The Plague of Eugenic Thinking

Having just finished G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils, I wished to write some thoughts of mine in response to his ideas while I am yet chewing on them.  Call this article the Bordeaux I’m using to wash them down.  (At least, I hope it comes off as having such quality and not that of Budweiser.)  Chesterton wrote this work in response to the craze for Nietzschean ideas he saw prior to the First World War.  Many people wished to produce a society of Übermenschen through the use of Eugenics.  Chesterton starts with talking about the Feeble-Minded Act of 1913, which targeted people who lacked mental vigor, i.e. not being able to competently look after their own interests, for removal to mental asylums.  Chesterton linked this into one of his favorite themes: how easy it might be to declare anyone insane.  Within the U.S.S.R., a certain Russian poet was sent to Siberia for insanity because he believed in God.

Funny Eugenics

In response to people who believed that less competent persons ought to be sent to asylums, he juxtaposes feeble-mindedness against real insanity.  Real insanity is simply refusing to adhere to the facts.  He states that five different poets might see a tree five different ways–including the melancholic poet who sees it as a good place to hang himself.  However, all five see a tree.  The lunatic will see a lamp-post or something else.  The reason we so worry about the lunatic hurting himself or others lies in him having superimposed his fantasies over true reality.  A feeble-minded person sees reality, but is merely not able to profit himself or society as much as the strong-minded fellow, who might even be more of a pain to others than the poor feeble-minded fellow, as Chesterton amusingly points out.

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Father Brown: Master Detective and Priest

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of finishing The Complete Father Brown, which covers all of the adventures of G. K. Chesterton’s famous priestly sleuth.  The fictional detectives who came before Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relied upon rudimentary thinking skills, luck, and enterprise, while Holmes himself used a combination of precise observation and deductive reasoning.  Father Brown, though he also has keen powers of observation, differentiates himself from the detectives prior to him by using his knowledge of the human heart to solve crimes.

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What allows Father Brown to understand the human heart so well?  As you may have guessed, his performing the Sacrament of Penance or Confession gives Father Brown his special knowledge of the darkness within the heart.  He understands also that he himself might, under the right circumstances and not aided by grace, have committed some of these crimes.  And so, he places himself in the perpetrator’s shoes in order to solve each mystery.  Interestingly, Fr. Brown is more concerned with the criminal’s soul than bringing him to justice, and occasionally he declines to bring the crook before a state judge as long as the crook is willing to beg forgiveness of the Just Judge.

Complete Fr Brown

It is this facet of Father Brown which gives these mysteries a flavor one finds no where else.  Unlike in reading Sherlock Holmes, one finds one’s understanding expands in addition to one’s intellect.  Chesterton brings forth a wide variety of actors in each tale, almost equaling Dickens or Shakespeare for the sheer variety of characters.  I can only recall about three stories which felt unoriginal, i.e. a similar to a prior mystery.  Then again, the surprises and new twists Chesterton adds to religious and philosophical discussions do not disappoint either.  I highly recommend these stories to keen observers of human nature who love philosophical and theological discussions.

Do Books Need a Plot?: Thoughts on Hills and the Sea

For a while now, I have been reading Hilaire Belloc’s Hills and the Sea.  Some of you might know that Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were very close friends, but Belloc writes very differently from Chesterton.  Their greatest point of similarity comes in their employment of moral digressions.  However, Chesterton prefers using his characters for this, while Belloc directly explains the truth.  Yet, his descriptive language is beautiful: the way Belloc describes places, whether cities or the wilderness, immerses the reader in the setting.

A Frenchman, but I should describe Belloc's face as being particularly Frankish.

A Frenchman, but I should describe Belloc’s face as being particularly Frankish.

His skill in description not only saves this novel but makes it interesting.  You see, Hills and the Sea follows two friends as they travel across Europe.  However, Belloc displays a deficiency in the realm of character development.  He gives us descriptions of the characters, but we don’t see their traits having a particular impact on their actions.  Indeed, in certain cases, their realm of action is limited to things like surviving a hike through the Pyrenees.  (Actions of intelligent people in such circumstances vary but little.)  We are told that these two friends are inseparable (hence their nickname the Two Man) and that one of them is the narrator.  However, I think that we can switch points of view without a change in the tone of narration.

A picture of Belloc around 1950.  He outlived Chesterton by 17 years.

A picture of Belloc around 1950. He outlived Chesterton by 17 years.

The weaknesses of the novel in plot and characterization render Hills and the Sea interesting merely for Belloc’s views and his vast knowledge of European cities and countryside.  He has packaged a travelogue under the guise of a novel.  The travelogue used to be an incredibly popular form of literature, and I am surprised by how much I enjoy his descriptions of places like Delft, Holland and the Pyrenees Mountains.  But, I hope that some plot surfaces soon: I prefer books where the characters’ actions are based on achieving certain goals!

George Bernard Shaw: Better than I Thought

In a prior article, I jested that I placed George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell on a personal Index Librorum Prohibitorum.  In the case of the latter, I had forgotten that I had read his Animal Farm and found it a great work against Communism.  But, I said to myself that I should never read Shaw.  Recently, my brother made the astounding comment that G. K. Chesterton and Shaw were friends!  At which point, my stance against George Bernard Shaw struck me as ungenerous and ignorant.  Chesterton’s writings about Shaw never gave the impression that they were friends.  Whether this is due to Chesterton’s style or my lack of perception, I do not know.

Shaw on left, Chesterton on Right, and a very uncomfortable looking Hillaire Belloc in the middle.

