The Song of the Strange Ascetic

 If there is no God, mused Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, then anything is permitted (or something like it – see debate here ). If there is no source of order and transcendent goodness in the universe, that is, then there is no basis for morality, and we can do whatever we want. To a passionate soul like Dostoyevsky this could mean the brilliant cruelty and terror of paganism, or a sensual but ultimately nihilistic hedonism.

The English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton is a similarly passionate type, and is all the more confused therefore at the behaviour of a man he calls a ‘strange ascetic’, an atheist who can do whatever he wants, and chooses to do… nothing very interesting at all:

If I had been a Heathen,

I’d have praised the purple vine,

My slaves should dig the vineyards,

And I would drink the wine.

But Higgins is a Heathen,

And his slaves grow lean and grey,

That he may drink some tepid milk

Exactly twice a day.

 

If I had been a Heathen,

I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls,

And filled my life with love affairs,

My house with dancing girls;

But Higgins is a Heathen,

And to lecture rooms is forced,

Where his aunts, who are not married,

Demand to be divorced.

 

If I had been a Heathen,

I’d have sent my armies forth,

And dragged behind my chariots

The Chieftains of the North.

But Higgins is a Heathen,

And he drives the dreary quill,

To lend the poor that funny cash

That makes them poorer still.

 

If I had been a Heathen,

I’d have piled my pyre on high,

And in a great red whirlwind

Gone roaring to the sky;

But Higgins is a Heathen,

And a richer man than I:

And they put him in an oven,

Just as if he were a pie.

 

Now who that runs can read it,

The riddle that I write,

Of why this poor old sinner,

Should sin without delight-

But I, I cannot read it

(Although I run and run),

Of them that do not have the faith,

And will not have the fun.

Higgins is – as the first stanza shows – a kind of hedonist, but a rather mild one. He is an Epicuran, who may believe deep down that pleasure is the greatest good, but believes that good health is the surest way to a long and moderately pleasurable life, unlike Chesterton’s imagined wine-glugging pagan with his carpe diem debauchery. I like to think that the tepid milk is soya milk, the drink of choice of fashionable metropolitan health-freaks, but most likely it’s the real stuff, perhaps pasteurised – one of the names synonymous with healthy living in Chesterton’s era was W.K. Kellogg. The line ‘Exactly twice a day’ made me think of that new app that measures and gives you advice on your eating habits and lifestyle – it seems that having stopped inspecting our souls, we instead record our heart rate, our fat consumption and the regularity of our bowel movements (Fruit and Fibre is good for that, apparently).

The second stanza turns to sexual hedonism, which would seem to be a logical result of the lifting of all the taboos related to sex that Christian belief imposes – lifelong marriage, monogamy, pre-marital chastity, that sort of thing. Chesterton, being a sincere Christian, believed those things were necessary, but he also, being human, thought that if they weren’t, then he might like to fill his house with dancing girls. If nothing is sacred, including marriage, then we can at least enjoy what is beautiful. But Higgins isn’t interested in beauty, or, it seems, in sex; he does think marriage isn’t sacred, though, which is why he (and his aunts, apparently) want to desacralize it and reduce it to a legal formula, complete with the option of divorce.

Chesterton actually rather admires a certain kind of heathen – the Greeks of Homer, the Norse of the Sagas, the Wild pre-Christian Irish – those who were passionate, violent, heroic, who valued valour and bravery and the martial values, before their descendants discovered faith, hope and charity. Higgins values nothing more than security – actually, Higgins values nothing more than social security, which he believes is the best way to help the poor, but Chesterton believed ‘makes them poorer still’. Chesterton viewed such social engineering as a grave development: he wasn’t strictly speaking a conservative – and he certainly wasn’t a Conservative, but believed, with his friend Hilaire Belloc, that the dependence of the poor on the state was a threat to their freedom and dignity.

Chesterton’s pagan, in his brilliant funeral pyre, is still reaching for transcendence, for immortality and greatness. Higgins, on the other hand, wants the most modest dispatch possible. This isn’t an attack on cremation per se, just the life-denying, arid pragmatism that it embodies – the atheism of pettifogging bureaucrats and condescending intellectuals. Higgins may have been a caricature of a certain public figure, or perhaps an amalgamation of a every health-nut, vegetarian, vegan, Fabian, communist, atheist and social reformer gadding about in the early 20th Century. Certainly, the kind of thinking that Higgins typifies is as prevalent today as it was then, though Higgins himself is trendier, more technologically savvy and no longer beholden to his aunts!

The poem works as an introduction to the thought of G.K. Chesterton, who – though he wrote some witty poetry- wasn’t a full time poet, but a novelist and essayist. He is a writer with a cult following in the UK and America, but one without the wide readership he deserves – many English lit graduates have not heard of him, and I would guess most have not read him (I hadn’t when I graduated). That’s a shame, as – whether or not one shares his world view – he’s an intriguing writer, full of wit, wisdom and food for thought, and not the vegetarian kind.

(For any readers interested in the thought – as opposed to the fiction and poetry – of G.K. Chesterton, I would recommend Heretics, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Lots of his essays are available for free online or on e-readers. There are several websites dedicated to him too,)

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2 Comments

Filed under humour, Poetry

2 responses to “The Song of the Strange Ascetic

  1. i picked up “the man who was thursday” at me local bookstore but confess i was unable to get into it. of course, that might have been just because i was distracted by the quart of whiskey i’d just downed and the lap dancer who’d suddenly inhabited my lap (by happy happenstance)–not to worry, higgins, as everything in the second sentence before the dash is made up. thanks for the tip (i wonder if he’s of any relation to ‘enry ‘iggins, of “My Fair Lady” fame).

  2. Chesterton is probably better enjoyed with beer than whisky – he has a good poem about beer, which I think is called ‘The Winding English Road’. ‘The Man Who was Thursday’ and the ‘Father Brown’ stories are acquired tastes, I think, but you might like his other stuff. As for ‘enry ‘iggins, I’m quite sure that the Higgins above wouldn’t drop his aitches… Mind, the writer of My Fair Lady (or Pygmalion), George Bernard Shaw, certainly was a Fabian, communist, atheist and social reformer, and a common debating opponent (and friend) of Chesterton’s – so there could be a link…

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