrit and the earliest books, all this loose, melodramatic quality, only serves to make more obvious and startling the fact that some change has come over the soul of Dickens. Hard Times is harsh; but then Hard Times is a social pamphlet; perhaps it is only harsh as a social pamphlet must be harsh. Bleak House is a little sombre; but then Bleak House is almost a detective story; perhaps it is only sombre in the sense that a detective story must be sombre. A Tale of Two Cities is a tragedy; but then A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of the French Revolution; perhaps it is only a tragedy because the French Revolution was a tragedy. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is dark; but then the mystery of anybody must be dark. In all these other cases of the later books an artistic reason can be given — a reason of theme or of construction for the slight sadness that seems to cling to them. But exactly because Little Dorrit is a mere Dickens novel, it shows that something must somehow have happened to Dickens himself. Even in resuming his old liberty, he cannot resume his old hilarity. He can re-create the anarchy, but not the revelry.

It so happens that this strange difference between the new and the old mode of Dickens can be symbolised and stated in one separate and simple contrast. Dickens’s father had been a prisoner in a debtors prison, and Dickens’s works contain two pictures partly suggested by the personality of that prisoner. Mr. Micawber is one picture of him. Mr. Dorrit is another. This truth is almost incredible, but it is the truth. The joyful Micawber, whose very despair was exultant, and the desolate Dorrit, whose very pride was pitiful, were the same man. The valiant Micawber and the nervous, shaking Dorrit were the same man. The defiant Micawber and the snobbish, essentially obsequious Dorrit were the same man. I do not mean of course that either of the pictures was an exact copy of anybody. The whole Dickens genius consisted of taking hints and turning them into human beings. As he took twenty real persons and turned them into one fictitious person, so he took one real person and turned him into twenty fictitious persons. This quality would suggest one character, that quality would suggest another. But in this case, at any rate, he did take one real person and turn him into two. And what is more, he turned him into two persons who seem to be quite opposite persons. To ordinary readers of Dickens, to say that Micawber and Dorrit had in any sense the same original, will appear unexpected and wild. No conceivable connection between the two would ever have occurred to anybody who had read Dickens with simple and superficial enjoyment, as all good literature ought to be read. It will seem to them just as silly as saying that the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle were both copied from the same character. It will seem as insane as saying that the character of Smike and the character of Major Bagstock were both copied from Dickens’s father. Yet it is an unquestionable historical fact that Micawber and Dorrit were both copied from Dickens’s father, in the only sense that any figures in good literature are ever copied from anything or anybody. Dickens did get the main idea of Micawber from his father; and that idea is that a poor man is not conquered by the world. And Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea is that a poor man may be conquered by the world. I shall take the opportunity of discussing, in a moment, which of these ideas is true. Doubtless old John Dickens included both the gay and the sad moral; most men do. My only purpose here is to point out that Dickens drew the gay moral in 1849, and the sad moral in 1857.

 
-G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens

What I’m Reading: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was written by Charles Dickens.  Even if you knew nothing else about the book, you’d probably be able to guess something about the central character.  Little Dorrit–officially named Amy Dorrit–is a young woman, a paragon of goodness, love, and mercy, while surrounded and attacked on all sides by the cruelties of a corrupt, shallow, and greedy society.  Dickens was and still is famous for creating characters like this.  Oliver Twist and Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop are two obvious examples.

But while those two examples are generally viewed as lesser works from the less mature part of Dickens’ career, Little Dorrit is instead characterized as one of his supreme literary works, and indeed as one of the great Victorian novels.  It unfolds against the background of a debtors’ prison, where Amy’s father is held for a debt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that neither he nor anyone else understands.  Amy is born in prison and spends her first twenty-two years there, passionately devoted to helping her father and everyone else.  Eventually two outsiders, Mr. Pancks and Aruthr Clennham, unravel the facts and find that the Dorrit family actually have an enormous fortune.  They leave the prison in triumph.

For the early Dickens, that would have been the end of the story.  For the mature Dickens, it’s the halfway point of the story.  After they leave prison, the Dorrits embark on a trip across Europe.  As they go, Mr. Dorrit’s character subtlely changes.  He becomes obsessed with the concept of being a gentleman, including such gentlemanly pursuits as abusing the servants and harshly judging anyone poorer than himself.  He also becomes determined to remake Amy and her sister as members of the upper class.  To that end, he hires a strict governess named “Mrs. General”, and together they try to twist Amy into the ‘proper’ mold.  The irony is self-evident.  When Amy lived in prison with her father, she was free to pursue genuine goodness and love.  Once the family is free and out of prison, she is boxed in by society on every side.

