Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Should America be afraid of G. K. Chesterton?

The title of this blog is derived from Edward Albee's play "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf" Virginia Woolf is an author who writes to remove illusions about the upper class. She does not actually appear in the play. It is her spirit that is reflected in the play.

What the title could mean is whether America should be afraid of G. K. Chesterton's revelations on America.

When as a teen-age child, studying in a Roman-Catholic school in Madras (set up for the orphans of the British Army, during their early colonial days) and following the Cambridge exmination system, we had for our examples of essays, the writings of sevral English essayists. One of them was G. K. Chesterton, whose style of writing was one that my elder brother liked and we followed in liking GKC. I remember one essay which caught my attention and cast (at least partly) my philosophy towards life. The essay of more than a hundred years (1909) ago is titled "The Advantages of having One Leg"

Now, in the age of the internet, I could find this essay easily. The first line of the essay struck me at that time. It was: A friend of mine who was visiting a poor woman in bereavement and casting about for some phrase of consolation that should not be either insolent or weak, said at last, "I think one can live through these great sorrows and even be the better. What wears one is the little worries." "That's quite right, mum," answered the old woman with emphasis, "and I ought to know, seeing I've had ten of 'em."

The modern world is plagued by the little worries. The biggest countries are plagued the most. As GKC wrote within the next few sentence "But I am afraid that the maxim that the smallest worries are the worst is sometimes used or abused by people, becasue they have nothing but the very smallest worries."

In this same essay GKC would write: To appreciate anything we must always isolate it, even if the thing itself symbolises something other than isolation. ... ... One Tower of Giotto is sublime; a row of Towers of Giotto would be only like a row of white posts. The poetry of art is in beholding the single tower; the poetry of nature in seeing the single tree; the poetry of love in following the single woman; the poetry of religion in worshipping the single star. And so, in the same pensive lucidity, I find the poetry of all human anatomy in standing on a single leg. To express complete and perfect leggishness the leg must stand in sublime isolation, like the tower in the wilderness. As Ibsen so finely says, the strongest leg is that which stands most alone.

GKC wrote this essay when his legs were " ... unequally balanced, the helplessness or dislocation of the one leg may find compensation in the astonishing strength and classic beauty of the other leg." In this body of nations which is our world, a weak (say, by material standards) country would be a weak leg which would admire the strong one. Supposing two countries were strong, and the body "... had really two legs. Two legs were superfluous and irrelevant, a reflection, and a confusion. ... ... That having had one good leg he should have another--this would be to use vain repetitions as the Gentiles do. She (Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson in Mr. George Meredith's novel) would have been as much bewildered by him as if he had been a centipede.

America is perhaps now worrying whether there is a second leg growing strong, when it could imminently lose it eminence, if it has not done so already.

Many years later (middle 1990s) in Pune I found a tattered old copy of Chesterton's book "What I saw in America" in a shop that buys old printed matter and sells them to those who would make pulp out of them for more profitable purposes, such as packing boxes, or cardboard (not toilet paper). Among these printed matter are books read by older people when they were younger, and now sold as "raddi" (scrap) by weight. The book did not look great but it was a treasure for me. I always thought, since I started blogging, that I should examine parts of the book in my blogs in the context of what I now think of America and which would naturally be different from Lala Lajpat Rai's (1916) book "The United States of America: A hindu's Impressions and a Study" (found in the same book shop).

I have not done it because there were other more trivial things (such as my science and other blogs) to handle. After extracting by hand the material for the blog from the book, I now find that the book is on the net and can be read by anyone who cares to.

I persist nevertheless, since the comments are my own. I have used, for this blog only the first chapter on "What is America?". This is the viewpoint of one of the best minds of Britain at a time when England was at its intellectual best and deserved its reputation of it being the capital of the Western World! It is another matter that the Western World thought itself to be the whole world.

I will give some extracts (in italics) from this first chapter and add my comments in normal font. The emphasis will, of course, be on GKC's ways of putting things across. As for the answer to the title of the blog, it is left to the reader. You can huff and you can puff, but you will still hope that the house is not blown down.

