Monday, August 29, 2011

Chesterton and the Pursuit of Reason

Here are two quotations from Chesterton. The first is from Orthodoxy:

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.

And this one, from St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox:

The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical. To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saying that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that parodoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head. This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind. Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities." It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms. But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessities are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense. Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, "Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn."

This is far from the only place where Chesterton complains about what I might call English anti-rationalism. He often attacks the English constitution for being an unwritten constitution, and the House of Commons for not having enough space to contain all MPs, should they choose to attend at the same moment. (I don't know if that is still the case.) It has always been the contention of English conservatives in the tradition of Edmund Burke that abstractions are a danger to society; that the delicate ecology of social and national life is best served by irrational-seeming institutions such as monarchy and aristocracy and all the other traditions that have grown up, hugger-mugger and accidentally, through the generations. They believed that tradition was a better guide than reason. Chesterton had far more sympathy than the ordinary Englishman for the rationalism of Rousseau and the French Revolution.

I see Chesterton's point. The disaster of the Reformation would never have happened if the English people had rejected as nonsensical, as they certainly should have, the idea that the English king could be the head of the church. The primacy of the Pope and the sanctity of the Creed was a subject on which theoretical clarity was of paramount importance. The Elizabethan Compromise was a cataclycm, because there can be no compromise when it comes to sacred things.

But politics is not sacred. Even law is not sacred. I think there is a great deal to be said for the theory that Britain never fell sway to totalitarian governments, or suffered brutal civil wars after the time of the Cromwell, because the national temperament was so suspicious of abstract ideas, and of a priori systems applied to the social fabric. Even the radical left preferred Fabianism to communism. Chesterton's hostility to English empiricism and the English people's love of the makeshift and improvised is an attitude I cannot share with him, and I think the quotation from Orthodoxy suggests he should have been more sympathetic to that temperament, and to have appreciated its potential wisdom.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Weird World of the Internet...

Occasionally, I take a look at the blog statistics of this site. Blogger tells me what search terms visitors have used, when they have come through a search engine, and one search term this week was..."chesterton meeting savages hat".

The mind boggles. I didn't see any savages at the last meeting (though I admit it's a matter of interpretation; sometimes I think of myself as a noble savage), and I can't recall anyone wearing a hat.

In any case, I hope that visitor enjoyed her visit, even if she was disappointed to find no hatted savages.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Answers to the Chesterton Quiz

Answers to the Chesterton quiz that can be found two posts below this one!

So, have you got Chesterton coming out of your ears, on the brain, or just a mild case of Chesterton-itis? If you score:

1-5: Obviously a Chesterton neophyte. I envy you. You have so much ahead of you!
6-10: GKC has you in his grasp. There is no turning back now.
11-15: If you haven't read Orthodoxy, RUN to the library or bookshop...
16-20: Now we're in serious Chesterton-head territory. Your family and friends are beginning to roll their eyes when you say, "GK Chesterton put it well"...
21-25: OK, you are in serious danger of Chesterton overload. And the only drawback of that is that too much of a good thing might ruin your appetite forever; the same way you can't look at chocolate spread after making yourself sick with a whole jar of it when you were eleven years old. Pace yourself, man (or woman)! Put down they Chesterton; open thy C.S. Lewis, or Harry Potter, or Enid Blyton. It won't be too long before you have a gusto for Gilbert again.
26-30: If you are Irish, and you are not a member of this Society, JOIN NOW!! If you are not Irish, please come visit one day.
31: I bow down before you in awe.

1. Gilbert Keith
2. Frances Blogg
3. None
4. Notting Hill
5. Kingsley Amis
6. Cecil
7. Iron Maiden
8. Hilaire Belloc
9. Distributism
10. The Slade
11. 1874
12. Cocoa
13. Where should I be?
14. The World
15. HG Wells
16. Trent’s Last Case
17. 62
18. Manalive
19. Maurice Baring
20. Secretary
21. C.S. Lewis
22. The Liberal Party
23. He’s a postman
24. “To prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
25. Saint Thomas Aquinas
26. Dates
27. King Alfred
28. Lepanto
29. To miss the train before.
30. “worth doing badly”
31. That he was getting engaged.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Response to My Denial of Chesterton's Anti-Semitism

Some time ago, I published a rather flippant post with the title "Was Chesterton Anti-Semitic?", the post itself consisting of the single monosyllable "No".

