Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them?
Gilbert Keith Chesterton is one of my favourite authors. That doesn’t mean that (like other favourite authors of mine) he doesn’t every now and then disappoint me. Which happened with this book.
The format is the one that later used to be employed in the so-called “socialist realism”: two heroes, one of them a stalwart supporter of the one and only correct ideology, the other a good guy in his heart of hearts, but misled by his personal history into being that ideology’s enemy. For this or that reason they have to spend some time together, during which time the latter first discovers that the former is not a devil’s reincarnation, then befriends him, then he himself sees the light and embraces The Truth.
The only difference is that Chesterton does not promote a communist party, but the Catholic Church. (Not so much of a difference, if you ask me.) And that he is a better writer than his socialist followers. Still, a much worse one than he himself was in, for instance, The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Flying Inn.
Why is it, that even the best authors, and even those who can write a fascinating novel when promoting an idea, are only able to write something so-so tolerable when they promote an ideology?
Oh well. The above quotation at least made having read the book worthwhile to me. Come to think of it, the whole passage is good:
“Murder is a sin,” said the immovable Highlander. “There is no sin of bloodshed.”
“Well, we won’t quarrel about a word,” said the other, pleasantly.
“Why on earth not?” said MacIan, with a sudden asperity. “Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about. I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word ‘yes’ and the word ‘no’; or rather more difference, for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed.”
(First published on Blogger in January 2012.)