Literary critics have written more about Dickens than any other English author but Shakespeare.  While there’s undoubtedly an enormous amount to discover in the depths of Dickens’ novels, one can get so wrapped up in it as to miss the main points.  The first main point is wealth.  To Dickens, wealth is a corrupting force.  The poor characters tend to be meek and mild, innocent and wholly good.  The world of the wealthy is a world of corruption, pretension, indifference to suffering and general meanness.  Of course one can find characters that buck the trend on either side, but on the whole the pattern holds strongly; Dickens must have viewed it as a central truth of humanity.  The second main point, obvious related, is Christian goodness.  Goodness is recognized by care and generosity, while badness is greedy, stingy, nasty, and self-centered.  In Little Dorrit one of the main villains is Mrs. Clennham, the widowed mother of Arthur, who has spent decades sinking into an Old Testament-fueled Calvinist obsession with sin and punishment.  At the end of the novel she is brought to a climactic meeting with Amy, who shows her the genuine goodness of Christ.  This dramatic clash of personality types, and many others like it, carry Little Dorrit into the highest echelons of literary achievement.

Day 25: A character who you can relate to

If you’ve been following my progress through the thirty-day book project, you may be asking an obvious question: what the &$%# happened to day 25?  Well, what happened to day 25 is this.  I typed up a nice post for day 25, then either I never hit the “publish button” or else some bug in the software stopped it from actually appearing on my blog.  So, in the ‘better late than never’ category, here is day 25.

My choice for this category is The Catcher in the Rye.  The character, of course, is Holden Caulfield.  Most people are required to read this book while in high school.  I was not.  I may be the only person who read The Catcher in the Rye voluntarily around age 18.  Holden Caulfield immediately got my attention and stuck with me.  He is one of only two characters who I could possibly put in this category.  (The other one would be Yossarian from Catch 22.)

When I say that I relate to Holden Caulfield, I don’t mean that I am like him or that I ever was.  I have never attended a fancy east-coast prep school.  I have never run away from such a school.  I have never spent several days wandering aimlessly around New York City on my own.  I’ve never suffered a total mental breakdown.  That is not the point, though.

We encounter Holden Caulfied as a teenager, in a place surrounded by other teenagers.  All are white, all from decently well-off families, all nearing the end of high school.  They are not stupid, but they’re completely unable to communicate with each other.  They have no sense of purpose.  They haven’t been given any vision by which to guide their lives.

Holden Caulfield runs away from school and lives on his own in New York City for several days.  While there, he wanders around and gets into various types of trouble.  He is badly confused: about himself, about his future, about love, about sex, about money and many other things.  He has various visions about what he might do to get away from the crazy society he lives in, but they shift rapidly and he doesn’t actually take action towards any of them.  He knows deep down that he needs real love and companionship but doesn’t have any clue where to look for it.

There’s a sharply divided reaction to this character.  Some people understand him immediately and view him as one of the great characters in American literature.  Others find him completely unlikable and off-putting.  I would venture that in some cases, at least, young readers find that this book hits a little bit too close for comfort.

Day 22: The favorite book that you own

As you might guess, I own a number of the books that I’ve already mentioned on previous days.  Hence I’ll have to pick something from my collection that I haven’t used already.

Chesterton’s biography of Saint Thomas Aquinas is one of his best-known books.  According to his secretary, he dictated the entire book in two days while having very little knowledge of Aquinas’ life and thought beforehand.

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher.  Naturally any biography of him is mainly about his philosophy.  Here Chesterton faced a problem.  On the one hand, by the early twentieth century, philosophy had largely degenerated into nonsense.  Hence a great many intelligent persons viewed it as nonsense and thus ignored it.  (Today it has degenerated even further and even more persons ignore it.)  Chesterton knew that modern philosophy was nonsense and had written a great deal in pursuit of that point.  On the other hand, Chesterton all believed that philosophy was important, and that the fundamental beliefs of a given person or society had a tremendous relevance to that person’s or society’s fate.  Hence, when writing this biography, Chesterton had to explain Thomistic philosophy to an audience not only unfamiliar with Thomistic philosophy, and not only unfamiliar with medieval philosophy, but also unfamiliar with philosophy.  Faced with such a challenge, Chesterton pulled it off with flair.  St Thomas Aquinas not only tells the life story of the Dumb Ox of Sicily, and not only introduces his thought, but also introduces a modern audience to the art of thinking.  In modern times, we have largely lost the habit of thinking correctly.  This book is as good a place as any to start getting it back.

