Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Wonder of 1910

Hello! Happy 2010! Good to see you again. This year is the 100th anniversary of several of GKC's books - William Blake, What's Wrong With the World, The Ball and the Cross, and Alarms and Discursions - or so I am told.

As all Chestertonians know, truth is stranger than fiction - "since we have made made fiction to suit ourelves" [GKC Heretics CW1:66] So it will not come as a very big surprise to you that 2010 also commemorates another very curious centennial. According to a note in CW10, it is also the approximate date of the composition of the very famous poem called "Plakkopytrixophylisperambulatiobatrix", Chesterton's famous 14-syllable, 38-letter word. Now 38 is a very nice number, since as we all know it is the last Roman Numeral (Yes it is; like September is the longest month, and Wednesday the longest day. Think carefully.) But the word 38 (not the number) naturally made me think of another word, a word which is perhaps "the biggest word you've ever heard"... but that leads me back to the year 1910. I am interested in 1910, and the places where that number appears - and I wonder if you can think of at least two?

Some of us who listened to AM radio stations back in the 1960s may recall the famous rock group called "The Nineteen-Ten Fruitgum Company" which made the song "Simple Simon Says". But the one which really hit me was the one which I heard last week when I watched the Disney version of "Mary Poppins".

Yes, I read the book a very long time ago, and remember almost nothing about it, except that I was disappointed. I don't presently have a copy, so I will not attempt any criticism - rather I would prefer to delight in several very interesting things about the movie.

First, I must mention the citation. You may recall how George Banks is lecturing his wife Winifred about his life and what a nanny must be... it's in his little song where he says:
It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910;
King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men.
As I heard this, it actually dawned on me - this movie is occurring in the Time of Chesterton! What a wonder.

Then I recalled just a few minutes before how Mrs. Banks was singing her little "suffragette" song, which mentions how "Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!" When I saw the movie long ago, I had no idea what that meant, but I've seen her mentioned some 50-odd times in GKC's writing - though GKC calls her "MISS Pankhurst":
There is a much stronger historic argument for giving Miss Pankhurst a throne than for giving her a vote. She might have a crown, or at least a coronet, like so many of her supporters; for these old powers are purely personal and therefore female. Miss Pankhurst as a despot might be as virtuous as Queen Victoria, and she certainly would find it difficult to be as wicked as Queen Bess; but the point is that, good or bad, she would be irresponsible - she would not be governed by a rule and by a ruler. There are only two ways of governing: by a rule and by a ruler. And it is seriously true to say of a woman, in education and domesticity, that the freedom of the autocrat appears to be necessary to her. She is never responsible until she is irresponsible. In case this sounds like an idle contradiction, I confidently appeal to the cold facts of history. Almost every despotic or oligarchic state has admitted women to its privileges. Scarcely one democratic state has ever admitted them to its rights. The reason is very simple: that something female is endangered much more by the violence of the crowd. In short, one Pankhurst is an exception, but a thousand Pankhursts are a nightmare, a Bacchic orgie, a Witches Sabbath. For in all legends men have thought of women as sublime separately but horrible in a herd.
[WWWTW CW4:145-6]
Amazing. But this leads back to "that Poppins movie" and the scene where all the horrible nannies are lined up outside of 17, Cherry Tree Lane, waiting to be interviewed for the position.

It is just then - as that horrible herd, that nightmare of Pankhursts appears - that the exception that proves the rule also appears. A Chestertonian would have called that scene "How The Great Wind Came To Cherry Tree Lane". Ah, Mary! It is not for nothing she is called Mary - and that Bert sings "no wonder that it's Mary that we love!" But here we wonder - is this the female Innocent Smith, with parrot-umbrella in hand, blowing down the wind? (Oh, I wish I knew more Greek so I could make an appropriate pun on pneuma the spirit... but you will think I am even more insane than you had imagined!)

