Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christ the King - of Literature and of Engineering

I was playing with one of my little toys recently - oh yes, since I am a computer scientist, I get to play with all kinds of the best toys! Indeed, without shame I can tell you that I have even played with dolls when I taught a class in computer science...

Oh, my dear Chestertonians, if only you could see as I do, how clearly Chesterton has grasped the truth which Newman proclaimed in his Idea of a University, a truth which students of all fields need to learn:
I never can really feel that there is such a thing as a different subject. There is no such thing as an irrelevant thing in the universe; for all things in the universe are at least relevant to the universe. It is my psychological disease (since one must have a psychological disease of some sort nowadays, and this is the best I can do), it is my psychological disease that I never can see disconnected things without connecting them together in a train of thought.
[GKC ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:126]
Well, as I said, I was playing with one of my toys - it is a nice toy since (like Santa) I made it myself. It's rather a bit like a LEGO or Erector Set or those boxes of thousands of plastic things which snap together - or snap into pieces when your brother walks on them. The nice thing about this toy is it is all inside the computer so no one can step on it, and you can do all kinds of fun things with it:
It is kind of like that old game called "Sim City" which let you be the mayor and raise taxes (ahem!) and arrange for urban development or fight Godzilla or whatever. If my toy was sold in stores they would probably call it "Sim Atom" since it is a kind of do it yourself chem lab. Very nice - except it takes an awful lot of time to play with. But I got most of the amino acids to come together, though some are giving me difficulty. But I must not bore you with such technicalities.

No, for there is something more I wish to tell you about, how this little toy relaxation (which may yet lead to much more serious experiments - only God knows who may read this posting!) relates to some more common toys - and to Chesterton.

There were two great Christmas gifts always longed for by children in the days my childhood: (1) art sets of any kind, especially that grand yellow-and-green box with the unforgettable odor, filled with the colored ranks of little organ pipes - er - I mean crayons. And (2) train sets - the larger the better. We Chestertonians will immediately note the common link: these are the tools of creation: (1) God's very own rainbow, diced up into little cylinders which fit perfectly into your hand - and (2) Man's own magic tool, the train.

Since GKC is an artist, the thread of colours runs all through his writing - but the power of AMBER (or is it really my guardian angel) suggested this rich paragraph to illumine this first topic:
It is not for nothing that the very nature of local character has gained the nickname of local colour. Colour runs through all our experience; and we all know that our childhood found talismanic gems in the very paints in the paint-box, or even in their very names. And just as the very name of 'crimson lake' really suggested to me some sanguine and mysterious mere, dark yet red as blood, so the very name of 'burnt sienna' became afterwards tangled up in my mind with the notion of something traditional and tragic; as if some such golden Italian city had really been darkened by many conflagrations in the wars of mediaeval democracy. Now if one had the caprice of conceiving some city exactly contrary to one thus seared and seasoned by fire, its colour might be called up to a childish fancy by the mere name of 'raw umber'; and such a city is New York. I used to be puzzled by the name of 'raw umber,' being unable to imagine the effect of fried umber or stewed umber. But the colours of New York are exactly in that key; and might be adumbrated by phrases like raw pink or raw yellow. It is really in a sense like something which the satiric would call half-baked. And yet the effect is not only beautiful, it is even delicate. I had no name for this nuance: until I saw that somebody had written of 'the pastel-tinted towers of New York'; and I knew that the name had been found. There are no paints dry enough to describe all that dry light; and it is not a box of colours but of crayons. If the Englishman returning to England is moved at the sight of a block of white chalk, the American sees rather a bundle of chalks. Nor can I imagine anything more moving. Fairy tales are told to children about a country where the trees are like sugarsticks and the lakes like treacle, but most children would feel almost as greedy for a fairyland where the trees were like brushes of green paint and the hills were of coloured chalks.
[GKC What I Saw In America CW21:87]
Now let us proceed to consider the train set, which art ranks far lower (alas) in the eyes of the ignorant academic. But it should not, for its art is closer to Man's, though not opposed to God's! J. K. Rowling showed herself a great Chestertonian when she made the Hogwarts students ride to school on a train, for the train is unspeakably magic even in our own world as Chesterton knew:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories.
[GKC The Man Who Was Thursday CW6:479, emphasis added]
Yes, and he also says "Hogwarts" and lo, it is Hogwarts! And he does it without wands! But there is something more to say about the train. My boss at my first job, a licensed professional engineer and one of the greatest men I have ever known, once told me that the steam engine is a true engineering marvel - and he knew whereof he spoke. But he was simply paraphrasing Chesterton (and perhaps anticipating Rowling):
The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales. In the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, ten to one, playing at steam-engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam-engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them. The evil is that the childish poetry of clockwork does not remain. The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical.
[GKC Heretics CW1:112-3]
Now, I have combined the two great toys, the splendid box of paints and the awesome engine that rolls along the rails, and made an organ whereon I might play with the music of the spheres. Except where God's spheres were vastly large by our measures, these spheres are vastly small, for they are atoms - and yet they move.

