Post 29

Chesterton vs. Cornford:
Reflections on “The Fat White Woman Speaks”

Sometimes we’re so shocked by someone’s comments that we are left speechless – it’s only later that we think of a fitting reply.  But if we think of that checkmate answer right away, do we say it?  Nancy Astor says to Winston Churchill: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!” and he replies, “And if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

You have to pity those with razor-sharp wit – how much self-restraint they must exercise to keep silent at such times!  The choice retort is so often at the tip of their tongue, yet they allow good manners and charity to rule the moment, and they say something gentler and less witty instead.  St. Josemaria Escriva sometimes referred to the ‘sharp remark’ that ‘went unsaid’ as a real mortification.  It’s something that he himself would know about very well.

Chesterton was constantly in debates, and although he could have easily attacked his opponents personally, he was always a gentleman, and confined himself to logical debate.  So I found it fascinating to read a poem where he’s quite biting; you can tell he was angry.  But, of course, before showing you his work, I must give you the poem that provoked him in the first place:

To a Fat Lady seen from the Train (1910)
by Frances Cornford

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

As it happens, Frances Cornford’s grandfather was Charles Darwin.  She was the recipient of a poetry prize, but I’m not a fan of her work, because in general I find it to be bitter and bleak, and because she makes rhymes like this: “With what attentive courtesy he bent/ Over his instrument.” (This is from her poem about a guitarist, but it sounds wrong to me.  Did IN-stru-ment actually used to be pronounced in-stru-MENT?)

Here is Chesterton’s reply – some have called it a parody, but it seems to me to have more in common with a defence brief:

The Fat White Woman Speaks (1933)
by G. K. Chesterton

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

So there you have it.  To me, it’s a perfect reply.  He chose to write as the woman, and in so doing, strikes me as a worthy advocate.  An advocate gives words to those who are wordless, lending a voice to those who need one.  Chesterton didn’t use the triolet here (though he used it elsewhere), and I’m glad; most poems with that structure seem lackluster, at least in English.  Maybe they’re better in French.

But there’s even more to his poem than that, which would make for fun blogging.  Where do I begin?  And what about the idea of keeping this post under the 1000-word mark as I had mentioned in my last post?   Hmm.  I’m already at 610 words, so perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead.  In that case, I wouldn’t talk about:

  • the modern prejudice against those who ‘ruin their health’ by smoking or by being inactive, and
  • the Catholic attitude towards food and wine and other ‘indulgences’ and how this stands in contrast to the puritanical religions – and here I’d be tempted to mention that episode on the Simpsons about ‘Catholic heaven,’ and
  • our lack of knowledge about those we observe – in particular, how we fail to understand the context of their actions and their intentions, and the fundamental importance of our intentions; and, closely tied to this,
  • the method by which Chesterton reframes the context of this poem, and
  • the gravity of the insult, ‘nobody loves you,’ and
  • the role played by the articles “a” and “the” in the two poems, and
  • labels in general, and how certain classes are identified pejoratively – for example, ‘dead white men.’

Alternatively, I could go ahead with these topics, and you can sneak out at any time; I’ll hardly notice.

Okay, so let’s start with modern prejudices.  There was a time when cigarette smoking was really quite popular; nowadays it’s far less common.  Of course, I’m glad that fewer people do it, because the tobacco companies put a lot more than tobacco into their products – they lace them with chemical compounds to increase the addictiveness and so on – but I think that in the name of health, a lot of people were made to feel needlessly guilty.  I say this as someone who never smoked.

The first change was that smoking was banned in most indoor workplaces – so smokers went outside on their coffee breaks (on cold days you’d see them huddled near doorways).  Later, the rules changed so they could not smoke within 15 meters of the building’s entrance, and nowadays, I see that smoking is sometimes prohibited over the entire property area of a public building.  Meanwhile, car engines are spewing toxic fumes all over the place.

But anyway, as the anti-smoking campaign gained momentum, the smokers found themselves increasingly marginalized.  Naturally, more and more people quit.  But those who couldn’t quit were often embarrassed to admit that they smoked, for fear of being judged.  And for a while now, people have had less sympathy for those with lung cancer than any other type of cancer.  VeraciousOne mentioned just a few weeks ago that lung cancer patients are remarkably meek and quiet. When I was confused as to why the type of cancer would make a difference, she said, “They were smokers.”  So then I understood: these people blame themselves for their predicament, and they know that the general sentiment is unsympathetic towards them.  I find that sad.  After all, isn’t it the case that all of us are making or have made choices which adversely affect our health?  I think the whole issue is rather messy – we have varying levels of knowledge and varying levels of control over our environments, and our own behaviour, for that matter.  And when it comes to knowledge, there are powerful interest groups, such as pharmaceutical companies and food processors, who would like to keep the general public in the dark.  Rather than admit the horrible effects of sugar, Coca-Cola wants you to think it’s all about how much you exercise.

