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Old 12-17-2017, 08:43 AM
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Michael F Michael F is offline
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Default Poetry, Insanity and Infinity

I have been prodded by discussion on this board (hat tip to Aaron N and Gregory D) to investigate Chesterton. There is plenty so far to agree with, and to disagree with, but he is certainly entertaining and engaging, not to mention prolific. I thought this snippet was so provocative that I wanted to share it:

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea … and so to make it finite. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

– GKC, Orthodoxy

What do you think, fellow Sphereans? Is this a fair depiction? Are there good examples pro and contra? Do you feel in writing poetry that you mean to poke your head into the heavens? Have you?
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Old 12-17-2017, 08:47 AM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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I think his point is rather muddied by his imprecise and judgmental use of the word "sane," even were I to accept the distinction he is drawing between poetry and logic/science (which I don't, though I'm not ready to elaborate as yet).
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Old 12-17-2017, 10:14 AM
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Orwn Acra Orwn Acra is offline
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I don't understand the quote fully, but infinity has been squared away through reason via Dedekind, Cantor, and Russell. Only one of them went mad but he was mad already and the notion of the mathematician reaching new heights of nous at the expense of his sanity is one the poets invented.
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Old 12-17-2017, 10:56 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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False dichotomies make memorable epigrams, but seldom correspond to the complexities of reality. I don't know any good poets who are irrational. It is hard to write poetry well without the help of reason, and though many poets have had periods of mental illness, they have not usually produced good poetry in those periods.

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Old 12-17-2017, 12:54 PM
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RCL RCL is offline
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Susan, your first clause is a memorable epigram (true or not)!
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Old 12-17-2017, 03:33 PM
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Jan Iwaszkiewicz Jan Iwaszkiewicz is offline
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I am with Ralph Susan that is so incredibly quotable.

I think GKC was painting with a very large brush.

It is worthy of note he enjoyed the title of "The Prince of Paradox"

Last edited by Jan Iwaszkiewicz; 12-17-2017 at 03:36 PM.
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Old 12-17-2017, 06:09 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
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I will admit to being impatient with statements that celebrate the poet's radiance and genius and spiritual depth, and so forth, at the expense of science or math or philosophy. They're different things people! It's this simple and to hold one up to measure the other results in inaccurate measurements and pompous statements such as this one.
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Old 12-18-2017, 07:27 AM
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Michael F Michael F is offline
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My thanks for the thoughtful responses. I confess I was surprised that no one found much value in any part of the quotation, so it turned out to be provocative in a way other than I had meant. I apologize for that, as it was a misreading on my part.

I should perhaps put the quotation in a larger context: GKC offers it as part of a defense of imagination, and particularly poetic and mystical imagination. It seems I can sniff these sorts out like a truffle pig in a French forest, and that probably accounts for no small part of my attraction. The contrast of finitude and infinity could be straight out of Pascal.

Anyway, his first target is philosophical materialism, his proxy for ‘logic’. I also reject philosophical / scientific materialism to the extent that it claims to be all-inclusive and all-explanatory, for the same, simple reasons Chesterton does: it flies in the face of common sense and experience, and at the limit becomes quite mad. For me, to deny my experience of free will is madness. You may as well tell me that the world is my dream and that day is night. Also, it is no less silly and unbelievable to me to say that there is an infinity of actual, parallel universes born by quantum fluctuations, or that there are half a dozen or more hidden dimensions in the universe that we can’t perceive – because this is what the mathematics demands – than to say the world was created in 6 days by the Old One. I can’t believe either story. (Forgive me if I misstate some of postulations of modern theoretical physics; I know I’m in the ballpark, but it’s been a while since I read it.) I don’t believe there is one ‘system’ of thought that adequately explains all existence -- to do so, for me, is a kind of intellectual imperialism. The world is bigger than that, I feel. I think EF Schumacher is very good on this subject.

I agree with those who said that GKC paints with a broad brush. I also agree that no man can reliably judge another’s inner experience, so neither I, nor GKC, can completely understand the excitement and gratification of scientific discovery, which certainly should have its esteemed place. I think GKC admits this, though not in this snippet.

I follow GKC much more closely in his critical enterprise than in his constructive enterprise (with the possible exception of distributism), and I am well aware of his manifest agenda in defending “The Thing”. There I cannot follow, though I have no hatred for it. I seem always to come back to Whitman and Blake: creeds and schools in abeyance, and not wanting to let another man’s system enslave me. Incidentally, GKC wrote a book on Blake that I must get my hands on.

And I think GKC is quite an entertaining stylist and polemicist.

Finally, Jan – re paradox – I love this quote from Niels Bohr: The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.

I'm sorry if this reads like a journal entry. These are thoughts I've been chewing on for a while, like a cow its cud. On three acres.

Last edited by Michael F; 05-06-2018 at 06:56 PM. Reason: rest
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Old 12-18-2017, 07:35 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Yes, that Niels Bohr quote is great.

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Old 12-18-2017, 01:28 PM
Gregory Dowling Gregory Dowling is offline
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Glad to hear that you've been prompted to explore Chesterton, Michael. Of course, the problem is that he did write too much and sometimes he wrote too quickly. Probably best to try well-chosen selections of his works.

In any case, with regard to your quotation from Orthodoxy, it's worth pointing out that Chesterton would never attack reason itself. It's worth remembering the conclusion of the first Father Brown story, after the priest has unmasked the master-thief, Flambeau, who has been passing himself off as a priest:
"...But another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”
“What?” asked the thief, almost gaping.
“You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.”
And Chesterton agreed entirely with Susan about poets, that they don't produce good poetry when mentally ill. In that same part of Orthodoxy, he writes:

Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin.
And he adds, "Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets."
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