Thursday, February 07, 2008

Thursday's Dr. Thursday Post

A Voyage to Something Wonderful, and Giraffes

"Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed."
[GKC, Introduction to The Defendant]

We have begun Lent, where we remember our mortality, and the strange good news about how a man died. It seems so soon after Christmas, as indeed this year's spring full moon comes very early - so you will not mind my paraphrasing a Christmas story:
Jesus was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The centurion stuck his spear into his side, and Pilate released his body for burial.

Jesus was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Jesus was as dead as a door-nail.

There is no doubt that Jesus was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
Have you ever thought about it that way? Save this for Good Friday and try reading it for three days running. You'll see.

Something wonderful did come of that story. Something called "good news".

And somehow, this attitude - which I have tried to give you a taste of, by mutilating Dickens - is the essence of GKC's great Orthodoxy which we are considering at present. (Note! We are not proceeding into the matter of that Dead Man - not today. We'll get there at the right point.)

But what's this about a voyage? Do you really want to know? It's dangerous, and you may not come back unchanged...
Read more.

As I pointed out previously, we are trying to work through the experience of a certain man - Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a writer who called himself a journalist - and the thoughts of that man as he proceeded to find out that something he had "always" known was actually something fresh, startling, and utterly new.

This is hard to do. GKC himself found it hard to express. He spent quite a lot of time talking about it, and used "parables" - or analogies, or suggestions - to try to get this idea across, conjuring up example after example, ridiculous fantasy upon ridiculous fantasy.... To communicate what? Not the weighty ideas of the Kingdom of God - nothing that sublime, at least not for the present. Just the idea that the world (the kosmos, if we might be so bold and Greek) - yes, with humans, with newspapers, with pens and paper, with telephones and fireplaces, with beer and bacon, babies and burials - all this can be seen as something wonderful. (We need that song from "The King and I" here.) "Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed." What does that mean? It means we can recover our sense of the Truth of All That Is, the splendid freshness of seeing things for the first time, if we will but "change our eyes"...

This is not easy to do. It is not even easy to get this idea across. (Look how much trouble I am having!) The biggest problem is getting people's attention - and then keeping it.

Here's another, earlier, attempt from GKC:
The merely educated can scarcely ever be brought to believe that this world is itself an interesting place. When they look at a work of art, good or bad, they expect to be interested, but when they look at a newspaper advertisement or a group in the street, they do not, properly and literally speaking, expect to be interested. But to common and simple people this world is a work of art, though it is, like many great works of art, anonymous. They look to life for interest with the same kind of cheerful and uneradicable assurance with which we look for interest at a comedy for which we have paid money at the door. To the eyes of the ultimate school of contemporary fastidiousness, the universe is indeed an ill-drawn and over-coloured picture, the scrawlings in circles of a baby upon the slate of night; its starry skies are a vulgar pattern which they would not have for a wallpaper, its flowers and fruits have a cockney brilliancy, like the holiday hat of a flower-girl. Hence, degraded by art to its own level, they have lost altogether that primitive and typical taste of man - the taste for news. By this essential taste for news, I mean the pleasure in hearing the mere fact that a man has died at the age of 110 in South Wales, or that the horses ran away at a funeral in San Francisco. Large masses of the early faiths and politics of the world, numbers of the miracles and heroic anecdotes, are based primarily upon this love of something that has just happened, this divine institution of gossip.

When Christianity was named the good news, it spread rapidly, not only because it was good, but also because it was news. So it is that if any of us have ever spoken to a navvy in a train about the daily paper, we have generally found the navvy interested, not in those struggles of Parliaments and trades unions which sometimes are, and are always supposed to be, for his benefit; but in the fact that an unusually large whale has been washed up on the coast of Orkney, or that some leading millionaire like Mr. Harmsworth is reported to break a hundred pipes a year. The educated classes, cloyed and demoralized with the mere indulgence of art and mood, can no longer understand the idle and splendid disinterestedness of the reader of Pearson's Weekly. He still keeps something of that feeling which should be the birthright of men - the feeling that this planet is like a new house into which we have just moved our baggage. Any detail of it has a value, and, with a truly sportsmanlike instinct, the average man takes most pleasure in the details which are most complicated, irrelevant, and at once difficult and useless to discover. Those parts of the newspaper which announce the giant gooseberry and the raining frogs are really the modern representatives of the popular tendency which produced the hydra and the werewolf and the dog-headed men. Folk in the Middle Ages were not interested in a dragon or a glimpse of the devil because they thought that it was a beautiful prose idyll, but because they thought that it had really just been seen. It was not like so much artistic literature, a refuge indicating the dulness of the world: it was an incident pointedly illustrating the fecund poetry of the world.
[GKC, "A Defence of Useful Information", The Defendant]
Ah - did you stumble over "navvy" there? A navvy is a British term meaning "labourer employed in excavation". Then there was another term people persist in stumbling over - this "dragon" thing, as if there was something wrong in it. They've missed the strange truth GKC is getting at. I hesitate to use this next quote, because it makes me laugh... every time GKC uses this certain word, you almost KNOW he's trying to get our attention - but then that's my purpose too. OK, here you go:
"When first the giraffe was described by travellers it was treated as a lie. Now it is in the Zoological Gardens; but it still looks like a lie.
[GKC ILN Oct. 21, 1911 CW29:176, emphasis added]
But there really areflying dragons, webbed lizards of the genus Draco found in the East Indies, and I have recently learned that another real thing called dragon's blood (which comes from plants, not lizards) has several uses - perhaps as many as twelve - but I'm waiting to hear from a traveller. Hee hee.

