Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Unlearning to Crawl

Today's post will consist of Whatever Thoughts Occur To Me as I flip through The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic. Here is Prof. Backflap's description of the book:

"We need a new kind of mystic," writes Fr. Robert Wild; and in The Tumbler of God, he presents a spiritual portrait of G.K. Chesterton that convincingly shows why he is precisely the new kind of mystic we need. Chesterton's mysticism was grounded in an experiential knowledge that existence is a gift from God, and that the only response is a spirituality of gratitude and praise for the unveiled beauty of creation.

Franz Kafka said of Chesterton, "He is so happy one might almost think he had discovered God." And Fr. Wild adds that "indeed he had, and he was doing his best to live in the light of that discovery. What was his 'secret'? It was to love the splendor of the real, and to live in adulthood the innocence and wonder of the child who sees everything for the first time. The Gospel tells us we must become again like little children in order to enter the kingdom. Chesterton shows us how."

I like Kafka's ironic comment. It's especially pointed in light of his own relentlessly pessimistic oeuvre; indeed, he was so unhappy one might almost think he had been turned into a horrible insect or something.

One could scarcely conceive of two more divergent writers; Prof. Wiki accurately characterizes Kafka's work as typically featuring "isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers," and "exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity."

I wonder how their paths ever even crossed? Wiki adds that Kafka was "tortured by sexual desire," and "feared that people would find him mentally and physically repulsive."

There's more, but he seems to have been a thoroughly unhappy person, whereas Chesterton was relentlessly cheerful. Is it just a matter of character, or did Chesterton possess the cure for what ailed Kafka? The latter "was at times alienated from Judaism and Jewish life" and in his adolescence "declared himself an atheist." Could it be that he simply drew out the implications of his own godforsakeness in a completely unflinching way?

There's no doubt that outside certain Christian circles, Kafka is considered by far the greater writer. I'm guessing that most literary types would dismiss Chesterton as a kind of lightweight. I've never read any of Chesterton's fiction, but have read most of Kafka's. This was back when I regarded myself as more or less of an existentialist atheist. Thus, I immersed myself in the depressing canon of 20th century existentialist literature -- all these guys, including Sartre, Camus, Rilke, et al.

But I was existentially unfit to be an existentialist. As Leonard Cohen remarked in another context, "cheerfulness kept breaking through."

Transfiguration. Transmogrification. The former is the "place" where "human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth."

As to transmogrification, one could hardly do better than this: "One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous verminous insect." I hate when that happens.

God or insect. Difficult to conceive of a wider abyss. So who's right?

We can't really know, can we? We can live in the faith that we are nothing more than randomly evolved insects crawling around the planet; or we can live with the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of the God who created us. Since we can't know, why not choose the fun path? You have nothing to lose except not being taken seriously by unemployed lit majors and clinically depressed existentialists.

Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it. --GKC

The question is, who is looking at the world right-side up, Chesterton or Kafka? And again, there really is no alternative if you're going to be intellectually consistent: if things are bad, then they are really, really bad. And if they're good, then they're... well they can't be perfect, since that is reserved for paradise. But as good as existence can be and still be an existence distinct from God.

Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised (GKC). The other evening I was trying to explain to a young lady -- the daughter of a friend -- why this was the optimistic attitude, but she seemed to regard it as an existential downer. But that's not the point at all. Rather, if you expect life to be perfect, then you are bound to be disappointed.

I am reminded of something Bailie says, to the effect that fallen man's perpetual hope is of Resurrection without Cross.

"Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot recognize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing" (GKC).

"[T]here are two principal sides to everything, a practical and a mystical..." (McLuhan, ibid.). This thought has been rattling around in my brain for the last several days, but it is really just another way of saying what we always say about the nature of complementarity and orthoparadox. So yes, you are an insect or a god, depending upon how you look at it. But ultimately, our common sense empirico-rationalism must be complemented by the uncommon nonsense of mystico-phenomenology.

"Basically, [Chesterton] was trying to define an attitude of mind which preserves the sense of mystery about life and does not try to reconcile or explain rationally the paradoxical nature of reality."

So we are insect and god; I just googled it to try and find an arresting image, but we already have a perfectly suitable one at hand: the butterfly.

Let's say you're in the chrysalis, living in the ambiguous state between ugly caterpillar and beautiful butterfly. With which will you identify?

