Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Stocking of Seasonal Chesterton Quotations

What? You're hungry for more of GKC's reflections on Christmas?

Yeah, me too. So I went through my Chesterton books and plucked these out for your delectation, mostly from his Illustrated London News column. Enjoy-- and Merry Christmas to you all!

All Dickens's books are Christmas books. But this is still truest of his two or three famous Yuletide tales -- The Christmas Carol and The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. Of these The Christmas Carol is beyond comparison the best as well as the most popular. Indeed, Dickens is in so profound and spiritual a sense a popular author that in his case, unlike most others, it can generally be said that the best work is the most popular. It is for Pickwick that he is best known; and upon the whole it is for Pickwick that he is best worth knowing. In any case this superiority of The Christmas Carol makes it convenient for us to take it as an example of the generalisations already made. If we study the very real atmosphere of rejoicing and of riotous charity in The Christmas Carol we shall find that all the three marks I have mentioned are unmistakably visible. The Christmas Carol is a happy story first, because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change. It is not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity.

Again, The Christmas Carol owes much of its hilarity to our second source -- the fact of its being a tale of winter and of a very wintry winter. There is much about comfort in the story; yet the comfort is never enervating: it is saved from that by a tingle of something bitter and bracing in the weather. Lastly, the story exemplifies throughout the power of the third principle -- the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque. Everybody is happy because nobody is dignified. We have a feeling somehow that Scrooge looked even uglier when he was kind than he had looked when he was cruel. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top-heavy happiness of the stories.

Charles Dickens, 1906

One of the first reforms of Lenin and Trotsky was, I believe, to abolish Christmas. It is not the only point on which the prejudices of the most emancipated Progressives are an exact copy of the prejudices of the most antiquated Puritans.

A Christmas of Peace, 1918

Some of our more advanced ethical teachers might well write a new version of “The Christmas Carol”—a sort of Anti-Christmas Carol. For the drama of Dickens might well appear to them not a comedy of conversion, but a tragedy of apostasy. The story would start with Scrooge as a lofty and idealistic vegeterian, partaking of a pure and hygienic diet of gruel. It would end with the same Scrooge, now degraded by superstition, and engaged in a cannibal conspiracy for the assasination of a turkey…Eugenics, which often form a part of such ethics, might here suggest a thoughtful passage about the mistake made in the birth of Tiny Tim, and the desirability of correcting that mistake with all speed in some timely and quiet fashion.

The New Attack on Christmas, 1919

This is written amidst fields of snow within a few days of Christmas. And when I last saw snow it was within a few miles of Bethlehem. The coincidence will serve as a symbol of something I have noticed all my life, though it is not very easy to sum up. It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing, under the extreme test of realism. It is the sceptical and even the rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary. Everything I had been taught or told led me to regard snow in Bethlehem as a paradox, like snow in Egypt. Every rumour of realism, every indirect form of rationalism, every scientific opinion taken on authority and at third hand, had led me to regard the country where Christ was born solely as a sort of semi-tropical place, with nothing but palm trees and parasols. It was only when I actually looked at it that it looked exactly like a Christmas card. It was only by the sight of my bodily eyes, and against all my mental training, that I realised how true is the tradition handed down in a Christmas carol…the whole background was so mountainous as to be in many ways Northern.

Now this nameless northern element in the first landscapes of Christianity has had a certain effect on our own history. As the great creed and philosophy which united our fathers swept westwards over the world, it found its different parts peculiarly fitted to different places….while the Latins more especially preserved the legends about the soldiers, we in the north felt a special link with the legend of the shepherds. We concentrated on Christmas, on the element of winter and the wild hills in the old Christian story. Thus Christmas is, in a special sense, at once European and English. It is European because it appeals to the religion of Europe. It is English because it specialises in those religious customs that can make even our own landscape a holy land.

A Progress from England, 1920

Christmas belongs to an order of ideas which never really perished, and which is now less likely to perish than ever. It had from the first a sort of glamour of a lost cause; it was like an everlasting sunset. It is only the things that never die that get the reputation of dying.

Christmas and the Peasant Traditions, 1921

Mr. Arnold Bennett began, indeed, by eliminating the more mystical elements in Christmas by a device of curious and almost creepy simplicity. He alluded to the fact that the 25th of December was the traditional date of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and then thought it was enough to say that it probably was not the historical date at all. There is a sort of innocence in this which I cannot but feel as faintly amusing, despite the seriousness of this aspect of the subject. Some light on the logic of the process may be thrown by merely imagining it applied to any other festival, even the most strictly secular and social festival. Suppose it were found that by some error in an official document the Battle of Trafalgar had been attributed to Oct. 21 when it was really fought on Oct. 23. It would be surely a rather extraordinary argument to deduce from this that Trafalgar Day need have nothing to do with Nelson, nothing to do with naval glory, nothing to do with patriotism, nothing to do with England. It would be rather odd to argue that because of this shuffling of dates any Cosmopolitan, any Continental enemy of England, any Internationalist who hated all flags, any Pacifist who hated all fighting, had just as much to do with Trafalgar as an English sailor.

…You cannot select a particular day without selecting a particular subject. You cannot have a day devoted to everything; it is contradicted by the very word devotion. You cannot have a festival dedicated to things in general; it is contradicted by the very idea of dedication. No religion, as far as I know, has ever had a Feast of the Universe; and Robespierre did not really get very far even with a Feast of the Supreme Being.

On Generalizing Christmas, 1922

The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly surive any attempt by modern artists, idealists or neo-pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between religion and real fun, of which the modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticise or destroy. All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises, promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified. All the men in William Morris are dignified. All the men even in H.G. Well are dignified, when they are men at all. But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation.

The Survival of Christmas, 1908

Thus, by talking a great deal about the solar solstice, it can be maintained that Christmas is a sort of sun-worship; to all of which the simple answer is that it feels quite different. If people profess to feel the “spirit” behind symbols, the first thing I expect of them is that they shall feel how opposite are the adoration of the sun and the following of the star.

Christmas and the Progressive Movement, 1910

Most men need institutions to make them distinguish themselves; and they also need institutions to make them enjoy themselves. For, paradoxical as it sounds, men shrink back from enjoyment; they make one automatic step backwards from the brink of hilarity; because they know that it means the loss of dignity and a certain furious self-effacement. It is to get over this first reluctance of every reveller that men have created also coercive festivals such as Christmas Day.

The Alleged Decline of Christmas, 1910

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Tis the season...

....to revive a festive Chesterton passage that, back in September, I couldn't help quoting out of season. Chesterton wrote lots of good stuff about Christmas; it was a favourite topic with him. But I especially like this because it expresses wonderfully how salubrious Christmas is; a blast of fresh Winter air in a world, and an era, that is all too often sickly and fevered. Chesteton was never better than when he was bashing morbidity and championing simple and innocent joys.

There is 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. Those who will not rejoice in the end of the year must be condemned to lament it. We must accept the New Year as a new fact; we must be born again. No kind of culture or literary experience can save him who entirely refuses this cold bath of winter ecstasy. No poetry can be appreciated by him who cannot appreciate the mottoes in the crackers. No log-rolling can rescue him who will not roll the Yule-log. Christmas is like death and child-birth—a test of our simple virtue; and there is no other such test left in our land to-day.

"The Wrong Books at Christmas", Illustrated London News, January 9, 1909

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Shameless Self-Indulgence

A festive poem, not by Chesterton, but by yours truly. But it does use the phrase "world-creating frame" for windows, and Chesterton did write "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window." So there's kind of a link, yeah?

A Christmas Bauble

Gaze into the flickering flame
Of a homely hearth
Gaze through the world-creating frame
Of any window on the Earth.
Gaze in a grey or a hazel eye;
Gaze all night at the spangled sky;
But gaze at last, for a greater joy,
In the glow of a Christmas bauble.

This is the very mirror of mirth;
A light to proclaim
A winter's tale of a Virgin Birth
Making the world a fantastic game.
God is the giddiest thought of all,
Says the tinsel hanging on the wall
And the twinkling of that happy ball
The glow of a Christmas bauble.

The season that bears the Holy Name
Is sending forth
The tidings we were born to proclaim;
The infinite worth
Of the soul of man, and the world of things;
The wild delight of all carollings
But the homeliest hymn to the King of Kings
Is the glow of a Christmas bauble.

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

Beautiful meditation on the Nativity...

...from The Everlasting Man, quoted in the Hebdomadal Chesterton. Surely one of Chesterton's loftiest flights of eloquence. And a good example of how Chesterton's best passages defy classification; not simply devotional, not strictly philosophical, partly poetical, but perhaps most accurately described as a combination of all three.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Ballade of Suicide

I was reminded of one of Chesterton's funniest poems today by reading about the Season Six DVD of the Office, my favourite TV show (the US version, which is even better than the British version). Apparently fans were up in arms because one scene-- a pre-credits sequence which was wildly popular-- has been dropped from the DVD. The reason? It features Steve Carell's character, Michael Scott, play-acting a suicide for the benefit of some schoolchildren. (The fact that it's spectacularly inappropriate is part of the joke-- the office workers are arranging a Halloween surprise for the kids.)

I don't necessarily think NBC were wrong to drop the scene, but it made me think of Chesterton's willingness to joke about almost anything. In Orthodoxy, he wrote: "Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil". And yet he could pen a blithe ditty like this on the same subject (my favourite line is "rationalists are growing rational").

A Ballade of Suicide

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours on the wall
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me. . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay
My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall
I see a little cloud all pink and grey
Perhaps the rector's mother will NOT call
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way
I never read the works of Juvenal
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall;
Rationalists are growing rational
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray,
So secret that the very sky seems small
I think I will not hang myself to-day.


Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Scruton vs. Chesterton: Round Two!

I have been reading Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy, a gentle lament for a centuries-old tradition that now seems moribund. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain, which was more robust and less preoccupied with high culture. But both books are worth reading.

Nearly everybody who writes about the English agree that they cherish a pastoral idyll deep in their soul; that, even when they are packed into suburb and megalopis, their heart is still amongst the hedgerows. It is there in Constable, The Faerie Queen, the country house detective novel, the Shire, the poetry of Wordsworth and Housman. Scruton has this to say about it:

English loyalty was loyalty to a place domesticated by indigenous law. Hence, when war or other crises forced the English into consciousness of their historic ties, it was the country that was the object of their intensest feelings of community. In and around the two world wars books began to appear, addressed to the general reader, devoted to this or that aspect of the rural way of life. In almost all of them the assumption prevailed that somehow rural England was the essential England, and urban England, by contrast, an accident, a concession to progress or even a spiritual sham.

Stanley Baldwin was even more emphatic in a speech given to the Royal Society of St. George in 1924:

To me, England is the country, and the country is England….the sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the Empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England.

This focus on country life was especially strong amongst the Distributists and those allied to them, such as H.J. Massingham. So it is perhaps surprising that it is not an ideal shared by Chesterton; that he was, in fact, a confirmed city-dweller and urbanist. I sometimes think that this is the least remarked upon and most surprising strand of his thought.

Many quotations could be given to illustrate Chesterton’s urbanism—which verged on anti-ruralism at times—but perhaps none are more arresting than his poem, The Lamp Post:

Laugh your best, O blazoned forests,
Me ye shall not shift or shame
With your beauty: here among you
Man hath set his spear of flame.

Lamp to lamp we send the signal,
For our lord goes forth to war;
Since a voice, ere stars were builded,
Bade him colonise a star.

Laugh ye, cruel as the morning,
Deck your heads with fruit and flower,
Though our souls be sick with pity,
Yet our hands are hard with power.

We have read your evil stories,
We have heard the tiny yell
Through the voiceless conflagration
Of your green and shining hell.

And when men, with fires and shouting,
Break your old tyrannic pales;
And where ruled a single spider
Laugh and weep a million tales.

This shall be your best of boasting:
That some poet, poor of spine.
Full and sated with our wisdom,
Full and fiery with our wine,

Shall steal out and make a treaty
With the grasses and the showers,
Rail against the grey town-mother,
Fawn upon the scornful flowers;

Rest his head among the roses,
Where a quiet song-bird sounds,
And no sword made sharp for traitors,
Hack him into meat for hounds.

What made Chesterton write something like that? Perhaps it was a suspicion that, within the rural idyll, there lurks the seed of anti-natalism; a holding of the nose before the sight of suburbs and supermarkets and holiday resorts, a foreshadowing of the Nietzschean contempt for the “many-too-many”. But surely that is not a necessary accompaniment of the Arcadian dream. Furthermore, it seems a confirmed fact that all the things Chesterton cherished—faith, family, tradition, amateurism-- flourish in rural life, while fads and freaks and secularism thrive in the lands of tarmac and concrete.

All my life I have been an anglophile, and in recent years, I have become a Chestertonian. I love England and I love Chesterton, and I don’t doubt Chesterton’s patriotism or Englishness. But I often feel he stands rather outside the great tradition of English national feeling; his radicalism, his impatience with the Burkean suspicion of ideas and abstract thought (a theme much pondered and praised in Scruton’s book), his very un-Johnsonian lack of regard for monarchy and inherited rank, all of these make Chesterton’s Englishness (historically speaking) rather an unconventional kind. And I must admit that, on all these matters, my heart beats not with Chesterton’s, but with John Bull’s.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The American Chesterton Society...

...which must fairly be considered the mother of all Chesterton Societies, has a swanky new website.

I haven't had a close look myself yet, but I have no doubt it's well worth checking out-- even if the "international Chesterton societies" page makes no mention of the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chesterton vs. C.S. Lewis on Hamlet: When Christian Hearties Clash

There is an atmosphere in Hamlet, for instance, a somewhat murky and even melodramatic one, but it is subordinate to the great character, and morally inferior to him; the darkness is only a background for the isolated star of intellect.

GK Chesterton, A Midsummer Night's Dream

I believe that we read Harmlet's speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass, rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it… Particularly noticeable is the passage where Hamlet professes to be describing his own character. 'I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious.' (3, 1, 125-9). It is, of course, possible to devise some theory which explains these self-accusations in terms of character. But long before we have done so the real significance of the lines has taken possession of our imagination for ever. 'Such fellows as I’ (3, 1, 132) does not mean 'such fellows as Goethe's Hamlet, or Coleridge's Hamlet, or any Hamlet': it means men, creatures shapen in sin and conceived in iniquity -- and the vast empty vision of them 'crawling between earth and heaven’ (3, 1, 132-3) is what really counts and really carries the burden of the play.

