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Friday, November 18, 2011

G. K. Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk”: Paragraph By Paragraph

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

In the first paragraph of his essay, “A Piece of Chalk,” G. K. Chesterton creates a foil, so to speak, in the person of an elderly homeowner whom he describes as “square and sensible.” (A foil is a character whose personality consists of traits that are opposite to those of the main character and, therefore, highlight the protagonist’s own personality traits. In other words, Chesterton’s first-person narrator will believe differently, think differently, feel differently, and act differently than the homeowner.) The adjectives “square” and “sensible” suggest that the homeowner is conventional, practical, and, perhaps, unimaginative; since she is a foil to the essay’s narrator, the narrator himself will be unconventional, impractical (or, rather, romantic and idealistic), and imaginative. The rest of the opening paragraph shows readers that they are correct in having made these assumptions about both the foil and her opponent, the narrator. When the latter asks the former for “brown paper,” she misunderstands his intentions, thinking that he wants to wrap parcels, when, in fact, wishing to draw pictures, he has asked for the “brown paper” because of its “responsive surface”; he is uninterested in whether it has the qualities of “toughness” and “endurance” that the homeowner finds significant in such paper:
She seemed to have an idea that if a person wanted brown paper he must be wanting to tie up parcels; which was the last thing I wanted to do. . . . Hence she dwelt very much on the varying qualities of toughness and endurance in the material. I explained to her that I only wanted to draw pictures on it, and that I did not want them to endure in the least; and that from my point of view, therefore, it was a question, not of tough consistency, but of responsive surface, a thing comparatively irrelevant in a parcel.
The homeowner, readers find, is also generous, for, “when she understood that” the narrator “wanted to draw she offered to overwhelm” him “with notepaper.” However, the fact that she regards notepaper as a superior surface upon which to draw shows her conventional, practical, and unimaginative character, for she obviously does not understand the reasons for which the narrator prefers “brown paper” to the “notepaper” that she offers him, and, in the next paragraph, he finds it necessary to attempt an explanation to her of his preference. Through his characters’ actions, Chesterton not only characterizes the homeowner as prosaic and the narrator as poetic in their respective aesthetic orientations (and conventional, practical, and unimaginative and as unconventional, romantic, and imaginative in their respective general points of view), but he also suggests a point that it critical to readers’ understanding of his essay’s theme. Specific qualities or traits determine a person’s character, which is his or her essence; his or her character, in turn, determines his or her point of view; one’s point of view determines both his or her sense of purpose, for him- or herself and for other people and objects, including nature, and the way in which he or she interacts with both the world and other individuals. From the homeowner’s point of view, “brown paper” has one--and only one--purpose: “to tie up parcels,” and it is good, therefore, depending upon whether it is tough and durable. However, the narrator declares, from his “point of view,” that what is important in “brown paper” is its “responsive surface, a thing comparatively irrelevant in a parcel.” His own essence is determined by the qualities inherent in his character (unconventionality, romanticism, idealism, and imaginativeness); these qualities, in turn, determine his point of view (which is also unconventional, romantic, idealistic, and imaginative); his point of view determines his sense of purpose (he sees “brown paper” as a drawing surface--a purpose for such paper that is literally unimaginable to the conventional, practical, and unimaginative homeowner) and the way in which he interacts with the world and with others (which is described later in the essay).

