Monday, November 28, 2011

Chesterton the Most Quotable?

Apologies for the hiatus in posting recently-- I notice that the blog has reached twenty-seven followers now, which is yet another reason to be thankful, in the best Chestertonian manner!

It has been a long time since there was a Chesterton Society meeting, but I am hoping that some time in the New Year the fifth meeting can be organized. The last one went pretty well and I want to try to improve on that again. All suggestions welcome. If you know a Chesterton expert who is living in Ireland and is willing to talk about some aspect of GKC out of pure love, put me in touch...

Meanwhile, I would like to ask readers their opinion-- I loaned my sister some Chesterton books recently and she told me that she's found herself quoting GKC to people. That seems to be an occupational hazard of reading Chesterton. I have even read Chesterton described as the most quotable author in the English language.

It made me ponder. Is it true? Much as I love Chesterton, I tend to doubt it. The man on the street, that rather dilletantish vagrant, would probably recognize few of Chesterton's aphorisms, even the most famous. Could you say "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly" to your dentist, and trust he would catch the reference? Would your grandmother know who said, "The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to stop the mistakes being corrected"? If you had a t-shirt with the slogan, "You should not look a gift universe in the mouth", would the local pharmacist break into a knowing grin and say "I should have guessed it! You're a Chestertonian too!".

I rather doubt it. And complicating the issue is that fact that the aphorism most often attributed to Chesterton-- "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything"-- doesn't actually seem to occur amongst the 2000, 000, 0000, 0000 words that he wrote.

On the other hand, everyone and his chiropodist knows that Mark Twain said, "Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated". Aliens on other planets quote Oscar Wilde's "I have nothing to declare except my genius". And George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton's great friend and sparring partner, has probably won the war of quotability, with incessantly repeated gems like: "You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?".

Chesterton is surely one of the most quotable authors in the language. But does he stand at the pinnacle? I'd have to say he does not.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Kneeling

It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel. As democracy becomes more complete in the outer world and opportunities for reverence are successively removed, the refreshment, the cleansing, and invigorating returns to inequality, which the Church offers us, become more and more necessary.

C.S. Lewis, Membership

My medieval knees lack health until they bend.

W.B. Yeats, The Municipal Gallery Revisited

The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and even maim him forever. Henceforth being merely secular would be a servitude and an inhibition. If man cannot pray he is gagged; if he cannot kneel he is in irons.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wanted-- Somebody with No Sense of Humour...

In his greatest book, Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton made a declaration that might surprise those who are only familiar with his bon mots and witticisms, perhaps through reading books of quotations, and who may have taken to thinking of him as a kind of Catholic Dorothy Parker:

Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying.

In the J.B. Priestly novel Found, Lost, Found (a novella whose contents I have almost entirely forgotten; unfortunately I don't have Chesterton's amazing powers of retention), a rather poker-faced feminist character, upon being told what she suspects is a joke, announces that she has no sense of humour. The protagonist is delighted by this admission, and complains that, since the Victorian era, everybody has felt obliged to have a sense of humour, even when they don't.

Now, I don't really believe anybody is lacking a sense of humour, but I do think our society is in far greater danger of overdosing on facetiousness than of taking things too seriously. I think it was CS Lewis (in fact, I know it was CS Lewis, but somehow it seems more airy and literary to affect uncertainity when quoting) who wrote that every age is most on guard against the sins to which it is least prone. Sex-mad generations live in horror of "repression". Cruel generations fret they are being "sentimental". In the same way, I think our generation lives in horror of solemnity, of being po-faced and earnest, when we could all do with a massive dollop of Miltonian gravitas.

You can't walk into a bookshop today without being greeted by smirking book titles such as The Tao of Pooh or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I am a big fan of cartoons, and it may seem ridiculous to complain that cartoons are insufficiently solemn, but I really do find that to be the case. Cartoons like The Far Side or Doonesbury can't be bothered with anything as fuddy-duddy as jokes, or satire of everyday foibles-- the humour (often excellent humour) has to be offbeat, quirky, zany. I know because I have gone in search of collections of old-fashioned, straightforward cartoons and I can't find any. I can only find books like The Book of Bunny Suicides (entirely devoted to picturing different ways rabbits could commit suicide). Ever since the time of Monty Python, it seems that even comedy lives in deadly terror of taking itself too seriously.

There is a church (not a Catholic church) in the area where I work which is famous for the quirk slogans it displays on placards to catch the attention of passers-by. One memorable slogan was "CH--CH. What's missing? RU?". Very smart, of course, but surely there are plenty of Biblical quotations that would be more seemly?

Even product names like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, or business names like fcuk (an acronym for French Connection UK, a fashion designer), seem to partake of this surfeit of facetiousness.

Old-fashioned TV quiz-shows like A Question of Sport or Blockbusters or even the more light-hearted Countdown seem to have been entirely replaced by tongue-in-cheek productions like Have I Got News for You or Never Mind the Buzzcocks. American Presidents perform comedy routines. Serious politicians make a fool of themselves on reality TV.

I think this tendency affects advertising, clothes, politics, philosophy, literary criticism (take a bow, Terry Eagleton), religion, daily interaction-- pretty much every field of contemporary life. In an age without convictions, one conviction that seems to survive is the vital importance of not being earnest. And that is something I think GK Chesterton would have deplored.