Friday, July 30, 2010

In A Manner of Speaking

For the most part we assume that when people say something they mean what they say, and, when the speaker in question is a Chesterton, that he knows what he means. The assumption, however, need not always be literally justified-- we all know that those who insist, usually vociferously, that one say exactly what one means are, to say the least, annoyingly boring....It is for this reason that it is frequently most difficult to make unqualified statements as to what Chesterton meant....Not infrequently, in fact, Chesterton attaches any number of possible meanings to very common expressions, simply in order to get a truth across strikingly.

Quentin Lauer, S.J., GK Chesterton-- Philosopher Without Portfolio

I remembered this passage as I was reading the latest issue of the Chesterton Review, the journal of Seton Hall's GK Chesterton Institute. It features one of Chesterton's articles from his famous debate with Robert Blatchford, in which he makes this point:

Christianity has in any such controversy as this one vast, unquestionable and incurable weakness. It really exists. It is not a question, as with Ideal Secular Republics and rationalistic schemes of State, of what men would do; it is a question of what men have done; of what wicked men, foolish men, ordinary men, did do, in working it out.

These lines might seem to contradict one of Chesterton's most famous dicta: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Of course, the apparent contradiction is superficial. Chesterton was hardly saying, in the second instance, that nobody had ever made a serious and successful attempt to live up to the Christian ideal. He was not expressing the same sentiment as Nietzsche when that mad German said: "There was only ever one Christian, and He died on the Cross." If he had really meant that, he would hardly have written his books on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis Assisi.

In truth, there is no contradiction between the two quotations. There have been societies that can be fairly described as Christian in the ideals and beliefs they affirmed; and even in the ages of faith, the Christian ideal was more honoured than pursued.

The point might seem to be a trite one, but it often occurs to me that serious debate requires a principle of charity when it comes to quotations; nobody benefits when an epigram is taken literally, or an apparent contradiction is seized upon for point-scoring. All this can do is encourage a plodding, pedantic use of language.

The example that actually got me thinking about this was Margaret Thatcher's famous quotation, from an interview with a woman's magazine:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand"I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

I am neither a Thatcherite nor an anti-Thatcherite; but it seems to me rather unfair that Baroness Thatcher has had the phrase "there is no such thing as society" used against her ever since. To say there is no such thing as society is not necessarily to proclaim a belief in a population of atomized, alienated individuals, or to dismiss the importance of social bonds. Of course there is such a thing as society; but it seems perfectly reasonable to remind ourselves, every now and again, that society is not some independent entity, but is actually composed of people.

A mother who is tired of hearing her children promise they will clean their rooms tomorrow might very well say, "Tomorrow never comes"; but nobody would accuse her of putting forward an insane philosophical theory.

Another example, I think, might be John Lennon's notorious claim that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. This has been generally presented as a boast; but, from what I can tell, it would be truer to say that Lennon was deploring the situation, or at least remarking on its absurdity. Even the Beatles themselves, I think, regarded Beatlemania with a certain alarm.

A final example are Donald Rumsfeld's famous words:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.

I don't understand why so many people have hooted at these words. They actually seem to me to make a subtle point quite elegantly. Do we really want a public sphere where all figurative, oblique, ironic or aphoristic use of language is out of bounds?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chesterton and World War One

For some time now, on and off, I've been reading my way through Chesterton's Illustrated London News articles, thanks to the Ignatius Press's Collected Works . I've reached his World War One articles now, which are rarely anthologized and which are-- to be blunt-- rather dull and plodding, compared to most of his work. Sometimes they even border on the shrill, though Chesterton made a conscious effort to avoid jingoism. (He was not afraid to criticize England in his World War One articles; but when he did, it was usually for being too German.)

But what interests me is how seldom Chesterton's attitude to the Great War is discussed. Surely it's far more significant than the (perhaps) regrettable rhetoric he sometimes used when discussing the Jews, and which has provoked so much hand-wringing. It's entirely possible that Chesterton's articles prompted young men to go and die in the trenches. His record of opposition to the Boer War, as well as his general independence of mind, would have made him the most precious of propagandists.

Mind you, I'm not assuming that the First World War was an unjustifiable war. We've all taken that message in with our mother's milk, through Wilfred Owen poems in school, Shane MacGowan singing about Suvla Bay, and Blackadder Goes Forth. Considering what other messages are pounded into us by the liberal intellectual establishment, I can't help wondering, sometimes, if this is another Big Lie, one that has passed under the radar completely.

