Saturday, January 10, 2009

G.K. Chesterton: The Flying Inn

After the election and then finals, I've been cranking through some books! Among those, one of G.K. Chesterton's fictional works, The Flying Inn.

Chesterton was a prolific author. He's well-known in some circles for his fictional work, particularly his "Father Brown" mystery series. (I haven't tried those yet.) In this realm, I had read (and enjoyed) the classic The Man Who Was Thursday.

His non-fiction is oft-quoted but rarely read (like Dorothy Sayers and to a lesser extent, C.S. Lewis). That's a shame, because it is a real pleasure to read. (It is a bit challenging-- think Lewis' thicker stuff.) He's a gifted writer with a sharp pen and wit for the ideas he's challenging and inspirational in the things he describes. In that arena, I have read Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Everlasting Man, and most recently, an edited volume with his writings on family. (I'll blog on that in the next few weeks.)

The Flying Inn was an easy read and a fun romp. Along the road-- and the travels of the primary characters-- Chesterton takes a number of funny/serious pokes at prohibition, legalism, bureaucracy, power vs. authority, the limits of law, class-based hypocrisy on entertainment and "art" (p. 160-163), "progressivism" (of a philosophical sort), Islam, Nietzsche, political correctness, "higher biblical criticism" (p. 106b-109 has an awesome passage on that; search for Widge within the free on-line version of TFI), and pompous individuals.

Here's part of Wikipedia's description of this 1914 novel:

It is set in a future England where a bizarre form of "Progressive" Islam has triumphed and largely dominates the political and social life of the country. Because of this, alcohol sales are effectively prohibited. The plot centers around the adventures of Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, who roam the country in their alcohol-laden cart in an attempt to evade Prohibition, exploiting loopholes in the law to temporarily prevent the police taking action against them.

One of my favorite magazines, Touchstone, had a review of TFI by Addison Hart in 2002. (That was a pleasant surprise, since they have relatively little on-line.) Hart focuses on the pokes at Islam, with the editor titling the piece "Poking Fun at Islam".

Hart notes that TFI has been called GKC’s "most underrated novel"-- perhaps because "the cultural critique presented by Chesterton in this novel of 1913–1914 was soon overtaken by the events of World War I, quickly lessening whatever sense of immediacy it may have exercised..."

As Hart notes:

Describing a Chesterton novel is difficult, filled as it always is with fantastic characters, twistings and turnings of plot, and wild adventures. Undaunted, though, I will attempt here a brief summary of this novel’s “idea.”

I'll only reproduce a small part of that attempt. If you'd like to read the rest, click here!

The Flying Inn is part Homer, part Book of Revelation, part Lewis Carroll, part the merry adventures of Robin Hood, and entirely and quintessentially Chesterton. In other words, though full of good humor and irrepressible fun, the cascade of metaphors and images only slightly veils what is in fact a serious denunciation of those destructive cultural and philosophical heresies with which Chesterton sparred throughout his career.

Excerpts of interest from TFI itself:

One of the prohibited proprietors complains that this will put him out of business, "taking away a poor man's livelihood". Lord Ivywood is ready for that line with his cock-and-bull, paternalistic claims about social/economic good (p. 48-49):
"The act is specially designed in the interests of the
relief of poverty," proceeded Lord Ivywood, in an unruffled
manner, "and its final advantages will accrue to all citizens
alike...the purpose of the Act is largely to protect the
savings of the more humble and necessitous classes.
I find in paragraph three, 'we strongly advise that the
deleterious element of alcohol be made illegal save in
such few places as the Government may specially exempt for
Parliamentary or other public reasons...the absence of such
temptations will, in our opinion, do much to improve the
precarious financial conditions of the working class.'
That disposes, I think, of any such suggestion as Mr. Pump's,
that our inevitable acts of social reform are in any sense
On the rationales and worldview of Prohibition more broadly (p. 105):
...all the people who think they can solve a problem
they cannot understand by abolishing everything that
has contributed to it. We all know these people. If a
barber has cut his customer's throat because the girl
has changed her partner for a dance or donkey ride on
Hampstead Heath, there are always people to protest
against the mere institutions that led up to it. This
would not have happened if barbers were abolished,
or if cutlery were abolished, or if the objection felt by
girls to imperfectly grown beards were abolished, or if
the girls were abolished, or if heaths and open spaces
were abolished, or if dancing were abolished, or if
donkeys were abolished. But donkeys, I fear, will
never be abolished.

On "limits" and the attempted refusal to acknowledge
them (p. 253-254):

"I cannot see a trace of exaggeration in these pictures;
because I cannot find a hint of what it is they want
to exaggerate. You can't exaggerate the feathers of
a cow or the legs of a whale. You can draw a cow
with feathers or a whale with legs for a joke-- though
I hardly think such jokes are in your line. But...
even then the joke depends on its looking like a cow
and not only like a thing with feathers. Even then
the joke depends on the whale as well as the legs.
You can combine up to a certain point; you can distort
up to a certain point; after that you lose the identity;
and with that you lose everything....Don't you see
this prime fact of identity is the limit set on
all living things?"
And to wrap up, some miscellaneous great lines:
-And he stood for hours on the lawn, watching the smashing of
bottles and the breaking up of casks and feeding on fanatical
pleasure: the pleasure his strange, cold, courageous nature
could not get from food or wine or woman. (p. 51)

-"I think modern people have somehow got their minds all wrong
about human life. They seem to expect what Nature has never
promised; and then try to ruin all that Nature has really
given." (p. 65)
-...he was very well dressed in the carefully careless
manner... (p. 168)
-A description of rum: I can't tell you what the taste is.
It's something between the taste of your first sugar-stick and
the fag-end of your father's cigar. It's as innocent as Heaven
and as hot as hell. It tastes like a paradox. (p. 237)

-On one problem with the accumulation of an untold number of laws
and regulations (see: e.g., the IRS): ...he also suffered the tragedy
of all such men living in modern England; that he must always be
certain to respect the law, while never being certain of what
it was.
(p. 239)

-"I am not a business man," said the scientist, with fiery eyes,
"I am a servant of humanity." "Then," said Dalroy, "why do you
never do what your master tells you?" (p. 242)


At January 16, 2009 at 9:35 AM , Blogger ellen said...

Thanks for posting this. I love GKC, but haven't read Flying Inn yet. I look forward to your posts on BRAVE NEW FAMILY.


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