Monday, October 26, 2009

Gaiman and Prachett were right...part 1: Success

In our copy of Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett's Good Omens (which is amazing and really should be read by anyone and everyone before the world comes to an end...) the dedication page tributes the book to G.K Chesterton, 'a man who knew what was going on'. Truer words have never been spoken.

I come across this particular discovery now because I'm in the process of reading All things considered, which is a collection of articles that Chesterton wrote all compiled in a fantabulous book. They are, simply put, hilariously accurate.

I'm particularly taken with one article aptly named 'The Fallacy of Success', which, for all that it was written somewhere in the beginning of the 1900s, c. 1908 when the book was first published, discusses a topic which is still very relevant and somewhat dear to my heart. Namely, books written about how to succeed. Chesterton declares right at the beginning - and I'm taken to follow his lead in this - that he believes that these books and articles may be called ' the silliest ever known among men'.

Let's outline these books before I lose everyone: they're the ones you see in the self-help section of the bookstore, mostly, but they're not about yoga or how to improve your sex life; they're about how to make so much money in so many days, or how to become really good at that card game you've always wanted to be good at:

"They are much more wilde than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chilvalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing ; they are about what is called Success...They are books showing men how to success in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books." (Chesterton, pg. 22)

Okay so maybe that last bit is a bit harsh, you gotta hand it to people who can sell books merely on the power of the market without a lick of skill to string a sentence together (*cough*stephaniemeyer*cough*danbrown*cough*).

Anyways, before I get sidetracked by one of my favorite ranting topics, here's what Chesterton has to say about the subject:

"To begin with, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is ; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. Any live man has succeeded in living; any dead man may have succeeded in committing suicide."

or in having lived a full life -

"...These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation - how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder...This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy thse books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back."

I can think of advising a number of people who have bought particular books that aren't worth reading asking for their money back >.>. Chesterton then gives us an example, lifted from a popular magazine he had been reading when he was writing his article. The article he refers to is called 'The Instinct that Makes People Rich'...

"It is decorated in front with a formidable portrait of Lord Rothschild. There are many definite methods, honest and dishonest, which makes peopel rich; the only 'instinct' I know of which does it is that instinct which theological Christinaity crudely describes at 'the sin of avarice'."

He goes on to quote several paragraphs from the article in question, which, in short argue that monetary success is about a money-making instinct, and spends a page beating around the bush before referring to King Midas, from the old mythos. The article Chesterton quotes reads as follows:

"'In the olden days its existence was fully understood. The Greeks enshrined it in the story of Midas, of the "Golden Touch". Here was a man who turned everything he laid his hands upon into gold. His life was a progress amidst riches. Out of everything that came in his way he created precious metal...We all know of such men. We are ever meeting orreading about such persons who turn everything they touch into gold. Success dogs their footsteps. heir life's pathway leads unerringly upwards. They cannot fail.'"

After about ten minutes of my giggles and laughter and trying to communicate that little paragraph to L, I finally read on, and loved every word. Chesterton does everything short of calling the article's author a dimwit, though he certainly comes close enough to that.

"...Midas could fail," Chesterton continues, "he did. His path did not lead unerringly upward. He starved because whenever he touched a biscuit or a ham sandwich it turned to gold. That was the whole point of the story, though the writer had to suppress it delicately, writing so near to the portrait of Lord Rothschild...We must not have King Midas represented as an example of success; he was a failure of an unusually painful kind. Also, he had the ears of an ass. Also (like most other prominent and wealthy persons) he endeavoured to conceal the fact. It was his barber...who had to be treated on a confidential footing with regard to this peculiarity; and his barber, instead of behaving like a go-ahead person of the Succeed-at-all-costs school and trying to blackmail King Midas - "

How is this man writing at the turn of the Century? It sounds like something we'd be writing right now!

"- went away and whispered this splendid piece of society scandal to the reeds, who enjoyed it enormously. It is said that they also whispered it as the winds swayed them to and fro..."

Sound like politicians today? Except I suppose we should probably equate the reeds and the wind to the media, after all, there's always someone whispering something and always someone who's willing to listen. Isn't that how conspiracy theories are born? Oh, no wait, sorry, I meant, how government information is leaked to the public. I get them mixed up somehow.

Either which way, I think I might leave it at that for now and maybe write another time about the concept of Hat Hunting rather than Fox Hunting, which is the article that follows on from this one in All things considered.

Clear Skies~V

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