For Want of Wonder

“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” – G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles.

Reader be warned, this is not quite a essay on wonder and joy in daily life, and not quite a book-review for Tremendous Trifles; it seems to have become an odd and long amalgam of both.

Some kind onlooker from above must have been nudging me today, for it was absolutely by chance that I stumbled on a trove of free Chesterton books on Gutenberg and picked up Tremendous Trifles. Barely an essay or two into Chesterton’s delightful ramblings, and he’d made it clear to me exactly what idea of small joys had been tugging at the fringes of my brain for a week now, a reflection that I’d been longing to write without knowing quite what I meant to say.

“We may, by fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and fulfill their mysterious purpose.”

The first and titular essay is simply an explanation for everything that follows. He begins with a short allegory about two boys granted fairy-tale wishes: one of whom wishes to be a giant, and the other a pygmy; the giant wandering across the world only to find its mountains, waterfalls, and wonders all small and common place, while the pygmy spends the rest of his time exploring a fantastical new world that can only be his front lawn. Describing the book as an “idle diary of such odd things as I have fallen over by accident,” Chesterton suggests that we might, as quoted above, “fix our attention” on “the facts actually before us” and find worlds of new  adventure there.

“If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills, I confess with pride that it is so. I can imagine that no more successful and productive form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills. But I would add this not unimportant fact, that molehills are mountains; one has only to become a pygmy like Peter to discover that.”

In the second essay, A Piece of Chalk, Chesterton demonstrates in what way he means to make mountains of molehills. The adventure of this essay is quite simply an excursion out of town to enjoy some sketching, in which our hero realizes that among the colors of chalk he brought he forgot white. Along the way he reflects on animal-mystery,

“When a cow came slouching by in the field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all the beasts.”

and on simply being nature, noting that “though I could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape, it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out of me,” which thought leads to thinking on how the old poets drank in nature to paint “the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding snow,” and how the “greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live green figure of Robin Hood.”

Can you tell how enamored I am of the deft language with which Chesterton paints his reflections?

It is with “great disgust” that he realizes next that he has forgotten his white chalk, an essential piece, for, “white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black.” From this simple, striking assertion he shifts tracks, white/black over to good/evil, to uphold being over privation, an analogy-and-argument in one holding up virtue, mercy, chastity as Things in themselves, not Absences.

“Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”

And still, the dreadful lack – the white chalk. Suddenly, in great delight, Chesterton realizes that he is literally sitting on the answer to his problem: the hill he is drawing on is composed of white chalk. And breaking off a piece of the landscape, he closes the essay with a compliment to Southern England. Not only a “grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilization; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.”

I have met no other author who can touch on as many themes in a mere handful of pages as Chesterton does without feeling disjointed or lost. It is rambling, to be sure, but rambling that has the quality of a thoughtful conversation with a good friend on a lazy summer afternoon when neither of you have anything else to do; a conversation charged with a vigorous spirit of exploration that the reader can hardly help but cheerfully follow.

I could keep walking through the essays quote by quote, all too easily; for Chesterton is only just getting started. He goes on to recount a single odd moment of success in a croquet game; to mull over a philosophical argument he had with a few friends about whether we can really be certain of anything, an argument ironically followed by a cabbie’s briefly contradicting his memory of the evening’s travels –

“For the same reason that I believe in Democracy, for the same reason that I believe in free will, for the same reason that I believe in fixed character of virtue, the reason that could only be expressed by saying that I do not choose to be a lunatic, I continued to believe that this honest cabman was wrong, and I repeated to him that I had really taken him at the corner of Leicester-square.”

Best for all of us, I think, to close with that mere introduction, rather then delve deeper into the body of essays. It would be easy to end with a monstrosity of a review, longer then the book itself; and considering how much better his words are then mine, just go read Tremendous Trifles for yourself.

But the preface, demonstrated in the essays that follow it, makes explicit something that has stood out to me in every Chesterton essay I’ve ever read. The man writes with a fierce delight, an ever-fresh joy, that shines through everything. It is a joy fed by the most ordinary of moments; a joy that finds nothing dull in daily tedium. He is ready at the drop of a hat (perhaps literally) to connect any little incident that catches his attention to a philosophical idea or worldview without pretentiousness or sentimentality, and to move back and forth between banality and mystery without making any fuss. He seems to take genuine pleasure in the things themselves, such as  in chalk-drawings on brown-paper; in his stroll down the street; in a moment’s conversation.

Best of all, Chesterton has no sense of dignity. He explores nonsense with the same vigorous delight he explores ancient philosophical questions.

“To appreciate anything we must always isolate it, even if the thing itself symbolizes something other then isolation If we wish to see what a house is it must be a house in some uninhabited landscape. […] The poetry of art is in beholding the single tower; the poetry of nature in seeing the single tree; the poetry of love in following the single woman; poetry of religion in worshiping the single star. And so, in the same pensive lucidity, I find the poetry of all human anatomy in standing on a single leg. To express complete and perfect leggishness the leg must stand in sublime isolation, like the tower in the wilderness.”

I am not suggesting that we must endeavor to find great insight in misplacing a mug of tea, or pause to ruminate on the True Meaning of the sunhat one picks up on the way out the door – although such a task, undertaken only in a playful spirit, might not be such a bad idea – but I do say that not only to allow but encourage such unnecessary joy may finally be the antidote for Routine.

“But what does that mean? We don’t all have Chesterton’s wit and wonder-”

No. Sadly, we certainly don’t. But we can begin to ignore the background-voice that reminds you to be sensible, not silly. We can delight in someone else’s fun in life, as a first baby-step, and take inspiration to take a closer look at the little things around us. We can take sharp joy wherever we find it, indulge in wholesome nonsense in its right place- and, as Chesterton says, “fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts already before us, force them to turn into adventures.”


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