Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Chestertonian Life - Part II - In Practice

Last Saturday I briefly outlined the components of a Chestertonian outlook, and the priorities of the Chestertonian life. They were faith, sense, and family. It was a pleasant sort of excursion, all in all, but heavily on the theoretical side of things; and while there is a place for such discourse, it can not merely stand on its own if we are truly to live up to Gilbert's example. For though he was indeed a great proponent of theories both novel and traditional, he was also careful to couple his theory with practical suggestions as to how the idea could be transferred from the abstract plane to reality.

In that spirit - and also the spirit of brevity, for I've been told that I have a tendency, like certain literary epochs, to wax long - what follows are five ideas about how to put these concepts into practice. Each will encapsulate a (hopefully) novel suggestion about how to Gilbert up your existence, or that of those around you. Let us begin.

1. Read Manalive

Dale Ahlquist has called this the book that "pulls you in through the front door" of Gilbert's thought; he is right. In this book we are placed in the care of protagonist Innocent Smith, and the world is never the same thereafter. All things are upside down, and the familiar becomes bizarre. He breaks into his own house. He seduces his own wife. He journeys around the world - like White Wynd in "Homesick at Home" - to come home once again. The lesson of Manalive is to break conventions, not commandments. In so doing we can have the thrills of burglary, love affairs and even grail quests without burdening ourselves with sin. Just be careful not to take it to Fight Club extremes.

Anyhow, for those of you unlucky enough to not have access to this book in print, you can find an electronic edition for your consumption at Martin Ward's site. This is the briefest of my suggestions, as it essentially speaks for itself once you start to listen to it, as it were.

2. Sing

This is a very simple thing to do, but the effect that it can have is wonderful. Not only is it a wholly positive and traditional thing to do, it can have all of the impact on the modern sensibility when done in public as does walking around on one's hands.

One of the things that we have lost in this grim modernity of ours is the ability to connect with the human soul. Such activities as might potentially lead to it are considered to be at best unfashionable or at worst something of which to be ashamed. The gravest loss to this trend is the public act of song. Gilbert wrote once (in an essay in Tremendous Trifles) of his desire to see men and women of the modern professions take up once again the musical heritage of the older work; there have been songs for sailors and songs for miners, let there now be songs for secretaries or bank clerks or mailmen. Potential formats for the latter two were duly provided, in fact:
"Song of the Clerks"

"Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o'er.
Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: 'Two and Two are Four.'
Though the creeds and realms are reeling, though the sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watches, Two and Two are Four."

"There's a run upon the Bank--Stand away! For the Manager's
a crank and the Secretary drank,
and the Upper Tooting Bank
Turns to bay!
Stand close: there is a run On the Bank. Of our ship, our royal one,
let the ringing legend run,
that she fired with every gun
Ere she sank."
"Song of the Mailmen"

"O'er London our letters are shaken like snow,
Our wires o'er the world like the thunderbolts go.
The news that may marry a maiden in Sark,
Or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park."

(Chorus; with a swing of joy and energy) "Or kill an old lady in Finsbury Park!"
Which is all very delightful, of course, except that it doesn't happen. There's no real impediment to it happening, of course, other than the curious and depressing feeling that it shouldn't. We sing in the shower perhaps, for the acoustics are good and we are alone. In other words, we are too self-conscious to sing unless the environment flatters us and we do not have to endure scrutiny.

Because of all this we have lost a vital portion of our culture: folk music. There are still "folk musicians," but not in the way that is really human. We do not have a shared heritage rich in the wealth of songs about common experiences and common epochs. There are commercial songs about such things, but they tend to be overly political, and do not really belong to the people. To live as Gilbert would have man live - and indeed, as he lived himself - we must boisterously sing in public again. We must cease to clamp down on high spirits and good humour. There must be jogging songs and gridlock songs and e-mail songs and coffee break songs. There must be an end to sullen silence.

What you sing about is up to you. But it must be done.

3. Talk to strangers

This is a simple enough idea, but to see how often it's put into practice these days one would think it were as obscure as the darkness beyond the moon. It is too easily forgotten that even the most cherished of friends was a stranger to you once, and that more cherished friends still lie just beyond the crest of first acquaintance. Dickens wrote in Great Expectations of this, and hit upon one of the greatest and most slender truths in the world:
"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."
This small block of text has haunted me since I first read it, and there may be a story in that for you at some point in the future. For now, anyway, if we may substitute for a day not experienced a person not known, we may come to a conclusion closer to my meaning. Those of you who are married, consider how there was, at one small instance in the distant past, a moment in which the idlest alteration of your plans would have resulted in you never having met your beloved, much less making your vows thereto. It really is as simple as that.

