Last summer I wrote about trekking through the Cambridgeshire fens with a bicycle, cows, and G.K. Chesterton. This summer brings me back to the same story—sort of. Put me on the wrong end of the bicycle, turn the cow into a metal bull, and, fittingly, keep G.K. Chesterton exactly the same. What you get is me getting steamrolled by a cyclist in Central Park and almost losing my faith in humanity.
Chesterton wrote widely during his time as an early twentieth-century public intellectual. His work ranges from philosophy, criticism, and drama to metaphysical fiction and lay theology. His witty style ages like whiskey, and classics like Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are perhaps even more acutely compelling today than they were when they were first written. But overlooked among these popular titles is Chesterton’s introduction to Elsie M. Lang’s Literary London, a quirky 1906 study of the canonical places and faces of nineteenth-century English culture. I happened upon this gem in one of the more obscure corners of Widener Library, and I was as surprised to see Chesterton’s name in it as I was to find the book still held together in my hands.
In the seven brief pages of the introduction, Chesterton is characteristically contrarian. “The trouble about people living in a big city is not that they do not know anything about the country,” the opening runs, “It is that they do not know anything about the great city.” Wordsworth and Coleridge start rolling in their graves with the next paragraph, “People say that the country is more poetical. It is not true… If we applied to human traces the same vivid imagination which we apply to the traces of beasts or birds we should find not only the street, but any chance inch of the street, far more romantic than a glade.”
This line hits me hard every morning as I dodge the leaky trash bags and smeared dog poop that litter the six block-commute between my apartment and the six train. It hit me even harder last Saturday morning, when I went for a run in Central Park, started across East Drive, and got slammed into the concrete by a cyclist. We both scraped by with minimal blood and bruises, but in the split second I sprawled across every chance inch of the all-too-human street, I wondered just how poetical GKC would find NYC in the twenty-first century.
I love glades. I love trees, mountains, brooks, deserts, fens, beaches, lakes, ruined abbeys, lonely wanderers above seas of fog—everything lauded into clichés by romantic poets and granola-toting wilderness guides. I’m most at ease in nature, and I rarely feel closer to God than I do when I’m wandering around some uncivilized patch of earth. I love the quiet, the simplicity, the loneliness, the peace… What will it take to feel the same romantic serenity rushing along First Ave, with sirens blaring and dumpsters reeking and people jostling and clocks running and everything steaming in a hot, sticky, stuffy urban sweat?
Life began in a garden. (And it’s worth noting that the quality of that life plummeted when someone took too large a bite out of a Big Apple.) But if we believe St. John’s Revelation, life ends in a city. If Act One is Eden, Act Five is the New Jerusalem. That doesn’t mean that the New Heavens and the New Earth will be exactly like New York—I seriously doubt that anyone could call an eternity dodging cyclists and Cerberus poop anything close to Heaven—but it does mean that Chesterton, unsurprisingly, is on to something.
We look around nature, and we see the handiwork of God. We look around the city, and we see the workmanship of men. It feels mechanical, fake, and ordinary—until we remember that those craftsmen are made in the image of Christ. GKC puts it this way, “This is the difficulty of the town: that personality is so compressed and packed into it that we cannot realise its presence. The smallest street is too human for any human being to realise.”
Some artful city planner mapped out the curve in East Drive where the cyclist wiped me out. Some architect designed the rusty balcony outside my apartment, some construction worker poured the concrete in the trash-covered sidewalk, some highly-trained specialist perfected the chemical composition of the concrete mix. All of them had families, stories, and dreams. Look around the city, and you see evidence, clear as a lake in Scotland, of human creators at work, fashioning the world around them just as the Lord first fashioned the world. If these sub-creations bring our thoughts to the sub-creators, and from the sub-creators to the Creator himself, every chance inch of the city becomes a meeting place with God. Every chance inch becomes a micro-alter, a small piece of a holy temple we city-dwellers choose to enter but never really leave.
After the cyclist and I shook hands and parted ways, I ran-hobbled the rest of my route down the Hudson. I finished by the Charging Bull statue just south of Wall Street. I laughed to myself and tried to crane my neck around the gaggle of tourists. It was quite a different cow, and quite a different pilgrimage, from the ones I experienced last summer. But then I remembered the personality behind the statue—the personality behind even the selfie sticks—and the Personality one step behind both. And the moment, no matter what GKC says, was in no way romantic. It was sacred.
Lauren Spohn ’20 is an English concentrator in Currier House.