Archives for January 2012

G. K. C. on appreciation

The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness. The man who said, ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed,’ put the eulogy quite inadequately and even falsely. The truth ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.’ The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth. Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.

—G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

Thomas Sowell on honesty

When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.

—Thomas Sowell

‘A Confession’, by C. S. Lewis

I have sometimes been asked why I write old-fashioned epic fantasy instead of something Edgy and Hip and Relevant and Commercial. I have also sometimes been asked (not always by the same people) why I write trivial and childish epic fantasy instead of something Deep and Meaningful and Artistic and Literary. To both those questions I have to give the same answer, which is a poem by the inimitable C. S. Lewis:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

Kipling on editing

This leads me to the Higher Editing. Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly. The magic lies in the Brush and the Ink. For the Pen, when it is writing, can only scratch; and bottled ink is not to compare with the ground Chinese stick. Experto crede.

—Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself

I have read a lot of advice to writers in my time, some of which is pretty widely applicable, some narrowly applicable, some scarcely applicable at all, and some of which I would urge anyone to erase from their brains if they value their sanity. This advice of Kipling’s is one of the few things I can recommend to anyone. Except for one caveat: The ground Chinese stick is not recommended if you write on any kind of electronic device. Real proper India ink is so difficult to wipe off the screen.

The drudge and the architect

Some hours ago the idea of this essai came to me, hard and clear, demanding to be written, and proposing for itself the title, ‘Hard Work vs. Working Hard’. ‘Always,’ said Kipling, ‘in our trade, look a gift horse at both ends and in the middle. He may throw you’: therefore I did a quick search, and found another essay with that exact title, written barely four months ago, by one Scott McGrath. What he has to say is good, and valid, and useful, and I propose to take it as a starting-point; but his essay is general in application, and I want to apply the distinction particularly to the business of writing. So I have changed my title to ‘The Drudge and the Architect’, for reasons I mean to make clear later. [Read more…]

Clock share: Writers vs. the competition

In one of his series of essays on ‘Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing’, Dean Wesley Smith takes aim at what he calls the ‘myth’ that writers compete with one another. He pours scorn on this ‘myth’, and on all who believe it. A short but representative sample:

The myth is simply that writers compete.

Of course, this is so far wrong, it shouldn’t be even talked about, but alas it’s still out there and going strong. In fact, I recently made the mistake of wondering over onto the Kindle boards and wasted a bunch of hours before I came to my senses. By the time I was finished with those hours, I knew I had to talk about this, since new writer after new writer talked about how they had to compete with all the other writers to get their books read.

He then goes on to paint a wonderful Technicolor picture of a world where there is an unlimited demand for fiction, pie for you and me and pasture for all the sheep, and the sky’s the limit, baby. Now, I do not know what religion Mr. Smith adheres to, but I am a lifelong devotee of what Kipling calls the Gods of the Copybook Headings. And one of the Copybook Headings, which people like Mr. Smith seem never to have heard of, is this:

Trees do not grow up to the sky. [Read more…]

Writer vs. Author: the defective verb

— A Writer is a person who writes.

— An Author is a person who has written.

Dean Wesley Smith

This fine distinction explains why I have never had any ambition to be an Author, and have the very lowest suspicions about anyone who has. [Read more…]

G. K. C. on freethinking

But in truth this notion that it is ‘free’ to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. The man of the nineteenth century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it.

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Procol Harum and G. K. C.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, ‘Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?’ he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, ‘Why, there is that bookcase… and the coals in the coal-scuttle… and pianos… and policemen.’ The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

My Muse is actually an imp, or perhaps a pooka, and cannot read a passage such as this without taking it as a challenge. I shall accordingly give my reason for preferring civilization, in the form of an example; and I hope to show that the example I give would be utterly impossible except in a state of civilization, and indeed, inconceivable in any civilization but our own. Mr. Chesterton would doubtless be glad to hear that my example does at least include a piano. [Read more…]

Animal rationale

Aristotle (and, later, the Schoolmen) defined man as a rational animal: i.e., the only animal capable of reason. Neither he nor anyone else claimed that men are always rational.

Reason is a technique that we learn; it is no more innate to us than riding a bicycle. If I say that one can get from John o’ Groats to Land’s End by bicycle, the truth of that statement is not altered by the fact that some people will fall off the bicycle on the way, or take a wrong turning; or that some have never learnt to ride at all. Mutatis mutandis, the capacity of reason, as a method, to reach valid consequents given valid premises, is in no way vitiated or impugned by the fact that humans make errors in employing it. Indeed, it is only by the correct application of reason that such faults can even be identified as errors.

More shortly put, it isn’t the hammer’s fault if the carpenter hits his thumb.