Friday, September 29, 2006

An Important Appeal: Sept. 29 to Oct. 7

How weak we are. But - if we choose - we have available the greatest power in the Universe: prayer. We must turn to prayer in order to deal with the difficulties of our world.

Let us, then, make a special novena, to consist of the mysteries of our Lord's Passion and Death, contemplated by means of the Rosary, said for the nine days beginning on St. Michael (September 29) and completing on Our Lady of the Rosary, the anniversary of Lepanto (October 7). Let us include daily Mass if possible, and take this as seriously as if the Pope had asked for this intercession:
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross...
...because maybe he is asking, and we're too busy to hear.

[This is the statue GKC gave to his parish in Beaconsfield.]
I was looking about for an image of Our Lady which I wished to give to the new church in our neighbourhood ... The colours were traditional; but the colours were not conventional; a wave of green sea had passed through the blue and a shadow of brown earth through the crimson, as in the work of the ancient colourists. The conception was common and more than common, and yet never merely uncommon. She was a peasant and she was a queen, and in that sense she was a lady; but not the sort of sham lady who pretends to be a peasant, nor the sort of sham peasant who pretends to be a lady. She was barefoot like any colleen on the hills; yet there was nothing merely local about her simplicity. I have never known who was the artist and I doubt if anybody knows; I only know that it is Irish, and I almost think that I should have known without being told. I have heard of one other man who felt as I do, and went miles out of his way at intervals to revisit the little church where the image stands. She looks across the little church with an intense earnestness in which there is something of endless youth; and I have sometimes started, as if I had actually heard the words spoken across that emptiness: I am the Mother of God and this is Himself, and He is the boy you will all be wanting at the last. [GKC, Christendom in Dublin]

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

For "The Word Gang" at Love2Learn

One of the very interesting things from the past which I have learned is something called "heraldry" which is the art and science of designing coats of arms.

It would be delightful to go into how I first began to learn it (during my college life), and what good it is (identification and family heritage) and why it was invented (knights wore helmets) and how Chesterton admired it ("An alphabet is a set of symbols, like heraldry. And a time may easily come, as it has come before, when it would seem as absurd to say that a man could not be well-informed without writing his name as it seems now to say that a man cannot be chivalrous without blazoning his shield." ILN Nov 29 1915 CW30:323), and many other things.

But unfortunately I am already late on some work I must finish tonight, and so I will have to postpone all these topics for now.

Now I am not an expert, but I have learned some basic principles, and I am bold enough to try things when I am inspired.

The inspiration hit me when I was reading a recent posting by my friends over at "Love2Learn" who are trying to devise a kind of group for study and delight in words... clearly they have all the machinery running, but they lack a name. I could not come up with a name, but somehow an idea hit me for a design of a coat of arms, together with a motto, so I jotted it down:
Arms: Fesswise azure and vert; in chief a mullet or, in base an open book argent.

Correction: This ought to read:
Per fess azure and vert; in chief a mullet Or, in base an open book argent.

Crest: A lighted lamp proper.
Motto: Lucem verbi audaciter sequimur.
That is, "We boldly follow the light of the word." (Boy, I hope I got the Latin correct!)

Now the really COOL AND AMAZING thing about heraldry is that it is a "universal graphics language" - it is just about the closest thing to a truly computer-science thing invented during the Middle Ages! Because when a blazoning is correctly written, you can give it to an artist and he can draw the coat of arms from those instructions - almost as if a computer obeyed a drawing package to plot a blueprint or diagram... and since I spent much of my early work career doing that kind of software, I have always liked the language... but since I do not have the time to explain the meanings of the terms I used, I will just show you the arms...

And the funny thing is that once I drew it and scanned it, and the scanning software wanted a file name to save the picture, I thought up a name for their club, too...

So, "love2learn", see what you think. I will be happy to revise it if you like.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The complete philosophy which keeps a man sane

Recently I was hunting through the writing of GKC in search of something to help a friend. I found what I wanted, but like the encyclopedia I found lots of other things too - one essay in particular which fits well with the on-going "9/11" discussion on martyrs vs. suicides, which GKC addressed in more than one place.

I think it is very important, and strongly urges us to more prayer - please don't forget our Lepanto Novena which starts on Friday!

Since it is not Thursday, but too important to wait, I will post it here.
--Dr. Thursday
...even the atheist can illustrate how important it is to keep the Catholic system altogether, even if he rejects it altogether.

