Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Please Pray for my Father

My father Peadar Kelly, who is the man I admire most in the world, and who has had the biggest influence on my view of the world, is very ill in hospital. Please pray for him.

He carried a card of St. Anthony in his wallet and often asked for his intercession, so that might be a good saint to turn to. But all prayers are very much appreciated.

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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Books on the Shelf

My wife tells me I can often be too introspective. In this she is right, as indeed she is right about everything. It's a habit I am trying to conquer. Nevertheless, this is going to be a very introspective post. Sometimes I can't help myself.

I want to write about the books that were on our family bookshelves as I was growing up. The older I grow, the more I think about them, and of the effect that they had on me, that they continue to have on me.

I know many advocates of 'decluttering', and in general I agree with them. It's hard to have clear thoughts when you are surrounded by mess and by clutter. Possessions do tend to weigh us down. However, I would exempt books from the decluttering agenda. I think that every abode should have as many books as it can reasonably hold. Books are the soul of a home-- well, after the people who live there, anyway.

We had lots of books in my house when we were growing up. The main repository of these books was a large bookcase in the sitting room which must have housed at least two hundred, or more. It seemed to me like a continent of books. And it felt like a continent in the sense that continents have many different landscapes and climates and cultures. Most of all, the bookcase felt like a continent insofar as there was more to it than I could ever take in.

What a mish-mash those books were! There were novels, of every sort; there was poetry; there was politics; there was a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, with very pretty painted illustrations; there were volumes of nutty theories by Erich Von Daniken, originator of the idea that earth's primitive cultures show signs of contact with aliens; there was a book of dream interpretations (not by Dr. Freud); there was a How-To guide on how to put out your own magazine (complete with hilariously dated photos of men in thick beards and formidable v-necks); there was a drawing manual; there was a guide to ancient Greek philosophers; there was a book published by the Eckankar cult, with line drawings of the various Eck masters who lived in the Tibetan mountains for improbably long durations, and who handed down the immortal teachings of Eckankar. And there were more. Many more.

The weird diversity of the books on the shelves (and I have no idea how they got there) gave me one of my earliest impressions of the sublime; that is, the delicious diversity of human (and non-human) existence, immortally expressed in Louis MacNeice's poem 'Snow':

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands-
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Just as there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses, I knew there was more than cloth covers between one book and the next. There were whole worlds. The books on the shelf weren't just different from each other. They were different in so many different ways. It wasn't just the difference between an apple and an orange, it was the difference between a beetle and the dawn. This sense of intoxicating diversity, of (so to speak) diversity within diversity, the existence of so many things that cannot be compared or put on the same scale, has transfixed me all my life.

A proverb that is usually used in a cynical way, but one that could equally (and, in my view, more appropriately) be used in a purely poetic way, is the proverb "Distance lends enchantment to the view". And a child's view is dominated by distance. My memory begins somewhere around 1985; and 1985 seems trivially near compared to how far away 1965 seemed when I was a kid. Not only that, but the distances of everyday life, in both space and time, seemed greater. I remember how I would stand on the patch of burnt ground, in the field where Halloween bonfires were held every year, and feel a sense of wonder and of the sublime and how far-off those bonfires seemed-- even if it was November the first.

Perhaps because a child has had so little experience, everything seems momentous to him-- but (and this is important) not equally momentous. Halloween seemed a long time away to me, on November the first. But the Second World War seemed so much further away, and ancient Athens correspondingly further away. The spaces between things seemed greater. There was time and space for echoes to hang in the air. One of the worst consequences of adulthood is the horrible telescoping of time, space and eventfulness. Today, a hundred years seems to me simply like one year multiplied by a hundred; or almost so. To my boyish mind, a hundred years seemed, not like an infinity, but a span too great to take in. There is an absolute difference between mere extension, and a sense of epic grandeur.

I remember, when I was a boy, reading (or starting to read) a book about the American landscape and American wildlife. The first page of the first chapter faced a full-page photograph, perhaps of an eagle flying over a mountain range-- something like that. The first words of the first chapter explained how America was known as 'the New World'. The momentousness of this enthralled me. As an adult, when flying to America, I find myself ruminating on the phrase 'the New World' to keep that sense of awe alive.

The books on the shelf gave me a sense of mystery, too. I remember how I would enjoy taking a novel from the shelf, opening a page at random, and reading the first line my eye fell on. It gave me a thrill to think how I had caught the characters and the story in media res; something had been happening before, and something would happen after, but I didn't know what. It gave me a thrill to think how this story was happening in the pages of the book, all the time, with nobody reading it.

