I continue to publish my bite-size weekly articles on Chesterton in The Open Door magazine every week. Here are the latest few instalments.
The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton
In this series, we have been looking at the ideas of G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer and thinker. Some people were so important to Chesterton’s life and work that we have to take a look at them, too. So far we have discussed his wife Frances and his friend Hilaire Belloc. This week we examine his relationship with George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw and Chesterton were friends, but it was a strange kind of friendship. They disagreed about almost everything. Shaw, though not an atheist as is commonly believed (he described himself as a mystic) had little time for traditional religion. (When Chesterton converted to Catholicism, Shaw said: “Gilbert, this is going too far”!) Chesterton saw himself as a defender of the common man, while Shaw said: “I have never had any feelings about the English working classes except a desire to abolish them and replace them with sensible people.” Shaw believed in eugenics—the selective breeding of humans in order to create a superior race. Chesterton hated this theory so much that he wrote a book called Eugenics and Other Evils.
But in spite of all this, they remained on very good terms. Chesterton wrote an entire book about Shaw—- reasonably enough entitled George Bernard Shaw.
Chesterton thought that the key to understanding Shaw, and his distance from the traditions and instincts of ordinary humanity, was that he was a son of the Protestant (or post-Protestant) elite in Ireland. In a memorable passage, Chesterton contrasts this with the ordinary Irish people:
The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth. …Mr. Shaw has no living traditions, no schoolboy tricks, no college customs, to link him with other men. Nothing about him can be supposed to refer to a family feud or to a family joke. He does not drink toasts; he does not keep anniversaries; musical as he is I doubt if he would consent to sing. All this has something in it of a tree with its roots in the air.
“Close to the heavens because he is close to the earth”. The sentence almost encapsulates Chesterton’s vision of the good life. We will say more on this subject next week.
Last week we completed our brief foray into Chesterton’s biography. We will return to his life later on, but for now let us journey once again into his writings.
There are many people who have never read a single book, essay, story or poem written by Chesterton, but have encountered his writing all the same. This is because G.K. Chesterton was a master of epigram. His epigrams, witticisms and paradoxes are endlessly quoted in books of quotations, newspaper articles, speeches, on coffee mugs—- pretty much everywhere, actually.
I once encountered the claim that GKC was the most quotable author ever. This is exaggerated praise. Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson and Mark Twain eclipse him. Nevertheless he certainly deserves to be listed with them.
His most famous quotation is, paradoxically enough, something he never said at all. It is this: “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Chesterton expressed this idea many times, but nobody has been able to find these words (or anything closely resembling them) amidst the vast archive of his published work.
Chesterton didn’t just come up with witticisms for their own sake. In fact, in his book Heretics, he wrote: “Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. “ Chesterton used epigrams to tell the truth as he saw it, not for a cheap laugh.
Some of my favourite Chesterton epigrams: “An inconvenience is only an adventure, wrongly considered.” “Charity is the imagination of the heart.” “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” “Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should refuse.” “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” And perhaps my favourite: “There is nothing wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas. The modern world will have to fit in with Christmas or die”.
Last week I wrote about G.K. Chesterton’s almost endless fund of epigrams, which are constantly being quoted by writers and speakers of every kind. This leads us on to a related topic, which is Chesterton’s use of humour.
G.K. Chesterton was certainly a comic writer, but he seldom confined himself to purely comical subjects. He wrote about the whole human drama, from the most trivial subjects to the most serious. Nevertheless, he always wrote with a light touch. Readers of Chesterton will often find themselves laughing out loud while reading an essay on Thomas Aquinas, political economy or the philosophy of history.
C.S. Lewis, who was deeply influenced by Chesterton’s writings, described Chesterton’s use of humour thus: “His humour was of the kind I like best – not “jokes” imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.”
