Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review of "Now I See" by Arnold Lunn

All roads lead to Rome, as the proverb goes. And there is something uniquely fascinating in accounts of the twists and turns that each road takes on its way there.

Arnold Lunn was a skier (he invented the modern slalom), a mountaineer, a Swissophile (somebody had to be), a writer, a convert to Catholicism, and a prolific apologist. Now I See is partly an autobiography, partly a series of salvoes into the ranks of the infidel.

His writing career overlapped with Chesterton’s; Now I See was published in the year of his conversion, 1933, and he died in 1974.

Chesterton’s importance is best gauged by reading other Catholic and Christian apologists. (Of course, Chesterton was much more than an apologist, but I think it’s fair to say that all his work radiates from this central point; as he put it, “nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true”.) It sometimes seems that no modern day apologist, outside the ranks of academic Thomism at least, says anything that Chesterton has not said better already. I even found him quoted in a discussion of artificial intelligence by the Catholic physicist Stephen M. Barr (the book was Modern Physics, Ancient Faith and the Chesterton quotation was taken from the “Suicide of Thought” chapter of Orthodoxy.) So the arguments Lunn makes will be familiar to any Chesterton reader, and he often directly quotes GKC in support.

But familiarity with Lunn's main arguments didn't stop me from enjoying Now I See. What I find most interesting in works of apologetics or spiritual autobiography (and Now I See, like Orthodoxy, is a bit of both) are not so much the intellectual arguments, which are well-trodden ground indeed, but the more poetic or subjective passages. The subjective element is actually what Lunn is trying to avoid in this book, but thankfully he is not so austere as to bar it completely:

I still remember vividly the moment when I threw aside materialism for ever. I was nineteen at the time. I was just returning from a glorious day among the mountains. The rope had been discarded and we were smoking a quiet pipe on a little pass a few thousand feet above the valley plunged in the rich gloom of the Alpine twilight.

The evening breeze served as a soft pedal to the music of a glacier stream which faded into piano when the wind rose. Sixty miles away the white bar of the Oberland snows saluted the setting sun. The golden glow of evening subdued the strong lines of the mountains, and confused the issue of separate and successive slopes. A white speck that was Chilon showed against the purple of the lake. The whole vast shadowed landscape seemed to be haunted by an all-pervading sense of something of which visible beauty was only the sacramental expression. I thought of Hackel’s dusty nonsense and laughed aloud. And from that moment I discarded materialism forever

Of course, as Lunn says in the very next paragraph, “such an experience has no apologetic value. The Alpine sunset was important, not as evidence of truth, but as a sign-post pointing to truth”. It does, however, make wonderful reading.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of apologetics itself, the worst defect of Now I See (and Lunn’s other apologetic writings) is one he shared with Chesterton and Belloc; an over-eagerness to snatch at any weapon which promised to dent materialism. Like Chesterton (who said somewhere that telepathy was virtually an established fact, and who saw “Darwinism” as an ebbing tide) he leaned towards belief in one of the great fads of his age, psychical research. And like Chesterton, he seemed to impressed by the supernatural credentials of another of its fads, spiritualism and mediumship. In our time, telepathy seems to have been utterly exploded; and whether or not anything magical occurred in the ceremonies of the Golden Dawn and its fellow spooky societies, spiritualism's apologetic uses are as negligible as Lunn’s moment of insight in the mountains.

Of course, most of Lunn’s points are perfectly valid—the paradox of claiming that one’s reasoning is based upon nothing but the motion of atoms in the brain, the eventual dilution of all Christian churches that reject communion with the Holy See, the unmistakeably factual tone of the Gospels, and many other well-known arguments. Lunn distinguishes between purely rational arguments and “suasions”—considerations which are not logically compelling but are intuitively appealing, or affect us emotionally. Lunn’s suasions are in fact more interesting than his rational proofs—might not the same thing be said of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy?—and probably the one I identified with most is his perception of Catholicism’s sobriety and groundedness:

Father D'Arcy, Father Knox and Douglas Woodruff helped me by reasoned replies to the controversial points which I raised, but Catholics as a whole influenced me less by propaganda than by an atmosphere of silent assurance. I have met earnest and convinced Christians of other Churches who have tried to convert me by appealing to that inner glow which, so they assured me, illumined their souls. They were so anxious to prove that they were happier than I was, and that they had found a peace which I failed to find, that they were not completely convincing. Their piety was a little too assertive. "Even those who have least sympathy with Catholicism", writes Dean Inge, "cannot help feeling that it is a religion for gentleman. Dignity and calmness, security and assurance, the absence of anything petty and provincial impart an air of distinction to Catholic piety, which is too often lacking in the smaller Protestant sects."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"...That unnameable something...

..desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of the Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves..."

Has there ever been an evocation of our hunger for heaven more piercing than this one, from The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis?

I have been reading a lot of Lewis lately, and have a stack more of his books to come. I imagine most Chesterton fans are also Lewis fans, so it's almost impossible not to compare them. I would say that Chesterton is the deeper thinker, but that Lewis is the better writer. Chesterton didn't worry too much about style or even accuracy-- he cheerfully indulged in hyperbole and generalization and oversimplification. Lewis, on the other hand, writes with donnish precision, always at pains to make distinctions and avoid misinterpretation. Chesterton is a rollercoaster, Lewis is a slow country train-- like the "Cantab crawler" to Cambridge that he appreciated so much.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Here's a Thought...

I know that not all Chestertonians are conservatives (indeed, Chesterton himself would have refused the epithet), and indeed that not all Chestertonians are Catholic.

But since I'm aware that some of the people who are kind enough to visit this blog are both, and since many of them are Irish bloggers, and since I'm painfully aware of the Irish blogosphere's domination by liberal, secular, anti-Catholic sites, how about this for an idea: an Irish conservative group blog?

Something like What's Wrong with the World in America, or The Salisbury Review in England?

In the great tradition of whimsically appropriating sneers (such as Whig, Tory, Lollard), I suggest the title The Comely Maidens Blog. It doesn't seem to have been taken yet.

Not that I think we would have enough contributors amongst this site's (modest) readership, necessarily, but we could get the snowball rolling.

For readers who are not of a reactionary disposition-- I apologise for the partisan interruption. Normal Chestertonian service will now be resumed....

Monday, January 10, 2011

Things Being Themselves

"I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me; the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unnutterable muddiness of mud. It is just the same with people....when we call a man "manly" or a woman "womanly" we touch the deepest philosophy".

Letter to his wife, as quoted in Maisie Ward's biography Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

I think this is a key passage for appreciating, not only Chesterton, but life itself. How much happiness is ours when we exult in things being themselves! It is reminiscent of the great passage in Orthodoxy where Chesterton claimed that, unless the lion continues to be ferocious and the lamb continues to be meek, their lying together is no great triumph.

It is also a key principle of sound aesthetics. I remember Ruskin writing that every work of art or architecture should fully exploit the material from which it was made, and not seek a style more suitable to some other material. In the same vein, he believed the Gothic was the fulfilment of Northern Christendom, the darker and rougher lands finding their own distinctive expression.

For me, it is a particularly important principle when it comes to film. I've never understood the resentment of CGI and special effects; the silver screen should exploit its potential to the utmost. A film is not a play and should not try to be a play. I am even coming to think that realism in fiction is a kind of artistic sin; why be bound by the laws of nature when the glory of storytelling is that you can meet a unicorn around any corner?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Back On the Ould Sod...

Apologies for the lack of blogging recently. Your web host has been in London, and I've just recently got back to Ireland. While I was in the Great Wen I attended Epiphany Mass in Westminster Cathedral, which I'd never been in before.

It was a moving experience. There is much talk about multiculturalism these days, but I don't think I've ever seen as much genuine multiculturalism as I saw in that congregation. (In fact, the first Scripture reading was in German, which I understand is the practice in the cathedral.) But of course there were plenty of English people there, and plenty of young English people too; the cathedral was packed. Methinks the death of Christian England has been greatly exaggerated.

I was especially interested to note, in the Irish chapel, that Saint Oliver Plunkett was in fact the last martyr for the Catholic faith in England-- something I hadn't realised.

Meanwhile, the next meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society will be a week from tomorrow, at two o' clock on the fifteenth of January, in the Central Catholic Library, Merrion Square, Dublin. Hope to see you there!