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

Posts tagged ‘Chesterton’

Chesterton on The Atlantic on Chesterton

My buddy G. K. Chesterton recently got a nice write-up from The Atlantic.  This isn’t the first time, either.  That illustrious magazine has commented on the fellow before.  The current article, by James Parker, is a delight to read dribbles out quotes from the man himself, mainly from well-known works but also from a few obscure ones.  It offers an introduction and celebration of the enormous variety of Chesterton’s work, and tries to communicate the unique way that Chesterton pulls our spirits up into the heavens with succinct but magical wordsmithing.

That said, Parker does stumble at one point by describing Chesterton with the phrase “live wire”, and that brings us to today’s quote from St. Thomas Aquinas:

St. Francis was the son of a shopkeeper, or middle class trader; and while his whole life was a revolt against the mercantile life of his father, he retained none the less, something of the quickness and social adaptability which makes the market hum like a hive. In the common phrase, fond as he was of green fields, he did not let the grass grow under his feet. He was what American millionaires and gangsters call a live wire. It is typical of the mechanistic moderns that, even when they try to imagine a live thing, they can only think of a mechanical metaphor from a dead thing. There is such a thing as a live worm; but there is no such thing as a live wire. St. Francis would have heartily agreed that he was a worm; but he was a very live worm. Greatest of all foes to the go-getting ideal, he had certainly abandoned getting, but he was still going.

(No, I did not make a mistake here.  That’s a comment about St. Francis of Assisi from Chesterton’s book about St. Thomas.)

An obscure Chesterton gem

I just encountered this little poem for the first time today.

Ballad of the Sun

O well for him that loves the sun
That sees the heaven-race ridden or run,
The splashing seas of sunset won,
And shouts for victory.

God made the sun to crown his head,
And when death’s dart at last is sped,
At least it will not find him dead,
And pass the carrion by.

O ill for him that loves the sun;
Shall the sun stoop for anyone?
Shall the sun weep for hearts undone
Or heavy souls that pray?

Not less for us and everyone
Was that white web of splendor spun;
O well for him who loves the sun
Although the sun should slay.

-G. K. Chesterton

Short and sweet and very meaningful, as Chesterton’s poems always are.  (Well they’re not always short, but they’re always good.)  Chesteron was a lover of nature.  At the same time, he was careful to divide that from worship of nature.  Nature has great beauty and provides many good things for us.  This is because God created nature in order to allow us life and enjoyment, and God has mercy and goodness.  But nature itself does not have moral properties such as mercy and goodness.  In fact, much in nature can be lethal.

Here Chesterton illustrates this with the example of the sun.  The first two verses celebrates what’s good about the sun.  Verse three points out that the sun is not a deity, as many of the ancients would have it.  Praying to the sun, or expecting it to care about any person or thing, is pointless.  Verse four ties it all together.

My cheesiest post yet

This morning I clicked on over to the Atlantic Monthly’s homepage and what did I find but an article about the history of big blocks of cheese in the White House.  It turns out that two Presidents have been the recipients of enormous cheeses.  Thomas Jefferson received a wheel of cheddar from a Baptist preacher in 1802; it weighed 1,234 pounds and was engraved with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  (If better words were ever put on cheese, I’m unaware of it.)  A generation later, a dairy farmer named Thomas Meachem offered Andrew Jackson an even bigger cheddar: 1,400 pounds.  It left the White House stinking of cheese until the Van Buren Administration.

Such an article naturally left me with an obvious question: did Chesterton have anything to say about the intersection of politics and smelly cheese?  Well, Chesterton had something to say about everything.  This comes from A Miscellany of Men:

After a few sentences exchanged at long intervals in the manner of rustic courtesy, I inquired casually what was the name of the town. The old lady answered that its name was Stilton, and composedly continued her needlework. But I had paused with my mug in air, and was gazing at her with a suddenly arrested concern. “I suppose,” I said, “that it has nothing to do with the cheese of that name.” “Oh, yes,” she answered, with a staggering indifference, “they used to make it here.”

I put down my mug with a gravity far greater than her own. “But this place is a Shrine!” I said. “Pilgrims should be pouring into it from wherever the English legend has endured alive. There ought to be a colossal statue in the market-place of the man who invented Stilton cheese. There ought to be another colossal statue of the first cow who provided the foundations of it. There should be a burnished tablet let into the ground on the spot where some courageous man first ate Stilton cheese, and survived. On the top of a neighbouring hill (if there are any neighbouring hills) there should be a huge model of a Stilton cheese, made of some rich green marble and engraven with some haughty motto: I suggest something like ‘Ver non semper viret; sed Stiltonia semper virescit.'” The old lady said, “Yes, sir,” and continued her domestic occupations.

