Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Ball and The Cross

Book: The Ball and the Cross
Author: GK Chesterton
Edition: Guttenberg
Read: June 2008
164 pages
Rated: 3
out of 5

On top of St Paul’s Cathedral, is a cross on top of a ball. This is the basis for the book, not just the title. The ball is, of course, the world, as in a sphere and the thinking of our era. In Chesterton’s thinking, the cross does mean at the deepest levels the cross of Christ. But a lot of the book is referencing the Church, particularly the Catholic Church.

This is not Chesterton at his prime. But you would have to try real hard to find a modern day writer who can compare to his way with words, even if it is Chesterton at the beginning of his writing. This is his second novel, so there are rough spots. Even Chesterton thought this book was sub-par—see the poem below—written to Father John O’Connor, the original Father Brown. Chesterton also was a man of his times. So remember there was a difference between the acceptable vocabulary of 1910 and 2008. So sometimes, he refers to African’s and Jews in terms which would not be acceptable to us.

There is eighteen chapters of fantasy of two forces in the world—materialism/science and Christianity, sandwiched between two chapters where the war in heaven is portrayed. The book starts with Lucifer in an airship riding with Michael—may represent the archangel or the Church—over the skies of England. Lucifer is de-riding Michael for his simplified views of the world. This abruptly changes as Michael points out to Lucifer that they are running into something, which is the cross on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral. To Chesterton, the world is always, running into the cross. It tries to escape, but always runs into the cross.
Before getting to the rest of the book, I need to take a couple of side excursions. At the end of the chapter, Chesterton writes “And they took the happiest man in the world away to an asylum.” The man is Michael and this is after he has been thrust out of the flying machine—which incidentally happens three other times in the book. Michael lands on the ball and realizes that this is his moment of faith—the way off of the dome is a time of letting go—losing ones life. We will met up with Michael later on, and this thought of losing one’s life to save it.

The second excursion is a phrase which Chesterton uses, “vertigo of the infinite”. The phrase is borrowed from Vincent Van Gogh. This is a phrase I am pondering. This fear of falling from great heights. The climbing to the unattainable heights and looking down at the dizzying view and then understanding you have only just begun. What a rich phrase.

Once the first chapter ends, the main story begins. Turnbull, the atheist who is a bookstore owner and MacIan, the Catholic from the hills of Scotland meet for the first time when MacIan breaks Turnbull window. Why you might ask? Because Turnbull blasphemed the Virgin Mary. Turnbull recognizes that for the first time in twenty years, someone is taking his rantings seriously—Is Chesterton foreshadowing our day when we can say anything we can say or do anything true or untrue, as long as we mind our own business and not interferes with others? Also later on we talk about the meaning and importance of words.

In open court, MacIan challenges Turnbull to a duel. The rest of the story is the dual trying to be fought, but being stopped by a series of figures. In between attempts to fight, the talk about the thoughts, growing founder of each other. Until MacIan says they must fight or be unfaithful to themselves because of caring too much for each other to kill.

At this point, if you look strictly at the plot, it ranges from the fantastic to the lame. The rush to fight in a pawn shop garden, stealing a hansom to run off with, being picked up by a lady and running through police blockades all strike one as being too fantastic. But in Chesterton’s mind, the more fantastic, the closer to truth we go. Look at ManAlive, or The Man Who Would Be Thursday. You are filled with wonder and awe. Better than an Indiana Jones movie. It is not the plot in Chesterton which you read for, it the words and thoughts.

Chesterton goes on though to talk a lot about Christians—not just the atheists—we will talk about that them. As you read this book, you get an undertone of the concern Chesterton has for Christians and their relationship to those who are opposing. MacIan at places does not understand Turnbull or is not familiar with his thinking. Such as in chapter seven where MacIan admits not knowing very much about Turnbull’s belief—or disbelief. Even more so, MacIan is talking in the fourth chapter, Turnbull smiles slightly, when he questions MacIan response to, would it be wrong to like me? Towards the end of the chapter, Chesterton says, If I hate you, its because you hate goodness; if I like you it is because you are good. I am not sure that this is the correct formulation for a Christian. But it is a lot better than how Christians treat abortionists or gays. Jesus’ formulation is to love our enemies. Shows how far MacIan is in his righteousness that he cannot love the atheist. Or another way, Chesterton writes, “He had never really looked at another human being before in his life.” (chapter IX) How can we know and enjoy and have them won over when a person is only a thing, and it? We have become the materialist and not seen the divine in our enemies.

