Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Post

Ye Thorn and ye Thin Thread of Thanks

"...before I have done with you, you shall thank God for the very ducks on the pond."
-- G. K. Chesterton, Manalive
Sometimes even philosophers are engineers. Sometimes even atheists are catholic.

Yes, I know, don't those words express a horrible thought? Don't they make you cringe? The poor, sad doctors of philosophy: Nietzscheites blinded by the light, Hegelians and Kantians busy ignoring all the evidence, Aristotelites peering uncertainly at the swamp-exhalations the rest of us call the Milky Way, Platonics in the darkness of their unlighted cave, Socratics ending every sentence with a question mark - all the vast horde of "wisdom-lovers", forced to stoop to the filthy abasement of submitting to INK AND PAPER, and (horrors!) perhaps even a word-processor....

Yes, indeed: to leave off their dreaming, wake from their various unreal mental states, and slam hard up against Reality. Simply in order to get their latest idea into their favourite academic journal. Ah. What a delight.

But then they must. Or all their nonsense would stay stuffed in their brains, and not pollute our world. But each time they come to reality, bowing low before the simple tools, designed by engineers, built by workers, existing for real, and obeying the rules of reality, they formally, absolutely, completely deny their own mental dreams, and attest to the Scholastic, the Thomistic - no, let us be modern - the Chestertonian View. The Real View - which is Reality.

Why is it Chestertonian? Let us see what he had to say.
Read more.
It is a wonderful line, and one which we shall study again in another context:
... 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.
[GKC to his fiancée, July 8 1899, quoted in Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 108-9]
Reality. Real ink. It's black. What a wonderful thing ink is - its most wonderful action is in being black - black but comely, as the Canticle of Canticles (1:4) has it. (The discussion will involve all three words; it ought to be quite a meaty topic.)
"The inky-ness of ink." If the ink were faint, weak, insipid... "if salt loses its flavour" [Mt 5:13] ...well then why bother? Might as well use water for all the good it would do. Also, ink must dry quickly (though not too quickly!) and it must not spread - and there are probably a whole bunch of other important properties required. Maybe it's just as well we can buy it in a store, and not have to make it at home. Of course if you are using a laser printer, there's a whole other set of issues, but we cannot go into that now, hee hee. I am already far away from my topic - uh, yeah. Oh, that's right. Words, and letters. After all, if you have something to say, and you REALLY intent to put it down in BLACK and white, you had better think a little about your words.

And that's why I mentioned the second horrible short quip in my opening. How is it possible for an atheist to be "catholic"? I mean in the lower-case sense - the Greek word which means "universal". It's not my idea, it's Chesterton's:
It is the standing peculiarity of this curious world of ours that almost everything in it has been extolled enthusiastically and invariably extolled to the disadvantage of everything else. One after another almost every one of the phenomena of the universe has been declared to be alone capable of making life worth living. Books, love, business, religion, alcohol, abstract truth, private emotion, money, simplicity, mysticism, hard work, a life close to nature, a life close to Belgrave Square are every one of them passionately maintained by somebody to be so good that they redeem the evil of an otherwise indefensible world. Thus, while the world is almost always condemned in summary, it is always justified, and indeed extolled, in detail after detail. Existence has been praised and absolved by a chorus of pessimists. The work of giving thanks to Heaven is, as it were, divided ingeniously among them. Schopenhauer is told of as a kind of librarian in the House of God, to sing the praises of the austere pleasures of the mind. Carlyle, as steward, undertakes the working department and eulogises a life of labour in the fields. Omar Khayyam is established in the cellar, and swears that it is the only room in the house. Even the blackest of pessimistic artists enjoys his art. At the precise moment that he has written some shameless and terrible indictment of Creation, his one pang of joy in the achievement joins the universal chorus of gratitude, with the scent of the wild flower and the song of the bird.
[GKC, Varied Types 32-33]
In case you were wondering, Varied Types is Chesterton's Twelve Types with eight more essays added in. The essays first appeared in The Daily News and The Speaker.

And all this is why I quoted Innocent Smith from GKC's Manalive: "...before I have done with you, you shall thank God for the very ducks on the pond." Indeed. Before I am done with you, you - you philosopher, you atheist - you shall indeed thank God (or at least thank an unnamed engineer!) for your paper, your ink, your computer, your power lines, your desk and chair - the list goes on and on. "The greatest of poems is an inventory." [GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:267]

And you should be thankful even for the very letters and words you are writing and reading. What if you had to type (let us say) your posting, or your commment into one of these little comment boxes, and found, to your dismay, that some key on your keyboard was sticking? Not an important one, let us say... but a "rarely used" one.

As I have told you, I wander through the universe (and the university) peering into subjects that I do not study, but wish to know at least a little BIT about. I got a couple of books on "Bibliography"- the study of books-in-themselves - and learned how there is a letter which we call a "small letter" (you know, not a CAPITAL one) which is, (or had been) in the correct sense, an UPPER-CASE character - the letter "k". It's very funny - but I will have to tell you about it another time, because it does not help me get to my point.

But here's something that will. At least it is another oddity Have you ever seen those old fashioned signs, usually in a curio or souvenir shop, or on some just-built "olde-style" businesses, that read "Ye Olde Curio Shoppe"? This "Ye" is a famous double typographical error.

The correct typography ought to be "Ye" whatever. This is an OLD form of a contraction, and it is, like the upper-case little "k", a quirk of the ancient printing presses. It is just as funny to a Chestertonian as it is to see the failure of modern printers to use "ligatures" for "fl", "fi", "ff", and so on.

Why is it a quirk? Because in those ancient days, the REAL spelling of the word "the" was "þe" - that odd looking p-shape is NOT one of Tolkien's elvish runes. It is the old English letter called "thorn", which spelled the common digraph "th" of English. There were two such letters:
Þ or þ called "thorn"
Ð or ð called "eth"
But the printers would run out, or not have the "thorn" - especially in big fonts, like for title pages, or for POSTERS which got POSTED UP for people to see... (No they did NOT have bloggs back then; this was posting of paper with glue onto walls.) So the printers substituted the letter "Y" (Why, I don't quite know; I missed that lecture, or page) and to clue the reader in that there was something "contracted" about the word they were trying to represent, they "superscripted" the "e", thus we have "Ye" = "the".

Note. This is NOT the same "ye" as the old plural of "you", as in "O come all YE faithful".

Wow, Dr. Thursday, you've really gone off the deep end. What on earth does "YE" (however it is printed) and old English letters and whatever you were moaning about before about catholic atheists - what does ANY of that have to do with thanksgiving?

Well, I am sorry to subject you to my wondering, but that is what hit me about the alliteration in GKC's very famous phrase, speaking about his own thought, life, and conversion:
I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered. This way of looking at things, with a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude, was of course, to some extent assisted by those few of the fashionable writers who were not pessimists; especially by Walt Whitman, by Browning and by Stevenson; Browning's "God must be glad one loves his world so much", or Stevenson's "belief in the ultimate decency of things". But I do not think it is too much to say that I took it in a way of my own; even if it was a way I could not see clearly or make very clear. What I meant, whether or no I managed to say it, was this; that no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. There were other aspects of this feeling, and other arguments about it, to which I shall have to return. Here it is only a necessary part of the narrative; as it involves the fact that, when I did begin to write, I was full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.
[GKC, Autobiography CW16:97, emphasis added]
I hope that, if all else fails, computers, characters (upper and lower!), philosophy and engineering, we all preserve our own "thin thread of thanks" unbroken...

--Dr. Thursday.

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