Tuesday, June 14, 2011

`Let Us Be Ocular Athletes'

“Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash.”

Evelyn Waugh is among the supreme prose stylists of the last century, as even this excerpt from a 1955 pen-for-hire article (collected in Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, 1983) suggests. At their best, his sentences are orderly and elegantly concise, without flab. Every word is alive and suffused with his sensibility; none is inert. Style is not veneer; it is the solid wood.

I thought of Waugh’s article (“Literary Style in England and America,” in which he also writes: “[Ronald Knox’s] Enthusiasm should be recognized as the greatest work of literary art of the century.”) as I read Tremendous Trifles (1909), a gathering of newspaper columns G.K. Chesterton wrote for the Daily News between 1902 and 1909. They were conceived as workaday journalism, the least likely source of literary worth, and their ostensible subjects include chalk, railroads and “What I Found in My Pocket” -- hardly promising raw material. Rather, the sort of folksy stuff that encourages group hugs among facile writers and undemandingly sentimental readers.

Yet Chesterton, who died seventy-five years ago today, regularly transmutes dross into literary precious metals with verve, wit and imagination. He honors the writer’s obligation to present readers with something interesting, and thus turns himself into one of literature’s great pleasure givers. Of how many writers of literary worth can the same be said today? In his preface to Tremendous Trifles (a title distilling GKC’s style, philosophy and life), Chesterton writes, without apology:

“But trivial as are the topics they are not utterly without a connecting thread of motive. As the reader’s eye strays, with hearty relief, from these pages, it probably alights on something, a bed-post or a lamp-post, a window blind or a wall. It is a thousand to one that the reader is looking at something that he has never seen: that is, never realised.”

For Chesterton, creation trembles with significance, much of it cause for joy. Nothing is too insignificant to merit our inattention. He continues:

“None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. But don’t let us let the eye rest. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.”

Chesterton would have made a superb blogger.


William A. Sigler said...

A nice bit of customary understatement, Patrick, about Chesterton being a superb blogger. His 4000 essays, at your pace, would be about 11 years worth of material. I guess you just have to soldier on.

Ian Wolcott said...

Not as successful, perhaps, as Chesterton's Trifles, Rose Macaulay's Personal Pleasures offers something on a similar line.

Cynthia Haven said...

What a wonderful post, Patrick!

I actually visited Ronald Knox's grave during a visit to the U.K. in 2009 (Siegried Sassoon is buried nearby) – but I've never read "Enthusiasm." It's on my list now.