Daring

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

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.

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G. K. C. opens the cruellest month

Today would have been my father’s ninetieth birthday. He expected to live to see it; many of his close relations had lived that long, or close to it; he was in robust physical health till his mind gave way. But a house untenanted falls sooner into dilapidation, and I had to say my goodbye to him more than two years ago.

Because the first of April was, for our family, the date of a celebration not fitly met with mockery, I have never gone in for April Foolery myself; though I can appreciate a good jape when performed by a genuine artist.

This, for instance:

‘G. K. Chesterton on AI Risk’

The followers of Mr. Samuel Butler speak of thinking-machines that grow grander and grander until – quite against the wishes of their engineers – they become as tyrannical angels, firmly supplanting the poor human race. This theory is neither exciting nor original; there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah, and our tools have been rebelling against us since the first peasant stepped on a rake. Nor have I any doubt that what Butler says will come to pass. If every generation needs its tyrant-angels, then ours has been so inoculated against the original that if Lucifer and all his hosts were to descend upon Smithfield Market to demand that the English people bend the knee, we should politely ignore them, being far too modern to have time for such things. Butler’s thinking-machines are the only tyrant-angels we will accept; fate, ever accommodating, will surely give them to us.

(Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for mentioning this jewel in the comment box.)

‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes.

But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it.

But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable.

When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself:

But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy.
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The opposite of funny

Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.

 

The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German. Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse.

The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism. Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny ‘Gulliver’ is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object. The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular.

Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny. The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.

—G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

A song for Chesterton

And a little while afterwards, when my sea journey was over, the sight of men working in the English fields reminded me again that there are still songs for the harvest and for many agricultural routines. And I suddenly wondered why if this were so it should be quite unknown for any modern trade to have a ritual poetry. How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody do anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things? Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus? Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing?

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing’

Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.

—Elbert Hubbard

Chesterton was a man of many gifts, but presence of mind was not always among them. He was, in fact, so famously absent-minded that he is remembered (among his many other achievements) for sending a telegram to his wife: ‘Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?’ And this absence of presence, if I may put it so, led him occasionally to behave as a damn fool, and sometimes, I am afraid, he exceeded Hubbard’s limit. His little excursus into the musical habits of shopmen and printers stands as a fair example. [Read more…]

Muggle magic

Mary Catelli wonders aloud:

Read an article on Harry Potter. In which the author asked why the wizarding world didn’t have TV.

Duh. Because the images would go walking around and vanishing and maybe even talking to you instead of saying their lines.

though, actually, the mobile pictures of the wizarding world might be fun but they aren’t very useful for the basic purposes of pictures. Suppose you actually wanted a photograph of your family to show people. It would be awkward if one child’s image was shy and ran off. And for historical purposes, you want an illustration that doesn’t stop depicting what you want.

Sculpture can be stationary. why not flat images? How much magic does it take to do what Muggles can do with mere chemistry?

I respond, with the lessons I learnt at G.K.C.’s mighty knee:

The sad and solemn secret of Elfland, of which Hogwarts is an outpost, is that the fay-folk lack one great and awful power given to us Muggles by our Creator: the power of ‘Thou Shalt Not’. So it is for us to say, ‘I make a photographic image of thee, and thou shalt not walk out of it.’ When we tell a thing to stay put, it stays, backed by the colossal might of Nature and Nature’s God. It is because the fairies have not this power that all fairy-gold turns back to dust.

‘Don’ts for Dogmatists’

I should very much like to write one last roaring, raging book telling all the rationalists not to be so utterly irrational. The book would be simply a string of violent vetoes, like the Ten Commandments. I would call it ‘Don’ts for Dogmatists; or Things I Am Tired Of’.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

Don’t say, ‘There is no true creed; for each creed believes itself right and the others wrong.’ Probably one of the creeds is right and the others are wrong. Diversity does show that most of the views must be wrong. It does not by the faintest logic show that they all must be wrong.

I suppose there is no subject on which opinions differ with more desperate sincerity than about which horse will win the Derby. These are certainly solemn convictions; men risk ruin for them. The man who puts his shirt on Potosi must believe in that animal, and each of the other men putting their last garments upon other quadrupeds must believe in them quite as sincerely. They are all serious, and most of them are wrong. But one of them is right. One of the faiths is justified; one of the horses does win; not always even the dark horse which might stand for Agnosticism, but often the obvious and popular horse of Orthodoxy. Democracy has its occasional victories; and even the Favourite has been known to come in first. But the point here is that something comes in first. That there were many beliefs does not destroy the fact that there was one well-founded belief.

I believe (merely upon authority) that the world is round. That there may be tribes who believe it to be triangular or oblong does not alter the fact that it is certainly some shape, and therefore not any other shape. Therefore I repeat, with the wail of imprecation, don’t say that the variety of creeds prevents you from accepting any creed. It is an unintelligent remark.

—G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

On St. George Revivified

An essay by G. K. Chesterton, as collected in All I Survey, reproduced here in honour of St. George’s Day.


The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our own social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town.

Yet this sense of the past is curiously patchy among the most intelligent and instructed people, especially in modern England. Among a hundred such scraps and snippets, I saw this morning a literary competition in an exceedingly highbrow weekly, a prize being awarded for a conversation between a modern interviewer and St. George. And I was struck by the fact that clever, and even brilliant, contributors missed much of the point, even about the modern interviewer, by missing the point about the ancient saint. [Read more…]

Modern Thought

These philosophers, like so many modern philosophers, do not possess the patience to see what they are taking for granted.  Have you ever seen a fellow fail at the high jump because he had not gone far enough back for his run? That is Modern Thought.  It is so confident of where it is going to that it does not know where it comes from.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity