Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Notes: In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton

"In Defense of Sanity: the Best Essays of G. K. Chesterton" is by - who else? - the immortal Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

I read this slowly, but not because I didn't like it. Rather the reverse.

And, much like my book notes on Boethius, I have trouble knowing how to review this other than to just quote from it. As Boethius' words are better than mine, so are Chesterton's.

So, here are a few (a very few) quotations from this almost 400-page long tome. May it do nothing more than convince you to read the great man's work for yourself:

On believing your beliefs:
“Don’t say, ‘There is no true creed; for each creed believes itself right and the others wrong.’ Probably one of the creeds is right and the others wrong. Diversity does show that most of the views must be wrong. It does not by the faintest logic show that they all must be wrong . . .”

On belief and the book of Job:
“The modern habit of saying, ‘This is my opinion, but I may be wrong,’ is entirely irrational. If I say that it may be wrong I say that it is not my opinion . . . A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.
“The first of the intellectual beauties of the book of Job is that it is all concerned with this desire to know the actuality, the desire to know what is, and not merely what seems . . . If wishing to be happy and being quite ready to be happy constitute an optimist, Job is an optimist; he is an outraged and insulted optimist. He wishes the universe to justify itself, not because he wishes it to be caught out, but because he really wishes it to be justified . . . He remonstrates with his Maker because he is proud of his Maker. He even speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of case which he does not understand. In a fine and famous blasphemy he says, ‘Oh, that my adversary had written a book!’ It never really occurs to him that it could possibly be a bad book. He is anxious to be convinced, that is, he thinks that God could convince him. In short, we may say again that if the world optimist means anything (which I doubt) Job is an optimist. He shakes the pillars of the world and strikes insanely at the heavens; he lashes at the stars, but it is not to silence them, it is to make them speak.”

On the bravery of aiming true:
“But the splendor of the furrowed fields is this: that like all brave things they are made straight, and therefore they bend. In everything that bows gracefully there must be an effort of stiffness. Bows are beautiful when they bend only because they try to remain rigid; and sword-blades can curl like silver ribbons only because they are certain to spring straight again. But the same is true of every tough curve of the tree-trunk, of every strong-backed bend of the bough; there is hardly any such thing in Nature as a mere droop of weakness. Rigidity yielding a little, like justice swayed with mercy, is the whole beauty of the earth. The cosmos is a diagram just bent beautifully out of shape. Everything tries to be straight; and everything just fortunately fails.
“The foil may curve in the lunge; but there is nothing beautiful about beginning the battle with a crooked foil. So the strict aim, the strong doctrine, may give a little in the actual fight with facts; but that is no reason for beginning with a  weak doctrine or a twisted aim. Do not be an opportunist; try to be theoretic at all the opportunities; fate can be trusted to do the opportunistic part of it. Do not try to bend, any more than the trees try to bend. Try to grow straight, and life will bend you.”

On great minds taking on a project not their own:
“The book originated in the suggestion of a publisher; as many more good books have done than the arrogance of the man of letters is commonly included to admit. Very much is said in our time about Apollo adn Admetus, and the impossibility of asking genius to work within prescribed limits or assist and alien design. But after all, as a matter of fact, some of the greatest geniuses have done it, from Shakespeare botching up bad comedies and dramatizing bad novels down to Dickens writing a masterpiece as the mere framework for a Mr. Seymour’s sketches. Nor is the true explanation irrelevant to the spirit and power of Dickens. Very delicate, slender, and bizarre talents indeed incapable of being used for an outside purpose, whether of public good or of private gain. But about very great and rich talent there goes a certain disdainful generosity which can turn its hand to anything. Minor poets cannot write to order; but very great poets can write to order. The larger the man’s mind, the wider his scope of vision, the more likely it will be that anything suggested to him will seem very significant and promising.”

On modern fantasy:
“There is no reason within reason, why literature should not describe the demonic as well as the divine aspect of mystery or myth. What is really remarkable is that in modern fiction, in an age accused of frivolity, in an age perhaps only too headlong in its pursuit of happiness, or at least of hedonism, the only popular sort of fantasy is the unhappy fantasy. There is a certain amount of fantasy that is avowedly fantastic, in the sense of unreal; mostly in the form of fairy-tales ostensibly written for children. But, on the whole, when the serious modern novel has dealt with preternatural agency, it has not only been serious but sad . . .”

On magical tales:
“But in any case I am convinced that every deep and delicate treatment of the magical theme . . . will always be found to imply an indirect relation to the ancient blessing and cursing; and it is almost as vital that it should be moral as that it should not be moralizing. Magic for magic’s sake, like art for art’s sake, is found in fact to be too shallow, and to be unable to live without drawing upon things deeper than itself. To say that all real art is in black and white is but another way of saying that it is in light and darkness; and there is no fantasy so irresponsible as really to escape from the alternative.”

On the unity of the sexes in marriage:
“To put the matter in one metaphor, the sexes are two stubborn pieces of iron; if they are to be welded together, it must be while they are red-hot. Every woman has to find out her husband is a selfish beast, because every man is a selfish beast by the standard of a woman. But let her find out the beast while they are both still in the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Every man has to find out that his wife is cross—that is to say, sensitive to the point of madness: for every woman is mad by the masculine standard. But let him find out that she is mad while her madness is more worth considering than anyone else’s sanity.” 

On true sportsmanship:
“…healthy people will agree that you never enjoy a game till you enjoy being beaten at a game.” 

Yes, there are parts of this book that show their age (not in a good way), but most parts of this book that feel aged give that impression just because they hit on eternal truth. Occasionally I felt, "Hmm, he's trying to hit his word count here."  Or page count, or however daily allotment of effort from a journalist was calculated in those days. 

But those slow bits are a definite minority. On the whole, this collection is a delight. I can't imagine you'd regret diving into it.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

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Rebecca Jones said...

LOVE his essays. Still working through them.

I've told my husband more than once that if GK had just forced himself to trim his word count by 30 percent, he would probably be EVEN MORE impactful.

Which is a wild kind of economy, remembering that we sometimes give more by giving less.

Great quotes!

I love, Book of Job, especially: "He has been told nothing but he has felt the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told."

Jessica Snell said...

Oh, wow, the idea of Chesterton whittling down his stuff by 30% . . . I think you might be right! (Tho, please, not his fiction . . . it's kind of close to perfect, I think. :) )

Sherry said...

Thanks for the little taste of GKC tonight.

Jessica, if you like historical fiction, I wanted to tell you about the book that my pastor recently published, called We Never Stood Alone. It's only 99 cents at Amazon for Kindle right now, and worth every penny. I think you would enjoy it. Christian fiction, set during World War II, I found it to be a satisfying read.

Jessica Snell said...

Sherry, thank you - and thank you for the recommendation, too. I'll go check it out!