Monday, June 04, 2007

"Writing in Paradox"

When I was hanging out with Flicka, the conversation shifted by design to my latest obsession: G.K. Chesterton.

In trying to explain why I admire his writing so very much, I used the phrase, "he writes in paradox." Because Flicka is a writer who understands that words -- in order to have any relevance or impact -- must actually mean things, she pounced on this throwaway expression and demanded an explanation. "How does one write in paradox?" she asked, "It is surely more of a literary device than a style."

This pop quiz flummoxed me, and I racked my brain, trying to get a handle on exactly what I was trying to say. Of course, in situations like this, my brain impishly takes a vacation and mocks me from the beach, Mai Tai in hand. Since no examples came to mind, Flicka kindly let me off the hook, and we continued onward.

On the airplane coming home, I turned again to the wonderful Chesterton novel, The Ball and the Cross, and immediately wanted to bang my head on the seatback tray table all the way to Seattle. For, The Ball and the Cross is written of almost pure philosophy and in almost pure paradox. How ridiculous of me not to think of it!

Now, I do not know if the phrase "writes in paradox" was ever a true match for my meaning; but, the way in which Chesterton is so comfortable using paradox goes far beyond a literary device. His mind is so well able to work a paradox into a just analogy and nimbly stretch and mold a paradox into such an illuminating truth, that it is rather inadequate simply to point out that he uses paradox well. He has embraced the vital paradoxes within the human situation -- and within Christianity specifically -- so wholly that it suits to say that his style is one of paradox.

For instance, the premise of The Ball and the Cross is the struggle to enact a sworn duel to the death between an avowed atheist, James Turnbull, and a devout Catholic, Evan MacIan. So far, a plot set-up rich with possibilities, but not breathtaking in scope. For, one would expect, this is the age-old battle between good and evil, darkness and light -- and the sympathies of the author could go in either direction, depending upon his personal philosophical bent. However, Chesterton makes a complete departure from the ordinary by binding the two arch enemies together with something greater than their epistemological differences, so that they become "in the oddest and most exact sense of the term, brothers -- in arms" (p. 35).

And here is where the master of paradox takes the reader on a fascinating divergence. A new antagonist is added to the plot that drives the two opponents increasingly together: A world caught up in moral ambiguity and plodding apathy toward the biggest issues -- those of light and dark and good and evil. In other words, lightness and darkness must battle the enveloping grayness, before they can battle each other. As Turnbull and MacIan roam across the countryside, trying to find a place to duel, they are continually met by others who would thwart them -- either through preventing their fight or belittling their cause.

Now, I am only about half way through this book, because I've been trying to read up on Chesterton's non-fiction, so I do not know how this will end. But, I can say that the title of the novel, The Ball and the Cross, refers to the decorative spire of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which is a cross atop a globe. The ball represents the world, and the cross -- well, we all know what that represents. Are the two symbols irreconcilable or amenable? Can they coexist? Does one replace the other? Who deserves prominence? Which is more real? These are the issues that are at stake -- and these are the questions Chesterton dares to explore. And he does it in the way he knows best -- through the paradox of two men diametrically opposed and undeniably united. That is his particular genius.


Flicka Spumoni said...

I didn't mean to put you on the spot. It's just that you are such a rich font of knowledge that I knew you'd be able to educate me to something new.

You didn't disappoint. I think I grasp the meaning now.

Justine said...

I was SO GLAD that you called me on it -- I always want only to say what I mean. Too many words people say nowadays are meaningless, and I abhor that trend. Thank you for keeping me honest!