Today, a reader by the name of Pierre Chanel left a comment which makes some interesting points. Since it is unlikely to be noticed by anyone on the original post, I thought I should publish it as a post of its own. I haven't read The New Jerusalem or A Short History of England or (so far as I can remember) the Father Brown story in question. It would be interesting to learn if any other readers who have read these books agree.

In any case, I thank him for his contribution, which follows:

Let me introduce myself. I was a tremendous Chesterton fan when I was a teenager (about 30 years ago) and have a large collection of his books. Recently I have been trying to re-read him and see how he seems to me now. He was extremely wise and witty, but he also had serious flaws (look at his heroworship of Mussolini in THE RESURRECTION OF ROME), and I'm afraid one of them was antisemitism.

There are quite a few passages in Chesterton which can only be described as anti-semitic. In one of the Father Brown stories Father Brown denies that Jews were ever persecuted in mediaeval England on the grounds that they were specially protected by the Crown (for the efficiency of this "protection" see any biography of King Edward I; Chesterton was well aware of this because he refers to Edward's expulsion of the Jews from England in decidedly equivocal terms in his HISTROY OF ENGLAND). In the same story Father Brown also denies anyone ever committed suicide from despair in the Middle Ages; and mediaevalist knows this is just plain false.

In THE NEW JERUSALEM Chesterton endorses Zionism explicitly on the grounds that Jews should have their own nation-state because they cannot really belong to any other nation, and states that Jews in Britain and elsewhere should be forced to wear a special dress marking them out as Jews. How is that not anti-semitic?

I think his prejudice against Jews came from two sources (1) the old Gladstonian-Little Englander image of Disraeli as amoral oriental adventurer corrupting the traditional English virtues and leading the country to despotism through imperialist adventures. This is the emotional background to THE FLYING INN, in which (as in Belloc's THE MERCY OF ALLAH) Jews are symbolically equated with Moslems as oriental pure monotheists who are led by their non-belief in the Incarnation to accept and practise tyranny (2) Belloc's importation of French anti-semitism to England, partly because Belloc as a half-French Catholic resented being seem as an outsider and wanted to find someone else he could pick on and present as "real" outsiders. Belloc IMHO had the Jew-bug much worse than Chesterton and was a bad influence on him in this regard.

I do believe Chesterton deserves more attention, but we must come to terms with his problematic side - that aspect which is childish, as distinct from his genius which is childlike.

A Chesterton Quiz

Here is a Chesterton quiz from the first meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society. I thought readers of the blog might like having a go at it. Thirty-one questions, some easy, some fiendishly difficult, most in between. Answers to be posted tomorrow.

1. What does the GK in GK Chesterton stand for?
2. What was the name of Chesterton’s wife?
3. How many children did Chesterton have?
4. Complete the title: The Napoleon of ----- -----“
5. Which famous English novelist, who died in 1995, described Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday as “the most thrilling book I have ever read?”
6. What was the name of Chesterton’s brother?
7. Which British heavy metal band quote an entire verse of Chesterton’s poetry in their song Revelations?
8. Which English writer was often paired with Chesterton, so much so that George Bernard Shaw named them the Chesterbelloc?
9. What economic system did Chesterton espouse?
10. At what art school did Chesterton study?
11. Was Chesterton born in 1874, 1884 or 1894?
12. What drink did Chesterton call “a cad and beast”?
13. In a famous telegram to his wife, Chesterton began: “Am in Market Harborough”. How did he finish?
14. Complete the title: “What’s Wrong With --- ---“
15. Chesteton wrote one of his most famous books, The Everlasting Man, in response to a book titled An Outline of History. Who was the author of that book?
16. One of his Chesterton’s closest friends, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, is famous for writing a celebrated detective novel. The first word of the title is “Trent’s”. Can you give me the rest of the title?
17. Did Chesterton die at the age of 62, 72 or 82?
18. Which Chesterton novel features the character Innocent Smith?
19. Sir Herbert James Gunn painted a portrait called Conversation Piece, depicting Chesterton, Belloc and another writer who was associated with both. Who was the third man in the picture?
20. What relation was Dorothy Collins to Chesterton?
21. From which author is this quotation taken: “Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.”
22. For which English political party did Chesterton canvas in the general elections of 1902 and 1906?
23. In the Father Brown story The Invisible Man, what is it about the invisible man of the title that makes him virtually invisible?
24. Chesterton once said, “The business of the Progressive is to go on making mistakes.” What did he say the business of the Conservative was?
25. One of Chesterton’s books has the subtitle, The Dumb Ox. Who is the subject of the book?
26. What feature is famously all but absent from Chesterton’s book, A Short History of England?
27. Which English historical figure was the central character in Chesterton’s long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse?
28. What famous Chesterton poem do these lines come from? “It is he that saith not Kismeth; it is he that knows not Fate; it is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate.”
29. Chesterton said he had only discovered one sure way of catching a train. What was it?
30. Complete the Chesterton quotation: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s—“
31. Chesterton once wrote a letter to his mother while she was in the same room as him. What important news did he write it to tell her?

