Read both in the last two weeks and while they are in many ways worlds apart, the authors share an interest in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, and between human connectedness and the private/public hidden/disclosed lines. Dorian Gray was good (and has enough witty-yet-profound quotable passages to fill pages), but The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I have about 8 pages of notes in the back of it. It also connects up with my favorite essay in the Empathy Exams about kitsch, authenticity, meaning, aesthetics, and morality. The book is a must read. But warning: keep the tissue box nearby.
Wow. From the person who brought me two other recent successes (The Member of the Wedding and The Road to Wigan Pier) now comes this. What to say (other than, “I love you and please keep recommending books!!”):
First, G.K. Chesterton’s writing is exceptional. For most writers, there are maybe a half-dozen lines I underline in a book because they’re cool and insightful and well-crafted. Virtually this whole book should be underlined. That this guy had such insight into human behavior while also being able to express it in writing with such wit, topsy-turvy paradoxical flair, and yet simplicity is something to behold. I will absolutely read more by him in the future — and then stick the book under my pillow in the hopes his style comes to me through sleep osmosis. (it’s a thing — sleep osmosis). A few examples of awesome passages
- “Gabriel Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came from a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.” [NB: I mean, come on! I want to write that!]
- The debate between Syme (who stands in for order) against Gregory (who stands in for anarchy, which basically here just means chaos [unfortunately]). They debate where art comes from – order or chaos. Gregory retorts that if poetry comes from order, then the Underground Railway would be the most poetical thing in the world. Syme agrees. From there,
- Gregory says: “Nonesense!” “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
- “It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
- “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long.”
- “Now absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absentminded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologise. But how will you bear an absentminded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?” [NB: Reminds me of why No Country for Old Men was so very very creepy]
- “Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character.”
I could go on.
Also, given how many anarchy-related booklists I’ve seen this book on, I assumed it was in some sense pro-anarchy. Let me assure you that that is not the case, though I can’t say it’s a full-fledged love letter to order either. A bit like C.S. Lewis (though upon some googling it seems more accurate to say Lewis a bit like Chesterton, just not particularly clever and topsy-turvy version of him): Chesterton was a Christian and this book can certainly be read to endorse a sort of divine orderliness that goes along with that view of the universe. But then, if that’s the view what to make of the fact that the book suggests it through a most chaotic and absurd of nightmares. Perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes sort of thing.
Long story short: Chesterton is brilliant and the fact that I’ve only just heard of him in the last few months is a tragedy. I want a first edition like nobody’s business!