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G. K. Chesterton: master of rejuvenation
On the vitality of the Jolly Journalist's work.
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And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
The ordinary modern progressive position is that this is a bad universe, but will certainly get better. I say it is certainly a good universe, even if it gets worse.
In life, there was always something unwieldy about Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Mentally as well as physically, he was a man who tended to . . . overflow. Like Flambeau, the criminal mastermind of his Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton was fully six-foot-four. Vertically, he left off growing in adolescence. Horizontally, he kept going. Slender in youth, he was solid as a young man and positively rotund in his thirties. His body was the perfect correlative for the drama he enacted. Chesterton always seems to have favored pince-nez, but it was his wife, Frances, who advocated the familiar equipage that defined his public image. With billowing cape and wide-brimmed hat, brandishing a sword stick and often sporting a pistol from his pocket as he strode up and down his beloved Fleet Street, Chesterton cut a figure as imposing as one of his famous epigrams.
The impression of superabundance continued on the page. His prose bristles with encompassing vitality. No matter the ostensible subject, Chesterton was always present amongst the syllables with his view of the universe. T. S. Eliot said that his 1906 study of Dickens was “the best essay on that author that has ever been written.” Maybe so. But as his friend Ronald Knox noted, even that book is “really the Chestertonian philosophy illustrated by the life of Dickens.” Chesterton wrote:
To every man alive, one must hope, it has in some manner happened that he has talked with his more fascinating friends round a table on some night when all the numerous personalities unfolded themselves like great tropical flows. All fell into their parts as in some delightful impromptu play. Every man was a beautiful caricature of himself. The man who has known such nights will understand the exaggerations of Pickwick. The man who has not known such nights will not enjoy Pickwick nor (I imagine) heaven. . . . [Dickens] is there, like the common people of all ages, to make deities; he is there . . . to exaggerate life in the direction of life. The spirit he at bottom celebrates is that of two friends drinking wine together and talking through the night. But for him they are two deathless friends talking through an endless night and pouring wine from an inexhaustible bottle.
“To exaggerate life in the direction of life”: that might describe the author of The Pickwick Papers; it was the perpetual credo of the author of Dickens.
Chesterton was a literary cornucopia. The tally includes some 100 books. His first two volumes, published in 1900 when he was in his mid-twenties, were collections of poems (of Greybeards at Play, the first, W. H. Auden said, that it contained “some of the best pure nonsense verse in English”). There followed many collections of columns and essays (he wrote some 4,000), biographical studies (of Browning, the Victorian painter G. F. Watts, Aquinas, and St. Francis Assisi, among others), hundreds of short stories (including the Father Brown series), more collections of poems, several plays, a clutch of famous phantasmagorical novels (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday), and several classic—if also idiosyncratic—works of Christian apologetics. No less an authority than Etienne Gilson called Orthodoxy (1908) “the best piece of apologetic the century produced.” “I did try to found a heresy of my own,” Chesterton cheerfully acknowledges; “and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” If you can read only one of Chesterton’s nonfictional works, make it Orthodoxy: it is as eloquent as it is insightful. (Although posterity regards Chesterton as Catholic through and through, he was raised Anglican and wasn’t received into the Church until 1922: Orthodoxy is a Catholic work by a practicing Protestant.)
All in all it was a bravura performance. By 1900, Chesterton had made a name for himself in literary London, and by 1904, when he published The Napoleon of Notting Hill, he was well on his way to international celebrity. His influence was enormous. Invitations to write and speak poured in. C. S. Lewis said his reading of The Everlasting Man helped spark his conversion. Dorothy L. Sayers similarly credited Chesterton with her return to the Church.
Chesterton’s success would have been hard to predict. He was the opposite of precocious. He didn’t learn to read until his ninth year (but after that he was unstoppable). His performance at lower school was lackluster. One schoolmaster exclaimed in exasperation that “if we could open your head we should not find any brain but only a lump of white fat.” Chesterton began to blossom at St. Paul’s (whose notable alumni include Milton, Pepys, and Judge Jeffries), where he met and befriended E. C. Bentley, the creator of the Clerihew, a form Chesterton would have been proud to invent. After St. Paul’s, Chesterton first contemplated a career in art. For a couple of years, he dabbled in classes at the Slade while also attending lectures in English, French, and Latin at University College, London. He took no degree. And art turned out to be an entrée, an avocation, not an end. He went on to entertain friends with his drawings. But his main revelation concerned criticism. Years later, Chesterton recalled that, “having failed to learn how to draw or paint, I tossed off easily enough some criticisms of the weaker points of Rubens or the misdirected talents of Tintoretto. I had discovered the easiest of all professions; which I have pursued ever since.”
