Sunday, February 21, 2010

Found! important bit about Laws and Rules

I was in the middle of many things yesterday - I found the most exquisitely relevant quote which explains... well, you'll find out shortly. But I also found the quote I could not find when I wrote my previous Thursday posting - it was in an unexpected place - so I decided to post it now. It is worth adding to your resources, and will suggest a larger, Chestertonian approach to our topic. More on it another time.
--Dr. Thursday

It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things. The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they always must, and they always do, create institutions. When men are weary they fall into anarchy; but while they are gay and vigorous they invariably make rules. This, which is true of all the churches and republics of history, is also true of the most trivial parlour game or the most unsophisticated meadow romp. We are never free until some institution frees us, and liberty cannot exist till it is declared by authority. Even the wild authority of the harlequin Smith was still authority, because it produced everywhere a crop of crazy regulations and conditions. He filled everyone with his own half-lunatic life; but it was not expressed in destruction, but rather in a dizzy and toppling construction. Each person with a hobby found it turning into an institution.
[GKC Manalive the beginning of Part I Chapter 3 "The Banner of Beacon"; emphasis added]

Update: As suggested by Maolsheachlann, the parallel reference of GKC on vows:

It is not the fact that young lovers have no desire to swear on the Book. They are always at it. It is not the fact that every young love is born free of traditions about binding and promising, about bonds and signatures and seals. On the contrary, lovers wallow in the wildest pedantry and precision about these matters. They do the craziest things to make their love legal and irrevocable. They tattoo each other with promises; they cut into rocks and oaks with their names and vows; they bury ridiculous things in ridiculous places to be a witness against them; they bind each other with rings, and inscribe each other in Bibles; if they are raving lunatics (which is not untenable), they are mad solely on this idea of binding and on nothing else. It is quite true that the tradition of their fathers and mothers is in favour of fidelity; but it is emphatically not true that the lovers merely follow it; they invent it anew. It is quite true that the lovers feel their love eternal, and independent of oaths; but it is emphatically not true that they do not desire to take the oaths. They have a ravening thirst to take as many oaths as possible. Now this is the paradox; this is the whole problem. It is not true, as Miss Farr would have it, that young people feel free of vows, being confident of constancy; while old people invent vows, having lost that confidence. That would be much too simple; if that were so there would be no problem at all. The startling but quite solid fact is that young people are especially fierce in making fetters and final ties at the very moment when they think them unnecessary. The time when they want the vow is exactly the time when they do not need it. That is worth thinking about.
[GKC ILN July 2 1910 CW28:556-7]

Of course we can summarise all this in a much shorter paraphrase of a famous Gospel verse, which I find I must give you in all its splendid setting so you will grasp its truth. More on all this on Thursday.
--Dr. T.

In the good old days of Victorian rationalism it used to be the conventional habit to scoff at St. Thomas Aquinas and the mediaeval theologians; and especially to repeat perpetually a well-worn joke about the man who discussed how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. The comfortable and commercial Victorians, with their money and merchandise, might well have felt a sharper end of the same needle, even if it was the other end of it. It would have been good for their souls to have looked for that needle, not in the haystack of mediaeval metaphysics, but in the neat needle-case of their own favourite pocket Bible. It would have been better for them to meditate, not on how many angels could go on the point of a needle, but on how many camels could go through the eye of it. But there is another comment on this curious joke or catchword, which is more relevant to our purpose here. If the mediaeval mystic ever did argue about angels standing on a needle, at least he did not argue as if the object of angels was to stand on a needle; as if God had created all the Angels and Archangels, all the Thrones, Virtues, Powers and Principalities, solely in order that there might be something to clothe and decorate the unseemly nakedness of the point of a needle. But that is the way that modern rationalists reason. The mediaeval mystic would not even have said that a needle exists to be a standing-ground for angels. The mediaeval mystic would have been the first to say that a needle exists to make clothes for men. For mediaeval mystics, in their dim transcendental way, were much interested in the real reasons for things and the distinction between the means and the end. They wanted to know what a thing was really for, and what was the dependence of one idea on another. And they might even have suggested, what so many journalists seem to forget, the paradoxical possibility that Tennis was made for Man and not Man for Tennis.
[GKC The Thing CW3:167-8, emphasis added (allusion to Mark 2:27)]
In case you missed the real relevance here, to computing and to cable TV and to Subsidiarity, it is a few words further back. I will write it by itself, and you can think about it until Thursday.... "mediaeval mystics, in their dim transcendental way, were much interested in the real reasons for things and the distinction between the means and the end. They wanted to know what a thing was really for, and what was the dependence of one idea on another."
--Dr. T.


