Here follows an article from The Times Literary Supplement June 8th, 2011. Yes it is too long for a post on my blog and no, I don't agree with it all, after all I did not write it! But here it is anyway, for it is nice to see The Times even consider what many in the Church have not even heard of, The Holiness of GK Chesterton! For Chesterton Prayer Cards. Also sign up to say a Rosary for Bishop Peter Doyle, Bishop of Northampton, the diocese were Chesterton died.
The miraculous G. K. Chesterton?
The Christian virtues and unacknowledged failings of an indefensibly happy writer
By Bernard Manzo
G. K. Chesterton once said that he had been “indefensibly” happy for most of his life. There is a note, not simply of happiness, but of joy, in much of what he wrote; but what meaning should one give to this happiness? Is there a self-delighting, whimsical, even wilful obliviousness in the merriness of Chesterton? Was he just a bit silly? T. S. Eliot once said that he found the cheerfulness of Chesterton entirely “depressing”. Yet Chesterton claimed that his levity came from his deepest beliefs: “Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy”. That is, of course, the sort of thing that Chesterton often said, the sort of thing not likely to satisfy anyone in a captious mood. (T. S. Eliot had been a Christian for just under a year when he said that he found Chesterton depressing; but then it is difficult to imagine Eliot ever being wholly in sympathy with the high spirits of Chesterton.) It could be that Chesterton saw Christianity as “jolly” because he was temperamentally inclined to be cheerful; but it could also be that this made him responsive to something essential in Christianity.
The happiness of Chesterton came not from anything in particular but from everything in particular. For Chesterton, the best thing to rejoice in is everything – existence itself – and to contemplate existence, to realize in a “sunlight of surprise” that there is something when there need not be anything, is to experience joy. While this joy is of a transcendent character – a response not to a definite situation but to the very existence of things – it depends on the particularity of things, because it is in seeing what makes each thing itself that one can delight in its very existence. This joy is “a certain silly exuberance” – “silly” in every sense, including the older senses of “simple”, “innocent”. It was a joy that Chesterton could see in St Francis of Assisi, who “understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing”. To perceive existence against nothingness, to realize that reality “stands on nothing”, is to see the “whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God”: it is to realize that existence is a free gift from God, and it is to become capable of gratitude to God.
While the importance of Chesterton has often been questioned, there are signs that he is now – in Catholic circles at least – being taken very seriously. In the past couple of years, a number of works examining Chesterton as a thinker have been published – a meticulous study of the early development of his thought by William Oddie, an assessment of Chesterton as a theologian by Aidan Nichols, and now a full intellectual biography of Chesterton by the Newman scholar Ian Ker, and a collection of essays (to which Oddie, Nichols and Ker have all contributed) considering whether there might be a case for the canonization of Chesterton. St Gilbert of Fleet Street and Beaconsfield (his attributes a pint glass and a swordstick) would not, perhaps, be such a bad companion for St Francis, the saint Chesterton described as “the court fool of the King of Paradise”; or would this be a bad joke?
Ian Ker provides an account of the thought of Chesterton that surpasses, in its comprehensiveness, anything that has been previously written about him. He does not offer a picture of the character of Chesterton that differs markedly from that presented by the earlier biographer Maisie Ward (who had the advantage of being able to speak to people who knew Chesterton well, and of having access to personal papers now lost), but he gives a sympathetic and exhaustive presentation of his subject’s ideas. Ker contends that Chesterton should be appreciated as a thinker and controversialist, a sage in the tradition of the Victorian sages, whose achievement should be measured by a half dozen or so of his works of philosophy, biography and criticism. Chesterton wrote much more than half a dozen books, of course, and most of what he wrote was avowedly ephemeral, but he considered the ephemeral to be highly important – of one of his books he remarked that “it may last just twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks” but that “in the end it will not matter to us whether we wrote well or ill . . . it will matter to us greatly on which side we fought”. Ker concentrates mostly on the journalistic pieces that Chesterton considered worth collecting in volumes published during his lifetime, and although he
acknowledges that Chesterton, almost inevitably for so prolific a writer, repeated himself, one cannot but feel that some of the journalism is given too full an exposition by Ker – particularly since Ker’s approach is purely expository, lacking a critical edge. This is unfortunate, because Ker acknowledges that, if the reputation of Chesterton is to endure, it will be on the strength of books like Orthodoxy (1909) or Charles Dickens (1906), not his (sometimes ill thought-out) journalistic pieces.
