Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Wonder of Chesterton

This is the text of talk I  gave earlier this evening to the Catholic literary society of St. Kevin's parish, Harrington Street, Dublin.

Good evening, everybody. I want to thank you all for having me here and especially to Richard for inviting me.

I’m here to talk about G.K. Chesterton. Everybody I know gets sick of me quoting G.K. Chesterton and bringing up G.K. Chesterton all the time, so it’s nice to have a platform like this, where I’m allowed to talk about Chesterton as much as I want. I fell in love with the writings and philosophy of G.K. Chesterton about six or seven years ago. In 2010, I started the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland with my friend Angelo Bottone. I write a weekly column on Chesterton for the Open Door magazine. I don’t wear G.K. Chesterton pyjamas, but only because I haven’t been able to find any. I do think the world would be a better place if everybody read half-a-dozen Chesterton books, which I would be happy to select for them, and I’m going to suggest them today. I think G.K. Chesterton was right about everything that matters, and especially right about the things that the world is most wrong about. I think he expressed that rightness in a better, funnier, more moving way than any author I can think of.


Who was G.K. Chesterton? Rather than beginning at the beginning, I think I will begin at the end, as in the movie Citizen Kane. Let’s start with a death-bed scene.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton died on the 14th of June 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, England, aged sixty-two. There is uncertainty over his last words. By some accounts, he emerged from unconsciousness to make this last declaration: “The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side.”

Another version of events has it that his last words were some pleasantries to his wife Frances and his beloved secretary, Dorothy Collins, again during a momentary emergence from unconsciousness. He said, “Hello, my dear” to his wife and “Hello, my darling” to Dorothy.

I don’t think I can choose which story I prefer. I think they belong together. The first story, the one with the remark about light and darkness, seems appropriate because Chesterton’s view of life was truly cosmic. He saw everything in the widest perspective.

But the problem is that, as soon as I use those words, “the widest perspective”, I feel a sense of foreboding. We tend to assume that seeing something in perspective means seeing it smaller, or as less important. We think of those sequences on television where the camera zooms out from a house to a field to a neighbourhood, and so on, until we are in the vastness of space and everything we know has become infinitesimal. But that is not Chesterton’s sort of perspective-putting at all. I would say it was the very opposite, if that made sense.

When I say Chesterton shows us things against the widest perspective, what do I mean? The only way I can explain is by giving examples.

I will go from a very simple example to a very grandiose one. For the simple example, let me quote Chesterton’s famous poem, The Babe Unborn:


If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

The perspective-putting here is, quite obviously, the opposite to making something seem small or unimportant. In the poem, we see our lives from the perspective of a child in the womb, who looks forward to everything we take for granted as though it is something from a fairy tale. Of course, the only imaginary thing about this poem is the idea that the child in the womb really could know anything about the world they are entering into. The idea that our world is magical and fairy-tale-like is simply the reality. We are already seeing things from a particular perspective, from the wrong perspective—from the perspective of people who have somehow become blasé about the world. Chesterton puts things in perspective so that we can see them correctly.

But Chesterton’s putting in perspective isn’t only of this primordial kind. He is equally capable of putting a particular historical or social or political situation in perspective. This, for instance, is what he has to say about Jesus Christ’s claim to divinity:

There is a sort of notion in the air everywhere that all the religions are equal because all the religious founders were rivals, that they are all fighting for the same starry crown. It is quite false. The claim to that crown, or anything like that crown, is really so rare as to be unique. Mahomet did not make it any philosophy. It is exactly the other way. Normally speaking, the greater a man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim. Outside the unique case more than Micah or Malachi. Confucius did not make it any more that Plato or Marcus Aurelius. Buddha never said he was Brahma. Zoroaster no more claimed to be Ormuz than to be Ahriman. The truth is that, in the common run of cases, it is just as we should expect it to be, in common sense and certainly in Christian we are considering, the only kind of man who ever does make that kind of claim is a very small man; a secretive or self-centered monomaniac. Nobody can imagine Aristotle claiming to be the father of gods and men, come down from the sky; though we might imagine some insane Roman Emperor like Caligula claiming it for him, or more probably for himself. Nobody can imagine Shakespeare talking as if he were literally divine; though we might imagine some crazy American crank finding it as a cryptogram in Shakespeare's works, or preferably in his own works. It is possible to find here and there human beings who make this supremely superhuman claim. It is possible to find them in lunatic asylums; in padded cells; possibly in strait waistcoats.

