Chesterton

Someday, I shall write a grand apologia, spanning decades and daydreams, on Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and why he is, rather more than less, the greatest author of the twentieth century, if not of all time. Meanwhile, I shall expound momentarily and frivolously on my love for the author. Some girls fall for the fictional Gilbert of Anne of Green Gables; I have fallen for the nearly-as-distant yet fascinatingly larger-than-life G. K. C. His brilliance, his brains, his bombasity (bombastickness?), his Britishness — more specifically, and more significantly, his Englishness — caught my attention, gripped it, and never let it go. I have yet to read his biography (I understand Ian Ker’s is rather good? Anyone read it?), but his personality spills out and over every one of his works, overwhelming the reader with the thoughts and words and ideas and impressions that well up from his soul. Do I exaggerate? Possibly. Yes, most likely. But exaggeration is the essence of enthusiasm, is it not?

I began my Chesterton devotion with Father Brown. That bumbling, plebeian,  English-as-umbrellas R. C. priest could talk about paint drying and hold his listeners spellbound; it is Chesterton, of course, who writes the words, but the good Father speaks them entirely on his own. I have always enjoyed a good murder/mystery; from the time I could read, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew paved the way for Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple, who, in their turn, introduced me to Mrs. Polifax and Sherlock Holmes and … oh, all the rest. A good mystery satisfies the soul in a way that no romance could ever attempt to do: the fundamental moral outrage of the taking of a life is conclusively eradicated when a hero exacts contrapassic (contrapasso-esque?) justice from the villain, on behalf of the victim. It is the rush of adrenalin and the resounding “Yes!” that comes with aceing exams and winning rugby tournaments and finally perfecting that meringue recipe.

But I digress. Back to Chesterton.

Father Brown was probably seventh or eighth grade for me. A year or two later, I sat down with “The Everlasting Man” and a pencil. This was the first time I  ever dared take ink to a book: books were sacred. Books were precious. One did not deface the golden words of genius with the shoddy penmanship (and insipid thought) of a teenager. This time, however, my mother suggested I mark it up, as a help or exercise for the paper I was supposed to write. Timidly, I took up the pencil, and I drew a fine line under the first sentence of the introduction.

Ultimately, I marked up the entire book.

From there, the “relationship” took off like a spaceship. His choice of words, his humour, his inconceivably brilliant — I mean, truly astounding paradoxes, his gleeful voice, his joie de vivre … it all added up to one enormous truth: he loved life. He loved his God, he loved his country, he loved his life. And a man with that sort of love cannot be all bad. When he speaks of God, I want to fall to my knees on a marble floor and pray for sheer joy. When he speaks of England, I want to walk Hadrian’s Wall in the pouring rain and eat nothing but mushrooms and cheese along the way. When he speaks of life, I want to grab the next person I find and dance the Virginia Reel until my feet fall off and the music becomes laughter and the stars laugh in the sky.

Words are mighty things. Chesterton knew this, and he knew how to wield that strength.

The last Chesterton work I read was “Manalive,” the best not-meant-to-be-romantic (or is it?) romance I have ever read. If you are not one for non-fiction (“Everlasting Man”), or priests-as-sleuths (Father Brown mysteries), I would cordially recommend an introduction to Chesterton via “Manalive.” You must be prepared to laugh, though, and curl your toes, and appreciate the frivolity of words, as well as their weightiness, and the meaningless things of life, as much as the meaningful. It’s Chesterton, after all.

Patience

We live in a world of instant gratification. With writing, as with many other wonderful exciting confusing frustrating frabjous things, we cannot expect to produce War and Peace overnight, or even within a year, or perhaps a decade. We cannot expect to produce it as our first attempt at a novel, or our last. We cannot expect to produce it ever, in fact. Tolstoy rather beat us to the quick.

Dash it all, I can hardly produce a readable blog post, without consuming an excessive amount of cheese. And chocolate. And cheese.

As an unwilling though undeniable product of the late twentieth century, I expect results. Fast. Now. Yesterday! I expect quantity rather than quality, efficiency rather than eloquence. I wrote 50K words in 30 days; doesn’t that count as a “book”? (What is a “book”?) Why can’t I put it on the market now and make it a best-seller? Isn’t that effort enough? What do you mean, editing? But I want it NOW.

Basil just sits in his corner and guffaws. Sigh.

Point being, patience. Building a vocabulary takes patience. Building a mental library takes patience. Building a repertoire of references takes patience. The pleasure of forming an intricate sentence is consumed by the focus and attention necessary for its content. Or something.

Rudyard Kipling encourages us to “Wait and not be tired by waiting.”

T. S. Eliot takes it a step further:

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

Thank you, Blue, for the sermon. May I go back to bed now?

