Thursday, November 8, 2012

Best Chesterton Year Ever?

I hate the phrase “of all time.” It would work as a hyperbole if the users had any sense of the order of magnitude of their exaggeration. But they generally don’t. If the phrase were used as a rhetorical bloating of the concept “all of history,” I’d gladly buy into it. But almost all of the people I ever hear using the cliché seem to have only a few years in mind, decades at the most. Randy Jackson loves to say that so-and-so is one the greatest singers of all time. But since every singer he ever mentions is someone with whom he has worked and whose name he feels the urge to drop, “all time” clearly only refers to singers active in the last twenty years or so. I witnessed the most egregious use – OK, I’ll say it – the most egregious use of all time on MTV once in the 80s. (Stop looking at me that way. Cable was new, and I was young. I’ve since outgrown the habit.) The VJ introduced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the greatest video in the totality of that extremely lengthy era known as “all time” when MTV was just two years old.

So I won’t say that 1920 saw the publication of the best Chesterton essays of all time. I even hesitate to say that they are the best in all of his output, since I haven’t read all of them. But although I’ve read many volumes of them, I have never read such a concentrated streak of wisdom and eloquence; he could hardly have a higher batting average. And since he takes on Freud, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, education, political liberty, determinism and free will, the decline of journalism, the rise of mass entertainment, and religion in a pluralistic society, he could scarcely address topics either more important or more pertinent to readers ninety years later.

I won’t attempt any more grand synthesis of Chesterton’s output for the year. Instead, I’ll just hope that this disconnected list from my reading notes begins to explain my enthusiasm for the 1920 ILN collection.
• No doubt an unconscious exists, but to found a fatalistic view on it or to use it as a scapegoat for our bad actions would be a mistake.
• Modern democracies like to legislate the use of certain things (alcohol, guns, etc.) in order to save its people from themselves. But every prohibition of a thing rather than of its abuse denies literal self-government and replaces liberty with slavery. (Anyone else thinking of the current move to ban large cups of soda at restaurants?)
• All education is based on dogma; it has to teach something, even if that thing is simply what everyone agrees is true. But today we teach doubt. We don't teach history, we teach doubt about history. Eventually, without teaching any unified view of history to doubt, students will have nothing to direct their doubt toward.
• Science also has turned to doubt, no longer confident in a unified picture of everything. (Chesterton doesn’t mention Heisenberg, but that scientist’s discovery that the parameters of a particle can never all be known at the same time indeed changes the literal meaning of the word “science.”)
• The problem with the cinema is its indication that modern people can no longer amuse themselves and instead must be amused by someone else and someone else’s machines.
• Both pessimists and optimists agree that mankind is subject to fate, and both are wrong. The truth is that we are free to make our world.
• Marxism is bourgeois in that it only makes sense in cities.
• Industrial capitalism is one of the worst ills in the history of mankind. But the remedy for one country may be different from that of another.
• Progressives are often glad about remedies as improvements without admitting regret for the maladies that necessitate them. Neither pessimism nor optimism is the right view. Neither Puritanism nor Paganism will answer our ills. Only repentance will start true reform.
• New England is not the extension of England. The most English state is actually Virginia, with its noble history including Washington and Lee.
• Doubts about Genesis are nothing new and don't undermine faith. People don't base belief in Original Sin on belief in Genesis; it's the other way around.
And one last example. A couple of weeks ago I apologized (not entirely sincerely) for looking forward to rereading Burroughs’s Tarzan adventures. But in “Popular Literature and Popular Science,” from October 9, 1920, I found not only the defense of my love for that particular pulp but the purpose statement of my whole reading plan:
Every man ought to have read enough good literature to know when he is reading bad literature, and to go on reading it. He ought to have had what is rightly called a liberal education, that he may know the largest purposes to which human language has been put. But the object of a liberal education is to make him liberal, not merely to make him fastidious. He should be able to recognise the ideas that have been clarified and codified by the utterances of great men, when they appear in a more fragmentary fashion in the utterances of ordinary men. But if he has lost all interest in the utterances of ordinary men, he had far better not have been educated at all.

1 comment:

  1. I love that quote! It makes me want to pull Sheldon Cooper out of his imaginary world in The Big Bang Theory and make him read it. And now I can tell Brad to stop making fun of me for enjoying Sailor Moon, because I know it's bad but I like it anyway.