“Every man has forgotten who he is…”

I’ve been meaning to read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for a while now, and finally started it a couple months ago after a friend, Dave Heller, told me he was in the middle of it and loving it. I’m making my way through it slowly, since it is the kind of book that demands you take time to soak in the ideas presented. Seeing as today is Chesterton’s birthday, I thought I’d post my favorite excerpt so far, from the chapter The Ethics of Elfland (emphasis added).

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct like astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we need only tales. Mere life is interestingly enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales – because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that, for certain dead levels of our life, we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant, we remember that we forget.

Also, check out Jeffrey’s blog for some of his favorite Chesterton quotes.

2 thoughts on ““Every man has forgotten who he is…””

  1. Huge GKC fan here…I met Dave Heller a couple months ago when he & JJ played at my church for Compassion Int’l, great guy and we talked music for awhile…..I”m also a regular reader of Jeffrey’s blog….

    What a small world we live in!

  2. Small world indeed!

    Stephen, you’ve found one of my favorite passage, one that served as a strong inspiration for, and influence of, the Auralia Thread series.

    We forget that we have forgotten. Keep this message in mind when you listen to Sam Phillips songs, and you’ll find intriguing correlations. She’s a Chesterton fan too.

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