Friday, November 2, 2012

A Poem Dedicated to E.C. Bentley...

...who was the inventor of the clerihew (a comic verse form, as the reader already knows) and Chesterton's best friend in youth. I would gladly know more about their adult relationship. Bentley was also the dedicatee of The Man Who Was Thursday, as well as its prefatory verse-- one of Chesterton's greatest poems in my view, and one that much resembles this one, especially in the motif of growing younger at heart as one ages. This poem is from Chesterton's early volume, Greybeards at Play.

He was, through boyhood's storm and shower,
my best, my nearest friend
we wore one hat, smoked one cigar,
one standing at each end.

We were two hearts with single hope,
two faces in one hood
I knew the secrets of his youth
I watched his every mood.

The little things that none but I
saw were beyond his wont,
the streaming hair, the tie behind,
the coat tails worn in front.

I marked the absent-minded scream,
the little nervous trick
of rolling in the grate, with eyes
by friendship's light made quick.

But youth's black storms are gone and past,
bare is each aged brow;
and, since with age we're growing bald,
let us be babies now.

Learning we knew; but still to-day,
with spelling-book devotion,
words of one syllable we seek
in moments of emotion.

Riches we knew; and well dressed dolls --
dolls living -- who expressed
no filial thoughts, however much
you thumped them in the chest.

Old happiness is grey as we,
and we may still outstrip her;
if we be slippered pantaloons,
oh let us hunt the slipper!

The old world glows with colours clear;
and if, as saith the saint,
the world is but a painted show,
oh let us lick the paint!

Far, far behind are morbid hours,
and lonely hearts that bleed.
Far, far behind us are the days,
when we were old indeed.

Leave we the child; he is immersed
with scientists and mystics;
with deep prophetic voice he cries
Canadian food statistics.

But now I know how few and small,
the things we crave need be --
toys and the universe and you --
a little friend to tea.

Behold the simple sum of things,
where, in one splendour spun,
the stars go round the Mulberry Bush,
the Burning Bush, the Sun.

Now we are old and wise and grey,
and shaky at the knees;
now is the true time to delight
in picture books like these.

Hoary and bent I dance one hour
what though I die at morn?
There is a shout among the stars,
"To-night a child is born."

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Long Extract from Chesterton's Biography of Saint Francis...

...which I quote at such length because I think it really demands and deserves it. I think this extract is perhaps the second greatest and most inspired passage out of all of Chesterton's works; second only to the great rhapsody in Orthodoxy which describes the paradoxes of Christianity.

In both cases (as so often with Chesterton) what I especially admire is that, if Chesterton had not elucidated that particular idea, it seems likely that nobody else ever would have. Chesterton was startlingly original; he possessed the deep originality that comes from seeing things as they actually are, rather than the shallow originality that comes from looking for novelties.

And another thing this passage has in common with his best passages-- or at least, my own personal favourites-- is that it is a magnificent exercise in the history of ideas. Chesterton, whenever he wrote about the past, focuses on something more fundamental than facts and dates and even ideas and philosophies; he evokes the mood, the temperature, the colouring, the feel of an era. And the remarkable thing is that even those of us who have very little knowledge of history (and I am putting up my hand here) know exactly what he means.

You need only the scantiest knowledge of the Middle Ages to see what Chesterton is getting at in this passage; in fact, I think that even a familiarity with TV comedy sketches and cartoon caricatures of medieval Europe would be enough.


Anybody who supposes that the Dark Ages were plain darkness and nothing else, and that the dawn of the thirteenth century was plain daylight and nothing else, will not be able to make head or tail of the human story of St. Francis of Assisi. The truth is that the joy of St. Francis and his Jongleurs de Dieu was not merely an awakening. It was something which cannot be understood without understanding their own mystical creed. The end of the Dark Ages was not merely the end of a sleep. It was certainly not merely the end of a superstitious enslavement. It was the end of something belonging to a quite definite but quite different order of ideas.

It was the end of a penance; or, if it be preferred, a purgation. It marked the moment when a certain spiritual expiation had been finally worked out and certain spiritual diseases had been finally expelled from the system. They had been expelled by an era of asceticism, which was the only thing that could have expelled them. Christianity had entered the world to cure the world; and she cured it in the only way in which it could be cured. Viewed merely in an external and experimental fashion, the whole of the high civilisation of antiquity had ended in the learning of a certain lesson; that is, in its conversion to Christianity. But that lesson was a psychological fact as well as a theological faith. That pagan civilization had indeed been a very high civilisation. It would not weaken our thesis, it might even strengthen it, to say that it was the highest that humanity ever reached. It had discovered its still unrivalled arts of poetry and plastic representation; it had discovered its own permanent political ideals; it had discovered its own clear system of logic and language. But above all, it had discovered its own mistake. That mistake was too deep to be ideally defined; the short-hand of it is to call it the mistake of nature-worship. It might almost as truly be called the mistake of being natural; and it was a very natural mistake. The Greeks, the great guides and pioneers of pagan antiquity, started out with the idea of something splendidly obvious and direct; the idea that if a man walked straight ahead on the high road of reason and nature, he would come to no harm; especially if he was, as the Greek was, eminently enlightened and intelligent. We might be so flippant as to say that man was simply to follow his nose, so long as it was a Greek nose. And the case of the Greeks themselves is alone enough to illustrate the strange but certain fatality that attends upon this fallacy. No sooner did the Greeks themselves begin to follow their own noses and their own notion of being natural, than the queerest thing in history seems to have happened to them. It was much too queer to be an easy matter to discuss. It may be remarked that our more repulsive realists never give us the benefit of their realism. Their studies of unsavoury subjects never take note of the testimony they bear to the truths of traditional morality. But if we had the taste for such things, we could cite thousands of such things as part of the case for Christian morals. And an instance of this is found in the fact that nobody has written, in this sense, a real moral history of the Greeks. Nobody has seen the scale or the strangeness of the story. The wisest men in the world set out to be natural; and the most unnatural thing in the world was the very first thing they did. The immediate effect of saluting the sun and the sunny sanity of nature was a perversion spreading like a pestilence. The greatest and even the purest philosophers could not apparently avoid this low sort of lunacy. Why? It would seem simple enough for the people whose poets had conceived Helen of Troy, whose sculptors had carved the Venus of Milo, to remain healthy on the point. The truth is people who worship health cannot remain healthy on the point. When Man goes straight he goes crooked. When he follows his nose he manages somehow to put his nose out of joint, or even to cut off his nose to spite his face; and that in accordance with something much deeper in human nature than nature-worshippers could ever understand. It was the discovery of that deeper thing, humanly speaking, that constituted the conversion to Christianity. There is a bias in a man like the bias on a bowl; and Christianity was the discovery of how to correct the bias and therefore hit the mark. There are many who will smile at the saying; but it is profoundly true to say that the glad good news brought by the Gospel was the news of original sin.

Rome rose at the expense of her Greek teachers largely because she did not entirely consent to be taught these tricks. She had a much more decent tradition; but she ultimately suffered from the same fallacy in her religious tradition; which was necessarily in no small degree the heathen tradition of nature worship. What was the matter with the whole heathen civilisation was that there nothing for the mass of men in the way of mysticism, except that concerned with the mystery of the nameless forces of nature, such as sex and growth and death. In the Roman Empire also, long before the end, we find nature-worship inevitably producing things that are against nature. Cases like that of Nero have passed into a proverb when Sadism sat on a throne brazen in the broad daylight. But the truth I mean is something much more subtle and universal than a conventional catalogue of atrocities. What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.

This is not to be confused with mere self-righteous sensationalism about the wickedness of the pagan world. It was not so much that the pagan world was wicked as that it was good enough to realise that its paganism was becoming wicked, or rather it was on the logical high road to wickedness. I mean that there was no future for "natural magic"; to deepen it was only to darken it into black magic. There was no future for it; because in the past it had only been innocent because it was young. We might say it had only been innocent because it was shallow. Pagans were wiser that paganism; that is why the pagans became Christians. Thousands of them had philosophy and family virtues and military honour to hold them up; but by this time the purely popular thing called religion was certainly dragging them down. When this reaction against the evil is allowed for, it is true to repeat that it was an evil that was everywhere. In another and more literal sense its name was Pan.