~

For the record, one of the recommended tags for this post is “Shopping.” I take that as a sign. Retail therapy, anyone?

Refusal

I refuse to go to the Dark Side. I can bake my own cookies.

So many writers — most particularly, so many modern writers (not a coincidence!) — impress upon us eager young things the theory that no writing is good (read: interesting, attractive, marketable) unless it is dark. Modern fantasy is dark; modern mystery is grotesque; modern romance is “paranormal.” You can’t say “abnormal” or downright “weird,” of course, because it doesn’t sound as alluring … or something.

The darkness of this world has consumed the modern writer. Only, however, because he has allowed himself to be consumed.

I often suffer from this illusion as well. So much of life seems dark and bleak and dreary. I am impatient; I am pessimistic; I tend to catch hold of little flies in my ointment and concentrate on them, focus on them, forgetting the existence of any other thing. One irksome burden will overcome every possible delight of the day.  I give in to the whispered horrors, and all I can see is darkness.

I cannot let myself do this. The darkness is not the reality. The despair is not the truth. We must remember: evil is not a positive thing, but the absence of a positive thing. Evil is the absence of good, in both fiction and reality. As dear Miss Prism reminds us, “The good end happily, and the bad unhappily; that is what fiction means.” Not only does this apply to fiction, but to non-fiction as well: good always conquers evil, if not in this world, then certainly in the next.

Many old writers, good writers, brilliant writers, found the art and style to express themselves with joy and flair and panache, dealing with the darkness as a knight deals with a dragon: with strength, with grace, with truth. G. K. Chesterton is a perfect example of this; the man writes nothing but nonsense, yet it is nonsense that surpasses so much stuffy bombast that others flaunt as sense. J. R. R. Tolkien, a modern favorite (ironically, IMHO, considering who he truly is), expresses the struggle between good and evil (where, you will notice, good always wins) in some of the most poetic, sublime, soul-wrenching prose ever written by man.

What is great literature? What are some of its qualities? Certainly not darkness. Certainly not perversion. Certainly not lies. Great literature, like great lives, must be based on truth and goodness and beauty. This is not to say we should all write more Anne of Green Gables. It’s a lovely story, of course, and the characters deal with their own struggles and temptations, but, for most of us, its idyllic setting and low-key episodes do not reflect the deeper struggles, the heavier burdens many carry. As humans, we are limited, fallen, weak; we have our “dark” moments, we struggle with temptation, we experience our own horrors and our own nightmares come to life, and we see them surrounding the rest of the world as well.

We cannot let it consume us, though.

If we are all “writing” our own stories of life, we must not forget: every hero suffers trials and tribulations; every hero must traverse the darkness to reach the light. Otherwise he wouldn’t be human; he would be a robot, and there would be no story. But after conquering his dragons, after enduring his hardships, the hero comes home. He completes his story: he ends happily. His enemies are consumed by the darkness, and he may now walk in the light.

Even in our darkest moments, even when we’re stuck in another frigid February, on a Tuesday, after bad arguments with our best friends … even when suffering heartbreak, or injustice, or loss, this is not It. This is still the journey. We haven’t ended yet.

Basil sends his love, by the way, and hopes you are well, and says he will stop by one of these days for a chat. So he says.

Frustrations

I must say, I have never considered myself a flighty female, but my painful lack of perseverance in my writing rather points to that conclusion, doesn’t it?

Never have I completed a project. Never have I fully edited a story. Never have I taken a blog (yes, I’ve tried several blogs before) past a scant six months. Always a project begins with such energy, such enthusiasm, to end only with a whimper. To end? Not even to end: to drag along, to putz and plod at a ponderous pace through the back alleyways of subconsciousness, doomed to live on forever with no end, no closure, no merciful death.

Oh, for a Stygian abyss, into whose miasmal depths I could pour forth my anguish and woe …

(Yes, I’ve been spelunking again).

Emotion, immured behind Prudence’s cruel façade of pleasantry and civility, struggles to make himself* heard. Oh, frustration. Blistering barnacles. The stupor of ill-spent Time begins to creep upon him, stultifying his consciousness, causing his limbs to lose strength, lose energy, lose use. How to explain the numbness of words, when zeal and passion have fled!

Some call it writer’s block. Others, perhaps, a mere temporary lapse of time, a time for percolation rather than thunderstorms of the brain. As for me, I find the words slipping from my grasp, with that dreadful sinking feeling — that knowledge — that they will not return to continue that project for perhaps months, years, eternities.

How to catch a writer’s second wind? How to take another step, and another, and another, when you’re only halfway there? How to turn away from the social sorceress’s glow, back to the solid black and white of redlining?

How?

Frustrations.

 

*(Herself? Is Emotion Female? [what a title for a thesis! — oh, but Sayers has something along those lines already. Bother.]).