She slides up the bannister, and pulls out from her carpetbag not a series of gaudy wine-bottles, but things just as magical, even if vaguely distorted: A plant and a lamp - and we wonder about Syme's argument with Gregory about seeing one in the light of the other. A mirror - which is glass, and "glass is a very beautiful thing, like diamonds; and transparency is a sort of transcendental colour." [GKC "The Crime of Gabriel Gale" in The Poet and the Lunatics] So is the strange colour of the mirror - and to emphasize this, Mary proceeds to sing a duet with her image! She measures things with a tape measure which adds its own comments - and there are several suitable comments GKC provides for this marvel: "A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed." [Heretics CW1:117] or "It is always perilous to the mind to
reckon up the mind. A flippant person has asked why we say, 'As mad as a hatter.' A more flippant person might answer that a hatter is mad because he has to measure the human head." [Orthodoxy CW1:220]

I have no time to explore the links to Manalive, though the study seems well worth spending some time on. Alas, I am already late today, and have many things demanding my attention, so I must give you two other important items and then conclude.

First, the remarkable link of levity and gravity revealed in Uncle Albert's floating "affliction" of which Bert expressed such concern for the children: "it's contagious you know!" Ah yes - and so it is. But so Chestertonian, and we have covered it at length when we considered GKC's Orthodoxy last year. I forgo the delight in quoting the famous Two-Can line, and instead quote the converse: "Satan fell by force of gravity." [CW1:326]

Second, I think the whole effect a kind of reduction of the main thesis of GKC's What's Wrong With the World - the problems of Man (evinced by the dangers of even a small bank whenone forgets why one is working!) of Woman (crusading for Women's Votes when there are more important things which need crusading) and of Children (who put toads in the beds and pepper in the teas of those who ought to be leading them into light and not into darkness).

Instead we find a very Chestertonian antidote: we find the Lady of the Jolly Holiday: Mary, who makes the Sun Shine Bright, taking children into chalk pavement pictures ("A Piece of Chalk") or for tea-parties on the ceiling (like GKC would on the floor - this is recounted in WWWTW!!!) or dancing across the rooftops of London ("Coo- what a sight!" which sounds like Innocent Smith but also like Michael in The Ball and the Cross) or flying a kite. Recall that a famous bridge over the St. Lawrence River was begun by flying a kite - see David McCollough's The Great Bridge for details! But one wonders if the song-writer had not read Chesterton:
Why do children like playing with kites? Why do adults like playing with kites, and falsely profess to be playing with children? It is because there is something that makes any healthy human being almost lighthearted in the notion of sending something human, something like a part of ourselves, to travel among the clouds and the clear spaces round the sun and moon.
[ILN Nov 24 1917 CW31:203]
Indeed. Wonderful. But I have forgotten that word - that Chesterton word - it makes you feel good just to say it!

I wrote it earlier, but here it is again. Try saying it - try yelling it - it will make you feel - ah - well - paradoxical. I have broken it up a bit to make it easier for you to attempt:

Plakko- pytrixo- phylisper- ambu- lantio- batrix.

I also found that with just one minor slur you can even sing it to the same tune as the Poppins word, thusly:
Plak-ko, pyt-trix-o, phyl-lisp-er, amb-u-lant-io- bat-trix!
(You slur the "-io-" by using the Latin consonantal "I", saying "yo", not "ee-oh". Or you could also make it like ecclesial Latin: "am- bu- lan- tsio-")

And please do come over for some laughter and tea - on the ceiling at 16:07 this afternoon, all right? We'll go fly a kite and build a bridge... for it really is a jolly holiday with Mary:
[GKC was quoting someone's comments about Chaucer who] "concluded that he must have passed through a period of intense devotion, more especially towards the Virgin Mary. That is possible." [GKC goes on to say:] It is. It does occur from time to time. I do not quite understand why Chaucer must have 'passed through' this fit of devotion; as if he had Mariolatry like the measles. Even an amateur who has encountered the malady may be allowed to testify that it does not usually visit its victim for a brief 'period'; it is generally chronic and (in some sad cases I have known) quite incurable.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:238-9]
No wonder that it's Mary that we love, in 1910, in 2010, or always.

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