Good luck!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Other Distributist That Wasn't Gilbert

There's a new Belloc blog in town and it's looking good!

I'm not a reader of Belloc myself. It's funny how his style contrasted with that of GCK; Chesterton tended to trade in ideas rather than facts and figures. Belloc was the opposite, I think. Anyway, I find I have to squint and rock my head violently to keep up with the second half of the Chesterbelloc.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chesterton mentioned in Sunday Independent

Somebody drew my attention to an opinion piece in the latest Sunday Independent, criticizing the recent proposal to ban smoking in private cars. The author begins by mentioning Chesterton:

STUCK on holiday recently with nothing to read but a dusty copy of the collected articles of GK Chesterton, I was soon glad there was nothing more appealing to pass the time, or I would never have discovered what great company the crusty old Edwardian essayist and novelist was.

Crusty? Surely not!

The entire article can be found here. (At the time of writing, anyway; some newspapers' websites allow non-subscribers access to only the most recent articles.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Having a Favourite Writer

Having a favourite writer is an odd thing. It occurs amongst bookish people and people who aren't bookish at all; in fact, I think it's rather more likely to occur amongst the latter group. It seems a fairly common phenomenon that some child or teenager or even adult who never reads much is suddenly hooked by a distinctive voice. I once knew a man in his thirties who claimed never to have finished a single book, until he found himself gripped by The Rats by James Herbert. I have read another chap declare that Philip Larkin is the only poet worth reading. This gentleman not only insisted that Keats's line "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" left him cold, but he refused to believe that it really spoke to anybody. He thought the reputation of every poet other than Larkin was sheer hype and puffery.

As for me, I am not especially bookish. At my age (midway between thirty and forty) I have accepted that I will never be a man of wide reading. I will probably never get round to Sophocles and Virgil and Chekhov. Pepys and Dostoevsky and even a great deal of Shakespeare bore me, though I love the classic poets. Most of them. I could never work up an enthusiasm for John Donne or Emily Dickinson. I sometimes suspect their reputations are sheer hype and puffery.

And yet I have had several literary enthusiasms. My first was for WB Yeats, who I still consider the greatest poet who ever lived. When I was fourteen, and I discovered a memory for poetry that has sadly decayed already, I found I had memorized "A Prayer for my Daughter" (not a short poem by any means) from a schoolbook without even trying. I have also developed literary infatuations with Walter Macken (an Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century), Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole books, J.P. Donleavy (an Irish-American writer who I admired so much that I overcame my early-twenties shyness and actually interviewed him), Philip Larkin (you can even find my article on his early poem The School in August on the Philip Larkin Society website), and now Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. I have also had a thing for the recently-deceased Keith Waterhouse, author of Billy Liar.

Favourite authors are different from most reading because we approach them in a unique way. I think we read most books for pleasure or for improvement. I don't think there is anything wrong with reading for improvement, despite the inverted snobbery that sometimes decries it. It is not that it doesn't involve pleasure, but rather more effort than pleasure, at least at first. I sweated through Palgrave's Anthology of Golden Verse in my early teens, very much in a conscious effort to acquire Culture-- not so I could show it off (though I was always glad of the chance), but because I had already tasted the ecstasy poetry could afford. I read each poem twenty or thirty times, as slowly as I could. I have probably never made a better investment of mental effort in my whole life-- many of the poems I "acquired" in this way have been my faithful companions for a twenty years.

Then there are the books we read for sheer pleasure, which are usually old favourites (Wodehouse or Dickens or Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps Flann O'Brien for the Irish), or perhaps even books we are rather ashamed of reading(in my case, biographies-- surely the lowest of all literary forms, merely an upmarket version of a gossip rag).

But our favourite authors don't fit either category. We read them with unfailing delight, and yet also with a sense of spiritual nourishment. It's like eating two tubs of chocolate ice-cream, but getting the benefits of a five-mile walk followed by a salad and carrot juice.

