Monday, March 4, 2013

The Ball and the Cross by GK Chesterton

Chesterton’s novels almost stand in a genre of their own. Heavily philosophical, wildly allegorical, unapologetically adventurous, and comically surreal, it can be difficult even to describe them. And of them all, perhaps The Ball and the Cross is the most peculiar; which might be to say the worst, if you could even use a superlative negative in a sentence about Chesterton’s works. At least it does not operate on the same level of high genius as The Man Who Was Thursday. But what there is of it is unforgettable.

The book begins when Professor Lucifer tosses the aged monk Michael, with whom he has been arguing, out of his airship. Clinging to the cross at the pinnacle of St Paul’s Cathedral, Michael only just manages to save himself, and receives an epiphany of the goodness of God which enables him to enjoy even the squareness of tiles in a lunatic asylum “with a plain, jolly appetite as of a boy eating buns.” Meanwhile MacIan, a young Highlander meeting civilisation for the very first time, outraged by some low assertions about the Virgin Mary as displayed in the window of a small atheist newspaper, smashes the window and is dragged before the magistrate, where he challenges the middle-aged but truculent editor, Turnbull, to a duel. To his surprise, Turnbull accepts—but to both their surprise, the main enemy they must overcome is not each other, but the moral outrage of a world which no longer believes in fighting for what you believe in!

The adventures of the Catholic and the Atheist take them to many strange places in somewhat odd disguises. They meet a representative of Tolstoy, and one of Nietzche (named Wimpey, of course), who adores a South Sea idol in the garden—
“Excuse me,” he said with an irradiation of smiles, but yet with a kind of bewilderment. “So sorry…family prayers…old fashioned…mother’s knee.” 
They flee the police by hansom-cab, foot, motor-car, and yacht. They fight in France. They fight on the beaches. They masquerade as a dissolute count (MacIan) and a devout Frenchman (Turnbull), but their thick Scottish accents and moral inability to live up to their supposed characters give them away. They are bound by a thousand honorable obligations to fight—but whether it’s their own natural inclination to like each other very much, or the interference of authorities who will go to literally any lengths to prevent their duel and lock them away from human knowledge, something keeps getting in the way until the final confrontation with the sinister Professor Lucifer.

There’s so very much to like in this book. Chesterton’s wit is operating on all eight cylinders here, and his painterly descriptions of the colours of the sky throughout this book are unusually bright and glowing—which makes the book in retrospect seem like a riot of sunsets. Then there’s the simple fun of watching the worldly Turnbull and the serious MacIan interact. As they flee the police on foot:
“Are you all right?” said Turnbull, with civility. “Can you keep this up?”
“Quite easily, thank you,” replied MacIan. “I run very well.”
“Is that a qualification in a family of warriors?” asked Turnbull.
 “Undoubtedly. Rapid movement is essential,” answered MacIan, who never saw a joke in his life. 
As usual with a GK Chesterton book, the themes are well worth tucking into, although in this one they are somewhat less hidden than otherwise. Fans of Orthodoxy will be enchanted to find in this book something like the novel he teased in that one—in which a man sails to a desert island, only to find—but if you remember the place in Orthodoxy, you’ll know what I’m talking about; and if you don’t, I shouldn’t spoil it.

One major theme of the book concerns mental illness in the modernist age. There is the scorching insight that madness can become a convenient excuse for the state to lock up perfectly sane and inconvenient people on ideological grounds. There is the uncomfortable fact that humane imprisonment is generally the worst thing a human can be called upon to endure, and the more humane, the worse. And there is also the sly parody of modern psychology, which upon seeing a man who insists that he has lost his yacht, instead of asking how and when, simply diagnoses him with Perdinavititis--“mental inflammation creating the impression that one has lost a ship”; and even worse, diagnoses the actual culprit, upon confession of the crime, as suffering from Rapinavititis—a disorder suffered by those who pinch ships.

But my favourite thing in The Ball and the Cross is something that I’ve remembered very clearly since the first time I read it. MacIan is tempted by an angelic figure who shows him a glorious eschatological vision of a London to which the true king has returned. St Paul’s shows a triumphant cross upon the dome, ringed by a triple crown of swords. Knights, not policemen, patrol the streets. But then, at the crossing of a road, an old man stumbles and one of the knights strikes him, not hard, across the shoulders:
“The soldier had no business to do that,” said MacIan, sharply. “The old man was moving as quickly as he could.”
“We attach great importance to discipline in the streets,” said the main in white, with a slight smile.
“Discipline is not so important as justice,” said MacIan. 
 But the man in white doesn’t let it drop…
“Just as the sight of sin offends God,” said the unknown, “so does the sight of ugliness offend Apollo. The beautiful and princely must, of necessity, be impatient with the squalid and—“
“Why, you great fool!” cried MacIan, rising to the top of his tremendous stature, “did you think I would have doubted only for that rap with a sword? I know that noble orders have had bad knights, that good knights have bad tempers, that the Church has rough priests and coarse cardinals; I have known it ever since I was born. You fool! you had only to say, ‘Yes, it is rather a shame,’ and I should have forgotten the affair. But I saw on your mouth the twitch of your infernal sophistry; I knew that something was wrong with you and your cathedrals. Something is wrong; everything is wrong. You are not an angel. That is not a church. It is not the rightful king who has come home.” 
Chesterton’s larger point might be that the vision of MacIan is not the truth—though I’m not sure. But for years I’ve chewed over this smaller point—that good knights can have bad tempers. This is the real thing behind that tired old complacency, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” And it is the sane and healthy response to the inevitable disconnect between high ideals and standards, and the fallen people who are called to live up to them. Some might brush away the ideals—errare humanum est, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. Some, like the infernal angel of MacIan’s vision, might explain away the sin—discipline is more important than justice; proper pride is better than humble mercy. But if we’re Christians, we can’t afford to ignore either the awful necessity of the law and the ideals, or our utter inability to live up to them.

But in the end, even human sin isn’t enough to prevent redemption.

I loved The Ball and the Cross just as much this time around, and recommend it to anyone interested in Chesterton.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording


Mahri said...

I enjoyed the Ball and the Cross very much as well. I will admit that the first time I read it, I was not sure what I thought of it as a whole, though the parts that made it up, I liked very much indeed, and the protagonists in particular. It is, I think, a book which is good reading the first time round, and merely improves the more one reads it. And I love all the pictures he paints of MacIan and Turnbull against all sorts of colourful backgrounds, joining swords.

I think there is something prophetic in Chesterton's admittedly humourous depiction of convenient mental illness. While devout people who stand against popular opinion on matters of faith and morals, they are not exactly thought to be *insane* these days, there is a tendency to give them emotive lables, suggesting that there is something not quite right about them

Anonymous said...

"Madness can become a convenient excuse for the state to lock up perfectly sane and inconvenient people on ideological grounds" -- and in the decades following this has become more and more obvious. The good old USSR was very fond of this. C.S. Lewis discusses it in That Hideous Strength, iirc, and Ursula LeGuin gives a frightening description in The Diary of the Rose.

Suzannah said...

Yes - Chesterton was deeply prescient in this, as in many other ways.


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