Vulgarity by G.K. Chesterton

Interior of a Tavern, Peasants Carousing (1635)
Master of the Large Jars
source ArtUK

I’ve been keen to read a Chesterton essay for awhile now, but have not drawn him for the Deal Me In challenge yet.  Luckily, this time, he’s my first draw of the year!

Wearing many hats, Chesterton is known for his poetry, philosophy, theology, orating, journalism, biographies, and literary and art criticism.  I haven’t read many of his essays, but of those I have, I’ve found his style entirely unique, a sort of meandering while at the same time being very pointed.  Reading this essay was similar to my previous experience.

Although more practical inventions such as telephones and aeroplanes have foreshadowings of their later inventions, vulgarity itself is so new that even its name is somewhat misleading.  The Latin word “vulgus” was generally used to describe “something that was not particularly common among the common people.”  In fact, the vulgar is not very common if one searches for evidence of it.  Farmers, peasants, the poor, and even savages are rarely vulgar.  This new “thing” requires a new name and definition and although Chesterton questions his ability to give it, because he has just been reading a book about love, he has a few ideas.  Curious ….. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Vulgarity consists of two elements: facility and familiarity.  The first means that a man may “gush”, that his words flow without any thought or self-control; they “stream from him like perspiration”.  He appears confident and admired but he “never need stop explaining himself, for he understands neither himself nor the limits of explanation.”  The second element can be defined as profanity, a “loss of holy fear and a sin against the mystical side of man.”  This man can “handle things confidently and contemptuously, without the sense that all things in their way are sacred things.”

“The point is that the fool is so subjective that it never occurs to him to be afraid of the subject.”  He can be both a Pagan fool and a Puritan fool, because each is so familiar with his subject that he becomes blind to the depths of it and loses his objectivity.  On the other hand, a man writing to the woman he loves or the saint writing of his sin, is able to view each with a clear perspective because he has a healthy respect for each and the complexities are clear to him.

Phew!  I certainly understood the gist of Chesterton’s points but following his train of thought can be challenging.  I suspect that I need more practice!

Next week for my Deal Me In Challenge, I’ll be reading the short story, A Little Woman by Franz Kafka, my first reading of Kafka ever.

Week 1 – Deal Me In Challenge – King of Spades

14 thoughts on “Vulgarity by G.K. Chesterton

  1. Interesting word history. I bet the Ancients had a word meaning "vulgar" as we know it today b/c I know vulgarity existed then as it does today. (See the discovery of Pompeii.) I wonder what it was. Very interesting, nonetheless.

  2. i've observed that GKC likes to turn adages or similar commonly accepted opinions on their heads and use arguments from the downside to make points… sort of almost like sarcasm, except he's serious… haven't read this particular essay, so i don't know if he does that here, it's just something i've noted in other works of his…

  3. I think this truly speaks to me as what is "vulgarity" – "without the sense that all things in their way are sacred things". I think it is when we forget that there are bounds and those are sacrosanct and try and cross those over with all our confidence and may be even prejudices, do we become vulgar. Very thought proving, this essay!

  4. But would the Pompeiians have called it vulgar? I'm not sure, whereas in Chesterton's time, I think there would have been a common agreement on the definition (even though he thinks it's not quite apropos) and people might have been proud of being vulgar. It's definitely something to think about.

  5. Yes, you certainly could be right and probably are. He's a clever one. Strange to compare him to Dostoyevsky, but I believe you need to read quite a number of their works before you even start to figure them out!

  6. Yes, I agree. We don't reverence certain things like we should. Things become common that should not, and by them losing their value, we lose a little bit (or alot) of the richness of life. If nothing else, Chesterton is certainly thought-provoking!

  7. I love to read everything Chesterton and I agree with you about his sometimes dizzying way of expressing profound thoughts and truths. I often have to read a sentence a couple of times before I think I have it.

  8. That's the trick I think. Read it and then read it again and go slooowly. And then read it again. It's encouraging though that you get the most out of works that are so difficult.

  9. I never thought about vulgarity from a spiritual sense, but that's interesting. It sounds very much like a Chesterton essay; I'll have to check it out some time. 🙂

    And yay, Kafka! He's not really an enjoyable author, yet he is one of my favorites. Haven't read "A Little Woman," though.

  10. I hadn't thought about that either, but I liked Chesterton's take on it.

    Hmmm ….. not enjoyable, huh? Yet one of your favourites …??? I can't wait to find out what that means. 😉

  11. Pingback: A Midsummer Night's Dream by G.K. Chesterton - Classical CarouselClassical Carousel

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