And, finally, to show that Chesterton’s perspective-putting doesn’t only apply to mystical subjects, here is a passage from What’s Wrong with the World, his work of sociology, portraying the misfortunes of the ordinary Englishman through the centuries, from the closure of the monasteries that so often sheltered him, to the enclosure of the village commons where he could gather firewood and graze his animals, to the forced flight into the industrial towns, and finally to the socialist revolution that seemed imminent in Chesterton’s time, and which threatened to rob him of his few personal possessions and freedoms. (I will note here in passing that Chesterton was opposed to unemployment insurance and compulsory education, which he considered State interference with the property and freedoms of the poor.)

The modern Englishman, however, is like a man who should be perpetually kept out, for one reason after another, from the house in which he had meant his married life to begin. This man (Jones let us call him) has always desired the divinely ordinary things; he has married for love, he has chosen or built a small house that fits like a coat; he is ready to be a great grandfather and a local god. And just as he is moving in, something goes wrong. Some tyranny, personal or political, suddenly debars him from the home; and he has to take his meals in the front garden. A passing philosopher (who is also, by a mere coincidence, the man who turned him out) pauses, and leaning elegantly on the railings, explains to him that he is now living that bold life upon the bounty of nature which will be the life of the sublime future. He finds life in the front garden more bold than bountiful, and has to move into mean lodgings in the next spring. The philosopher (who turned him out), happening to call at these lodgings, with the probable intention of raising the rent, stops to explain to him that he is now in the real life of mercantile endeavor; the economic struggle between him and the landlady is the only thing out of which, in the sublime future, the wealth of nations can come. He is defeated in the economic struggle, and goes to the workhouse. The philosopher who turned him out (happening at that very moment to be inspecting the workhouse) assures him that he is now at last in that golden republic which is the goal of mankind; he is in an equal, scientific, Socialistic commonwealth, owned by the State and ruled by public officers; in fact, the commonwealth of the sublime future.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the irrational Jones still dreams at night of this old idea of having an ordinary home. He asked for so little, and he has been offered so much. He has been offered bribes of worlds and systems; he has been offered Eden and Utopia and the New Jerusalem, and he only wanted a house; and that has been refused him.

Such an apologue is literally no exaggeration of the facts of English history. The rich did literally turn the poor out of the old guest house on to the road, briefly telling them that it was the road of progress. They did literally force them into factories and the modern wage-slavery, assuring them all the time that this was the only way to wealth and civilization. Just as they had dragged the rustic from the convent food and ale by saying that the streets of heaven were paved with gold, so now they dragged him from the village food and ale by telling him that the streets of London were paved with gold. As he entered the gloomy porch of Puritanism, so he entered the gloomy porch of Industrialism, being told that each of them was the gate of the future. Hitherto he has only gone from prison to prison, nay, into darkening prisons, for Calvinism opened one small window upon heaven. And now he is asked, in the same educated and authoritative tones, to enter another dark porch, at which he has to surrender, into unseen hands, his children, his small possessions and all the habits of his fathers.

So my three examples, I hope, show that Chesterton was a broad thinker, a writer who was always seeking to show his reader the big picture, whether that picture was social or religious or—if we take the example of the baby in the womb—what we might call existential. For Chesterton’s last words to be “It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side”, seems to fit in with this flair for dramatization.

But his other potential last words—“Hello, my darling”, and “Hello, my dear”—also seem supremely appropriate. Partly because Chesterton was renowned—some would say notorious—for his use of paradox, and making your last goodbye a hello is as paradoxical as anyone could wish. But mostly because, for all his concentration upon the big picture, Chesterton was a life-long champion of the little things—things like babies, and suburbs, and parlour games, and fireplaces, and small farms, and small shops, and the family, and all the little details of our everyday lives. His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill--- which, incidentally, was said to be Michael Collins’s favourite book—is set in a future London where all the individual suburbs have become sovereign realms, with their own flags and armies and livery, an idea that obviously delighted him. In real life, he was one of the very few Englishmen who supported in the South African Boers against his own country in the Boer War, since he saw it as the struggle of a small nation against a vast Empire. The political and social theory he promoted, Distributism, was committed to the defence of small shops and small farms against big business on one hand and big government on the other. And always, always, he defended and promoted the institution of the family, which he saw as the fundamental unit of society. He defended the family, not only from threats against it, but also from its critics who saw it as a prison.

