Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

The Amps of "Spinal Tap" May Go Up to Eleven, but Ours Go Up to Twelve

I have just completed a book which combines humor, books, work, a shipwreck, magic, crime, music, cloistered Carmelites, cable TV, Latin, computers, secret passages, food, boredom, beer, Mass, death, and a few other things of interest to Chestertonians. Joe, its main character, likes rock-and-roll, and hopes one day to buy an electric guitar. Yes, like Joe, I also like rock and roll - at least some songs, and some bands. (My instrument, however is the bass.)

Certain people may find this musical taste just as sinful as liking stories about magic, or about murder (some of which I also like.) Obviously, there are times and places for all things, including loud music, whether it be the 1812 Overture or - uh - you choose the band. But whenever the topic of loud music comes up, Chestertonians should recall these famous words:
I remember a debate in which I had praised militant music in ritual, and some one asked me if I could imagine Christ walking down the street before a brass band. I said I could imagine it with the greatest ease; for Christ definitely approved a natural noisiness at a great moment. When the street children shouted too loud, certain priggish disciples did begin to rebuke them in the name of good taste. He said: "If these were silent the very stones would cry out." [Luke 19:40] With these words He called up all the wealth of artistic creation that has been founded on this creed.
["The Tower" in Tremendous Trifles]
OK, He didn't say the very rocks would cry out, but still... (hm, feels like a St. Peter joke in there somewhere...) No, I am not going to get into the various issues of rock today. I mean rock music. Yes, there are lyrics of some songs which come right out of hell. But on the contrary (hee hee) there are others, even from hard rock songs, which might pass for something from Aquinas.

So. If Pope Benedict XVI can quote Nietzsche in his first encyclical [Deus Caritas Est 3, note 1], and Aquinas can quote the gods-and-goddesses-worshipping, slave-approving, milky-way-from-swamp-dreaming Aristotle [e.g. Summa I Q5A2 and many other places], and St. Paul can quote pagan poets [Acts 17:28] we too can quote rock lyrics when they assist us in understanding Chesterton, which is to say in understanding reality: God, the Universe, ourselves.

The paradox we shall encounter today, however, is the reverse: when rock musicians quote Chesterton.

The hero of the story I mentioned earlier grew up in a small town on the Atlantic shore, and though he works in cable TV, he still thinks of himself as a "beach boy" - which is also the name of a famous surfer rock band from California. Today we shall learn that they happen to have written a song which quotes GKC's Orthodoxy - one of the greatest and most powerful and mystical quotes of the entire book, and one which happens to unite God, the Universe and ourselves...

Click here to find out more.
We are, as you may recall, fairly far into the chapter of Orthodoxy called "The Ethics of Elfland" and we have seen some very strange things. We have learned that we are living in a marvellous, magical world. (If that second "M" word bothers you, let us say "unexpected") and the marvel gives rise to two important things: a sense of gratitude, and the very important thing GKC calls "the Doctrine of Conditional Joy": the idea that we are given this marvel on certain strange conditions. Now, as we are starting to come toward the conclusion of the chapter, GKC provides a kind of review, stunning in its implied recommendation:
Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since. I left the nurse guardian of tradition and democracy, and I have not found any modern type so sanely radical or so sanely conservative. But the matter for important comment was here: that when I first went out into the mental atmosphere of the modern world, I found that the modern world was positively opposed on two points to my nurse and to the nursery tales. It has taken me a long time to find out that the modern world is wrong and my nurse was right. The really curious thing was this: that modern thought contradicted this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most essential doctrines. I have explained that the fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created two sudden and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and which, crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.

First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is green because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done. But the great determinists of the nineteenth century were strongly against this native feeling that something had happened an instant before. In fact, according to them, nothing ever really had happened since the beginning of the world. Nothing ever had happened since existence had happened; and even about the date of that they were not very sure.

