Monday, February 16, 2009

The Bones of My Skull Beneath My Face Are Laughing Forever - Chesterton's defence of skeletons

For Christmas a friend gave me a lovely early 1950s orange-coloured Everyman edition of a collection of stories, essays, and poems by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936). In it is a delightful essay entitled 'A Defence of Skeletons', very characteristic of the ample G. K. C. and which is indeed a sound defence of sentiments I hold dear. Friends and acquaintances often enquire as to why the ‘creepy’ is so important to our family’s aesthetic. The following goes some way toward answering that. I shall here reproduce the bulk of the short essay.

Chesterton begins seemingly far from the topic, speaking of a walk he took through a winter wood full of trees bare, obviously, of their leaves. The locals, he informs us, were rather embarrassed of the trees in their ‘naked’ season. With typical wit he says: ‘I assured them that I did not resent the fact that it was winter, that I knew the thing had happened before, and that no forethought on their part could have averted this blow of destiny.’

Then we are treated to a deluge of his wonderful fantastic-rhapsodic description: ‘The tops of two or three high trees when they are leafless are so soft that they seem like the gigantic brooms of that fabulous lady who was sweeping the cobwebs off the sky. The outline of a leafy forest is in comparison hard, gross, and blotchy; the clouds of night do not more certainly obscure the moon than those green and monstrous clouds obscure the tree; the actual sight of the little wood, with its grey and silver sea of life, is entirely a winter vision. So dim and delicate is the heart of the winter woods, a kind of glittering gloaming, that a figure stepping towards us in the chequered twilight seems as if he were breaking through unfathomable depths of spiders’ webs.’

And now he comes to his subject proper and the rest of the essay I will quote without interruption:

‘But surely the idea that its leaves are the chief grace of a tree is a vulgar one, on a par with the idea that his hair is the chief grace of a pianist. When winter, that healthy ascetic, carries his gigantic razor over hill and valley, and shaves all the trees like monks, we feel surely that they are all the more like trees if they are shorn, just as so many painters and musicians would be all the more like men if they were less like mops. But it does appear to be a deep and essential difficulty that men have an abiding terror of their own structure, or of the structure of things they love. This is felt dimly in the skeleton of the tree: it is felt profoundly in the skeleton of the man.

‘The importance of the human skeleton is very great, and the horror with which it is commonly regarded is somewhat mysterious. Without claiming for the human skeleton a wholly conventional beauty, we may assert that he is certainly not uglier than a bull-dog, whose popularity never wanes, and that he has a vastly more cheerful and ingratiating expression. But just as man is mysteriously ashamed of the skeletons of the trees in winter, so he is mysteriously ashamed of the skeleton of himself in death. It is a singular thing altogether, this horror of the architecture of things. One would think it would be most unwise in a man to be afraid of a skeleton, since Nature has set curious and quite insuperable obstacles to his running away from it.

‘One ground exists for this terror: a strange idea has infected humanity that the skeleton is typical of death. A man might as well say that a factory chimney was typical of bankruptcy. The factory may be left naked after ruin, the skeleton may be left naked after bodily dissolution; but both of them have had a lively and workmanlike life of their own, all the pulleys creaking, all the wheels turning, in the House of Livelihood as in the House of Life. There is no reason why this creature (new, as I fancy, to art), the living skeleton, should not become the essential symbol of life.

‘The truth is that man’s horror of the skeleton is not horror of death at all. It is man’s eccentric glory that he has not, generally speaking, any objection to being deaf, but has a very serious objection to being undignified. And the fundamental matter which troubles him in the skeleton is the reminder that the ground-plan of his appearance is shamelessly grotesque. I do not know why he should object to this. He contentedly takes his place in a world that does not pretend to be genteel—a laughing, working, jeering world. He sees millions of animals carrying, with quite a dandified levity, the most monstrous shapes and appendages, the most preposterous horns, wings, and legs, when they are necessary to utility. He sees the good temper of the frog, the unaccountable happiness of the hippopotamus. He sees a whole universe which is ridiculous, from the animalcule, with a head too big for its body, up to the comet, with a tail too big for its head. But when it comes to the delightful oddity of his own inside, his sense of humour rather abruptly deserts him.

