John Howe


G. K. Chesterton is one of the most underrated modern authors of fantastical fiction.

So, imagine my delight when a copy of “THE VENTURE: An Annual of Art and Literature” from 1903 (edited by none other than the unlikely duo of Laurence Housman[2] and W. Somerset Maugham) fell open to the title page of an article by Chesterton himself. The piece is more than a little discursive and peppered with eccentric examples held up to amuse, in the style of the times, but Chesterton, even with tongue firmly in cheek, slips in his most perceptive thoughts disguised as short phrases left undeveloped but thought-provoking nevertheless. Strip away the conventions of a century ago, it could just as well have been written last week.

From left to right: Cover, title page and contents of the 1903 edition of “The Venture.”


Suppose that in some convulsion of the planets there fell upon this earth from Mars, a creature of a shape totally unfamiliar, a creature about whose actual structure we were of necessity so dark that we could not tell which was creature and which was clothes. We could see that it had, say, six red tufts on its head, but we would not know whether they were a highly respectable head-covering or simply a head. We should see that the tail ended in three yellow stars, but it would be very difficult for us to know whether this was part of a ritual or simply part of a tail. Well, man has been from the beginning of time this unknown monster. People have always differed about what part of him belonged to himself and what part was merely an accident. People who have said successively that it was natural to him to do everything and anything that was diverse and mutually contradictory; that it was natural to him to worship God, and natural to him to be an atheist; natural to him to drink water, and natural to him to drink wine; natural to him to be equal, natural to be unequal; natural to obey kings, natural to kill them. The divergence is quite sufficient to justify us in asking if there are not many things that are really natural, which really appear early and strong in every human being, which are not embodied in any of his after affairs. Whether there are not morbidities which are as fresh and recurrent as the flowers of spring. Whether there are not superstitions whose darkness is as wholesome as the darkness that falls nightly on all living things. Whether we have treated things essential as portents; whether we have not seen the sun as a meteor, a star of ill-luck.

Chance is an island, or, discovering serendipity. Serendip is the Persian name of Sri Lanka. from the Arabic Sarandib, from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.” “Serendipity” was coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Horace Mann, dated Jan. 28, 1754; he said he coined it from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” published in Venice by Michele Tramezzino in 1557,  whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

It would at least appear that we tend to become separated from what is really natural, by the fact that we always talk about those people who are really natural as if they were goblins. There are three classes of people for instance, who are in a greater or less degree elemental: children, poor people, and to some extent, and in a darker and more terrible manner, women. The reason why men have from the beginning of literature talked about women as if they were more or less mad, is simply because women are natural, and men, with their formalities and social theories, are very artificial. It is the same with children; children are simply human beings who are allowed to do what everyone else really desires to do, as for instance, to fly kites, or when seriously wronged to emit prolonged screams for several minutes. So again, the poor man is simply a person who expends upon treating himself and his friends in public houses about the same proportion of his income as richer people spend on dinners or hansom cabs, that is a great deal more than he ought. But nothing can be done until people give up talking about these people as if they were too eccentric for us to understand, when, as a matter of fact, if there is any eccentricity involved, we are too eccentric to understand them. A poor man, it is weirdly ordained, is definable at a man who has not got much money; to hear philanthropists talk about him one would think he is a kangaroo. A child is a human being who has not grown up; to hear educationalists talk one would think we was some variety of deep-sea fish. The case of the sexes is at once more obvious and more difficult. The stoic philosophy and the early church discussed woman as if she were an institution, and in many cases decided to abolish her. The modern feminine output of literature discusses man as if her were an institution, and decides to abolish him. It can only timidly be suggested that neither man nor woman are institutions, but really quite natural and all over the place.

If we take children for instance, as examples of the uncorrupted human animal, we see that the very things that appear in them in a manner primary and prominent, are the very things that philosophers have taught us to regard as sophisticated and over-civilised. The things which come first are the things which we are accustomed to think come last. The instinct for a pompous intricate and recurring ceremonial for instance, comes to the child like an organic hunger; he asks for formality as he might ask for a drink of water.

Revelation is an island, or, Saint John on Patmos, with companionable eagle holding his pen case, by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, about 1540. Saint John exemplifies the notion that to achieve true revelation exile must be an accepted part of the equation, that only distancing ourselves from life can allow us to approach the meaning of it. The difference between John and other similar exiles, hermits, stylites, ascetics and sundry perchers in uncomfortable places lies in his burst of creative thought (and the fact that he could likely send his eagle to the mainland to replenish his inkwell.) According to Greek myth, Patmos was originally on the bottom of the sea, and only brought to the surface by Artemis, who persuaded Zeus raise it up when Selene revealed it to her by moonlight in the depths.

