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

Posts tagged ‘gk-chesterton’

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.

Chesterton on the Copycat Hypothesis

Now it is this simple truth which, like many others, is too simple for our
scientists to see. This is where they go wrong, not only about true
religion, but about false religions too; so that their account of
mythology is more mythical than the myth itself. I do not confine myself
to saying that they are quite incorrect when they state (for instance)
that Christ was a legend of dying and reviving vegetation, like Adonis or
Persephone. I say that even if Adonis was a god of vegetation, they have
got the whole notion of him wrong. Nobody, to begin with, is sufficiently
interested in decaying vegetables, as such, to make any particular mystery
or disguise about them; and certainly not enough to disguise them under
the image of a very handsome young man, which is a vastly more interesting
thing. If Adonis was connected with the fall of leaves in autumn and the
return of flowers in spring, the process of thought was quite different.
It is a process of thought which springs up spontaneously in all children
and young artists; it springs up spontaneously in all healthy societies.
It is very difficult to explain in a diseased society.

The brain of man is subject to short and strange snatches of sleep. A
cloud seals the city of reason or rests upon the sea of imagination; a
dream that darkens as much, whether it is a nightmare of atheism or a
daydream of idolatry. And just as we have all sprung from sleep with a
start and found ourselves saying some sentence that has no meaning, save
in the mad tongues of the midnight; so the human mind starts from its
trances of stupidity with some complete phrase upon its lips; a complete
phrase which is a complete folly. Unfortunately it is not like the dream
sentence, generally forgotten in the putting on of boots or the putting in
of breakfast. This senseless aphorism, invented when man’s mind was
asleep, still hangs on his tongue and entangles all his relations to
rational and daylight things. All our controversies are confused by
certain kinds of phrases which are not merely untrue, but were always
unmeaning; which are not merely inapplicable, but were always
intrinsically useless. We recognise them wherever a man talks of “the
survival of the fittest,” meaning only the survival of the survivors; or
wherever a man says that the rich “have a stake in the country,” as if the
poor could not suffer from misgovernment or military defeat; or where a
man talks about “going on towards Progress,” which only means going on
towards going on; or when a man talks about “government by the wise few,”
as if they could be picked out by their pantaloons. “The wise few” must
mean either the few whom the foolish think wise or the very foolish who
think themselves wise.

There is one piece of nonsense that modern people still find themselves
saying, even after they are more or less awake, by which I am particularly
irritated. It arose in the popularised science of the nineteenth century,
especially in connection with the study of myths and religions. The
fragment of gibberish to which I refer generally takes the form of saying
“This god or hero really represents the sun.” Or “Apollo killing the
Python MEANS that the summer drives out the winter.” Or “The King dying in
a western battle is a SYMBOL of the sun setting in the west.” Now I
should really have thought that even the skeptical professors, whose
skulls are as shallow as frying-pans, might have reflected that human
beings never think or feel like this. Consider what is involved in this
supposition. It presumes that primitive man went out for a walk and saw
with great interest a big burning spot on the sky. He then said to
primitive woman, “My dear, we had better keep this quiet. We mustn’t let
it get about. The children and the slaves are so very sharp. They might
discover the sun any day, unless we are very careful. So we won’t call
it ‘the sun,’ but I will draw a picture of a man killing a snake; and
whenever I do that you will know what I mean. The sun doesn’t look at all
like a man killing a snake; so nobody can possibly know. It will be a
little secret between us; and while the slaves and the children fancy I am
quite excited with a grand tale of a writhing dragon and a wrestling
demigod, I shall really MEAN this delicious little discovery, that there
is a round yellow disc up in the air.” One does not need to know much
mythology to know that this is a myth. It is commonly called the Solar

Quite plainly, of course, the case was just the other way. The god was
never a symbol or hieroglyph representing the sun. The sun was a
hieroglyph representing the god. Primitive man (with whom my friend
Dombey is no doubt well acquainted) went out with his head full of gods
and heroes, because that is the chief use of having a head. Then he saw
the sun in some glorious crisis of the dominance of noon on the distress
of nightfall, and he said, “That is how the face of the god would shine
when he had slain the dragon,” or “That is how the whole world would bleed
to westward, if the god were slain at last.”

No human being was ever really so unnatural as to worship Nature. No man,
however indulgent (as I am) to corpulency, ever worshipped a man as round
as the sun or a woman as round as the moon. No man, however attracted to
an artistic attenuation, ever really believed that the Dryad was as lean
and stiff as the tree. We human beings have never worshipped Nature; and
indeed, the reason is very simple. It is that all human beings are
superhuman beings. We have printed our own image upon Nature, as God has
printed His image upon us. We have told the enormous sun to stand still;
we have fixed him on our shields, caring no more for a star than for a
starfish. And when there were powers of Nature we could not for the time
control, we have conceived great beings in human shape controlling them.
Jupiter does not mean thunder. Thunder means the march and victory of
Jupiter. Neptune does not mean the sea; the sea is his, and he made it.
In other words, what the savage really said about the sea was, “Only my
fetish Mumbo could raise such mountains out of mere water.” What the
savage really said about the sun was, “Only my great great-grandfather
Jumbo could deserve such a blazing crown.”

About all these myths my own position is utterly and even sadly simple.
I say you cannot really understand any myths till you have found that one
of them is not a myth. Turnip ghosts mean nothing if there are no real
ghosts. Forged bank-notes mean nothing if there are no real bank-notes.
Heathen gods mean nothing, and must always mean nothing, to those of us
that deny the Christian God. When once a god is admitted, even a false
god, the Cosmos begins to know its place: which is the second place. When
once it is the real God the Cosmos falls down before Him, offering flowers
in spring as flames in winter. “My love is like a red, red rose” does not
mean that the poet is praising roses under the allegory of a young lady.
“My love is an arbutus” does not mean that the author was a botanist so
pleased with a particular arbutus tree that he said he loved it. “Who art
the moon and regent of my sky” does not mean that Juliet invented Romeo to
account for the roundness of the moon. “Christ is the Sun of Easter” does
not mean that the worshipper is praising the sun under the emblem of
Christ. Goddess or god can clothe themselves with the spring or summer;
but the body is more than raiment. Religion takes almost disdainfully the
dress of Nature; and indeed Christianity has done as well with the snows
of Christmas as with the snow-drops of spring. And when I look across
the sun-struck fields, I know in my inmost bones that my joy is not solely
in the spring, for spring alone, being always returning, would be always
sad. There is somebody or something walking there, to be crowned with
flowers: and my pleasure is in some promise yet possible and in the
resurrection of the dead.

G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

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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