Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writers, Like Other Mendicants and Mountebanks

Paradox has been defined as "Truth standing on her head to attract attention." Paradox has been defended; on the ground that so many fashionable fallacies still stand firmly on their feet, because they have no heads to stand on. But it must be admitted that writers, like other mendicants and mountebanks, frequently do try to attract attention. They set out conspicuously, in a single line in a play, or at the head or tail of a paragraph, remarks of this challenging kind; as when Mr. Bernard Shaw wrote: "The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule"; or Oscar Wilde observed: "I can resist everything except temptation"; or a duller scribe (not to be named with these and now doing penance for his earlier vices in the nobler toil of celebrating the virtues of Mr. Pond) said in defence of hobbies and amateurs and general duffers like himself: "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." To these things do writers sink; and then the critics tell them that they "talk for effect"; and then the writers answer: "What the devil else should we talk for? Ineffectualness?" It is a sordid scene.

G. K. Chesterton, "When Doctors Agree," The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond. This is one of my very favorite Chesterton stories. All the Mr. Pond stories start by putting their puzzles in the form of paradoxes; the paradox for this one is that two men once agreed so completely that one of them naturally murdered the other one. The rest of the tale unfolds how this can be true, and the characterization of the benevolently ruthless philanthropist is quite splendid.

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