Eugenics and Other Evils

Berlin Naturkundemuseum DNA
By LoKiLeCh [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Of G. K. Chesterton's several thousand essays, the one I stumbled across most suddenly on Project Gutenberg was Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State.  I do not go out of my way to read essays, but the topic had been on my mind recently and, of course, Chesterton's nonfic is even more renowned than his novels.  I thought this would be a good place to start.

Eugenics, in short, is "the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp by selective breeding" (Collins English Dictionary).  The most well-known example of eugenics on a large scale took place in Nazi Germany; however, a more historically obscure example was the support for and practice of eugenics by doctors in the US and Great Britain, pre-WWI--and, in the case of the US, even up through the 70s.

Background is key in Chesterton's book.  I must admit I was hoping for an argument that would deal with eugenics on a broader scale, for all eras and conceivable counterarguments, but Chesterton--wisely, for his purposes--limited his audience to Britain in the 1920s.  He does not hide his contempt for eugenics, and some of the "other evils" he discusses are socialism and, even more so, capitalism. As with many ideologies, it is impossible to judge them in the past by what they are in the present.  Likewise, Chesterton's opinions need to be read in context--the British class system was still alive and well, ca. 1922, and Keynesianism, a more benevolent form of capitalism, would not gain popularity until years later.

I felt that Chesterton rambled a lot more in the second half of the book, hence 4 out of 5 stars.  The first part of the book was much more focused, interesting, and brilliantly written.  Two excellent arguments that particularly stood out to me were the idea that a government could become anarchic (sounds like an oxymoron, but actually makes sense) and also that two "perfectly healthy" people may not necessarily have "perfectly healthy" children.

This latter point was also a doubt of H. G. Wells, who nevertheless supported eugenics.  Chesterton pointed out that even eugenists could not answer this question, and he berated them for holding overall very vague ideas of what they wanted done.  He also questioned the notion that there could be anyone qualified to evaluate other people's so-called "feeble-mindedness".

In summary, I recommend this book, but more on a historical than universal basis.  There are definitely some arguments that can be applied today, but as a whole, Chesterton was writing to a more specific audience.

Favorite quotes:

"...evil always takes advantage of ambiguity."

"...there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin."

"They cannot believe that men in hats and coats like themselves can be preparing a revolution; all their Victorian philosophy has taught them that such transformations are always slow."

"The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal."

"But as a vision the thing is plausible and even rational.  It is rational, and it is wrong."

"The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government."

"We are everywhere urged by humanitarians to help lame dogs over stiles--though some humanitarians, it is true, seem to feel a colder interest in the case of lame men and women."

"Thus Midas fell into a fallacy about the currency; and soon had reason to become something more than a Bimetallist."

"They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State."

"We can no more analyse such peace in the soul than we can conceive in our heads the whole enormous and dizzy equilibrium by which, out of suns roaring like infernos and heavens toppling like precipices, He has hanged the world upon nothing."

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems
I hadn't heard of Tomas Tranströmer until last fall when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature; I placed a library request for two or three of his books, and, for various reasons, did not actually get a copy of either of them until very recently.  Needless to say, I had certain expectations.  This particular book, The Great Enigma, is in a sense "the complete poems of", because it holds all of his poems that were ever published "in book form"--Baltics, The Sorrow Gondola, Secrets on the Way, etc.  It also contains a short memoir, Memories in My Eyes, in which Tranströmer describes certain scenes from his childhood, in Sweden.

I hope it is fair to give this book 3 out of 5 stars.  I'm not well up on contemporary poetry, but I love any good poetry, regardless of style.   I've read several of the classics--Frost, Poe, Wordsworth, Browning, Shakespeare, etc.  And I've written a fair amount of poetry myself.  This is my rating, for what it's worth.

Like many poets, Tranströmer wrote some real gems, but I personally did not enjoy the great majority of his poems.  [The English translation, by Robin Fulton, seemed quite good, so I don't think it's that.]  The Great Enigma spans 1950s - 2004, with the first half being slightly better than the second half.  Overall, the parts I liked best were the memoir--a short but fascinating read--and the short prose pieces, prose poetry, if you will.  The poems I like are as follows:
  • Prelude
  • The Stones
  • Secrets on the Way
  • Noon Thaw
  • Espresso
  • In the Nile Delta
  • Allegro
  • Summer Plain
  • To Friends Behind a Frontier
  • Schubertiana
Tranströmer has a true gift for analogies.  Often you'll stumble across an analogy so unique, so perfect you wish you had read it before.  Some of these are very quirky (if you listen to Adam Young, think "Alligator Sky").  Some are just so obvious you'll start thinking about them henceforth--i.e., traffic lights = eyes.  I'd recommend the book for the analogies alone.

Are they depressing poems?  Well, yes and no.  "Death" is a common keyword.  Religion is vaguely present, but not prominent, and there is little or no sense of the "light at the end of the tunnel."  The poems' settings are typically a city, village, the sea, or the forest--each with a sense of sadness or something not being right.

Yet while the author's mood is easy to infer, the poems themselves were too emotionless to provoke much sympathy in me.  They are so "blank", so to speak; even Kafka is emotional compared to this book.  Additionally, much of the imagery in The Great Enigma is so hard to decipher you eventually give up trying to understand.  I realize that it probably makes perfect sense to the author, but self-expression is no longer self-expression if an author doesn't get their point across.  Perhaps I should have been depressed by this book, but I wasn't.  Inversely, I was not encouraged or inspired.  It made no net emotional impression on me whatsoever.

That said, Tranströmer's poems are still a worthwhile read if you want to read more contemporary poems, while avoiding the angst and profuse immorality so typical in most contemporary writing.  He obviously drew a lot inspiration from nature, and his few "romantic" poems are more decent than most.  The Great Enigma certainly met some of my expectations, and I can recommend it for that.

The Club of Queer Trades

If there's one thing that ticks me off about this book, it's this: The Club of Queer Trades is a parody of Sherlock Holmes.  From the protagonist, Basil Grant--who scoffs at facts--to his younger brother Rupert--a wannabe private detective patrolling lamp-lit London--G. K. Chesterton takes a not-so-subtle jab at the Sherlock Holmes series and the science of deduction.  Basil Grant's tools of the trade?  A touch of insanity, healthy intuition, and uproarious laughter.

In fact, I can forgive Chesterton and his maniacal character just for the laughs I got reading this book. Chesterton's word choice is very quirky and witty throughout most of the six short stories and especially the first half.  If you're looking for a light read set in Victorian London, you could give this a try. 

The basic plotline is this: Rupert, Basil, and Mr Swinburne (the narrator/Watson) never agree on who is a suspicious-looking character.  And if either Rupert or Basil sees a suspicious-looking character, they are determined to hunt them down and catch them red-handed in their crimes.  Much awkwardness ensues when first impressions turn out to be a far cry from the truth.   I think my favorite was "The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation", involving "the wickedest man in England" (apparently not Charles Augustus Milverton).

Rupert, by the way, is a great character, for all his "erroneous conclusions." I mean, if this were a typical detective story, he'd be a good detective.  The true solutions, however, turn out to be so fantastically absurd that Rupert fails before he begins.

4 out of 5 stars for The Club of Queer Trades.  Recommended even for Sherlock Holmes devotees, like me.  There's a free, excellent audiobook by David Barnes at Librivox, which I listened to for the first 1 1/2 stories.