I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Stories run culture. I say this because we read bedtime books to our kids to teach them about bravery. We watch TV shows and then emulate what we see to get approval. We read or watch the news we actually believe that the world is a scary and dark place because they only report on things like that. Narratives permeate and adjust the interpretation of the facts. There is a great power to stories and this power is reflected both in our time and Chesterton’s.
Heresy exposed: Snobbishness of manufactured idols
Summary of Chapter:
The culture of the time is seen in all the stories. We usually focus on the movie that makes the most or wins awards. However, we can see the better commentary on our culture in specific types of literature.
Good literature may tell us the mind of one man; but bad literature may tell us the mind of many men. A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. It does much more than that, it tells us the truth about its readers; and, oddly enough, it tells us this all the more the more cynical and immoral be the motive of its manufacture. The more dishonest a book is as a book the more honest it is as a public document.
The ideal of what a good character is usually in the ones who provide all the answers or solutions or has all the fun (with no consequences). This individual today may be ‘the good looking guy’, ‘the beautiful girl’, ‘the agrees with the newest political movement person’, or anyone the author wants to have the correct response or answer. In that fictional world you can make anyone the one who is always correct which is a side of bad literature. In Chesterton’s time that person was usually the nobleman or the ideal of one.
The nobleman of the novelette may not be sketched with any very close or conscientious attention to the daily habits of noblemen. But he is something more important than a reality; he is a practical ideal. The gentleman of fiction may not copy the gentleman of real life; but the gentleman of real life is copying the gentleman of fiction. He may not be particularly good-looking, but he would rather be good-looking than anything else; he may not have ridden on a mad elephant, but he rides a pony as far as possible with an air as if he had. And, upon the whole, the upper class not only especially desire these qualities of beauty and courage, but in some degree, at any rate, especially possess them.
People say that truth is stranger than fiction, but the reality is that this real world tries to copy the ideals they see in fiction. People create an ideal that the group of people idealized then try to copy.
The snobbishness of bad literature, then, is not servile; but the snobbishness of good literature is servile. The old-fashioned halfpenny romance where the duchesses sparkled with diamonds was not servile; but the new romance where they sparkle with epigrams is servile. For in thus attributing a special and startling degree of intellect and conversational or controversial power to the upper classes, we are attributing something which is not especially their virtue or even especially their aim
In Chesterton’s day the English gentleman or aristocracy was written to have little or no emotions. They were the equivalent of todays action heroes who show no pain or remorse in their actions. This was and still is seen as strength which is odd because no true human would act that way.
The modern gentleman, particularly the modern English gentleman, has become so central and important in these books, and through them in the whole of our current literature and our current mode of thought, that certain qualities of his, whether original or recent, essential or accidental, have altered the quality of our English comedy. In particular, that stoical ideal, absurdly supposed to be the English ideal, has stiffened and chilled us. It is not the English ideal; but it is to some extent the aristocratic ideal; or it may be only the ideal of aristocracy in its autumn or decay. The gentleman is a Stoic because he is a sort of savage, because he is filled with a great elemental fear that some stranger will speak to him.
When bad writers want to create emotion in their stories they usually create drama. This drama tries to tug on the heartstrings and cause sadness. This means that in order to break down the stoic it will need to be done by tears. We know that sorrow is powerful but so are other emotions.
For a hearty laugh it is necessary to have touched the heart. I do not know why touching the heart should always be connected only with the idea of touching it to compassion or a sense of distress. The heart can be touched to joy and triumph; the heart can be touched to amusement. But all our comedians are tragic comedians. These later fashionable writers are so pessimistic in bone and marrow that they never seem able to imagine the heart having any concern with mirth. When they speak of the heart, they always mean the pangs and disappointments of the emotional life. When they say that a man’s heart is in the right place, they mean, apparently, that it is in his boots.
By looking at bad literature we see that two idols are being created in culture. First, the stoic soul being the hero or at least the ideal. Second being that sorrow is the only emotion worth having. Both of these are false idols. We, as created in God’s image have sorrow but also joy. Joy does not sell just as non-stoic heroes. Our stories create idols if we are not careful.