Ah... it is like something DONE. I had a resonance in my mind as I read this, and it took some work to find out what, as I do not know French. Some time ago, a friend (who does know French) was speaking about a matter of philosophy, and used the term donné meaning something given (that is, a starting point of discussion, or a matter not presently under debate, something taken for granted). But this is quite apt: the green grass is a donné, something given - it is something DONE. It was chosen to be that way, and so it is. We cannot debate it, even if we might be color blind or have our eyes closed, or be out at night... it is that way and no other. Green grass is so poetic (which means something MADE; see GKC's Chaucer CW18:155.) But we are not being poets here; we are simply observing. Someone else already was a poet, when He made the grass, or we could not even be its critics. (Some joke ought to read: if a critic doesn't read any books, or watch any movies, what does he write about? This strongly hints at the contingent ontology of evil, but we cannot go into that now.)

Here, my own discipline compels me to mention, we find the great and glorious mark of Doctor Chesterton, the true scientist: he approaches Reality in humility. He does not "expect" the leaf to be green, for it might have been something else. He takes the leaf as something "done" - which reveals his true understanding of experiment, which comes from the same root as "experience", and for a very good reason: an experiment is performed so that we might experience what occurs. We seem to think "experiment" means "test". It doesn't. It means "live through it, experience it, witness it". Which is why some branches of science, like astronomy, weather, archaeology and geology, have such a hard time with experiments: you cannot RE-experience what has already happened. All you can do is look at what's left over. Ahem. But that's going too deep into that very interesting side trail called "epistemology of the sciences" and we cannot go there either; we're not equipped for such strenuous work. (Whew.)

But, as GKC emphasizes, and I repeated, these things - like green leaves and so on - have this feeling of something that has been done. Someone good waved a wand, made a choice, and made it to be SO. Sure, it might have been done differently! That's the nature of a choice. Here's the moment for that delicious quote from the song "Free Will" by Rush: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." But God did decide. He chose the green leaf and it was so. He saw it, and it was good. [See Genesis chapter 1.]

Are you feeling a strong wind, buffeting us here on the trail? Yes, we are rather shocked to discover that we happen to stand on a very high point indeed, and some of you may be horrified. We are seeing that somehow we are getting at the supreme matter of the Divine Will here. Yes, oh, my, yes. But isn't that what we are supposed to do: "Jesus saith to them: My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, that I may perfect his work." [Jn 4:34 emphasis added; cf Mt 12:50; see also Mt 26:39]

Divine will? How can this be science? I mean Physics and stuff like that! Are we not confusing the disciplines? Shall we not be criticised by the great student-of-study, Cardinal Newman:
If they certainly would resist the divine who determined the orbit of Jupiter by the Pentateuch, why am I to be accused of cowardice or illiberality, because I will not tolerate their attempt in turn to theologize by means of astronomy? And if experimentalists would be sure to cry out, did I attempt to install the Thomist philosophy in the schools of astronomy and medicine, why may not I, when Divine Science is ostracized, and La Place, or Buffon, or Humboldt, sits down in its chair, why may not I fairly protest against their exclusiveness, and demand the emancipation of Theology?
[Newman, The Idea of a University IV, 14]
No, we are not doing that. We are in elfland, and we are observing its wonders, in awe of the wizard Who put them here. Haven't you heard that song, which seems to be quoted sometimes at Mass:
If ever, o ever, a wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one because...
Because of the wonderful things he does.
All Your actions show Your wisdom and love. [Eucharistic Prayer IV]
Yes. Well? Don't you wonder how it happens? GKC tells us. It's not what you expect. And the funny thing is, these next two paragraphs give us the true foundation - no, even better, the license - to practice "science" (meaning physics, chemistry, and so on) - even while they speak so gloriously about will, and about God and His free choices of His creation.

A warning before you proceed. In previous postings I warned you to finish your drink or snack, before making you laugh. And there is a bit of animal humour coming, so you ought to finish it anyway. But this time, my warning is more profound. You may possibly feel the urge to genuflect. This is one of the Great Heights of this book, and perhaps one of the most important insights of the last century. If you read it with humility, you will be moved. Then please read it again, and take it to your lab, or your workplace, or your classroom, or your home, and act upon it. It may seem too technical at first, or even third reading, but it will surely seep in, once you do it again...