Journalist,” the music critic Ernest Newman once said, “is a term of contempt applied by writers who are not much read to writers who are.” Chesterton would have liked that mot. He saw himself as a journalist—a “Jolly Journalist,” in his wife’s partially affectionate term—and he gloried in the semi-bohemian life of a Fleet Street pro. A column wasn’t properly executed unless the printer’s boy was kept waiting at the door for copy. (After 1909, when Chesterton moved to Buckinghamshire, the mad dash was to get copy to the London-bound train.) His earliest professional outlets were liberal-radical venues like The Speaker and the Daily News, but soon he was appearing in dozens of papers. Deadlines were like gauntlets. Chesterton regarded them as Winston Churchill regarded public forms of transportation: they should be given a sporting chance of getting away. In later life, after he had acquired a secretary, he would sometimes dictate one article while simultaneously writing another in his own hand. Especially in the incandescent decade of 1900–1910, he wrote everywhere and anywhere—and about anything: “The Advantages of Having One Leg,” “A Piece of Chalk,” “What I Found in My Pocket,” “On Gargoyles,” “Cheese.” These 1,000-word bijoux he would scribble in cabs, public houses, upon shirt cuffs, the backs of play bills.
It was never merely chalk or cheese, though. In Chesterton’s hands, even the most pedestrian subject grew wings. “There is,” Chesterton assured readers at the beginning of an essay on Kipling, “no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject.” In “The Unthinkable Theory of Professor Green,” an astronomer delivers a lecture on his exciting discovery of a new planet. Only gradually do we realize that this marvelous new world with all its wonders is what we’ve already seen but somehow never known: Earth. What Chesterton called the “mere excitement of existence” countermanded boredom. “It is dull as ditch-water,” you say. But think about it: “Is ditch-water dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.”
The uncommonness of the commonplace, and the proximity of what we lightly call nonsense to faith, was a prominent theme in The Defendant (1901), Chesterton’s first collection of prose. “The simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense,” Chesterton wrote.
Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook. The well-meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that “faith is nonsense,” does not know how truly he speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith.
The poverty of looking at things solely from the “logical side of things” was a central plank of the Chestertonian gospel. “The madman,” he observed in Orthodoxy, “is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point: that Pascalian dictum might be engraved on the Chesterton escutcheon.
But engraved with a light touch. Humor was a familiar weapon in Chesterton’s armory, and he was adept at deploying it to make serious points. The professors of “critical thinking” would be aghast, but at the beginning of his Autobiography (finished but weeks before his death, at sixty-two, in June 1936) Chesterton makes a startling confession: “Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874.” Born, he adds, to “respectable but honest parents” (savor that “but”), of that “old-fashioned” middle class for which “a business man was still permitted to mind his own business.” That’s all said with a smile, but it makes a deep point about the place of tradition in the economy of belief.
Chesterton gloried in eccentricity. When he married Frances Blogg in June 1901, they betook themselves to the Norfolk Broads for their honeymoon. Along the way, Chesterton stopped with his bride to have a glass of milk at a dairy he used to frequent with his mother. “It seemed to me,” Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography, “a fitting ceremonial to unite the two great relations of a man’s life.” He then paused in another shop to procure a revolver and cartridges.
Some have seen these as singular wedding presents for a bridegroom to give to himself; and if the bride had known less of him, I suppose she might have fancied that he was a suicide or a murderer, or, worst of all, a teetotaller. They seemed to me the most natural things in the world. I did not buy the pistol to murder myself or my wife; I never was really modern. I bought it because it was the great adventure of my youth, with the general notion of protecting my wife from the pirates doubtless infesting the Norfolk Broads . . . where, after all, there are still a suspiciously large number of families with Danish names.