It was no metaphor to say that these people needed a new heaven and a new earth; for they had really defiled their own earth and even their own heaven. How could their case be met by looking at the sky, when erotic legends were scrawled in stars across it; how could they learn anything from the love of birds and flowers after the sort of love stories that were told of them? It is impossible here to multiply evidences, and one small example may stand for the rest. We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase "a garden"; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old person pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let anyone who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would have once stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.

Nothing could purge this obsession but a religion that was literally unearthly. It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers; there was not a flower or even a star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert where they could find no flowers or even into the cavern where they could see no stars. Into that desert and that cavern the highest human intellect entered for some four centuries; and it was the very wisest thing it could do. Nothing but the stark supernatural stood up for its salvation; if God could not save it, certainly the gods could not. The early Church called the gods of paganism devils; and the Early Church was perfectly right. Whatever natural religion may have had to do with their beginnings, nothing but fiends now inhabited those hollow shrines. Pan was nothing but panic. Venus was nothing but venereal vice. I do not mean for a moment, of course, that all the individual pagans were of this character even to the end; but it was as individuals that they differed from it. Nothing distinguishes paganism from Christianity so clearly as the fact that the individual thing called philosophy had little or nothing to do with the social thing called religion. Anyhow it was no good to preach natural religion to people to whom nature had grown as unnatural as any religion. They knew much better than we do what was the matter with them and what sort of demons at once tempted and tormented them; and they wrote across that great space of history the text; "This sort goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."

Now the historical importance of St. Francis and the transition from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, lies in the fact that they marked the end of this expiation. Men at the close of the dark Ages may have been rude and unlettered and unlearned in everything but wars with heathen tribes, more barbarous than themselves, but they were clean. They were like children; the first beginnings of their rude arts have all the clean pleasure of children. We have to conceive them in Europe as a whole living under little local governments, feudal in so far as they were a survival of fierce wars with the barbarians, often monastic and carrying a far more friendly and fatherly character, still faintly imperial as far as Rome still ruled as a great legend. But in Italy something had survived more typical of the finer spirit of antiquity; the republic, Italy, was dotted with little states, largely democratic in their ideals, and often filled with real citizens. But the city no longer lay open as under the Roman peace, but was pent in high walls for defence against feudal war and all the citizens had to be soldiers. One of these stood in a steep and striking position on the wooded hills of Umbria; and its name was Assisi. Out of its deep gate under its high turrets was to come the message that was the gospel of the hour, "Your warfare is accomplished, your iniquity is pardoned." But it was out of all these fragmentary things of feudalism and freedom and remains of Roman Law that there were to rise, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, vast and almost universal, the mighty civilisation of the Middle Ages.

It is an exaggeration to attribute it entirely to the inspiration of any one man, even the most original genius of the thirteenth century. Its elementary ethics of fraternity and fair play had never been entirely extinct and Christendom had never been anything less than Christian. The great truisms about justice and pity can be found in the rudest monastic records of the barbaric transition or the stiffest maxims of the Byzantine decline. And early in the eleventh and twelfth centuries a larger moral movement had clearly begun, but what may fairly be said of it is this, that over all those first movements there was still something of that ancient austerity that came from the long penitentiary period. It was the twilight of the morning; but it was still a grey twilight. This may be illustrated by the mere mention of two or three of these reforms before the Franciscan reform. The monastic institution itself, of course, was far older than all these things; indeed it was undoubtedly almost as old as Christianity. Its counsels of perfection had always taken the form of vows of chastity and poverty and obedience. With these unworldly aims it had long ago civilised a great part of the world. The monks had taught people to plough and sow as well as to read and write; indeed they had taught the people nearly everything the people knew. But it may truly be said that the monks were severely practical, in the sense that they not only practical but also severe; though they were generally severe with themselves and practical for other people. All this early monastic movement had long ago settled down and doubtless often deteriorated; but when we come to the first medieval movements this sterner character is still apparent. Three examples may be taken to illustrate the point.

First, the ancient social mould of slavery was already beginning to melt. Not only was the slave turning into a serf, who was practically free as regards his own farm and family life, but many lords were freeing slaves and serfs altogether. This was done under the pressure of the priests; but especially it was done in the spirit of a penance. In one sense, of course, any Catholic society must have an atmosphere of penance; but I am speaking of that sterner spirit of penance which had expiated the excesses of paganism. There was about such restitutions the atmosphere of the death-bed; as many of them were doubtless were examples of death-bed repentance. A very honest atheist with whom I once debated made use of the expression, "Men have only been kept in slavery by the fear of hell." As I pointed out to him, if he had said that men had only been freed from slavery by the fear of hell, he would have at least have been referring to an unquestionable historical fact.

Another example was the sweeping reform of Church discipline by Pope Gregory the Seventh. It really was a reform, undertaken from the highest motives and having the healthiest results; it conducted a searching inquisition against simony or the financial corruption of the clergy; it insisted on a more serious and self-sacrificing ideal for the life of the parish priest. But the very fact that this largely took the form of making universal the obligation of celibacy will strike the note of something which, however noble, would seem to many to be vaguely negative. The third example is in one sense the strongest of all. For the third example was a war; a heroic war and for many of us a holy war; but still having all the stark and terrible responsibilities of war. There is no space here to say all that should be said about the true nature of the Crusades. Everybody knows that in the very darkest hour of the Dark Ages a sort of heresy had sprung up in Arabia and become a new religion of a military but nomadic sort; invoking the name of Mahomet. Intrinsically it had a character found in many heresies from the Moslem to the Monist. It seemed to the heretic a sane simplification of religion; while it seems to a Catholic an insane simplification of religion, because it simplifies all to a single idea and so loses the breadth and balance of Catholicism. Anyhow its objective character was that of a military danger to Christendom and Christendom had struck at the very heart of it, in seeking to reconquer the Holy Places. The great Duke Godfrey and the first Christians who stormed Jerusalem were heroes if there were any in the world; but they were the heroes of a tragedy.

Now I have taken these two or three examples of the earlier medieval movements in order to note about them one general character, which refers back to the penance that followed paganism. There is something in all these movements that is bracing even while it is still bleak, like a wind blowing between the clefts of the mountains. That wind, austere and pure, of which the poet speaks, is really the spirit of the time, for it is the wind of a world that has at last been purified. To anyone who can appreciate atmospheres there is something clear and clean about the atmosphere of this crude and often harsh society. Its very lusts are clean; for they no have longer any smell of perversion. Its very cruelties are clean; they are not the luxurious cruelties of the amphitheatre. They come either of a very simple horror at blasphemy or a very simple fury at an insult. Gradually against this grey background beauty begins to appear, as something really fresh and delicate and above all surprising. Love returning is no longer what was once called platonic but what is still called chivalric love. The flowers and stars are have recovered their first innocence. Fire and water are felt to be worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint. The purge of paganism is complete at last.

For water itself has been washed. Fire itself has been purified as by fire. Water is no longer the water into which slaves were flung to feed the fishes. Fire is no longer that fire through which children were passed to Moloch. Flowers smell no more of the forgotten garlands gathered in the garden of Priapus; stars stand no more as signs of the far frigidity of gods as cold as those cold fires. They are like all new things newly made and awaiting new names, from one who shall come to name them. Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world. They await a new reconciliation with man, but they are already capable of being reconciled. Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature worship, and can return to nature.

While it was yet twilight a figure appeared silently and suddenly on a little hill above the city, dark against the fading darkness. For it was the end of a long and stern night, a night of vigil, not unvisited by stars. He stood with his hands lifted, as in so many statues and pictures, and about him was a burst of birds singing; and behind him was the break of day.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

On Judging Policies by the Calendar

"The Conservative has exactly the same error as the Progressive. It consists in the fact that each of them allows truth to be determined by time. That is to say, he judges a thing by whether it is of yesterday or to-day or to-morrow, and not by what it is in eternity."

Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, October 30 1920

Exactly! I have often thought that being "conservative" or "liberal" is as silly as being in favour of always turning to the left or always turning to the right. The question is; where do you want to go? What do you want to conserve? What do you want to liberate?