When I went to college, I encountered the thought of Albert Camus; specifically his book The Myth of Sisyphis. At one point, Camus remarks how seeing somebody having a conversation in a telephone box, and gesticulating wildly, would create a sense of the absurd; you can't hear what the person is saying, what he is getting so worked up about, and this distancing makes his agitation seem absurd. In my report on the novel, I mentioned my trick of taking books from the shelf and opening them at random, and how this gave me a sense of excitement and wonder. I wondered why seeing such a conversation in a telephone box would not give one the same sensation.

In a way, this sense of mystery applied to all the books on the shelf; because, gentle reader, I would fear to give the impression that I read these books. I read some of them. Most of them, I only dipped into. The books of the shelf were the undiscovered country-- the undiscovered continent.

Even now, this sense of mystery in the things unexperienced-- a sense that the road untravelled is not a cause for regret, but a cause for wonder-- lingers with me. I can give one example, one that has struck me for obvious reasons. When I was a teenager, I remember hearing other kids in school talk about the TV show The Wonder Years. Like many other TV shows and movies I heard other kids talk about, it sparked my imagination. I never saw it, apart from brief moments; I will probably never watch it. And not only because it will probably not match my ideal of it; but because I feel my life is made richer by roads not taken.

Another sense of the sublime that the books on the shelf implanted in my heart, and in my imagination, might seem at first to contradict the sense of giddy diversity that I mentioned earlier. It was a sense of the unity of knowledge. There were so many different subjects represented on the shelves, and I felt no doubt that a coherent worldview would take in all these subjects; indeed, that it had to take them in. I assumed that a coherent worldview, an adult's worldview, would have to include a place for poetry, for mythology, for psychology, for politics. The idea that history was bunk, or that religion was bunk, or that poetry was bunk, would seem unthinkable from this point of view. And this point of view has never left me. This applies especially to something like religion. It seemed to me, simply from skimming the books on the shelf, that the mythologies and religions of the world were the lofty pinnacles of this continent. When I skimmed the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita, I never for a moment considered that it was literally true; but I never even considered that it was simply nonsense. I noticed that books and book titles used mythological references to give a sense of grandeur or importance. The idea that this whole spiritual realm referred to nothing at all never occurred to me. Even if nothing supernatural existed (and this was definitely a possibility I entertained from my earliest age), I felt that these myths and legends referred, by way of metaphor, to the highest potentialities of the human race. Of course, these were all very inchoate thoughts; I couldn't have begun to put them into words.

The books that filled me with the most awe were the serious, adult books. They had titles like The Wealth of Nations, Social Justice and Social Policy, and Portugese Africa and the West. Their sheer sobriety was intoxicating. They were often heavy books without pictures on their covers. Their titles were in gold letters on the spine. They didn't only seem grown-up; they seemed magisterial. They were usually books that had to do with public affairs, politics, and history, and they very much gave me the impression-- one that I have never shaken off-- that part of being a grown-up is to take part in public affairs and public debates. We have all heard, truly or falsely, that the term 'idiot' derives from the ancient Greeks, who applied it to a citizen who took no interest in public affairs. I felt that an adult human being was someone who, in the words of Tennyson, was "the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time". I felt that an adult human being should know about Egyptian mythology and modern economic affairs. I have never reached that ideal, but I've always aimed for it.

(Along with the impression that a grown-up was someone concerned with public affairs, was the corresponding impression that a grown-up needed to have an interior life as well. There was no point taking an interest in international affairs if you had no depths to your own soul; no time for nursery rhymes or dreams or the world in your own back garden.)

Somehow or other, the books on the shelf implanted in me an ideal of what an educated, intelligent man should be. (I have to admit that this was a particularly masculine ideal.) It was generally a man in his fifties or sixties of seventies; a man with a tweed jacket, or wearing a suit and tie; a man who smoked a pipe; a man who read poetry; a man with big, square glasses; a man who had seen something of the world; a man with gentle but keen eyes. He is a humanist, whether he believes in the supernatural or not.

Surveying what I have written, I feel that I have expressed some of the most elusive thoughs and feelings in my soul, and yet I wonder if I have expressed anything. Are such private fascinations capable of expression? Worth expression? I don't know; but somehow I felt compelled to try.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Meaning of Stephen Fry

As readers in Ireland will know by now, the ubiquitous Stephen Fry recently appeared on the Irish television show The Meaning of Life and provoked quite a blizzard of discussion. The Meaning of Life is a rather amiable show on which Gay Byrne, the elder statesman of Irish broadcasting, interviews various celebrities and asks them about their beliefs, religious and otherwise. One question that is always asked is what the interviewee would say to God should he or she come face to face with Him.

Mr. Fry rather lashed out at God in his reply, castigating the Omnipotent for creating a world where children suffered from bone cancer, and where some insects' "whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind". He called the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition a "maniac", "capricious", "mean-minded", and "stupid", and objected to the idea of spending his life on his knees thanking Him.

