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Years ago, I lived near a church that was one of six scattered along the New England coast whose pastors and members believed themselves all ( all ) that was left of the Church in the world. One of my housemates started going to this church, though he never joined, and after a few months dragooned the rest of us into attending a party for the younger people from his church.

Many of the people who came were as . . . unusual as you’d expect. At one point some of them started playing Monopoly, and the game broke down within a couple of moves bec. some of the players insisted, in a particularly unctuous way some of you would recognize, that a Christian would not take rent, and were not dissuaded when someone pointed out that without rent there is no game to play. One of them cornered me (literally cornered me) and explained to me that atm cards, fairly new at the time, were the carriers of the Mark of the Beast. Many of them went out of their way not to speak to their churchmate’s housemates, I assume because they thought we were damned. The party happened many years ago, and I’ve forgotten all the stories, but it was a strange evening.

I was telling this story to some friends and remarked that a good many of the male members were engineers or computer programmers.  ((My housemate was an engineer.) One of my friends, himself a computer programmer, asked me what I was implying. Sensitive to the stereotypes, these computer programmers.

I wasn’t really implying anything, but as it happens, in my experience, esp. when we lived in the Boston area, any group of the sort that fancied it had the key to the universe was heavily male and many if not most of those males were engineers, computer programmers, and the like.

It was those who were good at building systems who built the most fantastic and lunatic systems, who scarfed up every odd or stray fact and fit it in, and found that in the fact they could fit in such odd or stray facts evidence that they had seen what lesser mortals couldn’t, or wouldn’t. It was true both of the religious sects like the local church and the pale thin-armed bespectacled atheists of the Larouchies, Randians, and other groups I ran into when I did editing work at certain noted institutions of higher learning.

G. K. Chesterton wrote in the second chapter of  Orthodoxy  that “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.” He was not, he insisted, attacking logic.

I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram . . . .

Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.

The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.


Even accounting for a certain Chesteronian flair or exaggeration, his description fits my experience. So yeah, maybe I was saying something about computer programmers. Excluding people like my friend, of whom I hope there are many.

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