Limiting yourself to personal experience, you will no doubt choose the insect. Indeed, you probably couldn't even conceive of, much less hope for, the butterfly. Yes, you've seen butterflies, but they must have just been born that way.

"The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand" (GKC).

I can top the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly. How about the transformation of nothing into everything, "the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being"? Chesterton was constantly aware "of the passage from non-being to being, as if every moment was the moment of Creation in the Garden."

Interestingly, both insect and man are created on the 6th day, when God has the earth bring forth creeping things before it occurs to him to create a being "in our image and likeness," who shall -- ironically -- have dominion "over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

But this is always happening now: "Creation is not only the beginning, but is always the beginning" (Wild). So, "Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed" (GKC, ibid.).


julie said...

Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised

Ha - yes, that's why this election season has been so enjoyable. I expect to lose, even when "our side""wins." There's a reason we call them the Stupid party, after all. So when things go wrong, well... things do, don't they? And when they go right, all the more reason to be thankful.

I am reminded of something Bailie says, to the effect that fallen man's perpetual hope is of Resurrection without Cross.

In our study this morning, John 12:24-25, The Man says: "Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

julie said...

A butterfly.

There's a place not too far from here, Butterfly World. They raise thousands upon thousands of them, and you can walk through a garden filled with the most amazing assortment, many of them gigantic. The colors are astounding. There is also an area where you can see the chrysalises and watch as the new butterflies hatch. A lot of the chrysalises look as though they're made of precious metals.

By their very being, they proclaim the glory of God.

Gagdad Bob said...

Ever since I was a little kid, I've had some kind of rapport with butterflies. Every time one floats past, I feel as if it is a kind of benediction: an encounter with completely superfluous winged beauty.

mushroom said...

I've never read any of Chesterton's fiction, but have read most of Kafka's.

I read a lot of Chesterton's fiction, probably 80 or 90%. I've read The Metamophosis, The Trial, A Country Doctor, maybe some others. They have some similarities. Manalive, for example, is hilariously surreal, fun to read, and anything but nihilistic. The difference is Chesterton uses the surreal to break us out; Kafka uses it to lock us in.

Gagdad Bob said...

There's something surreally humorous in that first deadpan line of the Metamorphosis.

mushroom said...


Christina M said...

Butterflies! You answered my question: How to mystify what we have and demystify what we want.

In early Dec. I had to get a new debit card before I left for a month long trip. The image I chose for the card was a butterfly on a coneflower. Then for the whole month, unexpectedly,(and the whole trip had been unexpected),I had the opportunity to sit and watch butterflies, almost every day, in the middle of winter.

I love Chesterton for his book "Orthodoxy." It was the happiest book I had ever read.

garyeureka said...

‘Transfiguration.. . the "place" where "human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth."’

Once more back to GKC ‘s “The Ballad of the White Horse”:

And a book she showed him very small,
Where a sapphire Mary sat in stall
With a golden Christ at play.

It was wrought in the monk’s slow manner
From silver and sanguine shell,
Where the scenes are little and terrible,
Keyholes of heaven and hell.

garyeureka said...

“Chesterton was relentlessly cheerful.”
The Ballad again, Book IV “The Woman in the Forest”, GKC writes of King Alfred the Great,
". . .one man laughing at himself . . .
The giant laughter of Christian men
That roars through a thousand tales”

Abdulmonem Othman said...

Yes to secure our spiritual growth we must stop our mental crawling in the arena of the beneath, the arena of mere survival in order to enter the realm of the unveiled beauty of creation,the artistic manifestations of the creator ,the non-comparable, the one that we can not encompass but we can not but seek. Humans must observe their limits and the limits of the nature they thrive on and be aware not to encroach on the sacred domain of the indescribable, God and insect, the form and the formless, the physical and non-physical in the same zone, unbelievable. I remember kafka, saying, from my time of school in england that he feels being charged to be witness but he does not know who charges him. The problem that has been solved by chesterton who knew who charges him., and accomplished his errand elegantly. It is strange how the humans despite their consciousness, they still go astray. This is proof that the human can not pursue the right path by his own will but by the grace of god. This made me often wonder how much of our life is predetermined and how much is determined by us and if even that part is already predetermined. It seems that each person chooses his god without being besieged by the shackles of imitation and follow others blindly.