Category Archives: Discussion
Lately my reading life has been taking me on trips in several dramatically different directions. In the reading life multiple directions is not a bad thing. In college you take five or six different classes, all of which have required reading; so you can be reading a work of modern literature such as D.W. Lawrence, a psychology text, a book on news editing, a book on statistics and analysis, a Shakespeare play, and piles literary criticism. In college that kind of reading load seems normal even if you are also working two jobs because you know all these seemingly unrelated books will eventually work together in the larger scheme that comprises your education.
As someone who sees my entire life as an education, I know that every book I read will eventually find its place in the pattern of my life. How that pattern will finally come out I will not know until the last book falls to the floor with my last breath. Shortly after that significant event I will see clearly how every experience and every decision I made, whether in my career, in my personal relationships, or in the book store, fits the pattern. I hope the result is pleasing to my creator and without too many loose ends.
But let us get back to the present where I belong. Here is the current crazy collection of books I am reading now – or have finished in the past couple of weeks or so. First of course, I am reading various works of philosophy. I recently completed my initial journey into the world of Kierkegaard with The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air. Concurrently with reading Kierkegaard, I have been working my way through Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
It is going to take me several posts to process Leviathan. I’ll probably do one post just on how reading a book published in 1649 can really help you deal with the craziness of the current world. Leviathan is about human nature and how human nature works in politics and government. To compare what Hobbes has to say with U.S. Power politics in 2016 can be enlightening and amusing – in a dark sort of way.
Reading about Writing
In addition to philosophy I have been reading a bunch of instructional books on writing fiction. I have written lots and lots of non-fiction but very little fiction. Since I have decided I want to it and have a great idea for a novel, I need to educate myself on the nuts and bolts. Fiction is a very specialized skill set and very few of us happen on to these skills naturally. I certainly do not.
So I have have chosen a group of great writing instructors and am reading their books. I have finished Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, a great one, and am well into Voice by James Scott Bell and Sizzling Story Outlines by H.R. D’Costa. Also I recently read The Art of X-Ray Reading by Peter Roy Clark, another fantastic writing instructor. X-Ray Reading is about reading with a view to learning writing technique from the masters – what to look for to learn how great authors achieved the powerful effects they did.
All of these instructors have successfully published fiction that people have actually paid money to read. Since that is more that I have achieved I thought it might be worthwhile to find out what kind of books they have written. My reading life has focused primarily on classics and “literary” fiction, but they tell me popular fiction is where the money is, and I am thinking that money might be not be a bad idea. I want to live in the mountains some day where there are not many employers, so I need to find a way to make a living.
So with that in mind I found several novels by James Scott Bell on Hoopla. So far I have read two of them: Sins of the Father, about a mass shooting that is not what it appears to be, and Deadlock, about a Supreme Court justice who experiences a mid-career religious conversion. Both are entertaining stories, well written, and quick to read — a lovely break from Hobbes and Kierkegaard — and they also deepened my understanding of the fiction trade. I will want to read more by Bell and will also be looking for fiction written by my other writing instructors.”
Spiritual Book Club
And then there is my book club, a group of six women who read and discuss books specifically on spiritual and religious issues. Being in this book club has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me. The group actually emerged from a broken church experience, an ugly conflict within the congregation that caused these ladies to question a lot of things about both church life and personal faith.
The book club had been meeting for a while when they invited me to join them. I was hesitant because I don’t really like having a weekly thing to go to after work when I’m trying to build a writing career, but I went ahead and joined anyway and I’m glad I did. We have had some great discussions that have helped me clarify some things but we have also opened up a few truckloads of worms.
Our current book is Take this Bread by Sara Miles. Sara Miles was a war journalist during the conflicts of the 1980s in Central America. She was also a secularist and is a lesbian. One day she experienced a sudden conversion upon accepting communion at an unusual Episcopal church in San Francisco. This led her to take the Christian instruction to feed the hungry seriously and to become the founder a system of food pantries.
Sara’s food pantries are unusual in that they do not ask anyone to fill out paperwork to “prove their worthiness” or fulfill any poverty requirements. All are welcome to the table, the food is free, and no questions are asked. She writes about how this has worked out – the obstacles, the problems, the thrilling successes of feeding the hungry mobs who show up. The book gets into the whole food distribution system – such as the incredible waste that makes the food pantries feasible. Really interesting. Other books we have read include Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, A Confession by Leo Tolstoy (my pick), Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink and many others.