‘In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance (which was, in certain times and respects, a much gloomier period) this idea of the skeleton had a vast influence in freezing the pride out of all earthly pomps and the fragrance out of all fleeting pleasures. But it was not, surely, the mere dread of death that did this, for these were ages in which men went to meet death singing; it was the idea of the degradation of man in the grinning ugliness of his structure that withered the juvenile insolence of beauty and pride. And in this it almost assuredly did more good than harm. There is nothing so cold or so pitiless as youth, and youth in aristocratic stations and ages tended to an impeccable dignity, an endless summer of success which needed to be very sharply reminded of the scorn of the stars. It was well that such flamboyant prigs should be convinced that one practical joke, at least, would bowl them over, that they would fall into one grinning man-trap, and not rise again. That the whole structure of their existence was as wholesomely ridiculous as that of a pig or a parrot they could not be expected to realize; that birth was humorous, coming of age humorous, drinking and fighting humorous, they were far too young and solemn to know. But at least they were taught that death was humorous.

‘There is a peculiar idea abroad that the value and fascination of what we call Nature lie in her beauty. But the fact that Nature is beautiful in the sense that a dado or a Liberty curtain is beautiful is only one of her charms, and almost an accidental one. The highest and most valuable quality in Nature is not her beauty, but her generous and defiant ugliness. A hundred instances might be taken. The croaking noise of the rooks is, in itself, as hideous as the whole hell of sounds in a London railway tunnel. Yet it uplifts us like a trumpet with its coarse kindliness and honesty, and the lover in Maud could actually persuade himself that this abominable noise resembled his lady-love’s name. Has the poet, for whom Nature means only roses and lilies, ever heard a pig grunting? It is a noise that does a man good—a strong, snorting, imprisoned noise, breaking its way out of unfathomable dungeons through every possible outlet and organ. It might be the voice of the earth itself, snoring in its mighty sleep. This is the deepest, the oldest, the most wholesome and religious sense of the value of Nature—the value which comes from her immense babyishness. She is as top-heavy, as grotesque, as solemn, and as happy as a child. The mood does come when we see all her shapes like shapes that a baby scrawls upon a slate—simple, rudimentary, a million years older and stronger than the whole disease that is called art. The objects of earth and heaven seem to combine into a nursery tale, and our relation to things seems for a moment so simple that a dancing lunatic would be needed to do justice to its lucidity and levity. The tree above my head is flapping like some gigantic bird standing on one leg; the moon is like the eye of a Cyclops. And, however much my face clouds with sombre vanity, or vulgar vengeance, or contemptible contempt, the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for ever.’

Neil Gaiman's Stardust: a review

‘These mythological ballads are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries with different and earlier completeness among different people… I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English.’

-J. R. R. Tolkien

This is the first book I’ve read by Mr Gaiman (I have not yet seen the film version) and it will not be the last. If for no other reason because of his growing reputation and because he’s bright enough to have on numerous occasions made much of two of my favourite authors: R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe. Let me start by mentioning that Gaiman’s writing style in this particular book is a nice light prose, generally pleasant to read, and he takes time to set up a genuine (if not deep) world. But the writing is not ‘deceptively light’ as the writing of some writers is described (e.g. Gene Wolfe). It is as it appears. I don’t sense a great depth or sophistication behind it (not great, I say, but there is some). I’m not accusing it of being outright shallow in either style or content. But there are many shades between casual and profound in writing.

The story starts with the comment that the town of Wall (where the hero hails from) is still here in the 20th century (the book was published in 1999), but then pleasantly and skilfully Gaiman sets his tale back in Victorian times. He does so in a way rather reminiscent of Lewis setting up The Magician’s Nephew in its era of Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street, the Bastables looking for treasure in Lewisham Road, stiff Eton collars, and cheap but delicious sweets. Writes Gaiman:

‘Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and the spring in her step, and the Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, although she was very much in love.

‘Mr Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.

‘Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully.’