C.S. Lewis, Hamlet, the Prince or the Poem?

For what it's worth, I agree with Lewis here.

Chesterton, MacNeice and Lewis on the Claustrophobia of Comprehensiveness

It is a commonplace that the Restoration movement can only be understood when considered as a reaction against Puritanism. But it is insufficiently realised that the tyranny which half frustrated all the good work of Puritanism was of a very peculiar kind. It was not the fire of Puritanism, the exultation in sobriety, the frenzy of a restraint, which passed away; that still burns in the heart of England, only to be quenched by the final overwhelming sea. But it is seldom remembered that the Puritans were in their day emphatically intellectual bullies, that they relied swaggeringly on the logical necessity of Calvinism, that they bound omnipotence itself in the chains of syllogism. The Puritans fell, through the damning fact that they had a complete theory of life, through the eternal paradox that a satisfactory explanation can never satisfy.

GK Chesterton, Charles II, Twelve Types

The modern monist too castrates, negates our lives
And nothing that we do, make or become survives,
His terror of confusion freezes the flowing stream
Into mere illusion, his craving for supreme
Completeness means he chokes each orifice with tight
Plaster as he evokes a dead ideal of white
All-white Universal, refusing to allow
Division or dispersal - Eternity is now
And Now is therefore numb, a fact he does not see
Postulating a dumb static identity
Of Essence and Existence which could not fuse without
Banishing to a distance belief along with doubt,
Action along with error, growth along with gaps;
If man is a mere mirror of God, the gods collapse.

Louise MacNeice, Parmenides

The human imagination has seldom had before it an objects so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces, it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered byways? No twilight? Can we really never get out of doors?

C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Waugh on Chesterton

"He was a loveable and much loved man abounding in charity and humility. Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice-- all the odious qualities-- which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the soul more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. This is the paradox of artistic achievement."

"Chesterton", Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh

For what it's worth. Personally, I have never enjoyed a line of Evelyn Waugh's writing; browsing the book from which this quotation is taken, I felt suffocated by the airless prose, and rather repelled by the solemnity with which he treats art and literature. Give my Chesterton's swingeing style any day. Of course, I am biased.

I also tend to think that good art is ultimately moral art, and that Oscar Wilde's claim that "a book is well written or badly written; that is all" is superficial. It was not Byron's egomania and decadence that wrote "She walks in beauty, like the night..." It was whatever tenderness and reverence he had preserved.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

GK Chesterton Goes to the Movies

But there is a case against the movies, and it is concerned not with crude criminology, but with much more subtle psychology. In some places it is said that the cinema has destroyed the theatre. And in another and peculiar sense it has really destroyed the old childish feeling about the theatre, and especially about going to the theatre. The theatre, of course, has not actually been destroyed, and fairy plays are still provided for the child. But when I was a child all plays were fairy plays. By fairy plays I do not mean plays about fairies, written by fairies. It was not that in an elfin drama ladies and gentlemen dressed up as elves. It was rather that in a modern drama elves had dressed up as ladies and gentlemen. The whole play, the whole theatre, the whole fact that there was any play or any theatre, seemed to me something produced by a spell or the stroke of a wizard’s wand…Every man of my age has had that purely theatrical thrill. When every allowance is made, I gravely doubt whether every child who haunts the cinema really has it. Cinemas are so numerous, so cheap, and so changing and disconnected, that I do believe that the spectators soon lose, if they ever had, that romantic and almost religious intensity in the experience.

Pleasure-Seeking in the Modern World, Illustrated London News, December 9, 1922

How could Chesterton have been so utterly wrong? I have attended the cinema hundreds of times in my life. I have often gone to see films up to five times. I’ve sat in packed theatres, and once or twice I’ve been literally the only person in the audience (for instance, for the 2004 film The Alamo.)

I’ve had plenty of time to lose “that romantic and almost religious intensity of the experience”—but I haven’t. From the first film I was brought to see (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when I was seven years old—I didn’t realise the seats folded down and was literally on the edge of my seat for the first while), to my latest trip to the flicks (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a few hours ago), the magic has never faded. In fact, I believe it’s grown more potent.

“Romantic and religious intensity” is a good phrase for it. There are very experiences in secular life that match the cinema for its atmosphere of solemn ecstasy; and the solemnity and the ecstasy are there no matter what the film is about. Even the most witless comedy or the most nihilistic art-flick takes on a certain grandeur, given the size of the screen. Even the fluffiest chick-flick can’t help being solemn, set against the incomparable darkness of a movie theatre.

I love it all. The films titles on the marquee; the movie posters on the cinema wall; the smell of popcorn and hot dogs drifting from the shop; the delicious anticipation of walking into the darkened auditorium; the empty aisles before a film; the piped music; the heavy folded curtains, the rather genteel ornamentation so many cinemas prefer; the trailers (often the best part of the whole trip); the studio logo (Columbia is my favourite); the goosepimply moment when the censor’s certificate is displayed; whatever whispers and giggles and shrieks and cheers come from the audience; the moment of repletion when the credits roll; the rediscovery of the outside world, an outside world made more vivid, if the film has done its work; and the post-film analysis, which can begin right there and then if you’ve gone with a companion, and can be revisited for years into the future. (I especially love “event” movies, like the Lord of the Rings series, where everybody seems to join in the analysis).

The few cinema references I’ve encountered in Chesterton have been unenthusiastic, even disparaging. I can’t blame him too much for this; how many films from his era could you happily sit through? (I managed to endure The Battleship Potemkin a few years ago; it might be a monument in film-making, but it’s also monumentally dull.) But there’s something pleasing in the thought that even Chesterton, the apostle of wonder, couldn’t keep up with the wonders of the world. And it’s salutary for a laudator temporis acti (or stuck-in-the-mud nostalgist) like me to realise that modernity has brought its marvels, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"The Parson Is Not Dull Because..."

"...he is always expounding theology, but because he has no theology to expound. This is quite as true of bad theology as of good; of things I utterly disbelieve as of things I believe. The old Scotch Calvnistic sermons kept a very high intellectual average, and intensely interested the Scottish peasants who were trained under them. And this is not so much because theology is necessary to religion, as simply because logic is necessary to theology. Logic is at least a game, and the old Calvinistic preachers played the game. It was a fine, fantastic exercise in Lewis Carroll's game of logic, to take any text from the chronicles of Christianity and reconcile it with the creed of Calvin. It took some doing; and it was amusing to see it done. The Scotch peasants went eagerly every Sabbath to see a Presbyterian minister performing like an acrobat. But there was some real fun, because there was some real thinking. And there was some real thinking because there was some real theology."

Written in the year before Chesterton became a Roman Catholic. From "Why People Don't Go to Church", the Illustrated London News, August 27, 1921

Sunday, November 14, 2010

GK Chesterton and William Shatner

At around the same time I rediscovered Christmas, which I had pretended to dislike for many years. I slipped into a carol service on a winter evening, diffident and anxious not to be seen. I knew perfectly well that I was enjoying it, though I was unwilling to admit it. A few days later, I went to another one, this time with more confidence, and actually sang.

Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God, 2010

For, paradoxical as it sounds, men shrink from enjoyment; they make one automatic step backwards from the brink of hilarity; because they know that it means the loss of dignity and a certain furious self-effacement. It is to get over this first reluctance of every reveller that men have created also coercive festivals such as Christmas Day.

