Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thursday's Dr. Thursday Post

Insane Juxtapositions, Desperate Decisions - Circles and the Cross

So we had another surprise! Last Sunday was the Lenten edition of the Transfiguration of the Lord - all about sight, vision, and light. In case you've forgotten, there is an "official" feast of the Transfiguration on August 6; we recall it during Lent because it plays an important role in our preparation, as it did for the Apostles. We need to keep two very different truths fixed in our minds: one and the same Man, Jesus Christ, is the One Who shone with His own light - and He is also the One Who suffered and died on the cross. It is this wrenching, nearly insane juxtaposition which GKC is going to emphasize - the Christian Thing which is two things and also one: two things impossible together which are nevertheless one single thing. If we were really pagan, and heard talk of such a thing, and sat with all the books of human writing, we would find no more perfect analogy than the strange words the physicists have told us reveal the true nature of light - the photon which is particle and wave, somehow neither, yet somehow both at once - and still real. But then, "in Thy light we shall see light." [Ps 35:10]

But we are not physicists, most of the time. Nor are we philosophers - most of the time. We are merely trying to read this book Orthodoxy, and get a little further into it than we have before - to learn a little more from GKC. It is one of those books - you can make a list for yourself - which yields new delights each time it is read. You will, as our beloved president Dale Ahlquist has said, come to think GKC has rewritten it while it was on your shelf...

Ahem. Let us, then, proceed into the first "real" chapter - the second (or third) which is called "The Maniac". Remember: we are on an adventure. We have our guide, GKC. We have our tools - several of them. What are they? Let's review:

1. Our eyes - we are trying to see things for the first time
2. A kind of warning that things we know really well will probably start looking exceedingly strange
3. A sense that we need to start seeing opposites together, and at once - which will help us to see
(a) the way they both depend on something deeper
(b) the way they really are different
Yes, you need to remember one other thing. This is a verbal journey. We are in one sense blind. We are going to see with our ears - I mean we must listen to GKC telling us certain things which he sees - and then, it is to be hoped, we shall start seeing for ourselves.

When the physicists do this, especially in those strange places where no experiments can be performed, they use a German word - they call this a "Gedanken experiment" - a "thought" experiment. GKC is going to put certain ideas into the test tubes of our heads... er... if you don't like that image, use a stewpot (it's about lunchtime when I write this). He will let us stir, and turn up the heat, and even add our own spices... Of course such a splendid analogy comes from our Mr. Chesterton - one of the funniest, and thoroughly pro-woman truths he has written:
A woman cooking may not always cook artistically; still she can cook artistically. She can introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the composition of a soup. The clerk is not encouraged to introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the figures in a ledger.
[GKC ILN Apr 7 1906 CW27:161]
As the dwarves said to Snow White, "Mmmm! Soup!" Oh boy! Just check, one last time: Do you have your big spoon in your hand? Are you nice and hungry? Ready, set, cook!
Click here to sample some stew.
Chesterton starts with a question - the question which was asked of him by G. S. Street in his review of GKC's Heretics:
"I shall not begin to worry about my philosophy of life until Mr. Chesterton discloses his."
[G. S. Street, in the Outlook June 17 1905, quoted in CW1:211]
Or, as GKC puts it in CW1:216, "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?" Those are the words of an anonymous "prosperous publisher" who asked this of GKC, as they were walking somewhere together, just as an "omnibus" labelled "Hanwell" happened to pass them. Though in What I Saw in America GKC gives a playful poke to the American use of "elevator" for "lift" and "automobile" for "motor", here we see an inverse: America has a shorter term and calls such things a "bus". But anyone with Latin in his background will leap to the -ibus ending, murmuring "dative or ablative plural" - for an omnibus is called that because it is a ride to all places for all people - presuming, of course, that you pay the fare! (That is, the omnibus is in contrast to a taxi or other conveyance, hired by an individual to get to a specific destination.) An aside: speaking of the dative plural, as a tech I always scratch my head when I see "SCSI-bus" and wonder... (It's a communication channel used for disk drives and other equipment.)

But Hanwell? I have written about that before. Hanwell (is/was) an insane asylum in the west of London. As GKC proceeds to explain, the asylums are full of people who believe in themselves - that is, to the exclusion of just about everything else. In other words, a place where a normal person has somehow lost his way, lost his focus, lost (perhaps) everything - except one thing, which is wrong because it has nothing else to go along with it. It's just another way of explaining "heresy". (If you'd rather think of this in terms of fantasy, it's the City of the Old Emperors in The Neverending Story.)

