16 July 2017

Reading Chesterton

G.K. and Frances Chesterton, 1911 (Public Domain) 
G.K. Chesterton wrote “Orthodoxy”—his “slovenly autobiography”—“in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe.”

He was responding to G.S. Street and others who criticized his book, "Heretics," for not supporting its arguments with sufficient examples. In “Heretics,” Chesterton held forth "On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small," "The Mildness of the Yellow Press," "On the Wit of Whistler," and other things. And since that book's chapters stand more on their own, they also provide an introduction to Chesterton's cadence and humor.

He begins "Orthodoxy" with an argument from sanity. He writes, “...as all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.”

He does not merely question modern materialist assumptions; he moves from example to example, turning modern categories on their heads. A democrat by taste, not just ideology, he defends tradition as “democracy across time.”

He appeals to lived human experience, drawing evidence from literature, art, and architecture as well as philosophy, and idealizing an earthy old England prior to the Puritans and materialists. His discussion of suicide is not about suicide itself but builds a bridge from the inadequacies of optimism and pessimism to the resolution he finds in Christianity.

Under the weight of all these little observations, he comes to the sensibility that Christianity is a truth-telling thing.

"...since I have accepted Christendom as a mother and not merely as a chance example, I have found Europe and the world once more like the little garden where I stared at the symbolic shapes of cat and rake; I look at everything with the old elvish ignorance and expectancy. This or that rite or doctrine may look as ugly and extraordinary as a rake; but I have found by experience that such things end somehow in grass and flowers. A clergyman may be apparently as useless as a cat, but he is also as fascinating, for there must be some strange reason for his existence."

Reading Chesterton is more like exploring a landscape than following a logical progression. One outlines in the margins only to return and scribble notes over other notes as themes emerge and re-emerge and modify one another. His writing is poetic, breaking established categories to recover or reveal the reality of things.

He does this, as Alison Milbank argues in “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real,” through defamiliarization, the grotesque, and paradox.

In his poem, “By the Babe Unborn,” the speaker is not directly named and speaks from an unusual point of view. The effect is to re-enchant the ordinary world—grass, sea, sunlight, and hills...and give the reader the experience of seeing colors for the first time.

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

Chesterton uses the grotesque to contrast a saint with how he is remembered in “A Man and His Image.” But the use of the grotesque here to get at something more true also reveals something about how Chesterton saw reality...as something wilder and only partially perceived.

All day the nations climb and crawl and pray

In one long pilgrimage to one white shrine,
Where sleeps a saint whose pardon, like his peace,
Is wide as death, as common, as divine.

His statue in an aureole fills the shrine,
The reckless nightingale, the roaming fawn,
Share the broad blessing of his lifted hands,
Under the canopy, above the lawn.

But one strange night, a night of gale and flood,
A sound came louder than the wild wind's tone;
The grave-gates shook and opened: and one stood
Blue in the moonlight, rotten to the bone.

Then on the statue, graven with holy smiles,
There came another smile—tremendous—one
Of an Egyptian god. 'Why should you rise?
'Do I not guard your secret from the sun?

The nations come; they kneel among the flowers
Sprung from your blood, blossoms of May and June,
Which do not poison them--is it not strange?
Speak!' And the dead man shuddered in the moon.

Shall I not cry the truth?'--the dead man cowered--
Is it not sad, with life so tame and cold,
What earth should fade into the sun's white fires
With the best jest in all its tales untold?

'If I should cry that in this shrine lie hid
Stories that Satan from his mouth would spew;
Wild tales that men in hell tell hoarsely—speak!
Saint and Deliverer! Should I slander you?'

Slowly the cowering corse reared up its head,
'Nay, I am vile ... but when for all to see,
You stand there, pure and painless—death of life!
Let the stars fall—I say you slander me!

'You make me perfect, public, colourless;
You make my virtues sit at ease--you lie!
For mine were never easy—lost or saved,
I had a soul—I was. And where am I?

Where is my good? the little real hoard,
The secret tears, the sudden chivalries;
The tragic love, the futile triumph—where?
Thief, dog, and son of devils—where are these?

I will lift up my head: in leprous loves
Lost, and the soul's dishonourable scars—
By God I was a better man than This
That stands and slanders me to all the stars.

'Come down!' And with an awful cry, the corse
Sprang on the sacred tomb of many tales,
And stone and bone, locked in a loathsome strife,
Swayed to the singing of the nightingales.

Then one was thrown: and where the statue stood
Under the canopy, above the lawn,
The corse stood; grey and lean, with lifted hands
Raised in tremendous welcome to the dawn.

'Now let all nations climb and crawl and pray;
Though I be basest of my old red clan,
They shall not scale, with cries or sacrifice,
The stature of the spirit of a man.'

The Magi identify themselves in the second stanza of “The Wise Men,” but Chesterton employs paradox after paradox until we find ourselves included in the final stanza.

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

His poetics take this shape it appears not as a rhetorical flourish but because this is how he gets through to what is real, as the protagonist in his novel, "The Man Who Was Thursday," experiences.

"He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.... Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky. Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl."

No comments:

Post a Comment