Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'Little Things Please Great Minds'

Journalism and genius seldom overlap, at least not since the eighteenth century. When reading G.K. Chesterton it’s easy to forget he was a drudge by trade, an industrial-strength producer of newspaper and magazine copy, forever writing to deadline. Journalists aren’t supposed to write this well, and many pride themselves on writing badly. A former newspaper colleague of mine, when given an assignment by an editor, would ask: patties or links? We are not artistes and can’t wait for the Muse. Chesterton was as facile as he needed to be. Journalists brag of being generalists, able to take on any subject. Chesterton turned that gift into an art and wrote about chalk and cheese. Reading him is pure indulgence, and leaves no aftertaste of guilt or remorse.  

Bedtime reading this week has been, among other things, The Man Who was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G.K. Chesterton (Dobson Books, 1963), edited by A.L. Maycock. In his introduction, Maycock makes an important point that ought to be self-evident in regard to any writer but often is not: “There was always in Chesterton an intense, passionate desire to be understood.” Clarity, precision and forthrightness are chief among the writerly virtues. Here is a paragraph excerpted from “The Puritan and the Anglican,” published in The Speaker in 1900:  

“Sir Thomas Browne was an exalted mystic [whose mysticism] owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not merely mean sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis; when he went over his work again, he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism; for the mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.”

Little things, yes. Mysticism, maybe. But Chesterton here has composed an apologia for his own manner of writing. Composition consists of a million minute decisions. I remember Joyce saying somewhere that he had the words, but spent the morning putting them in the proper order. At some level, reading Browne, or Chesterton, or any prose virtuoso, is like listening to music. Chesterton knew how to arrange words and fine tune their rhythms for maximum impact. Even his chronic stylistic tic, a visceral love of paradox, works most of the time. Chesterton glimpsed a flash of truth revealed in paradox. This is from an essay published in Black and White on St. Valentine’s Day in 1903:
“The simplest and commonest of all the causes which lead to the charge of ‘mere paradox’ being slung about as it is, is one fundamental assumption. Everybody takes it for granted that universal and ordinary arrangements, historic institutions, daily habits are reasonable. They are good, they are sensible, they are holy and splendid often enough, but they are not reasonable. They are themselves paradoxes; paradox is built into the very foundations of human affairs.”

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