Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Paradoxes of Mr Pond by GK Chesterton


Another book of short stories from the brilliant Chesterton, The Paradoxes of Mr Pond is full of the usual Chestertonian themes: the insufficiency of reason, the randomness of facts, or the shortcomings of atheism. Paradox--the use of language to at once reveal and conceal truth--takes the leading role in this particular book.

The titular Mr Pond is given to saying apparently contradictory things at the drop of a hat, which leads many people to conclude that he is quite mad. The fact is that he is not; he merely alludes to strange occurrences in his past which, did the listener but know it, explain perfectly how a man could be too tall to be seen, or the head of a giant too small after all.

Nobody loved a good paradox more than Chesterton did, and that is apparent in all his books. I shall never forget the time, in Heretics, that he stated that bigots are those with nothing firm to believe in--and then proved it. The problem is that they are tricky things, and I'm not convinced that all the paradoxes in this book always work. Or at least, they do, but they are not startling enough to live up to expectations; the revelation of how they make sense, after all, is anticlimactic. The worst of these stories occasionally descend to mere equivocation, a complex game of pil-pul.

The best of them, however, were as good as Chesterton gets--which is quite good. For me the two standouts were the stories When Doctors Agree and Ring of Lovers. In the first, Mr Pond is asked to explain what he means by saying that he once knew two men who agreed so perfectly, that one of them murdered the other. The answer reveals a fundamental weakness in the atheist philosophy: not that atheists are incapable of morality (after all, common grace restrains them, as does the slow dry rot of irrational, respectable middle-class morality) but that their morality is without basis, without penalties, without coercions, without reason. If there are no absolute standards of right and wrong enforced by a jealous God, what basis have you to say, "You should not do this or that"?

Ring of Lovers was my favourite story from the book. Possibly this may say more about me than about the story. The grand-opera tragedy was gratifying, but I loved the theme--
"I was better than I seemed. But what did that mean, except the spiritual blasphemy that I wanted to seem worse than I was? What could it mean, except that, far worse than one who practiced vice, I admired it? Yes, admired it in myself; even when it wasn't there. I was the new hypocrite; but mine was the homage that virtue pays to vice."
If Christian teenagers were forced to read this story every day between the ages of thirteen and twenty, we might have a whole lot less cool in the church, and a whole lot more effectiveness.

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5 comments:

Radagast said...

I must admit, this little book is one of my favourites.

And "The Unmentionable Man" is, I think, symbolic of Jesus.

Radagast said...

"In this case he should have been exiled for being important; but he was so very important that nobody could be told of his importance."

Suzannah said...

"The Unmentionable Man" was good--I appreciated the symbolism.

I did feel like a few of the stories were a bit half-baked, though.

Radagast said...

I would agree that some of the stories are much better than others. That's probably true of his other collections as well.

And congratulations again, by the way, on such a great book blog.

Suzannah said...

Thanks--and thanks again for reading it :)

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