Then I think about the carnage of the Somme and the fact that historians are still scratching their heads over what it was all for, and it's hard not to believe that this is one that Chesterton got wrong. Horribly wrong.

Argument over World War One tend to be arguments of fact-- whether German atrocities were committed in Belgium, for instance. Reading Chesterton's essays, it's clear that he saw the War as much more of a moral crusade than a defence of Britain's national interests. What he hated was Prussianism; for him, the glorification of power, the worship of blood and iron, the glamorisation of the bully. As always, it was St. George against the dragon.

Doubtless most people today would say that was a romantic view, and such romantic ideas evaporate when faced with the appalling realities of mustard gas and astronomical casuality lists. But Chesterton died in 1936; by this time, the realities of the Great War must have been well-known, but even in the autobiography that he wrote in the last year of his life, Chesterton continued to support the Allied Cause.

Much of Chesterton's philosophy could be boiled down to the idea that the romantic is the realistic; for instance, when he defends English radicalism against Tory ideas, he tends to appeal to the romance of the smallholder against that of the aristocrat, rather than railing against the tawdry tinsel of coats of arms and coronets. He attacked the aesthetes, not because they loved beauty too much, but because they had no real humility before it. ("Their emotion never impressed me for an instant, for this reason, that it never occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any sort of symbolic sacrifice...Men might go through fire to find a cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not even keep sober for the blackbird"). When he attacked divorce he was not attacking wild passion, but the want of wild passion; the passion that makes a promise for life and keeps it. I can't remember a single instance in Chesterton's work where he condemns an idea as too romantic; except perhaps the Suffragette's notion that the average man's working life was one of "going forth to wield power, to carve his own way, to stamp his individuality on the world, to command and to be obeyed".

Even the horror of trench warfare-- and the death of his own beloved brother-- didn't seem to shake Chesterton's heroic ideals. It is a testament to Chesterton's conviction that they survived even the Great War; but it's always puzzled me that his championing of the Allied cause seems hardly to have dented his reputation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Chestertonians at Large

Well, the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland is more than just a blog and a Facebook page now, since our first meeting took place two days ago, on Saturday 19th July. It was held in the plush surroundings of the Library Bar, the Central Hotel, Exchequer Street, in Dublin city centre.

Chesterton fans came from Navan, Carlow, and as far away as Armagh-- not to mention our Italian Chestertonian in Ireland, Angelo Bottone (seen here in a blurry picture taken by me-- sorry Angelo!)

We enjoyed a Chesterton-themed quiz, which revealed an impressive level of Chestertonian knowledge amongst our members-- especially in the case of Nora Burke, pictured above with her prize of William Oddie's recent Chesterton biography. Colm Culleton, of Bagenalstown, County Carlow (pictured in the wine-coloured jacket) was runner-up.

Those present decided we should meet up again in two months or so, this time taking a passage from Chesterton's work as a focus for discussion. Hopefully there will be some new arrivals by then.

How long before we are booking the RDS for the a national Chesterton convention...?

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Spiritual Aeneid

Review of A Spiritual Aeneid by Ronald Knox (first published 1917)

“The Broad Church-men were to be made happy, above all, by the excision of those passages of the Psalms in which King David curses his enemies, together with their widows and orphans, in the language of justifiable irritation. This, too, was passed, but it was in the air-raid season, and the Daily Express came out with the whole-page headline, BISHOPS BOYCOTT DAVID’S REPRISAL PSALMS.”

Difficult to imagine the Daily Express, or any other newspaper, devoting a whole-page headline to such an item of religious news today; but the extract is from A Spiritual Aeneid by Ronald Knox, a book written at a time when Church of England doctrine was still a matter of public concern, and the conversion of an Anglican to Catholicism was cause for much tut-tutting, and even monocle-dropping, over the nation’s breakfast tables.

Ronald Knox, of course, was Chesterton’s friend and confidant, an Anglican priest who became a Catholic in 1917 and achieved fame for his detective novels. Chesterton himself is only mentioned twice in A Spiritual Aeneid, but we are left in no doubt of GKC’s importance to the author:

"In regard to orthodoxy, my views when I left Eton were orthodox above the average; my oracle was G.K. Chesterton; he is so still. (I did not acquit him of paradox; but after all, what was a paradox but a statement of the obvious so as to make it sound untrue?)"