In strangers we find a great undiscovered country of information, entertainment, and passion. We can try to fill our lives with books or paintings or some other obsession, but there's no future in it. Only in other people can we find an inexhaustible wealth of novelty, and - what is more - it is a wealth that will never fit in our wallet. We do not own it; we can not even be said, under any reasonable pretence, to control it in the slightest. As Gilbert looked upon the world as the greatest and most bewildering gift to man, we too may look upon man as a like gift unto us.

If you are a shy and bashful type, there are steps that can be taken. We are not all brazen populists, unfortunately. The best course of action is to strike up conversations with people in places that are highly specific to your interests. An art gallery. A hobby shop. A book store. The environment will present you with any number of ways to break the ice, as it were, and from there, well... there is no limit. And it need not be even as subtle as that, either. Offer a candy to a stranger, as a matter of courtesy. Carry around a lighter or a book of matches, even if you do not yourself smoke, to be ready with a light for one in distress. There was a time when this latter consideration was a matter of romance; there is no reason that it couldn't be again, with enough effort.

There are somewhat more than six billion people on Earth, and you are likely only good friends with twenty or thirty of them, if that, with another fifty polite acquaintances thrown in, and, let us say, another hundred or so casual contacts. You have quite a task before you.

4. Make every act a sacrament, and every day a feast

This takes a great deal of work at first, but can certainly become a wonderful habit with time. If the world is a tremendous gift - and it is - and its denizens are an astonishing and finite novelty - and they are - then there is every motivation to celebrate. Everything. All of the time. This could prove tiring and, tragically, impractical, but that is not to say that we can't take a run at it.

The most important thing to remember in this endeavour is this: to be serious is not to be boring. The sheer oddity of opening an envelope with a prayer or replacing a salt cellar with an intonation should prevent boredom from being a problem, in any event, but these are things that can be done without cynicism or mockery. Translate this seriousness to higher and higher spheres, and see what sort of man or woman you become. Make vows, and keep them; but always forgive those who can not. Challenge your foes, and defeat them; but offer always the hand of friendship once the foe is at your feet. Live, in short, with honour.

Now, if this is not enough, there are even further ways to kick it up a notch. We may look to the Catholic tradition for our example. We are all of us familiar with (or at least not ignorant of) the Liturgical Calendar, and all of the varied and splendid days for celebration and for solemnity that it provides. What would be the effect on man if this practice were widened to commemorations of all sorts of things? Every great event of the past had to have happened on some day, after all; why not feast alternately on meat or ashes as the case demands? A rudimentary swipe at this has been attempted at this very blog; you are in the midst of the scattered and immobile Feast of Gilbert.

What else could there be? The Battle of Lepanto shook the world on Oct. 7; the Battle of Trafalgar Oct. 21. Alfred the Great died on Oct. 26; Luther threw down his gauntlet on the 31st. There's a month worth of busy activity, fit for wine and poetry, celebration and sadness. There is in this simple set of examples a downward trend, one might say. A glorious and desperate rout of the enemy; a hero wins the day, but is cut down at the height of his victory; another hero passes from the Earth after a long and storied history; a time of great troubles begins.

But then comes November, and the Feast of All Saints, and all shall be as it was.

You see, if one thinks broadly enough - across many different fields, as it were, and in different regards for importance - it is theoretically possible to spend an entire year alternately in jubilation and in mourning, devoting oneself to the memory of something different each and every day. One could even plot a trend similar to that of fell October throughout the course of an entire year, beginning the day after Easter, if one were so inclined.

The point is, it can be done. Today is the Feast of Ephrem of Edessa, who perished of exhaustion while giving succour to the afflicted during the famine of 372-3. Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. You can go from there.

5. Do real things

This final suggestion is also the most broad, the most abstract, and essentially the most personal of the five. There are few specifics I can offer, but rather only a vague and general feeling that falls hopefully along the lines I intend it to. There is much in this world today that distracts us from the world itself. The exhortation to be in the world but not of it is well-remembered, but increasingly we are finding ourselves discouraged from even being in the world. Reality television in lieu of reality; massive multiplayer online role-playing games instead of simply going for a stroll; gossip and scandal-mongering about celebrities in the place of talking to the man sitting next to you. All this effort, all this money and technology and time and intellect poured into creating something that lets the mind disengage and the body atrophy.

While I've been writing this, I've been listening to my roommate's periodic exclamations into his headset occasioned by happenings in World of Warcraft, a game of the type I mentioned above. He is co-ordinating his gaming efforts - a game completely divorced from any concept of "leisure" - with a number of people across North America, for the achievement of a goal of no consequence, to an end none of them are able to articulate, at the expense of a life they are fast forgetting. My roommate has been doing this since he got up earlier today at noon. It is now 4:30 in the morning. Today has been like any other day for him, of course. He does not leave the house except to get food. He does not get dressed. I am often the only person he sees for days at a time. One might think that this could give me a sense of power over him, in some way, being as I am his only link to humanity as it really exists. If there is such a sense, though, it is overshadowed by a mixture of disgust and sadness.

