Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Introductory: The Bridge to Elfland

Today, the Thursday in the octave of Pentecost, we come down from the "foothills" of Orthodoxy - what GKC calls the "rough review of recent thought" which is madness (the Maniac, chapter 1), as it is centered on self-destruction (the Suicide of Thought, chapter 2).

And lo: we find a bridge. Bridges could easily occupy several bloggs full of writers, whether one approaches from their science, their engineering, their poetry, their art, their symbolic significance....

Or, as GKC might say, bridges can be viewed as the Common Man views them: in the simple, commonplace sense that they provide a way of getting across chasms, rivers, and other such obstacles.

Sometimes the simple and obvious thing defeats us. (It ought to be the other way around: we ought to be using the simple and obvious to defeat our - uh - opposition.) In this next chapter, perhaps one of GKC's greatest and richest writings, we shall see how magic - yes, real, everyday, honest, homely, fairy-tale magic - can be used in this way. (Oh, are you bothered by that "m" word? Lest you misunderstand, I assure you: there is NO danger of demonism here. See my PS at the end.)

But the bridge before us beckons onward, to a wide and lovely land where we shall start our real quest, because, as we heard a week or so ago, "It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers." [CW1:241]

Wands out, everyone, and let us proceed.
Click wand here; no spell word is required.

The chapter we are entering is called "The Ethics of Elfland". All the lit'ry folk in the audience (you can tell them from the ink stains on their fingers), and the few philosophers who are still with us, will cheer, expecting this will get into some esoteric discussions of truth, fantasy and fiction. And all the scientists moan. (There are SOME scientists out there, I hope; someone has to be turning the crank to keep this network - uh - networking, and your lights shining. I don't count, as I'm on the hike with you! Then again, even the liberal arts folk have web pages now, and use laser printers, how curious.) As I said, the scientists moan, because they think magic and ethics and all that philosophy is boring. How surprised both sides will be! But I am getting ahead of myself.

I have, in the course of my blogging, often mentioned the works of Father Stanley Jaki, a great Chestertonian, a historian of science, and author of several dozen books, including the excellent little tome called Chesterton a Seer of Science. It contains a most important study of this particular chapter, and from it you will learn that about 1/3 of this "elvish" chapter of GKC was reprinted in Great Essays in Science, a title in the Pocket Library, edited by Martin Gardner (a name well-known in science and math circles). As Fr. Jaki revealed,
There was Chesterton in the company of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Henri Fabre, J.R. Oppenheimer, Arthur Stanley Eddington, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell, so many giants in mathematics, physics, and natural history. Chesterton was also in the company of such prominent interpreters of science as John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, and even T. H. and Julian Huxley.
[Jaki, Chesterton: A Seer of Science, 14]
Now, of course, the moans and cheers from the two realms reverse, with the additional effect of a distinct murmur of confusion.

Well, is GKC crazy? (all that talk of Hanwell earlier, hmm...) What is he talking about? Is this science or magic? The real world or the elvish one?

Yes, that's exactly right. (That's the Boolean Yes, if you know what I mean: it's what the kids say when Mom asks if they want ice cream OR cake!) As I said, we are entering into a lovely, beautiful, amazing - and challenging part of our journey.

But I am talking about GKC, not Jaki. I highly recommend Jaki's book, especially for insight into this particular chapter, and the whole intellectual edifice of GKC, but I dare not go too far into it at present. (It's much like fudge, or donuts, or whatever sweet you delight in... you want to keep eating more... I 've got to stop writing these before lunch.) Ahem.

I said there is a bridge here, and I have intentionally provoked all the audience about it, because I, like GKC, am intent on his great engineering project:
"The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind. We have all to show that before we go on to any visions or creations we can be contented with a planet of miracles."
[GKC The Defendant 75]
Incidentally, I first read that GKC quote in the aforementioned book by Jaki! But it is a magic bridge, and dangerous, as all bridges are. The chasm it crosses is of human make, after all, and so it is much worse than any merely natural division.

GKC gives this name, the Ethics of Elfland, because he wants to give us something as one gives to a child. (And now you MUST hear those ancient words: "Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." [Mt 18:3]) We need to sit together, yes, the scientists beside the lit'ry folk, and hear Uncle Gilbert tell us a story... "Will there be dragons?" Certainly. "Will there be real trees?" Oh yes. "Will we be there too?" Why, of course. (And it's a good story, I've heard it before...) You will learn as children do, about reality, and about right and wrong... no! it is NOT a sermon! Erase that thought. It is NOT that kind of tale! It is a story, about a marvellous world. (Will anyone recognize it, I wonder...)

