Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chesterton vs. C.S. Lewis on Hamlet: When Christian Hearties Clash

There is an atmosphere in Hamlet, for instance, a somewhat murky and even melodramatic one, but it is subordinate to the great character, and morally inferior to him; the darkness is only a background for the isolated star of intellect.

GK Chesterton, A Midsummer Night's Dream

I believe that we read Harmlet's speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass, rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it… Particularly noticeable is the passage where Hamlet professes to be describing his own character. 'I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious.' (3, 1, 125-9). It is, of course, possible to devise some theory which explains these self-accusations in terms of character. But long before we have done so the real significance of the lines has taken possession of our imagination for ever. 'Such fellows as I’ (3, 1, 132) does not mean 'such fellows as Goethe's Hamlet, or Coleridge's Hamlet, or any Hamlet': it means men, creatures shapen in sin and conceived in iniquity -- and the vast empty vision of them 'crawling between earth and heaven’ (3, 1, 132-3) is what really counts and really carries the burden of the play.

C.S. Lewis, Hamlet, the Prince or the Poem?

For what it's worth, I agree with Lewis here.

Chesterton, MacNeice and Lewis on the Claustrophobia of Comprehensiveness

It is a commonplace that the Restoration movement can only be understood when considered as a reaction against Puritanism. But it is insufficiently realised that the tyranny which half frustrated all the good work of Puritanism was of a very peculiar kind. It was not the fire of Puritanism, the exultation in sobriety, the frenzy of a restraint, which passed away; that still burns in the heart of England, only to be quenched by the final overwhelming sea. But it is seldom remembered that the Puritans were in their day emphatically intellectual bullies, that they relied swaggeringly on the logical necessity of Calvinism, that they bound omnipotence itself in the chains of syllogism. The Puritans fell, through the damning fact that they had a complete theory of life, through the eternal paradox that a satisfactory explanation can never satisfy.

GK Chesterton, Charles II, Twelve Types

The modern monist too castrates, negates our lives
And nothing that we do, make or become survives,
His terror of confusion freezes the flowing stream
Into mere illusion, his craving for supreme
Completeness means he chokes each orifice with tight
Plaster as he evokes a dead ideal of white
All-white Universal, refusing to allow
Division or dispersal - Eternity is now
And Now is therefore numb, a fact he does not see
Postulating a dumb static identity
Of Essence and Existence which could not fuse without
Banishing to a distance belief along with doubt,
Action along with error, growth along with gaps;
If man is a mere mirror of God, the gods collapse.

Louise MacNeice, Parmenides

The human imagination has seldom had before it an objects so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces, it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered byways? No twilight? Can we really never get out of doors?

C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Waugh on Chesterton

"He was a loveable and much loved man abounding in charity and humility. Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice-- all the odious qualities-- which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the soul more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. This is the paradox of artistic achievement."

"Chesterton", Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh

For what it's worth. Personally, I have never enjoyed a line of Evelyn Waugh's writing; browsing the book from which this quotation is taken, I felt suffocated by the airless prose, and rather repelled by the solemnity with which he treats art and literature. Give my Chesterton's swingeing style any day. Of course, I am biased.

I also tend to think that good art is ultimately moral art, and that Oscar Wilde's claim that "a book is well written or badly written; that is all" is superficial. It was not Byron's egomania and decadence that wrote "She walks in beauty, like the night..." It was whatever tenderness and reverence he had preserved.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

GK Chesterton Goes to the Movies

But there is a case against the movies, and it is concerned not with crude criminology, but with much more subtle psychology. In some places it is said that the cinema has destroyed the theatre. And in another and peculiar sense it has really destroyed the old childish feeling about the theatre, and especially about going to the theatre. The theatre, of course, has not actually been destroyed, and fairy plays are still provided for the child. But when I was a child all plays were fairy plays. By fairy plays I do not mean plays about fairies, written by fairies. It was not that in an elfin drama ladies and gentlemen dressed up as elves. It was rather that in a modern drama elves had dressed up as ladies and gentlemen. The whole play, the whole theatre, the whole fact that there was any play or any theatre, seemed to me something produced by a spell or the stroke of a wizard’s wand…Every man of my age has had that purely theatrical thrill. When every allowance is made, I gravely doubt whether every child who haunts the cinema really has it. Cinemas are so numerous, so cheap, and so changing and disconnected, that I do believe that the spectators soon lose, if they ever had, that romantic and almost religious intensity in the experience.

