Thursday, July 29, 2010

88 and 55, or, The Mystery of Repetition

Tomorrow, Friday, the 30th of July, is the 88th anniversary of the reception of G. K. Chesterton into the Roman Catholic Church. The next day, Saturday, the 31st of July, is the 55th anniversary of my own baptism into the same Mystical Body. I thought this repeated appearance of multiples of eleven to be quite wonderful. Eleven is an interesting number - it is the only prime palindrome which has an even number of digits. (I have a proof for this, but people will moan if I post it here. In other words, "the margin is too small", though it surely is not a problem worthy of Fermat, hee hee. You lit'ry folks can ignore this very "3+4i" math pun. Sorry, I know you EE's call this "3+4j". Ahem.)

Repetition is a curious idea, and it may sound redundant to say that it comes up again and again in GKC's writing. (hee hee) We all know the great law GKC states:
Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.
[GKC The Napoleon of Notting Hill CW6:227]
We also recall his triple exemplification with the drama of the spoken word:
[Holbrook Jackson:] XIV. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference.
[GKC] But it can breed surprise. Try saying "Boots" ninety times.
[HJ/GKC Platitudes Undone 15]

There is a truth in talking of the variety of Nature; but I think that Nature often shows her chief strangeness in her sameness. There is a weird rhythm in this very repetition; it is as if the earth were resolved to repeat a single shape until the shape shall turn terrible. ... Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word, such as "dog," thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has become a word like "snark" or "pobble." It does not become tame, it becomes wild, by repetition. In the end a dog walks about as startling and undecipherable as Leviathan or Croquemitaine.
[GKC Alarms and Discursions 30-31]

It may sound strange to say that monotony of its nature becomes novelty. But if any one will try the common experiment of saying some ordinary word such as "moon" or "man" about fifty times, he will find that the expression has become extraordinary by sheer repetition. A man has become a strange animal with a name as queer as that of the gnu; and the moon something monstrous like the moon-calf.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20:211]
In previous columns I've mentioned the huge repetitions of three words - "the", "of", "and" - which comprise over ten percent of all GKC's writing. I've also mentioned the deeply mystical and significant repeated phrase within GKC's The Everlasting Man, which I found by applying my extension of DNA pattern-matching software to the text:
"Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away."
[GKC TEM CW2:327 and 392, quoting Lk 21:33]
Remember, I am not suggesting this statement applies to GKC. No, I think it is clear (even if utterly unintentional) that this repeated phrase of our Lord's own words is Chesterton's signal homage to our Lord's words: the One Who is Engineer ("Bridge-builder") is also Author, for He granted "a real romance to the world". [GKC TEM CW2:380] Or, to take a far more delightful avenue:
We must certainly be in a novel;
What I like about this novelist is that he takes such trouble about his minor characters.
[GKC quoted in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 63]

An aside: Remember, too, that "The Everlasting Man" is Chesterton's own mystic title for Jesus Christ. For proof, see The Thing CW3:302.

The mystery of repetition is a terribly common one, even if this sounds confusing to some. I mean that most of life is repetition. Not only in the sense that our bodies are built from the same things applied over and over - both DNA and proteins are polymers, though they are built as words are built (or perhaps I ought to say STORIES are built) not by pure iteration of the same letter, but by judicious selection - indeed, authorship. But we need not even delve so deep. Even from the most casual examination of a human face we see repetition - though we must not carry this idea too far:
Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:285]
In fact, it is the error of Aristotle and of Marx (and many others from the Dark Side of Thought) who try to apply this apparent repetition to Man, thinking that each human is UNimportant since he is just "yet another" proles - existing merely to give more offspring to the State. This error Chesterton corrects with all the emphatic power of Christianity in a most elegant statement:
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]
Wow! High drama, for those who can stand it, and a brutal slap against followers of the Dark Power! It's not that we are (from one perspective) just a duplicate, a penny, a proles, existing only to replicate. No; we are IMAGES OF THE KING and therefore have immense value. But then we were told: "the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: you are of more value than many sparrows." [Lk 12:7] If this romance-granting Author (Whose image we bear) "takes such care about Him minor characters" that He tracks even the dull details of every one of our hairs, how much more must He care about what we do. And that takes us to the next aspect of today's exploration.