It seems to me that anybody who is strongly in favour of anything must be willing to be a conservative, a radical, a revolutionary, a restorationist, a liberal, a diehard, or a moderate, depending on the circumstances they find themselves in.

Of course, there is such a thing as the conservative temperament, which is a preference for small steps and caution. But to mistake a temperament for a philosophy is grievous error.

(I love my bound volumes of Chesterton's Illustrated London News column. If anyone ever wanted to make me an extravagant gift, the complete collection would be just the ticket!)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

John Haldane References Chesterton...

...in a talk organised by the Iona Institute.

On Friday night I attended a lecture given by Scottish philosopher John Haldane on the topic, "Sex, Marriage and Love in Liberal Society" (I think that was the title and I'm too lazy to look it up). It's the second lecture organized by the Iona Institute that I've attended.

John Haldane is a very respected philosopher and there was a packed house-- in fact, the talk had to be delayed so that more chairs could be brought in.

I am not really a lover of all things Scottish (I am sad to admit), but I was completely charmed by Professor Haldane. He must have delivered hundreds of lectures in his life, but he showed a zest and a relish for the occasion that was both surprising and admirable. There was a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips through the whole event. He spoke fluently and incisively, neither blinding us with philosophical terminology, nor speaking down to us. And he showed a positive eagerness to answer questions and to enter into a discussion. (I should also say that, for once, the questions were real questions and not simply occasions for audience members to launch into a disquisition.)

He mentioned Chesterton twice-- once explicitly, when he spent a few moments discussing What's Wrong With the World, in relation to its chapter on education, and once more obliquely when he said he liked to think of Alexander De Tocqueville's Democracy in America as What I Saw in America-- which is, of course, the title of Chesterton's memoir of a trip to the States.

It seems that nearly every Catholic intellectual and writer has been influenced by Chesterton.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What is Operation Black Arrow? And What Does it Have To Do With Guinness?

I will let fellow Chestertonian Stan Reynolds enlighten you...

Just now, the sight of so many posters around town advocating that on “Arthur's Day” we should all “Paint the Town Black” has me coming over feeling all Jungian.

Truly the collective unconscious works in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

The lads at Guinness have even got the date (27th September) nearly right, which isn't bad considering their whole poster campaign was probably designed after working hours in the brewery, when fluids quite additional to the “creative juices” were also likely to be freely flowing.

The (eventual) arrival of any artistic response to the dark and extraordinary events culminating and centering on the night of 28-29th September 2008 is certainly to be welcomed and can, I suppose, even be carefully celebrated with (just one) balloon and some bunting.

Certainly, given how much many folk are now “in the red”, the posters' radical artistic proposal that whole towns can “paint” themselves into “the black” is most meaningful.

Whilst the black paint overall prevents the viewer from being distracted from the unfortunate philosophical reality underlying our modern situation: The Irish Endarkenment has killed the Scottish Enlightenment.

But you know I don't wish to burst Uncle Arthur's big black birthday balloon. Besides, now that I look at the poster again a little less closely (after a few pints of his excellent black porter) it seems more like a portal than a balloon. A portal upon the nihilo....Megob, now there's art for you!

Funnily enough, if we are to solve the debt crisis we need just such a very rarely visible target and I do happen to have an arrow handy.

In keeping with the dark theme it is a black arrow and I designed it -about a year ago now- specifically to burst the ballooning burden of debt.

Well, time to give it my best shot...Look out!

www.operationblackarrow.com

Subtitle / Abstract: How To Use The Philosophies of Republicanism (Sensu Stricto) and Distributism, in Combination with an Overnight “Type 2” Euro Money Creation Event, to Help Solve Both The EU's Debt and Pensions-Crises, Help Save High Social Utility Capitalism and Help Re-establish and Widen Trust-Horizons, Both Amongst the EU's Populations and Towards Their Political and Financial Institutions.

Yours sincerely,

Stan Reynolds.

Forty-Four Followers!

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Charity

Charity is the imagination of the heart.

Chesterton, Illustrated London News, March 11 1911

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why I Will Still Say Peking if I Like

I am also aware that some are sensitive about the spelling of words; and the very proof-readers will sometimes revolt and turn Mahomet into Mohammed. Upon this point, however, I am unrepentant; for I never could see the point of altering a form with historic and even heroic fame in our own language, for the sake of reproducing by an arrangement of our letters something that is really written in quite different letters, and probably pronounced with quite a different accent. In speaking
of the great prophet I am therefore resolved to call him Mahomet; and am prepared, on further provocation, to call him Mahound.


The New Jerusalem

Friday, August 17, 2012

Have the Tee-Shirt


If other people can sport obscene jokes and advertisements for beer on their tee-shirts, why shouldn't I bring some Chestertonian inspiration to those whose paths cross mine?

I had it made up myself in a tee-shirt printing shop.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Little-Known Chesterton Ballade...

...and a good one, too.

I came across it in a book entitled Father Brown on Chesterton. The apparently paradoxical title is explained (as many of you will have guessed right away) by the fact that the author is Father John O'Connor, the Irish Catholic priest who was the inspiration for Father Brown (and this long before Chesterton became a Catholic himself; Father O'Connor was instrumental in that conversion, too, being in fact the priest who received him.)

The book is a rather frustrating one. I read it hoping to see Chesterton through the eyes of one who knew him personally, and while there are a few interesting revelations about life in the Chesterton household, it is only a very narrow chink to peer through.

Also, Father O Connor's prose style is of a kind that I find especially irksome; the oblique, allusive, ironical style of the man of letters who merely deigns to write. He also seemed to be one of those Catholics who enjoy shattering conventions of piety, all the while remaining serenely orthodox. (Of course, Chesterton and Belloc liked to do this, too, and I find it hardly less tiresome in them; the whole "break the conventions, keep the commandments" game seems to overlook the fact that conventions can be highly civilised and vivifying things in themselves, and the game can verge on boorishness.)

But he quotes a fine ballade in which Chesterton responds to those who lamented him wasting his literary power on controversy. I think "the strong incredible sanities of the sun" is one of Chesterton's most poetic lines. But I don't understand the penultimate line of the second verse, and I would appreciate it if anyone could explain it to me.

A Ballade of Ephemeral Controversy

I am not as that Poet that arrives,
Nor shall I pluck the Laurel that persists
Through all perverted Ages and revives;
Enough for me, that if with feet and fists
I fought these pharisaic atheists,
I need not crawl and seek when all is done
My motley pennon trampled in the lists
It will not matter when the fight is won.

If scratch of mine amid a war of knives
Has caused one moment's pain to pesimmists,
Poisoned one hour in Social Workers' lives,
I count such comforts more than amethysts
But less than claret, and at after trysts
We'll meet and drink such claret by the tun
Till you and I and all of us (What? Hists!).
It will not matter when the fight is won.

When men again want women for their wives
And even woman owns that she exists,
When people ask for houses and not hives
When we have climbed the tortured ivy's twists
To where like statues stand above the mists
The strong incredible sanities of the sun,
This dazed and overdriven bard desists.
It will not matter when the fight is won.

Envoi

Prince, let me place these handcuffs on your wrists
While common Christian people get some fun,
Then go and join your damned Thesophists.
It will not matter when the fight is won.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Chesterton and Sociology

In my early teens, [my grandfather] would sometimes stomp around his living room, where he used to shave towards mid-day with bowl, brush and open razor, deriding my ignorance and mocking the made-up discipline of sociology, which I at one stage claimed to be studying. "What is sociology?" he roared derisively, twisting and rolling the silly word on his Hampshire tongue. I knew, alas, that he was quite right.

Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God


Thus writes Peter Hitchens, one of my very favourite writers and commentators, in one of my very favourite books. (I think everybody should read both that one and The Abolition of Britain, his masterpiece.)

Sociology is often mocked as a made-up and pointless subject, the Media Studies or Women's Studies of its day. (Will I be considered homophobic if I add Queer Studies?)

It is interesting, then, that Chesterton seemed to consider his classic What's Wrong with the World as sociology:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called "The Remedy." It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that "The Remedy" is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology. It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease .

