Literature

Quotes of the Day: G.K. Chesterton

7014283In honor of the anniversary of the birth of G.K. Chesterton on this date in 1874, I’ve decided to share some of the Chesterton quotes I’ve saved in my files. Enjoy.

“Theoretically, I suppose, every one would like to be freed from worries. But nobody in the world would always like to be freed from worrying occupations. I should very much like (as far as my feelings at the moment go) to be free from the consuming nuisance of writing this article. But it does not follow that I should like to be free from the consuming nuisance of being a journalist.”

“Ordinary mankind (gigantic and unconquerable in its power of joy) can get a great deal of pleasure out of a game called “hide the thimble,” but that is only because it is really a game of “see the thimble.” Suppose that at the end of such a game the thimble had not been found at all; suppose its place was unknown for ever: the result on the players would not be playful, it would be tragic. That thimble would hag-ride all their dreams. They would all die in asylums. The pleasure is all in the poignant moment of passing from not knowing to knowing.”

“Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.”

“Half our speech consists of similes that remind us of no similarity; of pictorial phrases that call up no picture; of historical allusions the origin of which we have forgotten.”

“So far from it being irreverent to use silly metaphors on serious questions, it is one’s duty to use silly metaphors on serious questions. It is the test of one’s seriousness. It is the test of a responsible religion or theory whether it can take examples from pots and pans and boots and butter-tubs. It is the test of a good philosophy whether you can defend it grotesquely. It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

“There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all.”

“Before we congratulate ourselves upon the absence of certain faults from our nation or society, we ought to ask ourselves why it is that these faults are absent. Are we without the fault because we have the opposite virtue? Or are we without the fault because we have the opposite fault?”

“What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems.”

“If our statesmen agree more in private, it is for the very simple reason that they agree more in public. And the reason they agree so much in both cases is really that they belong to one social class; and therefore the dining life is the real life. Tory and Liberal statesmen like each other, but it is not because they are both expansive; it is because they are both exclusive.”

“They lie when they say they have reached their position through their own organising ability. They generally have to pay men to organise the mine, exactly as they pay men to go down it.”

“If you are brave, think of the man who was braver than you. If you are kind, think of the man who was kinder than you. That is what was meant by having a patron saint.”

“The chief object of education is to unlearn all the weariness and wickedness of the world and to get back into that state of exhilaration we all instinctively celebrate when we write by preference of children and of boys.”

“I am honestly bewildered as to the meaning of such passages as this, in which the advanced person writes that because geologists know nothing about the Fall, therefore any doctrine of depravity is untrue. Because science has not found something which obviously it could not find, therefore something entirely different–the psychological sense of evil–is untrue… You might sum up this writer’s argument abruptly, but accurately, in some way like this–‘We have not dug up the bones of the Archangel Gabriel, who presumably had none, therefore little boys, left to themselves, will not be selfish.’ To me it is all wild and whirling; as if a man said–‘The plumber can find nothing wrong with our piano; so I suppose that my wife does love me.'”

“Men thought mankind wicked because they felt wicked themselves. If a man feels wicked, I cannot see why he should suddenly feel good because somebody tells him that his ancestors once had tails.”

“No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller.”

“If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the concrete.”

“Many great religions, Pagan and Christian, have insisted on wine. Only one, I think, has insisted on Soap. You will find it in the New Testament attributed to the Pharisees.”

“The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.”

“I believe firmly in the value of all vulgar notions, especially of vulgar jokes. When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.”

“All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”

“It is so easy to be solemn; it is so hard to be frivolous.”

“That is why so many tired, elderly, and wealthy men go in for politics. They are responsible, because they have not the strength of mind left to be irresponsible. It is more dignified to sit still than to dance the Barn Dance. It is also easier.”

“It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite…The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly ‘in the know.'”

“A fairly clear line separated advertisement from art. I should say the first effect of the triumph of the capitalist (if we allow him to triumph) will be that that line of demarcation will entirely disappear. There will be no art that might not just as well be advertisement. I do not necessarily mean that there will be no good art; much of it might be, much of it already is, very good art. You may put it, if you please, in the form that there has been a vast improvement in advertisements.”

