Sunday, May 29, 2011

About Benson's The Dawn of All

Today the Duhem Society celebrates the 137th birthday of one of our Masters, the paradoxical Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He was not a scientist, not a philosopher, not a historian. he called himself a journalist, and in some ways he was more of an artist than anything else - though his most fertile medium was words, not paint or marble.

You know I have a certain bias about GKC - though it is not an unreasonable one. Indeed, it seems fitting that GKC be one of our Masters, not only because of Father Jaki's work which demonstrates GKC's power in grasping the truths of Science-Writ-Large - but also because of his humility and reverence for Reality - that is, the truthful way of seeing God, and His Creation. This is the fundamental power required for every scientist, every philosopher, every historian - everyone who applies pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

Now, one of the frustrations I find when studying Jaki - I am here speaking as a Chestertonian - is that he wrote no fiction. Nor did Duhem, as far as I am able to discern from SLJ's texts about him. This is sad - and as you may know, I am attempting to remedy that lack by writing my own Saga. But I have recently finished an amazing book which I heartily wish Father Jaki had commented on. The book is called The Dawn of All by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, an English writer of roughly the same era as Chesterton. Benson wrote several interesting volumes of Catholic fiction - that is stories where the persons really exhibit their faith, often in quite challenging situations - see (for example) Come Rack! Come Rope!. This volume, The Dawn of All, came out 100 years ago, and is his second "end of the world" story - the first is The Lord of the World. I prefer not to speak about these in detail, except to highly recommend them, in particular because they contain certain interesting sorts of predictions regarding science and technology and so belong to the very rare category of "Catholic Science Fiction" - though that is not all they predict.

I cannot say they feel like Duhem; clearly they do not feel like Jaki - but they certainly feel Chestertonian, and Newmanian to an extreme. I must not speak too much here about the Newman dimension, lest I give too much away about this particular story, but it is impressive. Since Benson was an Anglican convert, perhaps this is quite understandable, and I am merely showing my ignorance. I do not mind confessing how little I know. Sometimes I feel I know very little, but then I find myself enjoying my reading more - and even my re-reading. Why shouldn't I enjoy Jaki or Duhem or Newman as I enjoy the mystery stories of Chesterton or Sayers? All these reveal truth, as does the Bible, which contains the ultimate mystery story of all time in which the Detective solves His own murder. (See Luke 24:13 et seq especially 25-27, where Christ sounds like Holmes addressing Watson.)

As far as I am able to tell with AMBER, Jaki never mentioned Benson, and Chesterton only twice. (See GKC's The Thing CW3:327 and The Resurrection of Rome CW21:378) If our Society were set up in the usual manner of a scholarly system, we would perhaps commission a monograph - or perhaps provide a grant to subsidize a graduate student - to study these two Benson volumes and give some insights into their place in our intellectual library. I cannot do this, not having the resources; nor do I have the time to do the work. All I can do is offer the idea.

But I can do something more. I can recommend them, and especially this one, as it seems to be in such concord with our purposes. I shall give you a short excerpt, in the hope that you will want to find a copy and read it for yourself.

