Happy Birthday G. K. Chesterton

I have been reading Chesterton’s All Things Considered this past week. While I enjoy his razor-sharp wit and (get this) his plethora of memorable aphorisms, I am always a bit shocked at how narrow his understanding of the Puritans was. His characterization of puritanism was no doubt the popular one of the day, but I long for greater precision. I am not sure one can be both a Rump separatist and one who wishes to purify the English church at the same time, though Chesterton assumes it. In a number of essays he takes his straw killjoys to the woodshed for a whuppin’. But I will leave the discussion of his views of Cromwellian times for another post.

G K Chesterton, born May 29, 1874.
G K Chesterton, born May 29, 1874.

The most prized Chesterton work in my collection is The Club of Queer Trades. Mad sleuth Basil Grant is my favorite detective–even above Hercule Poirot. Unfortunately, Basil only appears in this one brief work. In honor of Chesterton’s birthday I want to share my pet extract from the book. I love these paragraphs because they have brought forth rivers of imagination flowing through my mind. The narrator of the story and Basil Grant meet one day on a London double decker tram for a conversation while the city rushes by:

Basil Grant and I were talking one day in what is perhaps the most perfect place for talking on earth–the top of a tolerably deserted tram car. To talk on the top of a hill is superb, but to talk on the top of a flying hill is a fairy tale.

The vast blank space of North London was flying by; the very pace gave us a sense of its immensity and its meanness. It was, as it were, a base infinitude, a squalid eternity, and we felt the real horror of the poor parts of London, the horror that is so totally missed and misrepresented by the sensational novelists who depict it as being a matter of narrow streets, filthy houses, criminals and maniacs, and dens of vice. In a narrow  (p. 56) street, in a den of vice, you do not expect civilization, you do not expect order. But the horror of this was the fact that there was civilization, that there was order, but that civilization only showed its morbidity and order only its monotony. No one would say in going through a criminal slum, “I see no statues. I notice no cathedrals.” But here there were public buildings; only they were mostly lunatic asylums. Here there were statues; only they were mostly statues of railway engineers and philanthropists–two dingy classes of men united by their common contempt for the people. Here there were churches; only they were the churches of dim and erratic sects. Agapemonites or Irvingites. here, above all,there were broad roads and vast crossings and tramway lines and hospitals and all the real mores of civilization. But though one never knew, in one sense, what one would see next, there was one thing we knew we should not see–anything really great, central, of the first class, anything that humanity had adored. And with revulsion indescribable  (p. 57) our emotions returned, I think, to those really close and crooked entries, to those really mean streets, to those genuine slums which lie around the Thames and the City, in which, nevertheless, a real possibility remains that at any chance corner the great cross of the great cathedral of Wren may strike down the street like a thunderbolt.–(“The painful fall of a great reputation,” in The Club of Queer Trades by G. K. Chesterton, pp. 55-57)

In what sense is talking on the top of a hill a great experience? Is it the solitude or the prospect of all that surrounds the hill? And so, how does talking on the top of a tram exceed that experience, and vault us into the category of fairy tale? Literary critics have argued about the proper definition of fairy tale for at least a century. In what sense does the narrator mean this experience is a fairy tale? Is it being a part of Basil’s mad world, or is it something sublime and indeed transcendent?

Minds Don’t Move: Inspired by G. K. Chesterton

Drained from incessant grilling by the army of reporters during the news conference, Mr. Slight was escorted out of the building and across the street by four older men in expensive, dark suits. Feeling a light drizzle on his face, Mr. Slight glanced at the lowering gray skies and heard the quick splash of his loafers on the pavement. His companions led him to a highly polished black door atop a stoop with three well-worn concrete steps. The sole bearded man in the group opened the door for Mr. Slight and invited him to enter the building first with a wave of his hand.firebirdofaphorisms

Beyond the door was a square anteroom, a dark hallway with sconces and rich oak panels. Directly opposite from the entrance was an enormous double door of oak. Somehow the bearded man stepped to the front again and opened the doors with both hands, and this time Mr. Slight followed into a room that glowed a rich red from the largest fireplace Mr. Slight had ever seen and it contained a blazing fire of alarming proportions.

The bearded man addressed Mr. Slight: “Please, make yourself comfortable and sit wherever you like.” He and his companions left the room by a side door.

Mr. Slight thought this simple instruction was easier said than done. Every couch and chair in the room, save one, had a tweed-coated occupant who was either engaged in conversation or cradling a snifter, or both. The room smelled of cigars though it was strangely free of smoke. The one available chair was a red leather wingback near the giant blaze. Beside the chair was a side table with a carafe of red liquid and a black lacquered cigar box. On the other side of the table was an identical wingback chair with a completely bald man sitting in it. In his right hand was an unlit cigar, and he balanced a partially full snifter of brandy on the cushion between his legs. To achieve this balancing act, only his toes touched the floor and were turned in such a way that he appeared pigeon-toed. Smiling, he waved the cigar toward the empty seat in a summoning gesture.

“Please sit down,” said the bald man. “And welcome to the Mossbunker Club. My name is Eggith. I am a retired professor of philosophy.”

“Thank you,” replied Mr. Slight with a smile that lived up to his name.

“I watched your press conference. You handled yourself well.” Eggith broke into a smile as he said this.

“What, did I not commit any non sequiturs?” asked Mr. Slight.

“Oh dear, I am afraid I don’t look for those. We philosophers are human beings after all and must live in the real world. Most talk is chatter to me, but when I must I will form a general impression of an oration in the form of its principle–if it has one.” Eggith laughed, though the joke was lost on Mr. Slight.

“Very interesting,” said Mr. Slight. “So how would you frame your general impression?”

Eggith narrowed his eyes and looked away thoughtfully. “Well, hmm. Yes, yes. Here it is…”

Eggith paused for a full ten seconds and then dramatically turned to Mr. Slight and looked him directly in the eyes. Mr. Slight could see his jaw muscles twitching. Egglith opened his mouth.

Minds don’t move,” Eggith said triumphantly.

Mr. Slight nodded his head slowly as if he understood this obscure comment. “Yes, yes, I think I see what you mean.” But he didn’t. This was sheer nonsense, and he wondered if Eggith was a bit cracked. He laughed at the thought.

“But then,” said Mr. Slight. “Before we get too hasty, You need to tell me whether the sense in which you used the word ‘move’ is intransitive or reflexive.” This was more nonsense, made up for effect. It hit the mark: Eggith nodded vigorously, as if he understood. Thus Mr. Slight pressed his case further. “If I say that I think minds are static, what then?”

Eggith’s features became completely screwed around on his face. Starting with his ears, his entire countenance, chameleon-like, reddened until his head looked like a great tomato with white eyebrows. He stood to his feet more violently than abruptly. Mr. Slight’s sight was drawn to Eggith’s hands. He noticed that they were unnaturally small, and now he clenched them tightly into little balls so that his arms looked like two enormous tweed matchsticks. He thrust his arms forward so that they were suddenly extended straight in front of him. “So here is our angry philosopher,” thought Mr. Slight. “Insane with the continually buried pain and resentment of being unloved, if not abused.” These musings were interrupted by an outburst from Eggith that ended his flourishing of contortions.

“No! Minds are filtered receptors of the One Mind!” bellowed Eggith, and he turned on his heel and fled the room. Sixty or more astonished eyes crowned silent, gaping mouths as the heavy oak doors crashed behind him. Mr. Slight’s eyes were on the cigar box as he lifted the polished lid.

“Well,” he whispered. “This dream is over.”