The next paragraph is one of those which critics would quickly label "verbal fireworks". It is kind of like skipping some 20 steps in working out an equation - it is well argued, but not quite as complete as one would like. It is well worth considering now (during Lent) because GKC brings in the idea of sin. Sin is as real a problem as heresy or as lunacy - a form of damage to something, a wrongness, a narrow choosing without awareness of something larger. But most of us don't want to talk about sin - and this makes the reader of this paragraph really uncomfortable! Here's just one, very loud, very bright little firecracker:
Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.
So, after GKC gives a number of very powerful lines to demonstrate the link, he reverts back to talk about Hanwell - which is easier to bear for some:
Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell.
Yes, there are people - nowawdays, often writers of TV shows or rock songs - who think it's "cool" to be crazy. We ourselves, familiar with GKC's writing, might think that GKC had a warm spot for lunacy, given his books like The Poet and the Lunatics or Lunacy and Letters. GKC quickly shuts off the supposition that he considers it "attractive":
...if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else's disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life.
Ah, you say - if you are still with me, and not looking for some bread to go with this very thick stew - this is something we already know about! This is the idea of adventure, an ordinary man in an extraordinary place. Exactly. Full marks! What a cook you're proving to be!

Now, just because our guide is a "lit'ry" man, and not a dull computer guy like me, he brings in a GOLDEN allusion to his own discipline - a grand triumphal link which is brought to its fullest power in his discussion of the Story in his 1925 The Everlasting Man [CW2:380], and somehow alluded to by J. R. R. Tolkien in his very important essay "On Fairy Tales". We shall see far more in Chapter Four, when we take a tour of Elfland, but for now, look at this almost mathematical treatment of an important, if much debated, branch of literature:
...odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world.
Again I must restrain myself from filling all your disk with comments, but take just this one sterling line from another essay:
The fairy-tale means extraordinary things as seen by ordinary people.
[GKC ILN Dec 2 1905 CW:27:72]
Yes, and you can see that even in this high-tech world, as I hope to demonstrate in my own writing someday... but for now, think not about the "mechanics" or "details" within "fairy tales" but about the "story" - the adventure - we are on an adventure, ordinary people in an extraordinary place: the kosmos, the World.

You may laugh, if you are reading along with me, at this point. It is here GKC uses nearly the same words as me (I did not consciously intend this, nor recall the quote!)
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey.
Indeed, we advance from danger into danger. If you were already uncomfortable, all bothered and ready to fight over the topic of "fairy tale", perhaps you will be even more perturbed by the next coordination made by GKC. But it gives us the next important tool in our stock of equipment, and as difficult as it will be to work through, we must accept it gratefully, and study it to learn its correct, if uncomfortable, use:
the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man's mental balance.
Hm. Did you bother to read the link I provided last week - the one called "Mike's Job"? If you did, you may already understand this great rule. The idea is not that we refuse to touch technical or scientific matters. Nor that we must somehow write thesaurus-rich, poetic, furry-animal, cute-cute, pretty-pretty "stories", to the exclusion of any precision or awareness of real things. Oh, no. Not at all. It is something which pervades GKC's writing, from his 1901 The Defendant to his 1925 The Everlasting Man and elsewhere: the idea (WHICH I MUST REMIND YOU WE ARE ALREADY CARRYING AS A TOOL) that we need both things - as paradoxical, as contrary, as (YES) as crazy as it may be to unite them. It is true craziness, real heresy, when one chooses ONE thing to the exclusion of all others. (Remember, the Greek root of "heresy" means "to choose"!) This is the error; this is the warning. Do not get trapped by math, by chess - or even by poetry.

