Saturday, April 6, 2013

The City of Small Sins and the Way Out

As a follow-up to my last post, For Love or Money, let me quote some more Chesterton, from the same essay, "In Defense of Rash Vows" from The Defendant.  Tell me if he was not, over 100 years ago, describing this very day.  My comments are in red.

As we have said, it is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit in modern pleasure.  [He means by "backdoor" or "having a retreat behind us" the "provisional life", or Peter Pan existence, or life of Unreality with a handy escape route in which we never make a serious vow or commitment] Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt to obtain pleasure without paying for it. [The motto of the Modern World - to obtain pleasure without paying for it.]  Thus, in politics the modern Jingoes practically say, 'Let us have the pleasures of conquerors without the pains of soldiers: let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.' [He means the armchair imperialists of his day - and ours]  Thus, in religion and morals, the decadent mystics say: 'Let us have the fragrance of sacred purity without the sorrows of self-restraint [He means the typical suburban Mass]; let us sing hymns alternately to the Virgin and Priapus.' [He means the followers of Christopher West (Priapus is the god of the erect penis)]  Thus in love the free-lovers say: 'Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.' [And by "free-lovers" he means those who shack up, those who divorce and remarry, those who sleep around, those who always have an escape route handy - pretty much every single person these days.]

Emphatically it will not work. There are thrilling moments, doubtless, for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete [an "aesthete" is one who is affected, artificial, delicate, foppish, deliberately over-sensitive, self-indulgent, a dilletante]; but there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the ascetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to know that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange chain would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars and snows. [He had spoken earlier in the essay of a man vowing rashly to chain two mountains together - and then giving it a shot, unlike the aesthete who would vow with all his heart, knowing his vow - and his heart - were empty]  All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.

We live in the City of Small Sins.  But someday a Poet or a Lover will make a rash vow to his Lady.  He will burn his ships and never go back.


jvc said...

I think one of the values of reading men like Chesterton is to understand how little human nature changes (i.e. not at all), and how today's struggles were the same yesterday, and 100 years ago, and 1000 years ago. Thus, we can read the Inferno and understand that Church leadership has pretty regularly been awful. It isn't just a modern phenomena. I guess, maybe, there's a comfort in knowing that.

Let me quote Whittaker Chambers discussing, in his own way, the unreality, or the great substitute of faith, which in his day was Communism:

"It is not new. It is, in fact, man's second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: "Ye shall be as gods." It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of of the same vision: the vision of God and man's relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God."

Benjamin. said...

It seemed that Chesterton's world was already "modern" and anti-Christian. When did that begin? When did Europe fall?

jvc said...

Started with Rousseau and the Enlightenment. And, before that, the Protestant Revolution. We've been on a 500 year collision course with barbarism.