This light-hearted reflection (Vikings!) has not satisfied the amateur psychoanalysts bent on inspecting the Chestertons’ marital relations. Ada Chesterton, his sister-in-law, added the typical embellishments in her waspish 1941 book on the couple. “He was fathoms deep in love . . . and then the whole world went crash. The woman he worshipped shrank from his touch and screamed when he embraced her. . . . Frances couldn’t resign herself to the physical realities of marriage. . . . Gilbert in a vital hour condemned to a pseudo-monastic life in which he lived with a woman but never enjoyed one.” All very dramatic but, though eagerly repeated by some of Chesterton’s biographers, not very credible. That first night may have been awkward for the shy and virginal couple—Frances was sickly, especially in later years—but she and Gilbert passionately wanted children. She even underwent an operation to cure her sterility—a pointless exercise absent the sexual prerequisites.
Ada Chesterton envied and disliked her sister-in-law, but the real significance of the episode en route to the Norfolk Broads is to underscore Chesterton’s singularity. He was a gift to caricaturists. The calculated persona. The bonhomous advocacy of beer and beef. The avoirdupois. The boisterous polemic and studied absent-mindedness. “Am at Market Harborough,” Chesterton once telegraphed his wife. “Where ought I to be?” Came the answer: “Home.” It was a splendid confection. His friend Max Beerbohm “did” Chesterton several times, singly and with friends. One image from 1909 depicts the bean-thin, ascetic George Bernard Shaw, head back, hands behind him, standing ramrod straight in front of the disheveled beach-ball, hands stuffed in his pockets, that was Chesterton. (“To look at you,” Chesterton once said to his favorite debating foil, “anyone would think a famine had struck England.” “To look at you,” Shaw shot back, “anyone would think you had caused it.”) “Leaders of Thought,” Max called the caricature, the humor inhering partly in the incongruity of the image, partly in the truth of the title.
Chesterton was eighteen years Shaw’s junior. But he early on impressed the dramatist and vegetarian campaigner for eugenics, teetotalism, and the New Man. Chesterton first came to Shaw’s attention with an article on Ivanhoe in the Daily News. Probably, they first encountered each other in the flesh at a Fabian meeting. “From the start,” observed Dudley Barker in his 1973 biography of Chesterton, “they were jovially opposed to each other in debate, and warmly attached in friendship. Each attacked the other in public and valued him in private. They influenced each other’s opinions not at all; unless it be influence to strengthen by opposition.” When Shaw declared that Shakespeare was a hack who turned out pot-boilers to please the multitude and make money, Chesterton replied with “The Great Shawkspear Mystery,” “Sorry, I’m Shaw,” and other satirical ripostes. His George Bernard Shaw (1909) was, Shaw said, “the best work of literary art I have yet provoked.” The rhetorical salvos traveled in both directions. Particularly memorable was Shaw’s creation of that improbable beast, the Chesterbelloc, who was Chesterton’s friend and intermittent mentor Hilaire Belloc stridently leading in front, a flailing Chesterton struggling to keep in step behind.
Debate was a crucial tonic for Chesterton. He started young, arguing endlessly with Cecil, his younger, politically dyspeptic brother. According to family lore, the longest uninterrupted argument, when Gilbert was nineteen and Cecil fourteen, took place during a seaside holiday. It commenced after breakfast at 8:15 a.m., traversed luncheon, tea, and dinner, and concluded, their father noted, sometime after 2:00 a.m., eighteen hours and thirteen minutes by the clock.
Although his adolescence was tinctured with loneliness and angst—it was then, he remarked, that he acquired certitude about “the objective solidity of Sin”—Chesterton enjoyed a conspicuously happy childhood. “I regret I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze,” Chesterton wrote in his posthumously published Autobiography, “no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament . . . and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern by cursing everybody who made me what I am.”
Among his fondest memories were the performances of fairy tales he and his father, a moderately prosperous estate agent, put on in a toy theater at their Kensington home. It was a habit he carried with him to adulthood. Indeed, the moral universe to which fairy tales introduced him became an abiding metaphysical staple. “My first and last philosophy,” he wrote in Orthodoxy, “I learnt in the nursery. . . . The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. . . . They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic.” As Dudley Barker observed, Chesterton “never lost the sense that his life as a child was his real life.” The seat of “that ancient instinct of astonishment,” childhood is not something one should endeavor to outgrow; it is something one should aspire to grow into. “I believe,” Chesterton wrote, “in prolonging childhood. . . . I had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness.” “Romance” was a master word for Chesterton (“wonder” was another). His great achievement as a writer was to render those qualities palpably communicable.
