In any event, now that I have been freed from this waiting game, I can do what I like with this year's submission. I worried upon submitting it that it was not as upbeat as one might expect from a Chestertonian, or perhaps that it rambled intolerably. All of this could likely be true. However, reading it now, I don't know that I would change a word. I would likely add several, for the length limits of the contest were strict, but otherwise... yeah.
Here it is, then. I hope to hear what you think of it. I'll be posting it on my own blog, too, because I can.
The Death of Ulysses
One of the most urgent and vital lines in all of Dickens can be found in Great Expectations, and it runs something like this: “Think for a moment of the long chain of thorns or flowers that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” Such an exercise is not difficult, though it is rarely engaged. It is simply the act of tracing back a chain of influences as far as one can to see if there is some singular event upon which one might pin the responsibility for all that has followed. Without going into dreary specifics, I can tell you that I owe much of my current success to the idle purchase of a book about the battle of
Now, you may question the practical value of such an exercise, and I would, in many degrees, be right there with you in doing so. The point of it is not really to improve one’s life, but rather to see how easy it is for one’s life to change. To see the monumental happenings that can spring forth from the most seemingly insignificant of seeds. The point is to get you out into the garden.
It is for this broad reason that in reading Dickens’ words today there is almost the feel of tragedy. Though modern progress is often touted as having made everything so very much easier, it is doubtful that this is really such a good thing. One of the costs of not having to do many things is that not many things get done. Certainly, various tasks are accomplished. The children are taken to school, the report is filed at work, dinner is prepared, etc. But these are only accomplishments in a most literal and charitable sense. There is in them nothing of that exalted “first link” of which Dickens spoke. We have very much an easy existence, but almost nothing of a life.
Chesterton stood mightily against such weakening of the human character, body and spirit, and in doing so he finds himself alongside some unlikely allies. The scandalous novelist D.H. Lawrence declares in his essay, “Morality and the Novel,” that the weight of cynicism is destroying life in literature. “A thing isn’t life,” he says, “just because somebody does it.” We could take up this brazen sentence as a rallying cry and be none the worse for it. Even Nietzsche, for all his failings, would stand with us. Though there is in him much of what is wrong with man, it could never be said that he discouraged action. Though we must condemn the Dionysian, there is no finer dancer living.
Chesterton’s own position can best be derived from a parable. In “Homesick at Home,” we see the curious story of a man who literally travels round the world to get to where he already is, and experiences much along the way. “Like a transmigrating soul, he lived a series of existences: a knot of vagabonds... a crew of sailors... each counted him a final fact in their lives, the great spare man with eyes like two stars, the stars of ancient purpose.” This man is not only having seeds planted within him, but is himself a seed. Who can measure what joys he brought those vagabonds, or what tales are told of him by those sailors?
And we must not forget Chesterton’s distributist sympathies, for it is the scourge of wage slavery that is most singularly responsible for the deadened state of modern man. He labours at work that does not require thought, inspire the mind, or caress the soul. In his limited leisure time, he has neither the energy nor the will to dare great things or forge links. He atrophies. And does the world help him fight against this slow death? No, it does not. It provides him with a surrogate life to keep him from the real one he is missing. It provides him with reality television to distract him from reality. It provides him with Internet worlds to keep him from the real world outside his very door. It provides him with celebrities in place of heroes, fads for traditions, and buzzwords for truths.
And so we come, perhaps belatedly, to the title of this monograph. In Tennyson’s marvelous “Ulysses,” we see a perfect emblem of this striving against mediocrity. In the poem’s closing lines, there is an echo of Dr. Bull’s thundering sentiments about the character of the average man in The Man Who Was Thursday, to the effect that, jaded though he may be by cynicism and skepticism, he is still above the barbarism of anarchy. That he says this as an apparently anarchist mob pursues him is significant, as it sets the stage for our own reading of Tennyson’s glorious finale:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
There was a time - and it was not long ago - when reading these words sent a golden thrill up my spine. Now, however, I can only look upon them and worry.