Sunday, May 29, 2016

Birthday: Chesterton argued, "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." He was sure he'd be remembered as a great novelist.


Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936)

Author, editor, essayist, poet, philosopher, playwright, radio broadcaster, art critic, biographer, Christian apologist

Trained as an artist, Chesterton made his way into publishing and spent the first third of the twentieth century issuing an astonishing torrent of words: 80 books, hundreds of poems, 200 short stories, 4,000 essays, a number of plays, and forty BBC broadcasts a year for the last five years of his life. He was universally accounted a genius, and engaged in friendly intellectual sparring, of a sort unknown today, with many of the other greats of his day: most notably, with George Bernard Shaw.

Chesterton’s faith journey was a transit from a vaguely Unitarian family to C of E, then from high church, bells-and-smells Anglicanism to the Catholic Church in 1922. He adored the uses of paradox, and excelled in them, once writing: "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."

Paradox was an unlikely tool for one who wielded the cudgel against Oscar Wilde- whose trial came just as Chesterton was launching his career in journalism- for so long. But Chesterton employed it for a different aim: to make opposition to change seem progressive by making progressives seem regressive.

Thus Chesterton’s Paradox of Conservatism:

All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.

But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

As Christopher Hitchen’s explained it, “if you want to be a conservative, you had better not be too much of one...To Chesterton’s bucolic conservatism, and his view that a certain kind of revolution was necessary to keep the counterrevolution in action, was to be added a working alliance with Roman Catholic conservatism.” This embrace of the new as the protector of the old led Chesterton to some outlandish bedfellows, as “when he traveled to Rome and saw Mussolini and formed the verdict that while Fascism could be criticized as hypocritical to the point of flagrance, the same could surely be said of liberal democracy.”

Those seeking an explanation, or justification, of Donald Trump need look no further than that.

Making the obligatory Great British Mind’s speaking tours of America in 1921 and 1930, Chesterton denominated himself a “democrat” while proclaiming the former colonies’ brilliant political stroke was built on a shabby foundation:

This ‘individualism in religion’ explained why Americans were not proper republicans in the sense of every man having ‘a direct relation to the realm or commonweal, more direct than he has to any masters or patrons in private life’: in America the individual made ‘good in trade, because it was originally the individual making good in goodness; that is, in salvation of the soul’.

Largely forgotten in time’s shifting dunes is that, in Chesterton’ heyday, capitalism was widely considered a failure. Alternatives were many, varied, and, usually, crackpot. While he flirted with one such notion- Distributism- as a means of ameliorating the causes of worker riots, Chesterton railed against the Protestant Reformation as a commercial movement, a theft of the natural rights and privileges of the lower classes making possible millionaires, the industrial revolution, and lucrative US lecture tours for English intellectuals.

And where there was commerce, there lurked what Chesterton dubbed- in on of his major poems- “the cringing Jew.” The Reformation, he posited, was a Jewish construct, leveraging their skills in commerce. Protestants- in the manner of ancient Christians’ adaptation of pagan holidays to convert the heathen- simply subbed themselves, in place of the Jews, in the role of God’s chosen people. Hitlerism was, therefore, the loathsome culmination of evils launched by Martin Luther:

The racial pride of Hitlerism is of the Reformation by twenty tests; because it divides Christendom and makes all such divisions deeper; because it is fatalistic, like Calvinism, and makes superiority depend not upon choice but only on being of the chosen; because it is Caesaro-Papist, putting the State above the Church, as in the claim of Henry VIII; because it is immoral, being an innovator of morals touching things like Eugenics and Sterility; because it is subjective, in suiting the primal fact to the personal fancy, as in asking for a German God, or saying that the Catholic revelation does not suit the German temper; as if I were to say that the Solar System does not suit the Chestertonian taste. I do not apologise, therefore, for saying that this catastrophe in history has been due to heresy.