Obviously, there is nothing new or particularly shocking here. The problem of evil, or the problem of pain, is a subject that has haunted humankind for as long as it can remember. There is hardly a religious believer in the world who hasn't wrestled with it. The Bible is full of references to it-- particularly in the Book of Job, in many of the Psalms, and-- most harrowingly of all-- in Christ's cry from the cross, "Oh Lord, oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?". The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually emphasises its centrality: "To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice....There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil." (That sentence is actually italicized in the Catechism itself.)

For my own part, I never struggled very much with the problem of evil. Perhaps that is a sign of my own shallowness rather than anything else. But the answer given by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans-- "I consider the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us"-- seems entirely satisfactory to my intellect, if not always to my emotions.

I first heard Stephen Fry's diatribe on the Marian Finucane show on RTE radio, before the TV show itself had been broadcast. The first thought that struck me was one that has often struck me before; that is, that it seems very odd that the suffering and evil of the world only seems to become unbearable (at least to atheists like Stephen Fry) when God is brought into the question. People who believe that the horrors of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Black Death, and every other tragedy in human history are destined to go unavenged and unredeemed, and that the only fate of their victims is eternal extinction, seem to have no great difficulty living with this knowledge. They laugh, make merry, watch gameshows, get excited about the World Cup, and generally make the most of life. Theodor Adorno famously said that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Mere decades later, who still feels like this?

But once you suggest that suffering, injustice and evil are not meaningless, or the last word-- that there is a Providence watching over the world, and that victims of the Holocaust and the Black Death and every other tragedy in history are not doomed to extinction-- then suddenly, in the eyes of the angry unbeliever, all the pain and anguish of the world becomes unbearable. This makes no sense to me.

Another interesting reaction to Fry's diatribe-- and an all-too-predictable one-- came from the secularists and militant atheists who seemed to think that there was something daring or transgressive about Fry's outburst. One letter-writer to The Irish Times wrote: "This must surely cause offence to many religious people and how could it do otherwise. This is the definition of blasphemy under the Defamation Act 2009. Are gardaí about to raid the offices of RTÉ to seize the programme, as allowed for in the Act? Are they about to raid my home to seize my Sky box where I have a copy of the programme, as they are allowed by the Act?"

The thing is, there was never the faintest possibility that such a thing would happen, nor did I hear the slighest suggestion from Irish Christians or other religious believers that it should. The radio show on which I first heard the clip was indeed flooded with responses; but, though many of them were robustly taking issue with what Fry had said, it didn't seem like anybody was angry or offended with him for saying it. The closest thing to this was when one listener texted in to ask whether Fry would dare to say the same things about the Prophet Muhammed. (A rather tired and tiresome comeback, in my view; even if the answer is "No", what does that prove?)

Fr. Brendan Purcell, a philosophy lecturer whose classes I once attended, and who is a regular in the Irish media, was interviewed about the clip on the same radio show. His response was rather mellow and genial; he described Fry's performance as "great entertainment", or words to that effect, and spent a few minutes discoursing on the Christian philosophy of finding meaning and solidarity in suffering.

This is the thing; Christians (and other religious believers) generally like talking about these things. Christians generally like talking about their beliefs and their reasons for holding them. They even like talking about the most challenging aspects of the Christian mystery-- which are, very often, also the deepest and most meaningful aspects. Stephen Fry himself, in a later interview, acknowledged that "many Christians have been in touch with me to say that they are very glad that [these] things should be talked about.”

As for the infamous blasphemy law mentioned by The Irish Times letter writer, this only ever seems to be invoked by members of Atheist Ireland and by like-minded individuals, with whom it is, indeed, a near-obsession. Christianity, the Catholic Church and religious belief itself are lampooned and attacked in the Irish media, and in Irish public life in general, on a daily basis. I can't remember ever hearing any Irish religious believer calling for anyone to be prosecuted in response. A recent 'Constitutional Convention' recommended that Ireland's constitutional prohibition against blasphemy should be replaced by a prohibition against incitement to religious hatred; a referendum will soon be held on the issue. I would not be surprised if many Irish Christians vote for this change-- if only because they are sick and tired of listening to Atheist Ireland's belly-aching on the subject.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Wow, four hundred and twenty words a week really piles up....it's been a while since I posted my 'Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton' columns from The Open Door magazine here. Well, here are they are, right up to the current one.

