Saturday, May 15, 2010

`A Fierce Pleasure in Things Being Themselves'

I came late to Chesterton and regret the decades of pleasure and solace I’ve denied myself. Somewhere I picked up the notion he was “minor,” as though that explained anything. He was much admired by Borges, Hugh Kenner and Evelyn Waugh, and that’s more than enough endorsement for me.

What most attracts me to Chesterton, man and writer, is his self-description as “always perfectly happy.” I detect no idle boast here, no masking of misery. Rather, it’s an expression of Chesterton’s essential thankfulness. After a conflicted spell in early manhood, he was grateful to be alive, a stance that assures some degree of contentment, a gift for happily engaging the world. The notebook Chesterton kept when he was about the age of twenty contains this passage:

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

This is a lovely echo of Charles Lamb’s “Grace Before Meat,” from The Essays of Elia:

“I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts -- a grace before Milton -- a grace before Shakspeare -- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?…”

I’m moved by such unlikely sanity. During his long engagement to Frances Blogg (they married in 1901), her sister Gertrude was killed in a bicycle accident. In her grief, Frances went to Italy to recover and Chesterton wrote to her in a letter:

“I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me; the fierceness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud…I will not ask you to forgive this rambling levity. I, for one, have sworn, by the sword of God that has struck us, and before the beautiful face of the dead, that the first joke that occurred to me I would make, the first nonsense poem I thought of I would write, that I would begin again at once with a heavy heart at times, as to other duties, to the duty of being perfectly silly, perfectly trivial, and as far as possible, amusing. I have sworn that Gertrude should not feel, wherever she is, that the comedy has gone out of our theatre.”

In another letter to Frances he writes:

“All good things are one thing. Sunsets, schools of philosophy, cathedrals, operas, mountains, horses, poems – all these are mainly disguises. One thing is always walking among us in fancy-dress, in the grey cloak of a church or the green cloak of a meadow.”

On Friday, some of us and our students were seated on the synthetic turf of the football field as the marching band moved around us. The sun was bright and I wished I had worn a short-sleeve shirt. Minute pieces of the artificial grass stuck to our hands and pants, and my student put some in her mouth. As I removed it with tissue a wave of vertigo washed over me. Large, flat, open spaces do that to me sometimes, as do tall buildings. I felt as though I were falling up and I thought of Chesteron and his “ fierce pleasure in things being themselves.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chesterton reminds me of Bruno Ganz's angel from Der Himmer über Berlin - made physical, delighted in the taste of hot coffee, the feel of one hand against another, being alive.