I am not sure exactly why I suddenly became enamored by Damon Runyon. I think it was a combination of things converging one late night: watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, getting a threatening letter from the public/private toll-collecting racket in my area (they want $160 for passing through the tunnel five times or they’ll see to it I can’t renew my car registration….), memories of a long-ago summer when I was in a production of the musical Guys and Dolls.
If you have not yet read Damon Runyon you have a true delight waiting for you. Runyon was a newspaper guy who wrote hilarious stories about New York gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s. The best thing about his stories is the unique dialect. Will write more about Damon Runyon in a future post. Currently I am reading a collection called More Than Somewhat and am also listening to some old Damon Runyon radio shows, I think from the 1940s.
Coming Soon: Review of newly published book
Another new direction is about to open up in my reading life. Occasionally authors will contact me to review their book and I do want to support other writers. So I will soon be reviewing Sandlands by the British writer Rosy Thornton. It’s a collection of related short stories that take place in a village in coastal Suffolk. Suffolk England that is. I live in Suffolk, Virginia. When Rosy contacted me I felt like it was a connection not to be passed up. When it comes to book choices I am a big believer in signs. Besides some day, hopefully in the near future, I am going to need bloggers to review my book.
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How about you? Are you a multi-tasker when it comes to reading or do you prefer to focus on one book or one direction?
A couple of Memorial Days ago, on my previous blog, I published a series of posts honoring World War I veterans through some of the many poets who emerged from that horror. I am republishing that series here. The first link is just some of my own reflections on World War I and the wars in general. Of more importance are the poems that follow. All are written by men who experienced that war and eventually lost their lives to it.
Utopia by Thomas More starts out as a true account of a diplomatic mission to Flanders. At the time More was serving as a Councillor to King Henry VIII. During some free time in Antwerp, More befriends a prominent young printer named Peter Giles (a real historical person with his own Wikipedia page). But the story soon enters the realm of fiction when Peter introduces More to a wise old sea traveler with philosophical bent by the name of Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday translates as “peddler of nonsense.”
Raphael has traveled widely, accompanying Amerigo Vespucci on three voyages to the new world. It was during one of these explorations that Raphael observed and studied the laws, customs, and population of a perfect society in a place called Utopia. Says More, “We asked him many questions concerning all these things, to which he answered very willingly; we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”
The book is not a sincere attempt to offer a serious model for European society to imitate. There is some controversy around More’s real purpose for writing the book, but it was certainly not to sow seeds of revolution. It seems to me mostly a veiled criticism of the corrupt political system of his time. More is not an early version on Karl Marx laying the foundation for a new society, even though his Utopia is basically a communist arrangement. There’s just no serious implied proposal that Europe ought to abolish money, monarchies, and power politics and be like Utopia. My sense is that Utopia is a sharp satire of More’s own society disguised as an anthropological study of a bizarre culture in a faraway land.
Another thing you should know about Thomas More’s Utopia, is that this perfect society as described by Raphael includes slavery. In 2016 Ameria, that fact is enough for many people to trash the whole book at the outset. But because my policy is not to impose my era’s morality on literature of the past, I gave the book a chance. It is fascinating to observe that, in 1516, a society which included slavery could be considered ideal without so much as the raising of an eyebrow. It is just taken for granted as the way things are done, like eating animals or cultivating the earth.
You’d think that in a book that is all about visualizing an alternative way to run a society, someone would question the whole notion of owning other people. But no one does. It seems like up until a certain point in history, perhaps the 18th century, slavery as well as various forms of semi-permanent low-paid servitude were simply accepted as a necessary part of human life, as if for civilization to exist at all it was assumed there had to be slaves.
The fictional location of Utopia is somewhere in South America, just far enough north of the equator for the climate to be pleasant. It was originally attached to the mainland, but its founder had a channel cut to make it an island. The Greek words for Utopia mean something like “no place.” Here is a neatly phrased explanation from the British Library website: “In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote the first ‘Utopia’. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?”