There you can witness it for yourself. A very pleasant style with a light sophistication. Truth be told, if the whole book had kept up this level of intelligent playfulness, I would have enjoyed it more. But as in the Chronicles of Narnia, it rather quickly takes off into the strictly Faerie and as it does so I became less impressed with Gaiman’s exhibition of either erudition or invention. I found I had to ask myself: why would I want to read this if not for the respect I’ve heard given to him and because he’s smart enough to recommend Lafferty to people and even to make a self-confessed (and valiant) attempt at writing a Lafferty short story? I’m not sure.

Please understand, this is a fine book. It’s story is essentially sound. It is not a waste of time. Nevertheless I can find fault. For example, some of the magical elements are a bit too ‘cheap’ for my tastes. Just one instance: at a fair a miniature glass cat figurine is picked up and found to be alive, then dropped in shock. It sounds alright extracted as a summary like that, but it’s the kind of thing a writer like Gene Wolfe can do with a similarly light touch but that gives both an initial shock and lingers on in the mind with a genuine and even discomfiting sense of magic. This moment in Gaiman’s story felt just slightly obligatory or perfunctory, adding very little to the world it was creating.

Now I’ve said that the prose is pleasant enough to read, but nevertheless it must be confessed it can be overall just slightly pedestrian—though there is the occasional notable metaphor: ‘Mount Huon… had been expanded, improved upon, excavated and tunnelled into by successive Masters of Stormhold, until the original mountain peak now raked the sky like the ornately carved tusk of some great, grey, granite beast’; or ‘The lord’s voice wheezed out of him, like the wind being squeezed from a pair of rotten bellows’. (These sound even better in their context of course.)

In terms of exploring ‘the Big Questions’ through art, the story starts off promising. The very first sentence reads: ‘There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.’ But I do not feel this simple but potentially pungent start pays off in the end. It really amounts to a rather conventional ‘love story’ where a boy thought his true love was ‘this’ girl but it ends up being ‘that’ girl. Nothing deeper.

Again I feel obliged to emphasis that this is actually a very decent and sometimes quite good book. I wouldn’t really say that it’s bad or poor at all. My criticisms are sharp and strict just for the sake of getting to the point and to keep the standard requisitely high.

I will tell no more of the story itself, of the hero’s dangerous adventures through fairyland with a beautiful fallen star and of the various sets of characters whose own plots slowly converge into one with passably commendable artistry. It is entertaining. When all is said however, I must give credit and respect to Gaiman for genuinely pursuing the land of Faerie in the way Tolkien described that fairy tales at their best do (not because I think Tolkien the final authority on such matters, but rather because he was humble and wise enough to simply historically discern what was the deep human impulse in such tales worldwide and from ancient times). That is, Gaiman in this story is longing for escape, hearing ‘whispers from beyond the world’, to use some of Tolkien’s phrases (from his seminal essay ‘On Fairy Stories’). That is, I think Gaiman is trying to rather frankly (and refreshingly) honour Faerie for what it is, which is especially pertinent to our age: mischievous, indefatigable, irrepressible, irreverent-yet-reverent, painfully poignant, acutely powerful anti-reductionism. I.e. he honours the fact that in our heart of hearts we humans wish (perhaps we know) that there is More Than This and so we turn to this weird and wonderful form of storytelling.

I must mention that in his Acknowledgments at the end of the book, Gaiman makes the very interesting comment: ‘I owe an enormous debt to Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell and C. S. Lewis, wherever they may currently be, for showing me that fairy stories were for adults too.’ I’m pleased no end that Lewis continues to have such a crucial influence on the arts, especially on more ‘pop-fringe’ artists like Gaiman. I have no idea what Gaiman’s personal beliefs about immortality are or how purely whimsical this comment may be, but I sense it is one more instance of his heartfelt anti-reductionism (even it it’s not an out and out affirmation of a supernatural worldview).

Neil Gaiman is trying valiantly to cultivate some of the aforementioned ‘primitive undergrowth’ for our times and I applaud him for it. There is something very right about his intentions. In honesty I’m bound to say I don’t sense the deep, deep power of myth coming through in this particular tale. Not that every moment of even the best myths do have this. I just mean it seems to me that it lacks somehow what Lewis called that ‘spear stab’ of true wonder. Or at least that in Stardust it comes across flickeringly in rare moments as more of a pinprick.