In paragraph two of the essay, Chesterton’s narrator explains his preference for “brown paper” over “notepaper” as a drawing surface, in the process drawing an analogy between artistic creation and divine creation (which is similar, incidentally, to the analogy that J. R. R. Tolkien makes between these same two activities in his discussion of the artist as a “sub-creator” who, by his or her works, participates in creation itself). The narrator likes “brown paper” because it is brown; he likes the quality of the “brownness” of the paper, which, to his mind (that is, from his point of view), symbolizes “the primal twilight of the first toil of creation”:
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I like the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-colored chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness.
The “brown paper” has an essence--its brownness--just as the homeowner and the narrator himself have their essences; the character of the “brown paper”; its essence, as a drawing surface upon which an artist may “with a bright-colored chalk or two . . pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness,” is that it is a medium for artistic creativity by which the artist expresses an ability similar to that of the divine Creator, God, himself. This paragraph accomplishes still more, by showing the narrator’s romantic and idealistic (in the Platonic, not the sentimental) sense of the word. The narrator, like Plato, believes in the essences of things; he believes that the true character, or nature, of things resides not in themselves, but in the mind of the Creator; that the things of this world--and, indeed, the very world itself--are but dim shadows, as it were, of their true selves. This is why even seemingly trivial objects have dimensions far greater than they appear to have; their appearances are deceiving, but not to one who has the “point of view” that Chesterton’s narrator has. The narrator’s assumption that “I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one's pocket” is ironic, of course, for it is a rare mind that thinks such thoughts--a mind such as that of William Wordsworth, perhaps, or that of Plato or that of Chesterton. Most men and women merely take such everyday objects as the things that they carry in their pockets for granted, without considering them at all. It is only a poet, a philosopher, or a mystic who might trouble him- or herself to meditate upon such things. Were others to do so, however, they might realize anew that such objects are marvelous, not mundane: the “pocket-knife” that the narrator cites as an example of an object that he carries (along with the chalks) in his pocket was once unprocessed ore that, mined from the earth, was smelted in a furnace, before being shaped by art and craft into something entirely new, with an original purpose that had never before been imagined, becoming both a tool and the prototype of a weapon, the sword, upon which human civilization and culture, to a large degree, depends. Such a mind as Chesterton’s might, one imagines, truly write “a book of poems entirely about things in” his “pockets” that would be of “epic” length. However, his spokesman, the essay’s narrator, says, it would be vain for him to do so in the present age because “the age of great epics is past.” Men and women are no longer interested in grand poems that express the greatness of the human spirit and the monumental moral struggles in which, often in a supernatural context, human beings engage.

He says that he sets forth, to walk “out on the great downs,” rather like an explorer going to sea, but armed, as it were, not with sword and shield or compass, sextant, and maritime charts, but with seemingly trivial and insignificant things: “my stick and my knife, my chalks and my brown paper.” Indeed, he describes the “downs” as if they are the seas of an ocean; the hills are like waves, “one swell of living turf after another”--the hills, readers notice, are not dead, but alive; they, like everything else, has a soul of sorts, not in the pantheistic sense, but in the sense that spirit--the Spirit of God--is everywhere present at once and that, therefore, all things are filled with his Spirit. It is this reality that the narrator wants to capture on “brown paper” with his chalks, which is why he declares, “for heaven’s sake,” that he does not want to “sketch from Nature.” Instead, he says, he intends to “draw devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, all of the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright colors on brown paper.” He wants to express the numinous and awe-filled, ecstatic character--the essence--of the spiritual rather than to merely render a copy of the physical objects of the natural world. He is a romantic--even an impressionistic--artist, not a mere copyist. For the narrator, art is not mimetic, as Aristotle holds, but a rite by which the artist can commune with God, through nature, expressing his or her own passion and wonder, his or her own awe and devotion; art is a form, in other words, of worship. Such things as “devils and seraphim,” he insists “are much better worth drawing than Nature.” To further distinguish between the realistic aim of mimetic art and the emotional and devotional aims of what might be called religious art, the narrator explains how he would depict a very mundane object--a cow:
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 a 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 beasts.
This is the cow, he implies, as it may actually exist, in the mind of its Creator. The flesh-and-blood cow is a mere copy, the shadow of its true and ideal form, of its shape in the mind of God. Although some literary critics contend that the pre-Romantic poets, those “old poets who lived before Wordsworth,” did “not. . . care very much about Nature because they did not describe it much,” he disagrees. The “old poets” also cared deeply about nature, he says, and their reverence and appreciation of nature’s beauty and majesty is reflected in, and enhances, their work:
They preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write it. The gave out much less about Nature, but they drank in, perhaps, much more. They painted the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding snow, at which they had stared all day. . . The greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live green figure of Robin Hood. The blueness of a score of forgotten skies became the blue robes of the Virgin. The inspiration went in like sunbeams [natural phenomena] and came out like Apollo [spiritualized, or divine, nature].
The narrator is “disgusted” to discover that he has forgotten to bring the “most. . . essential” chalk with him, a stick of white chalk. Like everything else, white chalk has an essence. It has a quality that is both inherent and indispensable, a quality that makes it what it is. White chalk, the narrator implies, symbolizes a reverence for, and a passionate devotion to, virtue. As such, whiteness, he insists, “is not a mere absence of color; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black.” There is also something supernatural about this passion, he suggests. There are two types of passion, the narrator implies: the “red-hot” fire that produces “roses,” symbols of natural beauty, and the “white-hot” fire that produces “stars,” symbols of transcendent, or heavenly, beauty: “When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars.” “White-hot” passion is associated with virtue, which, in turn, is associated with such additional spiritual qualities as morality, mercy, and chastity:
And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a color. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.
Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. . . .
Only someone who is, like the homeowner with whom the essay begins, conventional, practical, unimaginative, and prosaic, would consider virtue to be merely “the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers,” rather than “a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell”; who would consider mercy to be simply behavior that is not “mean” or “cruel” or as a “sparing [of] people revenge or punishment,” rather than “a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen”; or who would suppose that chastity is nothing more than “abstention from sexual wrong,” rather than “something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”