A good point; and perhaps Chesterton would add that, the more you think about the “obvious”, the more it seems to good to be true, or to strange to be true—rather like the rhinoceros, of whom Chesterton said he existed, but looked as though he shouldn’t.

In the preface to Orthodoxy, Chesterton explains: “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.”

A Spirtual Aeneid addresses that “very fascinating but quite different question”, and despite Monsignor Knox’s light tone, there is no doubting how seriously he took that question, or how much anguish it caused him: “I hope I have made it clear that my tendency is to mistrust those accesses of religious feeling which Protestant jargon describes as “spiritual experiences”—mistrust them, I mean, as evidences of religious truth; it is different, of course, with the saints, and with those who are near perfection, but in the case of ordinary people, though I have no doubt God gives us them for our comfort, I would never plead them as evidence of religious truth…emotion plays too large a part in such feelings to make them sure grounds for argument.”

The author’s conversion occurred during World War One—the struggle inside him mirrored the European upheavel. “I despair of being able to convey any impression of the next fourteen months, up to the Christmas of 1916…give me half an hour by myself, with no work pressing, and I would plunge at once into self-questioning, brooding, and something not unlike despair”.

It would be impossible to summarise here Monsignor Knox’s reasons, as outlined in A Spiritual Aeneid, for eventually accepting the authority of the Catholic Church; indeed, I have to admit that he assumes a knowledge of ecclesiastical history which was beyond this reader. But the author is such a genial host, and the portrait of English life—religious, academic and general—is so fascinating that you can enjoy this book even if you don’t know your ecumenical councils as well as you should.

Although this book is nothing less than the story of a soul in its search for truth, the entire thing is tinged with a dry, and deliciously English, irony. The book is a perfect illustration of Chesterton’s dictum that the opposite of funny is not serious-- the opposite of funny is not funny.

Take for example Monsignor Knox’s description of his eventual reception into the Catholic Church: “I came into the church in a white heat of orthodoxy, Manning’s disciple rather than Newman’s; and when I took the anti-modernist oath, it was something of a disappointment that the Vicar-General was not there to witness the fervour I put into it—he had gone out to order tea”.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells

I had a letter published in the Irish Times today, on the subject of the Civil Partnership Bill which the Dáil has just passed. It was more in response to previous letters than to the Bill itself.

I hope it's not too sectional or partisan (not to mention egotistical) to reprint it here.

I feel I should add that, as far as I'm concerned, the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland welcomes members of any religion or lack of religion, any political persuasion, and any lifestyle.

This is the letter:

Madam, – Your correspondence on the Civil Partnership Bill has revealed a depressing level of bigotry amongst your readership. I refer, of course, to the bigotry towards the hundreds of millions of people who existed on this planet before us, the vast majority of whom would surely have regarded this legislation as insane.

It is a prime example of what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. What a prodigious generation we are, to have suddenly realised the wrong-headedness of so many centuries of human civilisation! It is also further proof that liberalism is not some kind of neutral space in which different views of life can flourish, but is in fact an imposition of a particular value system on all of society, one which becomes more and more totalitarian as time passes. The battering-ram of anti-discrimination and equality legislation, powered by the EU, will be the weapon of choice to pulverise tradition. We must not only listen to Nero play; we must applaud him.

This measure is hailed as part of the progressive agenda, but those who hail it as such should realise they are signing a blank cheque. What seemed ridiculous to their grandparents seems like natural justice to them. But where does the re-imagining of norms end? Will compulsory vegetarianism be on the agenda in 50 years? Will children be seized from parents with reactionary opinions? Now the pressure is on for men, if they so wish, to be legally considered women, will we eventually see the creation of new sexes unknown to biology, each demanding formal recognition? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me. – Yours, etc,



Sillogue Gardens,


Dublin 11.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Chesterton Day in Italy

Last Friday the Italian Chesterton Society has celebrated its eighth Chesterton Day in Grottammare, a lovely village on the Adriatic Sea in the Marche region, not far from Loreto. Marco Sermarini, who is the president of the Society, was the master of the ceremony.