GK Chesterton, The Alleged Decline of Christmas, The Illustrated London News, January 8 1910

Two quotations a century apart, both touching a subject I find increasingly fascinating. It’s extraordinary how everything that really matters—everything that ennobles, uplifts and affirms life—is intensely embarrassing.

I can’t avoid being autobiographical here. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that, “Fear and I were born twins.” Well, I sometimes think I was born Siamese twins with embarrassment. This might be one source of my longstanding anglophilia, as England sometimes seems like a society built on social discomfort. The English tendency to embarrassment is well described by Kate Fox in her excellent Watching the English, most amusingly in this passage about the English attitude to greeting:

But even among those with no class prejudice about ‘Pleased to meet you’, who believe it is the correct and polite thing to say, this greeting is rarely delivered with ringing confidence: it is usually mumbled rather awkwardly, and as quickly as possible – ‘Plstmtye’. This awkwardness may, perversely, occur precisely because people believe they are saying the ‘correct’ thing. Formality is embarrassing. But then, informality is embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing.

Everything is indeed embarrasing; but some things are much more embarrassing than others. Poetry, for instance (and taking poetry seriously). Sentimentality. Unfashionable opinions. Ritual. Ceremony. Honouring the past. Making a stand and consciously departing from convention.

In fact, all the things I came to care about more and more as I made my way through my teens and twenties were painfully embarrassing. It was a bit of a pickle; I bewailed the modern world’s lack of ritual and ceremony, while I found so much as shaking hands or clinking glasses mortifying. I bitterly regretted that I could not kneel to a monarch, agreeing with Yeats that “my medieval knees lack health until they bend”, while even saying “good morning” made me blush. I longed for a revival of my country’s national traditions, but couldn’t even say Dia dhuit (God be with you, an Irish greeting) without squirming.

Perhaps the phenomenon of “cultural cringe” is most noticeable in post-colonial nations such as Ireland, but we should remember what George Orwell said about English patriotism and the intellectual class:

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box.

Whatever about other great nations and major powers, there’s no doubt that Ireland suffers to an even greater extent from the same sniggering mentality. We often use the term Oirish to denote any institution, custom or tradition that is not “forward-looking”, metropolitan and self-consciously sophisticated. Before Riverdance made it cool, Irish dancing made us want to hide our faces. I feel panicky if someone starts speaking the Irish language around me, and I know other Irish people have the same reaction. Writers like Thomas Moore, Percy French and John D. Sheridan are patronised for using a “stage Irish” stereotype. (Patrick Kavanagh would call such writers "buckleppers".) I remember a female friend of mine (an enthusiast for the Irish language) marvelling that a mutual friend would actually wear an Aran sweater (a very handsome and practical garment) on a night out.

Of course, when it comes to religion, the squirm-o-meter goes off the charts. Samuel Johnson said: “My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any unusual place. Now, although rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid that there are so many that do not pray, that their understanding is not called into question”. I can’t help believing that even many religious people, these days, would feel intensely self-conscious in praying in public, or suggesting a prayer at some public event. I know I would.

But the irony is that most of us, even agnostics and non-belligerent atheists, seem to value the cultural and aesthetic elements of religion. The Marian shrines dotted around Ireland, even (touchingly) in the most prosaic of suburbs, are a favourite with tourists and photographers. I can’t pass the (admittedly tacky) statue of Jesus on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, erected by taxi-drivers, without feeling a pang for the time when such a public display of piety was entirely natural. And who could regret the hundreds of thousands of St. Bridget’s crosses in doorways and car windows all over Ireland, or the houses named after saints? There is a Dublin football team called Stella Maris, formed during the Second World War. I think the entire social, cultural and religious decline of the Irish nation can be illustrated by the fact that a football team could, sixty years ago, choose such a poetic and reverential name for itself, and that such a tribute would be unthinkable in today’s Ireland. We would be far too embarrassed.

What has all this to do with William Shatner? Well, not much, to be honest; I just thought it would be a snappy and eye-catching title. But there is some connection. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time (far too much) laughing over William Shatner’s spoken-word rendition of Elton John’s Rocket Man at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards (available on Youtube). It’s hammy beyond belief, cringe-inducing, fist-biting, and—I slowly began to realise, over months—utterly inspired and brilliant. Precisely because it throws caution to the wind and dares to be mortifying. The very thing makes us cringe makes it compelling.

We cannot aim at profundity without risking (and maybe achieving) bathos. We cannot strive after splendour and grandeur without being accused of kitsch and camp. We cannot show reverence without risking a titter-- and the more reverence, the more titters.

We might even say that, the more something makes us embarrassed, the more worthwhile it's likely to be. Perhaps we should practice mortifications in more sense than one.

Incidentally, the first Amazon.com review for Shatner’s original, and much-mocked, spoken-word album, The Transformed Man (contributed by a star reviewer, and not tongue-in-cheek) begins: “Let me just come right out and say it: I think William Shatner's The Transformed Man is brilliant - brilliant, I say….Call it a novelty album if you like, but I sincerely believe this is one of the most underappreciated works of musical genius ever recorded. Heaven help me, but I really and truly love this album.”

That might be overstating it, but I wouldn’t mind hearing The Transformed Man (and I love the title, too, especially since it reminds me of The Everlasting Man). In fact, if anyone feels like getting me a Christmas present…

posted by Maolsheachlann

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Through a Window

(This is something I posted on the predecessor to this blog, the Irish Chestertonian, last year-- Maolsheachlann.)

I can't remember the first time I heard of GK Chesterton, or the first time I read him. It may have been Lepanto, which I came across in an old school poetry anthology. But I do remember the first Chestertonian passage that spoke to me personally, that gave me that shock of surprised recognition which is a reader's greatest reward. I was flicking through his Autobiography, some nine years ago, and I hit upon this famous sentence: "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

We are often warned not to reduce an author or a philosopher to a single phrase, or a single idea. But are we really doing Chesterton and injustice in perpetually returning to that single word, wonder, as his essential message?

Coming across that sentence, again, while reading Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy has led me to think about the ideas, the sights and sounds, that spark my own sense of wonder. I'm boundlessly grateful for them, as they are entirely a gift. I could make become a millionaire far more easily than I could be shown the wonder in an everyday sight or sound, and I mean that literally.

Chesterton's mention of a window suggests the first example to me. I grew up in a high-rise estate, on the seventh floor of an apartment block. Sometimes I would have dreams about figures floating outside the window, like the vampiric boy in the miniseries of Salem's Lot. I grew up with the idea that for somebody to be outside the window of your home (a situation I often encountered in books) was exotic, miraculous, unearthly.

For about nine years now I've been on ground level with everybody else, but the marvel of the voice outside the window remains. It can be a group of little girls skipping on a Saturday morning. It can be a crowd of teenagers lurching home from the pub on a Saturday night. It can simply be the creak of a bicycle wheel. Even now, they all seem as wondrous to me as the sight of a mammoth or a Roman chariot. That mysterious Other outside my window is only feet away; but the sheet of glass between us divides us into separate realms. I know that this sense of marvel at a voice outside my window will follow me to my dying day, and I am unspeakably grateful for it.