The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism, for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things 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.

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. 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.

Before we proceed, a few notes to assist:

* Islington: a borough of London. GKC uses it in a number of places as a general-purpose town. (See below for a sample.)
* Thames/Sheerness: The Thames is the river of London. Sheerness is a town on the mouth of the Thames. (American translation: "as regularly as the Mississippi goes to New Orleans".)
* encore: a French interjection, meaning "again!" or "once more!"
* "signalling with all its fingers": yes, you get five points if you recalled the Professor de Worms' code from The Man Who Was Thursday.
* "if the sun were alive it would dance": this was some nine years before Fatima where the sun danced. See Jaki's God and the Sun at Fatima for a very interesting study of that event.
* "incantation": You wonder why this is elfland? But do not forget the root of "incantation" is the Latin word for "song". No wonder Sam Gamgee, in awe of the singing of the Elves of Rivendell (or was it Lorien?), talked about being "inside a song"; that's almost a literal translation of the word.

Now... (Ahem!) Speaking of songs...

Yes, "Do It Again" is the title of a song by the Beach Boys. And yes, "Do It Again" is also the Official Cheer of all sports teams at Chesterton University. (It was selected by one of our Favorite Chestertonians at a Conference some years ago.) Actually there's just the one, the Gype team. They're undefeated since no other school has one. If you don't know about Gype, you need to read GKC's Autobiography (see CW16:211-2).

An aside: It might be argued, by the critics who have nothing better to do, and certainly nothing creative to make, that this argument of lively repetition is rebutted by GKC himself in the story called "A Somewhat Improbable Story" in CW14:91 et seq about how Bumpton Street goes to heaven for justice against a dull man. But that is an error caused by a failure to read the story carefully. The story is actually the usual instance of an idea of GKC's non-fiction appearing in GKC's fiction. Another, simpler counter-example to these critics is provided by the threefold repetition (which is, of course, not a repetition at all) of what we might call "Magic By Iteration". Here is one:
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.
[GKC, "The Telegraph Poles" in Alarms and Discursions]

Another aside: Father Jaki has done important work on Islam and its view of the Divine Will, noting its historical underpinnings and showing how its theology makes modern science impossible, because of its emphasis on the freedom of the divine will. [See e.g. chapter 9 in Science and Creation or his booklet called Jesus, Islam, Science] As GKC shows in his Heretics a heresy is an exaggeration of a truth, to the neglect of even related truths. Here, this single paragraph of GKC spells the fullness of defeat for such a heretical view of God, for if God's will is free, He is also free to repeat Himself, even vast numbers of times, even always. When one day a new Summa is written, it will surely cite Chesterton on this matter.

There is much more to say about all this, but it will have to be said another day, when God says "Do it again" to the sun. Crank up the amps, for He approves natural noisiness at a great moment, and surely this is one. Yeah!

--Dr. Thursday

P.S. Here is the promised sample about Islington. I think you will find it very instructive.

The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, [See Mt 22:39 quoting Lev 19:18] and also to love our enemies; [See Mt 5:44] probably because they are generally the same people. And there is a real human reason for this. You think of a remote man merely as a man; that is, you think of him in the right way. Suppose I say to you suddenly - "Oblige me by brooding on the soul of the man who lives at 351, High Street, Islington." Perhaps (now I come to think of it) you are the man who lives at 351, High Street, Islington; for this journal has a wide circulation. In that case substitute some other unknown address and pursue the intellectual sport. Now you will probably be broadly right about the man in Islington whom you have never seen or heard of, because you will begin at the right end - the human end. The man in Islington is at least a man. The soul of the man in Islington is certainly a soul. He also has been bewildered and broadened by youth; he also has been tortured and intoxicated by love; he also is sublimely doubtful about death. You can think about the soul of that nameless man who is a mere number in Islington High Street. But you do not think about the soul of your next-door neighbour. He is not a man; he is an environment. He is the barking of a dog; he is the noise of a pianola; he is a dispute about a party wall; he is drains that are worse than yours, or roses that are better than yours. Now, all these are the wrong ends of a man; and a man, like many other things in this world, such as a cat-o'-nine-tails, has a large number of wrong ends, and only one right one.
[ILN July 16 1910 CW28:563-4]

