“The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency…
“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”
– G. K. Chesterton (from Orthodoxy)
Mystery makes a lot of people uncomfortable; I love it.
I’ve been posting a lot of quotes lately about the benefits of stories and reading, about how they can teach us (even the fun, fictional stories) to see our real lives in a different light. That’s what my favorite section from “Date a Girl Who Reads” was about:
“Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who understand that all things will come to end. That you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.” (Read the whole thing here.)
Apparently, G.K. Chesterton agreed. Here are two thoughts of his on the same subject:
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”
“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.”
– G.K. Chesterton
I love this second one especially, because so many of my favorite fictional characters are deeply flawed people. I mean, how can I love fictional characters who are immature, or short-sighted, or have easy tempers, and then quickly get angry at people in my life who do one thoughtless thing?
Maybe next week I’ll make a list of my favorite fictional characters, their flaws, and why I like them. Hmm…
So here’s a question, are there any characters you love in a book or movie, but you couldn’t stand to hang around with them in real life? For example, Shawn Spencer from the tv show Psych. That man would drive me crazy, but he is hilarious to watch on tv.
“In the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the great trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards was made one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. For all this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours, should have been extended to mankind. The tobacconist should have had a crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry.
“Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling mistake — a mistake at the root of the whole modern malady — of decreasing the human magnificence of the past instead of increasing it. They did not say, as they should have done, to the common citizen, ‘You are as good as the Duke of Norfolk,’ but used that meaner democratic formula, ‘The Duke of Norfolk is no better than you are.’
“For it cannot be denied that the world lost something finally and most unfortunately about the beginning of the nineteenth century. In former times the mass of the people was conceived as mean and commonplace, but only as comparatively mean and commonplace; they were dwarfed and eclipsed by certain high stations and splendid callings. But with the Victorian era came a principle which conceived men not as comparatively, but as positively, mean and commonplace.
“It began to be thought that it was ridiculous for a man to wear beautiful garments, instead of it being — as, of course, it is — ridiculous for him to deliberately wear ugly ones. It was considered affected for a man to speak bold and heroic words, whereas, of course, it is emotional speech which is natural, and ordinary civil speech which is affected.
“Dignity became a form of foolery and shamelessness, as if the very essence of a fool were not a lack of dignity. And the consequence is that it is practically most difficult to propose any decoration or public dignity for modern men without making them laugh. They laugh at the idea of carrying crests and coats-of-arms instead of laughing at their own boots and neckties.
“A grocer should have a coat-of-arms worthy of his strange merchandise gathered from distant and fantastic lands; a postman should have a coat-of-arms capable of expressing the strange honour and responsibility of the man who carries men’s souls in a bag; the chemist should have a coat-of-arms symbolizing something of the mysteries of the house of healing, the cavern of a merciful witchcraft.”
– G.K. Chesterton (excerpts from The Defendant, Chapter 9: The Defense of Heraldry)
You can read the whole chapter, or the whole book, at online-literature.com. I heartily recommend it.
“[This story] has no explanation and no conclusion; it is, like most of the other things we encounter in life, a fragment of something else which would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen.
“For the perplexity of life arises from there being too many interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any of them. What we call triviality is really the tag-ends of numberless tales; ordinary and unmeaning existence is like ten thousand thrilling detective stories mixed up with a spoon.”
– G.K. Chesterton (from Tremendous Trifles)
I can’t even describe how much I like this.
The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be said even that the modern world, as a corporate body, holds certain dogmas so strongly that it does not know that they are dogmas.
Because we are not in a civilization which believes strongly in oracles or sacred places, we see the full frenzy of those who killed themselves to find the sepulchre of Christ. But being in a civilization which does believe in this dogma of fact for facts’ sake, we do not see the full frenzy of those who kill themselves to find the North Pole.
I am not speaking of a tenable ultimate utility which is true both of the Crusades and the polar explorations. I mean merely that we do see the superficial and aesthetic singularity, the startling quality, about the idea of men crossing a continent with armies to conquer the place where a man died. But we do not see the aesthetic singularity and startling quality of men dying in agonies to find a place where no man can live — a place only interesting because it is supposed to be the meeting-place of some lines that do not exist.
– G.K. Chesterton
I have always been fascinated with looking at ideas that everyone takes for granted. To be thinking people, we must also look at our subconscious assumptions, the things that are such a part of our culture that we don’t even notice them any more. How do we start to see things that we can’t see? One way is history, not just learning dates and names, but studying how people thought in the past, and how that shaped their culture and actions.
This is also one reason I enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Good fantasy/scifi writers create new worlds with new cultures that let you look at your own assumptions from the outside. Why? Because you should be able to give a reason for everything you think, and an explanation for everything you think. Be bigger than your culture.
"It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth.
"That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, "Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe," or "Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet." They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority."
– G.K. Chesterton
“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book.
“This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
– G. K. Chesterton, from The Paradoxes of Christianity
“I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.”
– G.K. Chesterton