Friday, March 2, 2018

Chesterton on Nothing and Everything: Tremendous Trifles

by G. K. Chesterton

This book was recommended as a good one for those new to Chesterton on the Mater Amabilis™ ™facebook page. It's a collection of essays Chesterton originally wrote for a newspaper and selected, for no identifiable reason, to publish as a group. There are lovely descriptions, grand-sounding declarations, and plenty of self-deprecating humor.

In "The Red Angel," Chesterton waxes eloquently on the importance of fairy tales.
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of the bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and strong than strong fear. 
An afternoon in the country in "Some Policemen and a Moral" leads Chesterton to ponder the moral significance of unequal prosecution. While walking through a wood, he is suddenly seized with an impish desire to throw a knife a the trees. A few policeman respond and inform him it's illegal to do so. Instead of fining him, however, they send him on his way when they learn he's staying with a local lord. Chesterton considers what becomes of a society that lets the rich and powerful (and their friends) off when they do something wrong.
The power of wealth, and that power at its vilest, is increasing in the modern world. A very good and just people, without this temptation, might not need, perhaps, to make clear rules and systems to guard themselves against the power of our great financiers. But that is because a very just people would have shot them long ago, from mere native good feeling.
He considers voting in "A Glimpse of My Country:"
A man ought to vote with the whole of himself as he worships or gets married. A man ought to vote with his head and heart, his soul and stomach, his eye for faces and his ear for music; also (when sufficiently provoked) with his hands and feet. If he has ever seen a fine sunset, the crimson colour of it should creep into his vote. If he has ever heard splendid songs, they should be in his ears when he makes the mystical cross.
In "The Ballade of a Strange Town," Chesterton and a friend are traveling. After an impulsive jaunt on a train, they discover they've caught the wrong train to get back and are instead somewhere else entirely. After racing around frantically to right their mistake (all of which Chesterton enjoys immensely), he says:
"That is what makes life at once so splendid and so strange. We are in the wrong world. When I thought that was the right town, it bored me; when I knew it was wrong, I was happy. So the false optimism, the modern happiness, tires us because it tells us we fit into this world. The true happiness is that we don't fit. We come from somewhere else. We have lost our way." 
I tried to buy a copy of this book. I enjoyed the first handful of essays and wanted to take my time with the rest. (Everyone knows three months' loan from the library is insufficient.) After much searching, I finally decided on the edition of Tremendous Trifles from the On series and picked up a used copy. I was shocked to realize after looking through it for the quotations I wanted to copy into my commonplace book that it only contains 21 of the 39 essays. As it says in the introduction:
Yet in a pretty devastating review, The Times Literary Supplement said that while some of the individual essays 'are often as provocative as they are charming,' their parts 'might be transposed almost indefinitely without detection.' That there is some truth in this charge means we need not be unduly concerned that this volume contains twenty-one essays from the original selection of thirty-nine.
And that's all it says, as if all the essays are interchangeable. I was quite concerned! An editor may want to make an argument for abridging the selection of essays, but it seems a little presumptuous to declare it isn't of any consequence at all. I read the unabridged version, even if it did mean returning it to the library after three months and requesting it again to finish it.

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