Literature

Ideas: Quoting G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a journalist, author and what can be best described as a complete thinker. He wrote over 100 books and over 5000 newspaper columns. His gift for aphorism has made him familiar to many by his eloquence if not by his name. He wrote about everything because he believed that everything was in one way or another connected. He took delight in arguing without losing his temper, his reason, or even the friendships he had with his fellow debaters.

There is a modern revival of his works going on today, so if you enjoy and/or are challenged by what you read here, please visit The Society for Gilbert K. Chesterton. There’s lots to explore including more quotations, lectures, etc. and even an annual conference. They’ve even got the Chesterton Schools Network of high schools which offer classical education through a Catholic lens. I used to be on the American Chesterton Society board of directors, and believe that this guy (who’s been dead since 1936) probably knew more about the today than most people now alive. The past can often reveal much of what has yet to happen as well as explain a lot of what’s going on right now.

1. The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.

2. If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?

3. The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.

4. Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

5. In the end it will not matter to us whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.

6. The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside of us.

7. It is of the new things that men tire… of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young.

8. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.

9. The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.

10. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

11. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man.

12. Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

13. The test of all happiness is gratitude.

14. We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.

15. Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

16. Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

17. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

18. Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery, you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.

19. Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

20. Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

21. Contemporary society has become dry, not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.

22. No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.

23. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralyzed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

24. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

25. Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

26. We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine.

27. Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.

28. We are learning to do a great many clever things … The next great task will be to learn not to do them.

29. Chaos is dull.

30. There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.

(Note: the graphic of Chesterton is from an old cigarette card. Packs of cigarettes used to have trading cards, sometimes of sports figures, and this was from a set of literary figures. Imagine a time when smoking cigarettes and famous literary figures went together.)

Reading: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to bookshop.org. I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

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