Monday, January 07, 2008

The Ball and the Cross, or My First Meeting with Chesterton


"For the world of science and evolution is far more elusive and like a dream than the world of poetry and religion; since in the latter images and ideas remain themselves eternally, while it is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare" (1).
The Ball and the Cross by G. K. Chesterton begins with this dichotomy, one that seems to turn the chief argument of most modern skeptics on its head. As people of faith in a secular society, we have become accustomed to acknowledging before those who would oppose us that religion is indeed akin to poetry and other "abstractions," that it is mysterious and therefore confusing, and somehow out-of-reach, like a dream - but as Chesterton points out, such an admission is utterly untrue. The truth of our Catholic faith is more solid and more certain than any "new" science, and any ideology that denies the existence of absolute truth. (One might also note that good poetry, like true religion, cannot be called abstraction - truly good poetry is specific, concrete, intelligible and enduring, like dogma.)

In a witty and entertaining allegory, The Ball and the Cross chronicles the adventures of James Turnbull, the editor of an athiest newspaper, and Evan MacIan, a young Catholic who wishes to fight a duel with Turnbull because he has blasphemed the Blessed Mother. In a hilarious turn of events, the two men become fugitives from the law by mutual agreement, and on the fantastic adventure that ensues, they find time to discuss all manner of subjects: ethics and morality, tradition and progress, and of course, the place of the Church in the modern world.

In his characteristically matter-of-fact tone, Chesterton challenges his readers to hold fast to the unpopular truth that the Catholic faith has always been more stable and more certain than any other ideology, even if its enemies argue that it is too incredible to be believed. As MacIan explains to Turnbull in "The Last Parley":

"The world left to itself grows wilder than any creed. ... That is the only real question - whether the Church is really madder than the world. Let the rationalists run their own race, and let us see where they end. If the world has some healthy balance other than God, let the world find it. Does the world find it? Cut the world loose ... Does the world stand on its own end? Does it stand, or does it stagger? ... We cannot trust the ball to be always a ball; we cannot trust reason to be reasonable. In the end the great terrestrial globe will go quite lop-sided, and only the cross will stand upright." (168)
Though I started quoting him years ago, The Ball and the Cross was the first book of Chesterton's that I read in its entirety, and it's convinced me that old G.K. and I are going to be good friends. I found that the 1995 Dover edition (pictured above) handled nicely - just the right thickness, just the right size font - but the introduction by Martin Gardner was awful. Don't bother with it - if you haven't yet read the novel, it will spoil it for you by dissecting the allegory. And if you have read the novel before you tackle the introduction, you will probably be forced to conclude, as I was, that Gardner doesn't sound as if he knew what Chesterton was getting at, at all. The only bit of his commentary that I appreciated was his inclusion of a short poem which Chesterton wrote in the copy of The Ball and the Cross owned by Father John O'Connor, the model for the author's famous Father Brown. Chesterton was ultimately unsatisfied with The Ball and the Cross, and expressed his sentiments to his friend as follows:
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 jerk, the chapters sprawl,
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.
While I understand that most great writers aren't satisfied with their work, I don't think the author's criticisms are entirely true. Perhaps the speeches do jerk a bit, but the story is clearly meant to be an allegory, so we can forgive him that. The chapters do sprawl, but it seems that most of Chesterton's chapters do, so that's not really a very valid criticism for this work specifically. And the story doesn't make much sense, but that was perhaps the thing about it that delighted me the most: its whimsical quality. It's refreshing every once in a while to read fiction that's truly imaginative and well-written. While I realize that in the author's opinion this wasn't one of his finer works, I enjoyed it immensely, and if I could be half the writer he was, I would be quite satisfied with my work, indeed.

1 comment:

The Sleeping Scientist said...

Hmmm... a very keen critique Emily my dear, quite interesting indeed. You should put Orthodoxy on your list. While not a novel it sounds prehaps like "The Ball's" philosophical counterpart. God Bless GKC!