Even if he did not consider his own book as a work of sociology, Chesterton was at least using the world sociology in 1910-- sixty years before Peter Hitchens went to university-- in a way that seems to accept its basic legitimacy.

I think sociology gets a bad rap. It should not be compared to truly rubbishy disciplines like Women's Studies and Media Studies. I am currenly reading Yearning for Yesterday by Fred Davis, a very interesting work of sociology on the subject of nostalgia. Perhaps it is sociology's pretentions to the status of a science that has given it such a bad reputation; it seems to be more of a field for the perceptive essayist. Like Chesterton. Or, indeed, Peter Hitchens.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Uncanny Prescience of the Popes

In a letter that Chesterton wrote to Maurice Baring on St. Valentine's Day 1923-- a time when the pull of the Catholic Church was becoming irresistible to him-- he put into words one of the strongest considerations-- perhaps even the strongest consideration-- behind my own belief that the Catholic Church holds the truth about life and the universe. (The letter is quoted in Maisie Ward's never-bettered biography of the great man.)

Chesterton wrote:

Another quality that impresses me is the power of being decisive first and being proved right afterwards. This is exactly the quality a supernatural power would have; and I know nothing else in modern religion that has it. For instance, there was a time when I should have thought psychical enquiry the most reasonable thing in the world, and rather favourable to religion. I was afterwards convinced, by experience and not merely faith, that spiritualism is a practical poison. Don’t people see that when that is found in experience, a prodigious prestige accrues to the authority which, long before the experiment, did not pretend to enquire but simply said, “Drop it.” We feel that the authority did not discover; it knew. There are a hundred other things of which that story is true, in my own experience. But the High Churchman has a perfect right to be a spiritualistic enquirer; only he has not a right to claim that his authority knew beforehand the truth about spiritualistic enquiry.

In my opinion, one of the "hundred other things" of which that story is true is the Church's attitude to birth control. At the time of Humanae Vitae, it seemed perfectly reasonable to many theologians and priests and lay Catholics that the Church should accept the use of artifical birth control. It was a surprise (and, to some, a scandal) when Pope Paul VI refused to do so.

But today, in a world in which cloning and genetic engineering and frozen embryos are presenting mankind with a thousand moral dilemmas, the supposedly backward-looking decision of the Pope seems amazingly prescient. Once you start manipulating human life-- its creation and destruction-- the road is open to untold perversions and indignities and horrors.

And, of course, there are any number of other examples.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Never Enough

It is not enough to say
“We had our day”.

It is not enough to agree
We passed our time agreeably.

It is not even enough
To lavish love
On every single second
Of which our lives are reckoned.

It is not for us to assert
Life’s worth;
As though a mortal could
Declare that life is good.

It is our part to adore;
To humble ourselves before
A daisy, to declare
Ourselves unworthy of the air.

It is our part to applaud;
To be over-awed
And utterly swept away
Like a child on Christmas Day.

And to petition Heaven
One day to be given
The unimaginable power
To truly appreciate a flower.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Chesterton and Christian Humanism

I’m just back from two weeks’ holiday in Richmond, Virginia. If you ever find yourself in that part of the world, I highly recommend a bookshop called Black Swan Books. I am something of a connoiseur of bookshops and this one ranks very highly in my ratings. Like all decent bookshops, it sells secondhand books. It has extensive poetry, philosophy and religion sections, and its choice of background music is perfect; a mellow jazz that induces the sort of reflective, dreamy mood that is just right for book browsing. It’s not cheap, but it’s not egregiously expensive either.

One of the books I picked up was entitled Yeats’s Blessings on Von H├╝gel: Essays on Literature and Religion by Martin Green. I love literary criticism, as long as it steers clear from post-modernist zaniness. It pleases me immensely that there are people who devote their time and energy to analysing fictions and webs of words, and who take literature just as seriously as politics, economics or the housing market—or even such solemn subjects as food and gardening.

I can remember the happy shock of my first “serious” English lessons in school, when I realised that you could not only go further into reading, but also deeper. The double-take of reading a text for a second time and seeing what else might be there thrilled me, and has never ceased to thrill me. I find myself thinking about that childhood revelation—those classroom exercises of a teacher drawing our attention to the nuances in a line of verse-- more and more recently. How come it’s easier to read a 500 page thriller than a five verse poem? What does it say about our society that we are so reluctant to reflect, and so eager to hurry from entertainment to entertainment, to work hard and play hard but never take time to ponder and savour? Why does growing up so often mean growing impatient?

So I have an appetite for literary criticism recently, and the fact that this book exploes the relation between literature and religion gave it an added appeal to me. I could see that the author was a liberal Catholic, but I didn’t let that discourage me.

However, I was more than a little displeased by the author’s attitude to Chesterton. The first example comes during a discussion of Wilfred G. Ward, a mathematician and convert to Catholicism at the time of Newman:

“His demand for the subordination of the laity to the clergy, for a purely Catholic education, for a Continental as opposed to a British Catholicism, his distrust of the whole modern world—but the point is surely made. We all recognize that kind of infantilism working itself out in the largest cultural terms, discovering with ever-renewed delight that logic will cut through the most massive-seeming of commonsense adult assurances, being the enfant terrible who can yet prove himself more serious than anyone else at the drop of a hat. We recognize it the more easily because we have seen often before this whole syndrome—fatness, infantilism, love of the abstract, cleverness (often at chess, or comic songs, or anagrams, or detective work)—combined with an authoritarian Catholicism. This combination is naturally most to be looked for in converts and Chesterton is the most famous British example.

Men who exemplify this pattern may be admirable in many respects, but they are archetypal enemies of “life”. The sense of senses in which we are using that term will become clearer as the essay proceeds [it doesn’t], but let us say that it refers here primarily to mature relationships and personality structures which allow full dignity to the instinctive powers of the self. Such men exemplify the triumph of pure intellect and abstract will over the more instinctive parts of the mind.”


I hardly know what to say to a set of claims like that. I never thought of Chesterton’s bulk, his love of detective stories, and his authoritarian Catholicism as forming a “syndrome”, but the author of this book seems to know better. I do think it is rather unfair to accuse Chesterton of exalting logic at the expense of “commonsense adult assurances”. There could hardly have been a stauncher champion of the “common man’s” healthy instincts than Chesterton, and the opening of Orthodoxy is a protest against logic and rationalism gone mad.

Later on, Green is even more dismissive:

“Wilfrid Ward, welcomed Chesterton on to The Dublin Review and into his home immediately he appeared as a writer, and before he was received into the church. But the Baron stayed aloof. Dickens and George Eliot were his novelists, and one can guess that Chesterton’s paradoxes and debating skills and inability to grow up must have seemed to him a poor performance for a “Catholic writer”."


I can understand someone resenting a supposed inability to grow up. I can even understand somebody viewing a taste for paradoxes with suspicion. But it seems tough to be dismissed for being a good debater. This author seems to share an attitude to Chesterton that is all-too-common amongst those in literary, intellectual and academic circles: “Chesterton is to be admired in his own way, but one shouldn’t take him seriously, you know.”

It’s a pity this book is so unduly harsh towards my favourite author in the world, because I agree with some of its points. Especially this one:

“What ‘Catholic writer’ means today can be suggested by reciting a few names from current French, British and American fiction. Mauriac and Green in France, J.F. Powers and Flannery O’Connor in America, Greene and Waugh in England-— with Muriel Spark and William Golding as post-war epigoni. And what these names most importantly connote, taken together, is surely an anti-humanist sensibility; in these writers’ novels, human achievements and modes of being are consistently and triumphantly shown to be inadequate, egotistic, evil, just in being themselves, in being human. Under stress all natural goodness breaks down; only grace-assisted goodness is valid, and grace-assisted badness is even better.”

The author laments this tendency, and I think that he is correct. I have never been able to enjoy the works of Graham Greene, and I disliked Brideshead Revisited, for this very reason. I don’t care much for authors who are more excited about sin than about grace. (As Lewis said of writers like this: “What I am attacking…is a set of people who seem to me . . . to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad”.)

