Friday, July 21, 2006

Chesterton vs. Gasset: the battle for Joy part 2

My journey, in the battle for Joy was typical, you know, from the Catholic Church to the Marx Brothers to Ionesco and the absurdists to Sartre and the existentialists then to metaphysics to phenomenology all with a generous sprinkling of Zen and finally home to the Catholic Church. I knew Joy was out there and my job was to find it and then hold on to it in the face of monstrous opposition. It is a battle worth fighting for the rewards are great and to lose is to go insane. What follows is a battle story, not mine, but of two intellectual giants.
Philosophy is the handmaiden of Theology. A handmaid serves the master and brings others to Him, (Luke 1:38). To go no farther than the handmaid is loss. GKC went farther and found the Joy we all seek – Ortega y Gasset wooed only the handmaid and found desperation.

Gasset was a contemporary of Chesterton and among the philosophers influencing modern culture none has been so widely acclaimed by Spanish speaking people as Ortega y Gasset. However outside that world few have heard of this prolific writer. On many web sites dedicated to him the familiar phrase “Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him?” pops up.

Unlike GKC, Gasset began as a Catholic and ended up where GKC began. Gasset found a truth in Nietzche where as Chesterton found only folly. Both battled for the Joy in the truth: GKC found it - Gasset did not.

I came across Gasset through my study in aesthetics. His book Some Lessons on Metaphysics, transcribed from his lectures, is wonderful. He also wrote extensively on aesthetics based on metaphysics and phenomenology many of which are right on the mark. His writing style is poetic, lines like “The deep black sky filled it self with yellow, restless stars quivering like the heartbeats of an infant.” appealed to me as an artist and writer. I believe it is a turn of phrase that GKC would appreciate.

The problem of Truth.

GKC came to realize that the ultimate reality is God and man’s relation to Him through the Cross. It is what keeps us sane it is the balance of Courage, Joy and Suffering. A working definition of insanity is someone who is out of touch with reality. A denial of God (reality) is insane. GKC mentions how this insanity finally overcame Nietzche (Furor outlines that here) it is unfortunately the same insanity that overcame Gasset.

Both GKC and Gasset struggled with the three big questions; Where does man come from?, Where is he going?, and What is the meaning of life?. GKC wrote about part of this journey in Orthodoxy. He finds the Church has the answers to these questions and has had for 2,000 years. He found it to be true through faith and reason – two wings on the same bird.

Gasset turned from the Church to Kant, Kierkequard, Husserl, Heidegger and heeded Nietzche’s antinationalistic message: ‘Loyalty to the earth. Life the highest value. Desire for heroic and terrifying experience. Super charging of trivial and bourgeois activity by living dangerously. Faith in force and instinct.’ In other words Gasset became an existentialist.

The problem of existential analysis is it cannot of itself judge values. It is unable afford a solid base for ethics. The existential theory about the nature of being revolves around two poles: The Ego – The World, one reality: human existence. GKC and Lewis more than once mention the insanity of “the self made man” or the “he knows himself” syndrome. “The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” (GKC)

Rather than raise his eyes to the transcendent heights like Chesterton, Gasset and the existentialists suicidally cast themselves into the arms of nothingness. “We are given birth a straddle a grave.” (J.P.Sartre). Nothingness was to be preferred to God! Also in the words of Landsberg, “ Paradoxical mystery of extreme cruelty.” In other words the existentialists could not get their heads around the mystery of suffering and the idea of redemptive suffering was beyond the pale to them.

This thought process lead to today’s relativism. Gasset says “Matter itself is an idea.” There exists no immutable and unique reality. “There are as many realities as there are points of view.” This phrase contains the germ of the relativistic doctrine, which will be found completely developed in Gasset’s Modern Theme, and this relativism manifests itself as the inevitable product of decadent idealism. This concept is what Chesterton fought against then and it is still what Pope Benedict XVI is fighting today.

Gasset rejects religion in the name of clarity where as GKC embraced religion in the name of clarity. Mystery to Gasset is, “The luxury of mental obscurity.” To GKC mystery is Joy. To be consistent Gasset would also have to renounce scientific and philosophical speculation as well. But the insane work from an interior logic devoid of truth and joy. ”To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken…Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life.” (GKC). Gasset says, “The enigma of life is insoluble.” That reality is an undecipherable enigma. GKC believes that the mystery of life is not to be solved but embraced with love and joy and that reality is the Cross. Jump in, the water is fine.

This is the battle for Joy; the choice between the blessing and the curse. Gasset and Chesterton both came to the same cross road. GKC choose the blessing Gasset did not. From this absence of God all of Gasset’s errors spring as from a fountain. Separated from the absolute Being, man is submerged in subjective immanence. Pride incites him to establish himself as God, autonomous and creative. Gasset’s metaphysics yields to the enslaving supremacy of the sensible and instinctive. Morality, once split from religion, loses its force and degenerates into elegant conventionalism, behind which immorality is concealed.

Gasset’s writings are similar to GKC’s just in that they are original; show delicate erudition, talent and elegant grace. Only the transcendental question, the decisive and most necessary subject for man, finds Gasset uncomprehending and without interest. This absence of God constitutes the unconfessed and ultimate tragedy of Ortega y Gasset. In one of his last essays he demonstrates this pathetic eloquence.

The involved Ortegaian thought is revealed as a sort of desperate compensation for his lost faith. Where as Chesterton continued his life adventure securing more and more Joy and Courage. It is why he uses phrases like “of course”, “practical as potatoes” and “just plain common sense after all.” Sorry Merton, GKC never had to hide behind smoke and mirrors. He stood in the light and the darkness hates the light, fights the light and fears the light.

