Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Thursday Post

Last week - it being the week containing that date "among the most famous in history" - I recounted, in a half-fictional form, my own memories of that day in 2001. I prefaced it by saying that "September is rich in memories, for many reasons..." It is the month when many of us went back to school - even if, once we were in college, we had to return in August. For me, it is connected with work (I mean employment) in one very special way - yesterday, September 19, marked the thirtieth anniversary of my starting work in computing. I left that job long ago, and the company was sold back in the 1980s, but so many of my best memories of work are there. Some real triumphs, some horrible failures, some rude awakenings - as usual for most of us.

Ahem. But this is NOT my blogg - if you wish to know a bit more you can go here where I tell a bit about that first day.

Four years before, September was the month when I first began to write computer programs - punching cards on the old keypunch machines at the school-which-must-not-be-named, with their two-million dollar computer designed by Seymour Cray (a name as great to me in computing as GKC is!)...

But there is another memory which is recalled by September - a memory from much further back than 1977, and which was renewed in me by another blogg-item (to be mentioned at the very end of this post). It was that day in 1962 when, just after lunch, my second-grade teacher told us she was going upstairs to the third grade, and the third-grade teacher was coming to teach us. This was something new.

So the third-grade teacher came in, and she picked up some strange little something (I did not really know what it was) and went up to the blackboard and moved her hand...

And there appeared not ONE line - but FIVE lines at once.

Then on top of those she drew a something, a strange shape, a wonderful shape, something I had never seen before - a shape, as I would now say, which is NOT an ASCII character, so I cannot type it. It was the shape we call the "treble" or G-clef.

As you know, the word "clef" comes from the Latin clavis or key. The "key" is key to all kinds of things, not just music, not just computing. It was important to Chesterton also.

To read more, press your mouse "key" here...

The key is the framing symbol to GKC's autobiography. The second chapter is called "The Man with the Golden Key" and the last is called "The God With the Golden Key". It will be best if I let GKC speak here:
The very first thing I can ever remember seeing with my own eyes was a young man walking across a bridge. He had a curly moustache and an attitude of confidence verging on swagger. He carried in his hand a disproportionately large key of a shining yellow metal and wore a large golden or gilded crown. The bridge he was crossing sprang on the one side from the edge of a highly perilous mountain chasm, the peaks of the range rising fantastically in the distance; and at the other end it joined the upper part of the tower of an almost excessively castellated castle. In the castle tower there was one window, out of which a young lady was looking. I cannot remember in the least what she looked like; but I will do battle with anyone who denies her superlative good looks.

[all the intervening chapters are here omitted]

This story, therefore, can only end as any detective story should end, with its own particular questions answered and its own primary problem solved. Thousands of totally different stories, with totally different problems have ended in the same place with their problems solved. But for me my end is my beginning, as Maurice Baring quoted of Mary Stuart, and this overwhelming conviction that there is one key which can unlock all doors brings back to me the first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation. And there starts up again before me, standing sharp and clear in shape as of old, the figure of a man who crosses a bridge and carries a key; as I saw him when I first looked into fairyland through the window of my father's peep-show. But I know that he who is called Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, is called also Claviger, the Bearer of the Key; and that such keys were given him to bind and loose when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:39, 330-1]
It would be futile for me to attempt an analysis of the word "key" in all its wonderful senses, even if I merely limit my study to the works of GKC. If one is curious to read more, especially in the application of "key" to things like the Petrine Commission in Matthew 16:19, I would advise consulting Fr. Jaki's wonderful little book called The Keys of the Kingdom: a Tool's Witness to Truth available from Real View Books - yes, as a careful scholar and deep Chestertonian, he quotes GKC to advantage!