Because that's the thing about wonder; its inexhaustibility. If I were to inherit a fortune tomorrow, I would probably get over the excitement of living in a mansion. But I will never get over the excitement of the lights going down in the cinema, or the sound of water gurgling in a drain, or the view into an upstairs bedroom as I pass a house on the bus, and marvel at the living dolls in the life-size dollhouse.

Because I could write on this theme forever, I will be stern with myself and only mention one more, perhaps because it illustrates another of Chesterton's aphorisms; namely, that an inconvenience is only an adventure, rightly considered. I can remember reading a pamphlet on stress, issued by some health authority or other, when I was a child. The pamphlet described the various situations that lead to stress, and gave chirpy suggestions on how to deal with them.

One was a traffic jam. If I had a Chestertonian memory, I could reproduce the passage verbatim, but the essence of it was: "Try to smile at another driver caught in the traffic jam."

I had never been in a traffic jam. My family had never owned a car, and I had rarely travelled in one. My school was within walking distance. To my naive mind, the thought of a traffic jam was immensely pleasing. I liked the idea of complete strangers thrown together, like the kids in detention in The Breakfast Club, or-- pretty much-- every set of characters in every adventure story whatsoever. It had all the charm of a desert island captivity. I wondered how anyone could help smiling in such a situation.

I'd like to pretend that I exult in traffic jams now, just as I thrill to the sound of a voice outside my window. Unfortunately, my imagination has been less helpful on this occasion; I've found myself becoming as cross, frustrated and aggrieved as anybody else in my (subsequently vast) experience of traffic jams.

The memory of the pamphlet only occured to me recently, when I had started to think-- partly spurred by Chesterton's writing, partly by the course of my own thoughts-- how much we miss inconveniences when they are taken away, and how much human drama they add to our lives. Do you remember breakdowns in TV transmission? "Here is some music"? Have you ever heard a thirty-something wax nostalgic over how, when he was a kid, loading a game on his Amstrad of Spectrum computer took longer than playing it? Have you ever noticed how twenty-somethings who detested having to wear uniforms in school flock to nostalgia discos where school uniform is compulsory? Have you ever felt sorry for a teenager with her own car?

So now I try to exult in the traffic jam, and savour the queue. Maybe I'll never entirely succeed in that endeavour. But at least I know the voice outside the window will always be a voice from fairyland.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I Don't Know What To Tell You, Virginia

On his terrific blog (which I freely admit I often struggle to follow), Thomistic philsopher Edward Feser argues that it is wrong to tell children Santa Claus exists. Interestingly, the first comment on the post (not by me, but by someone by the name RP) quotes Chesterton to this effect: "Personally, of course, I believe in Santa Claus; but it is the season of forgiveness, and I will forgive others for not doing so." (GKC)

It seems plain from this, and from the passage I quoted in this post (I'm sure many others could be found) that Chesterton approved of parents passing on the Santa Claus story, or at least did not frown on them for so doing.

Not that I would presume to argue with Edward Feser, and rationally I cannot mount a defence of the practice myself, especially since Feser insists it has been condemned by manualists and Catholic authorities. But it seems a pity to me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why GK Chesterton Doesn't Matter

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.


It has been said that Chesterton was too modest in this passage-- that his book on Browning, just like his books on Dickens and Chaucer and Saint Thomas Aquinas, were very much about their subjects-- but it's plain to see what he was getting at. None of Chesterton's biographies idolise their subjects. In fact, idolatry was one of the great sins that Chesterton railed against all his life; whether that idolatry lay in making a single half-truth overshadow Truth itself, or whether it lay in seeing some secondary thing (such as efficiency or art) as being of primary importance.

Chesterton was not all interested in himself. Nor should we be.

This subject came to mind while I read some Chesterton criticism. One of the reasons I think GKC is always interesting is because he is always writing about fundamentals. He may write a rhapsody on a pig, or an essay on a piece of chalk, or a meditation on the lack of statutes erected to Shakespeare in England. But always, he is writing about man, his place in the universe, and his relationship to God. His writing always seems to belong to the tavern, no matter how arcane the subject he happens to be addressing.

I believe (obviously) that there is a place in the world for a GK Chesterton Society, and for Chestertonian blogs. But let Chesterton be a guide, not a guru-- and certainly not a golden calf.

I haven't read all of GKC's works, and I have no intention of doing so. I don't think there is any great benefit in studying his occasional verse or digging up his juvenilia. I am not especially interested in the houses he lived in, the friends he dined with, or the books he read.

But I think our era needs the spirit of Chesterton-- his bottomless gratitude for existence, his impatience with morbidity and snobbery and nihlism, his championing of the ordinary and the humble-- even more than his own did.

To quote the recent words of Dr. Thursday, of the American Chesterton Society's blog:

And so... well... what really has to be said in such a conclusion? Only this: Let us take GKC's warnings about pride seriously, and let us keep things in their proper order: let us strive to be Christians who also read Chesterton, not Chestertonians who also read the gospels. Let us heed the warning given in GKC's own discussion of St. Francis, who did not want people to follow him, but to follow Christ...Let us be serious about our Chesterton, and thereby turn society back - to our Lord.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From "Some Fallacies and Santa Claus"

Some complain that parents will not tell their children whether Santa Claus exists or not. The parents do not tell them for the excellent reason that the parents do not know. Those who have thought their way deepest into the mysteries of man's life in nature have generally tended to the idea that there were principles, and very probably personal principles, behind the energies in places, seasons, occupations, and periods of life.

Some Fallacies and Santa Claus, The Nation, December 7 1912. Reprinted in the Chesterton Review, 1981

I felt like whooping with delight when I read that last line. So Chesterton believed, or at least, he was inclined to believe, that (to quote Tennyson) "a spirit haunts the year's last hours"; that a spirit hovers over the breakfast table; that there is a genius loci in the market square. I believed this without thinking when I was a child, and even today, the idea haunts me. Without being irreverent, I yearn for the days when I would have immediately concurred with Thales of Miletus that "everything is full of gods".

Monday, October 25, 2010

On Reverence and Reactionaries

“Irreverence is a very servile parasite of reverence; and has starved with its starving Lord.”

I quoted this line from Chesterton in a recent post. Thinking about it since, it seems to be more and more significant, probably one of the wisest thing Chesterton has ever written.

One of the ironies of our modern world is that the term reactionary is applied to entirely the wrong people and the wrong opinions. When we use the term “reactionary”, we imagine a red-faced retired headmaster writing indignant letters to the editor, demanding a return to caning in schools. But the truth is that it is the progressive and the liberal who are really reactionary. They are defined by the things they are reacting against—religion, tradition, nationalism, convention, romanticism, sex roles. Unlike their targets, they have no centre of gravity of their own.

Take, for example, the subject of sex. Our ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman have been under attack for several decades now. A man who has a sex change operation must not be called a man; even a man who doesn’t want to go to the trouble of a sex change operation but who considers himself a member of the opposite sex must be humoured. Undergraduates who sign up to a sociology course are told that notions of gender are entirely arbitrary, as well as being instruments of oppression. Many years after Boy George and David Bowie blazed the trail, pop stars continue to gender bend with glee. The LGBT acronym seems to pick up more letters each time I encounter it; even “gay” now seems hopeslessly antiquated and old-fashioned—like calling a black person “coloured”.

