15 April 2009

G.K.C., or, My Favourite Fat, Catholic, English Journalist

Long before I thought of starting this blog, I used to post occasionally on the blog feature on my MySpace page. I’ve already found a few things there to repost here (see this or this, for example), but for the most part my target audience on MySpace was quite different to Logismoi. Which brings me to the present post. I think I can safely assume that most readers of Logismoi are already familiar with G.K. Chesterton, but when I reproduced a short poem of Chesterton’s in my very first post on MySpace an online acquaintance who is no stranger to books admitted to having never heard of him. For this reason I deemed it worthwhile to write a small blog explaining who this great man was and which of his books I recommend most strongly. Of course, such a post may be less needed at Logismoi, but a recent meeting of the Chesterton Society of Greater Oklahoma City convinced me to post something on him, and I thought I’d use the old post (dated 4 August 2007) as a framework, while expanding it with one or two things.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was an English writer known for his wit and paradoxical statements, most of whose work would fall under the category of journalism or essay, but who wrote something in nearly every form imaginable. A traditionalist Christian, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922, and his faith comes through in much of his work. He had a close and well-known friendship with George Bernard Shaw, although the two men agreed on almost nothing. He is most famous for his 'Father Brown' detective stories, followed closely by the short novel, The Man Who Was Thursday.

My own favourite works of Chesterton are:

1) The Ballad of the White Horse (SF: Ignatius, 2001). This is a long narrative poem that tells the story of King Alfred the Great's fight to defend Christian England against pagan Vikings. Of course, such a deep thinker as Chesterton cannot be content to tell a story with no significance, and much of his thinking on the relationship between Christianity and paganism (thinking which strongly influenced C. S. Lewis) comes through in some truly beautiful passages. My favourite is without a doubt the reply of the disguised King Alfred to the Norsemen when his faith is challenged. He ends with the following lines (p. 62):

‘Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
‘For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.’

The Ignatius Press edition of Ballad is a beautiful thing. The dust jacket rightly tells us: ‘This deluxe volume is the definitive edition of the poem. It exactly reproduces the 1928 edition with Robert Austin’s beautiful woodcuts, and includes a thorough introduction and endnotes by Sr Bernadette Sheridan, IHM, who spent over 60 years researching the poem.’ My only complaint is the font used for the introduction and endnotes—Bernhard. Although nice for titles, it’s a little hard on the eyes for sustained reading.

2) Orthodoxy (SF: Ignatius, 1995). My entrée to Chesterton’s work, Orthodoxy is a non-theological work of theology, an intellectual autobiography of Chesterton's journey from atheism to traditional Christian faith. It is captivating, beautiful, humourous, and filled with some amazing, highly quotable prose, and it isn't scarred by the kind of things that turn most people off of traditional 'apologetics'. One never feels like one’s being preached at here, only learning about the thought process that accompanied the author’s own conversion. Among the many wonderful things that could be quoted from this book, I offer the following as a kind of epitome:

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. (p. 107)

3) The Secret of Father Brown (I don’t currently have a copy of this one). Chesterton wrote a lot of Fr Brown stories, which can be found in various anthologies. What I like so much about this short collection is the device that frames the telling of all the stories. Fr Brown is in, I believe, Portugal, visiting an old friend who is a reformed thief, when another guest begins asking the priestly gumshoe about his criminological methods. The various stories are told in order to demonstrate that Fr Brown's 'method' is simply his deep knowledge of the human soul. These are entertaining, classic detective stories, but they are also full of spiritual significance as well as lovely prose. Take Fr Brown’s speech about what a poet accused of murder might have been doing in the victim’s garden for two hours:

Don’t you know that everything has, for an artist, one aspect or angle that is exactly right? A tree, a cow, and a cloud, in a certain relation only, mean something; as three letters, in one order only, mean a word. Well, the view of that illuminated garden from that unfinished bridge was the right view of it. It was as unique as the fourth dimension. It was a sort of fairy foreshortening; it was like looking down at heaven and seeing all the stars growing on trees and that luminous pond like a moon fallen flat on the fields in some happy nursery tale. He could have looked at it for ever. If you had told him the path led nowhere, he would tell you it had led him to the country at the end of the world. (‘The Mirror of the Magistrate’, reprinted in Father Brown Stories [London: Penguin, 1994], p. 315)

4) The Flying Inn (I don’t have a copy of this one either). A distopian, yet comical novel, about an England that bans alcohol when its governing class comes under the influence of evil Muslims plotting to take over the country. Confronted with an early law only permitting pubs with traditional signs to operate, one proprietor takes a cask of rum and his pub sign, loads them onto a wagon, and criss-crosses England providing booze for those who no longer have access to it. A major satire on the whole fascination with 'the Orient' and a celebration of simple, common people. One of my favourite things about this novel is the frequent invention of songs by the characters, which provide some of the most comic and poignant moments of the book. Perhaps the most memorable, ‘The Rolling English Road’, ends with the following stanza (taken from this site):

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

There’s a nice lecture on The Flying Inn here.

5) The Everlasting Man (SF: Ignatius, 2008). This was not part of my original list, since I didn’t start it until a couple of weeks ago. The Everlasting Man is the book currently being discussed by the Chesterton society, so it’s fresh on my mind, and even though I haven’t finished it it’s quite clearly poised to assume a place among my favourites. This is sort of Chesterton’s history of man, which of course necessarily entails his polemic with much 19th- and early 20th-c. anthropology. But of course it was quite full of positive insight as well. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense’ (The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis [NY: Inspirational, 1994], p. 122).

References to the book in other sources—Lewis also writes, ‘Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream. Where was the thing full grown? or where was the awakening? (The Everlasting Man was helping me here.)’ (p. 129)—as well as the occasional sneak peek at what’s to come reveal that one of the most interesting—to me—aspects of the book to come is a discussion of paganism and Christianity, also a fascinating theme of Ballad of the White Horse. Along the way, there are such gems as the following reflection: ‘Men have felt everywhere that certain forms were necessary to fence off and protect certain private things from contempt or coarse misunderstanding; and the keeping of those forms, whatever they were, made for dignity and mutual respect’ (p. 53). One can read Everlasting Man here, and in Russian (!) here.

Chesterton has been enormously influential on later writers, but I'll just mention two. Reference has already been made to C. S. Lewis, whose fascination with and affection for ancient pagan culture was 'baptised' at least in part by Chesterton's writings. However, another well-known writer not often thought of in connection with Chesterton is Neil Gaiman. According to Wikipedia

The author Neil Gaiman has stated that The Napoleon of Notting Hill was an important influence on his own book Neverwhere. Gaiman also based the character Gilbert, from the comic book The Sandman, on Chesterton, as well as featuring a quotation from 'The Man who was October', a book Chesterton wrote 'only in dreams', at the end of Season of Mists. Gaiman's novel Good Omens, co-authored with Terry Pratchett, is dedicated 'to the memory of G.K. Chesterton: A man who knew what was going on.'

One can find much, if not all, of Chesterton’s work here. Also, be sure to check out the homepage of the American Chesterton Society here, and a Russian site—with some translations—devoted to him here.

So there you go, folks. Read him. You'll be glad you did.


Anonymous said...

I just finished a second reading of his St Francis which is a great read; less like a typical biography and more a selection of events, with Chesterton explaining the significance, theological and personal, for each.

I read The Everlasting Man earlier this year, after receiving it as a Christmas present from two dear friends. I cannot claim to understand it all, but what I did, was of great benefit.

Happy reading!

Aaron Taylor said...

Your description of the Francis book is interesting. I've got GKC's book on Aquinas, but haven't got round to reading it!