Pleasure-Seeking in the Modern World, Illustrated London News, December 9, 1922

How could Chesterton have been so utterly wrong? I have attended the cinema hundreds of times in my life. I have often gone to see films up to five times. I’ve sat in packed theatres, and once or twice I’ve been literally the only person in the audience (for instance, for the 2004 film The Alamo.)

I’ve had plenty of time to lose “that romantic and almost religious intensity of the experience”—but I haven’t. From the first film I was brought to see (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when I was seven years old—I didn’t realise the seats folded down and was literally on the edge of my seat for the first while), to my latest trip to the flicks (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a few hours ago), the magic has never faded. In fact, I believe it’s grown more potent.

“Romantic and religious intensity” is a good phrase for it. There are very experiences in secular life that match the cinema for its atmosphere of solemn ecstasy; and the solemnity and the ecstasy are there no matter what the film is about. Even the most witless comedy or the most nihilistic art-flick takes on a certain grandeur, given the size of the screen. Even the fluffiest chick-flick can’t help being solemn, set against the incomparable darkness of a movie theatre.

I love it all. The films titles on the marquee; the movie posters on the cinema wall; the smell of popcorn and hot dogs drifting from the shop; the delicious anticipation of walking into the darkened auditorium; the empty aisles before a film; the piped music; the heavy folded curtains, the rather genteel ornamentation so many cinemas prefer; the trailers (often the best part of the whole trip); the studio logo (Columbia is my favourite); the goosepimply moment when the censor’s certificate is displayed; whatever whispers and giggles and shrieks and cheers come from the audience; the moment of repletion when the credits roll; the rediscovery of the outside world, an outside world made more vivid, if the film has done its work; and the post-film analysis, which can begin right there and then if you’ve gone with a companion, and can be revisited for years into the future. (I especially love “event” movies, like the Lord of the Rings series, where everybody seems to join in the analysis).

The few cinema references I’ve encountered in Chesterton have been unenthusiastic, even disparaging. I can’t blame him too much for this; how many films from his era could you happily sit through? (I managed to endure The Battleship Potemkin a few years ago; it might be a monument in film-making, but it’s also monumentally dull.) But there’s something pleasing in the thought that even Chesterton, the apostle of wonder, couldn’t keep up with the wonders of the world. And it’s salutary for a laudator temporis acti (or stuck-in-the-mud nostalgist) like me to realise that modernity has brought its marvels, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"The Parson Is Not Dull Because..."

"...he is always expounding theology, but because he has no theology to expound. This is quite as true of bad theology as of good; of things I utterly disbelieve as of things I believe. The old Scotch Calvnistic sermons kept a very high intellectual average, and intensely interested the Scottish peasants who were trained under them. And this is not so much because theology is necessary to religion, as simply because logic is necessary to theology. Logic is at least a game, and the old Calvinistic preachers played the game. It was a fine, fantastic exercise in Lewis Carroll's game of logic, to take any text from the chronicles of Christianity and reconcile it with the creed of Calvin. It took some doing; and it was amusing to see it done. The Scotch peasants went eagerly every Sabbath to see a Presbyterian minister performing like an acrobat. But there was some real fun, because there was some real thinking. And there was some real thinking because there was some real theology."

Written in the year before Chesterton became a Roman Catholic. From "Why People Don't Go to Church", the Illustrated London News, August 27, 1921

Sunday, November 14, 2010

GK Chesterton and William Shatner

At around the same time I rediscovered Christmas, which I had pretended to dislike for many years. I slipped into a carol service on a winter evening, diffident and anxious not to be seen. I knew perfectly well that I was enjoying it, though I was unwilling to admit it. A few days later, I went to another one, this time with more confidence, and actually sang.

Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God, 2010

For, paradoxical as it sounds, men shrink from enjoyment; they make one automatic step backwards from the brink of hilarity; because they know that it means the loss of dignity and a certain furious self-effacement. It is to get over this first reluctance of every reveller that men have created also coercive festivals such as Christmas Day.

GK Chesterton, The Alleged Decline of Christmas, The Illustrated London News, January 8 1910

Two quotations a century apart, both touching a subject I find increasingly fascinating. It’s extraordinary how everything that really matters—everything that ennobles, uplifts and affirms life—is intensely embarrassing.