The interesting thing about this whirl of sexual identities is that it continues to spin around those eternal poles—the pole of man and woman, masculinity and feminity. Occasionally we hear claims that there is, or has been, “a third sex” in some far-off or long-ago culture. Further investigation proves that this “third sex” consists of men dressed up as women. Homosexual culture seems to veer between the effete and the butch, in a vain effort to mark out its own territory.

We could, if we wanted, jettison the terms “masculine” and “feminine”, and concentrate on the specifics of behaviour—mascara and machismo, stilettos and soccer. But that eternal dualism would endure, no matter how much we ignored it. All the colours of the rainbow, in this context, resolve themselves to pink and blue, and everybody knows it. We can blur and muddy and mix those colours—but we can never introduce a third one.

The same point applies to modern art—and I think the point is even more obvious here. Who can doubt that modern art, along with post-modern art and all the other forms of avant-garde experimentation, are entirely reactionary? If an iconoclastic film-maker makes a movie that seems to be sailing towards a happy ending—let us say, a cynical businessman being redeemed by a taste of small-town life—and then pointedly avoids it, who can doubt that the strategem is entirely derivative? You’ll only understand it if you know the convention it overturns. Rhyme is the ghost that haunts free verse, and beauty is the spectre that hangs over brutalism. Traditional art, traditional story-telling, traditional poetry—these all exist in their own right. Avant-garde art forms are merely a gloss upon them—or, more accurately, a reaction to them.

Cosmopolitanism, by the same token, is entirely reliant upon national and local cultures. We cannot mix and match unless we have the basic ingredients, which—in true TV style—have been made earlier. Nobody could be an internationalist if nobody had ever been insular.

This priority of reverence over irreverence is both a logical and psychological truth. It is obvious to any Irish person that De Valera’s Ireland, the Ireland that dreamed of grey Connemara cloth, Cuchaillin, and the contest of athletic youths, has never ceased to haunt the Irish imagination. The more we seek to renounce it, the more obsessed by it we become. Dramatists and novelists and artists go back to fifties Ireland, seeking in that supposedly drab and grim world the colour and passion our own blasé and jaded Ireland lacks.. Film-makers return to the ritual and iconography of the hated Catholic Church, realising that there is nothing in the social life of post-Catholic Ireland to match its dramatic effect. Films like The Magdalen Sisters and Song for a Raggy Boy have it both ways, maligning the Church while soaking up the atmosphere of the sacred. Even Father Ted relied on a vanishing world of Irish rural life for its laughs. The recent lowbrow comedy Zonad conjured up an Irish village caught in a nineteen-fifties timewarp.

The world needs reverence, whether it lauds it or lampoons it. It is the five-year-old believer in Santa Claus who gives the gift of Christmas to a house of grown-ups. Cathedrals are not built for their own sake. Even jokes could never exist in a world where nobody was solemn—any more than a lie could work in a world where nobody was ever truthful. Satire would be stillborn if everybody was self-aware, and never forgot themselves long enough to act ridiculously.

And above all—though this may be a proposition impossible to prove—awe and wonder would disappear entirely from the world, if there was nobody to worship the source of all awe and wonder, God. That is the dazzling light that every other marvel reflects. Everybody, stunned by beauty and the numinous, gropes instinctively for words like magic and holy. And when we are told to turn away from that effulgence, sooner or later we are faced with the question: "Where would we go, Lord?".

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chesterton and Ireland

This is a paper I read at the last Chesterton Society meeting-- Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh.

Since this is the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland, there could be hardly a subject more appropriate than Chesterton and Ireland. Unfortunately the subject is a vast one, and far beyond my capacities, so all I can offer here is a few observations.

Ireland played an important role in Chesterton’s life. His most famous literary creation, the detective-priest father Brown, was based upon an Irish Catholic priest, Father John O’Connor—the very priest who received Chesterton into the Catholic Church in 1922. The ceremony took place in a shed with a corrugated tin roof, since Battersea—where Chesterton lived—had no Catholic Church of its own.

Another Irishman who played an important part in Chesterton’s life was George Bernard Shaw, who was an intellectual opponent and a much-esteemed friend. Chesterton and Shaw admired each other immensely, though they disagreed on almost every subject imaginable. Shaw said of Chesterton: “He was a man of colossal genius.” Chesterton said of Shaw: “ It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

W.B. Yeats was another Irish writer who Chesterton admired immensely and often quoted, often in passing and without attribution—which is surely the best form of tribute to any writer. He described him as “by far the greatest poet who has written in English for decades”.

And to borrow the title of one Yeats’s works, it may be argued that Chesterton viewed Ireland as the land of heart’s desire. Ireland was, it may be said, an embodiment of everything he admired—it was a piously Catholic country, it was a land of small farmers that had been relatively untouched by industrialisation and big business, and it was small.

To take the first point first. Chesterton had a love of smallness that is a running motif throughout all his work. In probably his greatest book, the little volume of apologetics called Orthodoxy, he complains of those scientifically-minded secularists who rhapsodise about the size of the universe, saying:

These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

In his much-admired novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—incidentally, this was said to be a book that Michael Collins admired—he evokes a London divided into tiny principalities, and his pleasure in describing the flags and heraldry and cermonies they employ is obvious. He was a staunch defender of the family, and a lifelong enemy of Imperialism. One of his famous tropes was the story of St. George fighting the dragon. His famous long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, describes the battle of King Alfred against the Danes. It is perhaps significant that this occurred at a time when Christian England had shrunk to a portion of the country, the rest of it occupied by the Danelaw of the pagans. It is irreverent to suppose that Chesterton secretly wished to trim a dozen or counties so from the edges of England, but he was a lifelong Little Englander—in the best sense of that term—and he was opposed to the Empire not only for the oppression it inflicted on other peoples, but for the unwelcome grandeur and pomp it bestowed on his own country. To Chesterton, the true England was the England of Chaucer, not the England of Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt. It should be remembered that his opposition to Imperialism, which we presume would be de rigeur to an intellectual, came at a time when British Imperialism was highly respectable amongst the cultured classes—even progressive writers like Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw often supported imperialism, seeing it as a step towards the collectivism of their dreams.

Chesterton came to prominence during the Boer War, when he went against the current of national opinion—both the Liberal and Conservative parties, along with most intellectuals, supported the war. Chesterton, an unknown young journalist at the time, hated the jingoism and triumphalism that the war unleashed amongst the English people. He believed that moneyed interests had driven England to go to war against the South African republics. The parallels with Anglo-Irish history are obvious—and it should also be noted that Chesterton was raised in a liberal family who would have been firm supporters of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule.

This love of smallness might seem in contradiction to the second aspect of Ireland that Chesterton admired—its Catholicism. Catholicism is anything but a minority faith, and Protestant England could successfully pose for many centuries as St. George against the Dragon of Catholic Europe.

Even though Chesterton, as I have mentioned, did not convert to the Catholic Church until 1922—when he was forty-eighy years old, and after about two decades of championing Christianity against all comers—all of his works are so Catholic in tone that Catholic readers might be surprised to realize that his road to Rome stretched so long. He had a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which his biographer and Maisie Ward described as “chronic”, writing odes to her even in his Unitarian boyhod. He was an outspoken admirer of England’s medieval and pre-Reformation past.

When he first became a Christian, Chesterton assumed a position much like C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”. In Orthodoxy, written in 1908, he wrote: These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed.”

