GKC – Welcome to Elfland; Orthodoxy Chapter 4a   Leave a comment


Let’s dive right in to elfland, shall we?

Chesterton’s use of the word “ordinary” is problematic and inconsistent. This is unfortunate, since Orthodoxy reads like it might be a defense of the ordinary, rather than the orthodox, that’s how often the word comes up. At times he uses it to mean “ordinary men,” by which he means that small group of middle class, white, English, Christian, and nuero-typical people who happen to also possess a Y chromosome. At other times, Chesterton applies the word a bit more broadly. He begins the chapter with a use exemplified by:

The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.  Death is more tragic even than death by starvation.  Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

Chesterton narrows the field by restricting his discussion to men, but he generally seems to mean “ordinary” in the sense that having a nose or two legs is ordinary (though only death is universal to people). He’s looking for the very broadest categories he can think of (I can’t tell if his choice of “men” instead of “people” is deliberate here. I’m certain it isn’t elsewhere).

This conception of “ordinary” (a facially broad one, though narrowed to Chesterton’s context upon inspection) recurs again and again throughout the chapter. Chesterton uses this conception of ordinary to argue that democratic principles (in the form of self rule) argue for a hearty respect for tradition.

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time.  It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record… Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant.  It will not do for us.  If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable.

The problem with this view, of course, is that tradition almost never is “the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity.” Tradition is the scraps of history that have been passed on from one generation to the next by the process of the newer generation picking up what it liked from the older generation and ignoring everything else. Chesterton’s ideas of what was traditional were shaped by his preferences, so appealing to tradition is a bit like appealing to our own biases about the past. Certainly, Chesterton doesn’t abide by the social customs or dress or diet or many of the Anti-Jewish prejudices that were common throughout Europe in the middle ages.

From this unpromising start Chesterton proposes to introduce the reader to some “fundamental ideas” that shaped his thinking in the order he discovered them. After veering a bit into his “make yourself small to make the world more grand around you” (humility = excitement), Chesterton introduces the reader to the spirit behind the law of elfland (the connection being that tradition is represented by fairy tales and fairy tales take place in elfland).

It might be stated this way.  There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable.  They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary.  Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences.  We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) NECESSARY that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters… But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing.  I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened–dawn and death and so on–as if THEY were rational and inevitable.  They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three.  But it is not.  There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three.  But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit…

Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales.  The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other.  The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause.  Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower.  But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground.

Something I hadn’t realized about Chesterton until recently is how stuck inside his own head he is. He argues about what makes people happy, by which he means what has made him happy. He talks about a “necessary mental connection” as if the limitations of his mind represent real limitations in reality. He tests what is necessary by asking whether he can imagine it not being the case.

Chesterton should viewed as someone with a fantastically interesting perspective. Much of what he says will not correspond with reality, but his mind is such an interesting place that his ideas are often worth examining anyway. The mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground should take place. It should take place without any sort of wonder or surprise. Thinking usually requires that the thought correspond to reality, and anticipating the effects of gravity on falling objects is something that should happen automatically. So Chesterton’s spirit of elfland should not be used to pattern how we think.

That said, Chesterton does posit an idea here that it might not hurt to think about every now and then. Because, as weird as it seems, this odd way of approaching causation does have the effect of deepening appreciation for the world around us. Chesterton scorns the terms of science books to describe nature: “law,” “necessity,” “order,” and “tendency.” In their place he substitutes “charm,” “spell,” and “enchantment,” because he finds these words more intellectually satisfying (IMHO). Chesterton goes on in this vein for a bit, putting down the views of others for not satisfying his exact intellectual itch, and then he touches on a point that I still appreciate to this day.

Chesterton talks about repetition and monotony. He argues that while repetition (as in one’s daily routine) is perceived as leading to dullness, in reality it is we who are dull. Children, he says, can play the same game for hours after we’ve gotten bored because they are more alive with wonder than us.

This little argument seems very rich to me. There really are no boring people, no boring topics. There are simply things that we’re not alive enough to appreciate yet. I don’t know very much about rocks, but I think a good working definition for heaven would be a place where I learned everything there was to know about rocks and being constantly amazed at what I find.

I think we’ll get into this last topic a bit more next week. We’ll definitely  be getting into one of my favorite passages of any book, so stay tuned.

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Posted 08/12/2012 by reluctantliberal in GKC

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