Thursday, October 05, 2006

Black But Comely - a GKC Vision

One of the many delights of being a Chestertonian computer scientist is being able to see more of the universe. I get to see not only the "liberal arts" side, which is the lit'ry or philosophical realm - but also the "tech" side, which is the mathematical and scientific realm. For as The Phantom Tollbooth teaches us, both the kingdoms of Words and of Numbers must work together if they are to combat the Demons of Ignorance. The truly Chestertonian thing about that story is how a little child led the armies to victory...

But to proceed with our discussion. I take today's title from GKC, who was quoting the Bible, the book called "Canticle of Canticles" or "Song of Songs" or "Song of Solomon" (1:4) depending on who is doing the translation. Nor is this discussion related to "race", the political term for dermal melanin content. It is simply GKC's description of his appearance, after what was probably a bit of sloppiness on his part in dealing with a piece of printing machinery. (Oh, yes, our lit'ry GKC actually used machinery!) It's from a letter to his fiancé, Frances Blogg:
... I am black but comely at this moment: because the cyclostyle has blacked me. Fear not. I shall wash myself. ... I like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud. It is just the same with people.... When we call a man "manly" or a woman "womanly" we touch the deepest philosophy.
[quoted in Maisie Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 108-9]
Sounds rather Franciscan! He calls this the deepest philosophy - the idea of a thing-being-itself - which is truly the foundation for the realms of knowledge. But it is something more, because when we talk about "manly" or "womanly" we are talking not about ink, which must be black (or blue, or red) or about a machine, or even about a book - we are talking about individuals with FREE WILL. Human beings who are FREE... who have LIBERTY.

And even while I write here in the United States, some fifty miles away from the cracked bell which stands for Liberty - a place where there ought to be at least a sense of understanding of the word - there are still people wondering what this word means. Chesterton gave a very concise answer, an answer worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas:
What exactly is liberty? First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself.
[GKC, The Poet and the Lunatics]
But we, as ourselves, finite humans, are limited. That does not destroy liberty, as some people may think. For example, the other day I saw a billboard reading "Reach beyond your potential" - which means nothing at all, like "giving 110 percent", or "random kindess" and all those nonsensical slogans. Not only do these things have no meaning, they are quite dangerous, as GKC goes on to explain:
...I began to think that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself limitation. We are limited by our brains and bodies; and if we break out, we cease to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be anything.
Now I started this little discussion with a mention of seeing things. GKC, trained as an artist, is often characterized as a "visual" writer, with his descriptions of colourful sunsets and clothing and landscapes. How much more was he a visual writer in the sense of dealing with the sense of vision. Consider this:
None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. But don't let us let the eye rest. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see the startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes.
[GKC, introduction to Tremendous Trifles]
The mystical truth of biology tells us that our eyes which look so white are actually dead black on the inside - for technical reasons dealing with the processing of light, just as the inside of cameras are dead black. (As a result, true Albinos are afflicted with varying degrees of visual impairment.) The limit of black gives rise to the amazing liberty of vision.

And, to complete the argument, it is the limits of the battalions and squadrons and fleets from all the grand divisions of ther realms of Words and of Numbers, each with its own unique specializations, yet all cooperating in mutual assistance, which produce the liberty of the great Army of Wisdom: free to be wise. We must not forget our true enemy. Nor our true Leader, the little Child Who reigns from the Seat of Wisdom. Let us repeat that plea for assistance once uttered by a blind man: Kurie `ina bleyo "Lord, that I may see." [Mk 10:51]


  1. Let us be ocular athletes.

    I like that.

    I was never really a visual person until I met my husband (a photographer and a totally visual person) and so I am learning to be, in GKC's words, an "ocular athlete"!

  2. As you noted, Albinos have visual impairment because their eyes don't block all incoming light. Also, human albinism is genetically linked to nystagmus (lazy eye) and strabismus (a permanent squint and lack of eye coordination). This means albinos have bad depth perception. That, along with the fact they're memorable, means they make lousy assassins, Dan Brown!!!

    Yet one more problem with his execrable books. When, oh when, will he be stopped?

  3. "Suchness" then is a motif of Chesterton's, it seems.

    This whole idea of limitation as liberating has to do with the concept of form, a concept not appealing to modernists. We've dealt with this regarding works of literature - for example, why the form proper to a play demands a different content than the form proper to a short story.

    Now what I am about to suggest may not be good philosophy, but it's good combox fodder. If we're dealing with form and content, are we also not dealing with spirit?

    Imagine a trinitarian system of incarnation -

    The Spirit motivates

    The Form gives shape and structure to the intentions of the spirit

    The Flesh is the content that is built by the spirit taking form

    For example, Radical Traditionalists argue that only the Latin Mass is valid. Do they really think the worship of God can take no other form? Or do they believe the spirit behind the form is bad? I think they are really arguing that only the Latin Mass form can prevent the ugly spirit of modernism from taking flesh and bearing bad fruit. This is because form is limiting, a safeguard.

    Another example, if the spirit of love between the sexes seeks to express itself, it will take the apparently restraining form of matrimony, a form which forbids crossing the formal boundaries into adultery or perversion or contraception. But if the spirit is more interested in self than other, then the form of matrimony must be destroyed or remade (which is what we're seeing all around us). The selfish spirit then takes the form of, say, "shacking up", and bears fruit in the flesh of a generation of broken relationships and abandoned little bastards.

    We will thus know a spirit by its fruits. Its fruits are proof of its suchness. Its suchness is safeguarded by its form.

  4. Remember that, although our Lord entered this world as a little Child, he did not leave it thus, nor will he return as a Child, but as Man.


Join our FaceBook fan page today!