Last week, we looked at Chesterton’s earliest publications— two volumes of verse, one comic and one (more or less) serious. His first book in prose appeared in 1901, when he was twenty-seven. The title, The Defendant, is perhaps a surprising one for a young writer. Most young writers, then as now, are more interested in attack than defence. Young people have always had a taste for trying to knock down what their elders have built up. But the paradox is that, in Chesterton’s day—and this trend has only accelerated in our own—the passion for knocking things down had become so universal, amongst both the young and the old, that the real rebel was the one who came to the protection of old institutions and traditional morality. As Chesterton put it (in The Defendant itself) “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.”

Chesterton, however, was not just rebelling against rebellion. In this book, his first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous intellectual fashions of his day, he strikes a note that he kept up throughout his entire career. There is nothing in The Defendant that would contradict anything Chesterton wrote later in life.

The book is also extraordinary for its confidence. All through his writing career, Chesterton wrote “not as the Scribes, but as one who had authority.” Here, for instance, is the paragraph that sums up the theme of The Defendant:

For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.

Not for Chesterton the plodding business of quoting authorities and examples, or laboriously weighing up the ‘For’ and ‘Against’. He made bold and dazzling claims from the very first—and defended them. More on The Defendant next week.


Having a favourite author is a funny thing. I’ve written many thousands of words, in this column and elsewhere, about my deep love and admiration for Chesterton. But sometimes I feel I could write a fairly thick pamphlet dedicated to all the things that irritate me about him, too. Who doesn’t have pet peeves about their loved ones?

Last week I was writing about The Defendant, Chesterton’s first book of prose. I rhapsodized about the confidence with which it was written, the remarkable maturity of the views that Chesterton adumbrates in it. Today, I browsed it again, for the purposes of writing this article, and I was struck like a shower of hailstones by the silliness of some of Chesterton’s particular arguments. His general theme—the defence of traditional morality and the need to recapture a sense of wonder before the very fact of our existence—is a sublime one. Unfortunately, his desire to surprise his reader often leads him astray.

Perhaps the most famous essay in The Defendant is ‘A Defence of Skeletons’. “The importance of the human skeleton”, Chesterton writes, “is very great, and the horror with which it is commonly regarded is somewhat mysterious. Without claiming for the human skeleton a wholly conventional beauty, we may assert that he is certainly not uglier than a bull-dog, whose popularity never wanes, and that he has a vastly more cheerful and ingratiating expression. But just as man is mysteriously ashamed of the skeletons of the trees in winter, so he is mysteriously ashamed of the skeleton of himself in death.”

Well, I’ve never met anyone who regarded a skeleton with horror, or with shame. It seems to me that the skeleton holds an esteemed place in our culture—indeed, it’s considered rather sublime and poetic as an image. And I don’t think much of Chesterton’s defence of the skeleton—“however much my face clouds with sombre vanity….the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for ever”. To defend the skull as a smiley-face is rather banal. Why rob skeletons of their traditional mystique, their macabre glamour?

In another essay, one which contains one of Chesterton’s greatest aphorisms—“literature is a luxury, fiction a necessity”— the pudding is over-egged: “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things.” This is surely going too far.

Chesterton’s later books contain less of this enfant terrible silliness, but he never entirely overcame it. Thankfully, he had more than enough genius to spare a little silliness.


We’ve spent a couple of weeks looking at The Defendant, Chesterton’s first book of prose. His next book, Thomas Carlyle, appeared in 1902, when he was twenty-nine years old.

It’s not at all surprising that Chesterton should choose to write about Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was a Victorian writer, social critic and philosopher. In fact, he occupied in the Victorian era the kind of role that Chesterton occupied in his time—some have described this as being a ‘wisdom writer’ or a ‘prophet’. Like Chesterton, he was a gadfly—he stung the Victorians for their supposed utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the belief that only what is useful and profitable is good. (We may note in passing that there were so many Victorians who attacked the Victorians for their utilitarianism, and who did very well out of it, that we have to wonder how utilitarian the Victorians really were.)

Thomas Carlyle is a short book, only thirty-six pages long, but one containing many interesting passages. Chesterton’s introductory remarks are well worth quoting:

Rationalism is, of course, that power which makes people invent sewing machines, understand Euclid, reform vestries, pull out teeth, and number the fixed stars. Irrationalism is that other force, if possible more essential, which makes men look at sunsets, laugh at jokes, go on crusades, write poems, enter monasteries, and jump over hay-cocks. Rationalism is the beneficent attempt to make our institutions and theories fit the world we live in, as clothes fit the wearer. Irrationalism is the beneficent reminder that, at the best, they do not fit. Irrationalism exists to point out that that eccentric old gentleman, "The World," is such a curiously shaped old gentleman that the most perfect coats and waistcoats have an extraordinary way of leaving parts of him out, sometimes whole legs and arms, the existence of which the tailor had not suspected.