Since the late nineteenth century or so, humanism has become hubristic, and liberalism has celebrated moral laxity. Does that mean that there is no such thing as good humanism, good liberalism? Of course not.

I think Martin Green would have found Chesterton an ally in the cause of Catholic humanism, if he could have suspended his distaste. I don’t think Chesterton’s firm belief in original sin (which he regarded as a “cheerful doctrine”) blinded him to the genuine good to be found in fatally-flawed humanity.

I think Chesterton’s Christian humanism can be seen in many, many passages, but perhaps it is best exemplified in this meditation on Charles Dickens (it concerns literary taste rather than morality, but I think it shows Chesterton's essential tenderness towards ordinary humanity):

Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted. And with this was connected that other fact which must never be forgotten, and which I have more than once insisted on, that Dickens and his school had a hilarious faith in democracy and thought of the service of it as a sacred priesthood. Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. The belief that the rabble will only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. Mr. Fergus Hume has no more respect for the populace than Mr. George Moore. The only difference lies between those writers who will consent to talk down to the people, and those writers who will not consent to talk down to the people. But Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. He approached the people like a deity and poured out his riches and his blood. This is what makes the immortal bond between him and the masses of men. He had not merely produced something they could understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonised to produce it. They were not only enjoying one of the best writers, they were enjoying the best he could do. His raging and sleepless nights, his wild walks in the darkness, his note-books crowded, his nerves in rags, all this extraordinary output was but a fit sacrifice to the ordinary man. He climbed towards the lower classes. He panted upwards on weary wings to reach the heaven of the poor.

His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. But with this mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error. Commonness and the common mind are now generally spoken of as meaning in some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight; that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody: everybody means Mrs. Meynell. This lady, a cloistered and fastidious writer, has written one of the best eulogies of Dickens that exist, an essay in praise of his pungent perfection of epithet. And when I say that everybody understands Dickens I do not mean that he is suited to the untaught intelligence. I mean that he is so plain that even scholars can understand him.

Perhaps if Martin Green had looked past Chesterton’s fatness and love of detective stories, he would have seen more to admire.

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Addition to your Chesterton Shelf

The months of anticipation are over and the 50th International Eucharistic Congress has finally come to Dublin. As many of you will know, Chesterton devoted a whole book to the Congress of 1932, titled Christendom in Dublin.

It includes a preface and notes by Peter Costello, who has been a good friend of the Irish Chesterton Society, and whose book reviews in The Irish Catholic are always required reading. Also included is an additional essay.

It can only be bought through The Irish Catholic, and the order form is here.

Amongst all the tricolours and banners hanging for the European Championships (as of course, they should be), I only spotted one lonely Vatican arms flag, flying from a house on Ballymun Road. A sad contrast to 1932.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fifth Meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society-- the Best Yet!


Apologies for how long it took me to get round to reporting on this, but the fifth meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society-- which took place in the Central Catholic Library, Dublin, on 28th of April-- was a tremendous success, attracting our biggest attendance yet and generating lots of lively discussion.

This time we did something different, hosting a guest talk by the philosopher and columnist Mark Dooley (above). Dr. Dooley is the author of eight books, including Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach and Why Be a Catholic? (Intrestingly, Dr. Dooley told us that the publishers of the last book asked him to "write it like Chesterton!")

The title of the talk was "The Democratic Faith", but it ranged across a whole landscape of topics, critiquing the developments (and, to a great extent, degenerations) in society and culture and politics over the last several hundred years-- the nature and underlying assumptions of freedom, the limits of democracy, the importance of tradition and dead generations, and much more. There were many questions from the floor and some pretty animated discussion.

Dr. Dooley disclaimed any deep knowledge of Chesterton, but this seemed like modesty on his part, since he casually dropped Chestertonian phrases like "the ethics of Elfland" into the stream of his talk and showed an extensive knowledge of Chesterton's intellectual development, and especially the difficulty of labelling him as "conservative" or "liberal" by modern standards. (A few responses from the audience also focused on this question. For my own part, I consider myself a social and cultural conservative, and even find Chesterton too radical for me at times. But I think the greatness of Chesterton is that he can draw admirers from a fairly wide spectrum of views and outlooks.)

I was surprised by the turnout (not visible in the photo unfortunately!). I think there is considerable interest in Chesterton in Ireland and a potential for a more formal organization. If there is anyone reading this with more administrative nous than me, and who is interested in helping me put more shape on what is currently a very loose and informal association, I would love to hear from you.

So a big thanks to Dr. Dooley for his wonderful talk, and thanks to all of you who showed up on the day. Hope to see you again next time!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Chaste Barbarians

Now I have taken these two or three examples of the earlier medieval movements in order to note about them one general character, which refers back to the penance that followed paganism. There is something in all these movements that is bracing even while it is still bleak, like a wind blowing between the clefts of the mountains. That wind, austere and pure, of which the poet speaks, is really the spirit of the time, for it is the wind of a world that has at last been purified. To anyone who can appreciate atmospheres there is something clear and clean about the atmosphere of this crude and often harsh society. Its very lusts are clean; for they no have longer any smell of perversion. Its very cruelties are clean; they are not the luxurious cruelties of the amphitheatre. They come either of a very simple horror at blasphemy or a very simple fury at an insult. Gradually against this grey background beauty begins to appear, as something really fresh and delicate and above all surprising. Love returning is no longer what was once called platonic but what is still called chivalric love. The flowers and stars are have recovered their first innocence. Fire and water are felt to be worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint. The purge of paganism is complete at last.

For water itself has been washed. Fire itself has been purified as by fire. Water is no longer the water into which slaves were flung to feed the fishes. Fire is no longer that fire through which children were passed to Moloch. Flowers smell no more of the forgotten garlands gathered in the garden of Priapus; stars stand no more as signs of the far frigidity of gods as cold as those cold fires. They are like all new things newly made and awaiting new names, from one who shall come to name them. Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world. They await a new reconciliation with man, but they are already capable of being reconciled. Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature worship, and can return to nature.


-- From Saint Francis

I think this is one of Chesterton's most remarkable passages. It occured to me today as I was thinking about the Christian Anglo-Saxon poetry of Caedmon and The Dream of the Rood. When I think of those poems, of the whole spiritual and mental world preserved in them, the epithet that leaps to mind is clean. There is a freshness, a naivety, a Spring-time youthfulness in them, as though the sun and moon had been new-minted and a dew lay over all Creation. They seem to belong to a world so much younger and heartier than the Roman Empire.

Chesterton was certainly a man who could "appreciate atmospheres". I think this might be his very greatest gift. He had the most astounding ability to take the pulse of an era, a nation, or an environment. It is to be seen in his description (in Orthodoxy) of the pre-Christian world as a place grown sick and weary of the "Inner Light", or his insight (in The Everlasting Man) that the myths and legends of pagan cultures were hardly believed by anybody, or his diagnosis of Theosophistic and esoteric cults as a hierarchy of mysteries whose ultimate mystery is that there is no God.

Sometimes I think his sensitivity to atmosphere was even, perhaps, what led him astray. His staunch support for World War One came mostly from a horror of what he called "Prussianim", which he saw as an anti-chivalric, anti-Christian, bullying philosophy of Blood and Iron that would corrupt the soul of Europe if permitted. I do not know if he was right; but it seems a very abstract motivation for an unspeakably bloody war.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Did you know there is an American Cecil Chesterton Society?

Well, there is. Cecil Chesterton was GK's beloved brother, also a journalist. He played a leading role in exposing the Marconi Scandal of 1912, and died on active service in World War One. Biographies suggest that much of Chesterton's debating brilliance came from constantly debating with his brother from early childhood.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Chesterton wrote about the Titanic

Chesterton's friends (along with his wife) often criticized him for wasting his energies upon journalism, that ephemeral art-form, and wanted him to concentrate more upon producing literary masterpieces. I am very glad they didn't succeed. Chesterton's genius was for the polemical, the topical, the addressing of ideas and antagonists head-on rather than through the transposition of fiction.

Another benefit of his zeal for journalism is that his work is a veritable chronicle of his times, and we can be pretty sure that he wrote about any prominent event in the years he produced his weekly column in the London Illustrated News.