As always, an excerpt will demonstrate the point better than an explanation:

The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense.  For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home with it. The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical.  To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saying that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that parodoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head. This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind.  Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities.”  It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms.  But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessities are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense.  Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, “Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn.”

So much is familiar; but what is not even now realised is that not only the practical politics, but the abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.  Each started with a paradox: a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view.  That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there.  The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.

It will be understood that in these matters I speak as a fool; or, as our democratic cousins would say, a moron; anyhow as a man in the street; and the only object of this chapter is to show that the Thomist philosophy is nearer than most philosophies to the mind of the man in the street.  I am not, like Father D’Arcy, whose admirable book on St. Thomas has illuminated many problems for me, a trained philosopher, acquainted with the technique of the trade. But I hope Father D’Arcy will forgive me if I take one example from his book, which exactly illustrates what I mean. He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers.  Also, being a trained priest, he is naturally accustomed, not only to suffer fools gladly, but (what is sometimes even harder) to suffer clever people gladly. Above all, his wide reading in metaphysics has made him patient with clever people when they indulge in folly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. “A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St. Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences.  For St. Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and again reality and intelligibility correspond, but a thing must first be, to be intelligible.”

Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the “remarkable difference” seems to him to be that St. Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand. Yet Father D’Arcy mentions this Hegelian paradox as if it were all in the day’s work; and of course it is, if the work is reading all the modern philosophers as searchingly and sympathetically as he has done.  And this is what I mean saying that all modern philosophy starts with a stumbling-block. It is surely not too much to say that there seems to be a twist, in saying that contraries are not incompatible; or that a thing can “be” intelligible and not as yet “be” at all.

Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs.  The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble.  But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs.  The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.

Thus, even those who appreciate the metaphysical depth of Thomism in other matters have expressed surprise that he does not deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real.  The answer is that St. Thomas recognised instantly, what so many modern sceptics have begun to suspect rather laboriously; that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask. I suppose it is true in a sense that a man can be a fundamental sceptic, but he cannot be anything else: certainly not even a defender of fundamental scepticism.  If a man feels that all the movements of his own mind are meaningless, then his mind is meaningless, and he is meaningless; and it does not mean anything to attempt to discover his meaning.  Most fundamental sceptics appear to survive, because they are not consistently sceptical and not at all fundamental.  They will first deny everything and then admit something, if for the sake of argument–or often rather of attack without argument.  I saw an almost startling example of this essential frivolity in a professor of final scepticism, in a paper the other day.  A man wrote to say that he accepted nothing but Solipsism, and added that he had often wondered it was not a more common philosophy. Now Solipsism simply means that a man believes in his own existence, but not in anybody or anything else. And it never struck this simple sophist, that if his philosophy was true, there obviously were no other philosophers to profess it.

To this question “Is there anything?” St. Thomas begins by answering “Yes”; if he began by answering “No”, it would not be the beginning, but the end. That is what some of us call common sense.  Either there is no philosophy, no philosophers, no thinkers, no thought, no anything; or else there is a real bridge between the mind and reality.  But he is actually less exacting than many thinkers, much less so than most rationalist and materialist thinkers, as to what that first step involves; he is content, as we shall see, to say that it involves the recognition of Ens or Being as something definitely beyond ourselves.  Ens is Ens: Eggs are eggs, and it is not tenable that all eggs were found in a mare’s nest.

Day 19: Favorite book that’s been turned into a movie

I already used up Gone with the Wind for my favorite female character, and I’m determined not to include any book twice.  The Princess Bride became one of my favorite movies, but I don’t like the book.  I guess I’ll go with this:Some folks like The Lord of the Rings, some don’t.  I’m among those who do.  I find the book to be majestic, very well written, and highly creative.  I can easily see the reason why it became the basis for almost all adventure fantasy of the past fifty years, as well as inspiring who knows how many pieces of art, TV shows, movies, games, and more.  On the other hand, I can also see why some folks find the book obtuse, wordy, and boring.  The Lord of the Rings is surely an acquired taste.  However, it’s one that a whole lot of persons have acquired.

