Eudora Welty, in her engrossingly honest autobiography, One Writer’s beginnings, describes with striking precision my thinking as regards the matter of reading. She writes, “Ever since I was read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. . .It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. . .I have always trusted this voice.” Personally, my reader-voice brims with alacrity at the chance to enunciate the writing of Mr. G. K. Chesterton. Even his name is fun to say. The following is an admirable attempt at expressing the voice of his essay, “The Maniac” found in the autobiographical Orthodoxy.
Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in response to a challenge; a challenge that he prove his own philosophy. And, that is just what he does with this characteristically defiant footnote: “I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.” At the heart of the book’s premise is his belief that “Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics.” His first essay, “The Maniac” begins the descent into his expressive, intellectual genius.
He starts with the proposal that “as all thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.” Thus a standard for his following dissertation is provided. Next, he busies himself with the naked question of sanity. Reason, he says, (all the while admitting that popular belief, in this instance, is quite contradictory to his own) breeds insanity. Sanity, he insists, matures with imagination. Put precisely, “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.”
With this in mind, Chesterton prepares a delicate argument that compares insanity to modern philosophies. He focuses mainly on materialism. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory . . . the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable . . . His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.” The lunatic’s argument might be compared to a small circle. It is “quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.” In the same way “you may explain the order in the universe by saying that all things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding on an utterly unconscious tree . . . The explanation does explain.” Nevertheless, “Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic ideals.” Materialistic ideals “lead men to complete fatalism.” It uses “free thought to destroy free will.”
It is mysticism that keeps men sane. “The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid.” The ordinary man lives by a transcendentalism that has “primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, t once a blaze and a blur.” And, by it, we can understand everything.
For those who think insanity romantic he offers the apt maxim that “if a disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease.” “It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing.” He then offers the befuddling truth that “ordinary people have a much more exciting time while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life.”
In his introduction Chesterton expresses that he will “take as common ground between myself and an average reader [the] desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity.” As a conservative I afford myself the ability to achieve such a life. I do not desire, or allow myself, to be fettered by a silly, limiting humanist perspective. It is condemning. In modern America main attributes of this philosophy can be found in the debilitating stupidity of “liberalism.” It chains one to a decidedly unimaginative life of so-called rational, free thought. I, for one, prefer the ease of transcendentalism to the slavery of man’s utopias.
2 thoughts on “The Skylarking of Normality”
A fine essay! Good work, Justin
This is great, Justin!