It’s this kind of double exposure—this ability to see everything in the perspective of history, and even more in the perspective of eternity, but at the same time to see, with a brilliant intensity, the ordinary things that we are always in danger of overlooking—that makes Chesterton unique and immortal. Chesterton famously said that he didn’t believe in such a thing as a different subject. The great thing about him is not simply that he wrote on such a range of subjects and in such a range of genres—fiction, poetry, journalism, Christian apologetics, biography, and many more. The great thing about Chesterton was that his ideas, in every genre and on every subject, formed a unity. Whether he was writing about Christmas games or Anglo-Saxon England or the House of Commons or nudism or the detective story, his message remains consistent, and he never seems to run of things to say. I think this is the test of a true philosophy of life—that it applies to everything, and throws light on everything. I doubt Friedrich Nietzsche would have anything to say about the virtues of keeping a pig as a pet, or that Noam Chomsky could write an entertaining essay about the virtues of a hearth-fire as opposed to central heating. On the other hand, I doubt a comic essayist like David Sedaris would have anything very deep to say about comparative religion or European history. And even when we come to a similarly versatile writer, like George Orwell, we simply don’t see the same unity of thought that we find in Chesterton. The Orwell who wrote 1984 does not seem like the Orwell who wrote the famous essay on tea-making, a Nice Cup of Tea. The reader feels like that the first is a serious commentary on life, while the latter is a piece of escapism, or a mere amusement. One rarely feels that Chesterton is writing to fill space, or merely to entertain or to supply light relief, even when he is writing about pigs or detective stories. There is a serious purpose behind all his writing.

And ultimately, of course, Chesterton’s message is the Christian message. To say this is not to imply that he shoe-horned religious arguments or Christian preaching into everything he wrote. He is not like the Jesus freaks on the TV comedy The Fast Show, who embarrass everybody around them by turning every conversation to Christianity with the words: “That’s a bit like Jesus, isn’t it?” Often there is no explicit reference to Christianity in Chesterton’s non-religious writings. But one aspect or other of the Christian mystery is nearly always informing his argument—whether it is the freedom of the will, or the goodness of the created world, or the supreme evil of pride, or the supreme joy of humility, or the necessity of dogmas for coherent thought and coherent argument, or the corrupting nature of wealth. For Chesterton, all roads led to Rome, even if his own road only took him there relatively late in life.

This is what he himself had to say, rather famously, about the universality of the Christian message: “You cannot evade the issue of God, whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him. Now if Christianity be… a fragment of metaphysical nonsense invented by a few people, then, of course, defending it will simply mean talking that metaphysical nonsense over and over. But if Christianity should happen to be true, then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.”

Well, now that I have hopefully made some sort of case for Chesterton’s importance, let us look a little more closely at Chesterton himself.

Chesterton was a Londoner by birth, and a proud Cockney all his life. He was born in the Victorian era—in 1874—and he cried, as an adult, when he heard the news of Queen Victoria’s death, though he was not especially keen on the institution of monarchy. His parents were Unitarians—believers in a non-Trinitarian, non-dogmatic Christianity—and Chesterton claims that they were unusual, in the middle class environment in which he grew up, for having a religion at all. The Victorian era, Chesterton often wrote, was an era of widespread agnosticism—an era where a passionate belief in the British Empire often substituted for a lack of belief in anything else. But, even in his childhood and youth, there were premonitions of Chesterton’s eventual Catholicism—he had something of a devotion to the Virgin Mary, and Saint Francis was one of his heroes. Aside from that, however, there was nothing notably pious or Christian about his youth. His parents were Liberals, and Chesterton’s school compositions show that he had picked up the Liberal faith in progress. Indeed, he continued to describe himself as a liberal all his life, though not the kind of liberal who believed in the inevitability of progress, or indeed the inevitablity of anything. Chesterton hated the very concept of inevitability, which he saw as a pagan and anti-Christian concept.

He had a sister, who died very young, and a brother called Cecil, who was also a journalist and who died at the very end of World War One. The relationship between Gilbet and Cecil was very close. There are stories of how they would debate for literally hours, uninterrupted, as children. This must have played a huge part in the development of Chesterton’s talents as a debater, and indeed as a thinker. He relished debate, and he had a kind of passion for logic and clear ideas. At the time he was writing, there was actually a fairly common prejudice against logic in England, especially in the Tory tradition. Logic was seen as airy-fairy, continental, abstract, unrealistic, un-English—not fitting a country that was proud of its unwritten constitution, of its national church that was neither Protestant nor Catholic, and its social system that was both aristocratic and democratic. As a matter of fact, I think Chesterton was often unfair towards this English love of compromise and of mucking along, which certainly has its virtues, and unfair also towards its most famous spokesman, Edmund Burke. But it is true that there are times when a lack of clear thought can be disastrous, and that one of those times was the English Reformation, an event Chesterton never ceased to deplore, as much for its social effects as for its religious legacy. The English Reformation led to a national church with a theology that nobody has ever been able to understand, or even to define, and whose inner incoherence is only really reaching its logical conclusion in our own time.

I want to give one example of Chesterton’s flair for logic, one which has the added virtue of showing how Chesterton could combine the most rigorous reasoning with the most exuberant playfulness. Here is Chesterton’s critique of the idea of progress, where the very standard of progress itself never stays still, and what is considered progressive one year s considered reactionary ten or twenty years later:

Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age. We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.

Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked harm, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner
.

But let us get back to our biography. Chesterton attended the Slade School of Art, but he never finished his degree. He worked for a while in a publisher’s office, and eventually decided to pursue a career as a writer and journalist. Around the same time, he met his future wife, a lady with the unfortunate name of Frances Blogg. He struggled to establish himself for a while, but very soon he was seen as a rising star of journalism and the world of letters. He also went from being a thin youth who enjoyed walking to a heavily overweight man who avoided exercise as much as possible. There has been much speculation on the reason for this—was it just the result of a hard-drinking, sedentary lifestyle, or was there some medical reason for it? Some people who knew Chesterton report that he was actually a light eater. He often made fun of his own weight—he liked to tell the story of how he gave up his seat on an omnibus to three ladies—but there are a few anecdotes, here and there, that seem to indicate he was secretly rather sensitive on the subject. Now that the cause of his sainthood has been opened, the priest gathering preliminary evidence has admitted that the question of whether Chesterton was intemperate will be addressed.

At the beginning of his career, Chesterton allied himself with the Christian Socialist movement, and he always remained rather friendly towards socialism, even though he ceased to be a socialist himself. At this point, it wasn’t quite clear whether Chesterton was even a Christian or not, though he often drew on Christian ideas. One of his opponents in debate grew impatient with this, famously declaring: “"I will begin to worry about my philosophy when Mr. Chesterton has given us his." Chesterton’s response to this challenge was the book Orthodoxy, published when he was thirty-four. In this book, which is often considered his masterpiece, and which is certainly the most compact expression of all his major ideas, he definitely declared himself a Christian—and not only a Christian, but a Christian in the most orthodox sense. It would be fourteen more years before he became a Catholic, but it’s hard to find anything in his pre-Catholic Christian apologetics that is contrary to the Catholic faith. It has to be remembered that the Church of England at this time could reasonably have been seen as one branch of the historic Catholic church, as it still claims to be. Part of the reason Chesterton eventually left it was the Lambeth Conference of 1930, where it became the first Christian church to accept artificial contraception. Chesterton’s verdict on birth control was “Less birth and no control”. The tragedy of his own marriage was that it was not blessed with children.

If you haven’t read Chesterton yet, I hope you will read more than one of his books. But if you do read only one Chesterton book, you should make it Orthodoxy. The least of its distinctions is that it played a very large part in convincing me, personally, that Christianity was true. I can’t dwell on it, because there’s just too much to say, but I can’t help quoting one extended passage from it here. This is the great passage where Chesterton explains why the Church had to be so watchful against heresy, even against heresies that seem like obscure points of doctrine:

The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

I could easily quote fifty other passages as powerful, or almost as powerful; but I think we had better leave Orthodoxy there, and move on.

By the time of Orthodoxy, Chesterton is a public figure, and a colourful figure at that. He was something of a gift to caricaturists. Apart from his weight, he was recognisable for the cloak and broad-brimmed that he wore. He carried a swordstick about with him, which is a walking cane containing a concealed blade. He liked swords, partly from his boyish love of adventure stories, but partly because swords have a point at the end—as he said himself, he liked things that came to a point. And he was a keen smoker of cigars. Friends noticed that he would make the sign of the cross with a match before lighting them.

Even more remarkable than his apparel was his manner. Most of us are absent-minded to some degree but Chesterton took absent-mindedness to a level that it’s hard to believe. In fact, some people, who didn’t know him very well, did think that he was posing or performing, when they witnessed some of these bouts of absent-mindedness. He was known to stop in the middle of a busy road when he was struck by an idea, and to stand there lost in thought while the traffic parted around him. Once he came down to dinner with two ties around his neck. When this was pointed out to him, he said it proved that he paid too much attention to dress rather than too little. When he was editing a newspaper, he sometimes had to buy a copy of it from the nearest newsstand to remind himself of the address of his own office. But the most famous story of his absent-mindedness is the telegram he once sent to his wife: “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” To which his wife replied, “Home.”

The last of his colourful traits that I can’t avoid describing is his love of debate, which I’ve mentioned before. Somebody once saw him debating with a female friend after a dinner party; when she saw them again a while later, the woman had fallen asleep in an armchair, while Chesterton continued the debate, not having even noticed. He once went canvassing votes for the Liberal party, back in the days before he had lost faith in all political parties. Himself and a comrade decided to canvas one particular street together; by the time his friend had knocked on all the houses down one end of the street, and back up the other, Chesterton was still debating with the first householder. Aside from showing his love of debate, this story shows his democratic attitude; he was quite as willing to take up the cudgels with an obscure voter as he was to debate with public figures such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and a host of others. But the most important thing to note about Chesterton’s love of debate was the good humour with which he debated. He said that the worst thing about a quarrel is that it spoils an argument. Many of his opponents in public controversy were also his friends; most notably George Bernard Shaw. In our era of culture wars and the blogosphere, this is an example well worth emulating.