[Our hero] had seen here for himself a relation between Science and Faith - a co-operation between them, with the exigencies of each duly weighed and observed by them both - which set Nature and Supernature before him in a completely new light. ... the two seemed to have met at last, each working from different quarters, on a platform on which they could work side by side. The facts were no longer denied by either party. Science allowed for the mysteries of Faith; Faith recognized the achievements of Science. Each granted that the other possessed a perfectly legitimate sphere of action in which the methods proper to that sphere were imperative and final. The scientist accepted the fact that Religion had a right to speak in matters that lay beyond scientific data; the theologian no longer denounced as fraudulent or disingenuous the claims of the scientist to exercise powers that were at last found to be natural. Neither needed to establish his own position by attacking that of his partner, and the two accordingly, without prejudice or passion, worked together to define yet further that ever-narrowing range of ground between the two worlds which up to the present remained unmapped. Suggestion, for example, acting upon the mutual relations of body and mind, was recognized by the theologian as a force sufficient to produce phenomena which in earlier days he had claimed as evidently supernatural. And, on the other side, the scientist no longer made wild acts of faith in nature, in attributing to her achievements which he could not for an instant parallel by any deliberate experiment. In a word, the scientist repeated, "I believe in God "; and the theologian, "I recognize Nature."
[Robert Hugh Benson, The Dawn of All Part I Chapter 8]
Postscript. Why do I seem so hesitant in writing details about a book? Is it not contrary to Science? Not really. It is not so much a matter of Science as it is a matter of pedagogy. There are certain demonstrations - indeed, even in physics and other "hard" sciences which good teacher will not describe in detail, preferring that the student make his own observation. The idea is FORMALLY an experiment - that is, for the student to EXPERIENCE the truth directly, not to hear it stated. It is so in certain aspects of "book-learning". Father Jaki often told people to "read my books". (He told me many times!) And clearly, if we want to study writing (as itself) we need to be able to discuss the book (in itself). But it is a larger matter - a matter of human nature - that there are certain things which are better taken directly, and one of the chief of these is mystery stories. Chesterton said it this way:
[The book] is at least great in this sense - that it contains an important intellectual principle. Nothing would induce me to tell the reader anything about the solution of the riddle. The man who tells the truth about a detective story is simply a wicked man, as wicked as the man who deliberately breaks a child's soap-bubble - and he is
more wicked than Nero. To give away a secret when it should be kept is the worst of human crimes; and Dante was never more right than when he made the lowest circle in Hell the Circle of the Traitors. It is to destroy one human pleasure so that it can never be recovered...
[GKC ILN Nov 7 1908 CW28:210]
I am not saying that we must therefore treat every book as if it were mystery fiction, and refuse to discuss it until all have read it. But there is something true - something very Christmas-like - in the idea that a gift ought to be kept wrapped until the time when it is to be unveiled:
There are three broad classes of the special things in which human wisdom does permit privacy. The first is the case I have mentioned - that of hide-and-seek, or the police novel, in which it permits privacy only in order to explode and smash privacy. The author makes first a fastidious secret of how the Bishop was murdered, only in order that he may at last declare, as from a high tower, to the whole democracy the great glad news that he was murdered by the governess. In that case, ignorance is only valued because being ignorant is the best and purest preparation for receiving the horrible revelations of high life. Somewhat in the same way being an agnostic is the best and purest preparation for receiving the happy revelations of St. John. ... its whole ultimate object is not to keep the secret, but to tell it.
[GKC ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:524]
And if you have read it, and wish to discuss it, or (even better) have the wherewithal to write such a study or analysis - or even just to write up your own comments - please proceed.

And if you doubt the relevance to our Society, consider:

(1) Jaki considered Chesterton's fiction; also the fiction of Sigrid Undset and also of Dickens. Did you know that Dickens reviewed Darwin's famous book? I learned that from SLJ.
(2) Duhem liked Dickens and gave his own daughter a nickname from one of his novels. SLJ states this but (surprisingly enough) does not cite a reference, though he does indicate that Duhem "used to read [Dickens] aloud at home in evenings when Hélène was a child." [SLJ Reluctant Heroine 58]

Very curious, Dr. Thursday (one might say): do you mean that, if one wants to be a Scientist, one must be agnostic?

Not quite! I am not speaking of one's spirtual commitment; you must already have faith, for "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:236]

No; I mean one must preserve a certain sort of agnosticism about natural truths - until they are revealed. For example, if you confess to a belief in phlogiston, you cannot discover the truth of oxygen, for you will ignore the evidence! The earth looks flat and unmoving, but then a television image looks solid and moving, and we know by its construction it is discrete points which do not move at all!

We must approach nature as a child approaches the wrapped gift, or as the voracious mystery-reader approaches the as-yet unread volume. For Nature is the greatest of Unread Volumes - because of Gödel (as SLJ indicates in several places) we know there will always be more to learn: there will always be another sequel, and yet another adventure - until the Author's work is completed.

And then will come that "happy Revelation of St. John"... and the good wine in the Inn at the End of the World, where we shall meet Duhem and Jaki and Chesterton and Newman - and Benson. It will indeed be the Dawn of All.

1 comment:

John Beaumont said...

You will find some comment on Mgr. benson by Fr. Jaki in his book on Sigrid Undset (see the index to that book). I worked with Fr. Jaki for the last five years of his life. During this time, I brought to his attention some matters relating to the character and work of Benson, about whom I was very interested - he was a factor in my conversion. Fr. Jaki replied by saying, "Benson is surely interesting but I cannot be interested in everything interesting. The brain is a limited computer!" Even Fr. Jaki had to limit his attention to certain specific things. His expertise was very great and wide, but he was saying that even for him there were limits. I've never known a more focussed individual and this was the key to his ability to take on board so much during his life.
With best wishes,
John Beaumont