But that question is inescapable, and it seems surprising that so bold a thinker as Chesterton remained an Anglican, since all his instincts seemed to propel him towards the Catholic Church. There has been almost as much speculation on the reasons for this hesitation as there has been on Hamlet’s tardiness in bumping off his uncle. Many say that the principal reason was his beloved wife Frances’s Anglo-Catholicism; Chesterton feared his conversion would grieve her. In fact, she followed him into the Church some years later (entirely on her own initative, she insisted). Another reason given is that Chesterton—who for all his willingness to castigate his home country, even writing a book titled the Crimes of England, was passionately patriotic—considered Catholicism to be an unEnglish religion. (If we find this a rather feeble reason, we may note that the English writer Peter Hitchens, whose recent book The Rage Against the God has been well-reviewed in Catholic circles, has given much the same reason for remaining an Anglican, despite his dissatisfaction with the modernising spirit in Anglicanism.)

In any case, the point is that even before his eventual conversion, Chesterton was an essentially Catholic writer, and here is another fascination that Ireland held for him. But it wasn’t just the majority denomination of Ireland that appealed to him. It was the piety of the people. All his life Chesterton praised and appealed to the common man above all cliques and elites—one of his anthologies of essays even bears the title The Common Man. But he was well aware that the common man in England was, already by the time he was writing, not a practicing Christian. The common man of Ireland, on the contrary, was.

In his critical study of Chaucer, Chesterton lamented this difference between medieval England and modern England—a degeneration from an objective, public religion held by all to a subjective, private religion held by some. He wrote:

This is perhaps the deepest difference between medieval and modern life, and the difference is so great that many never imagine it, because it is impossible to describe it. We may even say that the modern world is more religious, because the religious are more religious….But we may be practically certain that if there is a modern man like the Miller of the Reeve, he has not got any religion at all. He certainly would not go on a religious pilgrimage, or perform any religious duty at all…the modern problem is more and more the problem of keeping the company together at all; and the company was kept together because it was going to Canterbury.

However, in 1932, Chesterton attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and witnessed a living display of popular piety. In a slim volume on the subject, titled Christendom in Dublin, he wrote:

Nobody who was been in Dublin for a week as I have been during the Eucharistic Congress can doubt that Ireland is passionately religious; and especially that the Irish populace is passionately religious….Nobody who has lived in England all his life, as I have lived in England, can doubt that modern England, with its many manly and generous virtues, has become largely indifferent to religion.

In his book on George Bernard Shaw, he could write, in the same vein::

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth.

How melancholy it is to read those words today, and feel the transformation that has occurred.

The third characteristic of Ireland that endeared it to Chesterton was its preponderance of small farms. We are so used to seeing this aspect of Ireland’s history satirised, as a source of greed, loneliness and narrow-mindedness—for instance, in The Field by John B. Keane—that it might be surprising to learn that Chesterton, along with many of his contemporaries, hailed it as the ideal economic system. For many years he edited The Distributist Review. The philosophy of distributism was sometimes compressed into the slogan “three acres and a cow” for every citizen. It was as hostile to big business as it was to socialism, and advocated the widest distributism of property feasible. In his book Irish Impressions, Chesterton describes travelling down a road in the North-West of the country, and noticing that the harvest on the right side of the road, which consisted of small farms, was neatly gathered, while the harvest on the left side of the road, a large modern estate, was “rotting in the rain”. He wrote:

Now I do, as a point of personal opinion, believe that the right side of the road was really the right side of the road. That is, I believe it represented the right side of the question; that these little pottering peasants had got hold of the true secret, which is missed both by Capitalism and Collectivism.

But Chesterton’s solicitude for Ireland when further than mere admiration. As a patriotic Englishman, he admitted to a sense of vicarious guilt when it came to England’s past in Ireland. In his essay “Paying for Patriotism”, which argues that a patriot should feel shame for his country’s misdeeds as well as pride in its achievements, he ironically wrote:

It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered.

But for all Chesterton’s generosity towards the Irish, he was not an uncritical admirer of this country’s political and intellectual life. One notion that drew his satire was the cult of the Celt, which was very fashionable at the time he was writing. In Celts and Celtophiles, he wrote:

It is impossible to hear without impatience of the attempt so constantly made among her modern sympathizers to talk about Celts and Celticism. Who were the Celts? I defy anybody to say. Who are the Irish? I defy any one to be indifferent, or to pretend not to know. Mr. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish genius who has appeared in our time, shows his own admirable penetration in discarding altogether the argument from a Celtic race. But he does not wholly escape, and his followers hardly ever escape, the general objection to the Celtic argument.

To Chesterton, a nation was a spiritual entity, while a race was merely a pesudo-scientific construct.

Considering Chesterton’s sympathy with Irish national opinion, it might be a surprise to learn that his longest Irish-themed book, Irish Impressions, published in 1919, drew on Chesterton’s attemps to recruit Irish men into the British Army during the Great War. Chesterton was an enthusiastic supporter of World War One, and remained one until his death. Given Ireland’s massive hostility towards conscription, it is perhaps indicative of Chesterton’s popularity in Ireland that he was treated, as his book shows, with courtesy.

Chesterton himself described the idea of Irish conscription as “rank raving madness”; and yet he still appealed to the Irish to volunteer in what he say as a defence of European civilization. He wrote: “If the Irish were what Cromwell thought they were, they might well confine their attention to Hell and Connaught, and have no sympathy to spare for France. But if the Irish are what Wolfe Tone thought they were, they must be interested in France, as he was interested in France. In short, if the Irish are barbarians, they need not trouble about other barbarians sacking the cities of the world; but if they are citizens, they must trouble about the cities that are sacked”. Even today, despite the best efforts of historical revisionism, I think this is an argument that would find few sympathizers in Ireland.

He described the Easter Rising in the same book as “a black and insane blunder”, since the Irish had attacked the British Empire at the one moment when its cause happened to be just. “Does anybody”, he wrote, “want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side of the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten?”. Considering the verdict of history on World War One, we may now find a rather bitter irony in the rhetorical question.

But, like all great authors, Chesterton is doomed to be reduced to a handful of familiar quotations; and of all the books and articles he wrote upon Ireland, all that seems certain to endure is the puckish quatrain from the Ballad of the White Horse;

For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad

For all their wars are merry

And all their songs are sad.

Monday, October 11, 2010

We Need to Talk About Gilbert

So the "difficult second meeting" hump has been surmounted and the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland is now a time-hallowed, ivy-strewn institution!

We met last Saturday in the cosy surroundings of the Central Catholic Library, which is indeed a much-overlooked cultural treasure. Librarian Peter Costello even showed us some original copies of GK's Weekly, as well as giving us a tour of the library. Several new members attended.

Proceedings began with a lengthy paper by your blog host on the subject of Chesterton and Ireland. Having patiently endured this, the attendees fell to discussing many aspects of Chesterton's work, including Distributism, poetry, the Father Brown stories and Chesterton's historical writings.

Angelo Bottone then made several announcements, including the fact that our English counterparts were holding a Chesterton conference in Beaconsfield on the very same day.

After that Peter Costello showed us around the library itself. There was much enthusiasm for future meetings.

Thanks to everybody for coming!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

See you on Saturday

I should have announced this sooner via the blog (I've already announced it via the Facebook page). The second meeting of the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland will be held on Saturday, the ninth of this month, in the Central Catholic Library at 74 Merrion Square, Dublin 2, at half-three.