J. R. R. Tolkien, we must understand, was not an ordinary man.  He was a professor at Oxford in the early part of the twentieth century.  His topic was ancient languages and literature.  Thus, his academic career involved immersing himself in archaic texts and works that most of us have never heard of, sometimes written in languages that most of us have never heard of.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was mildly eccentric.  However, if he didn’t fit with the modern world, that may tell us more about the modern world than about Tolkien.  He tried to be a model of the type of English gentleman that was disappearing in his own time and has totally disappeared now.

That such a man should produce was is possibly the most famous entertainment of the twentieth century is surprising to say the least, almost as unlikely as a carpenter becoming the most influential person in history.  However, if one reads Tolkien’s books it becomes a little bit less surprising.  If nothing else, he did immerse his readers fully in a fictional world.  No other fantasy author can provide such amazing wealth of detail, can allow us to fall so completely into the landscapes, the social scenes, and the battles of a world that never existed

Day 17: Favorite quotes from your favorite books

To follow the instructions literally, I would have to pack the post with Chesterton quotes.  Since I post so many Chesterton quotes already, I’ll instead offer up some from my other favorite authors.  Without further ado, here they are:

#

Urbanized men and women experience not life but the abstraction of life, on ever higher levels of refinement and dislocation from reality.  They become professors of ideas, and have evolved such esoteric occupations as the critic, the critic who criticizes criticism, and even the critic who criticizes criticism of criticism.  It is a very sad misuse of human talent and energy.

– Jack Vance, The Book of Dreams

#

Of course it is often possible to gain the accolades of Society even while one is arrogantly flouting and demeaning the most sacred dogmas which are its very soul!  In this respect, Society is like a great cringing animal; the more you abuse it, the more affection it lavishes upon you.  Ah well, too late now to worry about these nicities of conduct.

– Jack Vance, Ecce and Old Earth

#

We have no maps of Klepsis,” the girl spoke as if I were out of my mind.  “We are on Klepsis.  Are you somehow confused about where you are?  Why would anyone want maps of Klepsis when they are on Klepsis itself.  One original is worth ten thousand imitations, as the proverb says.  A map is only a formalized picture.  Why should you look at a picture of thing, rather than at the thing itself?  If you were out with a girl, would you be looking at the girl herself, or would you rather be looking at a picture of the girl?  Why do you want maps of Klepsis?”

– R. A. Lafferty, The Annals of Klepsis

#

The music of the spheres, when analyzed, has proven to be the same sound as the tinkle of ice in a glass, heard faintly and hardly recognized.

– R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead

#

For every one tastemaker programmed for pessimism, there are a hundred middle-class suburbanites who could not care less what intellectuals say at the sherry hour.

-Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox

#

Human beings have the potential to rise above their baser instincts, while chimpanzees do not.

– Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope

#

Mathematicians who are only mathematicians have exact minds, provided all things are explained to them by means of definitions and axioms; otherwise they are inaccurate and insufferable, for they are only right when the principles are quite clear.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

#

The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men.  Ordinary persons find no differences between men.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

#

Those who must despise men, and put them on a level with the brutes, yet wish to be admired and believe by men, and contradict themselves by their own feelings; their nature, which is stronger than all, convinces them of the greatness of man more forcibly than reason convinces them of their baseness.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

#

The greatness of man is so evident that it is even proved by his wretchedness.  For what in animals is nature, we call in man wretchedness; by which we recognize that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his.  For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king?  Was Paulus Emilis unhappy at being no longer consul?  On the contrary, everybody thought him happy in having been consul, because the office could only be held for a time.  But men thought Perseus so unhappy in being no longer king, because the condition of kingship implied his being always king, that they thought it strange that he endured life.  Who is unhappy at only having one mouth?  And who is not unhappy at having only one eye?  Probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes.  But any one is inconsolable at having none.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

#

The saints are not resigned, at least in the sense that the world thinks.  If they suffer in silence those injustices which upset the mediocre, it is in order better to turn against injustice, against its face of brass, all the strength of their great souls.  Angers, daughters of despair, creep and twist like worms.  Prayer is, all things considered, the only form of revolt that stays standing up.

– George Bernanos

#

I don’t know how it will be in the years to come.  There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know.  Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good.  It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man.  A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform.  When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.  In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God.  This in my time is the danger.  There is great tension in the world, tension towards a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.  At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions.  What do I believe in?  What must I fight for and what must I fight against?  Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.  Nothing was ever created by two men.  There are good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy.  Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything.  The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

#

They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while.  It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves.  But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units–because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back.  Such things have disappeared because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong, sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.

– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Tag Cloud