Those who think, for instance, that the thing called superstition is something heavily artificial, are very numerous; that is those think it has only been the power of priests or of some very deliberate system that has built up boundaries, that has called one course of action lawful and another unlawful, that has called one piece of ground sacred and one piece of ground profane. Nothing it would seem, except a large and powerful conspiracy, could account for men so strangely distinguishing between one field and another, between one city and another, between one nation and another. To all those who think this way there is only one answer to be given. It is to approach each of them and whisper in his ear: “Did you or did you not as a child try to step on every alternate paving-stone?” Was that artificial and a superstition? Did priests come in the dead of night and mark out by secret signs the stones on which you were allowed to tread? Has the Church issued a bull “Quisquam non pavemento?” No! On this point on which we are really free, we invented our servitude. We chose to say that between the first and third paving-stone there was an abyss of the eternal darkness into which we must not fall. We were walking along a steady, and safe and modern road, and it was more pleasant to us to say that we were leaping desperately from peak to peak. Under mean and oppressive systems it was no doubt our instinct to free ourselves. But this truth written on the paving-stones is of even greater emphasis, that under liberal systems it was our instinct to limit ourselves. We limited ourselves so gladly that we limited ourselves at random, as if limitation were one of the adventures of boyhood.

People sometimes talk as if everything in the religious history of men had been done by officials. In all probability the Dionysian cult or the worship of the Virgin were almost entirely forced by the people on the priesthood. And if children had been sufficiently powerful in the state, there is no reason why this paving-stone religion should not have been accepted also. There is no reason why the streets up which we walk should not be emblazoned so as to commemorate this eternal fancy, why black stones and white stones alternatively, for instance, should not perpetrate the memory of a superstition as healthy as health itself.

Mystery is an island, N. C. Wyeth’s cover illustration for The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne, writer of voyages extraordinaires.

For what is the idea in human nature which lies at the back of this almost automatic ceremonialism? Why is it that a child who would be furious if told by the nurse not to walk off the curbstone, invents a desperate system of footholds and chasms in a plane in which his nurse can see little but a commodious level? It is because man has always had the instinct that to isolate a thing was to identify it. The flag only becomes a flag when it is unique; the nation only becomes a nation when it is surrounded; the hero only becomes a hero when he has before him and behind him men who are not heroes; the paving-stone only becomes a paving-stone when it has before and behind it things that are not paving-stones.

Adventure is a ship, or Attack on a Galleon, one of Howard Pyle’s most emblematic paintings.

There are two other obvious instances, of course, of the same instinct, the perennial poetry of islands, and the perennial poetry of ships. A ship like the Argo or the Fram is valued by the mind because it is an island, because, that is, it carries with it floating looses on the desolate elements the resources, and rules, and trades, and treasuries of a nation, because it has ranks, and shops, and streets and the whole clinging like a few limpets to a lost spar. And island like Ithaca or England is valued by the mind because it is a ship, because it can find itself alone and self-independent is a waste of water, because its orchards and forests can be numbered like bales of merchandise, because its corn can be counted like gold, because the starriest and dreariest snows upon its forsaken peaks are silver flags flown from familiar masts, because its dimmest and most inhuman mines of coal or lead below the roots of all things are definite chatels stored awkwardly in the lowest locker of the hold.

In truth nothing has so much spoilt the right artistic attitude as the continual use of such words as “infinite” and “immeasurable.” They were used rightly enough in religion, because religion, by its very nature, consists of paradoxes. Religion speaks of an identity which is infinite, just as it spoke of an identity which was at once one and three, just as it might possibly and rightly speak of an identity that was at once black and white.

Illusion is an island. Saint Brendan, Gulliver, Pytheas or Columbus, voyagers both saintly and profane, fictional and historical, sought out or chanced upon the islands of illusion that once dotted the seas: Lilliputt and Luggnagg, Atlantis, Lemuria or Mû, Avalon, Hy-Brasail, Antillia, Norumbega, the Isle of Demons… the list is long. Illustration by Ruth Hambidge from The Coasts of illusion by Clark B. Firestone, 1924.

The old mystics spoke of an existence without end, or a happiness without end, with a deliberate defiance, as they might have spoken of a bird without wings or a sea without water. And in this they were right philosophically, far more right than the world would now admit because all things grow more paradoxical as we approach the central truth. But for all human imaginative or artistic purposes nothing worse could be said of a work of beauty than that it is infinite; for the be infinite is to be shapeless, and to be shapeless is to be something more than mis-shapen. No man really wishes a thing which he believes divine to be in this earthly sense infinite. No one would really like a song to last for ever, or a religious service to last for ever, or even a glass of good ale to last for ever. And this is surely the reason that men have pursued towards the idea of holiness, the course they have pursued; that they have marked it out in particular spaces, limited it to particular days, worshipped an ivory statue, worshipped a lump of stone. They have desired to give it the chivalry and dignity of definition, they have desired to save it from the degradation of infinity. This is the real weakness of all imperial or conquering ideals in nationality. No one can love his country with the particular affection which is appropriate to the relation, if he thinks it is a thing in its nature indeterminate, something which is growing in the night, something which lacks the tense excitement of a boundary. No Roman citizen could feel the same once it became possible for a rich Parthian or a rich Carthaginian to become a Roman citizen by waving his hand. No man wishes the thing he loves to grow, nor does he wish it to alter. No Imperialist would be pleased if he came home in the evening from business and found his wife to be eight feet high.

