Friday, January 1, 2010

YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 7

Posted by Webster 
This is my favorite chapter in the book, partly because it highlights two things that are important to me, even if they are often opposed: levity and marriage. Let me begin with levity and end with marriage.

Chapter 7, “The Eternal Revolution”
Anyone who has ever been a stage actor, as I was in my youth and still am in both my dreams and my nightmares, knows that no truer words were ever written:  

Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. . . . It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

If you ever took part in a dreary high school production of Macbeth or The Death of a Salesman, as I did (I was Malcolm in the Shakespeare, the ironically named Happy in Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy), you know how easy it is to play “serious.” But have you ever tried reading a script by Molière or Neil Simon and making it funny? It’s the hardest thing in the world.

Now, how does Chesterton get here, and what the heck does this have to do with Orthodoxy, Christianity, or our obsession, Catholicism? Good question. I’m not entirely sure I can answer this cogently. So I’ll just offer a few bullet thoughts, then turn over the mic to commenters.

Continuing his tactic of defining a complete and perfect system of values—only to find that Christianity defined the system 2,000 years ago—Chesterton says that true progress or reform, which we all think we want, must be defined by three qualities:

1. There must be a fixed ideal for our final state of perfection, happiness, Utopia. The modern tendency is to change our ideals every five minutes.

2. The ideal state must be “composite,” a state in which things are in the right proportion and not all this or that. We do not want a painting that is all black or all white; we want a harmonious composition.

3. The ideal state can be reached and, especially, safeguarded only through watchfulness, vigilance. Here, two-thirds of the way through the chapter, Chesterton gives the most compelling explanation of original sin, the Fall, that I have ever read.

At the end of the chapter, Chesterton proposes Christian marriage as another element of his Utopia—one that he could have invented himself, except that Christianity already did so. The key Utopian principle defining marriage is, it matters, it’s for keeps. In one of his most beautiful paradoxes, Chesterton writes that marriage is the paramount example of a man, me, exercising “the liberty to bind myself.”

Christian marriage is the great example of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it is the chief subject and centre of all our romantic writing. And this is my last instance of the things that I should ask, and ask imperatively, of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia to avenge my honour on myself.

I think I’ll go ask Katie if she’d like to go for a walk.