Chesterton is deliciously quotable. No one who wrote as much and as quickly as he escapes without longueurs and repetitions. His facility can at times seem merely facile, his penchant for paradox rote. (William James, though an admirer, spoke of his “mannerism of paradox.”) After a mysterious, near-fatal illness in 1914–15 (Chesterton languished in a semi-coma for months), his energies contracted more than his appetite for work. Chesterton’s brother Cecil died in an army hospital in 1918. Out of fraternal piety, Chesterton took over his paper, New Witness (started a few years before by Belloc), eventually renaming it G.K.’s Weekly. It was an invitation to literary dissipation. But at his not infrequent best Chesterton was wise as well as memorable. “When everything about a people,” he wrote in Heretics (1905), “is for the time being growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims.” Worth pondering, that. And speaking of “aims,” how’s this, on the “new humility”: “The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.” Prescient, no? Although the Father Brown mysteries are widely read (still helped, I suspect, by Alec Guinness’s portrayal in the 1954 film by Robert Hamer), for many readers today Chesterton exists primarily as a source of such aperçus:
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
One of my favorite Chesterton apothegms is the observation that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” I had thought he was referring to the practice of Christianity: he might have been, but in fact Chesterton is describing (in What’s Wrong with the World) what he calls “the prime truth of woman, the universal mother.” (Chesterton, I might remark in passing, would not have approved of Title IX “gender equity” legislation: “there is no boy’s game, however brutal, which these mild lunatics have not promoted among girls.”)
Some of Chesterton’s maxims are mere elegant variations à la Oscar Wilde: “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” But some encapsulate an important critical judgment or sociological observation. On Tennyson, for example: “He could not think up to the height of his own towering style.” On America: “a nation with the soul of a church.” On “the false theory of progress,” according to which “we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test.” (How Chesterton would have savored the phrase “affirmative action.”) It is, I suppose, a measure of Chesterton’s popular authority that he, like George Orwell, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill, is also a repository of clever sayings that he never said. “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” I always admired that Chestertonian formulation, only it turns out not to be by Chesterton (though it might have been).
Chesterton’s exuberance didn’t countenance scholarly apparatus or exactitude. He was a master of many genres, but I am not sure he ever indited a footnote. Not that he lacked precision. His command of the semicolon (look out for it) was subtle and masterly. But he didn’t go in for the academic side of his calling. His research, though exhaustive, took place in the library of the heart, not the other kind. He misquoted and misattributed. His overall effect, as the critic John Gross observed, “is to animate rather than inform.” Some of his recent admirers have endeavored to fill the gap. A serious “Collected Works” by Ignatius Press got going in 1986 and, as of this writing, is nearing its fortieth stout volume. Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, William Oddie’s recent study of Chesterton’s development, and G. K. Chesterton, the new brick-like 750-page biography by Ian Ker, the authoritative biographer of Cardinal Newman, are models of academic diligence.1 These stately tomes are bulletins in what seems to be a renaissance of interest in (to adopt Oddie’s shorthand) GKC. Both make large claims for their subject. Cardinal Newman was canonized last year; why not Chesterton next? Ker nominates Chesterton as “the successor of the great Victorian ‘sages,’ and particularly Newman,” and suggests that we place him in the pantheon of English literary critics alongside Dr. Johnson, Matthew Arnold, and Ruskin.
I can envision Chesterton in a niche next to Dr. Johnson and Arnold; seeing him next to Newman is more difficult. Worldliness is not necessarily at odds with holiness; I wonder, though, about ruddiness. (Quoth Chesterton: “And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine/ ‘I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.’ ”) Chesterton was assuredly devout. But he fought as many social and political battles as he did literary or religious ones. And in that arena he did not always distinguish himself. One tort that has shadowed him for decades is the charge of anti-Semitism. Auden, in the preface to his anthology of Chesterton’s nonfictional prose, admits that, though he always enjoyed Chesterton’s poetry and fiction, he had avoided his nonfictional prose because of his reputation as an anti-Semite. Ker, in his extensive index, has a longish entry devoted to “Chesterton, anti-Semitism of, alleged.” The adjective is meant to be extenuating. Kerr’s conclusion is that “he was anti-Jewish just as he was anti-Prussian, but only in the sense that he associated Jews with capitalism and international finance, just as he associated Prussians with barbarism and military aggression.” Ker seems to regard this as an exoneration. I think Auden is right that Chesterton cannot be “completely exonerated.” “I said,” Chesterton wrote in one typical passage,
that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and anther particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. . . . Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of any other nation on the planet. It is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual. . . . I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.