A curious and amusing instance comes from America; in connection with Mr. Clarence Darrow, the somewhat simple-minded sceptic of that land of simplicity. He seems to have been writing something about the impossibility of anybody having a soul; of which nothing need be said except that (as usual) it seems to be the sceptic who really thinks of the soul superstitiously, as a separate and secret animal with wings; who considers the soul quite apart from the self. But what interests me about him at the moment is this. One of his arguments against immortality is that people do not really believe in it. And one of his arguments for that is that if they did believe in certain happiness beyond the grave, they would all kill themselves. He says that nobody would endure the martyrdom of cancer, for instance, if he really believed (as he apparently assumes all Christians to believe) that in any case the mere fact of death would instantly introduce the soul to perfect felicity and the society of all its best friends. A Catholic will certainly know what answer he has to give. But Mr. Clarence Darrow does not really in the least know what question he has asked.

Now there we have the final flower and crown of all modern optimism and universalism and humanitarianism in religion. Sentimentalists talk about love till the world is sick of the most glorious of all human words; they assume that there can be nothing in the next world except the sort of Utopia of practical pleasure which they promise us (but do not give us) in this world. They declare that all will be forgiven, because there is nothing to forgive. They insist that "passing over" is only like going into the next room, they insist that it will not even be a waiting-room. They declare that it must immediately introduce us to a cushioned lounge with all conceivable comforts, without any reference to how we have got there. They are positive that there is no danger, no devil; even no death. All is hope, happiness and optimism. And, as the atheist very truly points out, the logical result of all that hope, happiness and optimism would be hundreds of people hanging from lamp-posts or thousands of people throwing themselves into wells or canals. We should find the rational result of the modern Religion of Joy and Love in one huge human stampede of suicide. Pessimism would have killed its thousands, but optimism its ten thousands.

Now, of course, as I say, a Catholic knows the answer; because he holds the complete philosophy which keeps a man sane; and not some single fragment of it, whether sad or glad, which may easily drive him mad. A Catholic does not kill himself because he does not take it for granted that he will deserve heaven in any case, or that it will not matter at all whether he deserves it at all. He does not profess to know exactly what danger he would run; but he does know what loyalty he would violate and what command or condition he would disregard. He actually thinks that a man might be fitter for heaven because he endured like a man; and that a hero could be a martyr to cancer as St. Lawrence or St. Cecilia were martyrs to cauldrons or gridirons. The faith in a future life, the hope of a future happiness, the belief that God is Love and that loyalty is eternal life, these things do not produce lunacy and anarchy, if they are taken along with the other Catholic doctrines about duty and vigilance and watchfulness against the powers of hell. They might produce lunacy and anarchy, if they were taken alone. And the modernists, that is, the optimists and the sentimentalists, did want us to take them alone. Of course, the same would be true, if somebody took the other doctrines of duty and discipline alone. It would produce another dark age of Puritans rapidly blackening into Pessimists. Indeed, the extremes meet, when they are both ends clipped off what should be a complete thing. Our parable ends poetically with two gibbets side by side; one for the suicidal pessimist and the other for the suicidal optimist.

The point is that in this passage the American sceptic is answering the Modernist; but he is not answering the Catholic. The Catholic has an extremely simple and sensible reason for not cutting his throat in order to fly instantly into Paradise. But he might really raise a question for those who talk as if Paradise were invariably and instantly populated with people who had cut their throats. this is only one example out of a long list of historical examples; in which those who tried to make the Faith more simple invariably made it less sane. The Moslems imagined that they were merely being sensible when they cut down the creed to a mere belief in one God; but in the world of practical psychology they really cut it down to one Fate. The actual effect on ordinary men was simply fatalism; like that of the Turk who will not take his wound to a hospital because he is resigned to Kismet or the will of Allah. The Puritans thought they were simplifying things by appealing to what they called the plain words of Scripture; but as a fact they were complicating things by bringing in half a hundred cranky sects and crazy suggestions. And the modern universalist and humanitarian thought they were simplifying things when they interpreted the great truth that God is Love, as meaning that there can be no war with the demons or no danger to the soul. But in fact they were inventing even darker riddles with even wilder answers; and Mr. Clarence Darrow has suggested one of them. He will be gratified to receive the thanks of all Catholics for doing so.