After a strained and emotional silence, I said, “If I take a meal here tonight can you give me any Stilton?”

“No, sir; I’m afraid we haven’t got any Stilton,” said the immovable one, speaking as if it were something thousands of miles away.

“This is awful,” I said: for it seemed to me a strange allegory of England as she is now; this little town that had lost its glory; and forgotten, so to speak, the meaning of its own name. And I thought it yet more symbolic because from all that old and full and virile life, the great cheese was gone; and only the beer remained. And even that will be stolen by the Liberals or adulterated by the Conservatives. Politely disengaging myself, I made my way as quickly as possible to the nearest large, noisy, and nasty town in that neighbourhood, where I sought out the nearest vulgar, tawdry, and avaricious restaurant.

There (after trifling with beef, mutton, puddings, pies, and so on) I got a Stilton cheese.

Chesterton on False Accusations

False reports have been a bit on my mind lately for obvious reasons (hey, there was another major hoax exposed in the press today), false reports of crimes doubly so.  As it happens, Chesterton was kind of big into that topic.  He wrote almost a hundred detective stories, most of which followed the standard outline.  A crime is committed, the facts appear to point to either a clear suspect or one of several, but then the detective cleverly unravels the mystery and puts the blame squarely on someone who was never suspected.  In that category, my favorite would probably be The Mirror of the Magistrate.

But not all of his stories follow that outline.  In some we begin with evidence or detailed accounts of a crime, and end up learning that there is no crime at all.  One of the best Father Brown stories fits that pattern: The Absence of Mr. Glass.  Also in that category: The Tremendous Adventures of Major BrownThe Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit, and of course the entire novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

But if we’re going to talk about instances where everyone’s sure that there’s a crime, and then it turns out there isn’t, the most relevant work is surely Four Faultless Felons. The title is direct enough: four stories about men who did something terrible, only it turns out that they didn’t.  Here’s how it starts:

Mr. Asa Lee Pinion, of the Chicago Comet had crossed half of America, the whole of the Atlantic, and eventually even Piccadilly Circus, in pursuit of the notable, if not notorious figure of Count Raoul de Marillac. Mr. Pinion wanted to get what is called “a story”; a story to put in his paper. He did get a story, but he did not put it in his paper. It was too tall a story, even for the Comet.  Perhaps the metaphor is true in more ways than one, and the fable was tall like a church-spire or a tower among the stars: beyond comprehension as well as belief. Anyhow, Mr. Pinion decided not to risk his readers’ comments. But that is no reason why the present writer, writing for more exalted, spiritual and divinely credulous readers, should imitate his silence.

A bit later we get this:

“Well, we are four men with a common bond at least. We have all had occasion, like Marillac, to look rather worse than we were.”

“Yes,” grunted the large man rather sourly, “we’ve all been Misunderstood. Like Mrs. Prague.”

“The Club of Men Misunderstood is rather more cheerful than that, however,” continued his friend. “We are all pretty jolly here, considering that our reputations have been blasted by black and revolting crimes. The truth is we have devoted ourselves to a new sort of detective story–or detective service if you like. We do not hunt for crimes but for concealed virtues. Sometimes, as in Marillac’s case, they are very artfully concealed. As you will doubtless be justified in retorting, we conceal our own virtues with brilliant success.”

The journalist’s head began to go round a little, though he thought himself pretty well accustomed both to crazy and criminal surroundings. “But I thought you said,” he objected, “that your reputations were blasted with crime. What sort of crime?”

“Well, mine was murder,” said the man next to him. “The people who blasted me did it because they disapproved of murder, apparently. It’s true I was rather a failure at murder, as at everything else.”

Pinion’s gaze wandered in some bewilderment to the next man who answered cheerfully:

“Mine was only a common fraud. A professional fraud, too, the sort that gets you kicked out of your profession sometimes. Rather like Dr. Cook’s sham discovery of the North Pole.”

“What does all this mean?” asked Pinion; and he looked inquiringly at the man opposite, who had done so much of the explaining so far.

“Oh, theft,” said the man opposite, indifferently; “the charge on which I was actually arrested was petty larceny.”

