Saturday, January 26, 2013

`The Fascinating Subject of Wood'

“Scraps accumulate and can add up to an education.”

So writes a reader commenting on a recent post. He goes on to cite Kierkegaard, whose thinking baffles me, but adds: “Chesterton, the extraordinary writer of the ordinary, titled an essay collection Tremendous Trifles.” Now he has my attention. The volume is a gathering of columns Chesterton wrote for the Daily News between 1902 and 1909. Just days before I had reread one of its essays, “What I Found in My Pocket,” in which Chesterton describes being confined “in a third-class carriage for a rather long journey.” Our twenty-first-century equivalent is a lengthy, crowded but solitary cross-country flight in an airliner. Chesterton writes: 

“Now I deny most energetically that anything is, or can be, uninteresting. So I stared at the joints of the walls and seats, and began thinking hard on the fascinating subject of wood.” 

Most of us on a journey bring something to read. Now the interior of passenger jets glows softly with light emitted by e-books and laptop screens. It’s a pleasantly muted effect when the window screens have been closed, restful and contemplative, and I turn on the overhead light and read a conventional book of paper and cardboard. There’s little wood to ponder in a 737. Chesterton says he turns for diversion to the contents of his own pockets: “I was carrying about with me an unknown treasury.” He finds tram tickets on which are printed advertisements for “some kind of pill,” which he proceeds to read as “a small but well-chosen library.” 

Next he pulls out a pocket-knife, an object calling for “a thick book full of moral meditations all to itself.” When I was seven years old, there was nothing in the world I wanted more than a pocket knife. It represented adulthood, masculinity and independence. Chesterton meditates on metallurgy, human aggression, warfare and the Industrial Revolution: “For the knife is only a short sword; and the pocket-knife is a secret sword.” Then he pulls out a box of matches, representing “fire, which is stronger even than steel, the old, fierce female thing we all love, but dare not touch.” And then a piece of chalk, in which he sees “all the art and all the frescoes of the world,” and a coin, which suggests “all government and order since the world began.” 

Chesterton’s point is simple: Professing boredom ought to be shameful. It amounts to an admission of mental poverty and gratitude. T.S. Eliot claimed most of the trouble in the world was caused by people who want to be important. I would add a corollary: Most of the people in the world who want to be important have convinced themselves they are bored and that life is boring. Existence disappoints them and the world has failed to entertain them sufficiently. They crave diversion, something to help them forget they are forever stuck with themselves. In his preface to Tremendous Trifles, Chesterton suggests: 

“Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud.”


George said...

And of course there is Pascal: "--When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea
or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Chesterton was the proverbial child at heart, so far as not getting bored is concerned. Someone once observed of him that he could live in a wash tub, and still have all history and the universe for entertainment.