Chesterton was sometimes criticised for writing about solemn subjects in a jocular tone. He defended himself with another of his famous epigrams. He explained that ‘funny’ was not the opposite of ‘serious’—the opposite of ‘funny’ was ‘not funny’.
Indeed, Chesterton’s philosophy of humour was central to his whole philosophy of life. He used to image of a man running after his hat to explain how laughter contains a deep insight into reality. The man, he explained, has an immortal soul and is made in the image of God. The hat is simply a dumb object. For man, with an immortal soul, to be at the mercy of matter in this way was inherently ridiculous. (And, of course, this applies to more important things as well—as Chesterton put it, a man running after a wife is much more ridiculous than a man running after a hat. The bigger point is that man is only ever ridiculous because he has a soul.)
Not that Chesterton lamented this ridiculousness. “Being undignified”, he wrote, “is the essence of all real happiness whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation.” We are happy when we are undignified because, for a moment, we let go of our pride; and pride is what makes us miserable.
As we saw last week, Chesterton used humour even when discussing serious matters. He was a defender of humour. He was also a defender of ugliness.
Chesterton’s defence of ugliness began early in his career, in his first proper book, The Defendant: “The highest and most valuable quality in Nature is not her beauty, but her generous and defiant ugliness. A hundred instances might be taken. The croaking noise of the rooks is, in itself, as hideous as the whole hell of sounds in a London railway tunnel. Yet it uplifts us like a trumpet with its coarse kindliness and honesty…Has the poet, for whom Nature means only roses and lilies, ever heard a pig grunting? It is a noise that does a man good—- a strong, snorting, imprisoned noise, breaking its way out of unfathomable dungeons through every possible outlet and organ.”
Chesterton’s defence of the ugly is really just another example of his tendency to defend the ordinary and mundane against the refined and rare. Perhaps the funniest instance of this is his response to the following rather uncharitable poem, written by Frances Cornford:
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the field in gloves…?
Chesterton wrote a verse entitled “The Fat Lady Replies” (‘old Dutch’ is slang for ‘wife):
Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?
A few other things Chesterton defended: Cockney wit, sight-seeing, detective stories, celebrating birthdays, and the right of the poor to spend lots of money on a funeral. He stood for the mob against the snob.
I finished my last article by saying that G.K. Chesterton was always on the side of the mobs rather than the snobs. In his day—- as in our own—intellectuals and artists tended to despise the recreations and ways of life of ordinary people. ‘Suburban’ had become a term of derision. Chesterton himself moved to the suburbs—the town of Beaconsfield, just outside London at that time—- and celebrated suburban life, just as he celebrated newspapers and detective stories.
One of the collections of Chesterton’s essays that were published in his lifetime bore the title The Common Man. He never tired of defending the common man, but he was also quick to point out that ‘common’ did not mean ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ or ‘mediocre’. As he put it in a study of Charles Dickens:
The common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody.
However, many people in Chesterton’s day had set themselves against this ‘common mind’—- mostly bohemians, revolutionaries, intellectuals, and philosophers. The idea had become popular, in such circles, that a poet or a novelist or a thinker was great because he saw things in a different way to the rest of mankind, because he was unconventional. Chesterton thought differently:
If a man is genuinely superior to his fellows the first thing that he believes in is the equality of man. We can see this, for instance, in that strange and innocent rationality with which Christ addressed any motley crowd that happened to stand about Him. "What man of you having a hundred sheep, and losing one, would not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which was lost?" Or, again, "What man of you if his son ask for bread will he give him a stone, or if he ask for a fish will he give him a serpent?" This plainness, this almost prosaic camaraderie, is the note of all very great minds.
How ironic that Chesterton, so utterly eccentric, should have been the great champion of the common man!
In the last week or so, I’ve been reading through a couple of G.K. Chesterton biographies, and it occurs to me that this might be a good topic for this week’s article. My hope is that, if this column has been your introduction to G.K. Chesterton, I might have motivated you to go to the library or bookshop and to read Chesterton for yourself. Of course, when we really like a writer, we are just as eager to read about him (or her) than to read his original works. So, as well as giving you a heightened interest in this column (!), I expect that reading and loving Chesterton will almost inevitably make you seek out his biographers.
