Apologies for the lack of writing.  I am in the throes of an article on marriage to submit to The City, and it is proving much more difficult than I had expected.  The issues surrounding marriage are so intricate and complex that I suspect a book is the only proper way to treat them.

Regardless, for your reading pleasure I offer this extended treatment of drama, romance, and the acceptance of contingent circumstances that are not brought about by our own choosing by G.K. Chesterton, as I think it has relevance to many of the recent discussions we have been having here at Mere-O about technology and marriage.

But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission.  If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential.  It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we like very little.  But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act.  A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel.  But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel.  And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events.  They are dull because they are omnipotent.  They fail to feel adventures because they can make the adventures.  The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of those great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.  It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings.  To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings.  To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance.  Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.  Hence it is misunderstood by the moderns, who imagine that romance would exist most perfectly in a complete state of what they call liberty.  They think that if a man makes a gesture it would be a startling and romantic matter that the sun should fall from the sky.  But the startling and romantic thing about the sun is that it does not fall from the sky.  They are seeking under every shape and form a world where there are no limitations–that is, a world where there are no outlines; that is, a world where there are no shapes.  There is nothing baser than that infinity.  They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe to be as weak as themselves.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Chesterton on the possibility of a dramatic, and hence romantic, worldview: http://bit.ly/13MgP0

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • That is a wonderful quote, although I’m surprised I made it to the end since 430 words in such a small font without any paragraph breaks is hard on the eyes. Could your webmaster increase the font size for block quotations? At least Jeremy broke up the Dewey quote a few times to help the reader not lose his place.

    I recongize the irony of asking for the rules to be changed instead of submitting to the template imposed by my circumstances and working within those limitations, but be that as it may:

    I was just thinking about how much it is circumstances outside of our control that determine our identity: ethnicity, nationality, upbringing, physical appearance, accent. Most of those can’t be changed, although plastic surgery now tempts us to change what used to be the most beyond control.

    It struck me today, however, that while cosmetic surgery has become more or less accepted as a valid option for self-presentation, we still regard people who try to change their accent as false, disingenuous, and self-loathing (at least I do).

    But for most people it is impossible to change their accent as an act of will, and is something that will to a large extent define their self-presentation for the rest of their lives. If one so chooses, one can move to another city or country, can disown their family, can alter their physical appearance, can dress to fit into whatever class of people or subculture they want to join, but they probably cannot sustain a different accent for long before it is identified by someone as phony and they are forced to speak in their native inflection.

    It is an elementary observation, but perhaps an elemental example of a constraint outside our control that even those with limitless resources cannot necessarily escape.

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  • Nobody,

    Five years go by and NOW you complain about the small font? It kills me. I’d actually like to redesign the whole site here soon–with everything going on financially, though, that could be tough to do.

    Re: accents, that’s an interesting and (I suspect) non-trivial observation, as our respective dialects are inherently shaped by the various communities we live in over the course of our lives.

  • Block quotes haven’t been like that since the beginning, they became tiny some time in the last year or two!

  • 1. While we’re complaining, the comments are turning into Pingback Central, Now With Added Spam.

    2. When I logged into WordPress, it said to notify you that you’re running an old edition. Time to update, lest ye be hacked.

    3. On a less serious, but equally tangential note, what are Chesterton’s thoughts on the possibility of bromance?

  • Nobody,

    Hmmm…I wasn’t aware they had gotten smaller. I thought they were always that size. My bad.

    Jim,

    I think we’re only one version behind right now. I upgraded a few weeks ago–we’re on version 2.8.1, I think, and they’re now up to 2.8.4. But yes, that’s been on my to-do list.

    Yah, sorry about the way comments have gone. I like the fact that it integrates Twitter conversations into it, but as we get more popular (that’s going to happen, right?) I suspect we might need to turn that off.

    As bromance, I suspect whether Chesterton had thoughts about it would depend upon its semantic range…

    matt

  • It’s so very romantic to be born into poverty and so very dull and unromantic to be rich and able to realize your potential.

    I know that’s snarky but I’m trying to grasp the romance of uncongenial circumstances. I understand the romance of transcending those contraints but most people, I would argue, do not succeed in that.

    We are all indexed to our original social position by lexicon, gait, posture, affect, accent, etc. and these can be constraints. When these contradict our self-presentation, we are perceived as inauthentic.

  • Heh. I’m going to guess that the final paragraph was meant for the other post.

    I think Chesterton’s point is that once the constraints are transcended, the romance is lost, which explains why wealthy people are either (a) always attempting to gain more wealth or (b) mindlessly amusing themselves and attempting to stave off boredom. The limitations provide a sense of adventure and excitement that we can either choose to lament or embrace. What’s not romantic about that?

    Your point about realizing our potential seems to rest on a rather limited notion of our potential. It seems Chesterton is advocating a sort of joy that can exist regardless of our contingent circumstances. Call it transcendent if you will, but its precisely that joy that allows people to ‘realize their potential’ regardless of their fiscal arrangements (which is not, I should point out, any sort of justification for or defense of poverty).

    Best,

    matt

  • I get what you’re saying about the “romance” that can be found working within the limitations imposed on us. Can’t quite articulate it, though.

    But, when the limits are so contraining that a person cannot even develop the awareness of how they might live well in relationship to the limitations, it is useless to call their plight romantic.