My goodness what a great post. Read it, and be amazed.
P.S. Your blogmistress has read Dr. Thursday novel, mentioned above, and thinks it Wonderful. Dr. Thursday needs some encouragement from the peanut gallery here to go for publication, which IMHO this novel needs. What do you think?


  1. Karen, why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

  2. I'm sorry, Nancy. I called you Karen because my brain got you confused with someone here at work.

    Stoopid brayne.

  3. That's a paradox, Tim - and part of the silliness of the joke. It's like the "half-full" vs. "half-empty" joke... OK, if I must, I must. (ahem)

    Q: How far can a dog run into the woods?
    A: Halfway.

    Now that I've resoved that matter, I find I must add a tiny bit of explanation.

    I said there were three repeats (which aren't repeats) of GKC's statement about repetition - AND THEN I only mentioned one!
    Here are the other two:

    "XIV. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference." -- Holbrook Jackson
    "But it can breed surprise. Try saying "Boots" ninety times." -- GKC
    in Platitudes in the Making/Platitudes Undone 15

    also this, which curiously links in another point I was trying to make:

    When the mind has grown used to its monotony, a curious change takes place which I have never seen noted or explained by the students of mental science. 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. Something of this magic of monotony is effected by the monotony of deserts; and the traveller feels as if he had entered into a secret, and was looking at everything from another side. Something of this simplification appears, I think, in the religions of the desert, especially in the religion of Islam.
    The New Jerusalem CW20:210-211

    --Dr. Thursday

  4. Re: "If the Sun were alive it would dance" --

    This was not before the Irish belief that the Sun dances at sunrise on Easter Sunday. (Not in a Fatima-like way, though.)

  5. Studies show that in a train wreck most casualties occur in the last two cars. So why don't they just remove the last two cars?

  6. Perhaps Dr. Thursday would post an excerpt from his novel on this blog, or in GILBERT MAGAZINE?

  7. I am quite gratified at your curiosity... (oh boy, OH BOY!) I shall consult with our esteemed blogg-mistress about an excerpt.

    If not, perhaps there will be some other means. Once I make some necessary adjustments, I shall look into the next step.

    I might mention that it is illustrated (by me) and it is a nice size novel, though longer than typical GKC books. And, as hard as it may be for you to believe, it contains, I think, only two quotes from GKC, and one, quite incidental, from Jaki.

    However, it is very Chestertonian, even though I am the one saying it.

    --Dr. Thursday

  8. "That's a paradox, Tim - and part of the silliness of the joke..."

    I know, Nancy. My first comment is actually Rob Reiner's line from the amplifier scene in "This Is Spinal Tap"...

  9. Tim, I have not yet seen it, though perhaps someday... if I knew it I would have understood. Sorry.

    Also, in case you were wondering, I am not Nancy; I am Dr. Thursday. I am the big fat one with the white lab coat and black glasses with thick lenses, the one with the Chesterton-size laugh.

    I looked for a picture which shows both of us, and finally found one here (though that was three years ago now... 100 million seconds goes by SO fast!)

    Or do you think we really are... uh... perhaps you've been reading Four Faultless Felons? Oh, my. Or maybe it was "The Duel of Dr. Hirsch" in The Wisdom of Father Brown? Nope, sorry; cool trick though.

    --Dr. Thursday

  10. "Also, in case you were wondering, I am not Nancy; I am Dr. Thursday."

    A-ha! Sorry, I'm a fairly recent visitor, and easily confused in addition.

    Your photo does look strangely familiar! :-)


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