[GKC The Thing CW3:306-8]

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Plays and Novels, and a comment on "TMoV"

Our friend Kevin at Waiting for Godot to Leave and I have been discussing the representation (conversion?) of novels into plays... be they stage or screen. I had not really known that GKC commented on this (though he commented on just about anything one can name!) until our friend Enbrethiliel at Sancta Sanctis asked whether GKC had commented on "The Merchant of Venice". So I happened to find a very interesting essay. See what you think.
-- Dr. Thursday
I see that very various, and upon the whole very vague, criticisms are still circulating about the adaptation of "The Newcomes" and Mr. Tree's impersonation of the Colonel. It is certainly time that someone protested, apart altogether from the merits of this particular play, against the absurd assumption which seems to exist in the minds of many people, that any good novel not only may be, but must be, put upon the stage. That a good novel should make a good play is not only rare, it is intrinsically unlikely. If it is a good novel it will probably make a bad play. We should see this at a glance in connection with any other two forms of art. Anybody can see that if a thing is a good sonnet it will probably be a bad song. Anybody can see that if a thing is a good three-volume novel it will probably be a bad epic in twelve books. We all realise that if a thing is a good wall-paper the chances are that it will be a rather loud waistcoat. Nobody proposes to adapt carpets into curtains. Yet all this is in no way more essentially false or foolish than the perpetual assumption that the art of fiction is akin to the art of drama, and that therefore the merits of the former will provide material for the latter. But if, indeed, they are really thus akin, why is not the process more often reversed? Why have we not a bold and brilliant school of adapters of plays whose business it is to turn them into novels? Am I really free to bring out in three volumes my fascinating psychological romance called "Othello; or, The Mystery of the Handkerchief "? Can I bring out a yellow-backed novel called "The Pound of Flesh; a Tale of Venetian Commerce"? In such a case I am not sure that the novels would be good novels, even if I wrote them. You would find that in a steady and careful prose narrative the reader would reject as coarse and incredible exactly those "properties" which on the stage are, indeed, quite proper: the necessary "business" of the ring, the dagger, the poisoned cup, the letter - in a word, the gross material symbol which is so constantly necessary to make things clear behind the footlights. Thus in a novel about Othello we should be irritated with the accidental importance of the handkerchief; it would remind us of an idiotic detective story. Thus in a novel founded on "The Merchant of Venice" the business of the pound of flesh would seem, not as it seems in the play, merely harsh and barbaric, but openly ludicrous and unthinkable.

A novelist can use thousands and thousands of images and symbols to suggest a soul or a situation; because a novelist can refer back and forward, can shift the scene every paragraph, can allude to things remote from the field of action. All novelists do this, but no novelist ever did it so much as Thackeray. He tells the truth by a tissue of irrelevancies; he comes to the point by wandering from it. But on the stage it is impossible to create these multitudinous and miscellaneous impressions, changing every moment even in the matter of time and place. The only scene on the stage that would bear any resemblance to a chapter of Thackeray would be the transformation scene at the end of a pantomime. In ordinary plays the action is so concentrated in point of time and space that the playwright is obliged to use a palpable and permanent symbol, like the Handkerchief or the Pound of Flesh, the black robes of Hamlet, or the purple robe of Caesar. Thus, conversely, it commonly follows that a good novel makes a bad play because it is a good novel. It may be urged that Shakspere himself was an adapter, and that he took the plot of his plays from old or contemporary romances. It is quite true that Shakspere made his dramas out of novels. But then, with his abysmal and starry sagacity, he always made them out of bad novels.
[GKC ILN June 30 1906 CW27:222-4]

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Prayers for a doctor-to-be

As you traverse through the bloggs, you will often hear requests for prayers. There are so many needs and urgencies, so many people suffering and dying, and so much evil to thwart... but there is also good which needs support - such as a vocation, and the pursuit of knowledge which will advance the glory of God and accomplish good on earth.

Hence according to the principle of Subsidiarity, I appeal to those who can help. As we all should, whether we ourselves need help, or to ask help for others who need help that we cannot otherwise supply by direct action. It is, after all, the Communion of Saints.

This request is made through St. Thomas Aquinas, for "Peter" at "Catholicae Testudines" who is about to defend his doctoral thesis on Sept 25. See here for more details.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

GKC motifs: "two ways of getting home"

A Word Before We Begin
Ever since childhood I have held a certain musical work in very high esteem. That is Prokofiev's famous "Peter and the Wolf" which teaches the sounds of the various musical instruments by giving each distinct choir of instruments a catchy musical phrase and building a story out of them. Thus Grandfather is the bassoon, the wolf is the horn trio, the bird is the flute, the cat is the clarinet, and "Peter" is the strings. Those phrases are called motifs.

