10/2/13

"A Palace of Poetical Pleasures"

G.K. Chesterton's On Running After One's Hat humorously advocates for optimism in the face of adversity, a mindset that can turn petty annoyances into exhilarating adventures. His incredible balancing of class and humor allows the reader to laugh freely without doubting Chesterton's credibility. This skill is especially evident in his essay's final paragraph, which highlights layers of witty twists on common sayings -
An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: “Wine is good with everything except water,” and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine.
Such wit is simply impossible to rebut. But outside of enjoying Chesterton's creative argument for optimism, a reader may find much to chew upon in his comparisons of the adult and childhood mindsets.

Chesterton repeatedly urges his readers to rediscover that childhood world view of constant wonder. A child walks the world constantly enchanted by even the most mundane objects and ideas. Only years of Experience will desensitize the child, transforming the awestruck youngster into a desensitized adolescent, and ultimately, into a desperate adult -
Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains.
The child finds "poetical pleasure" in a train station where an adult only finds impatience. Perhaps the adult feels this way because he is closer to death; the child may find the experience illuminating because he is closer to the ground. 

But to describe the child's pleasure as "poetical" is something absolutely baffling. Poetry resides in unusual connections and startling language. The child experiences poetical pleasure because these connections are constantly being made without the inhibitions of society. A child can connect a signal arm to "a great king throw[ing] down his staff" without feeling embarrassed; an adult cannot. An adult may also possess copious knowledge of train logistics that leaves the signal arm looking quite mundane.

So how does an adult recapture this childhood mentality? One might follow Chesterton's advice, seeing inconveniences as "only an adventure wrongly considered." Or one might  attempt to recapture a child's awe by indulging in the hallucinogenic drugs popular with the Beat poets who sought spiritual connection. Conceivably, this "spiritual" search may simply have been a yearning for the childhood mindset. For when one knows very little, and the entire world shimmers with wonder, one cannot help but feel that there is a God, a enchanted supernatural entity.

Continuing a tradition of stealing chapter-heading epigraphs from Cornelia Funke's children's novel, Inkheart, we present this quote from Roberto Controneo's When a Child on a Sunday Morning
What child unable to sleep on a warm summer night hasn't thought he saw Peter Pan's sailing ship in the sky? I will teach you to see that ship.
Experience allows one to deal with situations effectively, to use history to one's advantage, a definite evolutionary benefit should one be forced to fight for material needs. Yet its effects contribute to mediocrity, an emotional deficit. This is hopelessly ironic, likely a facet of the summation of universal woes that is affectionately known as the "human condition"

But perhaps that's where literature becomes useful. Perhaps we are inspired by Chesterton's piece to live more optimistically, more adventurously. Novels instill wonder by transporting readers to enchanting worlds. Poetry feeds wonder by inviting startling connections. Thus, for those suffering from worldliness, tired of Experience, literature might be a legitimate prescription.

For books "will teach you to see that ship."

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