I went to see James Cameron's Titantic in 3D today. Film buff though I am, I've avoided seeing it until now, since I can't bear films with tragic endings. But today a hairdresser made me promise I would go to see it-- she had seen it twelve times herself-- so I promised. I try to be a man of my word.

Oh boy. How could anyone sit through that twelve times-- or even more, as I know many people have? Are they masochists? Titanic is a wonderful film by any standards, but for the last hour or so I found myself almost pleading, "Please let it end! My heart can't take any more rending!"

So, never again. But it did make me go to my Chesterton shelf to see if he wrote about the tragedy, and I was pleased to discover he did. Here is the article, from the Illustrated London News of May 11, 1912:

The tragedy of the great shipwreck is too terrific for any analogies of mere fancy. But the analogy which springs to the mind between the great modern ship and our great modern society that sent it forth--this analogy is not a fancy. It is a fact; a fact perhaps too large and plain for the eyes easily to take in. Our whole civilization is indeed very like the TITANIC; alike in its power and its impotence, it security and its insecurity. Technically considered, the sufficiency of the precautions are a matter for technical inquiry. But psychologically considered, there can be no doubt that such vast elaboration and system induce a frame of mind which is inefficient rather than efficient. Quite apart from the question of whether anyone was to blame, the big outstanding fact remains: that there was no sort of sane pro-portion between the provision for luxury and levity, and the extent of the provision for need and desperation. The scheme did far too much for prosperity and far too little for distress--just like the modern State. Mr. Veneering, it will be remembered, in his electoral address, "instituted a new and striking comparison between the State and a ship"; the comparison, if not new, is becoming a little too striking. By the time you have made your ship as big as a commonwealth it does become very like a ship--rather like a sinking ship.

For there is a real connection between such catastrophes and a certain frame of mind which refuses to expect them. A rough man going about the sea in a small boat may make every other kind of mistake: he may obey superstitions; he may take too much rum; he may get drunk; he may get drowned. But, cautious or reckless, drunk or sober, he cannot forget that he is in a boat and that a boat is as dangerous a beast as a wild horse. The very lines of the boat have the swift poetry of peril; the very carriage and gestures of the boat are those of a thing assailed. But if you make your boat so large that it does not even look like a boat, but like a sort of watering-place, it must, by the deepest habit of human nature, induce a less vigilant attitude of the mind. An aristocrat on board ship who travels with a garage for his motor almost feels as if he were travelling with the trees of his park. People living in open-air cafes sprinkled with liqueurs and ices get as far from the thought of any revolt of the elements as they are from that of an earthquake under the Hotel Cecil. The mental process is quite illogical, but it is quite inevitable. Of course, both sailors and passengers are intellectually aware that motors at sea are often less useful than life-boats, and that ices are no antidote to icebergs. But man is not only governed by what he thinks but by what he chooses to think about; and the sights that sink into us day by day colour our minds with every tint between insolence and terror. This is one of the worst evils in that extreme separation of social classes which marks the modern ship--and State.

But whether or no our unhappy fellow-creatures on the TITANIC suffered more than they need from this unreality of original outlook, they cannot have had less instinct of actuality than we have who are left alive on land: and now that they are dead they are much more real than we. They have known what papers and politicians never know--of what man is really made, and what manner of thing is our nature at its best and worst. It is this curious, cold, flimsy incapacity to conceive what a THING is like that appears in so many places, even in the comments on this astounding sorrow. It appears in the displeasing incident of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, who, immediately after the disaster, seems to have hastened to assure the public that men must get no credit for giving the boats up to women, because it was the "rule" at sea. Whether this was a graceful thing for a gay spinster to say to eight hundred widows in the very hour of doom is not worth inquiry here, Like cannibalism, it is a matter of taste. But what chiefly astonishes me in the remark is the utter absence which it reveals of the rudiments of political thought. What does Miss Pankhurst imagine a "rule" is--a sort of basilisk? Some hundreds of men are, in the exact and literal sense of the proverb, between the devil and the deep sea. It is their business, if they can make up their minds to it, to accept the deep sea and resist the devil. What does Miss Pankhurst suppose a "rule" could do to them in such extremities? Does she think the captain would fine every man sixpence who expressed a preference for his life? Has it occurred to her that a hundredth part of the ship's population could have thrown the captain and all the authorities into the sea? But Miss Pankhurst's remark although imbecile, is informing. Now I see the abject and idolatrous way in which she uses the word "rule," I begin to understand the abject and idolatrous way in which she uses the word "vote." She cannot see that wills and not words control events. If ever she is in a fire or shipwreck with men below a certain standard of European morals, she will soon find out that the existence of a rule depends on whether people can be induced to obey it. And if she ever has a vote in the very low state of European politics, she will very soon find out that its importance depends on whether you can induce the man you vote for to obey his mandate or any of his promises. It is vain to rule if your subjects can and do disobey you. It is vain to vote if your delegates can and do disobey you.

But, indeed, a real rule can do without such exceptions as the Suffragettes; de minimis non curat lex. And if the word "rule" be used in the wider sense of an attempt to maintain a certain standard of private conduct out of respect for public opinion, we can only say that not only is this a real moral triumph, but it is, in our present condition, rather a surprising and reassuring one. It is exactly this corporate conscience that the modern State has dangerously neglected. There was probably more instinctive fraternity and sense of identical interests, I will say, not on an old skipper's vessel, but on an old pirate's, than there was between the emigrants, the aristocrats, the journalists, or the millionaires who set out to die together on the great ship. That they found in so cruel a way their brotherhood and the need of man for the respect of his neighbour, this is a dreadful fact, but certainly the reverse of a degrading one. The case of Mr. Stead, which I feel with rather special emotions, both of sympathy and difference, is very typical of the whole tragedy. Mr. Stead was far too great and brave a man to require any concealment of his exaggerations or his more unbalanced moods; his strength was in a flaming certainty, which one only weakens by calling sincerity, and a hunger and thirst for human sympathy. His excess, we may say, with real respect, was in the direction of megalomania; a childlike belief in big empires, big newspapers, big alliances--big ships. He toiled like a Titan for that Anglo-American combination of which the ship that has gone down may well be called the emblem. And at the last all these big things broke about him, and somewhat bigger things remained: a courage that was entirely individual; a kindness that was entirely universal. His death may well become a legend.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fifth Meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society!

It's been a long time coming, I know, but I can finally announce the fifth meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society.

It's on Saturday the 28th of April (sorry for the short notice), at two o' clock, in the Central Catholic Library, 74 Merrion Square, Dublin.

This time we have a special treat as the Irish philosopher and writer Mark Dooley (author of Why Be Catholic? and Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach) has kindly agreed to give us a talk (title: the Democratic Faith).

Hope to see you there! Please let me know if you are thinking of coming as that will give me an idea of turnout!

Admission is free. All are welcome. No oath of loyalty to the Pope is required, despite the setting.

Maolsheachlann

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Illustrating the Last Post....

...in which Chesterton mocked novels that are populated with sensitive souls who are tortured by kindness and cheerfulness.

This is from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (himself a Catholic):

"Are you all right?"

(...)

"I am all right. I am never too bad with you."

"Why?"

"No thanks to you. On the contrary. The others are much more sympathetic than you, especially Mother and Sam."

"What about Merle?"

"Merle! Listen, with Merle I could break wind and he would give me that same quick contgratulatory look. But you. You're nuttier than I am. One look at you and I have to laugh. Do you think that is sufficient ground for marriage?"

"As good as any. Better than love."


Earlier in the novel, one character has revealed the festering, squalid banality of her soul in this shocking scene:

It seems she has just finished reading a celebrated novel which, I understand, takes a somewhat gloomy and pessimistic view of things. She is angry.

"I don't feel a bit gloomy!" she cries. "Now that Mark and Lance have grown up and flown the coop, I am having the time of my life. I'm taking philosophy courses in the morning and working nights at Le Petit Theatre. Eddie and I have re-examined our values and found them pretty darn enduring. To our utter amazement we discovered that we both have the same life goal. Do you know what it is?"

"No."