Ker celebrates Chesterton as a defender of the “common man” who opposed the tendency of many thinkers of his time to conjure up images of sub-human “masses” (and political proposals to match the images; H. G. Wells, for instance, was able to contemplate the extermination of biologically “inferior” sectors of the population with equanimity). Chesterton honoured the romance and fullness of ordinary lives, and he was a fierce opponent of modes of thought that he saw as an assault on the dignity and freedom of those lives. He celebrated William Cobbett, because “he was not merely concerned with what is called the welfare of the workers”, but “he was very much concerned for their dignity, their good name, their honour, and even their glory”. He claimed that the true ideal of democracy – to which he was fully committed – depended on recognizing that “the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary”.
His appreciation of “ordinary things” was an expression of his sense of the splendour of existence. Human beings, in all their ordinary limitations, are holy: “man has been made more sacred than any superman or supermonkey . . . his very limitations have already become holy and like a home, because of that sunken chamber in the rocks, where God became very small”. The Incarnation gave a new dignity to human nature, but it also revealed a dignity that was already there, a dignity intrinsic to human nature. For Chesterton, if something was “like a home” it was already “holy”, because it was by being limited, distinct, that things were most fully themselves; and when a life was lived in reference to definite limits, adventures were possible. He wanted a cosmos composed of small, distinct, varied things; he recoiled from visions of enormous, homogeneous combinations of things. He was, then, predisposed to accept the political ideals of Hilaire Belloc, who believed, developing the ideas presented in the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, that political liberty could be preserved only through a wide distribution of property – a vision of a world of small owners, not vast organizations.
Ker does not fully assess the extent to which Chesterton was influenced by Belloc (and, more generally, in his care to expound the manner in which Chesterton argued his way to various positions, Ker can sometimes make him seem a rather more solitary thinker than he was); certainly, the image of the “Chesterbelloc”, invented by Bernard Shaw, exaggerates the extent to which Chesterton and Belloc were at one in their views. Yet Belloc – who seemed to be influenced by almost no one, other than Cardinal Manning – did have a clear, if sometimes cartoonish, vision of political affairs that seemed to be taken up by Chesterton, and his brother, Cecil. Both Chesterton and Belloc acquired a reputation for anti-Semitism during their lifetime; how fair was the accusation? Fairer than admirers of Chesterton might wish; but the picture is not simple. While Belloc was, it must be said, quite capable of analysing anti-Semitism as a “delusion”, he seemed, in his worse moments, to believe that all modern political events could be explained as the result of a conspiracy between corrupt politicians and cunning Jewish plutocrats who pursued international financial interests at the expense of national interests. Chesterton himself saw Jewishness as an identity potentially inimical to national identity. In The New Jerusalem (1920), he claimed that his “heresy” consisted “in saying that Jews are Jews; and as a logical consequence they are not Russians or Roumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen”, but he claimed that the inference he made from this was Zionist – that “Jews should be represented by Jews and ruled by Jews”, that they should have their own homeland, and that Jews who did not live in that homeland should be given “a special position best described as a privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws and exemptions”. (Chesterton had, at the age of nineteen, jotted down in a notebook that “No Christian ought to be an Anti-Semite. But every Christian ought to be a Zionist”.) A measure of this kind would, as Ker recognizes, “simply create the kind of ghetto that had facilitated the persecution of Jews”, but Ker seems right in judging that “this cannot be said to have been Chesterton’s intention, which sounds perfectly sincere even if quite impractical – or worse”. One can read a vast amount of Chesterton without encountering any anti-Jewish remarks at all, but he did sometimes make such remarks – concerned mostly, as Ker says, with a “perceived cosmopolitanism and involvement in international finance” – one of the most obnoxious of which was his suggestion that any Jew wishing to occupy a public position should be “dressed like an Arab” as a marker of foreignness. Against this, one should recognize that Chesterton abominated all theories of racial superiority, and that he was an early and fierce opponent of the “racial religion” of Nazism, remarking that he found it “staggering” that “a whole huge people should base its whole historical tradition on something that is not so much a legend as a lie”. Aware of the persecution of German Jews in the years before his death in 1936, he declared himself “appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities”. Yet one should recognize, too, that he failed to understand the character of Italian Fascism, or to oppose it adequately.
