Why It’s Better To Be Boring Than Bored

heretics-cover1There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject in the world. There are just uninterested people. This is the thrust of Chesteron’s criticism of Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s cosmopolitanism in the end results in bored people who will never see the beauty of the world the way the boring do. “The globe trotter lives in a smaller world than than the peasant.” The bore is in Chesteron’s mind a god, unlike the bored. Because the gods never “tire of iteration of things…to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red as the first.”

That every thing is poetic is for Chesterton a matter of fact. The idea that some things are poetic is a fictive literary device. There’s nothing more ordinary than “Smith”. And yet the children playing in the village know the mystical and magical power of the smith. They hear the pounding of his hammer amidst the flames that lick it all around as slams down again and again on his anvil. They see him literally bend metal. Metal bends to his will. It yields to him. It’s ironic that the name “Smith” has become a synonym for uninteresting and completely conventional. You can call the village smith many things, but he is no parvenu. “From the darkest dawn of history this clan has gone forth to battle; its trophies are on every hand; its name is everywhere; it is older than the nations, and its sign is the Hammer of Thor.”

Things bore us because we can’t see them for what they are. A mailbox can seem boring because we forget that it’s not a “mailbox”, it’s a sanctuary for human words. A lover waiting to read her beloved’s sentiments is enraptured when she sees the red lever upright, indicating that the long expected missive has come. If we think that Mr. Smith or his mailbox is boring it’s not because we’re unrefined, it’s because we’re over refined. Everything around us is poetical. “It is only by a long and elaborate process of literary effort that you have made them prosaic.” This insight wasn’t lost on some of the greatest literary minds in the modern West. It’s the point of Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service and The Red Wheelbarrow, two very different poems written by two men who were not mutual admirers of one another in the least. It’s also central to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s an insight that also might help explain why the Harvard Classics edition of 1910 includes numerous versions of the Odyssey while the Iliad remains conspicuously absent.

Rudyard Kipling wondered how someone could love England who knew only England. Chesterton wonders just the opposite. You can only love a place when you know it deeply. Kipling didn’t belong to England because he thought of it as a place. But when someone is rooted in England, or in any place, it ceases to become a place. The place vanishes because we’re rooted in it, like a tree, and we live like a tree “with the whole strength of the universe.” The telescope makes the world smaller, only the microscope makes it larger. Cosmopolitans, bored, are always seeking adventure. They love the thrill of traveling, experiencing Arabia as “a whirl of sand” or China as a “flash of rice fields.” But Arabia and China are not just the sum total of the sites the cosmopolitan sees. “They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures.” If we wish to know them we must not do so as tourists, seeking the cure to our boredom, “it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets.” When you conquer a place you lose it. The person standing in her kitchen garden, “with fairyland opening at the gate” is the one with large ideas. Her mind creates distance, the 747 and the internet destroy it. The globetrotter seeking a cure to boredom lives in a smaller world than the peasant. Globetrotters motivated by boredom find themselves bouncing from place to place but they lack the patience that would make their destinations anything other than places.

A rolling stone gathers no moss. The point of this proverb was lost on Chesterton in the days of his youth. But as he grew older, it’s profundity became more apparent. “The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead…the moss is silent because the moss is alive.” The moss is alive, and it might seem boring, but it’s incapable of boredom.