Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Telegraphs, Dragons and Frogs (Oh my!)
GKC's "Doctrine of Conditional Joy"

Before you proceed, please finish your drinks and snacks. (Hey, why are you eating or drinking at the keyboard?) I warn you now, as you may find some of today's writing rather funny. I do.

In preparing to write these Thursday essays, I do a variety of mental tricks to get into the Chestertonian view of things. No drugs, no "virtual reality" gear - often not even a beer - I merely rely on the high tech device known as "books" and the physiology of sight. What a gift. I have a few hundred books nearby to help jumpstart me when necessary, and some are even by Chesterton. But some are not.

One of the curious books I have is the Roman Ritual, this edition printed in 1898, which has some fantastic multi-window graphics, such as our Lord being baptized by St. John (whose birthday we celebrated on Tuesday). I may deal with it more another time, because it has hints of explanation about certain things in Chesterton's writing - but today I shall tell you of one, quite apropos both because of John-the-Baptist and also the medium you are presently enjoying: there is a "Blessing of a Telegraph"! Yes. It is begun by the chanting of the Benedictus, the song of St. John's father and the great Morning Canticle of the Church (Lk 1:68-79). That is followed by Psalm 103 (104), with the antiphon "Blessed are You O Lord, Who makest the clouds thy chariot: who walkest upon the wings of the winds, Who makest thy angels spirits: and thy ministers a burning fire." [103:3-4] The allusion may perhaps be lost on the modern age, as most computing devices rely on 5 volts or less... in the old days things worked on somewhat higher voltages, and so there was a reason that the radio and telegraph people were called "Sparky"!!! Recall also that "angel" is a function, (a job description, if you will) - it means one who carries a message! The telegraph with its sparks is angelic - and thus the Church recalls this powerful image from the Psalms when her minister blesses such devices.

Does that seem just a bit childish? Yes, it does to me, too. Good. You see, as I had cause to state to someone in another context, God gets His hand into everything, unless we work to shut Him out. It's all due to that line in the Creed, per quem omnia facta sunt = "Through Him all things were made."

Yes - all things. Even telegraphs - and dragons.

Remember, I am not the first one to link these disparate thoughts. (Nor was GKC; he just said it more memorably.) I merely recall the famous line "I have often thanked God for the telephone" from GKC's 1910 book What's Wrong With the World (CW4:112). But in this thought - and in particular in that psalm - there is not simply a sense of awesome order, a sense of profound power, a sense of majesty, and a sense of deep and careful planning.

There is also something else. There is, as hard as it will be for you to believe, a sense of humor.
Click here to have laughter and more.

Yes, there is humor. And also something more beyond even that, which we shall hear more about as we proceed. But first the humor.

Consider - remembering the bishop (or priest) is blessing a telegraph, as the choir sings:
...Draco iste, quem formasti ad illudendum ei...
Yes, that says "draco" - Latin for "dragon", one of the north circumpolar constellations, and also the genus of a "small arboreal lizard of the East Indies"... But maybe here it means what you think it means - a big monster, probably aquatic, possibly fire-breathing. (His friends call him "Sparky"... hee hee)

Now, depending on what translation you have at your disposal, you may wish to read to the verse numbered 103(104):26. The Douay version gives this as "...This sea dragon which thou hast formed to play therein" [in the great sea]. The Jerusalem version is even funnier: "... and Leviathan whom You made to amuse You." ("Leviathan" is a crocodile or a whale - er what some call the dragon - I mean the dragon-like creature you and I know as "Sparky". Hee hee.)

Now, while you are pondering the mystic sense of God being entertained at watching these great sea creatures jumping and cavorting, as He claps and laughs like a child at their antics (see Job 38:7 but especially Proverbs 8:30-31) - you ought to recall some of our animal friends we have met previously on this journey, like the giraffe, or the turkey. Today we meet another, as GKC transcribes for us a boyhood riddle. I shall give you the context, because while the gem is important, the setting is far more so. Remember some weeks ago we heard "Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame." [CW1:243] Yes, I think you wrote it down, it's quite important. Now you will begin to see how we apply such things. (But please finish your drink before proceeding. I've told you twice now.)