Even though this book was written nearly a century before Shakespeare, I found the English surprisingly modern. This is because More originally wrote the book in Latin and I read a 1901 edition of a 17th-century translation by Gilbert Burnet. I have not been able to find out the exact date of this translation, but since Burnet lived from 1643 to 1715 I am guessing he published it the latter part of that century. You can get free from the Gutenberg Project.
Coming soon: The juicy details of how the Utopians achieve the best possible human society for its citizens: peace, security, plentiful food, shelter, and clothing, maximum health, meaningful work, and wholesome entertainment.
Last post was a stupid experimental thing about doodling while reading Chomsky, so I thought I’d follow up with a more conventional post now that I’m nearly finished with the audio book. I can’t guarantee this one is much more intelligent, but at least it doesn’t involve doodling. After this I promise I will get back to the serious business of discussing Victorian novels.
And by the way, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Sorry I don’t have a more St. P’s oriented post. The closest thing I have to something Irish is a post on Phineas Finn Redux by Anthony Trollope.
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I am driving to work so early that the sun will not rise for another two hours, listening to an audio book called Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, a collection of talks and discussions by Noam Chomsky the famous MIT professor of linguistics. I have never read anything by Chomsky before except one article – an interview by David Barsamian in the June 2014 issue of The Sun called Noam Chomsky: On How the U.S. Breeds Inequality at Home and Instability Abroad. The article interested me enough to seek out a Chomsky audio book. I read for one purpose: to further my understanding of truth. I do not read to relax – reading always stimulates me. If a book relaxes me I fall asleep. Nor do I usually read to entertain myself, although entertainment is almost always a fringe benefit.
I am 97 percent done with the audio book, which is like 22.5 hours long, and I must say it is causing me to see the world differently. The world Chomsky describes is scary and getting scarier all the time. These talks occurred in the late 1980s through around 1999, so it is interesting to hear his perspective on events and decisions that immediately preceded the world we are living in now. As Chomsky describes it seems there is a web of power spreading like an interconnected cloud of darkness over the political globe made up of an insulated class of rich and powerful people getting fatter and fatter while 99 percent of world’s population slowly declines into more or less hopeless poverty. The vast majority of people outside the web of power are considered to be cannon fodder or “consumers” or simply disposable, as in the exploding U.S. prison population. A dark vision indeed, but Chomsky gives too much evidence and speaks with too much plain common sense to simply disregard it.
Very early morning is my best time to contemplate. I contemplate if all the disposable products that are marketed at us tend calibrate ours minds to disposable mode – disposable people, disposable time. Or if we are conditioned to think of all things, even time, as product – i.e., those neatly scheduled blocks of quality time we are supposed to plan with our children. It makes me think of Erich Fromm, his concept of having vs. being. Everyone has part of the puzzle. Perhaps the puzzle is not that hard. It’s just that – perhaps – and God knows I am not quick to leap to judgment – the web of power has an interest in obscuring the clear truth from the 99 percent. Because the truth would make us angry, as in French-Revolution angry.
I may be mistaken, but I get the idea Chomsky believes this world is all there is. He seems to see religious faith as a symptom of lower, less advanced society, at least when he talks about the American south. He thinks the only hope is for the people of the world to organize social activism groups and international unions. I do believe there is a power higher than the world’s web of international finance but I understand where Chomsky is coming from. It’s like people sense they are getting screwed. We know there are powerful organizations working daily against our personal interests, as evidenced by all our conspiracy theories. But most of us do not understand the details: things like how international currency values work and how trade deals are made that further enrich the wealthy while shutting down factories in towns or how deals are made that enable the manufacture of chemicals for short-term profit that destroy the atmosphere and God knows what else.
Even when we do understand the outlines of how these things work we feel helpless to do anything about it. We don’t have the money or the access to the fancy dinners and golf courses and conferences and schools where these deals are made that are sucking the life out of our little economies. So some of us go to church and pray. Chomsky might say this faith energy would be better devoted to organizing some action. And who am I to say he is wrong? That might be exactly God’s intention. My guess is that doing while praying would be the most productive plan.
So far I think the book has lived up to its title. It is furthering my understanding of power.
After reading the LOTR trilogy I felt the buzz of good literature and the romance of epic storytelling for a week. No more than a week, because even now I can recall the buzz. Of course I’ve taken to listening to the soundtrack while I paint, so that keeps the experience alive. It was hard to say good-bye and figure out where to turn next in the Land of Lit.
