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Address by THOMAS MARTIN, Professor of Philosophy, University of Nebraska at Kearney
Delivered to the Midwest Chesterton Conference at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota, June 12, 1998
In the article "Journalism and Culture," in The Illustrated London News of November 9, 1912, G. K. Chesterton writes, "In a certain journal which I regard as the sanest now to be found, I was chastened or charred the other day for saying that journalists would be the better for a wider culture. The word 'culture' is cursed, and not without cause, except when it occurs as the last half of the word. No one is called a dreamy aesthete because he is occupied in agriculture. No one is accused of insensate pride even if he concerns himself with horticulture. But the second half of the word, 'culture', always has an absurd appearance. It is like the hind-legs of an elephant walking heavily on to the pantomime stage." [Vol. XXIX, 3841]
This passage stopped me dead in my tracks, for G. K. Chesterton says the "word 'culture' is cursed ... except when it occurs as the last half of the word." This being the case, what am I doing standing before you as a participant in a symposium on popular culture" where the word "culture" obviously does not appear as the second half of a word? Could it be my specific part, being the last of three, is that of the hind-end of the elephant of which Chesterton writes? Have I wandered out on this stage to lumber on about the cursed topic of "popular culture" about which it is best to remain silent?
I am sorry to think of myself offered as desert after the meal the good cooks of St. Thomas have provided, and hesitate to speak further on "popular culture" for fear of giving you indigestion. But on second thought, it may be best if we examine the nature of the word "culture" which Chesterton sees as cursed in hopes of breaking the spell of "popular culture" which is currently being cast by "poptheists" upon our land. (A "poptheist," is a word I coined for this gathering to describe the man who worships whatever pops into his head.)
I will start by following Chesterton's prescription and "take hold of tail of [the] word [culture]" when it occurs as the second half of a word.
Long before man was immersed in the stream of "popular culture" he lived in a garden where he was employed as a horticulturist. It was a good life and gardening came as naturally as buzzing does for a bee. There was no land to clear, sod to cut, fields to plow, seeds to plant, weeds to pull or rows to hoe. Everything grew effortlessly, as long as the gardener …