I’ve said that Chesterton was a master of many literary forms. I want to take a quick look at some of them.

I’ll say something about Chesterton’s poetry first, and also most briefly, since the world is unfortunately rather impatient of poetry. The first thing to say about Chesterton’s poetry might be that only a madman would read his Collected Poems in its entirety. But you could say the same thing about virtually every other poet, even the greatest poets. Still, it’s particularly true of Chesterton, since he didn’t have the kind of obsessiveness required of a great poet. W.B. Yeats rarely wrote more than six or seven lines of poetry a day, and compared the process to breaking stones. Chesterton, on the other hand, was a careless and rapid writer.

But if Chesterton had wanted to be a poet first and foremost, I think he could have been one of the greatest. I would argue that some of his poems are in the first rank of English poetry. Most famous, of course, is Lepanto, the ballad he wrote about a naval battle between Ottoman Empire and the Holy League in 1571. This is poetry which aims to stir the blood, to bring about a very simple reaction, and it does it very well. I’ll only quote a few lines:

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.

I submit that a man who can write a line like, “Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard” is a poetic genius. Notice the very un-subtle use of alliteration. Chesterton was an unabashed traditionalist when it came to poetry. He said that free verse was like free love, a contradiction in terms.

I wish I could say more about his poetry, but I fear to linger on it. I’ll just mention his long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, which narrates King Alfred’s battle against the Danes. Chesterton considered this his masterpiece, and parts of it are certainly as good as any poetry ever written in the English language.

As a fiction writer, Chesterton will always be linked first and foremost to his priest-detective character, Father Brown. It’s rather interesting that Father Brown is a Catholic priest although Chesterton was an Anglican when he created him. It’s also interesting, from our point of view, that he was inspired by an Irish priest, Fr. John O’Connor. The Father Brown stories are easily Chesterton’s most popular works, so I should probably be embarrassed to stand here and admit that I haven’t read them all. Actually, I doubt I’ve even read half of them. Unfortunately, I’m oblivious to the appeal of the detective story as a genre. So, when it comes to Father Brown, I’ll just restrict myself to the observation that many critics have made, that what makes them distinctive is that there’s usually some theological or philosophical point at the heart of each mystery, and Father Brown solves the mysteries as much through the knowledge of human nature that he’s gleaned from the confessional as he does from deductive thinking. So Father Brown is a detective with a twist. But then, every literary detective I’ve ever heard of is a detective with a twist. Chesterton was elected the first President of the Detection Club, a society composed of distinguished writers of detective fiction. So I suppose he must be a good detective writer. He wrote other detective stories, too.

As a novelist, Chesterton is remembered for two masterpieces, The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday. These are surely two of the most brilliantly original novels ever written. Of course, writing something original isn’t difficult—anyone can write something bizarre and eccentric for its own sake. But the two novels I’ve mentioned are also very gripping stories with profound themes, which is what makes all the difference. Perhaps the best way to describe them is to say that they are utterly mad books, at least on the surface.

The Napoleon of the Notting Hill is the story of a future London—it’s set in 1984, funnily enough—where, as I described earlier, the suburbs of London have become sovereign states, with all the splendour and ceremony of medieval city states. This state of affairs was brought about as a joke, by the King—I forgot to mention that in this future England the king has absolute power, and is furthermore chosen at random. But the ruler of Notting Hill, a young man named Adam Wayne, takes the whole scheme very seriously and provokes a war with neighbouring suburbs when they try to build a highway through Notting Hill. Although the novel is written in a mostly comic style, the fighting is surprisingly bloody and lethal. The novels has many themes, but perhaps the central theme is Chesterton’s idea that—as he said in Orthodoxy—“a thing must be loved before it is loveable.” Young Adam Bruce is as passionately patriotic about Notting Hill as any famous patriot has been about his nation, and by the end of the novel it has become something like Renaissance Florence. Later in life, Chesterton said:” Unless we can bring back men back to enjoying the daily life which moderns call a dull life, our whole civilisation will be in ruins in about fifteen years.” I’m not so sure he was wrong in that prediction. We do have a society today, but do we have a civilisation?