When I went to to the American consulate to regularise my passports, I was capable of expecting the American consulate to be American. Embassies and consulates are by tradition like islands of the soil for which they stand; and I have often finding the tradition corresponding to a truth. I have seen the unmistakable French official living on omelettes and a little wine and serving his sacred abstractions under the last palm-trees fringing a desert…. The officials I interviewed were very American, especially in being very polite ; for whatever may have been the mood or meaning of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have always found Americans by far the politest people in the world. They put in my hands a form to be filled up … it as very different from any form I had ever filed up in my life. ….

According to Wikipedia "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (commonly known as Martin Chuzzlewit) is a novel serialized between 1843-1844 by Charles Dickens which he himself proclaimed ... to be his best work ... Dickens changed the plot to send the title character to America ... to portray the United States (which he had visited in 1842) satirically as a near wilderness with pockets of civilization filled with deceptive and self-promoting hucksters. This book is also available from Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/968/pg968.txt). Dickens would write in the preface of the book "The American portion of this story is in no other respect a caricature than as it is an exhibition, for the most part ... of a ludicrous side, ONLY, of the American character--of that side which was, four-and-twenty years ago, from its nature, the most obtrusive, and the most likely to be seen." In the 1868 postscript he would write "to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side--changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere."

This was three years after Lincoln's assasination.

Securing an American visa for an Indian in independent India is another matter from what GKC experienced. I dont know if one has to still come to the embassy office early in the morning and stand on pavements till the gate is opened by security guards who think they have to be more American than the Americans themselves. One also cannot blame the American embassy official who have no particular reason to be considerate considering what they see as hoards of applicants each one of whom consider themselves as special individuals and nod their heads as ambidextrously and ambiguously to ordinary questions which they perceive as being double entendres.

It is amusing that in my first visit to America, I found a piece of India in a place called Hindustan, (with three dwellings at that time, and pronounced by the local resident as Ind-houston) in Monroe County, Indiana. There is a Hindustan Christian Church there established in 1852(http://www.apertome.com/blog/2007/04/). I think we drove down the old state with some of my younger aquaintances (now lost in some science wilderness) to see the place and ended up with a photo of myself there. Hindustan, Indiana, could be the first Non-Resident India in America as distinct from the hordes of proudly American Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) there telling us Resident Indians what is wrong with India.

Dickens satirical novel on Chuzzlewit family is about their selfishness. This selfishness comes from a life of denial so that one cannot but deny others not only what they have, but also to deny others the opportunity to have what they have just in case the newly rich will be denied the pleasure of conspicuously consuming, since it will not be conspicuous otherwise. In America this selfishness has been regenerated with every wave of immigrants of different ethnic colours.

One of the questions on the paper was, “Are you an anarchist?” … Then there was the question “Are you in favour of subverting the government of United States by force?” Against this I should write “I prefer to answer that question at the end of the tour and not at the beginning.” The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity had then written down, “Are you a polygamist?” … I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, “I am an anarchist. I hate you all and wish to destroy you.” Or … “Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and my forty seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries.” .. it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies.

I don't know whether they ask these questions now. In the modern era they dont have to ask questions to track a man's affair. Even close to 1970s, when a friend of mine came back from his visit to the United States, he was greeted back home through a letter from the United States Information Service (USIS), Madras (at that time). How and why did the USIS keep track of my friend so well?

Paul, that was his first name, and I wanted to protest against the Mao-Tse-Tung following wing of communists protesting against the Americans in Vietnam while the Chinese themselves had attacked India. They were to make this protest in front of the USIS. We didn't want to show we supported US policies on Vietnam nor did we want to be seen as supporting the Communist support for China. We had worn aprons of newspapers on which we had written ambiguous slogans such as (I forget the actual slogans) "Long live Chinese Imperialism" and "Down with American Revisionism" (Chinese had used the term revisionism for marxists such as Russians who deviated from marxist premises) and stood in front of the USIS building late ion the evening (near dusk) when the procession reached USIS. We were held firmly by plain clothesmen --- they really had a firm grip by which one understood immediately the authority --- and whisked away from the scene. This was fortunate because the communists were interested in an incident which would have given them more publicity. The police informed us the next day that our lives could have been in danger.