The problem, as Auden notes, is the “quiet shift from the term nation to the term race.” Any nation, any religion or culture, is open to criticism. But a person’s ethnic heritage is beyond his power to alter; it is therefore not subject to the scrutinies of moral judgment. Chesterton’s anti-Semitism shouldn’t be overstated. It existed, and was abetted by his brother and by Hilaire Belloc, who seemed to regard government corruption as a largely Jewish concession. But, as John Gross notes in his splendid pages on Chesterton in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, anti-Semitism did not obscure Chesterton’s “fundamental decency.” “He hated oppression; he belonged to the world before totalitarianism.” And it is also worth noting that he was one of the very first in England to attack Hitler and Hitlerism.
In the scheme of things, Chesterton’s anti-Semitism seems to me less obtuse than the set of attitudes of which it was a part: I mean his “medievalism,” his allergy to modernity. Chesterton had huge strengths as a writer and moralist. He also had significant blindspots. Chesterton may have been right that “The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas.” But what are we to make of his claim that “Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout”? According to Chesterton, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” An energizing thought. But what are we to make of his insistence that property should be redistributed “almost as sternly and sweepingly as did the French Revolution . . . so as to produce what is called Peasant Proprietorship”? That way lies not more capitalists but more poverty and institutionalized terror. Who was it who observed that the only real alternative to the cash nexus (which Marx abhorred) was the terror nexus (which Marx helped pave the way for)? Under Belloc’s influence, Chesterton and his brother espoused “Distributism,” supposedly a “middle way” between Socialism and Capitalism. But like most such middle ways, it puts one in mind of Hazlitt’s observation about the lamentable critic who seeks truth “in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong.”
One of the delights of reading Chesterton is his seemingly inexhaustible fund of good humor. I don’t just mean the laughs, but rather the abiding sense that “the aim of life is appreciation.” It is startling, then, to wander among some of his social and political pronouncements. The rich of every nation, he said with unparalleled brutality, are “the scum of the earth.” John Gross was right in observing that much of the “positive side” of Chesterton’s politics—“Distributism, peasant small holdings, Merrie Englandism—led him into a hopeless cul-de-sac.”
Chesterton did not like, I am not sure he really understood, wealth and the mechanisms responsible for its creation. He declared that “our industrial civilization” is “rooted in injustice,” but compared to what other civilization? Medieval Europe? That is a fantasy. Chesterton was sincerely on the side of the “common man.” But he was blind to the extent to which money, as Friedrich Hayek put it, is “one of the great instruments of freedom ever invented,” opening “an astounding range of choice to the poor man—a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy.”
The truth is that the Chestertonian optics worked best peering into the interstices of the quotidian. Their lenses were equipped for the grandeur of the humble, the small, the seemingly (but only seemingly) insignificant. They faltered when presented with the patently grand. It is edifying to read Chesterton on the desirability of supplying heraldry to the common man: “A grocer should have a coat-of-arms worthy of his strange merchandise gathered from distant and fantastic lands; a postman should have a coat-of-arms capable of expressing the strange honour and responsibility of the man who carries men’s souls in a bag.” Neatly put. But when presented with the British Empire upon which the sun never sets, Chesterton sniffs that he is not much interested in an empire without sunsets. Cleverly put, but how much magnificence is thereby discarded!
The other side of Chesterton’s embrace of eccentricity was a horror of homogeneity. Rhetorically, it informed his knack of discovering neglected significances in everyday language, and the adumbration of a “promise” in “compromise,” for examples. “He focuses on a cliché or a battered simile,” John Gross wrote, “until it begins to recover its original brightness. He brings out the wealth of implication in everyday speech, and also its inadequacy: we habitually say more than we realize, but less than we intend.” The science writer Martin Gardner, a prominent admirer of Chesterton’s work, got to the existential heart of the matter. “No modern writer,” Gardner noted, “lived with a more pervasive sense of ontological wonder, of surprise to find himself alive, than Gilbert Chesterton.” Chesterton was not wrong to see modern, capitalist society as a solvent of the heterogeneity he championed. It’s just that his imagination rebelled at the spectacle. For once, the inconvenience was an inconvenience, not an adventure.
1 Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1974–1908, by William Oddie; Oxford University Press, 401 pages, $55.
G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, by Ian Ker; Oxford University Press, 747 pages, $65.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 September 2011, on page 26
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