After some disorientation, I finally decided to take up where I left off last year in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles and started in on Doctor Thorne, which is a delicious treat of book so far. But before I travel further down that path, I will write one more little LOTR post. I promised to tell you which character I most related to and which part of the story really got to me……
Of course if I pose the question as which character I’d like to be, I’d have to say an elf. Definitely an elf. Who wouldn’t want to be a Tolkien elf – you get to be a beautiful creature with supernatural eyesight, all kinds of magic things such as vials of evil-repelling light, a rich lyrical language, and immortality. Also you always get to be above the fray. Heck, if these elf people were so perfect, where are they now? Over the sea on the eternal island I suppose.
But the question I put to myself if not what I’d like to be but who I relate to now, as I am. There are so few females in the trilogy and even fewer human females.Most of the other major females are elves. The one major human female character is Éowyn , the lady of Rohan, but I don’t really relate to her at all. She is too perfect, too devoted to duty, too blonde.
To be honest I have to say I relate most to the hobbits, and if I had to choose one hobbit in particular it would be Merry. I really felt for him, wanting so badly to contribute to the struggle, but feeling out of his depth, having no idea what he could do to help, feeling alone, outside the loop, an insignificant presence among mighty heroes. I was so happy when he got to do something really brave, a thing that only he could do, and I was thrilled when he actually got the credit for it. (I won’t tell you what that thing is because if you have not yet read the books, I would not want to be a spoiler.)
As for which part of the epic got to me most, there are so many dramatic, pivotal, beautiful events in these books that many qualify as candidates for “most satisfying moment.” But only one of them brought tears to my eyes. It was is that part of Return of the Ring when the stronghold city Gondor is in its darkest darkest hour. The fearsome and powerful leader of the Nazgûl is at the gate and Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, has gone mad and suicidal. Lots of people are dead and the rest of them are expecting to be dead in the next few minutes. Suddenly they hear the horns of Rohan – the powerful equestrian army of their ally has arrived in the nick of time.
The part that swept me away was when we are with King Théoden and the Rohan army as they approach the burning mess and carnage of Gondor in its final hour. They hesitate for moment and then shout their war cries, blow their horns, brandish their swords, and ride into battle. You have to read it. I am pretty much a pacifist so it surprised me that a war scene could so move me. It opened a door to understanding about the whole appeal of war: the opportunities it presents for ultimate courage, friendship, and self-sacrificing love. I never quite understood this, at least on an emotional level, until I read this scene.
I decided about a month ago I needed to finally read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. These novels were published in 1954 and 1955 and the films came out in the early 2000’s, so long ago that the action figures are now collector’s items. But hey, I work on my own timeline, and 2016 turned out to my personal LOTR year. Maybe it has something to do with what’s going on in the world – horrible wars and the feeling of a spreading darkness, and being an election year with its spectacle of people clutching after that ring of power.
Certain members of my family, who have been Tolkien fans for years, have watched the LOTR movies repeatedly so I have caught parts of them multiple times. I did go to see each of the films when they they first came out, and honestly, I did not like them all that much. Not that they are half bad as film adaptations go. As such they are quite good. It’s just that these kind of action productions are not to my taste and haven’t been for quite a while. As I get older I seem to be developing a sort of strange resistance to this business of “being entertained.” The thought of going to a concert or watching a movie is steadily losing what appeal it ever had.
The books, of course, are a whole different experience. I must have
read The Fellowship of the Ring before, because once I began reading it, parts of it came back to me. And I remember reading The Hobbit. The Two Towers and The Return of the King seemed new to me. Now that I have read the entire trilogy I am not sure how a true Tolkien fan can love the films. The Lord of the Rings is all about words and language and histories passed down through poetry, song, and legend. The books have rhythm, depth, and towering height. To do them justice it seems to me you need to devote the time and mind-space to reading them.
I must say I love Howard Shore’s soundtrack, even though the main theme sounds just like an old hymn called “This is My Father’s World.” (Which is so appropriate maybe it’s deliberate.) Apparently the LOTR soundtrack has won a “Best Soundtrack of All Time” award for like six years in a row from some organization called ClassicFM. It’s possible that the experience certain literature can be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack. (For that matter some lives could be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack.) But maybe even music limits the mind by overlaying a structure the mind wouldn’t otherwise impose on itself. My reading experience is also affected by picturing the characters as their film counterparts. It’s always a mistake to see the movie before you read the book.