Even more interesting is the phenomenon of authors with followings, or (the term is overused today but really seems to apply here) with cults. Scotland has its Burns cult, Chesterton wrote about Browning Societies, and Matthew Arnold argued with Wordsworthians in one essay about the nature of poetry, before confessing he too was a Wordsworthian. I always remember how the father in Richard Llewellyn's How Green was my Valley read Boswell's Life of Johnson aloud to his family, and Arthur Conan Doyle has an amusing story about a fanatical apostle of the travel writer George Borrow. It is interesting, and I think delightful, that followers of a particular author can become a recognizable type or class, one that we can't help making fun of-- though inevitably with affection. Everybody loves a besotted reader, and though you might hate Joyce you will surely not hate Joyceans.

That's why I'm always pleased when I hear of the existence of a literary society. Quite recently I corresponded with an official of the Irish Byron Society, an organization I never would have suspected of existing. He tried to induce me to come to a meeting, mentioning that they had many more female than male members. I bet they do! I might have taken the bait, too, but I realised that women dreaming of a Byronic lover might find I fell rather short of their ideal...

Monday, August 1, 2011

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day

I love finding old periodicals (the older the better) in second-hand bookshops, and recently I came across a 2002 copy of the Chesterton Review in Chapters bookshop in Dublin's Abbey Street. The Chesterton Review is full of satisfyingly meaty articles, the kind of journal that makes you want to make a cup of tea and settle into it with a happy sigh.

This issue includes the article Chesterton on Air: The Writer and Broadcaster by Tony Evans, a member of the Australian Chesterton Society who has worked in radio himself. Chesterton, of course, became well-known for radio broadcasts towards the end of his life.

The recordings, for the most part, do not survive, but we do have transcripts. Evans quotes a passage from one particular talk, in which Chesterton suggests that our days of the week should actually celebrate the seven days of creation in Genesis. The passage appeals to me greatly:

I would be better if every Monday, instead of being Black Monday, were always Bright Monday, to commemorate the creation of the Light. It would be better if Tuesday, at present a word of colourless connotation, represented a great feast of fountains, and rivers and rolling streams; because it was the Day of the Division of the Waters. It would be better if every Wednesday were an occasion for hanging the house with green boughs or blossoms; because these things were brought forth on the third day of Creation; or that Thursday were sacred to the sun and the moon, and Friday sacred to fish and fowl; and so on. Then you might begin to have some notion of the importance of the week; and what a high and imaginative civilisation might really do with the week. If it had the creative power to produce such a pageant of creation, it would not bother with cinemas.

The only distinction most people give to any weekday is a frantic eagerness for Friday, so much so that Wednesday has been called "hump-day" since the hump of the working week has been past. It's rather depressing that anyone would wish their lives away like this; and surely it would be better to make something memorable of the working week, rather than live for one's free days. Saturday has become sacred to spectator sport and hedonism (which at least gives it some character), and Sunday has gone from being The Eighth Day, the Day of the Lord, to a day for reading glossy newspaper supplements.

(I remember, in school, one of the short stories in our English text concerned a little boy who wanted to buy a rabbit, but who had to contend with the stern Scottish Presbyterian Sabbath of the time. Of course, the reader's sympathies were supposed to be entirely with the boy, and entirely against the long Scripture readings and cold dishes prepared the day before-- but my boyish imagination was sparked by the Sabbath, and not the rabbit. What a special day it must have been, I thought.)

I have read that, in the Middle Ages, every third day was a holiday. Now that we have so many labour-saving devices, of course, we probably can't afford so many interruptions. (Chesterton often mentions with relish, when he writes about Christmas-- which is as often as he can-- that the title of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night refers to the twelve days of holiday that everybody, noble and common, enjoyed after Christmas.)

But why should that stop us making a feast of every day? There is an infinity of themes and institutions we could give the days of the week. We could make rhubarb tart the food of Monday, blow bubbles on Tuesday, tell jokes on Wednesday, have sing-songs on Thursday. We could commemorate the birthday of Edgar Allen Poe by reading The Raven aloud, or put on Napoleon hats to commemorate the great Emperor's death. Of course, Christians have an ancient and time-hallowed calendar of saint's days and forgotten feast days to revive. Why should any day be just another day? And indeed, why should we stop at the days of the week and not go on to consecrate the hours of the day?