The Man Who Was Thursday is an even more original and profound book, and I don’t know how to describe it without giving away too much of the story. The basic premise of the plot—that of a poet-turned-police detective who infiltrates a circle of anarchist conspirators, who somehow aim to bring about the end of the world—is the merest starting point. The opening chapters are steeped in the decadent and bohemian atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, an atmosphere that disturbed Chesterton as a young man, and which played a part in the development of his own defiantly life-affirming philosophy. If I tell you that, towards the end of the novel, there is a chase scene in which the pursued party makes us of a fire engine, an elephant and a hot air balloon to flee his pursuers, you might get some idea of how madcap this novel really is. But only some idea. The Man Who Was Thursday has to be read to be believed—and it remains enigmatic even when you’ve come to the end. And, in fact, Chesterton was always uncharacteristically tight-lipped about its exact meaning. The novelist Kingsley Amis called it his favourite novel.

I don’t have time to say anything much about his other three novels. Manalive, the story of a man who travels around the world so he can see his home with fresh eyes, is the best of them. The Ball and the Cross is a very talky story of an atheist and Catholic who keep unsuccessfully trying to fight a duel, and has some good speeches. The Flying Inn is his weakest effort, one that I admit I was never able to finish.

Many of Chesterton’s friends and admirers, and above all his wife, urged him to concentrate more on imaginative writing like poetry and fiction, and not to spend so much of his time and effort on journalism and what we might call propaganda. W.H. Auden, writing after Chesterton’s death, was also of this school. However, I personally think they were all wrong. The world is full of great novels and great poetry; far more of both than any of us will ever read, or want to read. Who wants to dwell in the land of imagination all their reading life, even though the land of imagination does indeed tell us deep truths about the real world? I would claim that there is a shortage of great English essayists, and I would further claim that G.K. Chesterton is the greatest essayist in the English language. And I am applying the term ‘essay’ not only to his short, miscellaneous pieces—which were mostly written as newspaper articles—but to his full-length works of prose, his biographies and travel writing and literary criticism and his works of Christian apologetics. Chesterton himself said: “I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women. But I could be a journalist because I could not help being a controversialist."

This concentration upon matters of public controversy also speaks profoundly of Chesterton’s character. He wasn’t much interested in self-expression, or in satisfying his Muse, or in Art for Art’s sake, or in his place in literary history. Like St. Paul, he was interested in fighting the good fight. Of course, not all of his non-fiction writings were obviously controversial, but even in his literary criticism and travel writing he is arguing for a particular view of the world and of life.

I will say a brief word, a too-brief word, about his biographies. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Charles Dickens are all acknowledged classics, and amongst his very best books. The biography of St. Francis especially is one I urge you to read. He also wrote excellent biographies of Robert Browning, the English radical William Cobbett, and various others. Chesterton’s style of biography is very distinctive; it’s more like an extended essay than a life story. He is more interested in the man, and why the man is important, than in the details of the man’s life. I could give so many examples, but here is one brilliant passage from his biography of Dickens which shows his almost uncanny power of insight:

This silent transformation into a citizen of the street took place during those dark days of boyhood, when Dickens was drudging at the factory. When ever he had done drudging, he had no other resource but drifting, and he drifted over half London. He was a dreamy child, thinking mostly of his own dreary prospects. Yet he saw and remembered much of the streets and squares he passed. Indeed, as a matter of fact, he went the right way to work unconsciously to do so. He did not go in for "observation," a priggish habit; he did not look at Charing Cross to improve his mind or count the lamp-posts in Holborn to practise his arithmetic. But unconsciously he made all these places the scenes of the monstrous drama in his miserable little soul. He walked in darkness under the lamps of Holborn, and was crucified at Charing Cross. So for him ever afterwards these places had the beauty that only belongs to battlefields. For our memory never fixes the facts which we have merely observed. The only way to remember a place for ever is to live in the place for an hour; and the only way to live in the place for an hour is to forget the place for an hour. The undying scenes we can all see if we shut our eyes are not the scenes that we have stared at under the direction of guide-books; the scenes we see are the scenes at which we did not look at all -- the scenes in which we walked when we were thinking about something else -- about a sin, or a love affair, or some childish sorrow. We can see the background now because we did not see it then. So Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind ; he stamped his mind on these places. For him ever afterwards these streets were mortally romantic; they were dipped in the purple dyes of youth and its tragedy, and rich with irrevocable sunsets.

Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens could always vitalise some dark or dull corner of London. There are details in the Dickens descriptions -- a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door -- which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality; it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly. Dickens himself has given a perfect instance of how these nightmare minutiæ grew upon him in his trance of abstraction. He mentions among the coffee-shops into which he crept in those wretched days one in St. Martin's Lane, "of which I only recollect it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with 'COFFEE ROOM' painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood." That wild word, "Moor Eeffoc," is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle -- the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elfish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious's, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart -- these are all moor eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.

