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A Nightmare In Polychrome

G.K. Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross, 1910, Dover Edition, 1995, ISBN 0-486-28805-6 (pbk).


The Ball and the Cross is the second of Chesterton's novels, The Napoleon of Notting Hill being the first, and The Man Who Was Thursday being the one which is generally considered to be his best work.

The plot turns on the desire of two men, one an atheist and the other a devout Catholic, to fight a duel over religion. Each takes his belief seriously, you see. The authorities desire to prevent them from doing so, not because duelling is outlawed, but rather because taking religion really seriously simply isn't done. The two men flee from setting to setting wherein they encounter sundry spokesmen. Their journey ends when they are trapped in an asylum.

It is a fantastic religious allegory filled with obscure symbolism. Chesterton deals in the fantastic. Mind you, he in no way resembles the modern writer of genre fantasy. The latter creature deals in conventional realistic novels written against backgrounds imported from mythology. Chesterton deals in an older and deeper, a richer fantasy infused with the irrational and the marvelous.

The novel is a nightmare in polychrome.

In the Martin Gardner describes the story as mostly being a series of comic events. They are comic; there is a rich substratum of comedy. But the whole is the stuff of nightmares. The two main characters run from scene to scene as they are pursued, each scene being a bit of the fantastic which lasts a bit until it dissolves into the ongoing pursuit.

One of the striking things about Chesterton is the sheer enthusiastic exuberance of his depiction of the visual. For example, chapter III begins:

The evening sky, a dome of solid gold, unflaked even by a sunset cloud, steeped the meanest sights of London in a strange and mellow light.
What [publishable] writer today would have the nerve to begin a sentence with "The evening sky, a dome of solid gold"? Some other sentences, chosen at random:
Across the great plains and uplands to the right and left of the lane, a long tide of sunset light rolled like a sea of ruby, lighting up the long terraces of the hills and picking out the few windows of the scattered hamlets in startling blood-red sparks.

The sea that lay before them was like a pavement of emerald, bright and almost brittle; the sky against which its strict horizon hung was almost absolutely white, except that close to the sky line, like scarlet braids on the hem of a garment, lay strings of flaky cloud of so gleaming and gorgeous a red that they seemed cut out of some strange blood-red celestial metal of which the mere gold of this earth is but a drab yellow imitation.

One shudders to think of what Mark Twain would have made of such sentences. One cannot write such sentences in the modern novel. Novels today are written for people who cannot see, who do not see, people whose mental life is boxed into words and electronic images. Indeed, the modern novel is a thing to be consumed. One cannot waste too much space on color and description; the modern reader will slide past such things, marking them down as meaningless decoration.

Seeing the world as it really is is a thing with Chesterton. One is reminded of his famous Father Brown story in which the postman commits crimes with impunity because nobody sees a postman. Chesterton *sees*. He sees the world in its richness and panorama of color. Or, rather, he sees it with his eyes open in awareness but it is an awareness tinged with delirium. It is one of Chesterton's crochets that cranks, crackpots, and pamphleteers matter. The few with definite, defiant opinions who stand for something (it doesn't much matter what) are important. The bland majority in bland pursuit of the bland are not. In The Quiet One, Father Brown remarks that the victim, an eccentric pamphleteer, was one of the few really important people in England. So it is here. Turnbull, the atheist, is an all but ignored editor of a seldom read journal. MacIan is a country bumpkin. They matter and all of England is turned upside down because they matter and precious little else in England does.

In truth such people mostly don't matter; every once in a while, however, the pamphleteers have their turn. The community of pampleteers is like a vast tree that spreads prodigious amounts of seeds about the landscape. Among all the numerous seeds that blow in the wind and fail to root will be one or two that by chance finds fertile soil and grows to become another tree. So it is with Chesterton's pamphleteers. Most preach to a deaf choir; the words of some few catch fire and shake the world.


This page was last updated March 24, 1999.
It was moved february 5, 2010

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