Saturday, March 25, 2006

My Favourite GKC Quotation

I wrote this up back in 1997 and never used it - but today is the most fitting day for it to be posted.
--Dr. Thursday
What is my favourite GKC quotation? Well, I thought I would write this up, since it is a very hard question to answer. There's so much to choose from. My favorite GKC prayer is Father Brown's "The cross of Christ be between me and harm," though the line about Holy Communion in The Ball and the Cross is a close runner-up: "If you are sorry it is all right. If you are horribly sorry it is even better. You only have to go and tell the priest so, and he will give you God out of his own hands." Then there is that moving line in The New Jerusalem, referring to the Garden of Gethsemani, where GKC quotes the boy as saying "it is where God said His prayers."

The most dramatic scene is that beneath the water tower in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which I will not elaborate on in case you haven't read it yet. And I will refrain from revealing details of the book with the most tantalising title, namely, The Man Who Was Thursday. And for a biographical scene, I choose the incident of the lighthouse at Christmas, with its hopeful line from the Salve Regina: "Yes: Nobis post hoc exsilium ostende..." - "To us, after this exile, show..."

Yes, there are large numbers of lines which are clever as well as true, humorous as well as noble, accurate as well as attractive. But you don't want to hear this computer scientist quote lines like Gabriel Gale's "I often stare at windows" or words from those fought by Aquinas who think there's a thing "which is both Yes and No" - perhaps they call it "Yo"; or the liturgical link to high technology Chesterton saw in France: the Catholic thing that's "some kind of perpetual process, going on all the time" though it is true that "I have often thanked God for the telephone" and also "we have to call electricity by the Greek word for amber, since" - yes, it's still true almost one hundred years later - "since we have no idea of the true nature of electricity."

But speaking as a computer scientist I see an awesomely powerful and overlooked quote in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. Much is always made of the importance of the number zero - the value of which is apparently nothing at all. Though you might not be a computer scientist, you might find it interesting that there are other kinds of "zeros" in mathematics. One of these is called "the identity of the free monoid over an arbitrary alphabet" - but though that is the correct term, it sounds too pompous for daily use, so we simply call it the empty string, or epsilon, or "quote-quote" (because that's how it is spelled in some computer languages).

This sounds much more complicated than it is. I feel like Maria explaining how singing works in "The Sound of Music"... When you want to add numbers together you start with zero. But when you want to stick characters together, you start with the empty string.

Let me make it even easier - where's that guitar? Get a piece of paper and a pencil. I'm going to spell out a word for you, and you write it down.

"Doe: a deer, a female deer" - no no. let's start again. Are you ready? C, A, T. Ok, you've got "cat" written now, right? Good.

Ok, here's another: G, K, C. Well, that's not a word, but we all know what it means.

One more, ready? Now what have you written so far? Nothing at all, right?

No, because I haven't started spelling the word for you. Well, that which you see before you is the zero-like "nothing" we computer scientists call the "empty string". In programming we use it all the time when we are putting words together - just like you do when you clear your calculator or adding machine. (You can see it next time you "log in" - just look at the "empty place" where you type your password - that's the empty string!)

Now that you understand the empty string, I will tell you my favorite quote. It is the empty string, (well, ok, the typographer in me insists that actually it is the paragraph break) which appears a few paragraphs before the end of part one of The Everlasting Man - and to emphasize it, I will put a "pause" there in my excerpt:
[Regarding pagan Rome in the last years B.C.] ... It was something in the sense of impotence and despair with which men shook their fists vainly at the stars, as they saw all the best work of humanity sinking slowly and helplessly into a swamp. They could easily believe that even creation itself was not a creation but a perpetual fall, when they saw that the weightiest and worthiest of all human creations was falling by its own weight. They could fancy that all the stars were falling stars; and that the very pillars of their own solemn porticos were bowed under a sort of gradual Deluge. To men in that mood there was a reason for atheism that is in some sense reasonable. Mythology might fade and philosophy might stiffen; but if behind these things there was a reality, surely that reality might have sustained things as they sank. There was no God; if there had been a God, surely this was the very moment when He would have moved and saved the world.
The life of the great civilisation went on with dreary industry and even with dreary festivity. It was the end of the world, and the worst of it was that it need never end. A convenient compromise had been made between all the multitudinous myths and religions of the Empire; that each group should worship freely and merely give a sort of official flourish of thanks to the tolerant Emperor, by tossing a little incense to him under his official title of Divus. Naturally there was no difficulty about that; or rather it was a long time before the world realised that there ever had been even a trivial difficulty anywhere. The members of some eastern sect or secret society or other seemed to have made a scene somewhere; nobody could imagine why. The incident occurred once or twice again and began to arouse irritation out of proportion to its insignificance. It was not exactly what these provincials said; though of course it sounded queer enough. They seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might
be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seemed quite unnaturally joyful about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood. According to other accounts God was not exactly dead after all; there trailed through the bewildered imagination some sort of fantastic procession of the funeral of God, at which the sun turned black, but which ended with the dead omnipotence breaking out of the tomb and rising again like the sun.

I am not sure that even Tolkien surpasses this Chestertonian retelling of the Eucatastrophic drama of our history! Indeed. When I read this, I felt, and I still feel, for a fleeting instant, the Great Amazement which many wise men sought (and still seek) to find, and have not found. For a moment, I feel as the ancient Romans must have felt. In the empty string between the paragraphs, the "if statement" succeeded and as we say, the "then-clause" was taken. By the nothingness of that empty string, Chesterton denotes the moment when God did move and save the world - the moment when "the Word was made flesh - and dwelt among us."


At 01 April, 2006 14:42, Blogger A Holy Fool said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly! GKC's brilliance in contrasting the Despair of Pagan Rome with the bewildering Hope of Christ engulfs me!

At 03 April, 2006 11:50, Blogger Newvictorian said...

Let me just say:



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