Repetition is a fact of human life, whether it is in cooking yet another meal, washing yet another load of laundry, making yet another part, or whatever task one is employed in doing. It is a puzzle that so many people think that life - and especially work - must somehow be so dynamically variable... it isn't, not for artists or musicians or authors - who MUST use the same pigments, the same instruments and pitches, the same letters and punctuation over and over and over. What is it people think work is supposed to be? I dunno. But here too GKC gives us instruction:
the average man has to obey orders and do nothing else. He has to put one dull brick on another dull brick, and do nothing else; he has to add one dull figure to another dull figure, and do nothing else. ... the bricklayer cannot put the bricks in fancy arrangements of his own, without disaster to himself and others. ... A woman cooking may not always cook artistically; still she can cook artistically. She can introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the composition of a soup. The clerk is not encouraged to introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the figures in a ledger.
[GKC ILN Apr 7 1906 CW27:161]
Ahem! That was funny, and insightful, and does apply, but that was NOT the quote I wanted. Excuse me just a moment while I berate the programmer: This stupid software, who wrote it? (Well, I'll just take a look at the code.) Gosh, a computer program has the same lines of stuff over and over again, oh my it looks REALLY BORING to write such drivel, and I thought computer software development was supposed to be GLAMOROUS... Ahem!
Ah, here's the quote I wanted:
...there is one thing that no realist, however daring, however frantic, would venture to depict upon the stage. He may make indecencies walk naked in the open day. He may cry from the housetops the things of shame which humanity has kept secret for centuries. But there is one thing that no dramatist dare produce upon the stage. That thing is the thing called " Work." There is no playwright who would reproduce upon the stage the first four hours of an ordinary clerk's day. Nobody would send up the curtain at 8 o'clock on a man adding up figures, and send it down at 10 o'clock on a man still adding up figures. Even an Ibsenite audience would not support the silent symbolism of three scenes all of which were occupied with the same bricklayer laying bricks. We dare not say in artistic form how much there is of prose in men's lives; and precisely because we cannot say how much there is of prose, we cannot say how much there is of poetry.
[GKC "Ibsen" in A Handful of Authors 140]
But if the bricklayer did not repeatedly lay those bricks, there would be no houses, if the dairyman did not repeatedly milk the cows, there would be no milk, if the programmer did not write drivel, there would be no INTERNET and no bloggs - and the same is true for many (if not all) other forms of employment, even those deemed "artistic" and "free" by the Media! Ah. (More on this mystery another day - it ties into an important idea in one of St. Paul's letters...)

But perhaps the greatest of GKC's studies of repetition is the one in Orthodoxy, which comes up in his brilliant study of what is usually termed "the Laws of Nature" in the chapter called "The Ethics of Elfland". I've quoted it here before - this is the one which has the famous "Beach Boys" quote, the three-word cheer used by the sports teams at Chesterton University (er, actually there's only one - Gype)... and we've studied it at length some time ago. But please read it again, and think about it some more:
...the mere repetition made the things [of the natural world] to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:262-3,263-4]
Now that I've quoted that, let me conclude by giving you two mystical excerpts which deal with baptism. There is some wondrous mystery here, a mystery touching "repetition" - but then is not baptism our entry into Life? Is not that Life a form of Work? Are we not bidden to "Do whatever He tells you"? [See John 2:5] Did not Jesus Himself seek to be about His "Father's business" [Luke 2:49] and did He not spend the next 18 years after He said that working in a carpenter shop? He weren't writing no theology journal articles... oh no. He was about His father's business, making tables and chairs and doors and Useful Things... Very Engineer of Him, oh yes, and very Common Man too, laying bricks for hours on end for the sake of His neighbor.

But I promised two quotes about baptism - one about GKC's own, the other in general. They are very Newman - that is, both tech and lit - which is just like being Augustine, very old and very new. It's a Catholic thing, you see... but you may have to read them several times before they sink in.
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:21]

I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.
[GKC The Thing CW3:156]

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant! Dr. Thursday, you amaze me every week. Brilliant!


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