Do not let this happen to you, and if it already is happening to you, I beg you to strike out against it. It's as simple as going for a walk, as White Wynd did. It's as simple as going, somewhere, anywhere. Go out into the garden, if that's all you feel up to. The garden is the seat of man's soul, for it is from the garden that we came, and to the garden that we long to return.

Walk somewhere. Create something. Kiss someone.



Anonymous said...

I must say, Furor, that there are few people that can write as well as you. All your suggestions have thought put into them, or rather, "sense" in them, and are articulated in a way that would make our "Overgrown Elf of a Man" smile.

Thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...

Furor: I nominate your post for submission to Gilbert Mag's "Grist" section. Very nice.

Nick Milne said...

Thank you for your accolades, gentlemen (or ladies, as the case may be; probably gentlemen). I'm glad to be producing something that people find worthwhile.

But still, I have far to go. I need to rein in some of the expansiveness that makes a concise and relevant idea into a death march of verbiage. I need to start addressing modern problems - and the rare modern triumphs - in a manner and medium that my peers will find compelling. In short, I need to get to work seriously, now, rather than idly.

I have nine years to produce my own Robert Browning, but only six for a Greybeards at Play. While "keeping up with the Chestertons" may be a new and astonishing notion, it is one that somebody should try.

Steve Case said...

What do you think GKC would think of the World Cup? I've been watching the first couple matches and thinking of some of his sentiments in The Napolean of Notting Hill.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much indeed.

I read Manalive all yesterday afternoon, between fits of renovating the house.

I feel badly for anyone who hasn't read it, and I feel much worse for anyone who has read it and not been changed by it.

What a magical story. Reminded me of "The Man Who Was Thursday". The same luminous prose. I don't know who else could write that way and really pull it off.

While Chesterton has doubtless inspired many to write, he has inspired me to give it up. I am a painter, and there are too many paintings that need doing to allow me to take up writing. Same with learning the guitar. My job is to die with paint under my nails and the smell of turpentine clinging to my coffin.

Thanks again. Now for that singing...

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written!

Nick Milne said...

Tim, I'm glad you found it instructive. I'm sorry that you feel that writing is not in your future, but if it means we get from you a painting that will shake the world, then perhaps it is worth it in the end.

Raphael, thank you for your praise, too. As much as I still have a way to go before I'm in the professional literary world that I admire so, this sort of thing has given me some much-needed practice, as well as letting me do something I love. Hearing that other people appreciate it makes it even more rewarding.

Be sure to check in tomorrow for my discussion of Gilbert's travels, Tuesday for Eric's look at Gilbert's relationship with Hilaire Belloc, and, finally, Wednesday for the end of the affair.

Anonymous said...

My job is to die with paint under my nails and the smell of turpentine clinging to my coffin.

Tim, this is spoken like a saint.

Michelle said...

Hi there! I came here via The Daily Eudemon, and I really enjoyed this post. I'll probably link to it, but don't get too excited because I don't have a very wide following.

I haven't read Manalive, but I'm heading to the library tomorrow for a meeting. Say a prayer that they have a copy there!

I sing, but my 2 year old covers her ears and asks me to stop.

I talk to strangers, but they cover their ears and ask me to stop...

...I take umbrage that you assume anonymous is a man. I don't happen to know a single other woman who has ever heard of GKC, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist...

Nick Milne said...

Michelle, you might be interested to know that the editor of the American Chesterton Society's own blog is in fact a woman, the notorious Nancy Brown. You should stop by to see what they're up to there.

Michelle said...

Ah, Furor, so there!...why would you assume a random reader is a man?

And I will follow your link, thank you.

Nick Milne said...

I do not, in fact, assume that a modern reader is a man. That's why I said "or ladies, as the case may be." I certainly thought it more likely that they were gents than elsewise for a number of reasons.

1. Though within the broad spectrum of the field of "readers" there are certainly now as many women - probably more, in fact - as there are men, within the ranks of those who habitually spend time on the Internet there is still a substantial tilt towards the male.

2. Women are generally more conscientious than to write anonymously when it can be helped, as far as blog comboxes go.

3. While I can not speak for "anonymous," which could go either way, "agricola" is a masculine word describing a classically masculine profession, and so the assumption was made. Note, of course, that it is in fact masculine despite being in the first declension, which is typically the province of the feminine. "Agricola" is one of the few exceptions (like "poeta") to an otherwise serviceable rule.

Anonymous said...

Have just come across your G.K.C. website, & find it most interesting. At present I am overloaded with Chestertonian tasks, but will explore further as soon as possible. I count, I think, as the oldest & noisiest Chestertonian.
All good wishes,
Aidan Mackey