Years ago, perhaps seven, a package arrived for me from a friend in California. A fellow bibliophile, she had been visiting a used bookstore in the San Diego area and had come across a few books she thought I might like. It was a tremendous gesture, and one I’ve not soon forgotten. One book was a 1910 edition of Florence Barclay’s The Rosary. Another was an 1880 edition of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace. Both books were wonderful surprises and a reminder that I am blessed with amazing and selfless friends.
However the third book was my favorite as it is a biography written by one of my favorite writers/authors about perhaps my favorite author: Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men by G.K. Chesterton. Though originally published in 1906, this is not as old an edition as the others but is a Reader’s Club edition published in 1942. It is very dear to me.
I decided to read it again after seeing it on a shelf over the holidays just passed. Below are five quotes (plus a bonus quote) pulled from the first twenty-seven pages, about half-way through the second chapter. I wrote them down yesterday while sitting at a lunch counter downtown in order to share them here. I offer no commentary on them as any effort on my part would be superfluous. They speak for themselves.
To say that Chesterton was a giant among writers is an understatement. When combined with another giant of literature as his subject literary magic is the inevitable result.
One of the actual and certain consequences of the idea that all men are equal is immediately to produce very great men. I would say superior men, only that the hero thinks of himself as great, but not as superior. This has been hidden from us of late by a foolish worship of sinister and exceptional men, men without comradeship, or any infectious virtue. This type of Caesar does exist. There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.
The spirit of the early century produced great men, because it believed that men were great. It made strong men by encouraging weak men. Its education, its public habits, its rhetoric, were all addressed towards encouraging the greatness in everybody. And by encouraging the greatness in everybody, it naturally encouraged superlative greatness in some. Superiority came out of the high rapture of equality. It is precisely in this sort of passionate unconsciousness and bewildering community of thought that men do become more than themselves.
The other main factory of heroes besides a revolution is a religion. And a religion, again, is a thing which, by its nature, does not think of men as more or less valuable, but of men as all intensely and painfully valuable, a democracy of eternal danger. For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King. … It has often been said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.
We do not understand the dark and transcendental sympathy between fairies and fools. We understand a devout occultism, an evil occultism, a tragic occultism, but a farcical occultism is beyond us. Yet a farcical occultism is the very essence of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It is also the right and credible essence of “A Christmas Carol.” Whether we understand it depends upon whether we can understand that exhilaration is not a physical accident, but a mystical fact; that exhilaration can be infinite, like sorrow; that a joke can be so big that it breaks the roof of the stars. By simply going on being absurd, a think can become godlike; there is but one step from the ridiculous to the sublime.
It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is pre-eminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World.
One more, from the final paragraph of the book:
Comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.