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

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

Chesterton advises political pundits

It’s early November and the climax of the election season is almost upon us.  At times like these, it’s not surprising that Chesterton would have some advice for those who are pushing one candidate or the other.

Don’t say you are not going to say a thing, and then say it. This practice is very flourishing and successful with public speakers. The trick consists of first repudiating a certain view in unfavourable terms, and then repeating the same view in favourable terms. Perhaps the simplest form of it may be found in a landlord of my neighbourhood, who said to his tenants in an election speech, “Of course I’m not going to threaten you, but if this Budget passes the rents will go up.” The thing can be done in many forms besides this. “I am the last man to mention party politics; but when I see the Empire rent in pieces by irresponsible Radicals,” etc. “In this hall we welcome all creeds. We have no hostility against any honest belief; but only against that black priestcraft and superstition which can accept such a doctrine as,” etc. “I would not say one word that could ruffle our relations with Germany. But this I will say; that when I see ceaseless and unscrupulous armament,” etc. “Please don’t do it. Decide to make a remark or not to make a remark. But don’t fancy that you have somehow softened the saying of a thing by having just promised not to say it.

– G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

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.

What I’m Reading: Greener Than You Think

The 1950’s is famous for goofy monster movies in which lizards, spiders, and other critters grow to enormous dimensions after being exposed to radiation and rampage across the landscape, flattening civilization in the process.  These classics of scientific paranoia were presaged by a little-known science fiction novel published in 1947: Greener Than You Think, by Ward Moore.

The story begins when a lowlife salesman by the name of Albert Weener meets an ambitious scientist by the name of Josephine Francis and a makeshift workshop in suburban L.A.  Francis has developed a new compound that will allow plants to derive nutrition from any substance.  Weener decides to demonstrate by spraying it on an ugly patch of lawn in an ugly neighborhood.  Within days, the grass on the lawn has grown taller than the surrounding trees and no one is able to cut it.  Soon it is destroying buildings and the military is called into to combat the weed.  Those familiar with genre conventions can probably guess the rest.

What makes this novel stand out from the crowd is the character development and the sharp, satirical tone.  Ward Moore is a keen observer of human nature and he gives us a plethora of unique characters to laugh at.  Besides Albert and Jospehine, we get a montage of newspaper writers and editors, military men and their offspring, religious leaders, explorers, servants, and business types.  The story is all about the every-growing, devilish grass, but all of the characters respond in different ways.  Some seek to make a profit of it, others turn to it for artistic inspiration, and others take a purely scientific approach.  Nobody in the story truly understands the magnitude of the situation or really responds appropriately–an astute warning at a time when global warming and national debt loom on the horizon.

The main idea of the book, though, is simply to wring humor from the outlandish characters.  Albert Weener manages to land a job as a newspaper columnist, and his adventures in writing and publishing take up a good chunk of the story.  He works under an abusive editor named W. R. le ffacase–no typo there–and their personalities rebound off each other to hilarious effect.  Moore includes some pointed parodies of writing styles from his time period.  Today, it seems amazing that newspaper articles ever included so much flourish.  All-in-all, Greener Than You Think is an excellent satiric science fiction novel and well worth a bit of time and money to procure.

(Here is another review of the book for those who are interested.)

What I’m Reading: The Population Bomb

There are for more books than there are movies, TV shows, or computer games.   In one way this is a good thing, since it gives us readers more choices.  On the other hand, since the number of books is in the millions, making the choices can be difficult.  In a lifetime each of us can read at best a few thousand books.  That means millions will be left out.  How do we pick?

I’ll narrow the question slightly by leaving out recent books and focus only on classics.  Even there we face a choice among millions of books, stretching from a few years old to the dawn of human history.  Which ones should we read?  How do we decide which books are good ones?

An old book is good if it’s been vindicated.   In that respect, my homeboy G. K. Chesterton wrote a lot of good books, because the things he said are now agreed to be true.  Eugenics is actually evil, as he said in Eugenics and Other Evils.  Christianity has lasted, as he predicted in The Everlasting Man.   It’s fun to see the man predicting things which were in his future but our past.  The successful fulfillment of his prophecies also demonstrates his wisdom and clarity of thought.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be entertaining to read a book that was not vindicated, especially one that failed in spectacular fashion.  Which brings us to today’s entry, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich.