  1. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. I can't agree with this enough. It reminds me of Chesterton's other point about young lovers and their ardent enthusiasm for vows. True exuberance isn't destructive; it's creative, it longs for form and not formlessness.

  2. Ah, yes Maolsheachlann - of course it reminds you of that quote. In fact, I found that quote before I found this one, as both are expressing the same underlying metaphysics, the "substructure" of Subsidiarity and of all scientia, which Jesus put in a simple statement: "I am the vine: you the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing." [Jn 15:5] For completeness I'll add that quote to the posting, but the other one, the discovery one which I mentioned on Thursday, will be retained for another use.

  3. The day after I entered the Catholic Church I knelt down after entering the pew for Sunday morning Mass. My spontaneous prayer was "Thank you for the freedom." It even surprised me that that was what I was feeling and it certainly ran totally contrary to what I'd been taught the Catholic Church would do when I was a Protestant. I once read something about children which said that children used the whole playground when it was fenced in, but stayed away from the edges when it wasn't. Boundaries can be far more freeing than lack of boundaries, no matter what the moderns think.

  4. Swift, that is an eminently Chestertonian reaction - how grand! That is one of the greater Chestertonian motifs which is found throughout his work, and it would take a whole book just to summarise, much less to begin to study. See especially his The Catholic Church and Conversion in CW3.

    Also, you are recalling this from GKC's Orthodoxy: "We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased."
    [GKC CW1:350]

    Yes, the paradox of Law is that it liberates - cf. GKC's "Free speech is a paradox" in his book on Browning.

  5. I just came upon an weirdly reminiscent-but-different sentiment in an excerpt from Helene Cixous about Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    She's talking about a bit at the beginning of the novel, when Stephen's aunt is teasing him with a bogeyman punishment; if he doesn't apologize, eagles will pull out his eyes. Stephen pays attention not so much to the threat and its morality as to the apologize/eyes rhyme; Cixous says that this is "his way of playing with the law"--he takes it in but makes it his own and enjoys it.

    "He accepts the law in order to transgress it," she says. I assume Chesterton wouldn't agree with that "in order to"; I don't imagine that he saw transgression as the purpose of accepting the law. (At the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, it seems more like accepting the law is the purpose of transgression.) But I think it's interesting that such very different thinkers as Chesterton and Cixous (and others, like Foucault) agree that freedom or transgression isn't possible without the law.

  6. Well, Chesterton's account of his conversation with the Slade diabolist, or roué, or whatever he was, shows pretty clearly that he believed even sinful and evil pleasures to be entirely parasitic upon virtue. How did he put it-- that even devil-worshippers need virgins to sacrifice?

    By the way, I hope you were being paid for reading Helene Cixous about James Joyce. The point about transgression also applies to art. Modernists, postmodernists, and all the rest are simply ringing the changes on the abiding conventions. Their deviations are simply a gloss or commentary on the three-volume-novel, the fairy tale, the love lyric about stars and roses, and the honest-to-goodness melodrama.

  7. Don't worry--I actually was paid for reading Cixous! But I'd do it for free; she's interesting, and I really do believe that her understanding of the paradox of law and liberty has a surprising amount in common with Chesterton's. For example, I think she'd agree with Chesterton that transgression is dependent on institutions or the law--though whether a transgression is "parasitic" might depend on what's being transgressed and how. Some transgressions might even bring new life to fading institutions, or might free those institutions from old injustices.

    And I couldn't agree more that you can't have transgressive art unless there are boundaries to transgress--and that any any transgressive art will take on some kind of structure, for the next aesthetic revolutionary to transgress. Modernist poets like Eliot and Pound knew that free verse wasn't absolutely free; it had its own requirements.

    I respectfully disagree about "gloss or commentary," though. I don't think that modernism is a gloss or commentary on the Victorian or neoclassical three-volume novel, any more than I think that the three-volume novel is a gloss or commentary on the epic, or that Shakespeare was only a gloss or commentary on Sophocles. New forms inherit from old forms and build upon them, and maybe transform them, though they never supplant them.

