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?


  1. I don't resent CGI but when there's a lot of CGI and very little plot or only "cardboard cutout" characters then I have a problem. Thus Avatar had a limp plot but wonderful CGI and wasn't worth watching. The Lord of the Rings had a strong plot, wonderful CGI and was well worth watching. CGI helps tell the story better but can't tell the story if there isn't one there to tell.

  2. Well, I would agree with every word of that! Some people are just so dogmatic about special effects though. I really don't get it!