Those of us who have watched "The Miracle on 34th Street" will recall how Kris Kringle tells Susan that there is an English Nation and a French Nation - there is also an IMAGINE-Nation. We are not simply talking about fantasy. We are talking about the power of mental vision. Remember how I said this was a verbal journey, which you would hear (or read) but build for yourself, like Bastian, in your own way? The true imagination means pondering, considering, bringing into mental vision. The Greeks used a deep and thoroughly mystical word for this "inner vision" - the word theoria, from which we get our "theory". Many writers have begun to plumb this rich word, but it is deep, deep:
Theoria and theoretical are words that, in the understanding of the ancients, mean precisely this: a relationship to the world, an orientation toward reality characterized entirely by the desire that this same reality may reveal itself in its true being. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of truth; nothing else but the self-revelation of reality. Thus we may state that the contemplation of reality is properly called theoretical whenever the aim is to discover the truth and nothing else.
[Joseph Pieper, In Defense of Philosophy 45-6]
But perhaps that is too rich, too concentrated. Then try GKC:
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.
Please do not ask me to "prove" this sort of thing. We are not doing that sort of thing.... we are just looking, observing, theoria-ing. There is something true here, as odd as it sounds. And if you are a mathematician - remember Zeno? He wrote a trick riddle, to the effect that "you cannot move, because to go from A to B, you have to go halfway first, but then you'd have to go half of that distance..." and so on. Oh, my; poor Zeno - are you stuck? (hee hee) Does that mean we cannot move???? Of course not! Er... (pardon my math here!) What is the infinite sum of all the inverse powers of two? Oh, yeah... it's just one - a finite distance after all. So we've just crossed the infinite sea of steps from A to B! That's why some smart-aleck Scholastic answered Zeno with solvitur ambulando - let it be solved, by (or while) walking! Do you see the poetry - which is NO LESS mathematical for all that? To put it into modern terms, it's this: "Hey math dude - take a walk!" You see, poetry is a more robust piece of equipment - it can deal with things which might break the more delicate gears in - uh - other parts of the brain. (Are you getting a little itchy here? Remember: BOTH THINGS TOGETHER, in their right places!)

GKC does not mention Zeno (though he does mention the Scholastic quip in ILN Nov 4 1916 CW30:538). Instead he uses literary men like Poe, Cowper, and a line, often misquoted, from Dryden. Most of us (especially those of us who know our Mr. Ahlquist, or read his books) know how easy it is to misquote GKC. But here GKC points out that Dryden's line, "Great wits are oft to madness near allied" is frequently misquoted. He is not dealing with a bibliographic matter - he is explaining this greater matter of madness:
It is the pure promptitude of the intellect that is in peril of a breakdown. Also people might remember of what sort of man Dryden was talking. He was not talking of any unworldly visionary like Vaughan or George Herbert. He was talking of a cynical man of the world, a sceptic, a diplomatist, a great practical politician. Such men are indeed to madness near allied. Their incessant calculation of their own brains and other people's brains is a dangerous trade. It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind. A flippant person has asked why we say, "As mad as a hatter." A more flippant person might answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure the human head.
Some critics try to say how careless, or lacking in precision, GKC is in this book. But here GKC "goes in motion" - he covers the equation (or argument) in both directions: "And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners." [ibid] Again, we have another rich interlink, shooting down en passant a rather stupid line from a Marxist, all while explaining (rather fairly and delicately, I think) about real lunacy:
Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
GKC is not writing a text on lunacy, or on its treatment - though I would be interested in hearing the comments of real pathological psychologists on this. He is getting at something... something akin to what he was getting at in Heretics. He is using the terrifying breakdown of reason in a person to assist in understanding how reason in general can break down: "Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way." [CW1:222]
And then, he again varies the analogy, going to about as non-literary a realm as there is. As if to demonstrate his own real respect for, and accurate grasp of true mathematics (in case the math dudes in the audience are still feeling a kind of sting), he says this, which might be right out of Euclid: "A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large." (I do hope you know who Euclid is. You may be delighted (or horrified) to know his books are still in print! I got mine from Dover.) You MIGHT want to brush up on this stuff, as we shall study more of this very important and quite mystical union of geometry and philosophy next week.

I suspect that GKC was somehow uncomfortable with this topic of lunacy, because he exercises (again, in my view) a sense of compassion for those who truly are insane. I wonder how a real physician-of-the-mind would take his words. But he is coming to a point. It is the point made at powerful length in the Harry Potter Story, that it is one's choice that matters:
A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle [a circular route on the London Underground] will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street. Decision is the whole business here; a door must be shut for ever. Every remedy is a desperate remedy. Every cure is a miraculous cure. Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil. And however quietly doctors and psychologists may go to work in the matter, their attitude is profoundly intolerant - as intolerant as Bloody Mary. Their attitude is really this: that the man must stop thinking, if he is to go on living. Their counsel is one of intellectual amputation. If thy head offend thee, cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile, rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell - or into Hanwell.
[CW1:224; emphasis added; cf. Mt 5:30, 18:8]

Whew. Kind of tired, after today's strenuous hike? Eaten a big bowl of rich food from the stewpot? Certainly. Good stuff... But next week you shall see how necessary this was - for at this point GKC gives us the concluding line, the transition chord to take us to the next movement of the chapter: "I have described at length my vision of the maniac for this reason: that just as I am affected by the maniac, so I am affected by most modern thinkers." [CW1:225] Next time we shall hear the details of this reason.

--Dr. Thursday

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