The event started with the celebration of Mass. During the first part of theconference Paolo Gulisano presented his two new books, on Father McNabb and on Newman. Angelo Bottone talked about Chesterton and Newman, Fabio Trevisan commented on his recent theatrical version of the Ballad of the White Horse, while Alessandro Gnocchi talked about Distributism.

After dinner some extracts from the Ballad of the White Horse, edited by Fabio Trevisan, were performed. In the second part of the conference Antonio Colombo remembered his good friend father Stanley Jaki and his writings on Chesterton and Newman. Alessandro Gnocchi read a short story from Giovannino Guareschi, while the other speakers commented more on many aspects of Chesterton life and writings, with a particular emphasis on Distributism.

On the Italian Chesterton Society ( you can find some pictures of the event and an account written by a young girl.
--posted by Angelo Bottone

Friday, July 2, 2010

Patrick Pearse

"All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships."

So Chesterton said in his essay "A Defence of Rash Vows". In his most brilliant work, Orthodoxy, he declared that, "I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself".

I found myself thinking of Chesterton's attitude towards cheerful recklessness today, when I was recalling the words of Patrick Pearse's poem, The Fool. Pearse, as readers probably know, was the educationalist, writer and poet who led the 1916 Irish Rising against British rule. For many years he was idolised in Ireland; today he often demonised.

Chesterton, in his book Irish Impression, seems to consider the 1916 Rising a tactical mistake by the insurgents. My own attitude towards the Rising has shifted through the years. In my childhood and early teens, an ardent nationalist, I considered it heroic and noble through and through. In my socialist later teens and early twenties, I thought it preposterous and pointless, a romantic diversion from the real business of working class liberation. In my reactionary mid-to-late-twenties, I cheered it again, although by now with rather more misgivings for the legacy of violence it had, possibly, helped to perpetuate. Today, I am more on the fence than ever.

But I've never lost my fascination with Patrick Pearse, or my admiration for his poetry, which I consider some of the most underpraised poetry ever written in the English language. And it certainly lends tongue to a very Chestertonian love of rash vows and drastic courses.

The Fool by Patrick Pearse

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.
Was it folly or grace? Not men shall judge me, but God.
I have squandered the splendid years:Lord, if I had the years I would squander them over again,
Aye, fling them from me!
For this I have heard in my heart, that a man shall scatter, not hoard,
Shall do the deed of to-day, nor take thought of to-morrow's teen,
Shall not bargain or huxter with God ; or was it a jest of Christ's
And is this my sin before men, to have taken Him at His word?

The lawyers have sat in council, the men with the keen, long faces,
And said, `This man is a fool,' and others have said, `He blasphemeth;'
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Lord, I have staked my soul, I have staked the lives of my kin
On the truth of Thy dreadful word.
Do not remember my failures,
But remember this my faith

And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved, shall we not answer together?

posted by Maolsheachlann

Chesterton and Republicanism

I do not particularly object to the pot calling the kettle black. The Party System is made like that. But I do strongly object to the pot calling the kettle white. I do object to the pot taunting the kettle with having no acquaintance with hot water, with being a cool and crystalline silver urn which has never felt the fire. And this is the sort of unjust charge that is brought against great historic beliefs and institutions. Thus there are royalists and reactionaries today who will talk of a Republic as a thing necessarily prosaic and pacifist, incapable of chivalry and the charge. They seem to forget that Republicans have charged further and shown chivalry on a larger scale than almost any other of the children of men; that they were Republicans who rode through Lombardy and broke Berlin.

On Missing the Point, Illustrated London News, February 21, 1914

This is one of those rare occasions when I can't help disagreeing with Chesterton. The point, to me, is not whether Republicans have shown chivalry; the point is whether they were chivalrous as a result of their beliefs, or because of them. After all, communists showed great courage and self-sacrifice during World War Two, especially in the French Resistance. But the impersonal, "scientific" laws of dialectical materialism seem little concerned with such idealism. Similarly, it seems to me that the ethos of republicanism must militate against unconditional bonds of loyalty and an attitude of reverence.

Now that the Queen has been invited to visit Ireland, these questions are in the air again. Chesterton generally showed a preference for republicanism and a lack of enthusiasm for monarchy. It's always seemed strange to me that such a through-and-through romantic as GKC should take such a position.

My own father put the point very well a little while ago-- "The first republican to come to Ireland was Cromwell".

Coming soon: a post that actually agrees with Chesterton on something!

posted by Maolsheachlann