PARENTAL NOTE: I would recommend parents read this tale before their children do. Many, like me, would not find it age appropriate, especially for young children and probably even teenagers, due to a few graphic scenes of sex and violence. This is regrettable as I would have enjoyed having my children read it and seeing what they thought.

An Expostulation Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction

This is a poem by C. S. Lewis, the central thought of which I resonate with:

Against too many writers of science fiction

Why did you lure us on like this,
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building (as though we cared for size!)
Empires that cover galaxies,
If at the journey's end we find
The same old stuff we left behind,
Well-worn Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmartre, or Bethnal Green?

Why should I leave this green-floored cell,
Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,
Unless, outside its guarded gates,
Long, long desired, the Unearthly waits,
Strangeness that moves us more than fear,
Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,
Or Wonder, laying on one's heart
That finger-tip at which we start
As if some thought too swift and shy
For reason's grasp had just gone by?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sixty-Six Divine Descriptors

Theologeek that I am , I personally find poetry in the sesquipedalian technical terms of theology such as ‘soteriological’, ‘sublapsarian’, ‘perichoresis’, etc. I take particular pleasure in rolling summary divine ‘attributes’ off my tongue such as ‘omnipotence’, ‘omnipresence’, ‘omniscience’, ‘omnibenevolence’, and the like. And indeed it is their actual meaning that I most appreciate. Some find them cold and cerebral but I find them useful and helpful. I’ve even coined one of my own to sum up an oft neglected attribute of God: that God is ‘omnisophical’, all-wise.

My enjoyment of such terms notwithstanding, the Bible of course does not speak like this. True, it does at times ascribe to God that he is ‘Almighty’ or that he ‘knows all things’, but usually the above attributes are described by contemplative poetry (e.g. ‘where can I go in all the world and You won’t be there with me?’ = omnipresence) or in historical circumstances or prophetic utterances or ‘apocalyptic’ visions (e.g. angelic beings covered in eyes = omniscience). But I do believe all of the above attributes are described and affirmed in no uncertain terms throughout the Bible’s pages.

But another stimulating dimension to the way the Bible describes an infinite-personal God is that it does so by pictures and stories, particularly through literary genres and styles and forms and devices.

On a whim one day I listed the majority of the 66 books of the Bible with a summary statement based on a book’s form, style, prominent subject matter or theme and ascribed this to God’s character. Many are to be expected, but some I find fresh and surprising. Some of them are provocative and would require qualification and clarification. Anyone could easily make their own list that would bring out many different nuances than mine and yet would no doubt overlap a great deal in essence. I find it exhilarating and expanding and intriguing to think of God in this ‘biblical-canonical’ way. It shows both ‘the God of the Bible’ as well as the ‘Bible of God’ to be more wide, weird, warm and wonderful than we might usually conceive of.

I start with the New Testament, perhaps slightly more familiar in theme to us (though even here there are some intriguing bits), and then go on to the perhaps less familiar Old Testament. If you just say aloud the summaries one after the other it has a powerful effect I think.

Matthew (‘The Kingdom of God’)
Mark (‘The Secrecy of God’)
Luke (‘The Humanity of God’)
John (‘The Word of God’)
Acts (‘The Movement of God’)
Galatians (‘The Freedom of God’)
Philippians (‘The Joy of God’)
James & Jude (‘The Wisdom of God’)
1 Peter (‘The Fiery Ordeal of God’)
Hebrews (‘The Finality of God’)
Revelation (‘The Unveiling of God’)
Genesis (‘The Creativity of God’)
Exodus (‘The Presence of God’)
Leviticus (‘The Holiness of God’)
Numbers (‘The Journey of God’)
Deuteronomy (‘The Treaty of God’)
Joshua (‘The War of God’)
Judges (‘The Horror of God’)
Ruth (‘The Redemption of God’)
Samuel (‘The Politics of God’)
Kings (‘The Tragedy of God’)
Chronicles (‘The Retelling of God’)
Ezra (‘The Repatriation of God’)
Nehemiah (‘The Rebuilding of God’)
Esther (‘The Comedy of God’)
Job (‘The Perplexity of God’)
Psalms (‘The Beauty of God’/‘The Consolation of God’)
Proverbs (‘The Pathway of God’)
Ecclesiastes (‘The Enigma of God’)
Song of Solomon (‘The Erotica of God’)
Isaiah (‘The Majesty of God’)
Jeremiah (‘The Anguish of God’)
Lamentations (‘The Grief of God’)
Ezekiel (‘The Strangeness of God’)
Daniel (‘The Sway of God’)
Hosea (‘The Ardour of God’)
Joel (‘The Day of God’)
Amos (‘The Justice of God’)
Jonah (‘The Inclusiveness of God’)
Habakkuk (‘The Unorthodoxy of God’)
Haggai (‘The House of God’)
Zechariah (‘The Pictures of God’)
Malachi (‘The Approach of God’)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On theistic history as 'over-determined'

