Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Poetry of Limits

The Poetry of Limits or, Infinity is an eight-letter word

Today, the last day of July, the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), we shall conclude our examination of the chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" in GKC's Orthodoxy. It is hard to believe that apparently there is only one mention of Ignatius by GKC in all of AMBER, and doubly fitting that it be about the Pope, which our dear saint would have felt was most appropriate:
It will be found again and again, in ecclesiastical history, that the new departure, the daring innovation, the progressive party, depended directly on the Pope. It was naturally more or less negatively resisted by the bishops, the canons, the clergy in possession under political and patriotic settlements. Official oligarchies of that sort generally do resist reform and experiment, either rightly or wrongly. It is no more peculiar to Catholics than to an Anglican Archdeacon talking about Bolshevism or a Baptist in Tennessee talking about Negro Education. But whenever there appeared, in Catholic history, a new and promising experiment, bolder or broader or more enlightened than existing routine, that movement always came to be identified with the Papacy; because the Papacy alone upheld it against the resisting social medium which it rent asunder. So, in the present case, it was really the Pope who upheld St. Francis and the popular movement of the Friars. So, in the sixteenth century, it was really the Pope who upheld St. Ignatius Loyola and the great educational movement of the Jesuits. The Pope, being the ultimate court of appeal, cannot for shame be a mere expression of any local prejudice; this may easily be strong among local ecclesiastics, without any evil intention; but the remote arbiter at Rome must make some attempt to keep himself clear of it.
[GKC, Chaucer CW18:186]
I am quite happy to have found this quote, as it happens to be demonstrate that GKC well understood the idea of Subsidiarity - more on that another time.

Our own earth or elfland... or is it Eden? I wonder. We have seen some very amazing things, but most of all we recall two major ideas: First, this world is most unusual - so much so it might be called "magic" - in the sense of unexpected, but also in the sense of having been willed by a magician. It is full of surprises. It is certainly not what we would come up with it we had to do it ourselves! Second, that the strange wonders of this world give rise to strange bounds, restrictions and prohibitions - rules which are as strange - and again, as wilful - as any magician or fairy godmother might impose.

These two things seem to be urging GKC towards something: secret blazes on a trail, mysterious footsteps in an attic, curious clues... We might expect GKC's conclusion to be just as bold and surprising, and it is. These last three paragraphs are like a star cluster, or perhaps a nut cluster: chock full of goodies. Let us proceed!

(( click here to go on ))

The first paragraph, again alluding backwards to the bulk of his topics in a kind of review, gives us a very strange and perhaps Ignatian discipline, kind of like the "Count Your Blessings" song from "White Christmas", but also reminding us of George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life":
These subconscious convictions are best hit off by the colour and tone of certain tales. Thus I have said that stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege. I may express this other feeling of cosmic cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood, "Robinson Crusoe," which I read about this time, and which owes its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the bookcase, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.
Yes, George Bailey, you and any man in the street "is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been"...

Have you ever read Robinson Crusoe? I did, quite some time ago; I shall do it again if I have time. There's some comparable bits in The Swiss Family Robinson, or (for something smaller, Danny Dunn on a Desert Island, or (for a old but good sci-fi version) Spacehounds of IPC - and you may know of others like this. Please do not miss this splendid line: "The greatest of poems is an inventory." It is worth considering. But I mentioned an Ignatian exercise: counting your blessings. (We'll see more about the "exercise" shortly.) This is a fun thing to do with children, even if all you do is imagine it. GKC applies it to grand use in the great "Flying Stars" Father Brown story when a pantomime theatre is "got up" with just household items. But do it at work or at school, or in your pew with our Lord... call up in your mind's windows all the gifts you have, and how wonderful it is that they have been saved from the wreck, the fire, the earthquake, the riot... What, you've not suffered these? Why should that stop you? I said it was an exercise. You will understand when you do the next paragraph.

There's more to this "exercise" idea - the idea of making a list of your gifts. It is a major link forward to another part of this book, some 20 pages ahead. It is part of GKC's grand argument, and I shall give you (in advance) the end-point of the link for you to consider:
It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, "Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?" he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, "Why, there is that bookcase... and the coals in the coal-scuttle... and pianos... and policemen." The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
Finally, before I leave this paragraph, I must tell you of a very curious insight I had this morning at Holy Mass. I grasped something very strange here, in GKC's phrase "the poetry of limits" - and how this is a very important back-link to a previous topic. Recall this line from chapter 2, "The Maniac":
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.
It made for all kinds of whining and argument. Perhaps because the mathematicians hadn't read this far... Well, here we have the answer, and in a most dramatic way. You see, one of the very common misconceptions by outsiders (and even by some tyros) about "infinity" is how mathematics actually views it as an idea. There are various ways, of course, and some interesting things could be said about them, but this is not ONLY a math blogg (we're Newmanian as well as Chestertonian, of course, and have to cover all subjects - I mean the One subject!) The usual way infinity is taught in calculus is (paradoxically) as a limit. I cannot go into all of this here, but the idea of "limit" is hammered into the young mathematician as something that is NOT "reached" or "taken to"... it just doesn't work that way. It is more of the form of a proof by argument. But even when we represent infinity on a computer, or on paper, or in our heads, we use finite - that is, limited ways of representation: things like the very eight letters "infinity" which represent infinity... or (on x86-based machines) 0x7f800000, or ¥ or À0 or tan(p/2) or A* or
lim x-1
or even (to resort to an archaism):
10 GOTO 10
which are all ways of representing infinity. Again, we must defer all this to another place, but please bear in mind that GKC has set things right by joining "limit" to poetry. I suggest all math people try to write a poem today - it may be of true assistance in your work. Do a ballade or sonnet, they have the most severe limits!

I would like to say more, but we must proceed to the next paragraph.

But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe's ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.
Only an utter fool or one who cares nothing for reason (see chapter II) would ever pretend there is "another universe" or "many universes" or any such thing. Again, one of the true disservices done to our society by "science fiction" in all its forms.. but I didn't lecture about limits, so I won't lecture about cosmology. Though I want to, hee hee. There cannot be more than one universe, by definition... thinking otherwise is indeed a maniac pretension, and a failure to understand limits. The singularity (no pun here) of our universe is utterly stupendous: but then so is its precious and priceless character. Who has more sense: the one who thinks what he has is wonderful, or the one who imagines unending amounts of more and more, none of which he can even get to, much less own? (Ah, you see it is included in the definition that if you can get to it from here, it's the same universe...) Such cosmology, however, is for another time and place.

And so, let us conclude. But where previously we had two ideas, now there is more that those - and one of the Great Chesterton ideas of all his writing. And so we find our new task...
Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life; the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I thought before I could write, and felt before I could think: that we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly recapitulate them now. I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology.
"Thanks is the highest form of thought" as GKC says in A Short History of England, and "gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder". We must not just marvel at the wonders; we must be grateful. It ought to be inscribed in every bar, on every beer mug and wine glass: "we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them." Again, we find GKC being a disciple of St. Paul, who wrote "Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness" [Col 3:15 as it appears in the Divine Office] It is no surprise, then, that the word "Eucharist" is given to the Holy Sacrifice, in which God is our thanksgiving.

And yet, as GKC concludes, all this time, through this world of wonder and of gratitude, he had not thought about Christianity... yet it is all linked together, and enriched, and enriching...

Please think about this for now, and perhaps re-read the chapter without my chatter, and see what you think. If you have any questions, please ask. And whatever you do, do it Ad majorem Dei gloriam - to the greater glory of God.

--Dr. Thursday.

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