Tag: g.k. chesterton

“I live in so many centuries…”

I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.

-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 41

Hannah is dealing with the ‘age of confusion’ that was/is post-Vietnam America as he saw it. I’ve never read it, but there is a book about the artwork of Douglas Coupland (an author I really enjoy) that’s title carries the same idea. It’s called Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything.

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The idea is also reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five).

The overarching sense of all of this is that everything for the modern American is jumbled up, misunderstood, confused, etc. There’s a lot more than that, but for the sake of this post, that’s all I’m talking about.

There is something instructive, however. In his great book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called Tradition the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Tradition means giving your predecessors a vote that is equally as valid as yours. C.S. Lewis made the point that books from the past are the only tool we have to check our own chronological-subjectivism (see HERE and HERE). Alister McGrath summarizes Lewis’ position by saying that reading old books “frees us from the tyranny of the contemporaneous” as it keeps “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

My point is that ‘living in so many centuries’ that everyone seems alive is not actually a bad thing. Confusion can be bad. Having a healthy relationship with history not so much. I feel like I know some dead people better than I know some of the living folks I talk to every day.

Little Things Please Great Minds

Sir Thomas Browne was an exalted mystic [whose mysticism] owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not merely mean sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis; when he went over his work again, he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism; for the mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Little Things, from The Speaker, December 15th, 1900. Read it online HERE.

Chesterton, Anatomy of the Joke

I picked up an out of print book of G.K. Chesternoon newspaper essays at the seminary library a while back and came across this gem. It was published in 1922 in Hearst’s International. You can find it online HERE.

Chesterton illustrates man as a supremely needy being – so needy that he alone must sleep in the skin of another, so needy that he alone must pass his food through fire before it can pass through his stomach, so needy that he alone must be propped up by crutches called furniture.

Joy Davidman once quipped that, “…perhaps our remote ancestors had no sooner invented the slingshot than they reared back on their hind legs and proclaimed that their technical progress had now enabled them to do without religion.” Chesterton’s observations remind us that even our technological progress shows our neediness.

The Anatomy of the Joke, by G.K. Chesterton

There is nothing comic about a falling tree. There is nothing really funny about a falling star. And there is very little amusement to be got out of a falling thunderbolt, unless it knocks over some carefully selected and suitable person; such as a sociologist proving that he can foresee all future eventualities or an astronomer disproving the existence of thunderbolts.

In short, a falling star is not fantastic, but a falling man is, or can be, fantastic. Why? I do not believe the question can be fully answered, for the same reason that I do believe the current answers are wrong; because it lies deep in the mysterious matter of what did really happen when man received or evolved the mind that sunders him from the beasts and birds. But I will throw out a few vague suggestions about the proper direction of inquiry.

Man himself is a joke in the sense of a paradox. That there is something very extraordinary about his position, and therefore presumably about his past, is the clearest sort of common sense. Alone of all creatures he is not self-sufficient, even while he is supreme.

He dare not sleep in his own skin; he cannot simply put his own food into his own stomach. He has to put the latter first into an oven and cover the former first with external and foreign hair; always sleeping in somebody else’s skin. In one sense he is a cripple amongst the creatures; he is at once imperfect and artificial like a monster with two glass eyes and two wooden legs. He is propped upon crutches that are called furniture; he is patched and protected with bandages that are called clothes.

Properly visualized, he is grotesque, not when he sits on a hat, but when he allows a hat to sit on him. Properly understood, he is not so ridiculous when he sits on a hat as when he sits on a chair; for then he is acting like some monstrous sort of crippled quadruped and equipping himself with four wooden legs. Why the lord of creation is a cripple in this queer sense is an open question; but some maintain that it is because he once had a bad fall.

Now this humorous human quality can, as a matter of fact, be much more easily connected with this old idea of a fall of man than with the current and conventional ideas about the evolution of man. To begin with, the explanation, whatever it is, must be some thing more or less peculiar to man.

Those who have heard the hyena laugh will not admit that his laughter would add much to the mirth of a happy fireside. The fantastic shapes of the other animals are only fantastic as mirrored in the mind of man. In this sense we may say that the camel’s hump and the rhinoceros’ horn are human secrets and even human possessions; and that we know the pelican and the penguin better than they know themselves.

To all appearance the animal world is unconscious of the grotesque; and considered in the light of mere animal evolution, there is hardly anything grotesque about their innocence.

But let us entertain, merely as a hypothesis and without any reference to doctrinal details or applications, some such supposition as this. That at some time in the unknowable past the creature that has become man received some sort of shock or revelation, by the expansion of his own or the visitation of other psychical forces, whereby he gained a sense of a separate and more divine destiny; that he afterwards lost this direct vision and lived on a lower plane, so that he was haunted with a curious sensation that the accidents of this world are in a sense alien to him, while their very inappropriateness is mixed with some memories of happiness and some hope of recovery. To put it shortly, he is in a sense pleased to be the only creature who is in the wrong place, while all other creatures are in the right one.

It seems to me that the problem of humour presents one primary condition and difficulty which divides it from most others. It seems to me quite clear that the process which ends in a joke necessarily begins with a certain idea of dignity. The dignity is in some way implied beforehand. Beauty or knowledge might conceivably break on a person without previous implications. But incongruity cannot break on him without the pre-existence or pre-supposition of something with which it fails to be congruous. So far as one can see, that pre-supposition is of something erect and, as it were, respectable about the station or stature of humanity.

We think the projection of an elephant’s trunk grotesque because it is near enough to being a caricature of a man’s nose. We do not think the projection of a precipice grotesque because it is not near enough to imply any comparison with humanity at all.

The more this dark matter is independently considered, the more, I think, we shall find this human standard, as of an erect figure, dominating it like a statue. All depends on this dim or fantastic tracing everywhere of the image of man; and I believe the key is somewhere in that mysterious oracle which identified it with the image of God.

Chesterton on Following Advice and Being Different

I think I owe my success to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite. . .

I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and one for the Church Times and put them in the wrong envelopes…What is really the matter with almost every paper, is that it is much too full of things suitable to the paper.

– G.K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton

This quote now hangs on my office wall.

 

Columbusity

Serendipity is the word we use when someone who is looking for one thing discovers another, more valuable thing. It is odd that we have no word for serendipity’s close-by but troublesome cousin, especially because it is a more common variety of experience. I refer to a situation in which someone looks for one thing, discovers a more valuable thing, but doesn’t know it. I propose the word ‘columbusity,’ in honor of Christopher Columbus, who in looking for China discovered the New World but persisted in believing he hadn’t.

Neil Postman, Columbusity, from Conscientious Objections, pp. 129-130

I disagreed with this essay as much as I have ever disagreed with anything of Postman’s I’ve read. That’s fine. But the word ‘columbusity’ seems helpful to me. I am not really sure at this point why. Perhaps it simply reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s trek in Orthodoxy (and since it’s one of my favorite books…). Chesterton himself likened his pilgrimage to a boat-voyage:

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town? (from the Introduction to Orthodoxy).

Anyhow, Postman makes the point that we sometimes discover things we don’t expect, and then fail to realize that we’ve discovered them at all. It often takes me years to discover that I discovered something a few years ago.