Friday, September 19, 2014

The Dreary Pursuit of Pleasure and the Joyful Pursuit of Truth

I've been reading Volume 2 of Chesterton's collected works, which includes The Everlasting Man and his biographies of Saints Francis and Thomas.

Chesterton, along with C.S. Lewis, is of course one of the more enduringly popular Christian apologists. Back in 2007 we devoted a long-forgotten series of posts to his Orthodoxy (1908), which was actually written prior to his being received into the Church. The Everlasting Man (1925) is a post-conversion meditation on some of the same themes.

I find that Chesterton's style of writing takes some getting used to. He is definitely not the most organized thinker, let alone systematic, nor is he concise.

The word "sprawling" comes to mind. Undisciplined. At times we see a kind of back-and-forth between insipid intellectual laziness and inspired poetic energy that sends sparks flying from the page. It almost reads as if it were dictated during a manic episode and then not edited.

A typical paragraph fills a whole page, and he throws in all sorts of then-contemporary references that make no sense to us now, often as targets of good-natured opprobrium. He easily veers into irrelevant tangents, nor can he resist the most formulaic wordplay and cringe-making puns. Furthermore, being that he is essentially a journalist, he has no particular qualifications to bloviate on matters that are best left to highly trained philosophers, theologians, scientists, and metaphysicians.

In short, this man is a Raccoon!

I immediately thought of him this morning when reading this awful story about some goofy kids in Iran being whipped and imprisoned for being goofy kids and having fun. Can you imagine?

No, you cannot. Why? Because you have been Christianized in a civilization that has been slowly leavened by Christian joy for the past two millennia. Indeed, the joylessness of the mullahs resembles nothing so much as the dreadful joylessness of the spiritual gulag of leftism. Neither permits real joy. Where the left differs from Islam is that it not only permits but encourages the joyless pursuit of pleasure, i.e., the daily grind of the hedonic treadmill.

Also, the left won't whip you (yet) for being politically incorrect, just ruin your reputation and career: "Authorities arrested the group for contravening Iran’s strict vulgarity laws, which prohibit public displays of dancing.... The Islamic Republic condemned the video as a 'vulgar clip which hurt public chastity,'" and "the whole group was told they would receive 91 lashes each."

I checked out the video, and it is interesting how their dancing is so charmingly awkward and stiff -- as if they have just been incarnated and are getting used to having bodies. It reminds me of a story I read about 15 years ago, about special classes in Japan where they teach people how to smile.

Now, the music to which they are dancing is African American, and such music could only have arisen in America. The song is quite overtly retro, and sounds like an unreleased Curtis Mayfield tune from the early '70s (Prof. Wiki agrees), back when black music was still joyously liberating instead of angry, repulsive, and animalistic.

The reason why their music was joyous was because it was again leavened with Christian joy. After all, a hundred years ago blacks had much more reason to be miserable than they do today, and yet, that is when gospel music emerged and thrived. You'd think they would have been be as morose as the mullahs, but gospel is the very sound of joy, and virtually all the classic soul singers of the 1960s and '70s were trained in the church (not to mention all of the early fathers of rock, e.g., Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash; rock only starts becoming palpably dark in the late 1960s, after being hijacked as the primary means of expression for the cultural left).

After all, Christianity (we're going to leave Judaism to the side, because it is a special case) is quite literally the original liberalism -- liberality of mind, of heart, and of body. This is precisely what set it apart in the ancient world: what in the name of Zeus are these people so damn happy about?

Now, this is not to say that the history of Christianity doesn't reveal the gradual encrustation and suppression of this primordial joy -- after all, we're talking about humans here -- but the joy always breaks through and returns, because that is what Christianity is, essentially. Good news, right? Few writers more effectively convey the sober silliness of this truth than Chesterton.

St. Thomas was, for example, "one of the great liberators of the human intellect." This cannot be emphasized enough, because virtually all the competing philosophies of modernity are enslaving, not liberating. Starting with Descartes and Kant on down, most modern philosophies condemn us to a prison of neurology, or linguistics, or economics, or race, or power, or the unconscious, or what have you. We descend from "the truth sets you free" to "there is no truth, and you're not free to discover it anyway."

Thomas says NO: that you are -- at least potentially -- liberated into the real world, which is both beautiful and intelligible, the very ladder with which we may reascend to the Creator. He brings the good intellectual news that "the senses [are] the windows of the soul and that the reason [has] a divine right to feed upon facts..." It is Thomas who teaches "that Reason can be trusted," whereas "it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy."