But maybe in this case it is not a big deal. I am not upset about it. I did it to myself. I think that on the whole it is a good thing that books are adapted to film, as long as the filmmakers make a good faith effort to be true to the book to the extent the limitations of their medium allow. There have been many book adaptations that seek to appeal to current values and tastes rather than trying to be true to the book. You could make a case that even this is healthy – literature reinterpreted to speak to the culture. But when the movie actually reverses or debases the spirit or theme of the book – I find that sort of thing abhorrent.
For example the main theme of the LOTR is that you cannot compromise with evil. You cannot keep just a little bit of evil and think you can use it for good. The nature of evil is such that it wants to devour and make everything part of itself. If the films had changed things just a little bit to let the good guys keep the ring of power, that would have destroyed the story. But these films, although they adapted much, did not change that most important thing. So they are tolerable.
In my next post I will talk about which LOTR character I most related to and which part of the saga really got to me.
Today I was thinking about writing more on G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World? But I could not get past the word world. Instead of What’s Wrong With the World? my book will be called What IS the World?
What do we mean when we talk about the world? Usually we aren’t referring to nature or the planet or the universe. Some people say we are advanced animals and therefore our world is as natural as theirs. I disagree. If we really are only advanced animals then we are cheats. We do not play by the rules of the natural world. We twist survival of the fittest to suit our moral sense, our emotions, our historical memories, our beliefs, and all those prejudices our fellow creatures do not have. It is obvious to me that humans are not simply advanced animals, but are in fact a whole different kind of thing.
Nor is human world purely spiritual, despite what some New Age gurus would have us believe. We are forever identified with our mortal forms, these bodies with a head, a torso, two arms, and two legs, organisms beholden to the uncompromising demands of nature. It’s difficult even for the most wildly imaginative writers of science fiction and fantasy to do away with this basic pattern, though many have made vigorous attempts to break free from the humanoid form.
Though we may thwart the law of the jungle, our bodies insist on operating according to plan. We may ingest tons of sugar, chemicals, alcohol, and opium and hope the body will continue to operate unimpeded, but it won’t. It will process whatever substance goes into it according to its hard-coded internal program. No matter how much we meditate, that half gallon of ice cream we consumed will not transcend to the spirit of sweetness but will turn into fat and burden our liver.
Our bodies keep us tied firmly to the natural world and that is as it should be. It keeps us humble, lest we fly off and think we can join the angels. We are not angels and we never will be. We are humans, a distict order of creation, above the animals, below angels. Our origin is planet earth with its specific nature, yet we are not fully at home on planet earth in the wild kingdom/evolutionary sense. When we talk about “what’s wrong with the world” or “world record” or “world war” we are not talking about the world of the wild kingdom. From earliest history, it seems, humans have been aware of that other world that I call spiritual; but that is not really our home either, at least not in the purely spiritual non-material sense.
The human world (I am guessing) is a relatively new experimental creation, currently superimposed between or on top of the natural and the spiritual. Perhaps this age is an early iteration of a world that will eventually become more suitable for human souls than this borrowed and cobbled-together gerry-rigged thing balancing precariously between those two other worlds. I imagine that when we shed these bodies we remain human beings. We do not perish and we do not turn into something essentially other than what we are now. Maybe – probably even – we keep our general form, identity, memories, and mental structures.
Perhaps “up there” will be sort of the flip side of “down here.” We will then follow the rules of that world but our identities will continue to desire the pleasures of earth, just as here we long for the pleasures of heaven. We will be spiritual beings who want to eat, climb trees, walk with companions, and live in houses. We will want to build camp fires, smell flowers and pine trees, have sex. (!?) We will be as different from the angels there we differ from the beasts here.
I can imagine a semi-spiritual world that duplicates the things of earth so that God’s graduated creatures can feel at home. Perhaps, as Plato thought, we will find there the ideal forms of everything. But I fancy those ideal forms will be still further ahead of us and the next world will simply be one created for humans who have journeyed to the next level of our existence. Somewhere along the way, perhaps soon, the experimental cobbled-together world will transform into one perfectly suited to the kind of creation human beings are meant to be, a world that is the perfect integration of nature and spirit.