The first thing to be said is that the best biographer of G.K. Chesterton is G.K. Chesterton himself. The Autobiography is one of Chesterton’s best books, perhaps his very best. If I may be autobiographical myself for a moment, I can remember reading it (not for the first time) when I was recovering from a mild illness, and going through a pretty powerful fit of ‘the blues’. It cheered me up immensely—the reader can’t help ‘catching’ Chesterton’s immense gusto for life, his fathomless sense of wonder. It was the last book he wrote, appearing after his death. Reading it is like sitting beside some wise, jolly, peaceful old man and soaking up all his stories, observations and lessons.
After the Autobiography, the best biography is undoubtedly Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward, published in 1953. Maisie Ward had the incomparable (and now impossible) benefit of actually having known Chesterton. She writes about him with affection and loyalty, but with no excess of reverence. The chapter on the Chestertons’ marriage is especially insightful.
The next best biography is probably Ian Ker’s massive G.K. Chesterton: A Life (2012). This is certainly more comprehensive than Maisie Ward’s slim volume, but written with much less flair. Be prepared to skip—- Ker seems to want to chronicle Chesterton’s every train journey and dinner party for posterity. But when he writes about the deeps rather than the shallows of Chesterton’s life, Ker shines.
Finally, William Oddie’s Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, which appeared in 2008, charts the development of Chesterton’s ideas until the year 1908. (A second volume is planned.) Oddie trawled Chesterton’s mountains of surviving papers to research this one, and it shows. Not good as an introduction, though—save this for when you are heavily into Chesterton!
This week I am off to a wedding in Switzerland.
So, not having enough time to write more than few lines, and having the subject of matrimony on my mind, I thought I would step back this time and let Chesterton speak for himself. The following passage, from his book What’s Wrong with the World, surely contains some of the wisest words ever spoken on the subject of marriage. And the principle applies not only to marriage but to many other social institutions, too.
The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender.
In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead. Whether this solid fact of human nature is sufficient to justify the sublime dedication of Christian marriage is quite an other matter, it is amply sufficient to justify the general human feeling of marriage as a fixed thing, dissolution of which is a fault or, at least, an ignominy. The essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage In both cases the point is, that if a man is bored in the first five minutes he must go on and force himself to be happy. Coercion is a kind of encouragement; and anarchy (or what some call liberty) is essentially oppressive, because it is essentially discouraging.
If Americans can be divorced for "incompatibility of temper" I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been travelling (with my wife) on the European continent. We attended my niece’s wedding in Switzerland, after which we went on to Evians-les-Bains in France, where the mineral water comes from. My wife had been there eleven years before. As an American, it was her first foray outside her home continent.
So this week I’ve been thinking about travel, and—- being a Chesterton fanatic—- I never think about anything without having Chesterton’s words on the subject echoing in my mind. In his essay ‘The Riddle of the Ivy’, he describes a conversation (presumably fictional) in which he tells a friend that he is travelling around the world to get to Battersea—which is where he happens to be at the moment:
"I am going to Battersea," I repeated, "to Battersea via Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. I am going to wander over the whole world until once more I find Battersea. I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.”
This motif—the idea of somebody setting out on a long journey, whose ultimate destination is the very point from which he started—occurs quite often in Chesterton’s work.
For a man who did not value travel for itself, Chesterton was quite well-travelled. His travel books include The Resurrection of Rome (in which he recounts meetings with Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI), Irish Impressions, The New Jerusalem, and-- most famously-- What I Saw in America. I will write about Chesterton’s American impressions in next week’s column, but I can’t help closing with his brilliant comment on the lights of Broadway: “"What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any who was lucky enough to be unable to read”.