29 May 2010

'I Liked Him for His Goodness'—G.K. Chesterton

Today, 29 May, is the birthday of the great English journalist, apologist, novelist, poet, controversialist, convert to Roman Catholicism, critic, biographer, and wit, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). I have already posted a sort of personal introduction to GKC, a reworking of something originally written for those entirely unfamiliar with him, here. Naturally, I assume that the average Logismoi reader will know GKC fairly well, but there it is. Here is the entry for Chesterton in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia:

English journalist, essayist, novelist, and poet; author of biography, history, literary criticism, and polemical works. Like his friend Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton was a propagandist of his Catholicism and his conservative political views (the two were referred to as Chesterbelloc). Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922, but he had always been a traditionalist, admiring the Victorians, romanticizing the Middle Ages, and attacking H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. He is best remembered for his essays, such as ‘On Running after One’s Hat’ (1908), which are merry and witty, and for such poems as ‘Lepanto’ (1911), which are full of gusto. Sometimes he conveyed his serious ideas in fantastic novels, as in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), and a series of detective novels, beginning with The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), in which the priest Father Brown is sleuth. Chesterton wrote the fine study The Victorian Age in Literature (1913). Among his polemical works are Heretics (1905), Orthodoxy (1908), What’s Wrong with the World? (1910), and The Everlasting Man (1925), an outline of history. [1]

I have to admit, this astonishingly brief article leaves something to be desired. I know little about Chesterton’s distributist views, but it doesn’t take a close acquaintance to see that calling them ‘conservative’ is a gross oversimplification, if not an outright falsehood. I recently saw here that Maximus Daniel Greeson had posted the following from a 19 April 1924 article of Chesterton’s in The Illustrated London News:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. [2]

Also, I’m not sure that Chesterton really is ‘best remembered for his essays’, but likely more for those works which the article calls ‘polemical’ but which actually wear their polemicism so lightly and good-naturedly, and which go so far beyond the narrow confines of the specific beef with this or that sparring partner, that the term can be misleading. I for one first encountered GKC through Orthodoxy, and found that as a work of what I would call apologetics I liked it in many ways better than I had liked Mere Christianity when I first read that as a teenager.

At any rate, as a description of Chesterton’s work without any reference to his life, I certainly prefer what Terry Glaspey has to say in his handy little volume, Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature:

‘The Shakespeare of the aphorism’ is the title that someone has given to Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He had the ability to pack more paradox and more truth into a single sentence than possibly any writer in history. This characteristic makes his books a joy to read for their penetrating insight and their infectious cleverness. Put this together with a swashbuckling faith, a warm and joyous sense of humor, and a dependence on plain common sense, and you have a fine definition of Chesterton’s highly individual gift. It is a tough call to say which is better: his highly original nonfiction (for example, Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man) or his always-entertaining fiction (for example, the Father Brown stories and The Man Who Was Thursday). Read both for a model of a man who enjoyed his faith. [3]

I also cannot resist quoting a passage from C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy where he speaks of the early appeal of Chesterton, even for a young atheist:

I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humour was of the kind which I liked best—not ‘jokes’ imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the ‘bloom’ on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his liffe and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or ‘paradoxical’ I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness. I can attribute this taste to myself freely (even at that age) because it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself. I have never felt the dislike of goodness which seems to me to be quite common in better men than me.[4]

I have offered a goodly number of quotes and excerpts from GKC’s work, not only in the post to which I have already linked, but in several others on this blog. I will here give only two more, but these, I believe, new ones for this blog. First, from Orthodoxy:

I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home. [5]

And now, naturally, for a poem—this one taken from The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse:

‘The Holy of Holies’

‘Elder father, though thine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries,
Canst thou tell what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?

‘Smaller than all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest sea,
Stands a little house of seeds,
Like an elfin’s granary.

‘Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.’

‘God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity—
Adonai Elohim.’ [6]

[1] Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., ed. Katherine Baker Siepmann (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 181.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works, Vol. XXXIII: The Illustrated London News, 1923-1925, ed. Lawrence J. Clipper & George J. Marlin (SF: Ignatius, 1990), p. 312.

[3] Terry W. Glaspey, Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), pp. 48-9.

[4] C.S. Lewis, ‘Surprised by Joy’, The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1994), p. 105. I often feel that I must apologise for my rather lame edition of Surprised by Joy. The ‘inspirational writings’ of C.S. Lewis? Doesn’t that put him in the same section of the bookstore as Joel Osteen and The Prayer of Jabez? But this was a high school graduation gift from my parents, and they inscribed it with these words:

We know that Lewis has been a strong influence in your spiritual life, and we trust that this volume will bring you much pleasure and inspiration.

Plus, as the cover tells me, it has ‘Four Bestselling Works Complete in One Volume’—Surprised by Joy, Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, and The Business of Heaven—all of which are superior to Osteen and Jabez.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (SF: Ignatius, 1995), pp. 85-6.

[6] D.H.S. Nicholson & A.H.E. Lee, eds., The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (Lakewood, CO: Acropolis, 1997), pp. 519-20.

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