What would such an integrated world be like? Who knows? I am sure we are all in for plenty of surprises and I wouldn’t want it to be otherwise. Still, it’s fun to make some guesses. I imagine it as a place where nature is more alive and responsive to human thought and emotion: the rocks would truly sing and the mountains would really clap their hands. There would be animals that would speak and love and interact with us in a meaningful way instead of being limited by the demands of survival.
I think we can see small previews of this in our relationships with pets. My dog Cocoa is as close to a loving being as any animal I have ever known. She interacts, responds, and communicates lavish affection. But after living with her brother Pippin for ten years, she saw him die of lymphoma in our living room and the loss seems to have had little effect on her. I do think I notice a few changes I her behavior. She seems more needy for attention since his death and she hates to be left alone in the house. I just don’t honestly think she “cares” the way humans care when a loved one dies. However, I like to fancy she cares an ounce or so more than an animal in the wild cares. Survival in nature leaves little room for grief.
In any case we seem to say world with great frequency, often without the slightest thought as to what it is we mean by it. Generally we seem to have the vague notion that we refer to some kind of comprehensive system. We know well enough what we are trying to communicate. No need to be like me and bog yourself down making problems out of things that are not problems, like the meaning of words. Language usually works like the involuntary organs of the body. The heart beats and the words issue forth. Until you start messing with them.
As part of my research, I noticed that Amazon lists more than 100 pages of books with the word “world” in the title. Here are a few of these titles, just to observe the variety of ways we throw this word around. I have read a few of these….
Books with WORLD in the Title
Brave New World . Aldus Huxley
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Susan Cain
World Order. Henry Kissinger
The World and Will. Arthur Schopenhauer
The Greatest Salesman in the World. Og Mandino
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. Joanna Weaver
My Beloved World. Sonia Sotomayor
The World According to Garp. John Irving
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.
The War of Worlds. H.G. Wells
The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Martin Puchner and Suzanne Conklin Akburi
Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World. Ed Emberley
The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House of Pooh. A.A. Milne
The World As I See It. Albert Einstein
Danny the Champion of the World. Roald Dahl
How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. James Wesley Rawls
The Lost World. Arthur Conan Doyle
Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos. Michigan Kaku
America: Imagine a World Without Her. Dinesh D’Souza
And the award for the weirdest title with World goes to…..
Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Ida Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero
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And we haven’t even begun with the song titles. “Part of That World” from The Little Mermaid is the first one that pops to mind. Or TV shows. Like The Wonderful World of Disney.
But enough of this. After writing my crazy thoughts I Googled “world” and discovered that the Wikipedia article is not half bad. For one thing it says the English word comes from two Old English words that roughly translate to “Age of Man.” As opposed to the Latin word – mundus – which means “clean, elegant” and is related to the Greek cosmos which means “orderly arrangement.” If our world was once defined as something orderly it is currently becoming more disorderly by the minute. Words themselves are splintering, meanings no longer as clean and elegant as they once were. But orderly or not, we are stuck with this world and might as well make the best of it.
My plan is to read, write, and draw and try to make sense of what I can. What comes of my attempts I share here for what it’s worth. And Happy Valentine Day. Buy someone a cardboard heart full of chocolates and don’t stress too much over the meaning of it all.
I have just finished listening to What’s Wrong With the World? by G. K. Chesterton. This is actually my second reading of this book. I have learned a few things since the last time I read it a couple years ago and have come to see things in a different light. GKC speaks from a Catholic point of view and last time I read the book I was seriously considering returning to the Catholic Church. I needed a sense of continuity in my life I suppose, and also a spiritual home. I thought the Catholic Church might fulfill both purposes. I liked that it was rich in tradition, music, and history and it might have the right balance of structure and space to support my spiritual needs.
That was in 2014. In 2015 I decided against the idea. I can’t say this is my final decision. Until this life ends there is always the possibility I will change my mind. I sometimes wish I could just commit to an idea and stay with it. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I wish my soul could select its society and shut the door. My soul seems to like to hang out with a society for a while and then sneak out the back door that it always leaves ajar.
