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Saturday, August 20, 2011

cover of 'The Tremendous Trifles'

This is a collection of short essays, taken from Chesterton's column in the Daily News.  He describes them as "a sort of sporadic diary - a diary recording one day in twenty which happened to stick in the fancy - the only kind of diary the author has ever been able to keep."  They range widely in topic-- from fairy tales, to art and color, to travel, and morality, and what it means to be human.  As he says in one essay, "let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or coloured cloud."  Many of them are little stories of moments in time, an interesting experience or an instant of insight; as he describes in one of these essays, the kind of moment that has "no explanation and no conclusion; it is, like most of the other things we encounter in life, a fragment of something else which would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen."  Some of them are more entertaining or illuminating than others, but overall I quite enjoyed reading this book.  Because most of the pieces are fairly short, it is an easy book to read a little at a time.

Chesterton's language and ideas are consistently delightful and quotable; here, he even introduced me to the delightful word of "pumpkinity" (I checked the OED - it's an actual word, and Chesterton is even one of the few usages they mention). Rather than try to summarize a few favorite essays or ideas of the many contained in this book, I'll just provide a taste by some of the lines I thought were worth remembering.

Some quotes relating to fairy tales, scattered through the essays in this book:

  • ... contains all the highest qualities of a modern fairy tale, including that of being wholly unfit for children.
  • Fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming.
  • 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.
  • When I was a boy I had a fancy that Heaven or Fairyland or whatever I called it, was immediately behind my own back, and that this was why I could never manage to see it, however often I twisted and turned to take it by surprise.
On work and working conditions:
  • A really human human being would always put the spiritual things first. A walking and speaking statue of God finds himself at one particular moment employed as a shop assistant. He has in himself a power of terrible love, a promise of paternity, a thirst for some loyalty that shall unify life ... my evident and epic destiny. (on worker conditions being approached backwards-- after seeing posters asking whether shopworkers are fit for their shops rather than vice versa)
  • My friend, the human race is always trying this dodge of making everything entirely easy but the difficulty which it shifts off one thing it shifts on to another.
  • How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody go anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things? Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus? Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing? ... The more I thought about the matter the more painfully certain it seemed that the most important and typical modern things could not be done with a chorus. One could not, for instance, be a great financier and sing; because the essence of being a great financier is that you keep quiet.
  • Remember always that there is one thing that cannot be endured by anybody or anything. That one unendurable thing is to be overworked and also neglected. (the point of a little fable about a road that suddenly went uphill and led somewhere different, after being ignored by a businessman who took that road every day to and from work without paying any attention to the road itself)
  • They were the slaves of the modern bondage, you could hear their fetters clanking. Each was, in fact, bound by a chain; the heaviest chain ever tied to a man - it is called a watch-chain.
On democracy and civilization:
  • Great empires are necessarily prosaic; for it is beyond human power to act a great poem upon so great a scale. You can only represent very big ideas in very small spaces.
  • ... civilization is founded upon abstractions. The idea of debt is one which cannot be conveyed by physical motions at all, because it is an abstract idea.  (part of a story about trying and failing to explain, without a common language, to a German restaurant owner that he owed him money)
  • All real democracy is an attempt (like that of a jolly hostess) to bring the shy people out.
  • Democracy means appealing to the different people. Democracy means getting those people to vote who would never have the cheek to govern.

A few quotes about morality and virtue:

  • It can be maintained that the evil of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe.
  • ... the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell.
  • ... a drunkard ought to have strict rules and hours; a temperate man may obey his instincts. ...
    It is only the very good who can live riotous lives.
  • I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes.

A few lines about play:

  • If you could play unerringly you would not play at all. The moment the game is perfect the game disappears. (part of a story about a twilight game of perfect croquet)
  • ...anyone playing at anything has to be serious. Whereas, as I have only too good reason to know, if you are writing an article you can say anything that comes into your head.

And a few about writing:

  • Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
  • ... any collection of printed words is quite enough to suggest infinite complexities of mental ingenuity.
  • ... after one has met a man a million times in the newspapers it is always a complete shock and reversal to meet him in real life.

These aren't always obvious or easy to categorize (even some of the lines above could easily be put into other lists).  Here are a few more that caught my eye as I read through the essays.

  • was such sunlight as reminds a man that the sun beings to set an instant after noon
  • I can understand that a deity might be worshipped with joys, with flowers, and fireworks in the old European style. I can understand that a deity might be worshipped with sorrows. But I cannot imagine any deity being worshipped with inconveniences. (on English "sabbatarianism")
  • The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to be late for the one before.
  • ... boundaries are the most beautiful things in the world. To love anything is to love its boundaries; thus children will always play on the edge of anything. They build castles on the edge of the sea, and can only be restrained by public proclamation and private violence from walking on the edge of the grass. For when we have come to the end of a thing we have come to the beginning of it.
  • ... 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 read this book over a few months, an essay or two at a time.  The free ebook is available at manybooks.netfrom Project Gutenberg, or for Amazon Kindle.

Title:Tremendous Trifles
Author:G. K. Chesterton
Date published:1920
Number of pages:128
Notes:read an ebook


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