And so the little Dickens Dickensised London. He prepared the way for all his personages. Into whatever cranny of our city his characters might crawl, Dickens had been there before them. However wild were the events he narrated as outside him, they could not be wilder than the things that had gone on within. However queer a character of Dickens might be, he could hardly be queerer than Dickens was. The whole secret of his after-writings is sealed up in those silent years of which no written word remains. Those years did him harm perhaps, as his biographer, Forster, has thoughtfully suggested, by sharpening a certain fierce individualism in him which once or twice during his genial life flashed like a half-hidden knife. He was always generous; but things had gone too hardly with him for him to be always easy-going. He was always kind-hearted; he was not always good-humoured. Those years may also, in their strange mixture of morbidity and reality, have increased in him his tendency to exaggeration. But we can scarcely lament this in a literary sense; exaggeration is almost the definition of art -- and it is entirely the definition of Dickens's art. Those years may have given him many moral and mental wounds, from which he never recovered. But they gave him the key of the street.


I know this is a long quotation but I really felt I needed to give you a long quotation if you were to get a real flavour of his biographies. They are full of passages like this. Chesterton shows us things nobody else could have shown us; very often they are things that we had dimly perceived ourselves, but never could have put into words, or even—so to speak—put into thoughts. No biographer was ever less informative, or more enlightening.

Chesterton saved his best biography for last, and it was his own biography. He finished it just before he died and it appeared a little while afterwards. For a long time I would have considered Orthodoxy to be Chesterton’s best book; now I’ve come to think that it’s the Autobiography. Orthodoxy is full of the fighting spirit of a young man but the Autobiography has all the mellowness of old age. Reading it is like sitting in some cosy front parlour, as the shadows fall outside, and listening to a gentle, cheerful old man recount a lifetime of memories and wisdom. There is something uniquely reassuring about the book. It’s a book to read when you are depressed or feeling that the world is a hostile place.

What I have said about his biographies applies to all Chesterton’s non-fiction writing. The ability to get to the heart of things, and cut past irrelevancies, is one of his most astounding characteristics. His Short History of England is famous as the history book without any dates. As a matter of fact, it does have a few dates in it, but not many. Once again, Chesterton was interested in the essence, the interior rather than the exterior.

I don’t have the time to discuss all the different genres of Chesterton’s non-fiction writing, but there are two other books which I have to mention by name. The first is What’s Wrong with the World, which is his work of sociology, and his most important book-length contribution to the economic and social theory of Distributism. Distributism was a theory that attempted to escape from the extremes of socialism and capitalism. Chesterton’s brother Cecil and his friend Hilaire Belloc were also Distributists. After Cecil’s death, Chesterton edited the Distributist newspaper Cecil had been editing, and helped to found the Distributist League. Chesterton poured a lot of his time and his own money into the Distributist League, which was plagued by the usual evil of minor political movements, which is faction fighting and feuding. It doesn’t seem to have achieved very much, although it’s impossible to know what ultimate effect any movement or any person had on history—as anyone who’s seen the movie It’s a Wonderful Life knows.

I don’t have time to describe Distributism in detail. The general idea was that, as Chesterton said, the problem with capitalism was that there were too few capitalists. Distributism was a struggle against the assumption that a tiny minority of people should be employers and a huge majority should be employees. It wanted more people to own small businesses and small shops and small farms. A lot of Distributists also looked unfavourably on mechanization. The movement definitely stood for something very precious—the desire for the ordinary man to be his own master, to own his own house, to live his own family life without State interference, and not to be enslaved to bureaucracies, whether government or corporate. But how this was going to be achieved was something that was never very clearly explained. It should be said that Distributism is a movement that is very much alive, and that it’s time may yet come.

The last Chesterton books I’m going to discuss—and only because I have to stop somewhere—is his second masterpiece of Christian apologetics, The Everlasting Man. Many people, including the Catholic thriller novelist Dean Koontz, believe that this is actually better than Orthodoxy. It is certainly more emphatically Catholic, since it was written after his conversion. The entire book is a rebuttal to two common arguments—the argument that man is just another animal, and the argument that Christianity is just another religion. As usual, Chesterton flips the argument on its head. He says that the uniqueness of man is especially startling when we really try to see him as just another animal, and that the uniqueness of Christianity is most obvious when we really and honestly compare it to other religions. He also famously claims that Christianity looked like it was going to die at least five times during its history, that by all rational standards it should have died—but it continues to live, and this suggests its supernatural nature.