This book, written in 1968, is most famous for its opening sentences: “The battle to feed humanity is over.  In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  This prediction did not come true.  The 1970’s are over—thankfully—and hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death—again thankfully.  Few people today know or care what’s in the rest of the book.  They should.  It’s highly entertaining.

For example, the final chapter, entitled “What can you do?”, presents suggestions for individuals to take to combat overpopulation.  One suggested tactic is, “Proselytizing Friends and Associates”.  That section begins as follows:

At no small risk of being considered a nut, you can do a lot of good by persuading your personal acquaintances that the crisis is here, that something must be done, and that they can help.

Yeah, I think anyone who started lecturing friends about the dangers of overpopulation would be considered a nut.  In that sense, Ehrlich did make one correct prediction.  And then there’s this recommendation for talking to college professors:

The population crisis must be an integral part of his teaching—it is pertinent to every subject.  He must use the prestige of his position in writing letters to whomever he thinks he can influence most.  If he is in English or drama, he may be able to write novels or plays emphasizing near-future worlds in which famines or plagues are changing the very nature of society.  If he is in business school, he can “hit the road” lecturing to businesses on “The Stork as an Enemy of Capitalism.” … Any professor, lecturing anywhere, can insert into his lecture a “commercial” on the problem.  “And so I come to the end of my discussion of the literary significance of Darwin’s hangnail.  In conclusion, I would like to remind you that our Society for the Study of Darwin’s Hangnail can only exist in a world in which there is leisure time for intellectual pursuits.  Unless something is done now to bring the runaway human population under control, the SSDH will not long endure.”

Yes, Ehrlich did write this stuff.  Seriously.  If you don’t believe me, buy a copy of the book and read it for yourself.   He wrote it and millions of people, many of whom were educated and intelligent, took it seriously.

Unfortunately the book contains some ideas that aren’t quite so funny.  First of all, there’s this recommendation: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”  So much for freedom.   Elsewhere this:

 The reproductive function of sex must be shown as just one of its functions, and one that must be carefully regulated in relation to the needs of the individual and society. … With a rational atmosphere mankind should be able to work out the problems of de-emphasizing the reproductive role of sex.  These problems include finding substitutes for the sexual satisfaction which many women derive from childbearing … If we take the proper steps in education, legislation, and research, we should be able in a generation to have a population thoroughly enjoying its sexual activity, relatively free of the horrors created today by divorce, illegal abortion, venereal disease, and the psychological pressures of a sexually repressive and repressed society.

Quite a lot of bad stuff here.  Ehrlich calls for government to muck around in people’s private, sexual decisions.  He calls for us to teach children dishonest things about sex.  He implies that women are unable to understand or control their own sexual desires.  And he predicts that as soon as we rid ourselves of the boogeyman called “sexual repression”, STDs, divorce, and abortion will vanish.  Needless to say, he was wrong.  Society has dropped almost all traditional views of sex and we now let everyone do as they will, but divorce and abortion and STDs were still with us when I last checked.

Lastly Ehrlich offers prescriptions for international policy.  Here’s where he gets truly ugly.  He argues for a system of triage in distributing food aid.  Some third-world countries, in his view, are well off enough that they don’t need aid.  Some are deserving of our aid.  And some are just so overpopulated that there’s no point in giving them aid, so we should just cut off the food and leave them to starve.  Don’t take my word for it; read what Ehrlich says: “Finally there is the last tragic category—those countries that are so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency.  India is probably in this category.  If it is, then under the triage system she should receive no more food.”  So there you have it is so many words.   Ehrlich recommend cutting off food aid to India, which would have resulted in the deaths of many millions.  Fortunately our government did not implement his recommendation.

(One final note: Ehrlich’s example of a good third-world country was Libya, the same Libya that was ruled by the murderous Gaddafi for decades.)

One thing that very few people know about this book is that it was published by the Sierra Club.  Wait, you might ask, the Sierra Club promoted sterilization by force, misogyny, and the unnecessary starvation of millions of people?  It sure did.  I am not an enemy of the Sierra Club.  I consider myself an environmentalist and I strongly support the goal of preserving nature and reducing pollution.  But this book stands as a testament to the need for intelligence and skepticism when someone makes a claim of impending doom.

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

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