Perhaps the point I am trying to make is best made musically: at one of the exciting points in the story, the bird helps Peter, symbolized by having the flute play the "Peter" motif. Indeed, a given theme may occur numerous times, not always in the same musical arrangement or setting. All this is common to many pieces of music, but such a device is rarely seen in literature, or if it is, few take note of it. (sorry for the pun!)

There are certain ideas which Chesterton uses over and over again in many of his books. Sometimes these are expressed in certain recurring phrases, sometimes (as the musician says) in "variations on a theme" - and so I have decided to call them "GKC motifs." From time to time I will post a summary of our work on one or another of these repeated phrases.

"Two Ways of Getting Home"

Every once in a while someone points out that a lyricist of the rock group "Led Zeppelin" must have read Tolkien's masterwork. There is a reference to Gollum in, I believe, a song called "Misty Mountain Hop." But perhaps their most well-known song is "Stairway to Heaven" where we meet that lady who's sure "all that glitters is gold". A famous verse refers to the alternative of going up through the snowy Redhorn Gate or down through the dark depths of Khazad-dûm:
"Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
there's still time to change the Road you're on."
Perhaps our literary rocker had been reading GKC, for this important theme forms the very beginning of both The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy:
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote.
The Everlasting Man CW2:143
The story GKC refers to is traced at length in his Manalive (CW14) Part II Chapter III "The Round Road; Or, The Desertion Charge."

But this is actually a rephrasing of the beginning of Orthodoxy, which may be called "the Englishman who discovers England":
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. ... His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? ... This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? ... We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. ... But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England.
Orthodoxy CW1:211-212,213
In The Ball and the Cross, there is a miniature version of this voyage of discovery: the two main characters (neither of whom is a sailor) travel in a borrowed yacht for two weeks and land on what they think is a deserted island, but soon learn that they have (you guessed it!) discovered England.

In the story called "The Coloured Lands" [CW14:110] the journey is made by changes in colour, rather than changes of location.

In Lord Kitchener, GKC comments: "After his great adventures in Africa and Asia, the Englishman has re-discovered Europe; and in the very act of discovering Europe, the Englishman has at last discovered England." [CW5:389]

This motif is related to the "upside down" motif, and the "too large to be seen" motif, which we shall examine another time. But I want to point out the metaphysical secret of this motif, which is also hinted at in the rock song I started with:
"There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure,
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings."
At the West-Gate of Moria, Gandalf puzzled over its password - which was written plainly before him. In the Chesterton motif, the duality is not in the word way but in the word home. The interrogative for "home" is not "Where?" but "Whom?"

Home is
... the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home. [CW10:140]

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Newman on science and religion

The 150-year-old essays collected in The Idea of a University by Cardinal Newman are a very important source of insight into "higher education", into human intelligence in general, and (as I will show in a forthcoming book) into Subsidiarity. Here's one of the pivotal arguments, not only important for what it says about theology, but for its corresponding truth in reference to every field of knowledge! (Readers of The Phantom Tollbooth will readily perceive the parallels with Milo's arguments with King Azaz and with the Mathemagician.)
--Dr. Thursday
The human mind cannot keep from speculating and systematizing; and if Theology is not allowed to occupy its own territory, adjacent sciences, nay, sciences which are quite foreign to Theology, will take possession of it. And this occupation is proved to be a usurpation by this circumstance, that these foreign sciences will assume certain principles as true, and act upon them, which they neither have authority to lay down themselves, nor appeal to any other higher science to lay down for them. For example, it is a mere unwarranted assumption if the Antiquarian says,"Nothing has ever taken place but is to be found in historical documents;" or if the Philosophic Historian says,"There is nothing in Judaism different from other political institutions;" or if the Anatomist,"There is no soul beyond the brain;" or if the Political Economist, "Easy circumstances make men virtuous. " These are enunciations, not of Science, but of Private Judgment; and it is Private Judgment that infects every science which it touches with a hostility to Theology, a hostility which properly attaches to no science in itself whatever.
If then, Gentlemen, I now resist such a course of acting as unphilosophical, what is this but to do as men of Science do when the interests of their own respective pursuits are at stake? 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?

[From "Discourse IV. Bearing of Other Knowledge on Theology"]