Saturday, June 16, 2007

`Thankful for a Limpet'

In his first book, Paradox in Chesterton, published in 1947, with an introduction by fellow-Canadian Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Hugh Kenner wrote:

“It is in this way that Chesterton sees paradox rooted in being, and the created world rooted in God; so that he could never see a lamp-post without the instinct to praise. `I believe,’ he wrote, `about the universal cosmos, or for that matter about every weed and pebble in the cosmos, that men will never rightly realize that it is beautiful, until they realize that it is strange….Poetry is the separation of the soul from some object whereby we can regard it with wonder.’ With the sense of strangeness came the sense of gratitude; not only because, amid so many potentialities, the object at hand might not have been, but also because in its limited being it participated in all Being: in God. He was thankful for a lamp-post because it was not a limpet, but he would have been equally thankful for a limpet.”

Even to my dull, secular understanding, this makes beautiful sense -- the natural transition we make from recognizing the strangeness (the uniqueness, the unrepeatability) of all creation to the gratitude we feel for its existence. I experienced this Friday afternoon, walking back to my office from the library, with Kenner’s book and others in my tote bag. The bag is from the gift shop at Jefferson’s Monticello. I walked in the fluttering shade beneath a canopy of live oaks. Ball moss hung from their limbs. I clucked and two squirrels approached, expecting to be fed. The air was windy and warm, which reminded me of the Chet Atkins song of the same name, as performed by Doc and Merle Watson. The sidewalk was macadam – river stones embedded in pavement, the same pebbles Chesterton cited for their beauty. That in turn reminded me of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Pebble,” here translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott:

“The pebble
is a perfect creature

“equal to itself
mindful of its limits

“filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

“with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

“its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

“I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

“-- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye”

Herbert admires and honors the most humble and ignorable of natural objects. Unlike humans, Herbert’s pebbles are dignified, self-contained, equivalent to their essence. Chesterton cites pebbles and weeds in the passage quoted above by Kenner, who goes on to point out these lines from the final chapter of Chesterton’s Autobiography:

“…I asked through what incarnations or pre-natal purgatories I must have passed to gain the reward of looking at a dandelion…What I said about the dandelion is exactly what I would say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed….”

In a world big and various enough to contain Kenner, Chesterton and Herbert, dandelions, pebbles and squirrels, live oaks, the Monticello and Doc Watson, who can be ungrateful? Who can be bored? There’s something almost sinful, it would seem, about boredom.


Anonymous said...

There is a wondeful essay by the polymath Martin Gardner about The Man Who Was Thursday:"Revisiting Chesterton's Masterpiece."

WIlliam Blake's famous quote came to mind after reading your essay:

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."

Anonymous said...

June 16, 2007

To all joyceans,

Happy Blooms Day!