Now I have said enough, and probably more than enough, and I’ve still left so much out. I’ve said nothing of Chesterton’s friendship with Hilaire Belloc, the fellow Christian apologist who was so closely allied to him that Shaw dubbed them the Chesterbelloc. I’ve said nothing about his use of paradox, which many critics believe that he indulged too freely. He is famous for paradoxes like: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”, “The madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason”, “Individualism is the enemy of individuality”, and “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes -- our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

I’ve said nothing about his views on the relations between men and women, or the relations between England and Ireland, or the relation between humour and seriousness, or the relation between humility and happiness. I’ve said nothing about his defence of the Allied war effort in World War One, or the perception—not justified, but sometimes understandable—that he was an anti-semite. Each of these could be a lecture in its own right. This in itself is an argument for reading Chesterton. There’s simply so much to him.

And even after saying so much about Chesterton, I have left out the single most important thing about him, and the single most important thing that he has to contribute to the modern world, and to all of our lives, too. It’s something that pervades all his work, no matter what he is writing about, as the sunlight pervades the morning air. It’s something that we are always in danger of forgetting, every single moment of our lives, and something that the world of the twentieth and twenty-first century almost prides itself on forgetting. And that single thing is wonder. Chesterton was the supreme spokesman of wonder, and of the related virtues—gratitude and humility. All his work and all his writings were a massive effort to remind the reader that he is actually alive, and that there is a world around him.

This was Chesterton’s central theme from the beginning of his writing career to the end of his life. Even before his writing career began, as a young man, he expressed the idea in this extraordinary little poem which he wrote in his notebook, and which nobody seems to forget once they read it:

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands,
And the great world around me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

In his study of Geoffrey Chaucer, he had this to say: “There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude.”

And finally, in Orthodoxy, he put it like this: “when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales--because they find them romantic. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

And so, my appeal to anyone who hasn’t done so already, or even anybody who has, is “read Chesterton”. Read Orthodoxy. Read the Everlasting Man. Read St. Francis of Assissi. Read the biography of Charles Dickens, even if you haven’t the slightest interest in Charles Dickens. Read his book on St. Thomas Aquinas, even if don’t care for philosophy, or think you don’t care for philosophy. Read the Autobiography—actually, that might be the best place to start. Read What’s Wrong with the World. Read all of them, and then read more Chesterton, because Chesterton will help you remember everything that we are in constant danger of forgetting. And the more people read Chesterton, the more chance there is that our modern world will remember everything that it is has all but forgotten, and will come out of the cloud of cynicism and apathy and irony and alienation that has engulfed it so long. So read Chesterton, and remember that you are alive.

Thank you.

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful stuff. Hope you got a warm reaction from the audience.

    For what it's worth (and I have read only a fraction of GKC compared to you), I have one lingering reservation about Chesterton - what feels like his romantic attitude to war. I'm not sure I've ever read a line of his that showed he had really considered the true horror of battle. But perhaps I'm being really unfair. Would be really interested to hear what you think (and delighted to be put right).

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  2. Thanks, Mick! I didn't get a warm reaction from the audience; 'polite' is the best way I can describe it. They didn't seem tremendously interested, a few people dozed off (admittedly old people). Generally it felt like a bit of a damp squib.

    I think your reservations about Chesterton's attitude to war is very understandable. He had a schoolboy's enthusiasm for battle. In his defence, all I can say is that I believe he would have thrown himself into combat if he was physically up to it, and that the loss of his brother in World War One did not seem to alter his view of it one little bit. He was intensely interested in the war news during World War One and he explicitly states, in one of his war articles, that he was under no illusions about the carnage that was occurring. The truth seems to be that some people DO enjoy war, and not just those who never fought in one. C.S. Lewis, who did fight in World War One, says this in Mere Christianity:

    "War is a dreadful thing, and I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken. What I cannot understand is this sort of semi-pacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage — a kind of gaiety and wholeheartedness…"

    As to what I think, I share the contemporary horror of war, which has also been expressed by JPII and Pope Benedict XVI. I'd hate to go to war, and I would be terrified. But there is a niggling question in my mind as to whether the evil of war, or at least combat, is today exaggerated; that perhaps we have a kind of neurosis about it.

    My own biggest problem with Chesterton is that he supported the War effort in World War One, right up to his death, after there was a strong reaction against it-- a reaction he criticized in his Autobiography, the very last book he wrote, where he reaffirms his support for the War emphatically.

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  3. Thanks, Maolsheachlann. A privilege to be able to pick your brain on the subject. By the way, there is a small statue of St Christopher in a secluded corner of Westminster Cathedral that was donated by Hilaire Belloc in memory of his son who died in WWI. The inscription reads: "There was no escaping what youth so intensely desired." But you probably knew that!

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  4. I did not know that! Chesterton, too, insisted that WWI was a people's war, that the population urged it rather than the politicians.

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  5. I would have attended had I known. Too bad nobody seemed interested in it.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, it was a real damp squib. I'm sorry you weren't there!

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