To make a contribution, however small, and leave the world just a little better off.. [...] We gave the television to the kids and last night we turned on the hi-fi and sat by the fire and read The Prophet aloud. I don't find life gloomy!" she cries. "To me, books and people and things are endlessly fascinating."


The glum protagonist, we are told, "can talk to Nell as long as I don't look at her. Looking into her eyes is an embarrassment."

The poor fellow! Imagine how awful it is for him, confronted with a mother of grown-up children who enjoys life and finds it fascinating! I think the lady would have been damned by him just as much if she preferred to go to bingo and watch TV.

The world is full of phonies and only me and you are really authentic, really alive! And I'm not even that sure about you, to tell you the truth!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I've Met Real People Like This Dickie Fellow

The ordinary hearty human being, whom the humanitarian originally set out to like, became a sort of tyrant and persecutor to whome the artistic temperament need not even be just, let alone sympathetic. The Victorian hero became the villain of the modern novel, the man who was so sane and sensible that his very existence was an insult to the beautiful and precious lunatic for whom alone the world was made.

Out of a hundred such passages in a hundred such novels, I take one which I have just come upon by chance. A novelist describes with bitter irony and indignation the sad fate of a poet who had married a good housekeeper—

“Beauty was spoilt for Lesbia if there was untidiness about.

“Lesbia! Lesbia! Come and look at the sunset!” Often he would call to her, never thinking that she might be busy. But she was never impatient.

“One minute, Dickie, till I have finished tying down the jam; then I shall enjoy the sunset.’ “


This is supposed to be a tragedy. It is written with withering sarcasm at the expense of Lesbia. It seems to me a good deal more of a comedy than the student of sunsets deserved. If she had said, “One minute, Dickie, till I have finished tying down the jam; and then I will clout you over the head with an old jam-pot”, it may be that this would have been more soothing to the artistic temperament, and it would certainly have been more soothing to the feminine temper. But I strongly suspect that Dickie would have made a tragedy out of that too. But, really, one may well ask, what is humanity and the human fellowship coming to, if it is supposed to be unendurable torture to a man that his wife should tie down the jam, and a perfectly fiendish and heart-rending addition to the torture that she should do it without losing her temper? What is humanitarianism if it cannot reconcile two human beings because one of them is patient? If it were suggested that there were something trying, not in the wife’s patience but in the husband’s impatience, it would at least be a conceivable through hardly a considerable cause of offence. But why are we only to be humane to the unreasonable person, and never humane to the reasonable person? Yet any number of novels about rising geniuses and misunderstood women are founded entirely on that antithesis. It seems to me very good-natured of Lesbia to promise to enjoy the sunset; especially as I have very little doubt that Dickie was prepared to enjoy the jam.


Our Intellectual Novelists, Illustrated London News, 1926

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Was Chesterton a Libertarian?

I'm interested to know people's opinions on this one.

He certainly had some libertarian tendencies. He was opposed to compulsory education, criticized Sunday trading restrictions, opposed social insurance, ridiculed the censorship of the stage, thundered against Prohibition, and carried a gun around him.

In fact, I can't think of many arguments against the thesis-- which doesn't please me that much, since I am rather anti-libertarian myself.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Auden on Chesterton

Chesterton’s negative criticisms of modern society, his distrust of bigness, big business, big shops, his alarm at the consequences of undirected and uncontrolled technological development, are even more valid today than in his own. His positive political beliefs, that a good society would be a society of small property-owners, most of them living on the land, attractive as they sound, seem to me open to the same objections that he brings against the political ideas of the Americans and French in the eighteenth century: “Theirs was a great ideal; but no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great.” In the twentieth century, the England he wanted would pre-suppose the strictest control of the birth rate, a policy which both his temperament and his religion forbade him to recommend.

That is from “GK Chesterton’s Non-Fictional Prose” a review written by WH Auden in 1970. Leaving aside the reference to the birth rate, I think he has a point about Distributism. I share the Distributist’s vision of an ideal society; but how to bring it about when our own society is so radically different, and seems locked into the globalized economy, is rather baffling.

There is much else of interest in the review. Auden is a fair-minded and balanced critic, and his affection for Chesterton is obvious. But there were several things I couldn’t agree with.

This, for instance, which Auden gives as an example of Chesterton’s refusal to keep abreast of the times:

He was, for example, certainly intelligent enough and, judging by his criticism of contemporary anthropology, equipped enough, to have written a serious critical study of Freud, had he taken the time and trouble to read him properly; his few flip remarks about dreams and psycho-analysis are proof that he did not.

Today it seems rather less obvious that Freud is worthy of anything save a “few flip remarks”.

Auden’s views are the complete opposite of mine when it comes to the topical and occasional nature of much of Chesterton’s work:

Chesterton’s insistence upon the treadmill of weekly journalism after it ceased to be financially necessary seems to have puzzled his friends as much as it puzzles me...Whatever Chesterton’s reasons and motives for his choice, I am quite certain it was a mistake. “A journalist”, said Karl Kraus, “is stimulated by a deadline; he writes worse if he had time.” If this is correct, then Chesterton was not, by nature, a journalist. His best thinking and best writing are to be found, not in his short weekly essays, but in his full-length books where he could take as much time and space as he pleased.

I guess it’s a matter of taste. It’s certainly the case that Chesterton’s book-length non-fiction works, Orthodoxy and Heretics and What’s Wrong with the World, are of a calibre way above his weekly articles. But Chesterton was always flexing his intellectual muscles in these articles; much of Orthodoxy came from his debate about Christianity, conducted in newspaper columns, with Robert Blatchford. Besides, I like the topicality of Chesterton’s newspaper pieces; it is very interesting to see how timeless ideas intersect with the passing news and trends of a bygone age.

Auden also weighs in on the long-running “Was Chesterton anti-semitic?” debate. His contribution is rather predictable, given his leftist views (of course Auden would probably be considered a hopeless reactionary now, but then, that’s the nature of leftist “progress”). I don’t agree with what Auden says here—not that I want to support Chesterton’s claims that certain types of Jews tend to be tyrants or traitors. I do, however, agree with Chesterton’s basic point that, if it’s acceptable to criticize the national or ethnic character of the English or American or Chinese or French races, it should certainly be acceptable to criticize the Jewish character. Auden’s hairsplitting over “race” and “nation” is beside the point.(The passage in italics is a quotation from Chesterton.)

Though he denied the charge and did, certainly, denounce Hitler’s persecution, he cannot, I fear, be completely exonerated.

I said that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and another particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. I say it again. Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of an other nation on the planet; it is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual...I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.

The disingenuousness of this argument is revealed by the quiet shift from the term nation to race. It is always permissible to criticize a nation (including Israel) a religion (including Orthodox Judaism) or a culture, because these are the creations of human thought and will; a nation,a religion, a culture can always reform themselves, if they so choose. A man’s ethnic heritage, on the other hand, is not in his power to alter. If it were true, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suppose that it is, that certain moral defects or virtues are racially inherited, they could not become the subject of moral judgement for others.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Forty Followers!

It seems like yesterday since I was celebrating ten!

That's a motivation to, you know, actually get some new posts up. Soon. Definitely.

I admit I haven't read Chesterton in a while. After a while, you simply absorb a favourite author and you don't have to read him anymore.

But watch this space. Not too closely. I mean, you can probably go and make a cup of tea, do some laundry, solve a crossword. But glance over occasionally.

I must also apologize for the lack of meetings, the last one being way back last summer. I guess I feel the need to ring some changes, since they were getting a bit samey, but I'm not sure how to go about it. Suggestions welcome...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Intermission

I am going to be completely offline for two weeks so I apologize in advance for any comments to which I don't reply.

I would deeply appreciate any of your prayers in the meantime.

Thanks

Maolsheachlann

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Want to Talk Chesterton? Then Check This Out!

There is a Chesterton Discusion Forum well worth visiting, at the address below. The forum has fallen rather dormant of late, which is a pity, since there have been some great discussions there in the past. Well, I asked a question there today, so I'm hoping that will get a few answers, at least. But it would be great if it could be revived.

http://gkcforum.org/viewforum.php?f=2

Why I Am Not "Still a Catholic"

Happy New Year! Did you get any Chesterton books for Christmas? I didn't!

