On What’s “Interesting”

In my experience, “interesting” has come to be a weak word. If we cannot think of anything else to say about someone or someone’s views, we say, in desperation: “Gee, that is ‘interesting!’” Or “Yes, he is an ‘interesting’ person.” We actually mean that he is “dull.” “Not much can be said for that idea.” The classic “put-down” is: “My, Schall, that was an ‘interesting’ talk you just gave.” Translation, “It was a dud.” “I didn’t get it.” “How weird.”

But we never know when we will come across something that forces us to take another look at the issue, in this case, the word, “interesting.” Obviously, the word is from the Latin “inter” and “esse” – to be among, to be between. The word comes into English in the 1500s. Generally, it means curious, calling attention to, astonishing, not boring. It may still have these meanings but, in effect, signify: “We’re not concerned about your ‘interest.’”

Of course, we also know that “interest” brings us back to the usury problem, of making money from lending money. What is the title for interest? Ancient economists often thought it to be a form of stealing. Interest rates on the use of money are still an everyday concern, the abuse of which can make or break an economy or a business. In this sense, I suppose we could say that the problem of usury is itself interesting.

In 1905, Chesterton wrote an essay (“The Glass Walking Stick”) in which this very topic of the “interesting” came up in its more pristine form. The essay begins this way: “Practical politics are in this world continually coming to grief; for the truth is that practical politics are too practical for this world. This world is so incurably romantic that things never work out properly if you base them on sound business principle.” Now, by any standard, that is an “interesting” sentence! Some things, in fact, work out fine, like romances, which are incalculable by “sound business principle.” Why is this, we wonder?

Chesterton had noted the extraordinary, often valuable, things that the poor kept. He added: “The more refined people concern themselves with literature – that is, with beautiful statements. But simple people concern themselves with scandal – that is, with interesting statements.”

             Chesterton and girl: interesting

What is the significance of this distinction between beauty and interesting? Interest can exist apart from beauty. Indeed it can be “better” and more important than beauty. To prove his point, Chesterton adds, in his version of the dumb blonde tradition: “I myself know a man who is beautiful and remarkably uninteresting.” 

The distinction between beauty and interesting touches “religion, morals, and practical living.” Again what is the point here? “Existence often ceases to be beautiful; but if we are men at all it never ceases to be interesting.”  “Existence” means esse. We are social; beings – inter-esse. This distinction touches on the transcendentals – ens, res, unum, bonum, verum, et pulchrum. The controverted place of beauty among the transcendentals need not deny some beauty to all existing things, but the fact is that beauty stands out as rare or else we would not notice it.

“This divine creation in the midst of which we live does commonly. . .combine amusement with instruction.” There is no conflict, Chesterton says elsewhere, between a thing being “true and a thing being funny.” Yet moments will come when we cannot for the life of us get instruction from reality. But brave men “can always get amusement out of it.” Here Chesterton remarkably attributes bravery, the military virtue, to our ability to be amused even in the darkest moments, as if to say that a glimmer of joy always is found in the being of things.

Again, why bother with this interest in interest? “When we have given up valuing life for every other reason, we can still value it . . . as a curiosity,” that is, a luxury. It is out there, calling our attention to it, The universe is out there. It is “unique.” It is filled with beautiful and interesting things.

“It is not only true that luxuries are nobler than necessities; it really seems as if they were more necessary than necessities.” The universe itself is a luxury, a curiosity. It need not exist but does. The key to our existence and to that of the divine world in which we live is not that we are like everything else in having existence but that we are “unique,” each of us. Nothing else is like unto what we are.

Just as the poor save “interesting” things and the refined beautiful ones, the Lord seeks to save them all. The world is, in fact, “incurably romantic.” Things never quite work themselves out “according to sound business principles.” The brave man can always be amused by the world that is because what goes on within it is so, well, “interesting.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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