Now why do I claim that these things are so Chestertonian? Because I can give barely relevant quotes to colour my thoughts, to drive my ideas, as if by steam pistons, home? No - because these technical AND artistic things (for I sit squarely on the fence in such debates) are just one way by which I express the great Tolkien concept of subcreation, written about at length by Dorothy Sayers in her The Mind of the Maker: the chief way that Man images God the Creator is that Man sub-creates! When I tire of subcreating with the formal syntax of programming languages and the rigor of the finite state machines we call computers, I open a new window (hee hee) and go back to Quayment - that is, to my other subcreation which is a box of paints and a toy train. Quayment is my fictional little town on the bay, with its bookstores and restaurants and railroads, its lighthouse and its docks and its huge "young cathedral" high on the north hill, and the fascinating and curious lives of its inhabitants. For the writing of fiction is also a subcreation - even though its rigors, its terrors and its joys, are far stronger than the modelling of atoms - and far more dangerous. For though these things are merely products of the human mind, they are far closer to the human heart. Ah, the delights of my little town! There is a song by "Journey" called "Lights" which says: "When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay - Oh, I want to be there, in my city...." Yes, indeed, and so I come to understand how Christ wept over Jerusalem...

What? (you say) Are you insane?

Certainly. But then some said that of GKC, and of GKC's Master. You all know I am no literary scholar, but I note in both Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man that GKC examines what he calls "Christ's literary style". [CW1:351, CW2:332] Christ Himself often told stories, and so sanctified literature as He preached to the crowds as He sanctified engineering as He laboured in the carpenter shop of Joseph. You see, for Chesterton, and for me, there really is no such thing as a different subject since Christ is King of the Universe - for (as we have read) all things are relevant to the universe.

What is that you say? How dare I suggest Christ be concerned with trains or with fantasy fiction - with engineering or with literature?

Oh silly goose. How slow you are to understand.

Even Tolkien stated, in the famous essay "On Fairy Stories" in The Tolkien Reader which gave us those master-words of subcreation and eucatastrophe, that Christ is the Lord of Angels and Men - and of Elves! Of course He is! He is the Lord of engineering, of software and of aerodynamics, of atoms and stars - but also of their study, of plays and poems, and of all the works of Men. Or do you reject the idea that He inspires us with all good things? Heavens, no. You must hear again what Chesterton about Man, or you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven:
[Religion] is a thing which, by its nature, does not think of men as more or less valuable, but of men as all intensely and painfully valuable, a democracy of eternal danger. For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King.
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:44]


  1. You know, it's funny that you talk about Santa in this passage, because I've been thinking a lot about Santa and how we confuse the matter--I wrote about this a couple of week ago, actually. When you quote GKC on the lamppost and the tree being of equally natural and supernatural reality to the child. We often talk about Santa as if he wasn't real, yet we know he IS real. He was a real man and now a supernatural man through the communion of saints.

    The toys left under the tree are man's subcreation of Santa's supernatural reality. We don't discover that there is no Santa. We discover that we can participate in the subcreation of his supernatural reality by making his magic more manifest for the child.

    Who as we know, thanks to your judicious quoting here, sees no difference between the two.

    And miraculously it is that lack of distinction in the child that allows us to bring unity for ourselves once again as we subcreate St. Nicholas' generosity and child worship (ahh--A Defence of Baby Worship is next on my list!).

    You still believe, Santa Claus is real? People ask, as if, in fact, he wasn't. It's those who don't accept that a man who once lived and breathed on this earth is not real that have a bit of a psychological problem, don't you think?

  2. Why of course! Excellent, Blog Nerd!

    As Someone far greater than Chesterton pointed out "in the passage about the bush, Moses called the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living." [Lk 20:37-38]

    Yes, of course Saint Nicholas is real, and we see even in his degenerate mythological form of "Santa" just another reflection of God Who is the giver of all gifts, since He is, and all things are only through His will: "In Him we live and move and have being" [Acts 17:28] And you thought tech could not invade Christmas? Yes, Virginia, you need ontology if you wish to have engineering - or toys. Hee hee! Incidentally, I have a Chestertonian short story about Santa - "An Engineer's Christmas" - and will no doubt write more as time permits. Indeed, think it is good for us to have this famous Myra/North-Pole addendum to our mythology, and ...

    Er, I am sorry. I have already filled this tiny comment box several times so I will reserve further comments for another Thursday - but I will give you the pointer if you wish to read more: see GKC's Dickens and also (of course) TEM. Stay tuned!

  3. Happy Thanksgiving, Dr. T!


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