There was a profound silence, which seemed to settle in a mysterious manner, like a gathering cloud, on the figure of the fourth member, who had not spoken so far a single word. He sat erect in his rather stiff, foreign fashion; his wooden, handsome face was unchanged and his lips had never moved even for so much as a murmur. But now, when the sudden and deep silence seemed to challenge him, his face seemed to harden from wood to stone and when he spoke at last, his foreign accent seemed something more than alien, as if it were almost inhuman.

“I have committed the Unpardonable Sin,” he said. “For what sin did Dante reserve the last and lowest hell; the Circle of Ice?”

Still no one spoke; and he answered his own question in the same hollow tone:

“Treason. I betrayed the four companions of my party, and gave them up to the Government for a bribe.”

Something turned cold inside the sensitive stranger, and for the first time he really felt the air around him sinister and strange. The stillness continued for another half minute, and then all the four men burst out into a great uproar of laughter.

I highly recommend reading and enjoying the whole thing.

Chesterton on Torture

An excerpt from his classic essay, On Ending and Mending Things:

A certain politician (whom I would not discuss here on any account) once said of a certain institution (which wild horses shall not induce me to name) that “It must be mended or ended.” Few people who use this useful phrase about reform notice the important thing about it. The important thing about it is that the two methods described here are not similar but opposite; between mending and ending that is not a difference of degree but of vital antagonism of kind. Mending is based upon the idea that the original nature of a thing is good; ending is based upon the idea that the original nature of a thing is bad or at least, has lost all power of being good.

If I “mend” an armchair it is because I want an armchair. I mend the armchair because I wish to restore it to a state of more complete armchairishness. My objection to the armchair in its unmended state is that its defects prevent it from being in the fullest sense an armchair at all. If (let us say) the back has come off and three of the legs have disappeared, I realize, in looking at it, not merely that it presents a sense of general irregularity to the eye; I realize that in such and such respects it does definitely fall short of the Divine and Archetypal Armchair, which, as Plato would have pointed out, exists in heaven.

But it is possible that I might possess among my drawing room furniture some object, let us say a rack or a thumbscrew, of which the nature and raison d’être was repellent to my moral feelings. If my thumbscrew fell into slight disrepair, I should not mend it at all; because the more I mended my thumbscrew the more thumbscrewy it would be. If my private rack were out of order, I should be in no way disturbed; for my private code of ethics prevents me from racking anyone, and the more it was out of order the less likely it would be that any casual passer-by could get racked on it.

This was a man with clear moral principles.  When he needed an example of something that was obviously evil, and that everyone would agree was evil, he chose torture devices.

Chesterton offers more advice

Don’t use secondary words as primary words. “Happiness” (let us say) is a primary word. You know when you have the thing, and you jolly well know when you haven’t. “Progress” is a secondary word; it means the degree of one’s approach to happiness, or to some such solid ideal. But modern controversies constantly turn on asking, “Does Happiness help Progress?” Thus, I see in the New Age this week a letter from Mr. Egerton Swann, in which he warns the world against me and my friend Mr. Belloc, on the ground that our democracy is “spasmodic” (whatever that means); while our “reactionism is settled and permanent.” It never strikes Mr. Swann that democracy means something in itself; while “reactionism” means nothing—except in connection with democracy. You cannot react except from something. If Mr. Swann thinks I have ever reacted from the doctrine that the people should rule, I wish he would give me the reference.

– G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

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

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

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

Chesterton on cave paintings

Those who follow this blog have probably noticed that Chesterton hasn’t been posting much lately.  The recent discoveries of cave paintings from as far back as 77,000 years ago has at last provoked him to comment.

Today all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with numberless allusions to a popular character called a CaveMan. He seems to be quite familiar to us, not only as a public character but as a private character. His psychology is seriously taken into account in psychological fiction and psychological medicine. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off. But on every animal analogy, it would seem an almost morbid modesty and reluctance on the part of the lady, always to insist on being knocked down before consenting to be carried off. And I repeat that I can never comprehend why, when the male was so very rude, the female should have been so very refined. The cave-man may have been a brute, but there is no reason why he should have been more brutal than the brutes. And the loves of the giraffes and the river romances of the hippopotami are effected without any of this preliminary fracas or shindy. The cave-man may have been no better than the cave-bear; but the child she-bear, so famous in hymnology, is not trained with any such bias for spinsterhood. In short these details of the domestic life of the cave puzzle me upon either the revolutionary or the static hypothesis; and in any case I should like to look into the evidence for them; but unfortunately I have never been able to find it. But the curious thing is this: that while ten thousand tongues of more or less scientific or literary gossip seemed to be talking at once about this unfortunate fellow, under the title of the cave-man, the one connection in which it is really relevant and sensible to talk about him as the cave-man has been comparatively neglected. People have used this loose term in twenty loose ways; but they have never even looked at their own term for what could really be learned from it.