In reading What’s Wrong I realized I pretty much still agree with GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view. But maybe GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view does exactly jibe with the point of view the Church has expressed through the last few centuries. GKC thinks the Church accommodates the moral needs of human nature and is a good institution for broad spiritual guidance. This is the ideal, but it seems to me the Church has too often gotten wrapped up in protecting itself as an institution and has not always stood for the rights of the individual vs the state. It has sometimes been an agent of the state and of state-sponsored violence when it should have been a voice for non-violence and love. That’s one of the reasons I decided against committing to it again.
GKC disagrees with Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that violence is always wrong, at least if you profess to be a follower of Christ. GKC seems to accept that violence is sometimes needed to protect what is good and part of being human is the desire to protect what is good. There are huge problems with admitting the necessity of certain categories of violence, but this is not the post to go into that. Obviously the world agrees that violence is a necessity for the human race. I think I agree that we humans do want to protect what is good but more often we want to protect what we think is our own, which, as far as most of us are concerned, is exactly the same as what is good. GKC would agree, but he thinks we need to get clear on what should and should not be our own.
What is wrong with the world, according the GKC, is that everybody needs to have a very specific something of our own – a house with a door and a small patch of earth, perhaps three acres. In early 20th century England, a small segment of the population had taken over all the property and the vast majority of souls were left to scramble and scrape to get by on scanty mine or factory wages. Instead of a house with a few acres they had to live in slums, the workhouse, or the streets. In this series of 49 essays GKC talks about what led to this state of affairs and why it is so difficult to fix.
GKC is always funny and charming but in this book I actually perceive some anger coming through, such as when he talks about a certain law that required girls of poor families to cut their hair short to control lice. Why, he asks, do we not address the conditions that lead to little girls living in lice-infested conditions rather then demanding that children adapt their hair to the conditions? Parliament, he says, would not dare to demand such a demeaning thing of children of the rich.
Chesterton was a proponent of distributionism, a social theory that was neither socialism or capitalism. It said that everyone who wanted to should be able to own a private home and a little land. It advocated distribution of land but not by force – rather landowners should be encouraged to bequeath their land to the poor upon their death. Not sure if the idea ever took off.
GKC skewers socialism of the type that tells people they do not want what they want, the type of socialism that tries to engineer society to benefit the state. The exploitation of people for the benefit of industrial profit fairs no better. These interests are represented in the book by two hypocrite politicians named Hudge and Gudge who, as it turns out are really working together, against the interests of poor “Jones”, the ordinary man who simply wants to live a peaceful life in a home of his own.
This quote, I think, expresses the heart of the book’s message:
“Whether we can give every English man a free home of his own or not, at least we should desire it; and he desires it. For the moment we speak of what he wants, not what he expects to get. He wants, for instance, a separate house; he does not want a semi-detached house. He may be forced in the commercial race to share one wall with another man. Similarly he may be forced in a three-legged race to share one leg with another man; but it is not so that he pictures himself in his dreams of elegance and liberty. Again, he does not desire a flat. He can eat and sleep and praise God in a flat; He can eat and sleep and praise God in a railway train. But a railway train is not a house, because it is a house on wheels. And a flat is not a house, because it is a house on stilts. An idea of earthy contact and foundation, as well as an idea of separation and independence, is a part of this instructive human picture.
I take, then, this one institution as a test. As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of woman, every normal man desires a house to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair beneath him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions.”
What’s Wrong With the World was first published in 1910 so I am sure some readers will have problems with Chesterton’s discussions of women and the suffrage movement. It seems absolutely stone-age when you read of a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. But it’s also interesting to enter into new insights about that time. The State and its doings were not always considered all that important to the mass of the population. Chesterton discusses the importance of the private home to men, women, and children and why its importance ought not to be superseded in importance by the demands of either the government or commercial industry.
Note: I have long since made the decision not to be offended by points of view popular in the past that are widely considered insensitive now. I just don’t want anything (such as anger) to stand in the way of gleaning what wisdom the past has to offer. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the past few decades, mostly for the better. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to be women in the 1960s, especially after watching Mad Men, but it was what it was, and I want to be free to seek understanding of the world wherever and whenever it can be found.
A question occurs to me. Why do I feel compelled to read social theories from 1910? In this book GKC actually provides an pretty good answer to that question – the question of why we might want to look to the past for answers to current problems. I may need to talk about that topic in the next post.