“But the improvement of advertisements is the degradation of artists. It is their degradation for this clear and vital reason: that the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but only to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower. After all, it was as a human being that a pope took pleasure in a cartoon of Raphael or a prince took pleasure in a statuette of Cellini. The prince paid for the statuette; but he did not expect the statuette to pay him. It is my impression that no cake of soap can be found anywhere in the cartoons which the Pope ordered of Raphael. And no one who knows the small-minded cynicism of our plutocracy, its secrecy, its gambling spirit, its contempt of conscience, can doubt that the artist-advertiser will often be assisting enterprises over which he will have no moral control, and of which he could feel no moral approval.”

“The key fact in the new development of plutocracy is that it will use its own blunder as an excuse for further crimes… It is as if a highwayman not only took away a gentleman’s horse and all his money, but then handed him over to the police for tramping without visible means of subsistence.”

“There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men… these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success. On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey… I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back.”

“It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so.”

“You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners… Or suppose that in the course of his intellectual rambles the philosopher of Success dropped upon our other case, that of playing cards, his bracing advice would run–‘In playing cards it is very necessary to avoid the mistake (commonly made by maudlin humanitarians and Free Traders) of permitting your opponent to win the game’.”

“I know that I cannot turn everything I touch to gold; but then I also know that I have never tried, having a preference for other substances, such as grass, and good wine.”

“The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride?”

“In the end it will not matter to us whether we wrote well or ill; whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Angel and the Idiot

1358983This rare book, tweeted out by Provincial Booksellers Fair Association, caught my eye, combining, as it does two of the themes of my novel Angel: The Angel and the volcano.

The working title of Angel was “The Minister and The Mountain” and I suspect on one of the character Paul’s self-critical days this is the title he would give his story.

If you want to buy The Angel and the Idiot it will set you back £850. You can get Angel for just $15. Bargain!

On This Day in 1900: Oscar Wilde Died in Paris

On November 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde drew his last breath in Paris. His friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner were at his side.  Robert Ross had sent Lord Alfred Douglas, in Scotland, word that Wilde was dying just the day before.  As he made his plans to return to France, Douglas wrote a letter to Wilde through Ross that said, “Give him my undying love.” This message, and word that Wilde had died, crossed in the mail.

The end of Oscar Wilde’s life is only the beginning of the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost. Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross would spend most of their lives wrestling with the roles they played in Wilde’s downfall, and fighting over the mansucript Wilde wrote in prison, a long essay in the form of a letter to Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis.

Would you like to know more?

Read some reviews and interviews here.

Or order an autographed copy.

 

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’

Wilfred Owen is a minor character in Oscar’s Ghost’s third act (a bit more minor than he would have been had I not had to tighten the book as much as I did). He was one of many artists supported, encouraged and promoted by Robert Baldwin Ross, Oscar Wilde’s champion and literary executor.

Interesting Literature

A reading of a classic war poem

‘Strange Meeting’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems. After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it is one of his most popular and widely studied and analysed. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. As Owen himself put it, the poetry is in the pity.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that…

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Adventures in Exile

DNkRI9iXUAAbku2La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).

This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:

 

Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.

Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.

Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)

Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”

Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.

The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.

There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.

chat_noir_poster_steinlein-During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”

As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.

Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.

The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.

Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”

Who Won?

Ross Douglas

When you start doing interviews to promote a book, you have no idea what people are going to ask you. The more you do it, the more patterns emerge. You get an idea of what your own book is from the way people respond to it. You also get better at talking about you work as this process focuses you.

Oscar’s Ghost is about the long-simmering feud between Oscar Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas after Wilde’s death. In the few interviews that I have done so far, one question has been consistent, and it’s strange that I never anticipated it.

What people want to know about the feud is: Who won?

For a short time after he was released from jail, Oscar lived with Bosie in Naples. During this interlude, he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Bosie was understandably curious about the refrain, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

The first time he asked, Oscar brushed the question aside. That did not satisfy Bosie, and so he asked again. “What did you mean by ‘Each man kills the thing he loves?'”

You ought to know,” was his reply.

Bosie did not ask again.