The virtues of Chesterton, by most accounts, greatly outnumbered his failings; but could he really be regarded as a saint? In The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton, some distinguished traditionalist Catholic thinkers consider this question. John Saward examines the Chestertonian philosophy of wonder, likening it – in its celebration of the clear and vivid perceptions of childhood experience – to the “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux, and interpreting it as an expression of true, childlike humility. Aidan Nichols assesses the orthodoxy of Chesterton, considering whether he could be regarded as a Doctor of the Church. Ian Ker examines the account Chesterton gives of the virtues involved in humour, the virtues of self-forgetful abandonment to a good joke, and of a humility that can acknowledge the “inconsistency” of things without seeking to overcome it: an account which provides a way of seeing the humorousness of Chesterton himself as virtuous. Nicholas Madden and Bob Wild offer opposing perspectives on whether Chesterton can be considered a mystic, their debate centring on whether or not there can be a “mysticism” of ordinary life. William Oddie defends Chesterton against allegations of anti-Semitism. Sheridan Gilley reflects on the possibility of regarding him as the patron saint of journalists, the profound “democratic faith” of Chesterton being the correlate of his belief in the dignity of humanity – so that for him “the journalist was the tribune of the people”. Gilley is right to observe that there was a genuine self-forgetfulness in his commitment to campaigning journalism: “he was more interested in his causes than in himself, and more interested in mankind than either”. All the essays are admiring of Chesterton – none presents a “case against” – but then one cannot honestly consider whether someone might be considered a saint without, at the least, thinking highly of him or her. It is not for nothing that there needs to be a miracle or two before someone can be declared a saint, because it seems impossible to pronounce on whether or not a person has lived a genuinely holy life. None of those who have contributed to this volume would claim to be able to do so; their essays seek to show how Chesterton, in certain respects, was unusually virtuous – and in this they are largely successful. Yet one cannot but feel, at times, that he is viewed, by most of the contributors, with too unqualified an admiration. The absence of the devil’s advocate is felt.
Any attempt to assess the achievement of Chesterton must, ultimately, involve a judgement on his “silly exuberance”. Such a judgement is relevant not only to the question of whether there is much of substance in his philosophy, but to the question of whether one can speak of him as a “mystic”, for his “optimism”, or, better, his loyalty to existence, first emerged out of an experience he described, in a letter to his friend E. C. Bentley, as an experience of “speaking to God face to face”.
In his Autobiography (1936), he wrote of a period in his life when, as a student at the Slade School of Art, he had been overcome with a “mood of unreality and sterile isolation”. The dominant artistic mode of the time was Impressionism, and Chesterton believed that the technique of seeking to render things as immediately perceived implied the “metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all”, a philosophy close to the “philosophy of Illusion”. Influenced by this attitude, he thought his way to a “denial of fundamental things”. While “dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind”. The traces of this experience are preserved in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a “nightmare” vision of an attempt by a philosophical detective to unmask a group of anarchists, in which there is not so much a narrative as a sequence of vivid scenes, with each scene in succession being shown to be illusory, and with the sequence of images culminating in a question about the ultimate nature of the world: is everything – as the experience of “nightmare” might suggest – ultimately absurd? Chesterton threw off this “incubus” of extreme doubt when he recognized that “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting . . . . Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare”; and existence becomes all the more “exciting”, when its otherness, its reality, is recognized: “how much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”
Chesterton chose to be happy, and it was a choice that made it possible for him to believe in something more than personal choice, to get out “in the open” and to believe in objective reality. In Orthodoxy, his first complete articulation of his religious beliefs, he defended Christianity as creating a particular state of existence – a sense of life as a “romance”, in which one can “contrive to be astonished at the world and yet at home in it”. It secured this way of living by appealing to something beyond human existence: that is, it established the dignity of human life through the idea of a God who so transcended the world as to be capable of becoming, in Christ, one with it. Chesterton sought to show that Christianity sustained forms of life that other philosophies tended to destroy; it was not proved by this, but if one were predisposed to value these forms of life, one would be disposed to accept Christianity, or, rather, one might already have a degree of implicit belief in Christianity. In an essay written a few years before Orthodoxy, Chesterton maintained that to make aesthetic experience the supreme value was to render oneself incapable of aesthetic experience; one could only take pleasure in something as simple as sparks flying from a bonfire if one lived in a certain way: “the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see . . . . That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues . . . . Be really bad, and they will be to you like the spots on a wall-paper”.