G. K. Chesterton

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The same reasons that attract me even to the likes of Chesterton’s lighter forays into philosophizing are those that make me prefer Meyrink to Kafka, Camus to the Parisian philosophical establishment with whom he so soberly feuded, Patti Smith to Alain de Botton, or Jung to Freud: the willingness to avoid excising the irrational and the unexplained, and to keep Philosophy with a foot in Story. Rubbed into the grain of all this, like patina onto old bronze, is the notion of motion. Philosophy should not be an immobile voyage; it needs changes of clothes and hastily-fastened valises. The vanity of philosophical abstraction is certainly tempting, accompanied as it is by the ossification of the suppleness of the neck required to catch what one passes at speed. Philosophy should have more in common with riding the rails than with well-worn armchairs.

Chesterton is right in saying we are all both ships and islands, indeed there is little about both that cannot be applied to each of us. As islands, life washes things up on our shores. The waters that surround us may be deep and cold under iron-grey skies, or bright and inviting in cloudless climes. We can be alone in mid-ocean, no other land in sight, or in the midst of an archipelago. The island can be our prison (Robinson Crusoe) or paradise (Avalon, the Blessed Isles or Hy Brasail). Both history and myth are islands we can only glimpse through the mists of prejudice and longing. Of course, we are not stationary creatures; ships carry in their holds all the metaphors of our mobility: storm-tossed by circumstance or hugging safe coastlines, making long journeys or rarely leaving haven. Even lost at sea.

The last island before the end of the world, or seeking Ultima Thule: The Island of Traena in Nordland, by Norwegian painter Knud Andreassen Baade (1808-1879)

We define ourselves by what we are not. An island is an island because it is not the water that surrounds it, from which it emerges. A ship is an island, but one that can set sail at will.

The island can be our present; when the Greeks spoke of Okeanos, the River Sea that encircled the world, they were speaking as much of the impossibility to set sail too far beyond the sight of land as they were of the flowing of time, with humanity caught in the gentle but inexorable current. Time, like rivers, flows only one way. Ship or island, we can only go with the current and the tide. We are prisoners of our notions and conventions, as Eco demonstrates in The Island of the Day Before. We can only dream of somehow reversing the current.

Life is a ship on stormy seas, or the ups and downs of existence: Nec mergitur (Legenda żeglarska) by Ferdynand Ruszczyc, painted in 1904-1905.

Art, or at least drawing, painting and sculpture, including the loosely defined decorative arts, are equally islands, unique and original objects for which time and circumstance have selected a place, whether it be permanent or temporary. To go and see a piece of art is to set sail and accost briefly on the shores of a new island. The poised immobility of art casts us adrift, redefines our impermanence, validates our movement, energy and inspiration. Each piece of art is the destination of a pilgrimage as well, often long-planned, occasionally serendipitous; standing in front of a painting or a statue is to stand in the surf of an island often only glimpsed from far away, or studied through the eyes and accounts of others.

Far too often, we rely on others to tell us what art means. Words, it seems, have never been so important for our understanding of images, a curious loss of fluency, as if the common language of image had somehow spawned a host of offspring, as Latin once did. The philosophy and the describing of art are more often than not disappointing. Books about art can be nagging or superficial, peremptory or blinkered. Usually, biographies of artists speak at length of the artists’ lives, but precious little of their actual work. (I want a book that tells me exactly what paints Pyle used, where Wyeth got his sketching paper, gives me a selection of Waterhouse’s brushes or the name of Rembrandt’s supplier of pigments…) Of course, there is a reason for this. While the episodes of the life of a public figure can be gleaned from accounts and account books, from journals and sales slips, unless they themselves wrote about their work (and why should they?) then the rest is often speculation. The few authors who write convincingly of art are authors of fiction; Gustav Meyrink is one, Russell Hoban is another. Both are fantasy authors (though Hoban might disagree).

The Great God Pan is an island. News of his death was given to Thamus, a sailor on his way to the island of Paxi (an island attributed to Poseidon, who, yearning for some peace and quiet, struck Corfu with his trident to create it), with instructions to proclaim the fact when he arrived, or at least according to Plutarch, that is. You can’t keep a good Pan down, though, and he crops back up everywhere, from Milton to Machen, and Keats to Barrie and beyond.