Chesterton did not find the questions laughable. "A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticize it as if he comprehended it."

He would explain his reasons later, but not before he said some more things.

".. I have stood on the other side of Jordan, in the land ruled by a rude Arab chief, where the police looked so like brigands that one wondered what the brigands looked like. But they did not ask me whether I had come to subvert the power of the Shereef; … It would be esy to argue that Western democracy persecutes where even Eastern despotism tolerates of emancipates. …It would be easy to develop the fancy that compared with the sultans of Turkey or Egypt, the American constitution is a thing like the Spanish Inquisition."

I suppose Chesterton would have looked at the likes of the Israeli cabinet (Israel was not there at that time) occupying Arab land now and would have wondered why the European Jews were there in the first place controlling over the Arabs. He could have also looked at Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat and others and wondered whether a monarchy, or a democracy, or a dictatorship would have been more preferable to the Hegemony of NATO or Israel. Chesterton had written in the preface to his book "The New Jerusalem" To talk of the Jews always as the oppressed and never as the oppressors is simply absurd; it is as if men pleaded for reasonable help for exiled French aristocrats or ruined Irish landlords, and forgot that the French and Irish peasants had any wrongs at all. I am sure GKC's ideas of fairplay would have required some re-examination. He would also write in the same book: "And the burden of it is the burden of Palestine; the narrowness of the boundaries and the stratification of the rock. A voice not of my reason but rather sounding heavily in my heart, seemed to be repeating sentences like pessimistic proverbs. There is no place for the Temple of Solomon but on the ruins of the Mosque of Omar. There is no place for the nation of the Jews but in the country of the Arabs. ... I felt almost a momentary impulse to flee from the place, like one who has received an omen. For two voices had met in my ears; and within the same narrow space and in the same dark hour, electric and yet eclipsed with cloud, I had heard Islam crying from the turret and Israel wailing at the wall."

It may have seemed something less than a compliment to compare the American Constitution to the Spanish Inquisition. But oddly enough, it does involve a truth; and still more oddly perhaps it involves a compliment…America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.. … It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority for that reason is just. … The Spanish Inquisition might be admittedly Inquisitorial; but the Spanish Inquisition could not be merely Spanish. Such a Spaniard, even when he was narrower than his own creed, had to be broader than his own empire.

He might burn a philosopher because he was heterodox; but he might accept a barbarian because he was orthodox.. … the same Church which is blamed for making sages heretics is also blamed for making savages priests.

It does not seem that Chesterton was being mischievous when he wrote about the American vision that all men are equal in the same breath as the Spanish Inquisition (intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy among those who had converted to the Catholic faith from Judaism and Islam and thereby break away from Papal control; I still don't know what it has to do with Higgins shouting "I'd prefer a new edition Of the Spanish Inquisition Than to ever let a woman in my life"). The Spanish Inquisition was ostensibly to safeguard the Spanish King from the intentions of the Pope by adding new converts to his side. The Americans have used the democracy card as an orthodoxy card for their democratic religious which protect democratic institutions that they recognise as democratic. We Indians do not figure in that list as we are not banana ripe enough perhaps.

There is something of the same idea at the back of the great American experiment; the experiment of a democracy of diverse races which hs been compared to a melting pot. …. The melting pot must not melt…. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship … The missionary can condemn a cannibal, precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich islander. …. The American may exclude a polygamist, precisely because he cannot exclude a Turk.

When we realize the democratic designs of such a cosmopolitan commonwealth, and compare it with our insular reliance or instincts, we see at once why such a thing has to be not only democratic but dogmatic. … Suppose somebody said, “Do let me bring Colonel Robinson down for the weekend; he’s a bit of a crank but quite interesting.” We should not anticipate the colonel running amuck with a carving knife … for these are not among the daily habits of an old English colonel; … If somebody wished to add a Hairy Ainu to the family party at Christmas, we should want to know a little more about it and him. … Is the Hiry Ainu content with hair, or does he wear any clothes? … In short as in the American formula, is he an anarchist?