Hope you can make it!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Heresies and Humanity

Atheism is, I suppose, the supreme example of a simple faith. The man says there is no God; if he really says it in his heart, he is a certain sort of man so designated in Scripture. But, anyhow, when he has said it, he has said it; and there seems to be no more to be said. The conversation seems likely to languish. The truth is that the atmosphere of excitement, by which the atheist lived, was an atmosphere of thrilled and shuddering theism, and not of atheism at all; it was an atmosphere of defiance and not of denial. Irreverence is a very servile parasite of reverence; and has starved with its starving lord. After this first fuss about the merely atheistic effect of blasphemy, the whole thing vanishes into its own void. If there were no God, there would be no atheists.

Where all Roads Lead, 1922

Is atheism a faith? Anyone who has spent any time listening to debates on religion is probably sick of the question. Atheists and secularists react with hand-waving indignation when accused of having their own dogma. They claim that it's a cheap trick by the believer to turn the tables on them; that they also have beliefs, but beliefs based on proof and empirical verification, and which are always open to revision; and the only reason they pay so much attention to religion is because religion imposes on them and their lives.

It's a fair argument, but I don't think anybody is really convinced. That kind of sober atheism-- one which is a simple refusal to believe in divinity, and doesn't come with any other baggage-- barely seems to exist in the world. We seem to be faced with a choice between religion and anti-religion. Atheism usually comes with a whole corpus of non-scientific belief; support for human rights (whatever they are supposed to derive from), for the scientific method as a duty as much as a tool, for the transcendental importance of knowledge and discovery, for a faith in human progress. Atheism does not demand faith, to be sure. But it usually comes with it.

The funny thing is, the faith of atheists is their most endearing trait-- at least, it is to me. For them, the refracted light of the sacred shines upon science and social change. Well, at least they have retained a need for the sacred and the sublime, even if they relocate it to the Hubble telescope- what Freud would term the return of the repressed.

In the same way, communists and socialists have often been accused of a dreary materialism, an inhuman attachment to dialectic. That, of course, is poppycock. Nobody is more romantic than a Trotskyist. She might hotly deny being a romantic; but who can doubt that she is stirred by the exhilaration of revolution, of renunciation, of faith in the messianic mission of the proletariat?

I knew a communist who complained about people working on May first. I didn't have the gall to ask her if Labour Day should be kept sacred. But it seemed rather ridiculous to me that a materialist would attach such importance to ceremonial, to tradition.

Ridiculous-- but also, strangely redeeming. Real, sober socialism is a hateful thing. But the cult of socialism-- singing The Red Flag, calling each other comrade, waving hammer and sickle banners, Che Guevera t-shirts-- who can resist a certain fondness for all those trappings? As Chesterton wrote in Heretics: "I myself, to take a corpus vile, am very certain that I would not read the works of Comte through for any consideration whatever. But I can easily imagine myself with the greatest enthusiasm lighting a bonfire on Darwin Day."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Alfred and the Cakes

And the earth shook and the King stood still
Under the greenwood bough
And the smoking cake lay at his feet
And the blow was on his brow.

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,
In a wild solemnity,
On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,
On one man laughing at himself
Under the greenwood tree--

The giant laughter of Christian men
That roars through a thousand tales,
Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,
And Jack's away with his master's lass,
And the miser is banged with all his brass,
The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,
Yet end not all in scorning--
Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,
And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right,
That the mummers sing upon Christmas night
And Christmas Day in the morning.

From "The Ballad of the White Horse"

Chesterton's poetry is of uneven quality (but then, couldn't you say the same about even the greatest poets, such as Tennyson and Wordsworth)? But now and again he soared, and I think the last three lines of this extract are as fine as any in the language.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chestertonian Exercises

It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. (Orthodoxy)

So I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: "Wine is good with everything except water," and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine. (On Running After One's Hat, All Things Considered)

"They don't know they're born". What a poetic saying that is, and how much it applies to us all! One of Chesterton's most common themes-- and a central theme of Christianity, of course-- is the need for perpetual rebirth and renewal. We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are born-- we have to fan the flame of wonder and gratitude in our own souls.

Here are some of my own mental exercises in doing just that:

If you are walking down a city street, imagine how much you would like to walk down the same street a hundred or two hundred years ago, or a hundred years in the future, and pretend you are a time traveller visiting our own day. This is the temporal equivalent to being a tourist at home. Remember that every day is a unique, unrepeatable moment in time-- and what a strange idea that really is.

Imagine you have no shoes, or are in one of those dreams where you’re wearing no trousers (yes, I’ve had them), or that you’re trapped on a bitterly cold day without adequate clothing. Feel what a wonderful thing it is to be clothed and warm.

Think of the fresh air that you breathe, that surrounds you at every moment, and drink it in.

Look at the shops around you and imagine that conglomeration had advanced so far that all small businesses had been swallowed up by one or two retail giants. Imagine a whole street of Tesco. Then thank God for all the different shop signs in your field of vision.

Imagine everybody could hear everybody else’s thoughts, and enjoy the delicious cosiness of having your own mental retreat.

If you are a man, look at a passing woman and reflect how strange it is to share a world with such beings—as though unicorns and fairies were to be seen out every window. As Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy: I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself.

If you are young, or middle-aged, look at an old person and think of the world they carry around in their memories—one that is as inaccessible to us as Homer’s Greece. Honour them as “a traveller from an antique land”.

Listen to the accents being spoken around you, and reflect on the fact that every region on Earth has its own unique way of speaking. Isn’t it odd? And isn’t it amazing?

Look at the old buildings around you, and think how dramatically satisfying it is that new stories are played out on the same stage—new stories, linked to the old ones. Think how extraordinary it is that we know of the lives that have passed before our own. As G.M. Trevelyan wrote: The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passion, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow."

Listen to the chatter around you—going on everywhere, all the time, without cessation—and think how marvellous it is that there is always something happening. New things happen every day, in every office and home and alley. I can easily imagine a world where life scated along on the tram-tracks of utter monotony. Anyone who thinks this is true of this world is projecting.

And so on. And so on. And so on.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Father Trendy

The Irish bishops' pastorals, from 1978 onwards, also emphasised justice as the primary virtue, although it is most infrequently invoked in the New Testament. The Trócaire agency, widely supported by the clergy and the hierarchy, was set up to aid the poor in Third World countries, displaying a distinctly Marxist flavour in its crusades. Gone was the time when "Ireland's Spiritual Empire" emphasised the saving of souls and the need to bring Christ to the pagan world...In the left-wing, politicised Irish Catholic approach of the 1980's, spirituality did not seem to come into it any more. The agenda was to oppose the "Right".

I can vividly remember the atmosphere of which Mary Kenny complains in this passage from her excellent book (which I highly recommend). Of course, recourse to the words of the New Testament or "what Jesus said" are a favourite tactic of those attacking Church teaching-- as though everybody could interpret Scripture infallibly, and as though such "common sense" exegesis hadn't already caused war after war, schism after schism. It must also be added that, by the 1980's, the Irish had less need of bringing Christ to Africa than of getting Christ from Africa-- as the presence of so many African priests in Ireland proves.

But the general point, I think is, is a fair one (and Kenny's book is fair-minded throughout). The same situation seems to obtain in America, a point that has been made by Edward Feser here.