In Aids to Reflection, Coleridge often throws in the odd Latin word or phrase. Mostly, he offers an accessible and useful definition. Sometimes not though, and I like to be sure I am catching everything etymologically. One term that intrigued me especially was lene clinamen, so I did a looking myself.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Chesterton
I have been an avid fan of G. K Chesterton for a number of years. I have read numerous biographies, perused through his essays, novels, short stories, and poems, and found them all bright and useful. I had no complaints with the biographies—until now. Enter Nancy Carpentier Brown’s The Woman Who Was Chesterton (2015). Suddenly, I realized that my knowledge of Chesterton was lacking, and in a big way: I didn’t know much about his wife, Frances.Read More
I’ve been thinking of having my students keep commonplace books. In notebooks of their choosing, they would copy out passages and quotations that they encounter in the year to come that are seen to fit within predetermined topics (what the Greeks called topoi, or “places”) that we will cull from Renaissance-era teachers who popularized the practice (thematic places like “Fidelity," "Beneficence,” or "Gratitude”). They would also be free to write out their own thoughts, and to discover themes of their own naming as they find common places that writers, artists, theologians, and scientists inhabit, such as the ones W.H. Auden came upon in the making his commonplace book, which he later called A Certain World: “Prayer,” “Tyranny,” “Love,” “Friday, Good.”
The art of the commonplace was once considered essential for the formation of a writer’s sensibility and style; it brought his mind into the same space as the minds he admired; it forced his hand, when copying out others’ sentences, to move the way another’s did, and so taught him, even as he learned stylistic possibilities and alternative turns of thought, that his own sway was not supreme. What’s more — at least to the Renaissance writers who promoted the discipline — it became a storehouse of material for one’s own writing. Or, to liven the metaphor, as Erasmus did, in Latin, in his popular primer on the art of rhetoric, de Copia, “The student, like the industrious bee, will fly about through all the authors’ gardens and light on every small flower of rhetoric, everywhere collecting some honey that he may carry into his own hive.” Montaigne’s industrious work in the essay form retained the topical organization of his commonplace book (“Of Constancy,” “Of Idleness,” “Of Liars”). Milton, too, sought the language of common places. So did John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, Emerson and Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy.
The form has largely fallen out of favor in our time. I wonder if the ascendancy of journaling — which tends toward a chronological order and the explicitly autobiographical — has come to eclipse it. If so, I think it all the more reason to bring the commonplace back into view. It is an essential companion to autobiography, for it shows the values and ideas that animate the actions of the daily. In this way, the commonplace book can be as penetrating and revealing as any biography, which is perhaps why Auden —who famously disdained writer’s biographies (“Biographies of writers, whether written by others or by themselves, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.”) — felt compelled to address the issue in a foreword to A Certain World. After admitting that what follows — a unique anthology of thoughts and images that struck him as worthy of note — forms “a sort of autobiography,” he quickly puts miles between himself and that term: the book, he says, is a “map of my planet.” The metaphor comes from G. K. Chesterton, whom he quotes:
"There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.”
By deliberately seeking the places that are common — the shared space of minds across distance and time — we come to discover the richness of our own world. The growth of Chesterton’s garden depends on Erasmus’s bees.
(Painting by Jan Steen)
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote a chapter evocatively titled "The Ethics of Elfland," in which he relates how his philosophy of the real world is best mirrored in the world of classical fairy tales (think Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, or the like). For example, the nature of the world in a fairy tale is magic; for Chesterton, likewise, the real world itself is magic. As he stated, "stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege." The world of the fairy tale and our own world are equally inexplicable in terms of why they are there or are the way they are. Both are equally startling and unnecessary, equally wonderful. Reality is a pure gift. The sun and planets and stars all "hang about" in the sky. Does "gravity" make that fact any more inherently explicable since gravity itself just adds one more thing equally inexplicable in its being and nature as the rest? Is the explanation of gravity any less peculiar, or indeed logically any different — on an ontological level — from saying that a magic spell holds them there?
The being of the world, and of ourselves, cannot be "solved" by pointing to a natural causal chain. Each link is as inexplicable and "magical" in its being as any other. A place where eggs turn into birds and caterpillars transform into butterflies, for Chesterton, is best captured in the language of the fairy tale: "We must answer that it is magic. ... A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. ... The sun shines because it is bewitched." The "magic" of a world that enchants us is not merely an impression but an insight.
The only reason the "real" world is not a realm of "magic" but one that is "disenchanted" (as Max Weber said) or dead is because it has been narrated that way, and it has shaped our consciousness and imagination. It perhaps gives us a sense of complacent calm or control to think of the world as not "magical" in this way, for it calls forth no response from us and we may shape it according to our will. But when we think of a fairy tale as magical and lived life as "just the real world," these are mere abstractions of our minds. The question is, are we going to interpret reality according the "dead" and "humdrum" metaphor of "the real world" or according to the profound depths so well captured in the metaphor of the fairy tale? The modern world sees the universe as dead because it is looking in a mirror at itself — its own abstraction projected onto the world. Yes, the natural world is full of interrelated patterns, but its patterns are that of the artist or the storyteller rather than of the fatalist or determinist.
