Tuesday 23 August 2016

The disappearing thesis: on favoured literary forms

Those who knew G. K. Chesterton always knew how to find him. Wherever he went, he left a trail of essays behind him—often just little ruminations scribbled on scraps of wallpaper and old receipts that tipped out of his pockets as he rambled through the streets. And yet he was fully awake to the novelty of such a life. Montaigne was a mere few centuries dead, and the literary experiments bloomed and faded like flowers when compared to gothic walls of mediaeval literature that surrounded him. He was committed to the essay, but only as he was deeply concerned by it.

Such a profound shift in writing would necessarily produce a shift in thinking, a shift which he locates in his essay "On Essays". The essay is a wild thing, untamed and beautiful. Chesterton writes, “By its very nature it does not exactly explain what it is trying to do, and thus escapes a decisive judgement about whether it has really done it… It is always dealing with theoretical matters without the responsibility of being theoretical, or of propounding a theory.” Modern thought developed into wanton theorising without the commitment of extensive structured reasoning. “The mediaeval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay.” Those who think only in essays think only in digressions.

Luther, he continues, was no revolutionary modernist, but a ponderous mediaevalist, nailing theses to be defended: “he was doing exactly what all the other mediaeval doctors had done since the twilight of the Dark Ages.” Luther made assertions with the intention to argue them for the remainder of his life. If Luther had been a mere essayist, we would all be Tetzelites.

And yet the essayist is no villain, but merely suffers a contagious form of intellectual ADHD. “The trouble is that the essayists have become the only ethical philosophers. The wandering thinkers have become the wandering preachers… After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or get home.” Home for us cannot be the mediaeval cloisters; Chesterton desires only the survival of the thesis. A little intellectual meandering is good for the soul and cleanses the mind, but we need a thesis in order to depart from it here and there. Without a thesis, how will we ever know if we are truly on an excursion? 

“It would be unfair, perhaps, to say that the modern man only essays to think—or, in other words, makes a desperate attempt to think. But it would be true to say that the modern man often only essays, or attempts, to come to a conclusion.”

Whatever would he have made of Twitter? #GKC #newblogpost

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