Thus we see a hidden and unappreciated link between this latter tradition and any other modern or postmodern philosophy which denies man the intrinsic right to know What the Hell is Basically Going On. Not the details per se, but just the possibility.

As we have rhetorically asked in the past, why on earth are the people who so denigrate humans called humanists? Thomas and his ilk are the ultimate humanists, in that they insist "on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things." And when we say "human being," we again mean in all dimensions, body, soul, and intellect. You might say that the body is entitled to joy for the same reason the intellect is entitled to truth and the soul to beauty. God did not create us to starve in a prison of matter or a desert of quantity.

Indeed, "a Christian means a man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses." Thus, the Christian Raccoon is literally the most materialistic of all, just as he is the most humanistic. If Christ is "the miraculous medium between heaven and earth," then matter is infused with the highest principle. Every good scientist knows this, and yet, places an arbitrary limit on his own mind, or sets up a roadblock at the outskirts of logic.

Chesterton's pal Belloc says much the same thing, that "delight in existence itself" is "the highest mark of sanity and and reality." The ephemeral is always bisected by the permanent, and our task is to recognize this perpetual crossroads and know that I AM. It's why we call it The Vertical Church of What's Happening Now.

38 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

Re. the Iranian kids, on the (sort of) positive side, I read yesterday that their sentences have been suspended, which in Iran means they won't be punished for this, provided that they refrain from repeating their "crimes" for three years. If it happens again, they get the current sentence plus whatever penalty applies for the future infraction. In the world of Muslim justice, these hooligans didn't even get a slap on the wrist. But they damn well better not be happy in public again.

9/19/2014 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I guess they'll have to check in with their parole officers ever month or so to show they aren't relapsing into joy.

9/19/2014 09:29:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

"Few writers more effectively convey the sober silliness of this truth than Chesterton."

I've find Meister Eckster positively giddy at times.
But I haven't read more than the here and there quotes of Chesterton.

9/19/2014 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Speaking of St Francis, did you know that Mickey Rourke the Younger played him in this film Francesco.
The whole thing is on the tube.
He gets silly wit it.

9/19/2014 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. the title, in amongst my assigned reading for last night was this line about Moses (Hebrews 11:24-26):

"24 By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, 26 esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward."

9/19/2014 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

Chesterton was a find for me during graduate school in a place hostile to everything Chesterton stood for, except beer. I'd read his columns in the Illustrated London News in the stacks of the library, taking breaks from my studies, and feeling like here, at least, was one sane person I could talk to. His irrepressible jousting with G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells was a beautiful thing. The book on Francis is radiant.

9/19/2014 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Related: Cult of Intellectual Insecurity Reacts to Threat to Intellect in an Insecure, Cultish Way.

9/19/2014 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

...he throws in all sorts of then-contemporary references that make no sense to us now ...

Larry King?

9/19/2014 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

... rock only starts becoming palpably dark in the late 1960s, after being hijacked as the primary means of expression for the cultural left ...

I had Sgt. Pepper, and maybe another one or two, but there's a definite divide in my appreciation of the Beatles. Early on, they seemed to be having a lot more fun than they were later.

9/19/2014 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes. There is no doubt that 1968 is the rubicon. There is an infinite distance between the psychedelic joy of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour, and what came later.

9/19/2014 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...

"it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy."

Having grown up and spent most of my adult life in the Lutheran Church, I would amend the above by adding the word "alone" - as in "reason alone is utterly untrustworthy". The difference being that reason must be in service to the Word of God, not apart from it.

9/19/2014 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...

"And when we say "human being," we again mean in all dimensions, body, soul, and intellect. You might say that the body is entitled to joy for the same reason the intellect is entitled to truth and the soul to beauty."

Beautiful.

9/19/2014 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I had second thoughts about that sentence, but I just read a line in Chesterton that says "the Mystics can be represented as men who maintain that the final fruition of joy of the soul is rather a sensation than thought."

9/19/2014 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Yes, you're both right.

9/19/2014 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Bob,
I understand the body needing joy, but wouldn't the need for joy also apply to the mind and spirit?
Actually, I don't see how they can be separated, except in the case of the mind experiencing joy but the body not, in the case of a badly ravaged body.