Years ago I was absolutely shocked by something in Healthy Women, Healthy Lives. This book discusses findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, “the longest-running and largest prospective observational study of women’s health questions . . . currently includes more than 120,000 women who have been participants for more than two decades.”  This study found that the contraceptive pill was associated with numerous health problems, including breast cancer:

The use of birth control pills moderately increases the risk of breast cancer in those women who are currently using them.  In the Nurses’ Health Study, we found that women who were currently taking the pill had a 50 percent increase in risk compared to women who had never used the pill.  Moreover, how long a woman had been on the pill did not seem to change the results . . .

[Then they jumped outside the Nurses’ study to mention other data.]

Although the pill seems to slightly increase breast cancer risk in current users, it also has many benefits.  In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancy, it lowers the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.  Also, when women use the pill, it is during a time in life when their absolute risk of breast cancer is low, so even though a 50 percent increase in risk is substantial, it will actually result in only a few extra women developing breast cancer who otherwise would not have.

I found this really alarming, and this section of the book was presented in such a confusing way that I had to re-read it several times.  After stating the startling findings from the Nurses’ study, the authors distract the reader by quickly mentioning data from elsewhere.  Are they frightened of what their own study proved?  They seem to be, because their language is all over the place: in one sentence, they call the risk ‘moderate,’ but soon afterwards, they call it ‘slight’ and then finally, “substantial.”  Well, which is it?  And what about this: “only a few extra women”?  What kind of approach is that?

These authors argue that even though the pill increases the risk of cancer, it’s important to focus on the pill’s advantages.  They thereby suggest that many women (and girls, let’s be honest) would still choose to use the pill if they knew the risks.  But I wonder. How would the popularity of this contraceptive be affected? This study is unique in the world in its comprehensiveness, and it identifies a very significant connection; what would happen if this information were better publicized, the way the risks of smoking were publicized?

And I wonder whether these authors would follow the same reasoning, and extend the same liberal attitude to smokers, who also have their reasons for their choices?  They also don’t all get lung cancer.

I somehow doubt they would, because the attitude towards smokers nowadays (at least in North America) has reached the point where there’s no defence; it’s considered as bad as torturing cats.  On Thursday I was talking to a woman who said that when she posted her online-dating wish list, she initially stipulated that he had to be a non-smoker.  I bet that’s a common requirement.  But later, she realized that a man’s character was more important, so she altered her wish list to focus on certain values.  She mentioned kindness and reliability.  Sure enough, she’s married now, and her husband does smoke, but she sees the bigger picture of who he actually is.  And this makes me think of DiligentOne, who never complained about her husband’s use of chewing tobacco (he later quit on his own initiative).  And that reminds me of someone who wondered whether it was okay to smoke while praying.  The good man who answered (was it Fulton Sheen?) said that he wasn’t sure, but certainly it was fine to pray while smoking!  But anyway, in its aggressive approach to smokers, it seems that our society displays confusion about what behaviours it should be shaming.

Similarly, wearing fur is now proof that you’re cruel and really clueless. I always feel quite conspicuous when wearing mine to the organic grocery store, where I buy bacon and sausages, shopping beside those who are vegan.  I know wearing fur is considered ‘wrong.’  If I were wearing fake fur, made from plastic, the ‘soy’ version of fur, then that would be okay.

The modern world, which considers itself so tolerant now that it’s non-religious, continues to come up with its own list of taboos, mostly based on current health notions.  And so society’s values go all over the place like fashions.  Those denominations which try to keep up with the times by throwing out their traditions and doctrines become nothing more than social clubs. Did I mention that a local church is called “The Enjoy Life Church”?  That’s basically what it comes to.  The other day CharitableOne knew I’d be astounded to hear that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’  And if you know how negatively smoking (and smokers) is considered, you’d know that this means that people who sit excessively are being ‘bad’ – they wreck their health, which is, of course, an unpardonable crime.   Shame on them!  Take away their chairs!  Remove their couches!  Strap Fitbits to their wrists and graph their steps!  Slather them with sunscreen!  No wait – that’s a different rule.

And as for you, I hope you’re standing while you read this.  They say sitting is the new smoking, you know. (And when it comes to morals, white is the new black.)  I’m sitting as I reach 1984 words. 

So anyway, there’s already a prejudice against those who are overweight, the perception being that they’re not doing what they should be doing to take care of their health.  Certainly the poet Frances Cornford used the word “fat” pejoratively.  As for Chesterton, he said that he didn’t mind being called fat – he said that if he were not fat, he’d be taken seriously, which in itself is interesting.  He put his finger on another truth: people with certain body types (overweight or short) are not given as much credence as those who are thinner and taller.