Chesterton was not disparaging the legitimate place of scientific inquiry and discovery, though he thought that science pointed to a world as magical in its wonders and mysteries as any fairy tale. Rather, he was speaking of the nature of ontology, and the all-too-common fact that we take the being of the world and all its particularities for granted, when they are anything but "granted;” or rather, properly speaking, they are granted, and that's what's so astonishing — we are, they are. As I've quoted Chesterton before, there is within us "a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence" that we search for (Autobiography, 97). He concludes with this:
"Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life; the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I thought before I could write, and felt before I could think ... I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. ... The thing is magic ... Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently."
(Painting by Teun Hocks)
It was a hot summer Saturday when I uncovered a book of fairy tales at a vintage shop. It sparked a conversation with the shopkeeper, who asked me to recommend fairy tale books for her two young daughters. They wanted stories about fairies, princesses, dragons, witches — stories about adventures and quests for true love and truth.
Not until later, as I mused over my nephew playing in the darkening yard, did I realize how precious that conversation had been. It seems a rare thing, now, for children to want fairy tales. In a world full of iPads, structured play dates, and a relentless focus on academics and test scores, it seems that fairytales are being crowded out of everyday life.
And what a shame that is! Academia certainly has its place, but the lessons to be learned from fairy tales are not lessons often found in test tubes or classrooms. Fairy stories lend us a belief in the magical, in the un-provable. They teach us that bad things happen to good people but good will triumph; that things are not always as they seem; the value of love, and bravery, and kindness; that dragons, as G.K. Chesterton once beautifully put it, exist and that they can be killed.
In a skeptical world, fairy tales foster a sense of wonder, an appreciation for the unexplained and the magical. They’re morality tales, practical warnings, glimpses of the magical world that exists in the “black boxes”science and logic can’t explain. Princes and witches and dragons aren’t just frivolous stories; they teach us to love, and to hope, and to fight for truth, and to make your own way in an uncertain world.
I hope my nephew reads fairy tales. I hope he looks under bushes for gnomes and into streams for sprites and pixies. I hope he seeks redemption in desperate situations, that he dreams of magic and of eucatastrophe -- the sudden, inexplicable happy ending. I hope he fights dragons and quests for Fairy only to discover, as Tolkien phrased it, “that sudden glimpse of the truth…a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us."
The 17th century theologian and poet François Fénelon is quoted to have said,
There was nothing in me that preceded all [God’s] gifts, nothing able to receive them. The first of His gifts on which all the others rest is what I call “myself.” He gave me that self. I owe Him not only all that I have but also all that I am. Oh incomprehensible gift which our poor language expresses in a moment but which the human mind will never arrive at understanding it and all its depth. This God, who has made me, has given me myself to myself. The self I love so much is simply a present of His goodness. Without Him I would not be myself. Without Him I should have neither the self to love nor the love wherewith I love that self, nor the will that loves it, nor the mind that knows it. All is a gift. He who receives the gifts is himself to first gift he receives.
Sed contra, Francis Crick has stated,
“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: “You're nothing but a pack of neurons.” (Astonishing Hypothesis, 3)
Could there be a more astonishing gulf than between these two metaphysical approaches to human existence?
The Fénelon quote, other than being exquisitely beautiful, might be said to represent a view of reality that explains everything “up,” ultimately into the realm of the infinite, of infinite value, meaning, beauty, joy, and love, “and this we call God,” as Aquinas might say. “That which was from the beginning” (1 Jn 1:1), therefore, is reflected and imbibed throughout all of finite reality, informing the matrix of meaning in which we live and move and have our being.
On the other hand, the Crick quote might be said to display the approach that ultimately explains everything “down,” into ever more divided and basic material, getting into the realm of the inconceivably small, and finally into nothing--if not in a absolute sense, certainly in the sense that meaning, value, beauty, reason or the like simply did not exist “in the beginning.” It appears inevitable that this view could at the end of the day yield only some variety of nihilism, both in an almost “literal” and philosophical sense. If nothing is the beginning of all things, then reality at bottom is ontologically “blank.” By what criteria could anything ever be said to have any meaning, or human life any value, which have their ultimate basis in the nihil of a yawning void? That which is not present in the source cannot be present in what is derived from the source.
Not incidentally, in the “downward” model man can in theory master reality and fully explain it, fit it inside his head (at least once it finally becomes modified through technology). In the “upward” model man rather receives reality; he is the recipient of a gift. G. K. Chesterton, who believed, “The test of all happiness is gratitude” (Orthodoxy, 98), captured the wonder of existence as a gift when he stated that no man has “really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything,” adding,
At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. (Autobiography, 97)
If indeed we have received our entire reality purely as gift--even the reality of ourselves--can we also be masters of reality (even our own “little realities”)? Might it not be that only when we’re receptive of reality as gift, as revealed both in the wonder of creation and in the gospel--with Jesus Himself being the concentrated form of reality and its gift (Col 2:9)--that we’ll be of such posture as to receive God’s outpouring love revealed there, flowing into ourselves and from thence outward toward others and all creation?
(Painting by Teun Hocks)