All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God. — Sir Thomas Browne
This morning I went to a suburban coffee shop in what has often been regarded as one of the wealthiest counties in our blessed country. I sat myself down, and as I sipped my overpriced caramel latte and fought the sun’s rays lighting themselves on my four eyes, I contemplated this sad fact: Black Friday has apparently blended into Dark Grey Thursday, and as I dreamed of nothing consequential, all these unhappy saps flew around town in their automobiles this morning in order to get the latest gadget which will only leave them more unhappy. Every generation has had their demon. (I do believe) Dickens hated the trains which came without asking anyone’s permission. Hilaire Belloc (the man I will shortly be discussing), along with Tolkien and Lewis, stated that “to-day the internal combustion engine has come to destroy the world.” My grandfather had to eventually fight the T.V.; my father had to fight Hollywood; I am fighting computers, video games, and the internet; this new generation is fighting Facebook and their phones; my son, who I cannot wait to meet, will have to fight another beast perhaps more deadly than the dragon St. George killed. But, I suppose it is all worth it if there is a princess at the end of the narrow path that awaits him.
All this to say that I recently alighted myself upon a new author who I found an absolute delight.
I have been privileged in this short life of mine to meet a plethora of fascinating people, and in my pilgrimage this fall, I have met two friends who have since introduced me to another friend. His name is Hilaire Belloc, and I must say he is nearly as delightful as my friends. They say first impressions are very important. They are only important if you are a very shallow individual. What man is so obtuse to not give the other the benefit of the doubt? It is very possible that the majority of people we meet for the first time are having a dreadful day and are entirely off their game, for I am very rarely on my game. Perhaps then Belloc was having a bad day when he wrote “The New Paganism” — the first essay I read of his found in his book Essays of a Catholic. I did not particularly enjoy that one. But luckily when I had sauntered over to the library to pick up that book, I also picked up his series of essays entitled “A Conversation with a Cat.”
These essays are great because they do not take themselves altogether too seriously. They range from the goofy to the serious, from the interesting to the boring (indeed I didn’t read all of them). Belloc will essentially write about anything. Like his contemporary Chesterton, humor is the mood of the book. His best essays in my opinion are the ones that concern trivial matters. As I peruse the table of contents, I find that a few stick out more than others as is natural. “A Guide to Boring” is perhaps the most memorable for me.
I am distressed to note that in the interesting department of Boring… no outstanding work has been done upon the active side: the science and practice of boring.
He has quite a point. Volumes have been written all for the purpose…
[Aside] Midway through writing that last sentence I decided to lift mine eyes up only to see a family. This peculiar family consisted of (as all true families do) a father and a mother, a daughter, and roughly three sons. All men had near-matching sweaters.
As I was saying. Volumes have been written all for the purpose of keeping people from being bored. This is farcical as no one should ever be bored. I personally think boredom is the offspring of the demon Apathy. Belloc gives us a guide on how to be boring though (very useful for the teacher). I cannot, without boring you, produce it for you, but looking through it again only reminds me of its usefulness. Other good essays on the “trivial” would include one “On Making an Omellete” — always useful for the bachelor. He gives one panegyric “In Honour of the Unicorn” and another “On Lengthy Titles.” And then of course there is the essay which heads the book, “A Conversation with a Cat.” This brilliant essay begins in his sitting at a bar and contemplating human nature and ends with him proclaiming that a cat he has met will never forsake him. The cat, as cats are wont to do, immediately leaves him for another man.
There are more. He writes “On Dressing Up”; he records a conversation of two men arguing on whether Easter should be a fixed date; he praises ignorance; he seems, I think, to praise being in the limelight only to thank God he is not in the limelight; he praises Jonathan Swift by distancing the man from the modern:
There is no writer of English for whom modern England should be less sympathetic; and (save in his case) it would seem that grave modern lack of sympathy, though it does not kill the reputation of a name, kills the reading of that to which the famous name was signed… Swift should be far less sympathetic than Pope. He was essentially a satirist, and the modern reader does not only fail to understand satire, but withdraws from it as from an unpleasant experience. He is not only bewildered by it; he actually dislikes it.
His commentary on these matters is, much like Chesterton, exactly right. It was as if the early 20th century was so full of bad…
[Aside] I am again interrupted but not by my four eyes which are no longer interrupted by the sun’s brilliant rays. I instead look up in response to my music dimming in sound and the noise of the coffee shop filling the void. I notice that the small coffee shop has also filled a void. Weary shoppers perhaps have come to relax and a woman with a charming voice sings about the coming holiday only to be drowned out by the sweet falsetto voice of Justin Vernon who reminds me to return to my post.
…philosophy which was primarily dominated by the wicked Freud and his even worse psychology. A few voices raised the alarm, and essentially no one cared to listen. His essay concerning his mule, titled “Study of a Mule,” makes a good point.
Were I in tune with my time (which I thank God I am not) I ought to call this “psycho-analysis of a mule.” I won’t give it any such title for a hundred reasons, among which are these: that the mule has no psyche; that if he had one, it would be impossible to analyse it, for one cannot analyse a psyche; that the whole term “psycho-analysis” is charlatan; most of all that the mule could not speak, so that there was no getting at the recesses of his mind. Mules speak even less than donkeys. They are singularly dumb.
He goes on to say absolutely nothing about psychology in the essay. But the opening lines make me wonder if any poor individual has attempted an analysis on the psyche of a mule. Well, we cannot blame them for they often choose males to do those tests on, and very little goes on in those minds these days. In any case, on the points at which Belloc discusses something serious regarding culture, he is absolutely correct, yet unlike his modern counterparts, he does so in a humorous way. I believe this is due to his insistence in the book on intermingling the serious with the seemingly trivial. For the Christian there is no such thing as “triviality” really. I should rephrase this though. He intermingles the trivial with the serious. That is, most of what he discusses bears no weight on the future state of any one’s soul. I suppose making bad omelettes may lead one to long for the new Jerusalem, but those individuals are perhaps beyond help.
The brilliance of the work is in his un-trivializing the trivial. He randomly spends time giving benedictions to random towns or historical figures. In honesty, I did not read many of those essays, though I can vouch for the beautiful prose. As I stated in an earlier post this month, I believe essays are truly special because they can essentially be about nothing. They can make the boring fantastic. I found myself, halfway through this book, coming up with titles: “On Shopping at the Grocery Store,” “On Driving a Yellow Car,” “On Taking Oneself too Seriously.” I discovered that if you simply put On before anything you may just have something worthwhile to write about.
So as I sit here in this small coffee shop and once again hear Vernon’s lovely falsetto voice, I lift mine eyes once again and survey the room from my dimly lit corner (which by the way has a draft). The shop is still fairly full, and this brings my spirits down. For I have recently discovered I do not care too much for crowds, and the thought of what awaits me in the next hour makes me physically ill. Most assuredly, the draft reminds me of my need to go shopping for a stocking cap. I have foolishly put this off until today, and I must now go enter the battle without a spirit in me to do so. Perhaps it will encourage me to write an essay “On Buying a Stocking Cap During Black Friday.”