For Chesterton’s narrator, God is also passionate in his creation. He “paints in many colors.” However, the primary color so to speak, in which God paints is white, and this is the most “glorious” color that he uses: “he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.” In some dim sense, human beings understand the mystical and essential character of whiteness, but they have sought, whether consciously and deliberately or otherwise, to suppress it:
In a sense our age has realized this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colorless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funereal dress of this pessimistic period. Which is not the case.
For those who appreciate and accept the value of virtue as a “positive and essential” quality of the spirit that is as real as “pain or a particular smell” or as “the sun, which one has either seen or not seen,” that is, experienced or not experienced, art, like the world itself, is apt to seem meaningless, or “absurd,” for it is the essential quality of virtue, the narrator contends, that gives both art and existence itself their value, their meaning, and their purpose, just as “good people” make life worth living: “without any white, my absurd little pictures would be as pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it.”
In the final paragraph, the despairing narrator realizes, to his great joy, that he is not without white chalk, after all: the very landscape is made of the substance.
I sat on the hill in a sort of despair. There was no town near at which it was even remotely probable there would be such a thing as an artist's colorman. And yet, without any white, my absurd little pictures would be as pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it. I stared stupidly round, racking my brain for expedients. Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hour-glass. Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some salt water with him for his chemical experiments. I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely of white chalk.
The fact that “white chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky” is both literal--the white cliffs of Dover do meet the sky--and figurative. The earth represents material reality, or physical existence; it is the world inhabited by humanity. The sky, on the other hand, symbolizes heaven, the transcendent abode of God. Through chalk, or virtue, the two are united. By creative, virtuous acts, human beings exercise a similar act of creation such as that of God, whose love for moral behavior, mercy, virtue, and chastity is the essential passion of his own essence, or character, his own Spirit, out of which he created both “roses” and “stars” and the “good people” of the earth. England is not entirely made up of white chalk, however; only “Southern England” is composed of this substance; God is himself the white chalk, of which England is “a piece.” However, to the extent that England is made of white chalk, it participates in the virtue that is essential to God’s own character and is, as such, a force for goodness in the world, and perhaps an instrument through which God continuously sustains his creation’s goodness in and through “good people” and human institutions: “And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realizing that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilization; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.” Chesterton’s narrator suggests that it is one’s character, which is given to him or her by God, that is an individual’s essence. This essence, in turn, determines one’s “point of view,” or worldview and outlook on life. A person’s “point of view” determines the sense of purpose that he or she has regarding existence, including the existence of him- or herself and others, and the manner in which he or she relates to the rest of the world. The narrator shows two possibilities for such essences, viewpoints, senses of purpose, and relationships, that of the conventional, practical, unimaginative, but generous, and prosaic homeowner (an ordinary, or natural, person) and that of her opposite, the unconventional, romantic and idealistic, imaginative, and poetic narrator (a Christian).

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