Tuesday, January 01, 2008

CHESTERTON | Essay: A Piece of Chalk

Cross-posted at Outmoded Authors

In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, there was a minor character—Fiddler's Green, who was written as a caricature of Chesterton. It was Gaiman's tribute to this man of letters who wrote some of the best detective stories with his Father Brown mysteries—mysteries that went beyond the usual whodunnit into the murky realms of theology, philosophy and psychology. There were also moments of rousing Chestertonian lyricism that are just joy to re-read.

In life, Chesterton really was a jolly, rotund man with a romantic, chivalrous streak—and he really did walk the streets in a cape, with a sword-stick.

Chesterton wrote in a breezy, often whimisical and humorous manner that belies the philosophical thoughtfulness of his writings. He was fond of paradoxes, something personified by his unworldly priest, Father Brown—who reveals that his secrets to solving crimes is that in each case, he committed the crime himself. (Someone may have to help me out here—I'm relying on memory writing this and I can't recall the exact quote) Here, the priest does not literally mean he "did it." Rather, as he explained it, in each and every case, he truly placed himself in the position of the culprit, he thought as a murderer did, understood, and empathised—and that was how he arrived at the solutions to the mysteries—the greatest detective, is in fact, the greatest criminal.

Chesterton wrote poetry (whose I can't really claim to love), religious texts, including a biography of St Francis of Assisi. He also wrote essays—on anything that interested him—which means he wrote a lot of them.

One of my favourite essay is "A Piece of Chalk"—collected in Tremendous Trifles. The essay is thankfully available online —which allows me the pleasure of re-reading it for free, and sharing it with everyone.

What began rather unassumingly—Chesterton looking for some brown paper because he wanted to make his way to the countryside, where he intended to spend an afternoon drawing with brown paper and chalk. A chirpy but discursive narrative on the mundane soon emerged as a rumination on colours, especially white, and its associative symbolism of virtue—of theology and our assumptions of good and evil:

But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.

From the simplicity of chalk against brown paper he discerned a fundamental truth: it is not a dry, dull thing to be good and decent. A good man is not simply a man lacking in vices or weaknesses—he stands glorious as a monument, someone to aspire to, as proof of God's work. We just sometimes forget to see that—"In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white."

Chesterton is a humanist, yes, and he is Catholic. Some might object to that. But for me at least, his writing upholds simple truths like goodness, beauty—and humour—because Chesterton too believed God created laughter.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Great essay! I am a big fan of Chesterton, having loved The Man Who Was Thursday and having read several quotes of his throughout the years. He always puts a smile on my face and makes me think. I really want to read more of his novels, including the Father Brown stories. I have a couple of compilations of those stories in my pile somewhere.

darkorpheus said...

I love Chesterton too. The Man Who Was Thursday was really surreal though. I didn't quite know what to make of it.

Stefanie said...

I've read that essay, it's a really good one. I love how its simplicity draws you in to a deeper meaning of things.

Ana S. said...

He sounds like such a great man. I really need to read more of his work.