Quotations from all quarters on life, literature, and whatever else tickled my fancy. Browse and enjoy. —T. S.

G. K. C. on grandmothers

A commenter on another blog recently wrote two comments, which I here telescope together, as the second was explicitly written as a correction to the first:

If we are to have a stable, functional society, women can have equal rights and political participation, or they can have a functional exemption from moral consequences. They cannot have both.

The disjunction is true and logical, and not only of women, but of human beings generally. But ‘a stable, functional society’ has nothing to do with the case. It is a red herring, and a red herring of a particularly insidious type, because it amounts to denying that the question is one of morals at all. Chesterton made the point very neatly a century ago:

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong. Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage. Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before. Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter. The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else – mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Boy’ (in All Things Considered)

The only real point worth mentioning about ‘functional exemptions from moral consequences’ is that it is morally wrong to exempt anyone from moral standards, which, in so far as they are moral, must be universal if they are not meaningless. Stable and functional societies have been built upon chattel slavery, helotry, human sacrifice, and any number of other wicked and revolting practices. That does not mean that it was either wise or right to do so, or to exempt those societies from the particular moral standards that were outraged by their customs.

Dr. Samuel Johnson observed, as a good Tory opposed to the American war of independence, that the people who yapped the loudest about liberty were the slaveholding planters of Virginia. The inconsistency had to be paid for; and it was, within a century, when the accounts were squared with a million gallons of blood. Yet those slaveholders were paragons of the moral law compared to a good many of our modern opinion-makers and cultural leaders. They should be opposed because they are wrong, for they are wrong; not because they cannot succeed, for they manifestly do succeed.

A little bit wrong

Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine.
(For a little error in the beginning is a great error in the end.)

—St. Thomas Aquinas, opening line of De ente et essentia

Most modern people have a dangerous and deplorable habit of jumping into arguments in medias res, not bothering to inquire into the basic assumptions made by either side. Their most fiercely held opinions are apt to be based on someone else’s errors, and they don’t even know it. The people who made those mistakes were a little bit wrong; the people who take their conclusions on trust go wrong on the titanic scale.

Today I am setting out to continue work on ‘The Little Charter’. I hope I have not made a ‘little error’ in the first chapter this time. Things go pear-shaped so fast when I do.

Wodehouse submits to an Editor

In my recent illness, I have been reading large quantities or gobs of the early P. G. Wodehouse. A few years ago, Golgotha Press, a firm of whose existence I until recently remained culpably unaware, released a vast compendium of thirty-odd Wodehouse books which had fallen into the public domain, for the derisory price of a dollar. (You can find them on iTunes if you search for Wodehouse, but the collection does not appear to be available on Amazon.) Under U.S. copyright law, I am told, anything published before 1923 is fair game, and I have been dining these many days on aged roast Wodehouse.

If anybody wants to know what it was like for Wodehouse, as a short-story writer in the early years of the twentieth century, to submit his work to a magazine, the process was essentially the same as it is today. Observe the following account: [Read more…]

C.S.L. on dialogue

In correcting dialogue it is useful to imagine it being acted on the stage or at least read aloud. Is there anything which, before a large audience, you wd. feel embarrassed at – anything which an actor wd. find it difficult to say? It must always sound like real conversation but must be in reality clearer and more economical than that. Literature is an art of illusion.

—C. S. Lewis

(From a letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, 31 August 1948. Printed in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 2.)


Dept. of Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as ‘daring’, though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Thing

Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’

Fairy tales and realism

‘Can you not see,’ I said, ‘that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is – what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is – what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

[Read more…]


A person falling into a manhole is rarely helped by making it possible for him to fall faster or more efficiently.

—Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason

The limits of technique

I have just re-read (after a lapse of some years) Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, which first appeared in 1974. He addresses his polemic chiefly to computer scientists and computer-science teachers, but he is consciously aware that he is speaking more generally and philosophically. Some of what he says, it seems to me, applies to writers quite as well:

It happens that programming is a relatively easy craft to learn. Almost anyone with a reasonably orderly mind can become a fairly good programmer with just a little instruction and practice. And because programming is almost immediately rewarding, that is, because a computer very quickly begins to behave somewhat in the way the programmer intends it to, programming is very seductive, especially for beginners. Moreover, it appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success. Immature students are therefore easily misled into believing that they have truly mastered a craft of immense power and of great importance when, in fact, they have learned only its rudiments and nothing substantive at all.

A student’s quick climb from a state of complete ignorance about computers to what appears to be a mastery of programming, but is in reality only a very minor plateau, may leave him with a euphoric sense of achievement and a conviction that he has discovered his true calling.… He may so thoroughly commit himself to what he naively perceives to be computer science, that is, to the mere polishing of his programming skills, that he may effectively preclude studying anything substantive.

Unfortunately, many universities have ‘computer science’ programs at the undergraduate level that permit and even encourage students to take this course. When such students have completed their studies, they are rather like people who have somehow become eloquent in some foreign language, but who, when they attempt to write something in that language, find that they have literally nothing of their own to say.

The lesson in this is that, although the learning of a craft is important, it cannot be everything.

Replace ‘computer’ with ‘story’, ‘programming’ with ‘writing’, and so forth, and it stands as a pretty shrewd assessment of a rather common problem in recent fiction. On one level, you get the creative-writing graduate who has a superb grasp of technique, but does not know how to come up with an interesting story, and has been painstakingly taught not to care. On another, you get a certain kind of self-published writer – the one who thinks that volume is the sole and sufficient secret of success, and cranks out books as fast as he can shove them through the keyboard, without ever once asking, ‘Is this story interesting enough to be worth telling?’

Between these two, the world sees a lot of stories that might just as well not have been written at all. And yet the people who write them think they are accomplishing something, and in many cases, even feel that they have some kind of moral duty to persist and write their daily quota of pages. The idea of writing when one has something to say, it seems, scarcely occurs to them.

In the terms I used in ‘Style is the rocket’, these stories are all propulsion system and no payload. The rocket takes off with a satisfactory rush of smoke and flames, but at the end of its flight, nobody and nothing has been transported anywhere. This is a fine hobby for the rocketeer, but its entertainment value to anybody else, sad to say, is considerably lacking.

Pascal on composition

The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.

—Blaise Pascal

(Hat tip to Mary Catelli.)