I can’t avoid being autobiographical here. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that, “Fear and I were born twins.” Well, I sometimes think I was born Siamese twins with embarrassment. This might be one source of my longstanding anglophilia, as England sometimes seems like a society built on social discomfort. The English tendency to embarrassment is well described by Kate Fox in her excellent Watching the English, most amusingly in this passage about the English attitude to greeting:

But even among those with no class prejudice about ‘Pleased to meet you’, who believe it is the correct and polite thing to say, this greeting is rarely delivered with ringing confidence: it is usually mumbled rather awkwardly, and as quickly as possible – ‘Plstmtye’. This awkwardness may, perversely, occur precisely because people believe they are saying the ‘correct’ thing. Formality is embarrassing. But then, informality is embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing.

Everything is indeed embarrasing; but some things are much more embarrassing than others. Poetry, for instance (and taking poetry seriously). Sentimentality. Unfashionable opinions. Ritual. Ceremony. Honouring the past. Making a stand and consciously departing from convention.

In fact, all the things I came to care about more and more as I made my way through my teens and twenties were painfully embarrassing. It was a bit of a pickle; I bewailed the modern world’s lack of ritual and ceremony, while I found so much as shaking hands or clinking glasses mortifying. I bitterly regretted that I could not kneel to a monarch, agreeing with Yeats that “my medieval knees lack health until they bend”, while even saying “good morning” made me blush. I longed for a revival of my country’s national traditions, but couldn’t even say Dia dhuit (God be with you, an Irish greeting) without squirming.

Perhaps the phenomenon of “cultural cringe” is most noticeable in post-colonial nations such as Ireland, but we should remember what George Orwell said about English patriotism and the intellectual class:

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box.

Whatever about other great nations and major powers, there’s no doubt that Ireland suffers to an even greater extent from the same sniggering mentality. We often use the term Oirish to denote any institution, custom or tradition that is not “forward-looking”, metropolitan and self-consciously sophisticated. Before Riverdance made it cool, Irish dancing made us want to hide our faces. I feel panicky if someone starts speaking the Irish language around me, and I know other Irish people have the same reaction. Writers like Thomas Moore, Percy French and John D. Sheridan are patronised for using a “stage Irish” stereotype. (Patrick Kavanagh would call such writers "buckleppers".) I remember a female friend of mine (an enthusiast for the Irish language) marvelling that a mutual friend would actually wear an Aran sweater (a very handsome and practical garment) on a night out.

Of course, when it comes to religion, the squirm-o-meter goes off the charts. Samuel Johnson said: “My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any unusual place. Now, although rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid that there are so many that do not pray, that their understanding is not called into question”. I can’t help believing that even many religious people, these days, would feel intensely self-conscious in praying in public, or suggesting a prayer at some public event. I know I would.

But the irony is that most of us, even agnostics and non-belligerent atheists, seem to value the cultural and aesthetic elements of religion. The Marian shrines dotted around Ireland, even (touchingly) in the most prosaic of suburbs, are a favourite with tourists and photographers. I can’t pass the (admittedly tacky) statue of Jesus on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, erected by taxi-drivers, without feeling a pang for the time when such a public display of piety was entirely natural. And who could regret the hundreds of thousands of St. Bridget’s crosses in doorways and car windows all over Ireland, or the houses named after saints? There is a Dublin football team called Stella Maris, formed during the Second World War. I think the entire social, cultural and religious decline of the Irish nation can be illustrated by the fact that a football team could, sixty years ago, choose such a poetic and reverential name for itself, and that such a tribute would be unthinkable in today’s Ireland. We would be far too embarrassed.

What has all this to do with William Shatner? Well, not much, to be honest; I just thought it would be a snappy and eye-catching title. But there is some connection. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time (far too much) laughing over William Shatner’s spoken-word rendition of Elton John’s Rocket Man at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards (available on Youtube). It’s hammy beyond belief, cringe-inducing, fist-biting, and—I slowly began to realise, over months—utterly inspired and brilliant. Precisely because it throws caution to the wind and dares to be mortifying. The very thing makes us cringe makes it compelling.

We cannot aim at profundity without risking (and maybe achieving) bathos. We cannot strive after splendour and grandeur without being accused of kitsch and camp. We cannot show reverence without risking a titter-- and the more reverence, the more titters.

