On Volition and the Atheistic Literary Style

Illustrated_London_NewsAn interesting essay,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in the Illustrated London News a hundred years ago, “might be written on the possession of an atheistic literary style.”

In spite of possessing all of the faults that accompany reckless and impassioned writing, G.K. Chesterton had a penchant for the most powerful of all literary capabilities: he could express in dazzling terms the deeply buried knowledge that everyone already holds in their hearts, but does not know how to explain.

When a reader comes across a statement so expressed, he takes ownership of the idea. He cries in his mind, “I have always known this, only I have not known how to put it together!” This is the highest level of communication, and it may be argued that it is the only form which is of any lasting use.

Thus, when I came across these words of Chesterton’s, I knew at once that there was such a thing as an atheistic literary style, and that I had always known about it, and had been trying to find just those words to tell of it. And Chesterton beat me to it, as he so often does.

He continues,

“There is such a thing. The mark of it is that wherever anything is named or described, such words are chosen as suggest that the thing has not got a soul in it.

Thus they will not talk of love or passion, which imply a purpose and a desire. They talk of the ‘relations’ of the sexes, as if they were simply related to each other in a certain way, like a chair and a table.

Thus they will not talk of the waging of war (which implies a will), but of the outbreak of war – as if it were a sort of boil.

Thus they will not talk of masters paying more or less wages, which faintly suggests some moral responsibility in the masters: they will talk of the rise and fall of wages, as if the thing were automatic, like the tides of the sea.

Thus they will not call progress an attempt to improve, but a tendency to improve.

And thus, above all, they will not call the sympathy between oppressed nations sympathy; they will call it solidarity. For that suggests brick and coke, and clay and mud, and all the things they are fond of.”

These words are no less true now than when they were penned in a past century. The difference is that in the present era of televised journalism, the mechanized passivity and rigidity of communication has been largely exported from the page to the screen. Anyone who has suffered through a White House press conference or had the misfortune of listening to Jay Carney for even a few minutes is a witness to the modern meaninglessness of language.

What is missing in the automated soullessness of the atheistic literary style? What is it that strips from language its power and its glory?

I thought at once of a short video I saw some years ago when I was little more than a child, and the word that I learned while watching it. A word at once terrifying and cheerful, like a gift of courage. For oh! courage is found in unlikely places.

noun: volition
1. the faculty or power of using one’s will.

Within the context of atheism, a man may have the illusion of decision-making. Honest atheists, of which there are an alarming number, will admit this is only an illusion, and that a man acts only according to the ways he has been acted upon. However, the thing is not whether a man has a choice or not, but whether the choice that he makes has any meaning, which it can’t. For nothing shall be saved, and nothing shall be ruined. Not only because a man’s choice shall not save or ruin anything, but because there is nothing to be saved or ruined. Everything is ruined already. Or, rather, there was never any hope of anything being saved.

But the sobbing Nazi officer spitting a cigarette into the gutter, he may be saved. He has come to know his own wretched weakness and the weighty shame of the world. What stands between all of this and the hard relief of purity is a stand. A will waking up and doing.

“They will not talk of the waging of war,” warned Chesterton, “which implies a will.”

Well, shall we wage a mighty war against the culture of happenstance?

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4 thoughts on “On Volition and the Atheistic Literary Style

  1. I am apparently argumentative today. Apologies.

    “This is the highest level of communication, and it may be argued that it is the only form which is of any lasting use.” Is communication that teaches and or changes one’s mind not of use? But then you did say “it may be argued” not “it is so.” I would be curious to know your further thoughts on it.

    “as if it were a sort of boil.” Serious as this is, I cannot help but laugh! Oh Chesterton.

    For the rest, of course, there is no laughing. It is too grave a matter for that.

    1. Seeing all your long and thoughtful comments coming into my inbox is like receiving one of the best compliments anyone has ever paid me, my dear :), as they show you care enough to go through all that has been going on over her while you’ve been away from the web, and think and talk honestly about it.

      Your comment on this one raises an interesting point — I should clarify that my statement wasn’t meant to imply that communications which effect a change in a person’s thinking are less useful, but that people are generally most receptive to communications that let them discover the truth for themselves, if you will. Even if the communication does change their mind, they want to feel that they have done all the work themselves. As Pascal said in Pensees,

      “We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”

      In other words, I think that, generally speaking, the most persuasive form of communication is communication that touches a chord in a person, causing them to relate to the speaker through their own experience, and then explains their experience to them.

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