Dogmas, for Chesterton, create thought; they create the possibility of argument, and perception (“with this idea once inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them”). Whether one accepts or rejects Christianity, one must ultimately avail oneself of dogma (“every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly”); so that one cannot so much prove the dogmas of Christianity as show that the alternative dogmas (of materialism, fatalism or whatever) issue in absurdities and contradictions, and that the dogmas of Christianity sustain values that would be lost if those values were affirmed in isolation. To affirm, for instance, the total autonomy of reason could be to destroy reason – because reason can doubt itself, and annihilate itself. One must have faith in reason. To affirm the goodness of the world might be to countenance a kind of quietism; but Christianity affirms all at once the goodness of the world, its separateness from the highest good, and its fallenness from its own intrinsic perfection: the world is good, but one must fight for goodness in this world – we must “hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing”. More than that, for Chesterton, Christianity maintained a balance between potentially competing ideas and values – indeed, potentially dangerous ideas and values – and the achievement of this balance was in itself an intimation of its divinity. Reflecting, in Orthodoxy, on the “gigantesque” and wild “diction” of Christ – “full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea” – Chesterton remarked that “Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other”, and that “the one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis”. The danger here is that one might call mere contradiction “mystery”; but Chesterton took the view that the reasonableness of the “startling synthesis” of Christianity could be shown by its making sense of experience as a whole, where other philosophies issued in contradictions, or in a denial of certain aspects of common experience. For Chesterton, the mysteries of Christianity made sense of common sense.
Mountains might be hurled into the sea not only in a gospel story, but in a fairy tale, containing not just “gigantesque” words but angry giants; and Chesterton claimed that such tales – which “touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment” – evoke wonder at sheer existence because by reimagining the form of the world they point to something gratuitous about it: even if one could get to the deepest laws of reality, governing everything, one could still ask why those laws in particular were in place, and the “test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail”.
Chesterton valued fairy tales because he saw them as renewing the way in which we perceive the world; they showed that existence was strange, that it was good, that goodness was sustained by limits. He valued the grotesque in art – a matter of definite outlines, exaggerations, wayward individualization, of “the energy which takes its own forms and goes its own way” – because it rejoiced in the particular. To present something in a grotesque manner, to stress what makes it peculiarly itself, is “to draw attention to the intrinsically miraculous character of the object itself”. (He was strongly appreciative of the energies of the grotesque in Browning and Dickens.) He valued humour because it involves openness to the ways in which reality exceeds any ideas one might form of it: “the man who sees the inconsistency in things is a humorist”, and it involves humility, because one must abandon oneself to a joke to be funny: “do not fancy you can be a detached wit and avoid being a buffoon”. The humour of Chesterton was of a kind that finds the thing laughed at precious and admirable in its laughableness, and he saw laughter as inseparable from love. He once remarked that “there was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth”. Far from seeing mirth as a kind of irresponsibility or forgetfulness of reality, he saw it as a response to the truth of things, a perception of the whole; and he maintained that in Christianity “joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small”, because it sees the joy of God as the ultimate cause of things.
