So I was sitting here yesterday, still having my mind wrapped around things, hearing and reading people complaining about the greyness in Berlin these days. Its chilly, overcast and we have not seen much in the way of sun in a while. It’s something about these old buildings during overcast days, as I wrote previously, that makes for a dreary scenery when looking out the windows. No wonder spirits might be down at times, little aches and colds are more noticeable and tiredness seems to way much heavier then usually. I was reminded yesterday of a G.K. Chesterton essay I read a while ago. In “The Poetry of Cities,” Chesterton argues against the dichotomy that reigns in our minds between the beautiful and the mundane, or as he puts it, between what is poetic over against the prosaic. The dichotomy he speaks of, is that between what we consider cities to be, namely prosaic – and that which we consider nature to be, namely poetic. In other words, we all strive for a look of the beautiful which we find most often outside of our places, of our cities, out in nature, out in the country. Just think of the most beautiful places in Canada for example. My mind immediately hands me a hit list of tourist attractions starting with the Rocky Mountains.
Chesterton, however finds this turn of events rather disagreeable. Thus he helpfully points out to us that “Nature has too much to do in her great project of satisfying our insatiable appetite for breakfast and supper to pay special attention to the lust of our eyes…we have no particular reason to suppose that a lily was intended to be beautiful; it was for the far nobler purpose of producing other lilies”(Chesterton, p. 20). Indeed why do I complain about the greyness of this city, the listlessness of existence during this time, or why do I let my moods be determined by the absence of beauty. Again Chesterton reminds us “It took man [sic] many generations to realise the poetry of the macrocosm it which he [sic] lives…[it may] take man [sic] some number of generations to realise the poetry of the microcosm in which he[sic] lives”(p 22). Regardless of colours, regardless of the absence of certain visual cues we now hold to be normatively beautiful (for a short time I might add, if history teaches us anything), what Chesterton reminds us of through this essay is this: That the poetry, the beauty of the city might not necessarily be found in its features, in the sun reflecting on windows of the TV-Tower, or the Bundestag lit up at night against a dark sky, but rather in the people that cross our paths:
“So many men pass us in the street who may have a rich and unique history that, for the sake of mere convenience, we fall back on the assumption that none of them has. We compel ourselves to pass by dramas as if they were Sunday School stories; we are steeled to fling romances into the waste paper baskets, cover and all, as if, instead of containing histories coloured and gilded with human passion, they contained nothing but coal circulars…”(p. 23).
Maybe it is that we refuse to notice the beautiful in the grey, the poetic in the mundane walk through the city. Maybe we close our eyes the drama, the poetry, the history of the people passing us by because it is easier, more comfortable and it allows us to remain closed, unaffected and passive. How much easier after all, it is to look at a mountain or to take a picture of a beautiful turquoise lake rather then to open up, invest and take time to relate to others. Could it be that we are scared of each other? Could it be that we are scared that we might have to invest to much? Are we scared about others finding out our thoughts and our fears? Is it just to much work?!
I give Chesterton the last word: “But the reason we fly from the city is not in reality that it is not poetical; it is that its poetry is too fierce, too fascinating and too practical in its demands.”
Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.
2. Corinthians 8:24
All quotations from:
Chesterton, G.K. “The Poetry of Cities.” In Lunacy and Letters. Ed. by Dorothy Collins. London: Sheed and Ward, 1958. pp. 19-23.