Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beginning a New Series: GKC on the Gospels

So... it's Thursday and you are wondering - will Dr. Thursday be continuing his weekly columns now that the ACS blogg is gone?

Well, I cannot promise anything about the future. But I have several plans. Two different Chesterton series for this blogg - no, I ought to be realistic. I have considered one, which might be titled "GKC on the Gospels" - a kind of slovenly Diatesseron knit together from GKC's own works. Don't you just delight in that word "Diatesseron"? It is merely a fancy Greek-rooted term meaning "Through the Four" - that is, the four Gospels. I don't mean to perform the same task as Aquinas in his Catena Aurea, which links annotations from throughout the Church Fathers to the entire four Gospels; GKC never planned on accomplishing such a thorough commentary, but then again we may be surprised once we get started. Nevertheless, I don't actually expect to find coverage for the entire Gospel story, but there is plenty of material. Curiously, it divides quite elegantly along the seams of the OTHER four: the four sets of Mysteries of the Holy Rosary: the birth, the public life, the passion - and what comes afterwards. But only God knows if I will be able to get very far, it is very ambitious, and deserves someone with more time than I have. But at least I will start... So let us begin, as the Holy Mass once did, and always ought to, with that great scientific invocation for divine assistance:
V. Adjutorium nostrum + in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.
Where, then, among the Four should I begin?

Hm... if I use that high-tech reference of Professor Dodgson and begin at the beginning... that is, I begin with the first chapter of the first Gospel - ah, the genealogy according to Matthew. It starts with Abraham and descends, going forwards through history. There is another in Luke, which ascends - that is, it goes backwards, and continues the list all the way back to Adam, and thus to God. There is always some fuss about these when they come up during Holy Mass. There are a fair number of tongue-twisting names, and most of them are obscure. There are some conflicts; serious scholars (those who actually study things and not simply try to destroy them) think that there may be omissions. But we are not trying to get to that level of scholarship here - we are trying to see what Chesterton said - or might have said - about the Gospels. And in this particular case, I think he said something astounding - something I have quoted previously in other contexts, but I think applies in its utmost sense to this particular fragment of Christ's story:
"A Social Situation."
We must certainly be in a novel;
What I like about this novelist is that he takes such trouble about his minor characters.
[GKC "The Notebook" quoted by Maisie Ward in Gilbert Keith Chesterton 63]
Astounding. But then the thought within that mystic line is also borne out by a kind of parallel numismatic reference:
For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King.
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:44]
In this case, we see a perfect Chestertonian inversion: from these genealogies we see that Christ the King bears the image of a long list of unknowns, of whom we now know nothing more than their names.

Certainly it is paradoxical that we find the great names like Abraham or David along with the total unknowns. We find clear sinners - again like David - and we get glimpses of the intrusion of world history, like those linked to "the time of the Babylonian Captivity".

But let us apply the usual scheme of Chestertonian optics - let us "zoom out" to see what else is in our view when we think of genealogy. Why - look at this!
It is curious that the romance of race should be spoken of as if it were a thing peculiarly aristocratic; that admiration for rank, or interest in family, should mean only interest in one not very interesting type of rank and family. The truth is that aristocrats exhibit less of the romance of pedigree than any other people in the world. For since it is their principle to marry only within their own class and mode of life, there is no opportunity in their case for any of the more interesting studies in heredity; they exhibit almost the unbroken uniformity of the lower animals. It is in the middle classes that we find the poetry of genealogy; it is the suburban grocer standing at his shop door whom some wild dash of Eastern or Celtic blood may drive suddenly to a whole holiday or a crime.
[GKC Robert Browning 7-8]
You know I am no lit'ry scholar, but I do read. And just a week or so ago I happened to look up a famous line from a Sherlock Holmes story for use in my Saga:
Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.
[ACD "The Greek Interpreter" in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes]
There is hint of the same thing in Tolkien's The Hobbit - I don't recall an elegant line to quote, but you may recall how it is suggested that the very common and ordinary and unadventurous Bilbo Baggins may have inherited something remarkable from his Took forebearers... I am not suggesting that Christ inherited something remarkable - unless you call it the trait of "Common Man"-liness. Then again, that quality is the most remarkable of all. It surely leads to adventures - as we shall see in future installments of this study.