Somebody once said, “If you come up with an idiot-proof system, they’ll come up with a better idiot.” And maybe that is not such a bad thing. Certainly, there is something in the soul of man that will always rebel against any Perspex prison of perfect rationalism, to the despair of all utopian reformists.

This was a subject to which Chesterton was to return again and again; the need for a philosophy of life which found room for both the rational and the irrational (or, rather, the mystical). This, of course, he would ultimately find in the Catholic faith. More on Thomas Carlyle next week.


Today we are going to resume our look at Chesterton’s early (and brief) biographical study, Thomas Carlyle. I find the following passage particular interesting, and important:

Carlyle was patient with facts, dates, documents, intolerably wearisome memoirs; but he was not patient with the soul of man. He was not patient with ideas, theories, tendencies outside his own philosophy. He never understood, and therefore persistently undervalued, the real meaning of the idea of liberty, which is a faith in the growth and the life of the human mind….He was something of a Tory, something of a Sans-culotte, something of a Puritan, something of an Imperialist, something of a Socialist; but he was never, even for a single moment, a Liberal. He did not believe, as the Liberal believes, first indeed in his own truth, which in his eyes is pure truth, but beyond that also in that mightier truth which is made up of a million lies.

G.K. Chesterton was a liberal. In our own era, when being a liberal all-too-often means believing in things which are fundamentally insane—for instance, that a man can be married to another man, or that the murder of the unborn child is a victory for choice and freedom—it is hard to realise that liberalism was not always a decadent philosophy. There was a time when liberalism simply meant a belief in freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association and similar freedoms. It meant, as well, a generally respectful attitude to other peoples’ views and ways of life—which is not the same as “the dictatorship of relativism” against which Pope Benedict XVI spoke so often. The “dictatorship of relativism” assumes that there is no ultimate, absolute truth, and that every point of view and every way of life is equally legitimate. The kind of liberalism to which Chesterton subscribed would simply hold that there are nearly always elements of truth in every viewpoint, and elements of merit in every way of life. As Chesterton said, a heresy is not so much a lie as a half-truth, a half-truth that has broken loose and gone on the rampage.

In fact, liberalism was already beginning to go mad in Chesterton’s time, and he eventually left the British Liberal party that he had once supported. As he once wrote: “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”


After Thomas Carlyle, we come to Twelve Types, which is a book of considerable interest. It comprises twelve biographical sketches, most of them of literary figures, but not all; King Charles II and St. Francis also appear. The biographical sketch was certainly one of Chesterton’s strengths. He was a man of such imagination that he did not find it difficult to enter into the mental world of others, even when he passionately disagreed with them. There are several essays in Twelve Types that are worth our attention.

The first is the essay on the romantic poet Lord Byron, entitled (in suitably paradoxical manner) ‘The Optimism of Byron’. Byron, of course, is typically seen as a brooding, melancholy figure, the type of fellow who haunts moonlit ruins while ruminating bitterly on unrequited love, or on his world-weariness— even the adjective ‘Byronic’ conjures such an atmosphere.

But this is what Chesterton has to say: Surely it is ridiculous to maintain seriously that Byron's love of the desolate and inhuman in nature was the mark of vital scepticism and depression. When a young man can elect deliberately to walk alone in winter by the side of the shattering sea, when he takes pleasure in storms and stricken peaks, and the lawless melancholy of the older earth, we may deduce with the certainty of logic that he is very young and very happy. There is a certain darkness which we see in wine when seen in shadow; we see it again in the night that has just buried a gorgeous sunset. The wine seems black, and yet at the same time powerfully and almost impossibly red; the sky seems black, and yet at the same time to be only too dense a blend of purple and green. Such was the darkness which lay around the Byronic school. Darkness with them was only too dense a purple. They would prefer the sullen hostility of the earth because amid all the cold and darkness their own hearts were flaming like their own firesides.
How true this is! It applies just as well to the various ‘brooding’ sub-cultures of youth that have come and gone over the years; Teddy boys, punk rockers, Goths, emos (yes, that is really a word), heavy metal fans, and so on. Darkness and negativity only seem attractive when we have high spirits and exuberance to spare. Pessimism is a luxury of the young, and they should be allowed to indulge it—as long as they do their homework.


This week I would like to return to Twelve Types, Chesterton’s early volume of biographical essays, as I find it particularly interesting. As I said last week, most of the essays are about literary figures. One exception is the essay on King Charles II of England.