Short lifespans and endless wars though it offered, feudalism provided security of a sort to the masses, who knew their place and left the Big Issues to their betters. The more varied and complex the world became, Chesterton argued, the more it needed a return to someone, somebody, some “thing”, to update the stone tablets.

The Church, ‘looking out in all directions at once’, was ‘not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even of the present, but equally against those of the future, that may be the exact opposite of those of the present’. She carried ‘a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze’. Uniquely, she constituted ‘one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years’. The resulting map marked clearly ‘all the blind alleys and bad roads’.

Chesterton and Jefferson shared a Hobbit-like reverence for plow and shire. But where Jefferson never gave up on the notion of scientific progress devoting itself to better living through farming, Chesterton wanted progress regulated by dogma. He liked being able to forget where he was headed on a train, wire his wife for an update at a station stop, and collect the reply at the next, all the while working on an article about profiteers in telecom. It was all a great muddle, because his answer to the coming age of uncertainty was to leave it to the platonic guardians of the modern age, the priesthood. In his 20th century, the struggle was between genial and venal authoritarianisms.

A rather outlandish figure, 6’4 and nearly 300 pounds, pince-nez dangling, chain-smoking cigars and always enfolded in a cape, brandishing a stick, Chesterton was usually lost in thought, or, as we noted above, just lost (for a time he was neighbor to the fastidious, compartmentalized Henry James, who admired the man’s intellect but feared the man’s Orson Wellesian vastness would collapse his exquisite parlor chairs).

Like most prolific- and prolix- writers, much of his work was so of its moment that it could have been stamped, “Best If Used By: Right Now.” He anticipated the modern news cycle, in which what was said yesterday is forgotten, and today’s words will be tomorrow. Much of his vast output now goes unread by other than scholars and the members of the American Chesterton Society.

He is best remembered, popularly, as the author of a surrealist classic, The Man Who Was Thursday, and the Father Brown detective stories. The latter have endured because television has kept them alive: like other series detectives, the priest is a template, moveable- like Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason- to any situation, time or place. Hitchens, reviewing a Chesterton bio in 2012, notes,

When told of a minor crisis in his financial affairs, we are informed by Ker, the proprietor of G.K.’s Weekly would reply: “‘Oh, well. We must write another Father Brown story,’ and this would be done at lightning speed a day or two later from a few notes on the back of an envelope.” It showed, I fear.

Still, Chesterton was an acute critic and exponent of the genre, and he opened new vistas for writers by turning the bloodless, amoral “crime as a puzzle for the superior mind” of Holmes & Co. into a quest for solving the whodunit to ID the perpetrator, then save his soul. We can see these competing visions debated in Anthony Shaffer’s play, “Sleuth”, a cat-and-mouse game between a cerebral detective novelist and a hapless everyman. As the author Andrew Wyke reads aloud the conclusion to his latest tale in Science 1, we see Chesterton masquerading as Holmes:

“As you appear to know so much, Lord Merridew, sir,” said the Inspector, “I wonder if you could explain just how the murderer managed to leave the body of his victim in the middle of the tennis court, and effect his escape without leaving any tracks behind him in the red dust. Frankly, sir, we in the Police Force are just plain baffled.”

“St John Lord Merridew, the great detective, rose majestically, his huge Father Christmas face glowing with mischief. Slowly he brushed the crumbs of seedy cake from the folds of his pendulous waistcoat. “The police may be baffled,” he boomed, “but Merridew is not. It’s all a question of a little research and a little ratiocination. Thirty years ago, the murderer, Doctor Grayson, was a distinguished member of the Ballet Russe, dancing under the name of Oleg Grayinski. The years may have altered his appearance, but his old skill had not deserted him. He carried the body to the center of the tennis court, walking on his points along the white tape which divided the service boxes. From there he threw it five feet into the court, where it was found, and then, with a neatly executed fouette, faced about and returned the way he had come, leaving no traces.”

“Splendid! Absolutely splendid! Merridew loses none of his cunning, I’m glad to say.” [The doorbell rings].

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