Death Like Wine

ImageWhen I first encountered the following passage, I quickly nodded in agreement while instinctively picturing Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the scene where he is fighting off an outfit of sweaty barbarians and doomed jungle kittens at the Roman Coliseum.

“A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying.  He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape.  He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape.  He must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Gladiator is my default reference to most life events because it still ranks in my top 3 favorite movies of all time.  Take work as an example.  The conclusion of every counseling session I’ve ever endured should really end like this: me, rising out my seat full of quiet rage, allowing the chair to scrape along the tile floor for no shorter than four seconds (but imagine it played out for a full minute, like they do in nail-biting NASA Control scenes in Armageddon), followed by a hushed but emphatic, “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”  Other lines are less applicable to our lives today.  “The frost: sometimes it makes the blade stick,” is a great line to tell the guy you’re about to decapitate with your broadsword, but a tough one to find a home for today, unless you’re mowing your lawn in winter and casually commenting to yourself.

Oddly, the passage was written in 1909, 91 years before Gladiator was released, but it just so happens that the wisdom contained within this unfamiliar quote applied even before Hollywood depictions of manliness, courage, and death.  It was penned by one G.K. Chesterton, a Christian apologist who inspired and influenced the work of other badass writers, like C.S. Lewis.  Like Lewis, Chesterton was also an Englishman who spent his youth as an atheist before converting to Catholicism in early adulthood.

In perhaps his best known work of Christian apologetics, Orthodoxy, Chesterton exercises a wit and wisdom totally uncharacteristic of both the book’s tranquilizer title and of modern Christian apologists in general.  He doesn’t preach and he doesn’t offer supposed proofs of the existence of God.  As Chesterton states in the preface:

“It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.  The book is therefore arranged on the positive principle of a riddle and an answer.”

Indeed.  Yoda-style preface notwithstanding, Chesterton’s work can and should be read by all crowds; atheists, Hindus, and Christians alike.  The book’s value comes not necessarily from its purpose, but from Chesterton’s hilarious command of language and his sage-like observations of the world.  Examples abound:

“Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.”

Or this not-so-Facebook-meme-ready gem, which makes an interesting comparison between the author and Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and the historical woman-warrior Joan of Arc:

“Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant.  Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior.  She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other.  Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.”

And this provoking tirade, from a chapter that is aptly and cleverly titled “The Ethics of Elfland”:

“In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.  A box is opened, and all evils fly out.  A word is forgotten, and cities perish.  A lamp is lit, and love flies away.  A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited.  An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

“This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison.  People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.  Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers.  Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out of nowhere, but she received a command – which might have come out of Brixton – that she should be back by twelve.  Also, she had a glass slipper; and it cannot be coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore.  This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will  not throw stones.  For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat.  And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world.  I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder.  I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.”

You may not agree with all of Chesterton’s conclusions at the end of the journey, but his word-smithing and capacity for imagination are breathtaking.  And if anything is to be learned from our portly apologist, it is this: life is balance. Happiness is bright but brittle.  Consider the glass that is both beautiful and delicate.  Or Joan of Arc, who was at once both peaceful and terribly violent.  Or of a warrior’s survival depending on his capacity to drink life like water, and death like wine.

I found myself re-reading approximately three passages per page throughout, and delightfully so.  Of course, this handicapped reading of Orthodoxy might be attributed to years of brain atrophy, since I’m just a public school guy (where The Odyssey, perhaps our most difficult undertaking, was accompanied by dumbed-down translation, as if the actual poem hadn’t already been translated into English).  I found that re-reading particular phrases in Orthodoxy was a bit like solving a riddle.  And so I had fun doing it.

For anyone doubting me, the book is mercifully short (my version clocks in at 170 pages in paperback), and if you end up hating it, you can always donate it to your local Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, and take a happy second helping of Fifty Shades Darker.

One thought on “Death Like Wine

  1. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it,
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    I want to encourage you to ultimately continue your great work, have a nice holiday weekend!

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