However, I’m sure that he wasn’t impressed by Cornford labelling her subject a “fat white woman” because it was intended as an insult.  Doesn’t it remind you of the modern disparagement, “dead white men,” which is often used to condemn the rich western heritage of art, music and literature?  Ironically, although it’s a phrase used by people who deplore discrimination, it’s a really discriminatory phrase, since it disqualifies peoples’ contributions on the basis of their date of their death, their gender and their race.  I recently came across an attack on the institution of marriage; someone called it ‘paternalistic.’  And that was basically the beginning and end of the attack – just that word, because nowadays that has a sufficiently negative flavour to it.  I thought about it afterwards – what did she mean, paternalistic?  Too fatherly?  I suspect she probably meant that it was too male, and of course, that’s nearly an insult nowadays too.  But I must ask, as I pass the 2000 word mark, that if it is true that marriage is such a male institution, then why is it that women seem more eager to enter into it than men?  Please don’t tell me that these women have ‘bought into a lie.’  Give them more credit than that.

Moving along, Chesterton’s poem points out that we really don’t know anything about the context of other peoples’ lives. I’ve written recently that people have whole landscapes inside of them, and the thing is that these landscapes are hidden from the rest of the world. We can’t see why people do this or that.  We see the actions, but we can’t see the motivation.  I came across the idea that everyone makes internal sense.  In other words, if you knew what they had been through, and what their internal landscape was, then you’d see how their latest action makes a lot more sense and is a lot less ridiculous or evil than it appeared.

And at the end of the day, it’s our intentions that really matter.  Do we want the best for the other?  Do we wish them well?  Even if we mess things up in our lives and in our relations with others, the main thing is that we’re trying:

It is the [Catholic] thesis that there are no bad things, but only bad uses of things.  If you will, there are no bad things but only bad thoughts, and especially bad intentions.  Only Calvinists can really believe that hell is paved with good intentions.  That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with.

-G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 4

And I really liked the section in Jacques Philippe’s book about good will, but I can’t get that quotation just yet because I’ve lent that book out.  (VigilantOne warns when you lend a book, you never get it back, which is of course an exaggeration, but it’s true they don’t all come back.)

In his poem, Chesterton points out that Cornford is clueless as to context and intention.  The woman walks through the field wearing gloves; Cornford says it’s a waste of an opportunity, but Chesterton says it could even be about romance: the man who loves her, and who liked to affectionately call her his ‘Old Dutch’ (duchess/wife), is waiting for her at the edge of that same field.  He loves to see her wearing “nice white gloves.” With this defence, with this alternate context and intention, Chesterton explains the gloves and silences the cruel phrase “whom nobody loves.”

He also can’t resist pointing out that Cornford has a far worse appreciation of this field than does the woman she attacks.  After all, the title of Cornford’s poem shows that she’s in a train (probably sitting).  Notice how the dueling poets differ in their use of articles.  Chesterton says that Cornford races through the field in “a” train (for Cornford it’s “the” train), and that Cornford is being hypocritical of “the” woman who walks through it (for Cornford she’s “a” woman).  For Chesterton, the objects are referred to using “a” (i.e., one of many) while people are referred to using “the” (i.e., particular, special).  Chesterton wouldn’t be like the authors of that medical book, who said, “only a few extra women.”

But before we condemn Cornford utterly, we must admit that we all come to conclusions about each other without knowing all the facts.  We guess at motives based on our past experiences and our mental data banks of human behaviour, and we so often get it quite wrong.  I like the quotation about how we need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, from St. Josemaria Escriva, I think, but now I’m feeling too lazy to go and find it, and besides, I’m over 2800 words and I still haven’t mentioned the Simpson episode.

It was JustOne who told me about it years ago, before everything was online, yet even without seeing it, I thought it was funny.  You see, Catholicism has a reputation for saying ‘no,’ too much, but it all depends on the context of the times.  Liberal times accuse it of being unduly restrictive, and stricter times accuse it of being too indulgent, of saying ‘yes’ too much.   Jesus noted that some people called him a drunkard.  I’d say Catholicism walks the middle road, always locating that sweet spot in the middle, a place of equanimity and balance.  In contrast, many of the Protestant faiths have prohibitions on liquor and dancing – perhaps Cornford’s Puritan background coloured her views on eating and body size too.  The Catholic approach to liquor (and dancing, for that matter) has always struck me as wholesome and happy, something like, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them” as Chesterton says.  The Simpson clip is here.

3170 words.  More than three times longer than I planned, and my new longest post.  I need a smoke.