Thursday, October 08, 2009

Even blacker than it is painted

As you know I am pursuing the mysteries of the truth of Chesterton by considering his actual words, and not what some "lit'ry" professors have written journal articles or doctoral dissertations about. Mine, as you know, is about how computer science and its string theory can assist biology with its study of prokaryotic rRNA, and I delight in applying it to Chesterton's work.

In response to the anonymous commentor, I make NO claims or insinuations about GKC's vocabulary. I merely made a tidy little study of how certain words appear (or, more properly, fail to appear) within the AMBER collection of ILN essays - and that was ALL. I am not trying to prove GKC was written by Shaw (as Maisie Ward reports was suggested by the Bystander; see pp. 236-7 in her Gilbert Keith Chesterton!) Hee hee.

Actually, if I were proving anything at all, which I wasn't, it was merely that the so-called "google" world of search tools is horribly limited. But then the biologists knew that back in 1991, and from the looks of things, not much has changed in almost 20 years, despite the vastly larger collection of genetic sequences. Hee hee hee! Ah, yes. And though there plenty of Chesterton texts already available for free out here in the e-cosmos, they suffer from the same illness.

Oh, but once one has even a small collection, one can learn so much! It is lots of fun - for example, two words, "the" and "of" comprise almost ten percent of Orthodoxy. Adding six more "a", "is", "to", "and", "that", "it" brings the total to over 25 percent - a quarter of the book! What does it prove? Nothing. It suggests the curious powers - and weaknesses - of English. But I commented on this some time ago, and even have a poem scheduled to be written about it.

However, let us try something even more novel - a curious exploration into the "density" of words, which gave me the hint to a very wonderful essay of Chesterton's which I shall quote shortly. In my on-going search (not an INTERNET one, thank God) for the wonderful and the true, I once asked myself what was the longest word which did not contain ANY repeated letter. Now, that answer might be found by some intense magical googlisation, but I don't know that tongue. And I don't as yet have an electronic dictionary... I wondered what I could do. Then I remembered, I had some 50,000 unique words in the AMBER collection - so I dashed off a little program to examine them for "density". That is, the ratio of "the number of distinct letters of the alphabet in the word" to "the total number of letters in the word". So "word" is four letters long and has four distinct letters: D, O, R, W - so its density is 1.0. But though "noon" is also four letters long, it only has two distinct letters: "N" and "O" - so its density is 0.5. The fun will be to see what words of Chesterton's fall at the extremes.

(Hey - don't fall asleep, there's a great GKC excerpt to come!)

OK, so what was the least dense word? Any guess?

I didn't think you'd want to play that game. I was a bit surprised to learn it is "senselessness" (density 0.31) which comes in a very interesting and quite relevant context:
What I mean is this: between the two extremes of Mrs. Carrie Nation smashing saloons with axes and the Bohemian in Greenwich Village sipping strange culture with absinthe, there are of course a thousand shades of common sense or common senselessness. There is every sort of sane American citizen between the mad Puritan and the mad Pagan. But from my own standpoint, which is neither Puritan nor Pagan, there is one rather curious thing that is common to them all. For instance, one kind of man will say in effect, "I don't believe a man can be a good citizen unless he's a good Christian, and the Bible that was good enough for my mother is good enough for me. I don't say I've never taken a drink, but I don't allow it in my house and I'd give anything to save my sons from gambling."

Then there is a second sort of man who will say, "I'm afraid I can't believe in any creed myself, though of course I've a great respect for Christ and good Christians. It's all very well for them; but naturally I don't go in for being a saint; I take a drink from time to time though not as a habit, and I'm not above a game of poker."

Then we have the type of man who says more impatiently, "Oh, these Christians are too good for this world, or they pretend to be, though lots of them are dirty hypocrites and drink on the sly. They aren't so darned Christian when you come to know them. I make no pretences. Craps and whisky and this world's good enough for me."

Next to him we have a wilder specimen who says, "Christianity's been nothing but a blasted blight on all the fun and freedom of humanity. I'm not ashamed of saying, 'Eat and drink, for tomorrow you die.' All the Christian ever says is, 'Don't drink and hardly eat, for tomorrow you're damned.' You read what Mencken says about the ministers who want to cut out gambling, etc." Then of course there is the more logical and philosophical culmination of the same philosophy, as in Mr. Mencken himself.

Now there are any number of intelligent and kindly and jolly people of all those shades of thought. But what I remark about them is that they are all Puritans, at least they are all what we call in England Nonconformists. They all have the exact but extraordinary Nonconformist scale of moral values. They all have the same fixed but astounding notion of the nature of Christianity. Some of them accept Christianity and therefore refuse wine or whisky or games of chance. Some of them hesitate about Christianity and therefore hesitate about wine or whisky or games of chance. Some of them reluctantly reject Christianity and therefore (almost reluctantly) accept wine and whisky and games of chance. Some of them deliriously reject Christianity and therefore deliriously accept wine or whisky or games of chance. But they all seem incurably convinced that things like that are the main concern of religion. It is a pretty safe bet that if any popular American author has mentioned religion and morality at the beginning of a paragraph, he will at least mention liquor before the end of it. To a man of a different creed and culture the whole thing is staggering.
[GKC Sidelites on New London and Newer York CW21:564-5]
All right, so what is the most dense? Well, as we have already noted, there are words of density 1, like "word" or "fisher" - so to make it interesting let us find the longest such word. There are over a dozen words with density 1 of length 12, and the most frequently appearing is "considerably" which he used over 150 times.