Charles II fascinates me. Even though he lived rather a dissolute life and became a Catholic only on his death-bed, there is something very Catholic about his whole story, his whole personality. He was the ‘Merry Monarch’; he was renowned for his tolerance, his willingness to forgive enemies, and his dislike of bloodshed; he had considerable scientific curiosity; he had many mistresses; and his reign closes a period of intense religious conflict, and religious fanaticism, in English history. (Catholicism always seems to stand at the end of things; and though England remained a firmly Protestant country for centuries after the Civil War, this Protestantism was political rather than spiritual. The English Reformation died with Cromwell, and English Catholicism began its slow revival.) Strangely enough, the Faith seems to have a special appeal to both the otherworldy and the intensely worldly type of person; as Oscar Wilde (another death-bed convert) put it, it is a religion for saints and sinners, but not for the respectable. (This is an overstatement, but there is some truth to it.)

Chesterton hits the nail on the head; Charles II seems to be one of those men who, even as they are revelling in the things of this world, look upon it all with a certain good-humoured scepticism:

Among other things Charles II. represented one thing which is very rare and very satisfying; he was a real and consistent sceptic. Scepticism both in its advantages and disadvantages is greatly misunderstood in our time. There is a curious idea abroad that scepticism has some connection with such theories as materialism and atheism and secularism. This is of course a mistake; the true sceptic has nothing to do with these theories simply because they are theories. The true sceptic is as much a spiritualist as he is a materialist. He thinks that the savage dancing round an African idol stands quite as good a chance of being right as Darwin. He thinks that mysticism is every bit as rational as rationalism. He has indeed the most profound doubts as to whether St Matthew wrote his own gospel. But he has quite equally profound doubts as to whether the tree he is looking at is a tree and not a rhinoceros.


For the past few weeks, we have been looking at the very interesting book Twelve Types, one of Chesterton’s early works, and seeing what he had to say about a few of the dozen people he wrote about in it. This week we turn to Saint Francis.

Saint Francis is undoubtedly the most popular saint of modern times, and he was always a favourite with Chesterton. Even before Chesterton became a Christian, never mind a Catholic, he had a devotion to Saint Francis. Later in life, he was to write a biography of the great saint, which is considered one of his masterpieces.

Why is Saint Francis so popular today? Because the world sees him as a model of practical charity, and of solidarity with the poor. This seems a bit of an enigma, when the modern world is at least as keen on making money and on living the good life as any previous generation ever was. With all our smartphones and laptops, we may have more worldly goods than ever before, in one way. (Though, as Chesterton would point out, we are rather less likely to have property in the sense of a house, or a farm, that we own.)

Saint Francis’s solidarity with the poor is certainly celebrated today, but another side to him—that is, his severe asceticism—is rather less celebrated. Indeed, this is an ideal that our contemporary world finds baffling.

Chesterton had this to say: Asceticism is a thing which in its very nature, we tend in these days to misunderstand. Asceticism, in the religious sense, is the repudiation of the great mass of human joys because of the supreme joyfulness of the one joy, the religious joy. But asceticism is not in the least confined to religious asceticism: there is scientific asceticism which asserts that truth is alone satisfying: there is aesthetic asceticism which asserts that art is alone satisfying: there is amatory asceticism which asserts that love is alone satisfying. There is even epicurean asceticism, which asserts that beer and skittles are alone satisfying. Wherever the manner of praising anything involves the statement that the speaker could live with that thing alone, there lies the germ and essence of asceticism. When William Morris, for example, says that 'love is enough,' it is obvious that he asserts in those words that art, science, politics, ambition, money, houses, carriages, concerts, gloves, walking-sticks, door-knockers, railway-stations, cathedrals and any other things one may choose to tabulate are unnecessary.


We’ve been taking a tour through the books of G.K. Chesterton’s (in order of publication), but I think it’s time for a break. There’s been too much wisdom and too little wit in recent columns! So this week, let’s sample some more of Chesterton’s funniest witticisms.

One the women’s liberation movement: Ten thousand women marched through the streets shouting, 'We will not be dictated to,' and went off and became stenographers.

On controversy: I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean. (It should be noted that Chesterton was rather less enthusiastic about real hot water than about metaphorical hot water! His wife had to remind him to take baths. But as he said himself: “saints can afford to be dirty, seducers have to be clean.”)

On the link between religion and festival: Faith exhibits itself in works, and above all in fireworks. And again on the same subject: Take away the Nicene Creed and similar things, and you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages.

The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.

Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.

Humanity as a whole is changeful, mystical, fickle, delightful. Men are men, but Man is a woman.

The most comic things of all are exactly the things most worth doing--such as making love.
(Of course, ‘making love’ meant courtship in Chesterton’s day.)

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to stop the mistakes from being corrected.

The modern man wants to eat his wedding cake and have it, too.

Intelligence does exist even in the Intelligentsia.

It is unpardonable conceit not to laugh at your own jokes.
(I heartily agree with this one. I always laugh at my own jokes, which are usually terrible.)

Here is a very prescient prediction, especially with regard to ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘transexuality’: We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.


