Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book Review: What I Saw in America

This book is available free online, but I don't have a Kindle and I like to mark up my copy with pen, so I put it on my wish list from Amazon and got it. (Thanks, Eric and Deanna!) Found out a couple of things:

1.) G.K. Chesterton makes for good airplane reading.
2.) The book's a slow starter because GKC focuses on the hotels and like that he saw on his trip, and these more immediate kinds of things don't relate as immediately because they've changed in some ways. But when he starts to go after advertising in city lights it gets good. Then when GKC talks history it gets better. GKC's most endearing characteristic is that he was interested in the history of ideas, not of wars or great men or the like. It's one of the things that makes his writing unique. For instance, Abraham Lincoln was a hero because of his stalwart adherence to an idea. I like that.3.) This book was written after the Harding election. (!) Yet it's still worth reading.
4.) One quote is so good I have to put it on here:

"We cannot be certain of being right about the future; but we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past. The other thing that we can do is to note what ideas necessarily go together by their own nature; what ideas will triumph together or fall together." p. 166


Oh, why stop there?


“Exactly what gives its real dignity to the figure of Lincoln is that he stands invoking a primitive first principle of the age of innocence, and holding up the tables of an ancient law, against the trend of the nineteenth century; repeating, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, etc.,' to a generation that was more and more disposed to say somethinglike this: 'We hold these truths to be probable enough for pragmatists; that all things looking like men were evolved somehow, being endowed by heredity and environment with no equal rights, but very unequal wrongs,' and so on. I do not believe that creed, left to itself, would ever have founded a state; and I am pretty certain that, left to itself, it would never have overthrown a slave state. [Pg 302]


"And we see, even in modern times, that the same Church which is blamed for making sages heretics is also blamed for making savages priests." p.7


Delighting in the color of the NYC advterisement lights: "Therefore it was that I desired the peasant to walk down that grove of fiery trees, under all that golden foliage, and fruits like monstrous jewels, as innocent as Adam before the Fall. He would see sights almost as fine as the flaming sword or the purple and peacock plumage of the seraphim; so long as he did not go near the Tree of Knowledge. … If a child saw these coloured lights, he would dance with as much delight as at any other coloured toys; and it is the duty of every poet, and even of every critic, to dance in respectful imitation of the child.” (p.22-24)


"This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference to-morrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. ... Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive." (p.40-41)


"It is customary to condemn the American as a materialist because of his worship of success. But indeed this very worship, like any worship, even devil-worship, proves him rather a mystic than a materialist." (p.63)


"We are perpetually being told in the papers that what is wanted is a strong man who will do things. What is wanted is a strong man who will undo things; and that will be a real test of strength." (p.74)


Definition of psychoanalysis: "Confession without absolution."


"The nineteenth century prided itself on having lost its faith in myths, and proceeded to put all its faith in metaphors. It dismissed the old doctrines about the way of life and the light of the world; and then it[Pg 196] proceeded to talk as if the light of truth were really and literally a light, that could be absorbed by merely opening our eyes; or as if the path of progress were really and truly a path, to be found by merely following our noses. Thus the purpose of God is an idea, true or false; but the purpose of Nature is merely a metaphor; for obviously if there is no God there is no purpose. Yet while men, by an imaginative instinct, spoke of the purpose of God with a grand agnosticism, as something too large to be seen, something reaching out to worlds and to eternities, they speak of the purpose of Nature in particular and practical problems of curing babies or cutting up rabbits." (p. 109)


"But in the conflict between the Republic and the Church, the point often made against the Church seems to me much more of a point against the Republic. It is emphatically the Republic and not the Church that I venerate as something beautiful but belonging to the past. In fact I feel exactly the same sort of sad respect for the republican ideal that many mid-Victorian free-thinkers felt for the religious ideal." (p.114)


"[H.G. Wells] tells us that our national dignities and differences must be melted into the huge mould of a World State, or else (and I think these are almost his own words) we shall be destroyed by the instruments and machinery we have ourselves made. In effect, men must abandon patriotism or they will be murdered by science. After this, surely no one can accuse Mr. Wells of an undue tenderness for scientific over other types of training. Greek may be a good thing or no; but nobody says that if Greek scholarship is carried past a certain point, everybody will be torn in pieces like Orpheus, or burned up like Semele, or poisoned like Socrates. Philosophy, theology and logic may or may not be idle academic studies; but nobody supposes that the study of philosophy, or even of theology, ultimately forces its students to manufacture racks and thumb-screws against their will; or that even logicians need be so alarmingly logical as all that. Science seems to be the only branch of study in which people have to be waved back from perfection as from a pestilence." (p.133)


"It is often said that we learn to love the characters in romances as if they were characters in real life. I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story." (p. 143)


“The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you.' That text has been the stay and support of more Pharisees and prigs and self-righteous spiritual bullies than all the dogmas in creation; it has served to identify self-satisfaction with the peace that passes all understanding. And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the[Pg 280] childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.” (p.155)


"Generally speaking, men are never so mean and false and hypocritical as when they are occupied in being impartial. They are performing the first and most typical of all the actions of the devil; they are claiming the throne of God."

2 comments:

Deanna said...

See what happens when you keep your wish list current? :)

The definition of psychoanalysis is spot on. If all of these quotes are indicative of GKC, maybe I should read some more of his work.

BenMc said...

Everyone should go through a GKC phase at least once in their lives. Sometimes it's rough going because prose conventions and current event references are so different now, but when he hits on something timeless he can turn a phrase as well as anyone.