But he did not know. The line cut both ways. Was he the killer or the killed in the metaphor? The destroyer or the destroyed? Had Oscar written an expression of blame or of regret?

Bosie spent many years trying to answer that question in his own mind.

He eventually found his path to absolution in strict Catholicism. Oscar’s deathbed conversion was central. Bosie wrote:

The difference it makes in the way I am able to think of Oscar is, of course, tremendous; chiefly because the fact of his wishing to die a Catholic implies a certain state of mind which connotes a number of other things. For example, a man becoming a Catholic must ipso facto, if his conversion be genuine, “forgive all those who have injured him and ask pardon of all whom he has injured…”

Christ was the solution. Bosie became devoted to a strict form of religion to absolve himself of his guilt and shame. Bosie’s transformation from Bohemian to religious moralist never sit well with Robbie. Thus the very thing that gave Bosie a level of peace and satisfaction drove a wedge between the friends that laid the groundwork for Robbie to circulate unpublished portions of De Profundis.

Who won?

De Profundis was Wilde’s victory over incarceration and public humiliation. It was part catharsis, part personal letter and a large part artistry. Using the events of his own life as material he told a story that expanded on a motif that had always fascinated him as an artist. He had dramatized it in Salome and the Picture of Dorian Gray before he and Bosie ever met: Love destroys its object.

In De Profundis, he took this idea a step further by demonstrating the even greater passion of continuing to love the object of your own destruction.  By writing, he transcended the depths of despair and created an enduring literary work.

Today they mount art installations in Wilde’s former jail cell and poets gather to read De Profundis aloud– a powerful rebuke of the Philistines, Wilde triumphant. But that same artistic statement tore Bosie apart when he finally read it, years after his lover’s death.

Who won?

In 1912, Robert Ross, now a noted art critic as well as Wilde’s literary executor, weighed in on one of the artistic controversies of his day.  The Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt was going to be flooded in order to build the Assuan Dam. A letter to the Times defended the destruction because of the economic development a dam promised. The writer said he was sure that if an art lover, a baby and the Dresden Madonna were in a burning tower, the art lover would save the baby rather than the picture.

Ross wrote to reply that he hoped that he would save the picture rather than the baby.

Indeed, there are many other works of art for which, sitting beside a patent fire extinguisher, I find it easy to think that I would lay down my life; there are few adults or babies for whom I would make any such sacrifice.

Ross was, indeed, faced with such a choice when it came to De Profundis. To make the contents of the document known was to sacrifice Bosie. It would ruin him with polite society with its evidence that Bosie was homosexual. It would also ruin him in the counterculture of men who worshiped Wilde because it presented him as the sole cause of Wilde’s downfall.

When I was asked “who won” the second time I answered that perhaps it was Ross as he was the one who accomplished what he set out to do. He had preserved a document that Wilde had once told him was the most important thing he had ever written. He amplified its message by gently guiding biographers. It was through Ross that Wilde was able to make his own life story into a work of art.

But did Ross win?

De Profundis, that beautiful essay, left a lot of pain in its wake. Its text attacked all of the pillars of Bosie’s self-esteem. It denied what had been Bosie’s proudest accomplishment– the way he had stood by Wilde through thick and thin. It claimed that Bosie interfered with Oscar’s work, and stole Bosie’s pride at being his mentor’s muse. It even mocked Bosie’s poetry as “undergraduate verse.” To have everything he was most proud of denied by the man he loved most was emotionally overwhelming.

By the time Bosie read the full version of De Profundis, Oscar was dead. He could not ask him again what he meant by “Each man kills the thing he loves.” He could not understand why Oscar had not told him about these resentments when they were living together or in all of the time they spent together afterwards. If he hadn’t said anything while sober, why hadn’t he blurted something out when he was drunk? He pondered this question in one of his autobiographical books. In each of his books he wrestled with the question of De Profundis, Oscar’s silence about it, and how it contradicted his own memory of their love affair.

Unable to confront Oscar, an increasingly bitter and unstable Bosie attacked Robbie with every means at his disposal. Robbie spent his last years consumed by legal trials, bothered by stress, paranoia and ill-health. Perhaps we could say that he did, in the end, live up to his ideals and lay down his own life to save a work of art.

Who won?