“The Back of the World” – The New Yorker July 7&14, 2008

Accidentally, both articles i enjoyed in this issue of The New Yorker are grayed out, i.e. no on-line version.

Romeo, Romeo
The ballet gets a happy ending.
by Joan Acocella
The Back of the World
The genius of G. K. Chesterton.
by Adam Gopnik

I’ve never even heard of Chesterton before. Based on the quotes sprinkled throughout this review, I liked him already.

“All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”

The joy of the book[The Napoleon of Notting Hill] lies in the marriage of Chesterton’s love of feudal romance with his love of the density and mystery of the modern city. … “A city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wal that is not actually a deliberate symbol — a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post card.”

In addition to “The Napoleon of Notting Hill,” the review also talked about this other book “The Man Who Was Thursday.” There are some quite fascinating dialogs from the latter book.

[a scene between the main character and an anarchist poet]
The book is also stippled with small epigrammatic moments, as when Syme comes upon an anarchist poet, Gregory, standing by a street amp (“whos gleam gilded the leaves of the tree that bent out over the fence behind him”) on a silent, starlit street:

“I was waiting for you, ” said Gregory. “Might I have a moment’s conversation?”
“Certainly. About what?” asked Syme in a sort of weak wonder.
Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree.
“About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself — there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”
“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you woud ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

Another intriguing observation by the reviewer on anarchy in early 1900’s. Not sure how much exaggeration it is in the reviewer words below since i don’t know the history that well, but it is on the alarming side. Was anarchist that successful once? or is the reviewer lumped a bunch of different things into anarchist for the sake of “shock and awe”?

It’s easy to forget just how scary anarchists could seem at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the previous quarter century, they had killed a French President, and American President, and the Russian Tsar, and had bmbed the Royal Greenwich Observatory, near London. (The same score now — Sarkozy, Bush, Putin, and the London Eye — and we’d all be under martial law.)

Lastly, about the title of the review “The Back of the World”, it is a reference taken from the ending paragraph of “The Man Who Was Thursday”, and it is meant to indicates the two-sidedness of reality.

This double vision, where the appetite for romantic violence is imagined as the flip side of the desire for absolute order, gives the book its permanence. It ends with a powerful and strage image of reality itself as two-sided:

“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stopping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front–”

Reminds me of the days back in college, feeling totally lost after a lecture and only able to find clarity in a discussion session with the TA. Here the reviewer is the TA, and Chesterton, the professor. I liked the review because it makes something strange sounds interesting. Not sure i actually want to read Chesterton if i couldn’t have a page by page review by Adam Gopnik to go with it.