In a stimulating discussion on historiography I heard a historian on the radio today describe a theistic view of history as ‘over-determined’. This is revealing. It shows what non-theists despise and fear in a Christian view of things. I can somewhat sympathise with the historian if he merely misunderstands that the theistic position is that all is ‘written’ in a deterministic sense that makes a mockery of our human story, as if we’re not doing anything truly significant in the unfolding of history but rather that all is a Divine Puppet Show. But I do think that’s a misunderstanding – even on the strongest Christian view of God’s sovereignty he is still good and holy and just and loving in his ‘rule’ or ‘authorship’ of history and his demands on us and overtures toward us as creatures made in his image clearly show he expects significance from us, personal and communal choices of far-reaching import, not that we’re mere links in a cosmic chain of cause and effect or that our apparent agency is just that, an appearance and not a reality.

However, I don’t think the revulsion of the non-theist is as unmixed as that – a mere misunderstanding. As a Christian I think this epithet of ‘over-determined’ also reveals our inherent fallen instinct to hate and oppose God for limiting our freedom, for putting a boundary on our significance and placing it squarely under his own divine glory. Again, I think this ‘bounded significance’ is misunderstood as an evil, for on the contrary I would argue that it is in fact our greatest good and unleashes human potential under God as no rebellion against our Maker’s rights over us can ever do. If anyone wants to ask just how it so unleashes us, I will attempt another article to explain something of what I mean.

I can see too how this misunderstanding would lead someone with professional interest in the matter to fear that a theistic historian looks only (or mainly) for divine and not human causes in the past. But of course this does not follow from a true understanding of theism. Whilst the theistic historian assumes a divine Hand or Plan overall and behind all, and will indeed be open to seeing evidence of this, even apart from ‘special revelation’ that makes such divine activity explicit (e.g. Holy Scripture), he or she will still be on the same hunt for what every historian of whatever ideological stripe is after: fairly interpreted facts from which to speculate about causes and explanations of past occurrences. It is a matter of both/and, not either/or. It is the same in all other disciplines and arts. Theism enriches and enlarges rather than diminishing or reducing. It should be well known that the reductionism is all the other way. It is those whose philosophy dictates before research ever gets started ‘thus far and no farther’ that are in danger of excluding facts and causes.

Interestingly, I think it is this same misunderstanding of a biblical philosophy of history that fuels present trends in the more ‘liberal’ and ‘emergent’ theologies that seek to limit God’s rule so that our lives don’t feel ‘over-determined’. (I’m referring to an in-house debate amongst my ‘co-religionists’ as to the nature of God: some argue experimentally that God is ‘open’ or ‘in process’ while others argue that such a being would not actually be God at all but some sort of Super-Creature in some kind of symbiosis with the universe and that the atheists would be right after all—that all is imminent with no transcendence, that all is ontologically dependent with Nothing to depend on.) Indeed, I strongly suspect it is the pressure from socio-cultural influences such as I heard on popular radio that are the original inspiration for many of the ‘experimental’ theological moves being made, rather than first and foremost a fresh reading of the Scriptures that has required reformation of the church’s long held views. A different way of reacting to such challenges from culture is of course to explain and defend and show the beauty and goodness of the very doctrine under attack, rather than altering it to fit the sensibilities of those in opposition to a scriptural worldview. It is not theological progress to go down a dead end alleyway.