One cannot read Chesterton’s books without needing a healthy sense of humor. This is something Chesterton sees as lacking in Christians. MacIan is a sober fellow throughout the book. Several times MacIan does not see the humor in a situation. When Turnbull makes a comment about MacIan’s family being runners and is this a qualification for a family of warriors, MacIan takes this as a statement. Chesterton’s comment is “MacIan, who never saw a joke in his life.” Or later on in chapter six, Chesterton says that MacIan “had never practiced laughing, and it hurt him very much.” Remember, this is the same Chesterton who ends his book on Orthodoxy saying the hidden attribute of God may be a sense of mirth. In Chesterton’s world, laughter is a great gift, which is not practiced enough, particularly by Christians.

While Christians receive this subtle chastisement throughout the book, the materialist, which he includes those who follow a science only approach, gets a lashing. From the opening scene when Lucifer rides through the air in his flying machine, or at the end with the hygienically, mechanically controlled asylum, Chesterton ridicules such approach .The problem with the material world, is that we are not just material, but we are divine (chpt 7). Materialism leaves no room for the image of God in us. The sterile world leaves something to be desires: “The only objection was that he had nothing to walk towards, nothing to feast about, and no reason whatever for drawing the breath of life.”

One of the stress points is the reason to argue. Today we argue to argue. My take on Chesterton is that he wants to restore us to arguing over words-that is ideas and principles. In Chapter five, when confronted by a person who is more interested in peace than principles, MacIan says “What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? … If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? “ The truth is, we all will argue and argue about lesser things like money and possessions, love, greed and power, and all other things to war about.

In chapter eight, Chesterton points out that religious thinking is pretty static. It is built on ages past. But those with a this-world philosophy suffer from an always changing role. Yesterday’s thoughts destroy the day before yesterday’ today’s destroy yesterday’s. Free-thinkers only destroy yesterday’s Free-Thinkers, not Christianity. The Church is built on the past going forward; today’s thought is built on today and will listen only to today.

Chesterton makes it clear that he is neither a warmonger or peace monger. He equally thinks that blood thirsty philosophy of a glorified war is wrong—remember this was written before World War I. He also rejects the falsity of a higher morality—the peace at any price. He finds it better to believe and die than to live for nothing.

He also has understanding and sympathy for the rich. He sees the desperation of Turnbull’s and MacIan’s rescuer with a fast car. When a smitten MacIan asks the women why did she rescue them from the police, the face is one of desperation and private passion. She is being taught by Ruskin to save life and make things better, but she sees the futility of her own life. Why save that child when the child’s life is so pointless? She see’s hope the dual’s actions-it is so mad it might be true—a typical Chesterton thought. Our world needs a jolt to bring it out of its sorrows.

We then get the contrast with a woman Turnbulls loves. A woman he cannot dishonor. Lewis echo’s Chesterton here—she is not afraid of devils but devils are afraid of her. Lewis’ echo is that a woman like this, butter will not melt in her mouth, but she would think Screwtape is funny. Later Turnbull reveals a side to him because of her. He will not eat the bread of the sacrament—she points out if it is just bread, why not? This is the point where materialism fails—it cannot treat mere matter as matter. It will always have a reaction to it which cannot be accounted for, the beauty of a tree for instance.

The last part of this book, our heroes fall into an asylum. An asylum specially constructed to lure them in and contain them. When out running the police, they jump a fence to escape the police only to be captive by the authorities. Chesterton talks about what is sanity, if the whole world is insane. One place is that insanity is thinking you are someone else. As our friends have infected all they meet, all they meet are eventually thrown into the asylum. Some are diagnosed with one of a kind ailments—such as having one’s boat stolen. Even if this is reality, reality is insanity. Any uniqueness is classified. Once classified, you can be cured. But what is the cure? Normalcy? Sameness?