(All right, Doc - nice density - so get to the exciting essay, why don't you?)

Yes, because I have nothing more to say about density, except my favourite word, "plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix" which has length 38, only has 17 unique letters, so its density is a rather bland 0.45. All right, now here is a very colourful and artistic discussion, which I found because I was hunting for "density"...
It is to be hoped, as I said last week, that people will realise that Spain is not so black as it was painted by those who only painted the black hoods of Inquisitors or the Tennysonian dualism of Don and Devil. Spain in one sense is quite as black as it is painted, for its painters were particularly fond of painting in black. But being in black is by no means the same as being in mourning. We might almost say that the Spaniards are fond of bright colours, and that black is the brightest of all their colours. They are very fond of it in art and decoration; but the effect is not necessarily what the English used to call gloomy, but rather what the French have called chic. It throws up all the other colours, especially the typically Spanish colours of gold and orange and copper and dark red. There are aspects in which all Spain seems to be striped with red and gold, like the legendary shield of Aragon. But nothing could make that glowing shield glow more vividly than to be worn by a knight in black armour or carried by a page in black velvet.

The well-known picture of the Spanish lady wearing a black mantilla and a red rose would be sufficient to make us recognise the tradition. The mantilla alone shows that black is a gay colour, and almost the colour of frivolity. For the Spanish ladies who keep the old custom in this respect look far more like what the old ballads call "ladies gay," the dames of a joyous Court or the dancing girls of a jovial festival, than do the more modernised ladies who have obediently hidden their heads in the helmets of the last Parisian fashion. The colour of the Spanish scarf or veil is dark, but it is not dismal; it is bright because it is brisk; it can shift and change with posture and gesture and mood; it is alive like a black snake or a black bird or a black butterfly. The accident that some of Velasquez's great portraits have a sombre dignity that is almost Satanic, and that Goya made black-and-white studies that are like the sketch-book of a goblin, should not lead us to exaggerate the sombre side of this use of black. The Spaniards do indeed use it where nobody else I know of has ever used it. I have actually seen black patches in a coloured church window. This is contrary to the very conception of windows, but it is quite consistent with the Spanish conception of colours.

The same impression, and perhaps the same illusion, is doubtless produced by the Spanish churches, which are kept unusually, and to us unnaturally, dark. It would seem as if the architect, like the artist, wished to produce great blocks of black, and did it with great blocks of shadow. The altars and the altar-screens are prodigiously high and heavy, like the portals of the palaces of giants. They seem to make the darkness darker, throwing a shadow even upon shade. Yet even here we find the triumph of contrast, which is really the triumph of colour. The stained-glass windows are turned to swords of flame of an indescribable incandescence. The church is dark with the very density of its colour. The Spanish gold may be partly buried in the gloom, just as the Spanish gold of romance was so often buried in the green sea. But in the reality, as in the romance, we always think of the treasure as tremendously costly and complex and covering vast areas. Indeed, there is sometimes a sensation in these twilight churches of walking as if in the depths of the sea; as if the hundreds of little candles were a phosphorescence, or the great canopies and banners the shapes of flat and floating fishes of gigantic size.
[GKC ILN June 19, 1926 CW110-111]
I feel compelled to add a comment here, since this excerpt touches what some consider a very difficult and sensitive topic. For a true artist like GKC, or even a poor dull amateur like me, there is something intense about black - and he reveals its power here. I might quote one of my art instruction books about black, or point out the amazing physical structure of the eye - which is both white (the sclera) and black (the Tapetum Nigrum and the choroid)... or resort to the Second Letter of St. John where he speaks of using "paper and ink" (2Jn 1:12), which shall always be for any scholar, literary or technical, the archetype of the mystery of conjoined white and black - but I am out of time, and so I must defer further discussion to a future posting.

PS: the Greek word for "ink" is melas, the root of the biological compound "melanine"... but discussion of that also must be deferred.


  1. Fair enough, Dr. Thursday, but you did write: "If we could acquire the signatures ... we might get a hint of how his vocabulary altered." That may not be a claim, but it sounds like an insinuation.

  2. This all reminds me of something very upsetting that science has revealed. I read in a philological journal that the DNA of a Chesterton essay (or the letters and typographical symbols used, if you want to be pedantic) is EXACTLY THE SAME as the DNA of a Harold Robbins novel. It naturally follows that their literary merit must be equivalent, that our fond illusions of Chesterton being "special" are scientifically naive. So I'm taking all my Chesterton books to the nearest thrift shop.

    (Apologies to any Harold Robbins fans. He could be a great writer for all I know. I lazily reach for a stock example.)

    I'm glad to read Chesterton's meditation on tenebrous Spanish churches, as I've always had a stronger sense of God's presence in darkness than in light.

  3. Very funny! Of course you know that all DNA is identical, from the simplest unicellular creature to Man. Identical, that is, as letters are identical - but it's their order that makes the difference between them. (The DNA alphabet only has four letters - A,C,G,T - and it gives a whole new insight to St. John's line that "the Word was made flesh"!)
    Speaking of identical - it is astounding that the code for histone protein H4 in the Cow differs from the Pea by only TWO codons! (See Rawn, Biochemistry, 685) But then the histones are the "bobbins" or spools upon which the DNA is wound, and there's little reason for them to be different among species.

    Yes, this excerpt is striking - check out his essay called "The Meaning of the Theatre" in Lunacy and Letters. More on that next time.

  4. If you're going to discuss black, don't forget cassocks. Anything but frivolous, mind you, but like the Spanish lady's dress, quite alive.


Join our FaceBook fan page today!