As though obsessed, Gasset re-echoes the theme of modern man, who, having lost his faith in God and in reason, finds nothing else on which to hold in his shipwreck except disillusioned living. “For philosophy to be born,” says Gasset, “it is necessary that existence, in the form of pure tradition, evaporate, that man cease to belive in the faith of his fathers…As pure tradition was a substitute for the instincts lost by civilization, so philosophy is a substitute for shattered tradtion.” What awful tragedy is glimpsed behind the apparent serenity of Gasset’s words. By his own admission philosophy for Gasset is a balm which lessons the pain of the frightful wound opened by his incredulity, an impassioned attempt to console himself for his loss of God and a wordy covoluted and ultimately ineffective screen to hide suffering. Even to this extent it is impossible for man to precind from that absolute reality! “The insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.” (GKC)

To see about one who knows about courage and suffering and won the battle of joy see the story about Immaculée Ilibagiza

To read a beautiful eulogy of someone who lost the battle go here


Anonymous said...

Great post Alan. I have also struggled, and you could say that I continually stuggle, in the battle between merely existing and really existing. While you were making the comparison between Gasset and Chesterton I imagined standing on either of my shoulders: a small, neat looking, existentialist devil to my left; and an unkempt behemoth dressed in white to my right, sporting a halo of Tradition and glowing with that transcendent joy which is the prize of the battle.

I wonder if more people realized the matter of the war raging in their own hearts, would there be more winning it? I hope so. How can one put one's whole being into a fight without knowing what the fight is about, or who is in it?

Posts like this are invaluable today. With the new "faith", which fought so hard to become "faith in oneself", but is quickly becoming "faith in nothing, including oneself and the possibility of truth", it will be interesting, and frightful, to see what form the battle takes. What heroes of Chestertonian weight will rise to champion the joy that comes from the acceptance of, and participation in, reality - God and man's relation to Him?


Anonymous said...

Loved this line: "Morality, once split from religion, loses its force and degenerates into elegant conventionalism, behind which immorality is concealed."

I have a question: I've noticed that GKC has always been noted to be "unkempt" in his personal appearance. Why? In his pictures he looks neat. Did he mention it in his writing? Was he absentminded about his appearance? Did he not think neatness was important? Maybe I'm missing something here. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

I just found this at furor's blog and it might answer my question about GKC's appearance:

"Nietzsche's avatar, one might say, was one of intense physical energy; of the will unbound in lust, movement, and violence. His preoccupation with dance is notable in this regard. By contrast, we see in Chesterton - both in a broad literary sense and an unfortunate literal sense - the sacrifice of such exquisite dynamism in favour of the mind, and of the soul. A reading of Maisie Ward's excellent biography of Chesterton paints a picture of the man as being a creature wrought almost entirely out of brain. Indeed, there was in him no physical vanity, or even care. We read of weeks on end spent doing nothing but writing; of years that see the release of five or six books in addition to the articles he was writing without end for various newspapers and magazines. We see, in the more pathetic (here I use the word in its proper, non-pejorative sense) passages, a man who can scarcely even move, though his brain is a liquid diamond."

Any further explanations would still be appreciated as I am an American woman who has been bombarded for years by the physical fitness crowd that equates a thin physique with virtue...I've seen this belief even among Catholics.

Nick Milne said...


Chesterton looked neat in his photographs thanks to the combined efforts of himself and his wife, the former of which realised that one should try to look tidy when immortalised, and the latter of which spent her entire life chasing after Gilbert trying to make him presentable. She eventually settled for "picturesque," and it is for this reason, rather than his own eccentricities, that Gilbert took so well to the cape and floppy hat. The cape covered his mismanaged clothes, and drew one's attention; the hat covered his tangled hair, and became a trademark.

Yes, he was exceedingly absent-minded about all sorts of things, though he was also able to real off entire chapters of books from memory. He could remember history and art and reason very well, but simple things like where he was meant to be going or what he did with his luggage were a problem for him from the beginning. Since he existed in many measures in his own world (which is not such a bad thing, for it was the world in which the rest of the world ought to be living, but aren't), things like his health or appearance or general geographical position passed him by like ships in the night.

Alan Capasso said...

Vanity is a sin we are all fighting with in one-way or another. It is how the devil gets us to take our eyes off God and on to ourselves. It is the can opener he uses in the media to open us up to pour in more garbage. “Oh I’m fat, ugly, short and have the wrong hair cut!” and that moves to “If Jack or Jill can’t love me how can God?” Another battle lost.

We have stronger weapons than the devil we have help. To fight the devil is easy it’s just impossible to do alone. Go to the saints, sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and pray. Or as my grandmother would say (who was a very large woman) “We fast to remove the devil so we can feast with the saints. Want another canoli?”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your responses.
I'm reading Chesterton for the first time and despite being a devout Catholic my entire life (Fran U grad, married 20 years) he's turning my entire world upside down, in a lovely way.


Anonymous said...

He is generally referred to as Ortega y Gasset which can be abbreviated to Ortega [but generally is not]. So also Picasso is Picasso, not Picasso y Ruiz, and never Ruiz, and Cervantes is Cervantes.

Alan said...

I'm not sure of your point?
I have often heard of him referred to as Gasset or Ortega depending on the lecturer.
and sometimes I've heard Picasso called Ruiz you know, when a bunch of art students are showing off.