Chesterton considered that the office of art was to reveal reality by transforming it: the “object of the artistic and spiritual life” is to “dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy”. His criticism was very much an exploration of the nature of things, and an articulation of his own philosophy, and his greatest works of criticism – the works on Browning, Chaucer, and, above all, Dickens – were efforts to show how these artists had got something right about the way things are. In Heretics (1905), he discusses several contemporary writers not “in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach”, insisting that one could not treat the aesthetic as something apart from “doctrine”; yet he did not reduce artistic works to philosophical statements, and sought always to discern how artistic forms showed something that could not be shown in any other way. There was, indeed, something quasi-aesthetic in his response to Christianity – his sense that its strangeness fitted the “oddities of life”, that it was “like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years” – and he celebrated Christianity as the “philosophy of stories”: by affirming the reality of human freedom, and by declaring the world to have a meaning, Christianity declared life to be like a story, and stories to be true to how things are.
His own stories are generally sequences of vividly rendered gestures or actions, in which the actors are not so much fully realized characters as types, and in which the presentation is characterized by a violent simplicity of outline, an opacity without depth. (All his life he enjoyed putting on toy theatre shows.) The Father Brown stories, though elaborately plotted, usually centre on a single, odd, puzzling or striking action, with Father Brown detecting the deeper forces at work in a situation by perceiving the meaning of a gesture, in an act of intuition informed by his understanding of human nature. For all their charm (not a little of which comes from the way Father Brown voices some of the philosophical views of Chesterton himself), many of the stories have a certain unreality: they are all about sudden, preternaturally acute insights into character and motive, and take place in a universe conveniently filled with symbols. In this regard, it is striking that The Man Who Was Thursday ends with a masquerade, the dancers representing, in their costumes, the random variety of the world – “every couple dancing seemed a separate romance; it might be a fairy dancing with a pillar-box, or a peasant girl dancing with the moon”. Chesterton delighted in the individuality of individuals and the thinginess of things, yet things and individuals, for him, are always turning into symbols, the world into a pageant. So, too, in his historical and biographical writing, one feels that he is concerned only with those facts that suggest to him a larger meaning. In the case of his books on Dickens and St Francis, the method works well, because the central insights are so powerful (he speaks of St Francis as “a poet whose whole life was a poem . . . a series of scenes in which he had a sort of perpetual luck in bringing things to a beautiful crisis”), but it is an approach that allows for much to be made of a few facts, and much, potentially, to be disregarded. Often, with Chesterton, one feels that positives are presented without negatives having been fully taken into account. Belloc was astonished to hear that Chesterton had converted to Catholicism (“faith is an act of the will and as it seemed to me the whole of his mind was occupied in expressing his liking for an attraction towards a certain mood, not at all towards the acceptation of a certain Institution as defined and representing full reality in this world”), and he felt obliged to write to Chesterton about the distinction between “mood” and “truth”: “the Catholic Church is the exponent of reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is. This it is which the ultimate act of the intelligence accepts”.
Chesterton certainly acknowledged the distinction between “mood” and objective truth, but he was less inclined than Belloc to discount the revelatory potential of moods – for moods correspond to ideas about the world, are a response to such ideas, or can imply the presence of such ideas. Perhaps the difficulty posed by the thought of Chesterton to someone like Belloc is that it centres on wonder, and wonder seems too fleeting, too unsteady a thing to make much of. Belloc praised Chesterton in his essay “On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters” for his “supreme talent for exact logic”, his “precision in reasoning”; yet the real power of Chesterton is something other than “precision in reasoning”; it has more to do with sudden insights and realizations, and with the evocation of a sense that one should expect much of the world, that one should expect it to mean something. He said of himself, “I have had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness . . . . Existence is still a strange thing to me and as a stranger I give it welcome”. In the mid 1890s, he jotted down in a private notebook the reflection
"there is one thing which gives radiance to everything, streets, houses, lamp posts, communities, politics, lives –
It is the idea of something round the corner."
In the same notebook he asks the question
"Have you ever known what it is to walk
Along the road in such a frame of mind
That you thought you might meet God at any turn of the path?"
It was a mood that he would seek to evoke in many of his writings over the following decades and it was a mood for which he saw the justification in Christianity. Perhaps this is simply to say that the greatest of the gifts of Chesterton was hope.
G. K. CHESTERTON
747pp. Oxford University Press. £35 (US $65).
978 0 19 960128 8
William Oddie, editor
THE HOLINESS OF G. K. CHESTERTON
152pp. Gracewing. Paperback, £9.99 (£17.99).
978 0 85244 725 3
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