Here is another, almost incredible view - one which links so AWESOMELY to some of my own present efforts:
But whether or no everybody ought to have a sword, I feel sure that everybody ought to have a shield; I mean in the sense of armorial bearings. Here again is an instance in which the great revolutionary movement erred in equalising by extinguishing instead of by extending. The real error of the feudal tradition was not in having too much heraldry, but in having too little. For, properly understood, heraldry is one of the simplest ideas of humanity. In a certain sense, indeed, heraldry is humanity. It is what Mr. H. G. Wells called mankind in the making; it is life considered as a tissue of births. The genealogical tree is really a most common or garden sort of tree. It is only the tree of life; a mere trifle. The feeling of interest in one's own family is one of the most natural and universal feelings; it has nothing particularly oligarchical, or even aristocratic about it. And when the philosophers discovered that all men were important, they ought obviously to have discovered that all families were important; and even that all pedigrees were important. Nor can I see any reason why the genealogical tree should not bear flowers as well as fruit; why there should not be colours and emblems and external beauty to express the variations of the social group. The art of heraldry degenerated because it was turned from a real art to a sham science.
[GKC ILN Jan 1 1921 CW32:154-5]
Again, we must never lose sight of the fact that while we must exalt the Common Man, we must simultaneously exalt the Common Family... it is that mystic tree which Chesterton proclaims:
If we are not of those who begin by invoking a divine Trinity, we must none the less invoke a human Trinity; and see that triangle repeated everywhere in the pattern of the world. For the highest event in history, to which all history looks forward and leads up, is only something that is at once the reversal and the renewal of that triangle. Or rather it is the one triangle superimposed so as to intersect the other, making a sacred pentacle of which, in a mightier sense than that of the magicians, the fiends are afraid. The old Trinity was of father and mother and child and is called the human family. The new is of child and mother and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed; just as the world which is transformed was not in the least different, except in being turned upside-down.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:186-7]
It gives me a most profound emotion to remind you that in computer science we always draw our trees like family trees - that is, with the root at the top of the page.

There is another excerpt I wish to give - it carries some sense of its context, but is definitely worth your pondering:
I say that the society does not fit into any of our social classifications, liberal or conservative. To many Radicals this sense of lineage will appear rank reactionary aristocracy. And it is aristocratic, if we mean by this a pride of pedigree; but it is not aristocratic in the practical and political sense. Strange as it may sound, its practical effect is democratic. It is not aristocratic in the sense of creating an aristocracy. On the contrary, it is perhaps the one force that permanently prevents the creation of an aristocracy, in the manner of the English squirearchy. The reason of this apparent paradox can be put plainly enough in one sentence. If you are really concerned about your relations, you have to be concerned about your poor relations. You soon discover that a considerable number of your second cousins exhibit a strong social tendency to be chimney-sweeps and tinkers. You soon learn the lesson of human equality if you try honestly and consistently to learn any other lesson, even the lesson of heraldry and genealogy.
[GKC Irish Impressions]
But there really is one single idea which is suggested by these genealogies - an idea which (in the old translations) resides in the verb "begat", now given a new dignity by "was the father of". Of course this mystery is one of the Three Great Human Secrets GKC studies in his famous essay [ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:523 et seq] - the secret which ALL know, and which I therefore need not mention literally. It happens to be a most argumentative matter, and GKC talks about it in several places - some of which we shall see eventually. (If you need one, please see The Well and the Shallows CW3:501-2.) But for our study today, I shall conclude with his introduction to that same book:
The explanation, or excuse, for this essay is to be found in a certain notion, which seems to me very obvious, but which I have never, as it happens, seen stated by anybody else. It happens rather to cut across the common frontiers of current controversy. It can be used for or against Democracy, according to whether that swear-word is or is not printed with a big D. It can be connected, like most things, with religion; but only rather indirectly with my own religion. It is primarily the recognition of a fact, quite apart from the approval or disapproval of the fact. But it does involve the assertion that what has really happened, in the modern world, is practically the precise contrary of what is supposed to have happened there.

The thesis is this: that modern emancipation has really been a new persecution of the Common Man. If it has emancipated anybody, it has in rather special and narrow ways emancipated the Uncommon Man. It has given an eccentric sort of liberty to some of the hobbies of the wealthy, and occasionally to some of the more humane lunacies of the cultured. The only thing that it has forbidden is common sense, as it would have been understood by the common people. Thus, if we begin with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find that a man really has become more free to found a sect. But the Common Man does not in the least want to found a sect. He is much more likely, for instance, to want to found a family. And it is exactly there that the modern emancipators are quite likely to begin to frustrate him; in the name of Malthusianism or Eugenics or Sterilisation or at a more advanced stage of progress, probably, Infanticide. It would be a model of modern liberty to tell him that he might preach anything, however wild, about the Virgin Birth, so long as he avoided anything like a natural birth; and that he was welcome to build a tin chapel to preach a twopenny creed, entirely based on the text, "Enoch begat Methuselah", [Genesis 5:21] so long as he himself is forbidden to beget anybody. And, as a matter of historical fact, the sects which enjoyed this sectarian freedom, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, were generally founded by merchants or manufacturers of the comfortable, and sometimes of the luxurious classes. On the other hand, it is strictly to the lower classes, to use the liberal modern title for the poor, that such schemes as Sterilisation are commonly directed and applied.
[GKC The Common Man 1-2]


At 14 October, 2010 11:09, Anonymous Nancy Brown said...

the trait of "Common Man"-liness

I love that! Thanks for a great post, Dr. T!


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