Alas. If we are to "change our eyes" we shall most likely look rather odd, even as we find everything else to begin to look odd. But it is worth looking a fool, if we are to recover the splendid vision of the New. (We shall hear more about this strange "looking like a fool" if we ever get to chapter 2.) But how to do this? Go off, like Bilbo, on an adventure? Nasty inconvenient things - we might find dragons! "A man cannot deserve adventures; he cannot earn dragons and hippogriffs." [GKC, Heretics CW1:72] Or is it that you'll find it inconvenient? But: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered." [GKC, ILN July 21 1906 CW27:242] Ah, I see, that's what is keeping you. Very well; I can remove all that, if you will just come along... yes, through the screen, that's right. Climb right in. It won't hurt, and although I must, by the rules of my own craft, use magic, I guarantee that I will use nothing more harmful than what you are already using in order to read my words today. Dangerous, to be sure, in the wrong hands - but then that's the magic of the Keys. OK! Here we go...

Let us, then, set off on a voyage of discovery. What shall we take? Let us consult one of the Great Works of Travel - I mean something by Jules Verne, say Journey to the Center of the Earth - so let us collect our handkerchiefs, our provisions, our clothes and bedding, our lights, our climbing gear, our ropes (forgotten by poor Sam Gamgee, but restored to him in Lorien!) and all the scientific equipment we may need - we are hoping to make discoveries, after all. We are off, with GKC - OH WHAT FUN IT SHALL BE! - on a journey to adventure!!!

Having met with Uncle Gilbert at his old digs in Battersea, we get into a boat, set forth down the Thames, and travel, lo, many days, through the mist and fog. Terrible storms rise up, and we lose all sense of direction - but our vessel is seaworthy and we fight through long nights of terror, to a bright sunrise and a clear sky, with our lives and all our stores intact. Bacon and eggs are frying, coffee and tea are ready. Toast has been made, jam is set out, and we break our fast... "Land Ho!" our lookout cries! We are thrilled beyond words, as at 2 AM that October morning in 1492, the great thrill pervaded the crew of three little ships... But as little as they do WE know - we are about to discover something even more wonderful than an entire unknown hemisphere.

Our hardy crew brings us to a safe harbour on an empty beach, amid rocks and sand. We climb out and make our way up above the beach - where something strange meets our eye:

We stare, blinking, in the early sunlight. What is this? A church? A house? Could this be some alien teleportation device? Some recently built set for a soon-to-be-released Hollywood flick? Some seaside getaway for a wealthy recluse? Maybe even a barbaric temple? How curious it is! We are fascinated, and wish to come closer, to study it and admire it.... We might learn so much from it! But - do we have any clue where we are? The storm has taken us so far from home, our compass (as for the Earth-Center journeyers) has been misbehaving for days... But hark! Is that - is that someone - another human? A native of this strange place? He approaches! How might we begin to make ourselves known to him? God only knows what strange tongue he speaks. We begin, with simple hand motions, hoping to convey our friendly harmlessness and our wishes to approach the strange structure we see before us.

His mouth opens and we wonder what this foreign human voice shall say...

"Look 'ere, you crazy lot! Goggling at ol' Brighton Pavilion like you've never seen 'er before? Lot of escaped lunatics, if you arsk me. Gar, I'm thirsty. Stand me a drink?"

We look at each other, our faces twisted with shock. We find we are back in England - on the south coast - at Brighton! That strange building is none other than the Brighton Pavilion built in 1784 and later revised into this oriental palace. This uncouth alien is just a common English navvy (see above) taking some sea air before going to his work.

Dullards? Fools? Escaped lunatics? Nitwits? Time-wasters? Simpletons?

No, we have done something far more important than Columbus, found something more powerful than Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein, experienced a communication from far further than Morse, Bell, or Marconi... One might write a whole chapter about the important work we have just accomplished. [See, e.g., "The Round Road; Or, The Desertion Charge" in Manalive or "The Desert Island" in The Ball and the Cross, or "The Coloured Lands" in The Coloured Lands. But especially CW1:211 and CW2:143]

You and I and GKC - we have discovered England. (From afar we hear someone shout, stop the presses!)

No, we have found Eden again. For one tiny moment, the Divine Voice has spoken: ephpheta - only this time our eyes have been opened. (cf. Mark 7:34)

This is what shall come in the remainder of the book. Your eyes will be opened. You will discover the place where you live, and see it as you saw it that first day; you shall hear the things you know as if you had heard them for the first time. You will find Good News.

Oh my friend! Come! The tide is about to turn! The wind is fresh, the sky clear! Get your gear ready, and set off with us, for the voyage has begun!

--Dr. Thursday

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