Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sandals, Good or Bad?

"One great complaint, I think, must stand against the modern upholders of the simple life--the simple life in all its varied forms, from vegetarianism to the honourable consistency of the Doukhobors. This complaint against them stands, that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things. They would make us simple in the things that do not matter-- that is, in diet, in costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter--in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection. It does not so very much matter whether a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind. The only kind of simplicity worth preserving is the simplicity of the heart, the simplicity which accepts and enjoys. There may be a reasonable doubt as to what system preserves this; there can surely be no doubt that a system of simplicity destroys it. There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle. The chief error of these people is to be found in the very phrase to which they are most attached--"plain living and high thinking." These people do not stand in need of, will not be improved by, plain living and high thinking. They stand in need of the contrary. They would be improved by high living and plain thinking. A little high living (I say, having a full sense of responsibility, a little high living) would teach them the force and meaning of the human festivities, of the banquet that has gone on from the beginning of the world. It would teach them the historic fact that the artificial is, if anything, older than the natural. It would teach them that the loving-cup is as old as any hunger. It would teach them that ritualism is older than any religion."

"On Sandals and Simplicity", Heretics 1905

Of course one cannot contradict that, and of course it is brilliantly put. This is Chesterton we're talking about. And yet...

And yet, I can't quite agree with Chesterton here. Ritual may be older than any religion, and ritual is the last thing I would want to abolish. I wouldn't want to do away with banqueting, for that matter, or with any of the graces and adornments-- or even the fripperies-- of human life.

But is it as simple as a clash between simple artificiality and artifical simplicity? Modern man is chronically, even morbidly, self-aware and self-conscious. It seems to me that the damage has been done already. We have so few simple pleasures; Christmas is one. Aside from that, our music and our cinema and our advertising and our journalism, and even our t-shirts with their smart-alecky captions, all drip with irony and over-sophistication. Going to live in a teepee in a field somewhere, or refusing to switch on the television or read the newspapers, would be a highly contrived naivity, but I can't help feeling it would do a lot of good-- for those who made the experiment and for those who witnessed it. Wonder may welcome all things, even modern civlization, but modern civilziation has a way of dousing wonder.

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