During this time in the asylum, Turnbull and MacIan both have dreams—temptations. They both discover that the conclusion of their thoughts and philosophies lead to tyranny—places they do not want. MacIan is tempted with doing good; fighting for the cause to bring Christianity to all. He sees the end and it is tyranny of the Church being triumphant and loses its sight for the lost. He saves himself by throwing himself out of Lucifer’s flying machine. Turnbull is also taken up a similar thing happens. Turnbull’s revolution is played out before his eyes. Only those who believe in the cause are fit; only those who are able should continue. This is summed up by Lucifer saying, “Life is sacred; but lives are not sacred.” Turnbull follows the same path as MacIan and Michael-losing himself to save himself. Aren’t we the happiest when our decision leads us on the same path as Christ’s?

The saving happens when they find the most secretive captive in cell A, Michael—remember Michael at the beginning of the story? Michael’s cell is completely walled up so there is no entry or exit. Lucifer is bent on destroying all in the asylum. A fire is set—not by Lucifer, all will be destroyed. As Lucifer flies off, MacIan and Turnbull try to save everyone. But they cannot get to cell A. They stop and listen. The sound is Michael singing. They realize the only way for all to be saved is by calling on Michael—which represents the Church. We do not save the Church, it is the Church which saves us. When he is called, the fires part like the Red Sea and all are saved.

Is this a perfect book? No. It is chaotic and fantastic. Chesterton refines his thoughts as he writes more skillfully in his later books. But this is not a bad read. Just a bit sub-par for him.

New Words:
  • Cyclopean-huge and massive
  • Promptitude - the quality or habit of being prompt
  • Brobdingnagians - imaginary land of giants in Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, marked by tremendous size
  • Recondite – Beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind
  • Tonneau – an enclosed rear compartment of an early automobile
  • Proteus - a Greek sea god capable of assuming different forms
  • Zoetrope - device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures
  • Badinage - playful repartee
Good Quotes:
  • The streets were full of people and empty of adventures., Chpt II
  • But when we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us; which is outside everything you talk about, Chpt IV
  • Did God make men love each other against their will?, Chpt V
  • What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? … If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Chpt V
  • Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities… The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is really beyond the times chpt VIII
  • What you are doing is so mad that it may be quite true. Chpt X
  • Only once or twice in life is it permitted to a man thus to see the very universe from outside, and feel existence itself as an adorable adventure not yet begun. Chptr XVII
Poem by GK Chesterton on The Ball and the Cross to his good friend Father John O’Connor:
This is a book I do not like
Take it away to Heckmondwike
A lurid exile, lost and sad,
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches (slur), the chapters sprawl
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.

Hail, Heckmondwike! Successful spot!
Saved from the Latin's frothing lot
Where Horton and where Hocking see
The grace of heaven, Prosperity.
Above the chimneys hump and broad
A pillar of most solid cloud;
To starved oppressed Italian eyes,
The place would seem a paradise
And many a man from Como Lake
And many a Tyrolese would take
(If Priests allowed them what they like)
Their holidays in Heckmondwike.
The Belgian with his bankrupt woes,
Who through deserted Brussels goes
The hind that threads those ruins bare
Where Munich and where Milan were
Hears owls and wolves howl like Gehenna
In the best quarters of Vienna
Murmers, in tears "Ah how unlike
The happiness of Heckmondwike!"
In Spain the sad guitar they strike
And yearning, sing of Heckmondwike;
The Papal Guard leans on his pike
And dreams he is in Heckmondwike
Peru's proud horsemen long to bike
But for one hour in Heckmondwike;
Offered a Land Bill, Pat or Mike
Cry "Give us stones --- in Heckmondwike!"
Bavarian beer is good, belike
But try the gin of Heckmondwike.
The Flamands drown in ditch and dyke
Then itch to be in Heckmondwike,
Rise freedom, with the sword to strike!
And turn the world to Heckmondwike

Take then, this book I do not like -
It may improve in Heckmondwike.

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