Thursday, June 11, 2009

A collision: GKC on esse

Sorry I have no time for my own posting today, so I shall offer you a bit of Chestertonian insight...
--Dr. Thursday
...I think there is another and more curious cause for this common human fancy of a wild wish which is disappointed by being fulfilled. The idea is very common, of course, in popular tradition: in the tale of King Midas; in the tale of the Black Pudding; in the tale of the Goloshes of Fortune. My own personal feeling about it, I think, is that a world in which all one's wishes were fulfilled would, quite apart from disappointments, be an unpleasant world to live in. The world would be too like a dream, and the dream too like a nightmare. The Ego would be too big for the Cosmos; it would be a bore to be so important as that. I believe a great part of such poetic pleasure as I have comes from a certain disdainful indifference in actual things. Demeter withered up the cornfields: I like the cornfields because they grow in spite of me. At least, I can lay my hand on my heart and say that no cornfield ever grew with my assistance. Ajax defied the lightning; but I like the lightning because it defies me. I enjoy stars and the sun or trees and the sea, because they exist in spite of me; and I believe the sentiment to be at the root of all that real kind of romance which makes life not a delusion of the night, but an adventure of the morning. It is, indeed, in the clash of circumstances that men are most alive. When we break a lance with an opponent the whole romance is in the fact that the lance does break. It breaks because it is real: it does not vanish like an elfin spear. And even when there is an element of the marvellous or impossible in true poetry, there is always also this element of resistance, of actuality and shock. The most really poetical impossibility is an irresistible force colliding with an immovable post. When that happens it will be the end of the world.

It is true, of course, that marvels, even marvels of transformation, illustrate the noblest histories and traditions. But we should notice a rather curious difference which the instinct of popular legend has in almost all cases kept. The wonder-working done by good people, saints and friends of man, is almost always represented in the form of restoring things or people to their proper shapes. St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, finds a boiling pot in which two children have been reduced to a sort of Irish stew. He restores them miraculously to life, because they ought to be children and ought not to be Irish stew. But he does not turn them into angels; and I can remember no case in hagiology of such an official promotion. If a woman were blind, the good wonder-workers would give her back her eyes; if a man were halt, they would give him back his leg. But they did not, I think, say to the man: "You are so good that you really ought to be a woman"; or to the woman: "You are so bothered it is time you had a holiday as a man." I do not say there are no exceptions; but this is the general tone of the tales about good magic. But, on the other hand, the popular tales about bad magic are specially full of the idea that evil alters and destroys the personality. The black witch turns a child into a cat or a dog; the bad magician keeps the Prince captive in the form of a parrot, or the princess in the form of a hind; in the gardens of the evil spirits human beings are frozen into statues or tied to the earth as trees. In all such instinctive literature the denial of identity is the very signature of Satan. In that sense it is true that the true God is the God of things as they are - or, at least, as they were meant to be. And I think that something of this healthy fear of losing self through the supernatural is behind the widespread sentiment of the Three Wishes; the sentiment which says, in the words of Thackeray -
Fairy roses, fairy rings
Turn out sometimes troublesome things.
Now the transition may seem queer; but this power of seeing that a tree is there, in spite of you and me; that it holds of God and its own treeishness, is of great importance just now in practical politics. We are in sharp collision with a large number of things, some of which are real facts and all of which are real faiths. We must see these things objectively, as we do a tree; and understand that they exist whether we like them or not. We must not try and turn them into something different by the mere exercise of our own minds, as if we were witches.
[GKC ILN Nov 22 1913 CW29:587-9, emphasis added]

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