Or perhaps a body can experience joy even though badly damaged but on a lower level than a healthy person, except in the case of music or art, but not necessarily pure physical joy.

9/19/2014 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, that was precisely my second thought!

9/19/2014 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Chesterton even gets into that -- how Francis was all about sensory joy whereas Thomas was about intellectual joys...

9/19/2014 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Personally, I like both joys, although intellectual joy is perhaps the odds on favorite 'cause that's where humor comes in, the funny bone notwithstanding.

9/19/2014 02:39:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Then there's a joyful heart or soul.
Looks like the Good Gnews is all pervasive to those who accept it.

Sure beats the hell outta bitterness.

9/19/2014 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Off topic, so for the last couple of days, my daughter has been insisting, with tremendous persistence, that she's Gypsy Robot.

By Leftist logic, I must assume that she is in fact a robot trapped in a girl's body. As she gets older, I'll have to fit her with prosthetic robot appendages in order not to damage the development of her chosen identity. When she is an adult, great efforts will be undertaken to transplant her personality into a mainframe computer. She'll never be a full robot, but there's hope she'll find happiness as an android. It's the best a loving parent could do.

9/19/2014 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger ted said...

In regards to intellectual joy and sensory joy, Bruce Charlton has an interesting post about it today.

His take is the sensory joy should come first, because that's what gets people off their asses! :)

9/20/2014 07:09:00 AM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

Julie, you let MST influence your daughter? Well done! Good parenting is often identified by the humor choices we expose our children to! :o)

"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine. A broken spirit drieth the bone."

9/20/2014 08:27:00 AM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

I am in the midst of a crisis of being brought about by Josef Pieper's "Leisure: The Basis of Culture" If there's a more daunting challenge to enter into The Slack, it's here, perhaps.

It's kicking my ass as I find myself with too many employment options and needing to weigh joy against rent in making any decisions. (Having a dry place to sleep is also rather joyful.) I'm at an age where I won't be offered too many more choices after this one, save that God does something mighty interesting.

9/20/2014 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Joan, if you've gotta get your butt kicked, there are a lot worse ways to have it done than by Josef Pieper's "Leisure: The Basis of Culture".

I think technically you can leisurely pursue slack even through an annoying spate of employment... but you have to work at it - this 'coon will kick a can down the road for you.

Speaking of annoying employment, I'm going to be in our state capital Monday and Tuesday to look at rewriting our schools curriculum standards - how open do you think they'll be to changing their focus from special skills, to slack?

Selling Slack can be hard work.

9/20/2014 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Bethanne said...

I read Orthodoxy. Sometimes I would read one sentence and find that 'my brain was full' (Gary Larson).

Maybe we need to approach Chesterton with a sense of wonder rather than a demand for knowledge?

9/21/2014 04:48:00 AM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

Speaking of the pursuit of pleasure, this family takes it pretty seriously:
smz7m-4677937289@gigs.craigslist.org

I'm so-o-o-o-o tempted to respond.

9/21/2014 05:18:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

I think that's an email address. Is there a web page?

9/21/2014 05:19:00 AM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

Ah, here we go:
http://charleston.craigslist.org/dmg/4677937289.html

I'm writing my response, even now. :0)

9/21/2014 05:30:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Ha! That looks like a fun and memorable gig. I hope you get it!

9/21/2014 05:36:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Bethanne: I do find something wearying about reading Chesterton. Can't quite put my finger on what it is...

9/21/2014 08:41:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Maybe because he's so "literary," to the point of distraction. In other words, he's too good of a writer...

9/21/2014 08:42:00 AM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

I prefer my Chesterton distilled down to its golden, high-proof essence.
http://www.chesterton.org/quotations-of-g-k-chesterton/

9/21/2014 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Maybe that's what it is: he's so quoteworthy, his writing is like a dense but rambling assembly of excellent cracks mixed with a lot of plain rambling.

9/21/2014 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

In quote form, what remains is Davilesque.

9/21/2014 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

As he said: torture your sentences so you don't torture the reader!

9/21/2014 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Ha - there's a thought, Bob. If you're planning multiple books for the future, one filled with pithy quotes as opposed to full posts might be a handy guide for future raccoons. Didn't Schuon do a book or two that way?

9/21/2014 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

"The Laughorisms of Don Petey"

9/21/2014 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, Schuon tried to distill it down to the essence in Echoes of Perennial Wisdom.

9/21/2014 10:35:00 AM  

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