Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Learning to See What is Really There

When Frances and Gilbert Chesterton are canonised, as I hope and pray for, one of the many patronic activities he ought to undertake is for all who deal with the eyes - opticians, optometrists, ophthalmologists - and all who read, and all who study the world. One might easily assemble a large collection of GKC quotes by which this very strong sense of a concern for our VISION is expressed. You may probably recall my favourite, which I quote from time to time:
Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.
[The Defendant 3]
which has its echo here: "the most ignorant of humanity know by the very look of earth that they have forgotten heaven." [TEN CW2:226] And, far more important to our topic, in this poem:
"The Mystery"

If sunset clouds could grow on trees
It would but match the may in flower;
And skies be underneath the seas
No topsyturvier than a shower.

If mountains rose on wings to wander
They were no wilder than a cloud;
Yet all my praise is mean as slander,
Mean as these mean words spoken aloud.

And never more than now I know
That man's first heaven is far behind;
Unless the blazing seraph's blow
Has left him in the garden blind.

Witness, O Sun that blinds our eyes,
Unthinkable and unthankable King,
That though all other wonder dies
I wonder at not wondering.

[Collected Poems 63-64]
Are you wondering yet? You should be. But let us return to last week's stopping point, and see what more we can see.
Click here to SEE more.

Nursery tales, fairy tales - fantasies. Not simply science texts, not source material for graduate work in literature, not signs of a defective or immature intellect - No - they are medicine, and enrich all the fields of Wisdom:
...even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
Remember, O scientist, that you must see what is there before you go back to the lab and dream about what might be behind, beyond, under, over, or within... Remember, O lit'ry person, that your characters and plots, your complications and your imaginations are to embolden, as a signpost to us who are on the Road, whether it be of "Nice View, Pull Over" or "Caution: Bump Ahead" or "Do NOT Enter!" Or, perhaps, "Turn Here for a Better Road".

The next few lines are a bit complex - they are very interesting. They look at first to be about science - then they seem to be about literature - you may discover they have a curious jab at the philosophers... It is a curious thing, that we may advance in reason by forgetting, indeed, by being agnostic? Is that what he says? Yes, but be careful to read it with attention, and think about the rivers and what they run with:
I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
Yes, tricky. There is a famous line, "Know Thyself" which (according to my Bartlett's Quotations) was claimed by Plutarch to be inscribed on the Delphic Oracle, and ascribed by him to Plato; but Pythagoras and others...

Clearly this is an interesting aside - but it is an aside. It is a reminder that all the interesting things around us still cannot help us know the one thing that is really interesting - our own self. It may be trite for me to mention a theme song from a TV show, but GKC stooped to such tritenesses. There is one which makes me think, very pungently, of our Lord, and the great verse of Genesis, "Let us make Man in Our own image." It is this:
No one could ever know me
No one could ever see me
Seems you're the only one who knows
What it's like to be me
[The Rembrants, "Friends" theme song]
Yes, only He does know this, because we certainly don't. Why delve into this? Because it is a reminder to ALL the fields of Wisdom that they omit this most important aspect of our studies...

Now, do not lose heart here. This healthy, forgetful agnosticism is not what we're here for. I said it was almost an aside, though an important aside. Look at the next bit, please:
But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstacy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity.
Wow, verbal fireworks doubled, tripled - and all kinds of things to unpack!

First, admiration in English is "marvelling esteem accompanied by gratification and delight" or "observation attended by such esteem". In Latin, miror, mirari (a deponent verb, if you wish to know!) means "to wonder, be astonished at".

And praise... I cannot go into this just now; it would bring up a long discussion of the marvellous five verbs at the beginning of the Gloria... but not just now. Note, too, GKC tells us this is our next topic, and note that this is NOT disjoint from what we were talking about - about LAW and about reality, and such things - and about Story, with the capital S.

Then we come to that other troublesome word (I skip ahead here for pedagogical reasons; on real hikes you cannot take the third step BEFORE the second!) - I mean the word "adventure". All of you who have read Tolkien's The Hobbit will recall the very famous dialog of Bilbo with Gandalf at the very beginning - "Adventures! Nasty, inconvenient things. Make one late for dinner." [I quote from memory]

Behold, a junction on the Road! Bilbo meets Uncle Gilbert:

"Adventures are to those to whom they are most unexpected - that is, most romantic. Adventures are to the shy: in this sense adventures are to the unadventurous." [GKC, Heretics CW1:74]

"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."
[ILN July 21 1906 CW27:242]

Now, the one bit I skipped, which comes suitably after mentioning Bilbo, where GKC says "life was as precious as it was puzzling". (hee hee: Riddles in the Dark, anyone?) Ahem. But this word here is cross-connected to our larger topic, that is to elfland, and to reality. In a very few pages we shall read one of the keystone settings of GKC's "motif" about glass, which he felt was most precious:
I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.
Here is not the time to go further into that particular trail - but the allusion to glass links back to my title. Glass is wonderful, and windows a delight (I mean the lower-case kind, Mr. Gates) but there are certain "indwelling limitations" in these things, which GKC discusses in the splendid discourse on the Seven Windows in Lunacy and Letters. (Again I do not refer to the brittle/smashing aspect, which we shall see when we get to that part of the text.)

Rather, I refer to the transparency of glass and the clarity of windows. (Quiet, please, Mr. Gates!)
"For behind all designs for specific windows stands eternally the essential idea of a window; and the essential idea of a window is a thing which admits light." [Lunacy and Letters, 41]
Perhaps this seems to have wandered very far. No; I am trying to join in other matters. We are struggling along on a great journey which others have also made; some have gone a different route, but gotten to where we are by other means, such as St. Thomas Aquinas,
a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it towards experimental science, who insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies. ... St. Thomas insisted that it was lit by five windows, that we call the windows of the senses. But he wanted the light from without to shine on what was within. He wanted to study the nature of Man, and not merely of such moss and mushrooms as he might see through the window, and which he valued as the first enlightening experience of man.
[GKC, St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:430-1, 525]
Please jot that down somewhere nearby. You need to remember that one phrase: "The sense are the windows of the soul." That's what is going on here. We are seeing things as they are, but we are still using windows, even when we talk of retinas or mesons or galaxies... Perhaps you do need to go along this side path just a little, so you'll see what I mean:
When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope?
[ibid CW2:528]
Yes, nursery games, fairy tales. They help us see what is really there: grass, sun - and retina.

If you want to know yourself, you might find no better way than to get to know the Elves. ("Elves, sir!" cried Sam Gamgee.)

--Dr. Thursday

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