We might even say that, the more something makes us embarrassed, the more worthwhile it's likely to be. Perhaps we should practice mortifications in more sense than one.

Incidentally, the first Amazon.com review for Shatner’s original, and much-mocked, spoken-word album, The Transformed Man (contributed by a star reviewer, and not tongue-in-cheek) begins: “Let me just come right out and say it: I think William Shatner's The Transformed Man is brilliant - brilliant, I say….Call it a novelty album if you like, but I sincerely believe this is one of the most underappreciated works of musical genius ever recorded. Heaven help me, but I really and truly love this album.”

That might be overstating it, but I wouldn’t mind hearing The Transformed Man (and I love the title, too, especially since it reminds me of The Everlasting Man). In fact, if anyone feels like getting me a Christmas present…

posted by Maolsheachlann

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Through a Window

(This is something I posted on the predecessor to this blog, the Irish Chestertonian, last year-- Maolsheachlann.)

I can't remember the first time I heard of GK Chesterton, or the first time I read him. It may have been Lepanto, which I came across in an old school poetry anthology. But I do remember the first Chestertonian passage that spoke to me personally, that gave me that shock of surprised recognition which is a reader's greatest reward. I was flicking through his Autobiography, some nine years ago, and I hit upon this famous sentence: "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

We are often warned not to reduce an author or a philosopher to a single phrase, or a single idea. But are we really doing Chesterton and injustice in perpetually returning to that single word, wonder, as his essential message?

Coming across that sentence, again, while reading Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy has led me to think about the ideas, the sights and sounds, that spark my own sense of wonder. I'm boundlessly grateful for them, as they are entirely a gift. I could make become a millionaire far more easily than I could be shown the wonder in an everyday sight or sound, and I mean that literally.

Chesterton's mention of a window suggests the first example to me. I grew up in a high-rise estate, on the seventh floor of an apartment block. Sometimes I would have dreams about figures floating outside the window, like the vampiric boy in the miniseries of Salem's Lot. I grew up with the idea that for somebody to be outside the window of your home (a situation I often encountered in books) was exotic, miraculous, unearthly.

For about nine years now I've been on ground level with everybody else, but the marvel of the voice outside the window remains. It can be a group of little girls skipping on a Saturday morning. It can be a crowd of teenagers lurching home from the pub on a Saturday night. It can simply be the creak of a bicycle wheel. Even now, they all seem as wondrous to me as the sight of a mammoth or a Roman chariot. That mysterious Other outside my window is only feet away; but the sheet of glass between us divides us into separate realms. I know that this sense of marvel at a voice outside my window will follow me to my dying day, and I am unspeakably grateful for it.

Because that's the thing about wonder; its inexhaustibility. If I were to inherit a fortune tomorrow, I would probably get over the excitement of living in a mansion. But I will never get over the excitement of the lights going down in the cinema, or the sound of water gurgling in a drain, or the view into an upstairs bedroom as I pass a house on the bus, and marvel at the living dolls in the life-size dollhouse.

Because I could write on this theme forever, I will be stern with myself and only mention one more, perhaps because it illustrates another of Chesterton's aphorisms; namely, that an inconvenience is only an adventure, rightly considered. I can remember reading a pamphlet on stress, issued by some health authority or other, when I was a child. The pamphlet described the various situations that lead to stress, and gave chirpy suggestions on how to deal with them.

One was a traffic jam. If I had a Chestertonian memory, I could reproduce the passage verbatim, but the essence of it was: "Try to smile at another driver caught in the traffic jam."

I had never been in a traffic jam. My family had never owned a car, and I had rarely travelled in one. My school was within walking distance. To my naive mind, the thought of a traffic jam was immensely pleasing. I liked the idea of complete strangers thrown together, like the kids in detention in The Breakfast Club, or-- pretty much-- every set of characters in every adventure story whatsoever. It had all the charm of a desert island captivity. I wondered how anyone could help smiling in such a situation.

I'd like to pretend that I exult in traffic jams now, just as I thrill to the sound of a voice outside my window. Unfortunately, my imagination has been less helpful on this occasion; I've found myself becoming as cross, frustrated and aggrieved as anybody else in my (subsequently vast) experience of traffic jams.

