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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Do you think forwards or backwards?

Here's an example of each from Mr Chesterton.
I will take a poker and think about it; first forwards and then backwards; and so, perhaps, show what I mean.

The sage desiring to think well and wisely about a poker will begin somewhat as follows: Among the live creatures that crawl about this star the queerest is the thing called Man. This plucked and plumeless bird, comic and forlorn, is the butt of all the philosophies. He is the only naked animal; and this quality, once, it is said, his glory, is now his shame. He has to go outside himself for everything that he wants. He might almost be considered as an absent-minded person who had gone bathing and left his clothes everywhere, so that he has hung his hat upon the beaver and his coat upon the sheep. The rabbit has white warmth for a waistcoat, and the glow-worm has a lantern for a head. But man has no heat in his hide, and the light in his body is darkness; and he must look for light and warmth in the wild, cold universe in which he is cast. This is equally true of his soul and of his body; he is the one creature that has lost his heart as much as he has lost his hide. In a spiritual sense he has taken leave of his senses; and even in a literal sense he has been unable to keep his hair on. And just as this external need of his has lit in his dark brain the dreadful star called religion, so it has lit in his hand the only adequate symbol of it: I mean the red flower called Fire. Fire, the most magic and startling of all material things, is a thing known only to man and the expression of his sublime externalism. It embodies all that is human in his hearths and all that is divine on his altars. It is the most, human thing in the world; seen across wastes of marsh or medleys of forest, it is veritably the purple and golden flag of the sons of Eve. But there is about this generous and rejoicing thing an alien and awful quality: the quality of torture. Its presence is life; its touch is death. Therefore, it is always necessary to have an intermediary between ourselves and this dreadful deity; to have a priest to intercede for us with the god of life and death; to send an ambassador to the fire. That priest is the poker. Made of a material more merciless and warlike than the other instruments of domesticity, hammered on the anvil and born itself in the flame, the poker is strong enough to enter the burning fiery furnace, and, like the holy children, not be consumed. In this heroic service it is often battered and twisted, but is the more honourable for it, like any other soldier who has been under fire.

Now all this may sound very fanciful and mystical, but it is the right view of pokers, and no one who takes it will ever go in for any wrong view of pokers, such as using them to beat one's wife or torture one's children, or even (though that is more excusable) to make a policeman jump, as the clown does in the pantomime. He who has thus gone back to the beginning, and seen everything as quaint and new, will always see things in their right order, the one depending on the other in degree of purpose and importance: the poker for the fire and the fire for the man and the man for the glory of God.

This is thinking forwards. Now our modern discussions about everything, Imperialism, Socialism, or Votes for Women, are all entangled in an opposite train of thought, which runs as follows:- A modern intellectual comes in and sees a poker. He is a positivist; he will not begin with any dogmas about the nature of man, or any day-dreams about the mystery of fire. He will begin with what he can see, the poker; and the first thing he sees about the poker is that it is crooked. He says, "Poor poker; it's crooked." Then he asks how it came to be crooked; and is told that there is a thing in the world (with which his temperament has hitherto left him unacquainted)-- a thing called fire. He points out, very kindly and clearly, how silly it is of people, if they want a straight poker, to put it into a chemical combustion which will very probably heat and warp it. "Let us abolish fire," he says, "and then we shall have perfectly straight pokers. Why should you want a fire at all?" They explain to him that a creature called Man wants a fire, because he has no fur or feathers. He gazes dreamily at the embers for a few seconds, and then shakes his head. "I doubt if such an animal is worth preserving," he says. "He must eventually go under in the cosmic struggle when pitted against well-armoured and warmly protected species, who have wings and trunks and spires and scales and horns and shaggy hair. If Man cannot live without these luxuries, you had better abolish Man." At this point, as a rule, the crowd is convinced; it heaves up all its clubs and axes, and abolishes him. At least, one of him.

5 comments:

  1. Ha! That is so like us stupid, modern, humans...

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  2. I love it, "Poor bent poker!"

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  3. You have convinced me to read Chesterton. Where should I start?

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  4. Wonderful, Kat. The challenge with Chesterton is that there's just so much of him. He wrote everything from histories to economics to philosophy to biographies to detective stories to literary criticism to etc...

    Since his writing style is quite similar across these various genres, my suggestion is to choose something you like reading. Do you like collections of essays? Or maybe detective stories? Or works on economics? Here are some options:

    Short Fiction: Club of Queer Trades
    Short General Essays: Tremendous Trifles
    Short Apologetic Essays: Heretics

    Theological History: Everlasting Man
    Longer Apologetics: Orthodoxy
    Biography: Thomas Aquinas
    Economics: Outline of Sanity
    Literary Criticism: Charles Dickens
    Debate: with George Bernard Shaw
    Political Fiction: Napoleon of Nottinghill
    Mystical Fiction: Man who was Thursday
    Epic Poem: Ballad of the White Horse
    Children's Fiction: Father Brown Stories

    For a quick overview of many of his writings, check out http://www.chesterton.org/discover/chesterton101.html

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  5. Yay! Another "convert" to Chesterton....

    Great post, Nick; I have to keep my club handy, living in SoCal....

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