Chesterton: Two Essays

In last night’s Bay Area Chesterton Society’s Reading Group meeting (at Mimi’s in San Jose, if you’re interested) we discussed If I Had Only One Sermon To Preach and Scipio and the Children, both of which are evidently later essays published posthumously in 1950 and 1964, respectively.  Both are available in In Defense of Sanity.

Chesterton’s one sermon would be on Pride.  Usually, G.K. is astoundingly prescient. This one time, did he miss the turning tide? A couple of the opening paragraphs, very much classic G.K.C.:

Now the first fact to note about this notion is a rather curious one. Of all such notions, it is the one most generally dismissed in theory and most universally accepted in practice. Modern men imagine that such a theological idea is quite remote from them; and, stated as a theological idea, it probably is remote from them. But, as a matter of fact, it is too close to them to be recognised. It is so completely a part of their minds and morals and instincts, I might almost say of their bodies, that they take it for granted and act on it even before they think of it. It is actually the most popular of all moral ideas; and yet it is almost entirely unknown as a moral idea. No truth is now so unfamiliar as a truth, or so familiar as a fact.

Let us put the fact to a trifling but not unpleasing test. Let us suppose that the reader, or (preferably) the writer, is going into a public-house or some public place of social intercourse; a public tube or tram might do as well, except that it seldom allows of such long and philosophical intercourse as did the old public house. Anyhow, let us suppose any place where men of motley but ordinary types assemble; mostly poor because the majority is poor; some moderately comfortable but rather what is snobbishly called common; an average handful of human beings. Let us suppose that the enquirer, politely approaching this group, opens the conversation in a chatty way by saying, “Theologians are of opinion that it was one of the superior angelic intelligences seeking to become the supreme object of worship, instead of finding his natural joy in worshipping, which dislocated the providential design and frustrated the full joy and completion of the cosmos”. After making these remarks the enquirer will gaze round brightly and expectantly at the company for corroboration, at the same time ordering such refreshments as may be ritually fitted to the place or time, or perhaps merely offering cigarettes or cigars to the whole company, to fortify them against the strain. In any case, we may well admit that such a company will find it something of a strain to accept the formula in the above form. Their comments will probably be disjointed and detached; whether they take the form of “Lorlumme” (a beautiful thought slurred somewhat in pronunciation), or even “Gorblimme” (an image more sombre but fortunately more obscure), or merely the unaffected form of “Garn”; a statement quite free from doctrinal and denominational teaching, like our State compulsory education. In short, he who shall attempt to state this theory as a theory to the average crowd of the populace will doubtless find that he is talking in an unfamiliar language. Even if he states the matter in the simplified form, that Pride is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, he will only produce a vague and rather unfavourable impression that he is preaching. But he is only preaching what everybody else is practising; or at least is wanting everybody else to practise.

Let the scientific enquirer continue to cultivate the patience of science. Let him linger — at any rate let me linger — in the place of popular entertainment whatever it may be, and take very careful note (if necessary in a note-book) of the way in which ordinary human beings do really talk about each other. As he is a scientific enquirer with a note-book, it is very likely that he never saw any ordinary human beings before. But if he will listen carefully, he will observe a certain tone taken towards friends, foes and acquaintances; a tone which is, on the whole, creditably genial and considerate, though not without strong likes and dislikes. He will hear abundant if sometimes bewildering allusion to the well-known weaknesses of Old George; but many excuses also, and a certain generous pride in conceding that Old George is quite the gentleman when drunk, or that he told the policeman off proper. Some celebrated idiot, who is always spotting winners that never win, will be treated with almost tender derision; and, especially among the poorest, there will be a true Christian pathos in the reference to those who have been “in trouble” for habits like burglary and petty larceny. And as all these queer types are called up like ghosts by the incantation of gossip, the enquirer will gradually form the impression that there is one kind of man, probably only one kind of man, perhaps, only one man, who is really disliked. The voices take on quite a different tone in speaking of him; there is a hardening and solidification of disapproval and a new coldness in the air. And this will be all the more curious because, by the current modern theories of social or anti-social action, it will not be at all easy to say why he should be such a monster; or what exactly is the matter with him. It will be hinted at only in singular figures of speech, about a gentleman who is mistakenly convinced that he owns the street; or sometimes that be owns the earth. Then one of the social critics will say, “’E comes in ’ere and ’e thinks ’e’s Gawd Almighty.” Then the scientific enquirer will shut his note-book with a snap and retire from the scene, possibly after paying for any drinks he may have consumed in the cause of social science. He has got what he wanted. He has been intellectually justified. The man in the pub has precisely repeated, word for word, the theological formula about Satan.

Go read the whole thing, it’s not long.

Two issues here that make his insights less easy to apply in this case than in many others: England is not America, and the 1930s are not the 2010s. The English have legendary reserve, and so may be supposed to react more strongly to braggarts and bumptious fools than we less reserved Americans. Maybe.

Be that as it may, even 50 years ago in America when I was a child, puffing yourself up and putting on airs was pretty sternly frowned upon. There is a difference over time in how Americans view pride, even if the cultural differences turn out to be negligible.

I grew up in a world where, in sports, you were very careful not to show up your opponent. Part of being a good sport was taking success and failure, winning and losing, in an even, generous way. My, times have changed.  Rules have been passed to reign in taunting at all levels of sports, merely meaning you have to taunt more quietly and subtly. Guys who act like they just single-handedly won WWII when they sack a quarterback or hit a homerun are not viewed as pompous jerks, but as men for children to imitate.

Later, Chesterton mentions the Lady Killer as a particularly despised man, that the common man can understand and sympathize with weakness in sexual matters, but cannot tolerate a man who flaunts his successes in indulging in such weakness. As discussed in the comments to my review of Guardians of the Galaxy II, that is ancient history as well. Only *literally* killing the mothers you impregnate and the children that issue therefrom is bad. The slaughter of hearts and the strangling of love is a-ok, as long as you’re up front about it.

In the second essay, Chesterton tells a charming story about a trip he took to the Spanish town of Tarragona:

I was sitting at a cafe table with another English traveller, and I was looking at a little boy with a bow and arrows, who discharged very random shafts in all directions, and periodically turned in triumph and flung himself into the arms of his father, who was a waiter.  That part of the scene was repeated all over the place, with fathers of every social type and trade.  And it is no good to tell me that such humanities must be peculiar to the progressive and enlightened Catalans, in that this incident happened in a Catalan town, for I happen to remember that I first noticed the fact in Toledo and afterwards even more obviously in Madrid.  And it is no good to tell me that Spaniards are all gloomy and harsh and cruel, for I have seen the children; I have also seen the parents.  I might be inclined to call them spoilt children; except that it seems as if they could not be spoilt.  I may also remark that one element which specially haunts me, in the Spanish Peninsula, is the very elusive element called Liberty.  Nobody seems to have the itch of interference; nobody is moved by that great motto of so much social legislation; “Go and see what Tommy is doing, and tell him he mustn’t.” Considering what this Tommy was doing, I am fairly sure that in most progressive countries, somebody would tell him he mustn’t. He shot an arrow that hit his father; probably because he was aiming at something else.  He shot an arrow that hit me; but I am a BROAD target.  His bow and his archery were quite inadequate; and would not have been tolerated in the scientific Archery School into which he would no doubt have been instantly drafted in any state in which sport is taken as seriously as it should be.

I was reminded of a trip I took to Italy when in art school. We were in Fiesole near Florence on Easter. I had attended the Vigil Mass at the Cathedral in Fiesole, being warned that getting into the Duomo in Florence would be involved. So, the next morning I headed down to see about the noon Mass, as I’d been told about the Explosion of the Cart, and wanted to see it.

Related image
The soon-to-be-exploding cart, being pulled by two very lovely white oxen with gilded horns.

(I suspect this is one of those ‘Only in Italy’ things: a beautifully-decorated metal cart is pulled into the plaza between the Duomo and the Baptistry by two lovely white oxen with gilded horns. The oxen are lead away, a door in the cart is opened and a wire running back into the Duomo is hooked inside.

At the conclusion of the last mass of Easter Sunday, a paper mache white dove with a small fireworks rocket inside is ignited near the high altar and launched down the wire into the cart – which slowly explodes into a fireworks/sparkler display, the the cheers and applause of the assembled throng.

The Holy Spirit is going out into the world to set it on fire, you see. Very fun and cool.)

So, I get to the plaza plenty early, and find a spot where I, a tallish man, can see. Gradually, the plaza fills up behind the safety barriers, with many dads with their children.

I got the see the wagon come in and the oxen lead away. I had a nice view. Then, at some signal i didn’t catch, the Dove was ignited inside – and a thousand small children were lifted up upon the shoulders of their dads, completely blocking my view.  The dove flew, the cart ‘exploded’. All in all, seeing all that father-child bonding was as good a show as sparklers on a cart!

Related image
Explosion of the Cart, in front of the Baptistry. This more recent picture seems to show a more complicated and dramatic ‘explosion’ and a fancier cart than what I remember from 35 years ago.  But you get the drift. 
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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