Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chesterton Through The Eyes of Borges



My wife rescued Daylight and Nightmare, a collection of Chesterton's stories and fables, from a library booksale. I tend to read prefaces*, yet often regret it. This time it was worth it. The collector dedictes the volume to Jorge Luis Borges, whose Ficciones I read and loved in college. I had not known that Borges was a very great fan of Chesterton, and could quote long sections from memory. It seemed strange to me for but an instant, as their significant compatibilities overwhelm the very different categories they are assigned to in the modern mind. As many of you may not be familiar with both, Borges was considered much among the moderns: friends with Sartre, influenced by Schopenhauer and an influence on Eco; assigned in college lit classes, drawn to the weird and disquieting, fond of twists and inversions on time and infinity - "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Infinite Library." Chesterton is regarded as entirely a creature of the Old World, read mostly by traditional Catholics and a few other Christians today, but little regarded in the academy.

Others who have commented some on the Borges- Chesterton connection, if you're interested. Nick Milne and Out of the Woods Now (twice).

Yet GKC also gravitated to much of the strange, or perhaps uncanny would be a better word. The description of Sunday, and indeed the entire unsettling, even frightening world of The Man Who Was Thursday, even in the mystery genre with its full measure of murder and gore, readers find unnerving even now, a hundred years later. Borges notes:
Chesterton restrained himself from being Edgar Allan Poe or Franz Kafka, but something in the makeup of his personality leaned toward the nightmarish, something secret, & blind, & central....
We don't always think of him that way - we think of Father Brown, or of his biography of the gentle St. Francis. Yet once mentioned, it is noticeable everywhere in his work, and one wonders how it had escaped notice.



Borges suggested we read all works as if the were written by some radically different author to see them more clearly - to pretend in the mind that "Hamlet" had been written by James Joyce. I could barely refrain from pretending the short pieces were written by Borges, or imagining one Ficciones "An Approach to Al-Mutasim" as a work by GKC. It was surprisingly easy. "Approach" is about a book review on a book which does not exist. The review prompts it to come into being. Very Chesterton. So also, Chesterton's "The Taming of the Nightmare," starts with the comic and keeps returning to it, yet rapidly falls away into eeriness after each rise.
Little Jack Horner sat in a corner - so far the traditional surroundings of the nursery hero correspond with those in which we find him for the purposes of the story, but there being no Christmas pie in the neighborhood, he was unable to give vent to the joyful, if somewhat egotistical, sentiment which is recorded of him elsewhere.
Jack is almost immediately accosted by goblin-wind and brought to the borders of an unknown land with "a low, lonely wall, beside which there was a dillapidated notice board, looking the other way, stating that trespassers would be prosecuted, by order of somebody, no one knew quite who." The first creature he meets beyond the wall is a mooncalf who recites verse initially comic:
The Calf was the Mooncalf, The Cow was the Moon,
She died from effects of a popular tune...
until we find that the calf does indeed believe the moon is his mother, and sings to her constantly, with round eyes and singleness of purpose night upon night, though the moon takes no notice.

It is something of a reverse of the effect of Monty Python, in their Quest For The Holy Grail movie. There every scene begins nobly, seriously, at times even frighteningly, yet quickly deteriorates (or elevates) into comedy. In Chesterton, homely streets turn sinister in a few blocks, with the buildings remaining normal but the sky becoming crooked. Queer characters sit next to unsuspecting diners at cafes and tell them stories that end inconclusively.

The style of writing is old now, and fables aren't told that way anymore. The inklings were much influenced by GKC, and the last echoes of the style appears in their works, perhaps. Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham comes near it; the initial description of the gray city in Lewis's Great Divorce has a Chesterton feel. The eerier, or more mythic modern fantasies, from Ursula LeGuin or Scott Donaldson, have something of the flavor.

*Preface, foreward, introductories - anyone know what the distinction is?

20 comments:

Gringo said...

I had not known that Borges was a very great fan of Chesterton, and could quote long sections from memory. It seemed strange to me for but an instant..

Borges was very much the Anglophile.

His being able to quote from memory was in part a way to deal with his blindness.

An inside joke about Borges was that whoever came to visit him would get corralled into reading for him. OTOH, that could also be seen as fair payment for the visit.

That such a book gets discarded by a library shows that the "weeding" practices commonly in practice in libraries today leave much to be desired.

Texan99 said...

A foreword is written by someone other than the author. I'm a little less clear on the distinction between a preface and an introduction, except that I usually expect the introduction to be tied more closely to the text that follows, as a kind of statement of theme or summary of argument, whereas a preface often dwells on the process of creating the work, including things like acknowledgements to editors and sources.

Tor Hershman said...

Maaaaan, that IS one skinny-arsed old spook...in the photo.....with the cane.

James E said...

Foreword: by someone other than the author, about the author or the book or the topic
Preface: by the author, about the book (meta!)
Introduction: by the author, preliminary discussion of the topic

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

In defense of the library it was NOT a discard from the library but a book donated for the sale.

Gringo said...

AVI: that is good news.

james said...

Quite a few of the Father Brown stories also include some eerie atmospherics.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james - never noticed it, but I'll bet you're right.

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