Friday, January 20, 2012

The Poet and the Lunatics by GK Chesterton

Another of GK Chesterton's slim volumes of iconoclastic detective stories, The Poet and the Lunatics is a kind of companion to The Paradoxes of Mr Pond, The Club of Queer Trades, Four Faultless Felons, and the Father Brown books.
To be drastically reductive, Mr Pond's purpose was to display the startling paradoxes of life; Basil Grant of the Queer Trades generally spent his time illustrating the fact that facts are a terrible basis upon which to draw conclusions; the Four Felons had each committed what appeared to be, but were in fact not crimes; Father Brown stood for the advantage that poetry and religion give to the student of human nature. Gabriel Gale, the hero of The Poet and the Lunatics, demonstrates the true nature of madness. Many think that Gale is mad when in fact he shows only an ability to grasp truth allusively and a quixotic urge to take every opportunity that presents itself. Given a chance to play on a swing, or to stare at a bowl of goldfish in the sunlight, or to make a wildly chivalrous oath to a madman, or to scale a ladder into a strange house, Gale will do it without thinking twice.
That is, of course, the hallmark of the really sane man—to see, to enjoy. This book is in a way the dramatisation of the chapter of Orthodoxy, “The Maniac,” in which Chesterton took the cross as a symbol of sanity and the neverending, inexorable, inescapable circle as a symbol of madness. The cross is a good symbol of sanity because it is two intersecting lines; in the mathematical sense, lines are infinite, like the cross is. But the circle! The circle is the realm of logic that spirals relentlessly in on itself. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason; he is the man who has lost everything else, and has persuaded himself that he is the King of England.
Or, to quote Chesterton putting it another way, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
Gabriel Gale is the man who has his head in the heavens, and not the heavens in his head, and consequently sorts out eight very unusual crimes in this slim volume. All the trademark Chestertonian themes and idiosyncrasies are here. Once again I'm reminded of Chesterton's excellence at painting colours with his words: to the imagination, his books are a blazing mass of colours: gold and green against deep purple, or the vivid blue of a peacock against the green grass of a suburban lawn.
Meanwhile, the stories involve the detection—and I use the word in its vaguest sense, as one who might detect a smell or a glimmer of light—of a variety of crimes, some of them before they happen. In one short story, “The Crime of Gabriel Gale,” however, the criminal appears to be the poet himself.
I won't give away the details, but I found this particular story a fascinating reply to the old “problem of pain,” as CS Lewis called it.
And I believe profoundly that there was no other remedy. Anything in the nature of soothing or quieting him would only have made him yet more secretive and yet more swollen-headed. As for humouring him, it's the very worst thing to do with people who are losing their sense of humour.”

Only one thing can save the soul in question—and it isn't therapy. A wish to summon our pleasures at our pleasure is wildly destructive:
All [mankind's] fun is in having a gift or a present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is 'a surprise'. But surprise implies that a thing came from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves. It is thrust through the letter-box; it is thrown in at the window; it is thrown over the wall. Those limits are the lines of the very plan of human pleasure.”

And thus, pain:
There is no cure for that nightmare of omnipotence except pain; because that is the thing a man knows he would not tolerate if he could really control it. A man must be in some place from which he would certainly escape if he could, if he is really to realize that all things do not come from within.”

The poem Invictus ends with the lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Reminds me of the story about the monkey in the bog who tried to pull himself out by the whiskers.


Kara Dekker said...

Every time I read Chesterton, I'm struck with his vivid description of colour!

John Dekker said...

I guess you have to read The Ball and the Cross now, Suzannah. But I have to warn you, Chesterton himself said of the book, "The speeches jerk, the chapters sprawl, the story makes no sense at all..."

Suzannah said...

Oh, way ahead of you! I read it a few years back and love it!


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