The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
There were, then, these two first feelings, indefensible and indisputable. The world was a shock, but it was not merely shocking; existence was a surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise. In fact, all my first views were exactly uttered in a riddle that stuck in my brain from boyhood. The question was, "What did the first frog say?" And the answer was, "Lord, how you made me jump!" That says succinctly all that I am saying. God made the frog jump; but the frog prefers jumping.
I might as well explain here that this is the foundation motif of GKC's writing, and is of all things he wrote the most important, even transcending his work on humility and pride (though clearly coupled together, as you'd expect!) He was not just thankful for the exciting things - the candy and toys - but for the mundane that no one notices (like legs) or the exotic and dull human things (like the telephone!) Yes, indeed - and note he doesn't thank Parliament or the King or the phone company - but God.

How else can he say, "I have often thanked God for the telephone"?

Because God had His hand in that too. (No; I will not talk about Galvani, Ampere, Maxwell and the rest here; that's for another time.)

You see, unlike others who quarrel or complain, GKC saw (with a shock, like the frog) these things have their purpose. They have been called into existence, directly or indirectly, by divine arrangement, not just the obvious and necessary (the legs) and the pretty and delightful (flowers and candy) but even the strange exotic and curious (the sea monster/dragon, the telegraph, and so on.)

Whew. We are at a peak here, as you see. You sense that term - the "rapture of the heights" - in the sheer hilarity of the moment, which is simultaneously profundity. The silliest bit about a frog (or any animal you care to substitute) is directly connected with something as utterly important and foundational as thanksgiving - remember the very term used for the great Sacrifice of the Mass is "Eucharist" - Greek for "thanksgiving"... And so (I heave a sigh) as your guide I must now point to the next part of the trail. This curious meditation on how the strangeness of reality leads to the height of gratitude - but it leads onward as well, to something rather difficult. Come along.

But when these things are settled there enters the second great principle of the fairy philosophy. Any one can see it who will simply read "Grimm's Fairy Tales" or the fine collections of Mr. Andrew Lang.

[An aside: Grimm and Lang books are available from Dover.]

For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy.
Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance always is, "You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word 'cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.
Mr. W. B. Yeats, in his exquisite and piercing elfin poetry, describes the elves as lawless; they plunge in innocent anarchy on the unbridled horses of the air -
Ride on the crest of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W. B. Yeats does not understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman, full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type like myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told. Mr. Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of his own race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness, founded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
[CW1:258-9, emphasis added]
Do you see? Please read this again. You will find an important idea, and also two lit'ry allusions. I will handle them first so you can go past them to the important idea, which is not literary but computational. (hee hee)

GKC mentions "Touchstone" - at first I figured that this was some dull heretic, perhaps someone he missed dealing with in Heretics. But I looked around, with the power of AMBER, and found out that he is a clown - a character in a play called "As You Like It" - and in Act 5 Scene 4 you will find this:
I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as, 'If you said so, then I said so;' and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peacemaker; much virtue in If.
Then there is the quote from Yeats, which I am told is from his play called The Land of Heart's Desire.

Now, as a computer scientist, an "IF" is one of the foundational elements of software - it is the idea that a mechanical determination of the truth or falsity of something can be made, and from that determination, a change is made as to which path the future work of that machine will follow. This "conditional device" can be as simple as a thermostat sensing a temperature difference and switching on the heater (or cooler) - or it could be the more interesting determination of whether a given number is larger or smaller than another - and so on. You may be expecting me to quote a rock song, so I will: the very Tolkienesque "Stairway to Heaven" has this:
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the Road you're on.
Two paths and the Road - possibly hinting at Bilbo's Road (that goes ever on), and the debate between Gandalf and Aragorn about crossing the Misty Mountains - but I also hear our Lord saying "I am the Way" [Jn 14:6]... ah... I could also quote the song "Free Will" by Rush: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice"... But (ahem!) I cannot lecture about conditional paths now, when I am trying to guide you to an understanding of "Conditional Joy"!

Please read this line again:

"In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition."

Do you not hear this:
And the Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it, and to keep it. And he commanded him, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.
[Genesis 2:15-17]
Sure you do. And just in case you overlooked it, GKC adds: "An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone." [CW1:259]

Yes, but now hear again my quote from last week:

"Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed." [The Defendant 3]

Fairyland.... We are there, even if you cannot quite see it.

But now you know.

Amazing, isn't it? Yes, weep if you must, but then dry your tears and laugh - and be refreshed.

This the sort of thing that happens when you visit the Elves. And you will find even more surprises as we proceed. You must learn to be grateful for them.

--Dr. Thursday.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Fantastic. Your mind is amazing, to link all of these strange and wonderful things together, from Stairway to Heaven to frogs to fairies to giant dragons named Sparky.

    Thanks. I'll think about this today. If my mind will work as it ought.


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