The Americans are very patriotic, and wish to make their new citizens patriotic Americans. In a word, what is not unique is not America, but what is called Americanization. … And the process, … is not internationalization. It would be truer to say it is the nationalization of the internationalized. It is making a home out vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.

There is an outbreak of Democratic Institutions in the Arab lands by agents of mass-media-control such as Facebook and twitter, who proclaim themselves to be instant agents of freedom from governmental control which can always be found to be corrupt. This movement is only against government corruption and has nothing about corruption at private level. In India there is the real danger of the Lokpal movement becoming something like an inquisition. Either you subscribe to the lokpal or we will fast unto death against you, if you are in the government. Private corruption does not come into their agenda even if they are members of the lokpal drafting committee. In the Spanish Inquisition, there is an accusation and a denunciation during which the property of the accused is either confiscated or used to pay for expenses. The lokpal may end up doing the same.

Americans have nationalities at the end of the street which for us are at the ends of the earth. …. The Declaration of Independence is something that is not only absent from the British Constitution, but something which all our constitutionalists have invariably thanked God, with the jolliest boasting and bragging, that they had kept out of the British Constitution. It is the thing called abstraction or academic logic. It is the thing which such jolly people call theory; and those who can practice it call thought. And the theory or thought is the very last to which English people are accustomed … . It is thetheory of equality. It is the pure classic conception that no man must aspire to be anything more than a citizen, and that no man should endure to be anything less. ...

The word "Americanization" appears in the title of one of the better movies "The Americanization of Emily" that I have seen so far. With all the TV and media images of successive American wars for protecting its democracy, and its counter suicide bombing, the phrase "horrors of war" has ceased to impress as an horror but seems to serves more as a titillation ("there are some disturbing images") for TV channels. The movie itself is about an English driver Emily who, during the war, "... despite losing her father, brother, husband and several cousins to war, it takes the tragic and wholly unnecessary death of her new lover for Emily to realize the imprudence of her idealism, for her to become "Americanized." (see http://www.lewrockwell.com/gee/gee10.html) This loss of faith in lofty ideals is not the Americanization that Chesterton had in mind, I guess. His Americanization, "home out of vagabonds and nation out of exiles" instead describes a loss of another ideal ... that of loss of identity with any other nation or culture but that of the American.

Towards the end of this first Chapter of his book "What I see In America" does some introspection on the actual realities and the illusion which I include, suppressing all desires to comment. The text is eloquent.

The realities are quite another matter, and we shall consider … whether the ideal will be able to shape the realities or will merely be beaten shapeless by them. … But citizenship is still the American ideal; there is an army of actualities opposed to that ideal; but there is no ideal opposed to that ideal. … He need not set himself to develop equality, but he need not set himself to misunderstand it. … He may at least be a philosopher and see that equality is an idea; and not merely one of those soft-headed skeptics who, having risen by low tricks to high places, drink bad champagne in tawdry hotel lounges, and tell ech other twnty times over, with unwearied iteration, that equality is an illusion.

In truth it is inequality that is the illusion. The extreme disproportion between men, that we seem to see in life, is a thing of changing lights, and lengthening shadows, a twilight full of fancies and distortions. ... We find a man famous and cannot live long enough to find him forgotten; we see a race dominant and cannot linger to see it decay. It is the experience of man that always returns to the equality of men; ... It is when men have seen and suffered much ... that they see men as men under an equal light of death and daily laughter. ...

For veritably, in the spirit as well as in the symbol, suns and moons and meteors pass and fill our skies with a fleeting and almost theatrical conflagration; and whenever the old shadow stoops upon the earth the stars return.

The last two lines should be the ephemeral that mighty nations don't discover until they have lost their egos. Indian mindsets aim at being ego-less like a true old civilization.

The return of a new Gandhi could generate the desired Americanization of the Indian youth who perceive themselves to be more equal than some others.

In his essay "Tremendous Trifles" Chesterton would write "I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering, in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything. Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects at his feet. It is from the valley that things look large; it is from the level that things look high; I am a child of the level and have no need of that celebrated Alpine guide. I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help; but I will not lift up my carcass to the hills, unless it is absolutely necessary. Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

I subscribe to this view. I am an ancient civilization.