I couldn’t have said it better.
I’ve been reading Chesterton recently, an activity that can be absolutely disastrous for anyone who has any pretensions to saying anything, at least according to one view of the situation. An assessment of and a love of absolutely everything seems to languidly roll off the tongue of that corpulent Christian with the lucidity of a stop sign in the mid-afternoon sun. I simply don’t know another author so capable of reducing the most convoluted machinations of scientists, philosophers, and maniacs into pockets of dissipating laughing gas while simultaneously aggrandizing a lark or a crumb of Worcestershire cheese to a point that one almost wants to fall down and venerate it.
If I want to tell you that the power of a piece of art is its limits–its frame, or that virtue can yield horror as well as happiness, or that reasonings are without foundation when they lack a faith in reason, Chesterton has swooped in before me. And if he hasn’t, it won’t be long before I discover that Lewis, Williams, or Hopkins have.
What I want to say is hardly new, and I can hardly hope to say it better than those giants, with their ink-stained hands and feather quill swords, already have.
It may or may not have been Samuel Johnson that declared it useless to write any more heroic couplets since Alexander Pope had perfected them. In any case, someone did. The idea is simple: a perfect thing scorns more of its kind. Once the sonnet is perfected, the sonnet is dead… well, frozen, at least. Greatness garrotes its imitations.
Pardon my impertinence, Mr. Johnson (or whoever), but the claim is perfectly ridiculous.
If greatness is sterile, then sheep are sagacious and beauty is dull. No, there are more poets because Homer sang, and more scientists because of Einstein.
Perhaps Chesterton has already said everything and said it better than I will, but for God’s sake and his, it follows from the nature of things that I should sit down and say it again as best as I can.
What do we paint, but the greatest sunsets? What do we sing, but the songs that most move us? What do we explore, but that which has been shown to be deep?
The only thing that I can think might stand in the way of such devoted imitations as the paintings and songs mentioned above is a conviction that oneself or one’s self-presentation must be composed exclusively of excellence. As if we were gods. For heaven’s sake, let’s present the truth, and do let’s let the truth be full of games. Let’s play Chesterton like we used to play House, Pet and Owner, or Soccer. Let’s play “Art is Composed of Limits” and do it as exuberantly, boisterously, and beautifully as we can, with a good, old-fashioned American belly laugh thrown in to boot.
Great creations compel me to create anew. Chesterton said things well and helped me to love them. Therefore, I will say those things too in the best way I can.
By the way, Chesterton said all this too. Odd, but he seemed to think that he was simply saying what had been said forever and saying it worse than the last fellow had. I’m afraid it’s simply the state of things for a member of the religion that’s older than time, and that follows a God with whose glory the earth is filled.
When I can’t say something better than Chesterton, I have all the more reason to say it and say it exactly because he said it so well. If I can’t be the best, I’ll first thank God that I’m not, and then say and do what the best have done, but worse. I’m an image maker and an image, a lesser thing that follows from the Greatest. My being lesser doesn’t exempt me from being an image maker; on the contrary, all the better! Praise God for my limits! By His strength, may I fill them.