Of course, experience by proxy is by definition second-best. This is where the notion of travel comes back in. Going to stand in front of a work of art is an essential human experience. It is the closest we can get to the creator. We regularly listen to music by composers of the past, we as regularly read books by long-dead authors, why are we so lazy when it comes to art? Perhaps because we think that a jpeg offered up by Google or reproductions in books are good enough. To do that is to omit the journey. Standing briefly in front of any work of art is placing a milestone on one’s travels; it is a method of briefly abolishing time, the incidental physical proximity yet another reminder of the vulnerability of the object and of our inherent transience. I wonder about the connection to the work of art itself, it is a modest and transient one at best, the essential is in the entelechy of the moment and the resulting responsibility to one’s own creativity.

Paradise is an island, or L’Île Heureuse, detail of the painting by French artist and print-maker Paul-Albert Besnard (1849-1943).

The task of art is the building islands and ships, of creating things that define themselves by being different from what surrounds them, spatially, socially or temporally. Different technique, different words or tempo, different viewpoint; differences define the tectonics[3] of creativity. The shifting tectonic plates of emotion, desire and circumstance that shoulder these man-made islands above water may be social, musical, mythical; the geothermal regions of the creative mind bubble and heave, shift and subside constantly.

Solace is a ship, or the world according to Kipling. She’s taking tired people to the Islands of the Blest!’ Pen and ink and watercolour 1909. Illustration by William Heath Robinson to ‘The Three-Decker’ by Rudyard Kipling, from ‘A Song of the English’.

That’s what we humans do. We are struck by ideas, inspired by juxtapositions of landscape and light, compelled to speak out with the means at our disposal. We make things. Islands. Ships… Gilbert Keith Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) had much to say about the idea of how we navigate these craft in the archipelagos of our own making. Chesterton is one of those individuals who seem to have hobnobbed[4] with everyone, been in the middle of everything, and influenced a considerable number of writers. He also seems to have ever been the stranger in the midst of the crowd, one eyebrow quizzically raised, the “prince of paradox” who declared: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” Or this: “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” (Or my favourite: “Angels fly because they can take themselves lightly.”) Chesterton is the critical but affectionate outsider, sharp of tongue but not hard of heart, critical of conviction but equally convinced of skepticism. Chesterton wrote 80-odd books, several plays, hundreds of poems, 200 short stories and approximately 4000 essays, even publishing his own paper G. K.’s Weekly (precursor of the blog) for over a decade. (His prodigious literary output was matched by his equally prodigious girth; to a woman who reproached him for not being “out at the Front” during WWI, he replied “”If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.” He succumbed to congestive heart failure at his home in Beaconsfield, at the age of 62.)

Death is an island. Die Toteninsel by Arnold Boecklin. He painted four; this is the third version, dated 1883. The first three were painted in Florence, near the English Cemetery, where his infant daughter Maria was buried.

It’s quite possible to maintain that everyone has read Chesterton in some form or another, either directly or second-hand. He sounds like the perfect companion with whom to be marooned on a desert island. And what book to take when thus marooned? The Man Who Was Thursday[5], of course.


[1] Everyman is the name of the leading character in the popular – and eponymous – 15th-century morality play. Similar to Christian in Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist who is not the hero. Nor is he the anti-hero in the accepted sense, he can be actor and narrator, but participating in it and remaining outside it. In many ways, he embodies the spectator or the reader – immersed in story, but still on the wrong side of the fourth wall.

[2] I concede I keep making this sort of ill-advised promise, but a newsletter on the extraordinary artist and writer Laurence Housman and his equally extraordinary sister Clemence, engraver of many of his books, will happen one day. Of all the dangers of taking any path to a new subject, the most perilous by far are all the enticing side-paths that appear on the way…

[3] The modern geological meaning dates from1899; as early as the mid-17th century it signified “building or constructive arts in general” via late Latin from Greek tektonikos, from tektōn ‘carpenter, builder’, a rather more purposeful and constructive connotation than the current one.

[4] You’ll have to forgive my etymophily (not a word – just made it up) but a word so chestertonian cannot be left without a bit of history. Hobnob is first attested in 1763, “to drink to each other,” from hob and nob (1756) “to toast each other by turns, to buy alternate rounds of drinks,” alteration of hab nab “to have or have not, hit or miss” (c. 1550), which is probably ultimately from Old English habban, nabban “have, not have,” (that is, “to take or not take,” used later as an invitation to drinking), with the negative particle ne- attached, as was customary. Modern sense of “socialize” is from 1866.

[5] Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday in 1908. It’s as good a place as any to start reading his complete works. You can follow up with The Everlasting Man, or the Father Brown stories and why not some essays; there is a collection of some of his best entitled In Defense of Sanity.