Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chestertonian Musings, Part One

Recently, I actually got around to reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which has been on my “to read” list since time out of mind. As I suspected, I found that I’ve had considerable exposure already to direct quotations of various passages (particularly Chapter Four: The Ethics of Elfland) or have absorbed many of his ideas by osmosis, via my reading of others who were thinking his thoughts after him. At any rate, it was very enjoyable and refreshing to get to absorb these notions in their original context of Chesterton’s masterful and brilliant prose.

There were strains of Chesterton’s thought, however, that I, with a mixture of delight and dismay, discovered that I was encountering for the very first time. Most memorably, in Chapter Six: The Paradoxes of Christianity, I was enthralled to find a brilliant articulation of a notion that has crept in upon my own consciousness over the last several years, but which I have never really attempted to explain or put into words. In that chapter’s introductory paragraph, Chesterton writes:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

As a visual artists who dabbles in other disciplines, this whole idea resonates with me very deeply. Indulge me here in a brief and somewhat random excursus:

Is it not very odd, for instance, that shapes so fundamental as the square and the circle, which can be drawn with exactitude using a ruler and/or compass, defy precise mathematical definition and analysis (at least when one takes the very first steps in trying to peel them apart)? I’m referring to the fact that &pi (3.142…), the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, is an irrational number, one that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers, no matter how large. The same goes for √2 (1.414…), which is the ratio between one of a square’s sides and a diagonal drawn between opposing corners. Other very important—and naturally prevalent—numbers have the same slippery characteristics: &phi (the “golden section”, or .618…), and √5 (2.236…), to cite two additional examples. The point is this: I encounter and use things like circles and squares all the time. How can something so basic, simple and ubiquitous be, at the same time, so downright elusive and mystifying—so irrational?

This stubborn refusal of the natural order to be brought into perfect conformity with nice and tidy logical definitions drove some of the ancient Greeks to the point of maddened distraction (the Pythagoreans). But the eventual acquiescence on the part of some to this paradox yielded some real aesthetic triumphs, such as the Parthenon, whose subtle and deceptive entasis and unevenly spaced columns testify to the awareness that a bit of carefully employed non-conformity here and there proves more satisfying than strict adherence to mathematical and logical notions of orderliness and “perfection”.

I think I will have to further explore some of the rambling rabbit trails this topic tends to generate in some additional posts, hence the “Part One” label above. Let me just wrap this one up by expressing my delight in discovering that Chesterton, who possessed a mind and a soul (to say nothing of a body!) far broader and deeper than my own, also acknowledged, exulted in, and reveled in this same phenomenon—and also felt within it the same spur towards faith that I feel. While this hardly constitutes some objective proof of the existence of God, I, like Chesterton, detect an audible echo of the Divine in these things—and a decidedly Trinitarian echo, at that.

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