On paradoxes

There are two kinds of paradoxes. They are not so much the good and the bad, nor even the true and the false. Rather they are the fruitful and the barren; the paradoxes which produce life and the paradoxes that merely announce death. Nearly all modern paradoxes merely announce death. I see everywhere among the young men who have imitated Mr. Shaw a strange tendency to utter epigrams which deny the possibility of further life and thought. A paradox may be a thing unusual, menacing, even ugly — like a rhinoceros. But, as a live rhinoceros ought to produce more rhinoceri, so a live paradox ought to produce more paradoxes. Nonsense ought to be suggestive; but nowadays it is abortive. The new epigrams are not even fantastic finger-posts on a wild road: they are tablets, each set into a brick wall at the end of a blind alley. So far as they concern thought at all, they cry to men, ‘Think no more’, as the voice says ‘Sleep no more’ to Macbeth. These rhetoricians never speak except to move the closure. Even when they are really witty (as in the case of Mr. Shaw), they commonly commit the one crime that cannot be forgiven among free men. They say the last word.

I will give such instances as happen to lie before me. I see on my table a book of aphorisms by a young Socialist writer, Mr. Holbrook Jackson; it is called Platitudes in the Making, and curiously illustrates this difference between the paradox that starts thought and the paradox that prevents thought. Of course, the writer has read too much Nietzsche and Shaw, and too little of less groping and more gripping thinkers. But he says many really good things of his own, and they illustrate perfectly what I mean here about the suggestive and the destructive nonsense.

Thus in one place he says, ‘Suffer fools gladly: they may be right’. That strikes me as good; but here I mean specially that it strikes me as fruitful and free. You can do something with the idea; it opens an avenue. One can go searching among one’s more solid acquaintances and relatives for the fires of a concealed infallibility. One may fancy one sees the star of immortal youth in the somewhat empty eye of Uncle George; one may faintly follow some deep rhythm of nature in the endless repetitions with which Miss Bootle tells a story; and in the grunts and gasps of the Major next door may hear, as it were, the cry of a strangled god. It can never narrow our minds, it can never arrest our life, to suppose that a particular fool is not such a fool as he looks. It must be all to the increase of charity, and charity is the imagination of the heart.

I turn the next page, and come on what I call the barren paradox. Under the hed of ‘Advices’, Mr. Jackson writes, ‘Don’t think — do.’ This is exactly like saying, ‘Don’t eat — digest.’ All doing that is not mechanical or accidental involves thinking; only the modern world seems to have forgotten that there can be such a thing as decisive and dramatic thinking. Everything that comes from the will must pass through the mind, though it may pass quickly. The only sort of thing the strong man can ‘do’ without thinking of something like falling over a doormat. This is not even making the mind jump; it is simply making it stop. I take another couple of cases at random. ‘The object of life is life.’ That affects me as ultimately true; always presuming the author is liberal enough to include eternal life. But even if it is nonsense, it is thoughtful nonsense.

On another page I read, ‘Truth is one’s own conception of things’. That is thoughtless nonsense. A man would never have had any conception of things at all unless he had thought they were things and there was some truth about them. Here we have the black nonsense, like black magic, that shuts down the brain. ‘A lie is that which you do not believe’. That is a lie; so perhaps Mr. Jackson does not believe it.

The Illustrated London News, 11 March 1911.

(A note to readers of The Hebdomadal Chesterton: A version of Mr. Jackson’s Platitudes in the Making with Chesterton’s own marginal comments has been published by Ignatius Press. It is quite interesting.)

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 6:23 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Great fresh air, especially that bit about black magic and black nonsense; I’m trying to tell a friend how to sign up for this site, but I can’t figure it out.

  2. In my browser, there is a “Follow” button at the top that presumably enables one to sign up. Barring that, the URL for this blog can be pasted into an RSS feed reader (like Google Reader) to monitor the blog for updates. Best of luck, and thanks for reading.

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