Shaw on left, Chesterton on Right, and a very uncomfortable looking Hillaire Belloc in the middle.

Avidly reading the first two acts of the play Man and Superman induces me to eat crow about my statements to the effect that Shaw ought never be read.  Most bloggers find it an incredibly bitter experience to admit to writing foolishly or out of ignorance, but it is my duty to admit that I did just that.  Hopefully, this article might stand as a reparation to this great playwright.

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The play is deliciously seasoned with comedic banter, frank social commentary, and a surprisingly Chestertonian use of paradox.  So, you might say that these two writers’ relationship was a fortuitous one.  (Upon Chesterton’s death, Shaw declared that Chesterton was a man of colossal genius.)  A surprisingly shocking paradox was when Jack Tanner referred to the devil as the father of morality!  In context, morality has become nothing more than social propriety in modern England.  It prevents a family from showing compassion for one of their daughters who has become pregnant until she makes it manifest that she has been at least secretly married.  Also, it is fashionable for the bourgeois to claim that they are progressive thinkers, but remain tied to old morays–a classic example of hypocrisy.

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And the characters are delineated with remarkable care–sometimes taking two pages of description, which makes me doubt whether the play was intended to be performed on stage.  Jack Tanner, the anarchist, is perhaps the most interesting of the characters.  He is certainly the most droll due to his frankness.  He notes how certain women try to get a man in their clutches in order to fulfill their vital role.  (Vital, as in pertaining the the values of life, i.e. childbearing.)  These women care nothing about the higher aspirations of their husbands and drive them away from aesthetic endeavors so that they might pursue economic ones for the benefit of their family.  This is especially important because Tanner wishes to drive Octavius, a poet, away from marrying a certain young lady, noting that there are few struggles as fierce as that between the Vital woman and the Artistic man–or something along those lines.  He provides much food for thought.

So, there you have it: my recommendation to read George Bernard Shaw–something I never thought I should do in my life!

Medieval Otaku’s #8: Jules Verne

Dear readers, rather than declaim the superiority of Jules Verne over Tolkien, I must rather deplore the fact that Tolkien is not higher on my friend’s list.  Please feel free to refer to it for the following remarks.  Of those authors in the next three places higher, I have placed H. G. Wells in a personal Index Librorum Prohibitorum–likely due to the influence of author placed on the top of Thomp’s list, G. K. Chesterton.  (I should write a book in the future: All I Needed to Know about H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw I Learned from Chesterton.)  Concerning Clarke and Grahame, I heartily acknowledge their contributions to the Great Conversation, but I am unsure whether they understood it as well as Tolkien.  Tolkien’s incredible depth of knowledge concerning the Middle Ages, philology, Catholic theology, and immense repertoire of foreign and classical languages made him a very unique vehicle for carrying the moral imagination of prior ages into the modern age.  From C. S. Lewis and above, Tolkien receives a stiff challenge, and it would require a post of at least 1,000 words to discuss–but what a fun discussion that would be!

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But now onto Jules Verne.  This post is supposed to be about him after all!  Certain achievements immediately justify his choice for my list: 1) he’s the Father of Science Fiction; 2) his works have been translated into more languages than Shakespeare and is second only to Agatha Christie in this regard; and 3) His vibrant Catholic faith, in the manner of all the French Romantics, shines through his novels.  This faith seems to shine most brightly as the situations into which his characters fall become more dire, and they are always sure to give thanks to an ever watchful Providence.

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His works also interest me by their lack of prejudice, interesting and swashbuckling characters, and the endless facility of invention displayed by the heroes.  Verne’s characters cover the globe and he delights in people of every culture: Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days is British, Germans and one Icelander are the main characters of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Captain Nemo is an Indian, and the heroes of The Mysterious Island Americans.  Despite his perspicacious grasp of other cultures, his French mind does often lend Gallic airs to his characters–particularly in the case of the Americans in The Mysterious Island.  But, Verne had a special place in his heart for America, which may have been due to a perceived similarity between the two cultures as much as an admiration of our audacity and inventiveness.

David Niven as Phileas Fogg

Yet, the character type for which Verne deserves greatest praise is his portrayal of the scientist.  Unlike the modern portrayal of scientists as atheists and brainy intellectuals, Verne’s scientists tend to be men of courage and faith.  I have yet to discover an atheistic scientist in a Verne novel, whether it be Dr. Clawbonny of The Adventures of Captain  Hatteras, Professor Lidenbrock of Journey to the Center of the Earth, or the engineering officer of The Mysterious Island.  The idea behind this is that the whole universe is of God’s making, which therefore reveals God Himself.  So, the more one understands the world God created, the more one can also both understand the Creator and know that Divine Intelligence made the world.  These same persons are also the ones who refuse to throw in the towel during the most trying circumstances and constantly seek for ways out of their difficulties.  Would that all scientists displayed that marriage of fides et scientia!

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All Verne’s novels display high adventure, except perhaps Five Weeks in a Balloon.  My friend told me this was boring, and I confess that I was unable to finish it, though I want to go back to it.  Therefore, my recommendation to people new to Verne is Around the World in Eighty Days.  The work is short and exciting.  Its only drawback may be that the adventure leaves little space for science, which makes it diverge sharply from Verne’s other works.  Those of you well immersed in Verne may give The Adventures of Captain Hatteras a try.  Every fan of Verne whom I’ve met says that they have never heard of this novel, which is a shame.  The work keeps the reader turning pages, and it displays remarkable knowledge of polar expeditions and the unique phenomena of the Arctic.