Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Literature of Joy

Chesterton again:
Pain, it is said, is the dominant element in life; but this is true only in a very special sense. If pain were for one single instant literally the dominant element in life, every many would be found hanging dead from his own bed-post by the morning. Pain, as the black and catastrophic thing, attracts the youthful artist, just as the schoolboy draws devils and skeletons and men hanging. But joy is a far more elusive and elvish matter, since it is our reason for existing … the literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. [Chesterton, The Defendant (1901)]
This, though, is a weirdly actuarial account of things. Because when we are in pain -- toothache, childbirth, cancer, heartbreak, bereavement -- pain is all-in-all to us. It is only when we happen to be not in pain that we can assume the more optimistic position outlined by Chesterton here. So the truth or otherwise of this statement comes down to a statistical analysis: 'for most people, fewer days are spent in terrible pain than are not. So, on average ...' That's a weirdly unChestertonian version of Chesterton, right there.

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