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what be did in the cave. It is little enough, like all the prehistoric evidence, but it is concerned with the real cave-man and his cave and not the literary cave-man and his club. And it will be valuable to our sense of reality to consider quite simply what that real evidence is, and not to go beyond it. What was found in the cave was not the club, the horrible gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. The cave was not a Bluebeard’s Chamber filled with the skeletons of slaughtered wives; it was not filled with female skulls all arranged in rows and all cracked like eggs. It was something quite unconnected, one way or the other, with all the modern phrases and philosophical implications and literary rumors which confuse the whole question for us. And if we wish to see as it really is this authentic glimpse of the morning of the world, it will be far better to conceive even the story of its discovery as some such legend of the land of morning. It would be far better to tell the tale of what was really found as simply as the tale of heroes finding the Golden Fleece or the Gardens of the Hesperides, if we could so escape from a fog of controversial theories into the clear colors and clean cut outlines of such a dawn. The old epic poets at least knew how to tell a story, possibly a tall story but never a twisted story, never a story tortured out of its own shape to fit theories and philosophies invented centuries afterwards. It would be well if modern investigators could describe their discoveries in the bald narrative style of the earliest travelers, and without any of these long allusive words that are full of irrelevant implication and suggestion. Then we might realize exactly what we do know about the cave-man, or at any rate about the cave.

A priest and a boy entered sometime ago a hollow in the hills and passed into a sort of subterranean tunnel that led into a labyrinth of such sealed and secret corridors of rock. They crawled through cracks that seemed almost impassable, they crept through tunnels that might have been made for moles, they dropped into holes as hopeless as wells, they seemed to be burying themselves alive seven times over beyond the hope of resurrection. This is but the commonplace of all such courageous exploration; but what is needed here is some one who shall put such stories in the primary light, in which they are not commonplace There is, for instance, some thing strangely symbolic in the accident that the first intruders into that sunken world were a priest and a boy, the types of the antiquity and of the youth of the world. But here I am even more concerned with the symbolism of the boy than with that of the priest. Nobody who remembers boyhood needs to be told what it might be to a boy to enter like Peter Pan under a roof of the roots of all the trees and go deeper and deeper, till he reach what William Morris called the very roots of the mountains. Suppose somebody, with that simple and unspoiled realism that is a part of innocence, to pursue that journey to its end, not for the sake of what he could deduce or demonstrate in some dusty magazine controversy, but simply for the sake of what he could see. What he did see at last was a cavern so far from the light of day that it might have been the legendary Domdaniel cavern that was under the floor of the sea. This secret chamber of rock, when illuminated after its long night of unnumbered ages, revealed on its walls large and sprawling outlines diversified with colored earths; and when they followed the lines of them they recognized, across that vast void of ages, the movement and the gesture of a man’s band. They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognize; and about which no artist will allow himself to be contradicted by any scientist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when be swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail, an action familiar enough in the horse. But there are many modern animal-painters who would set themselves something of a task in rendering it truly. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. In that sense it would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist; the sort of naturalist who is really natural.

Now it is needless to note, except in passing, that there is nothing whatever in the atmosphere of that cave to suggest the bleak and pessimistic atmosphere of that journalistic cave of the winds, that blows and bellows about us with countless echoes concerning the CaveMan. So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past, that human character is quite human and even humane. It is certainly not the ideal of an inhuman character, like the abstraction invoked in popular science. When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes,’Red spark danced in Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

When the psychoanalyst writes to a patient, “The submerged instincts of the cave-man are doubtless prompting you to gratify a violent impulse,’ he does not refer to the impulse to paint in water-colors; or to make conscientious studies of how cattle swing their heads when they graze. Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things and we have not the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things. In other words the cave-man as commonly presented to us is simply a myth or rather a muddle; for a myth has at least an imaginative outline of truth. The whole of the current way of talking is simply a confusion and a misunderstanding, founded on no sort of scientific evidence and valued only as an excuse for a very modern mood of anarchy. If any gentleman wants to knock a woman about, he can surely be a cad without taking away the character of the cave-man, about whom we know next to nothing except what we can gather from a few harmless and pleasing pictures on a wall.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

It’s worth linking to this story in Slate, which documents that some scientists now agree with the premise that artistic creation is what defined primitive humans as distnct from animals.

Tag Cloud