There is no accounting for taste, as the saying goes, and I am afraid that I feel the weight of that proverb in writing this week’s column. In our trek through Chesterton’s published writings, we now come to his first really successful book, and the first of his critically-lauded biographies. The book’s title is Robert Browning, and it was part of a series of major literary biographies which were themselves written by famous writers of the time. The fact that the young Chesterton was invited to write this book was seen as an honour, and a recognition of how quickly his star had risen.

His publishers were startled by the manuscript he submitted. As Chesterton himself put it, towards the end of his life: “I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong.”

This is a comic exaggeration, but it reflects a certain truth. Robert Browning is, indeed, a book about Robert Browning. But it is written in a manner very different from most biographies, even literary biographies. One might almost call it a series of reflections on life and letters, inspired by the life and works of the Victorian poet. Despite the early dismay of its publishers, it was a huge success.

Your correspondent must here admit that he has little taste for the works of Robert Browning, apart from some of his more anthologised short verses. As Chesterton wrote in this very book: “The words "tail foremost" express Browning's style with something more than a conventional accuracy. The tail, the most insignificant part of an animal, is also often the most animated and fantastic. An utterance of Browning is often like a strange animal walking backwards, who flourishes his tail with such energy that everyone takes it for his head”. Chesterton, and Browning’s fans, find this charming. I don’t. Perhaps this is why I only read Robert Browning once, and why I was glad to finish it.

But it has some noteworthy passages, which I will discuss next week.


Chesterton was an ardent lover of Christmas. One of his aphorisms that I most often quote relates to Christmas: “There’s nothing really 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.” That is the least of what Chesterton had to say about Christmas though. As we celebrate the Twelve Nights until Epiphany, Chesterton tells us to remember that a world with Santa Claus is a world that is filled with innocence and wonder that multiplies.

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.


I am writing this on the 30th of December, the penultimate day of the year. Shops have already started taking their Christmas stock off the shelves while friends, acquaintances and television presenters are wishing us all a Happy New Year. We might think that the ‘front-loading’ of Christmas so that it began in September and ended on Christmas Day is a new thing. But it was a phenomenon that G.K. Chesterton denounced in his own day, all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper.

It wasn’t just the premature anticipation of Christmas that Chesterton bemoaned. It was that even worse habit: the abrupt termination of the festival (and of the festivities). As readers of The Open Door will know, the Christian tradition of Christmas is a season that begins with Advent and ends in the Epiphany (or Twelfth Night as it was called in England). As Chesterton said: “While Progressives are already looking forward to the New Year, Christians should still be looking back to Christmas. It is all the difference between looking back with enthusiasm to something and looking forward with earnestness to nothing. People praise the future because it is blank and featureless; they are afraid of the past because it is full of real and living things.”

So a continued Happy Christmas to all my readers—right up to Epiphany!


Last week I promised to get back to Chesterton’s book on Robert Browning. This week I am going to break that promise, though I do promise we will soon return to our leisurely chronological tour through Chesterton’s works.

Today, however, I want to talk about Chesterton’s views on dogma. This is prompted by a Chesterton piece that I’ve just read for the first time, one called ‘Philosophy for the Schoolroom”. It is also prompted by a rather silly opinion piece which appeared in The Irish Times last week and has generated a fair bit of debate.

The Times article describes the author’s return to Mass after many years of absence. (She isn’t impressed.) She also has this to say about Catholic education: “A Catholic education changes a person. At worst, it is designed to narrow intellectual scope. At best, it discourages objective inquiry; whichever questions a precocious young person may have, the answers are set for them. Genuine examination of issues just isn’t allowed to happen. I felt permanently tense and stunted at school. Questions weren’t encouraged. Opting out of religious services wasn’t allowed. I wrestled internally with the supernaturalism that permeated everything. I felt trapped and couldn’t understand why it was that I felt permanently out of place."

This is a common critique. Schools are to be centres of enquiry, and telling a pupil (or anybody else) what they must believe is putting intellectual blinkers on them.

Against this, Chesterton writes: “What modern people want to be made to understand is simply that all argument begins with an assumption; that is, with something that you do not doubt. You can, of course, if you like, doubt the assumption at the beginning of your argument, but in that case you are beginning a different argument with another assumption at the beginning of it. Every argument begins with an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first. All this is the alphabet of thinking. And it has this special and positive point about it, that it can be taught in a school, like the other alphabet. Not to start an argument without stating your postulates could be taught in philosophy as it is taught in Euclid, in a common schoolroom with a blackboard.

Simple? Of course! So why do so few people ‘get it’? We need more Chesterton!


It seems a long time since I promised to return to Robert Browning, Chesterton’s biography of the great Victorian poetry. Since then, Christmas and the New Year has intervened. But here I am, finally returning to the topic of Chesterton’s first celebrated biography.