  8. But the point is that there's no essential difference between Shakespeare and the three-volume-novel, or the Spencerian epic (which I've never read) and the Cecil B. de Mille epic (which I've never seen). And they're all drawing either from life, or from the innate romance of the human condition that every infant understands without being told. But James Joyce wrote books about books, and so do all his successors. And the odd exception like Don Quixote (which I haven't read) or Tristram Shandy (which I haven't read) only proves the rule.

  9. I don't know--while Shakespeare wrote from life, he also wrote from books, retelling old stories. And while it's true that Joyce writes from books in what seems like a much more self-conscious way and that he reminds us that we're reading fiction, it also seems clear that he wrote from life. In Portrait, there's lots of autobiography and many moments that readers relate to on a raw human level. Even in Ulysses, even though he uses the Odyssey as kind of frame, and even though he makes us notice the novel's fictionality, and even though it is so aggressively bizarre, it's also full, as you know, of contemporary settings and character types. And when I read the Penelope episode, for example, I hear it as an original and sublime expression of "the inner romance of the human condition."

    I actually think Joyce is a great example of of the paradox of freedom. In Portrait, he makes us see that Stephen's new aesthetic is shaped (both affirmatively and as a negative reaction) by his religious and educational experiences. And in Ulysses, he produces something innovative only by indebting himself to old sources and tying himself to the institution of literature. You can see that in the Aeolus chapter, where Stephen sits in a library debating about Shakespeare with members of the literary establishment.

  10. Shakespeare drew on stories to tell more stories, but Joyce (and his ilk) drew on stories to tell anti-stories, drew on poems to write anti-poems etc. I really do think that there's an analogy with the transgressive nature of evil there. (I'm not saying Finnegans Wake is evil-- I reserve judgement on that one.) It's a bit like the Dark Lord Morgoth capturing elves and twisting them into Orcs, a vile parody of natural things.

    After all, a readre who does react to a scene in Portrait on a raw human level is probably missing the point.

  11. Joyce is Morgoth? That's colorful--but do you think you've been hanging around Joyceans too much? I can understand how that might have this effect on a person!

    I think if someone reads Portrait, Part I, and are reminded of fragments of memories of their childhood musings. or if they read Part II and are reminded of a loss of innocence and security in their own lives, or if they read Part III and are freaked out by the sermon or moved by Stephen's confession, or if they read IV and V and get mad at Stephen for being so damned self-righteous, they're not necessarily missing the point at all. I don't know if I was right to characterize such reactions as "raw," but they are certainly human.

    I don't believe that Portrait is an "anti-story"; it's a pretty well-made five-act narrative, with a turning point in Part III, and with conflicts that come to a kind of resolution. And if you say that Ulysses is simply a negation of the novel or of life, all I can do is quote the ending: "Yes I will Yes."

    I didn't mean to divert this very interesting and important thread into a Joyce discussion, but this is fun for me--usually, when I argue about literature, it's with people whose views are boringly closer to mine.

    (But I can agree with you to reserve judgment on Finnegan's Wake. having tried to read it, I can agree that it might be a little evil. :) )

  12. I'm just bitter because I read Portrait... when I was about the same age as Stephen Daedalus, and I was sent into raptures by the whole "day of dappled seaborne clouds" section. I thought it was the most sublime burst of prose poetry I'd ever read. Then I found out it was all meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, an example of callow adolescent Byronic grandiosity, and my young heart was broken.

    (If it gets out that you put an apostrophe in "Finngegans Wake", you might lose your job...)

  13. I'm just apostrophe-happy; I'm an O'Sullivan. And if they were going to start holding typos against me, I would be without hope altogether.

    I can relate to the kind of disillusionment you mention. But why not go back to your original reading and enjoy the "day of dappled seaborne clouds"? It IS a sublime burst of prose poetry--AND it is a parody of adolescent grandiosity. The portrait is of the artist as a young man; Joyce (and, more importantly, we) can wistfully recognize the glory, as well as the absurdity and arrogance, in youth.

  14. "I suppose you're right!"

    Wow--no one ever says that to me! Thanks.


Join our FaceBook fan page today!