Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Gaiman on Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis and Truth

Over at his online journal, the inimitable Neil Gaiman posts a speech he made to the Mythopoeic Society in 2004 and recounts the lessons he learned about writing from three of the most famous Inklings. Excerpt:
Chesterton and Tolkien and Lewis were, as I've said, not the only writers I read between the ages of six and thirteen, but they were the authors I read over and over again; each of them played a part in building me. Without them, I cannot imagine that I would have become a writer, and certainly not a writer of fantastic fiction. I would not have understood that the best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming, nor that the majesty and the magic of belief and dreams could be a vital part of life and of writing.
Read the whole thing. Critics of both the academic and back-porch variety love to debate the purpose that stories serve. Do they merely entertain? Do they simply reflect a historical milieu? Are they literary Rorschach blots upon which a reader projects his own interests and hang ups? We could fill a book with answers to any one of these questions. But on a bedrock-basic level, I find Gaiman's conviction incredibly compelling: Stories show what an author believes to be true; stories tell those truths slant; and good stories do both of those things beautifully.

(Picture: CC 2009 by guiltyx)


Unknown said...

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Loren Eaton said...

Thank you, Steve. I'll check it out.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


"You see, while I loved Tolkien and while I wished to have written his book, I had no desire at all to write like him. Tolkien’s words and sentences seemed like natural things, like rock formations or waterfalls, and wanting to write like Tolkien would have been, for me, like wanting to blossom like a cherry tree or climb a tree like a squirrel or rain like a thunderstorm. Chesterton was the complete opposite. I was always aware, reading Chesterton, that there was someone writing this who rejoiced in words, who deployed them on the page as an artist deploys his paints upon his palette. Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight."

I've actually been giving serious thought, lately, to writing a G.K. Chesterton essay, for precisely this reason. I even began brainstorming first sentences, for instance: "Looking out the window of a certain local pub, I saw the sun set. This in and of itself would be nothing unusual, except that it reminded me how rarely we see the sunset, indeed how blind we are to most things outside our homes, especially when we ourselves are outside amongst them."

Then I could go on to the provocative political statements ("You see this phenomenon every day, of course, when people listen to political speeches. Every speech is obviously full of lies, of course, but also precisely those lies that we don't see--those lies, as it were, that are all around us, not separated by a window.")

Then perhaps there would be some philosophical contemplation, with a thrown-off reference to the Bible and someone from the Middle Ages. ("And after all, it makes us wonder whether all of life is seen through windows--or perhaps through mirrors, dimly. Maybe it was just this thought that inspired lunatic monks in the Twelfth Century to declare that the only thing we can know about God is our lack of knowledge, and to carry this rapturous knowledge, looking upward from their dim cells into a light all the more blinding for the contrast.")

Then, comes the conclusion, where he returns suddenly from his huge oration to the present day. ("I thought all this while eating whatever food and drink was set before me, gazing thoughtfully as shadows crept through the English streets, only to be driven back, slowly and imperfectly, by hundreds of small lights, electric light bulbs where families set down to their evening meals, candles where lovers met or believers worshipped, even those fake windows that we call televisions and too often take as our realities. Then I looked down at my fried fish (by now growing cold) and the rich, warm ale that sat beside it--and I saw, to my great surprise and pleasure, that the food I had before me was good.")

I'm sure I missed the mark, but Chesterton does have, at his best, an exuberance to his language, as if he's constantly bumbling around in the world of high thought, then coming back to Earth to find it a much stranger (and more marvelous) place than he'd ever thought.

I'd love to see what Gaiman did trying to write essays in the style of Chesterton.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

It's kinda funny, though, re. encoded messages. While I agree with much of what Chesterton said (unless he's talking about woman, regarding whom his keen senses of observation seem to have frequently failed), it isn't his messages that stick with me, so much as his rhythms of thought. Comparing God's creation of a thousand identical flowers to a three-year-old child fascinated with his favorite toy and gleefully demanding "do it again!" is, quite simply, brilliant. It's not brilliant because of propositions (I could imagine someone reading Chesterton the way certain people read the Bible and being offended by the "immature" view of God), but because it opens up a different way of thinking. The joy is as much in the contrast--dignity versus indignity, an old-fashioned image of God versus a radical (though generally orthodox) re-imagining--as it is in factual precision.

To loosely quote Chesterton again, "there is nothing so false as a truism, especially when the truism is, in fact, true." His way of writing isn't so much to think of a truth and then tell it slant, but to give his thoughts and ideas and feelings and questions a textual body so vibrant and arresting that we have to join with him in the task of contemplating the world anew. Propositional arguments are a dime a dozen in fiction, and even when I enjoy them (as I enjoyed, as a teen, "arguing" with Robert Heinlein's gonzo philosophies), it isn't really the same as enjoying writing. Chesterton is a writer, in the sense that while you can summarize his essays, you can't do so without killing them--robbing them of the rhythm and motion that brings them to life, again and again.

Loren Eaton said...

I really need to read more Chesterton. I was exposed to him in school, and I recall reading a Father Brown story at some point. But I'm woefully unfamiliar with most of his work.

His way of writing isn't so much to think of a truth and then tell it slant, but to give his thoughts and ideas and feelings and questions a textual body so vibrant and arresting that we have to join with him in the task of contemplating the world anew.

Wasn't it Lewis who said that we cannot dispose of beautiful metaphors once we comprehend the proposition they're driving at? I agree with that. In the best writing, truth and beauty hold hands. Of course, true things are still true with or without a beautiful style, and beautiful styles are still beautiful with or without propositional truth. But when they meet, ah! how wonderful it is.

Now I feel like reading some Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...

"True things are still true with or without a beautiful style, and beautiful styles are still beautiful with or without propositional truth."

True things are still true, but true statements may not be true when said in certain ways, or at least may loose their ability to convey truth.

One of Chesterton's fascinations was with repetition, and the ability of the human mind to forget or dismiss the reality of whatever we have right in front of us. If we say, "Yes, God calls Christians to forgive" at the beginning of a sentence, are we really insisting on a true proposition, or are we enacting a strategy that gives us the authority to finish "but there are some sins that are just worse than others?" The same is true when, say, we use phrases like "sure torture is distasteful" or "factory conditions in the third world are horrible." We repeat these phrases over and over again, and as a result we forget the truth behind them.

After all, who conveys (rather than speaking) more truth, the person who said "England doesn't care about it's Irish poor" or Jonathan Swift, whose sly recommendation of a diet consisting of starving Irish Children was entirely disingenuous, and yet earnestly aimed to show people the truth that platitudes hid?

I guess my point is that the way you say something--the context, the "beautiful ornamentation" used (or not; sometimes ugly ornamentation is better), the tone of voice--may actually be more significant in demonstrating the truth to people than the words themselves. True things may be true without beautiful style, but true words, said in the wrong style, can ring absolutely false--and false words, spoken in the right style, can ring absolutely true.

After all, isn't that one whole point of fiction--that there are some things that can't be said directly, but can be made real if words and characters and lies are arranged just so?