Well, I don't want you to be confused here. This chapter is not in the form of a story. GKC keeps to his wandering wonder of words, marching to unheard music... But the music I hear (in the key of "G") is much like that famous "Promenade" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", a cumbrous but bold waddle in alternate 5/4 and 6/4 signatures, as GKC stops to look at the pictures - of the real world... and hopes we might waddle along with him and see, and admire...

You may feel, as you enter into this chapter, that it is all verbal fireworks and no fusion. Fusion, you know, is the great power source of the universe: it is what makes the sun light up:

Twinkle twinkle little star:
We know much of what you are!

Atomic fusion makes you shine,
Giving us your light so fine...
Twinkle twinkle little star:
We know much of what you are.

Now to you our eyes we lift,
Thanking God for His great gift,
Twinkle twinkle little star:
We know much of what you are.
[from "Stellar Mechanics for Kids" one of my many unpublished works.]
Ahem. But actually the fireworks are works, even if they are not always firey. As you saw, even during the boring parts of the previous chapters, we are advancing. We shall see more of this very lovely, dangerous, and interesting country, the Elvish world wherein we live... but there is something still greater ahead.

GKC begins his serious work in this nursery "fairy tale" place because he is "now to trace the roots of my personal speculation" [CW1:249] and he finds these roots, not surprisingly, in the fairy tales from his early years. Lovely and thoughtful and rich in ideas, delighting the lit'ry realm... AND! At the same time, he gives, (as Jaki indicates) great, stable, reliable underpinnings to the logical and mechanical and scientific - not by taking away, but by adding...

Not either/or, but both/AND - for such is the Boolean Yes.

For he is a bridge builder. The bridge is splendid, but the other side awaits! Hurry! Let's go!

--Dr. Thursday

PS. I fear I ought to put some kind of explanation about use of "magic", and put it down here so it will be short. (though I will most likely fail in that too!)

The delight I have in telling you about magic is because it is exquisitely relevant to GKC's title. For as I use it, (and perhaps GKC too) "magic" refers to permission, not method. "Magic" is really just another word for "authority". If you are relying on "the proper authority" for your actions (however be the precise method of their enacting), those actions are therefore good. If, however you resort to the wrong "authority" (a pretender to, or a usurper of, the real authority) then those actions are bad. This is all spelled out (no pun intended) in Biringuccio's Pirotechnia... Hence GKC says "Ethics" - for his story is not just for mere delight (which is good too), but primarily for teaching about good - hence about truth.

One more word I must add here, the word "occult", which is from the Latin for hidden, NOT for evil. When the earth shadows the moon during a lunar eclipse, the moon is occulted, or hidden. Many things are occult, especially nowadays. The means by which your computer or your car works... most likely these are hidden from you. (Do YOU know about finite state machines or semiconductors or distributors or carburetors?) In philosophical terms, even a magnet or the substance called AMBER are said to be occult - no, not because we somehow think they are "demonic" - but because the means of their workings are hidden:
...we have to go on using the Greek
name of amber as the only name of electricity because we have no notion what is the real name or nature of
[GKC, The Common Man 170]
Yes, the Greek word "Elektron" means "amber"; and "electricity" means no more than "the strange thing amber does". Sure, we know lots about them now, and can use them in marvellous ways, as your reading this demonstrates, but they are still mysterious, and certainly not simple to explain. You need to think about this, and about words, very carefully, or you will FALL OFF THE BRIDGE.

(No we are NOT going into "magic" like you may have read in - uh... well, let that remain occult. Perhaps we'll talk more, but elsewhere, and after you've read the chapter. Not here and now.)

Please, don't get worried here. You have no cause to worry. GKC (and his awkward assistant who is writing this) wants you to receive a good gift, as one gives something safe and beneficial to a child... for "If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more will your Father who is in heaven, give good things to them that ask him?" [Mt 7:11] But do watch your step as we cross the bridge...

One more thing, most unrelated. I mentioned Martin Gardner... He is quite old, and as yet is not quite convinced about the truth the GKC strived so hard to present in this and other books. Please pray for him.

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