But there is one powerful Chesterton quote which Jaki does not mention. Perhaps because it comes in the masterwork which forms the "head of the corner" to GKC's conversion, and Jaki's work, dealing with the Papal office as it does, did not require this particular analysis. I should here point out, as GKC does in his preface, that "It is impossible, I hope, for any Catholic to write any book on any subject, above all this subject, without showing that he is a Catholic; but this study is not specially concerned with the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant. Much of it is devoted to many sorts of Pagans rather than any sort of Christians..." [CW2:141] And those of you who have suffered through my lengthy ramblings may perhaps sense how I've tried to proceed in that manner. Ahem! In any case, let us hear GKC's keynote discussion of the keys:
Christ founded the Church with two great figures of speech; in the final words to the Apostles who received authority to found it. The first was the phrase about founding it on Peter as on a rock; the second was the symbol of the keys. About the meaning of the former there is naturally no doubt in my own case; but it does not directly affect the argument here save in two more secondary aspects. It is yet another example of a thing that could only fully expand and explain itself afterwards, and even long afterwards. And it is yet another example of something the very reverse of simple and self-evident even in the language, in so far as it described a man as a rock when he had much more the appearance of a reed. But the other image of the keys has an exactitude that has hardly been exactly noticed. The keys have been conspicuous enough in the art and heraldry of Christendom; but not every one has noted the peculiar aptness of the allegory. We have now reached the point in history where something must be said of the first appearance and activities of the Church in the Roman Empire; and for that brief description nothing could be more perfect than that ancient metaphor. The Early Christian was very precisely a person carrying about a key, or what he said was a key. The whole Christian movement consisted in claiming to possess that key. It was not merely a vague forward movement, which might be better represented by a battering-ram. It was not something that swept along with it similar or dissimilar things, as does a modern social movement. As we shall see in a moment, it rather definitely refused to do so. It definitely asserted that there was a key and that it possessed that key and that no other key was like it; in that sense it was as narrow as you please. Only it happened to be the key that could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white daylight of liberty. The creed was like a key in three respects; which can be most conveniently summed up under this symbol. First, a key is above all things a thing with a shape. It is a thing that depends entirely upon keeping its shape. The Christian creed is above all things the philosophy of shapes and the enemy of shapelessness. That is where it differs from all that formless infinity, Manichean or Buddhist, which makes a sort of pool of night in the dark heart of Asia; the ideal of uncreating all the creatures. That is where it differs also from the analogous vagueness of mere evolutionism; the idea of creatures constantly losing their shape. A man told that his solitary latchkey had been melted down with a million others into a Buddhistic unity would be annoyed. But a man told that his key was gradually growing and sprouting in his pocket, and branching into new wards or complications, would not be more gratified. Second, the shape of a key is in itself a rather fantastic shape. A savage who did not know it was a key would have the greatest difficulty in guessing what it could possibly be. And it is fantastic because it is in a sense arbitrary. A key is not a matter of abstractions; in that sense a key is not a matter of argument. It either fits the lock or it does not. It is useless for men to stand disputing over it, considered by itself; or reconstructing it on pure principles of geometry or decorative art. It is senseless for a man to say he would like a simpler key; it would be far more sensible to do his best with a crowbar. And thirdly, as the key is necessarily a thing with a pattern, so this was one having in some ways a rather elaborate pattern. When people complain of the religion being so early complicated with theology and things of the kind, they forget that the world had not only got into a hole, but had got into a whole maze of holes and corners. The problem itself was a complicated problem; it did not in the ordinary sense merely involve anything so simple as sin. It was also full of secrets, of unexplored and unfathomable fallacies, of unconscious mental diseases, of dangers in all directions. If the faith had faced the world only with the platitudes about peace and simplicity some moralists would confine it to, it would not have had the faintest effect on that luxurious and labyrinthine lunatic asylum. What it did do we must now roughly describe; it is enough to say here that there was undoubtedly much about the key that seemed complex; indeed there was only one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door.
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:346-7]
Indeed - no relativistic view of words can by any means whatsoever permit access to your computer if you press the wrong key when you type your password! As in DNA, as in music, as in computers - "not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter shall pass away..."

--Dr. Thursday

P.S. Just in case you are wondering what it was that linked all these thoughts together, please see the lovely picture on Nancy Brown's blogg, which shows Pope Benedict XVI at the keys...

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