The memory of the pamphlet only occured to me recently, when I had started to think-- partly spurred by Chesterton's writing, partly by the course of my own thoughts-- how much we miss inconveniences when they are taken away, and how much human drama they add to our lives. Do you remember breakdowns in TV transmission? "Here is some music"? Have you ever heard a thirty-something wax nostalgic over how, when he was a kid, loading a game on his Amstrad of Spectrum computer took longer than playing it? Have you ever noticed how twenty-somethings who detested having to wear uniforms in school flock to nostalgia discos where school uniform is compulsory? Have you ever felt sorry for a teenager with her own car?

So now I try to exult in the traffic jam, and savour the queue. Maybe I'll never entirely succeed in that endeavour. But at least I know the voice outside the window will always be a voice from fairyland.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I Don't Know What To Tell You, Virginia

On his terrific blog (which I freely admit I often struggle to follow), Thomistic philsopher Edward Feser argues that it is wrong to tell children Santa Claus exists. Interestingly, the first comment on the post (not by me, but by someone by the name RP) quotes Chesterton to this effect: "Personally, of course, I believe in Santa Claus; but it is the season of forgiveness, and I will forgive others for not doing so." (GKC)

It seems plain from this, and from the passage I quoted in this post (I'm sure many others could be found) that Chesterton approved of parents passing on the Santa Claus story, or at least did not frown on them for so doing.

Not that I would presume to argue with Edward Feser, and rationally I cannot mount a defence of the practice myself, especially since Feser insists it has been condemned by manualists and Catholic authorities. But it seems a pity to me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why GK Chesterton Doesn't Matter

I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong.


It has been said that Chesterton was too modest in this passage-- that his book on Browning, just like his books on Dickens and Chaucer and Saint Thomas Aquinas, were very much about their subjects-- but it's plain to see what he was getting at. None of Chesterton's biographies idolise their subjects. In fact, idolatry was one of the great sins that Chesterton railed against all his life; whether that idolatry lay in making a single half-truth overshadow Truth itself, or whether it lay in seeing some secondary thing (such as efficiency or art) as being of primary importance.

Chesterton was not all interested in himself. Nor should we be.

This subject came to mind while I read some Chesterton criticism. One of the reasons I think GKC is always interesting is because he is always writing about fundamentals. He may write a rhapsody on a pig, or an essay on a piece of chalk, or a meditation on the lack of statutes erected to Shakespeare in England. But always, he is writing about man, his place in the universe, and his relationship to God. His writing always seems to belong to the tavern, no matter how arcane the subject he happens to be addressing.

I believe (obviously) that there is a place in the world for a GK Chesterton Society, and for Chestertonian blogs. But let Chesterton be a guide, not a guru-- and certainly not a golden calf.

I haven't read all of GKC's works, and I have no intention of doing so. I don't think there is any great benefit in studying his occasional verse or digging up his juvenilia. I am not especially interested in the houses he lived in, the friends he dined with, or the books he read.

But I think our era needs the spirit of Chesterton-- his bottomless gratitude for existence, his impatience with morbidity and snobbery and nihlism, his championing of the ordinary and the humble-- even more than his own did.

To quote the recent words of Dr. Thursday, of the American Chesterton Society's blog:

And so... well... what really has to be said in such a conclusion? Only this: Let us take GKC's warnings about pride seriously, and let us keep things in their proper order: let us strive to be Christians who also read Chesterton, not Chestertonians who also read the gospels. Let us heed the warning given in GKC's own discussion of St. Francis, who did not want people to follow him, but to follow Christ...Let us be serious about our Chesterton, and thereby turn society back - to our Lord.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From "Some Fallacies and Santa Claus"

Some complain that parents will not tell their children whether Santa Claus exists or not. The parents do not tell them for the excellent reason that the parents do not know. Those who have thought their way deepest into the mysteries of man's life in nature have generally tended to the idea that there were principles, and very probably personal principles, behind the energies in places, seasons, occupations, and periods of life.

Some Fallacies and Santa Claus, The Nation, December 7 1912. Reprinted in the Chesterton Review, 1981

I felt like whooping with delight when I read that last line. So Chesterton believed, or at least, he was inclined to believe, that (to quote Tennyson) "a spirit haunts the year's last hours"; that a spirit hovers over the breakfast table; that there is a genius loci in the market square. I believed this without thinking when I was a child, and even today, the idea haunts me. Without being irreverent, I yearn for the days when I would have immediately concurred with Thales of Miletus that "everything is full of gods".