As I said before, I only read Robert Browning once, and it made less of an impression on me than most of Chesterton’s books. But one passage I did remember is the passage in which Chesterton describes Browning’s incurable amateurism:

The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for a moment expected to succeed. The story of his life is full of absurd little ingenuities, such as the discovery of a way of making pictures by roasting brown paper over a candle. In precisely the same spirit of fruitless vivacity, he made himself to a very considerable extent a technical expert in painting, a technical expert in sculpture, a technical expert in music. In his old age, he shows traces of being so bizarre a thing as an abstract police detective, writing at length in letters and diaries his views of certain criminal cases in an Italian town. Indeed, his own Ring and the Book is merely a sublime detective story. He was in a hundred things this type of man; he was precisely in the position, with a touch of greater technical success, of the admirable figure in Stevenson's story who said, "I can play the fiddle nearly well enough to earn a living in the orchestra of a penny gaff, but not quite."

Chesterton put it more epigrammatically, and famously, when he wrote: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”


This week, as I have no digressions, we continue our chronological tour through the works of G.K. Chesterton. (Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before.)

At this point, the G.K. Chesterton dynamo was revving up in earnest. He wrote a hundred books in his life-time, not to mention innumerable newspaper articles, introductions, and so forth. Biographies and reminiscences of Chesterton are full of references to his heroic work schedule. For a man who never valued work for its own sake, and who was quite a champion of leisure—“the inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn”—he was quite a workhorse himself, spending most of the day writing (and later on, dictating), always struggling to meet deadlines (his articles often had to be sent by cab to newspaper office, at the last minute) and to fulfil the excessive commitments into which he entered. To a great extent, it was idealism which caused him to push himself so hard—he was, after all, not only writing to entertain, but to advance the various causes he believed in. In later years, he poured huge amounts of energy and money into The New Witness, a crusading newspaper that his brother Cecil had edited before he died in the First World War. (It later became G.K.’s Weekly.)

In 1903, he wrote (or contributed to) a succession of short books on various figures. The first was Charles Dickens, and is especially interesting because Chesterton was to become a very respected Dickens critic, contributing introductions to an edition of Dickens’s work which, when collected in one book, became one of Chesterton’s own most celebrated writings. We will have plenty of opportunity to discuss Chesterton’s thoughts on Dickens when we reach that masterpiece. But, from this “minor piece” of 1903, here is an interesting reflection on optimism and pessimism, a theme that would preoccupy Chesterton all through his writing career: “The truth about life is that joy and sorrow are mingled in an almost rhythmical alternation like day and night. The whole of optimistic technique consists in the dodge of breaking off the story at dawn, and the whole of pessimistic technique in the art of breaking off the story at dusk. But wherever and whenever mere artists choose to consider the matter ended, the matter is never ended, and trouble and exultation go on in a design larger than any of ours, neither vanishing at all.”

Next week, we continue our tour through Chesterton’s works.


Let us press on through our chronological tour of Chesterton’s works, and look at his slim book about Lord Alfred Tennyson— little more than an essay, in fact-- published in 1903.

I read this ‘book’ for the first time for the purposes of writing this column, and I must admit that I was not impressed. I happen to be a big fan of Lord Alfred Tennyson. I think he is one of the greatest poets who ever lived. In my view, several of his poems—‘Ulysses’, ‘Locksley Hall’, “The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters’, ‘The Passing of Arthur’—rank amongst the very greatest poems ever written. They are not only magnificent in their use of language, they are full of magnificent and lofty philosophy. Take this passage from ‘Ulysses’:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever as I move.

Even the solitary line ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ expresses a deep idea with such simplicity and elegance that it is still quoted all the time. Or take a line from 'Locksley Hall': “Let the great world wheel forever down the ringing grooves of change.” Chesterton himself liked to quote this line, in order to argue against the idea contained in it. In our own time, a novel has been entitled Let The Great World Wheel Forever. Again, the line brilliantly expresses a particular idea, one which we would surely consider philosophical—the idea that constant, rapid social change is desirable. (Tennyson was not endorsing this idea, necessarily; ‘Locksley Hall’ is written from the point of view of a fictional character.)

And yet this is the thesis of Chesterton’s booklet, as expressed in the first line: “It was merely the accident of his hour, the call of his age, which made Tennyson a philosophical poet.” And later: “Tennyson had not a special talent for being a philosophical poet.” And later: “Perhaps he might be something more of a poet if he had not sought to be something more than a poet.” Chesterton thought Tennyson was a spoiled nature poet, a fine purveyor of pure beauty, who overreached himself in trying to write a poetry of ideas. Chesterton, on this occasion, was talking out of his hat!

We continue our tour next week.