I'm going to do something I've never done before and cross-post something from my other blog, Irish Papist. To compound the sin, it doesn't even mention Chesterton. I simply thought it was mildly Chestertonian in its approach. Apologies to any non-Catholics or non-Christians who read this blog and who think I'm taking an abominable liberty...here goes anyway...


I often browse the religion shelves of bookshops, and there is a particular title, recently published, that always makes me grit my teeth. It is Remaining a Catholic After the Murphy Report.

As a matter of fact, there are a whole genre of similar books. Recalling the title Why I am Still a Catholic, I looked for it on Amazon just now and found that several books of that title have been published. There is also an Irish book called What Being Catholic Means to Me, which—though its title is unobjectionable—contains essays (written by various luminaries) pregnant with the whole atmosphere that reeks from a title like Why I am Still a Catholic.

What is that atmosphere, you ask me?

I think the word “supercilious” sums it up best. Though perhaps I would be better off being blunt and calling it pride. I haven’t read any of the several books called Why I Am Still a Catholic, and I may be maligning all their authors, but the title suggests that the authors believe the Church is lucky to keep them, that the Church doesn’t quite deserve their continued loyalty, that their refusal to apostasize is a sign of heroic forbearance and patience and sacrifice.

Would anyone write an article called Why I Still Love my Wife, or Why I Still Love my Children?

Permit me here to make the ritual protestations of horror at clerical child abuse. Of course, outrages such as those chronicled in the Murphy Report should be a source of lacerating shame for the Irish hierarcy and laity. But, equally of course, they don’t make a whit of difference to the truth or falsity of the Church’s doctrine, any more than a doctor abusing his patient would make medicine a pseudoscience.

And yet, although I think the damage that sex abuse has done to Irish Catholicism is grossly overstated—to be blunt, I think it is often little more than a flag of convenience for those who were lukewarm in their convictions already—I have some sympathy for those whose faith is sincerely shaken by these outrages. I can understand (though I do not agree with) the reasoning by which someone would decide that the Church cannot be infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit if some of its anointed ministers have perpetrated such horrors. Of course, to think this is to forget that God’s church is made of living stones, that He never abrogates human freedom for the sake of His designs, and that even one of Our Saviour’s closest disciples committed an unspeakable betrayal.

Still, as I say, I have some sympathy for those who feel this way, for those who would describe themselves as Still Catholic because of the abuse scandals.

What really irritates me is those who forgive the Church, not for the failings of some of its members and ministers and hierarchy, but for its very doctrines and Tradition and character. Those, in other words, who forgive the Church for being Catholic.

I have a confession to make. A confession that might shock those people who declare, with a virtuous air, that they are Still Catholics despite the Church’s “negative view of sex”, or its “homophobia”, or its “rigid hierarchical thinking”, or its supposed "pomp and splendour".

I like pretty much everything about the Catholic Church. I don’t “struggle” with accepting any of it.

I like that the Church allows us an opportunity for loyalty, humility and deference, in a world where advertisers and politicians and psychologists and spiritual gurus of all stripes compete to flatter us, and to assure us that our problems are not our own fault, but the fault of The System, or Society, or our parents, or some other culprit.

I like calling a priest “Father”, submitting to the wisdom of the Magisterium, and accepting that one lifetime and one blob of cerebral tissue isn’t enough to attain timeless Truth.

I like that the Church insists on celibacy for its priests, and that there are men who are willing to witness to their faith in Christ by making such an enormous sacrifice. I admire any man who does so, even those whose orthodoxy leaves something to be desired.

I like that the Church is willing to defy our era and declare unabashedly that homosexuality is wrong—not because I sit in judgement on those who are attracted to their own sex, or because I doubt that many people are born this way, or because I think that they are bad people. But because I don’t think anybody really believes that romantic love between two men is on a par with romantic love between a man and a woman, or that there is not something unique and timeless and sacramental in the harmony of opposites that is the love between male and female. I always suffered from the cognitive dissonance that our era imposes on us by having to pretend otherwise, by having to rebuke an all-but universal moral intuition as an irrational phobia. I suspect I am not the only one.

I like that the Church prohibits contraception. It seems grotesquely incongruous to me that the lifestyle of sexual liberation—which purports to be so wild and unfettered and heady and, above all, natural—can ultimately rely upon little pills and latex sheaths. It is the Church’s teaching on sex that is really romantic and heady—the acceptance that lovemaking is reserved for those who have crossed the Rubicon of marriage, who have committed to each other irrevocably, and who do not grudge the natural consequences of their love’s consummation—those, in other words, who are giving it everything. The world’s ideal of sex seems lily-livered and puny compared to that of Catholicism.

I like that the Church ordains only men to the priesthood—not because I think women are any less wise, or less capable of heroic virtue, or less competent than men in any other way, but because I feel sure God made us male and female for a reason—a reason that goes far deeper than biology, a reason of cosmic significance. I am content not to understand that reason. No, more than content—I am happy to feel the weight of the mystery.

I like that bishops wear mitres and carry croziers, that priests wear chasubles, that many churches blaze with colour and splendour and ornament, and that even the plainest will contain some fragments of visual poetry—statues, tabernacle, altar. We live in a utilitarian age, one that draws a ruthless line between function and beauty. Soldiers wear khaki, workplaces are monstrosities of glass and concrete, and suburbs full of identical houses stretch for mile upon mile upon mile. Our discussions, in boardroom and parliament and newspaper columns, resolve around efficiency and cost-effectiveness and usefulness. Everything has been streamlined. Utilitarianism has carried all before it—everywhere except in the Catholic Church. Within its cathedrals and chapels and oratories, beauty still has a serious purpose, beauty still matters, beauty is indispensable.

“How can a Church preach the doctrine of Christ while luxuriating in splendour and ostentation?”, its critics ask. Well, one reason is that the poor, too, crave beauty and ceremony and grandeur—and where else will they get it, where can they actually participate in it, except in a cathedral, or on a pilgrimage to the Vatican?

I like that the Church mediates between God and me. Some people think we should take a direct line to God and we shouldn’t need anybody coming between Him and us. I don’t. I think God likes mediation. He could have invented us all from nothing, but instead we all have mothers and fathers who gave us the gift of life, and lines of ancestors stretching back untold millennia. I prefer it that way. He could have made us self-sufficient monads, but instead He contrived this world so that we need to get food and knowledge and company from others—very sensibly, I think.

Christ chose to appear to a particular group of people at a particular moment, so that the vast majority of Christians would receive their knowledge of him from others. Even when he spoke to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, he didn’t simply cram him with all the knowledge he would need. He sent Ananias to induct him into the Christian fellowship, and to restore his sight.

Why do we cherish stories, like The Karate Kid, about masters and disciples? Because we recognize there is something uniquely tender and touching and joyous in that bond; because we feel growth and discovery and flourishing should not be something impersonal, but something that happens between individuals. We even feel that it means more when it is a difficult, tentative process. The Karate Kid learning his stuff from an old book would seem somehow less meaningful.

I like that the Church requires a spoken confession of sins to a priest, even though I find this incredibly difficult and embarrassing and intimidating. God forgiving my sins through a wordless, silent, invisible process seems somehow banal and anti-climactic. That they should be forgiven at all is astounding and gratuitous enough. How could I wish for it to be any easier? And—though confession is a mystical sacrament and not a psychological coping mechanism—where is the catharsis in a purely mental confession?

I like saints. I like reading about Marian apparitions. I like relics. I like shrines. I like feasts. I even like fasts (especially when they’re over).

I like homilies. I like candles glowing before shrines. I like the poetry of names like Jesus and Ezekiel and Isaac and Melchizedek.

I like ritual, for its own sake—I believe ritual expresses something, enacts something, that mere words or thoughts never could. I've noticed that people tend to make rituals of the things they love—even if it’s something like sitting down to a cup of tea and a coffee slice before opening their favourite magazine each week.

I liked John Paul the Second. I like Pope Benedict the Sixteenth even more.

I even like the penumbral, cultural aspects of Catholicism-- things that aren't strictly Catholicism itself but that seem imbued with its spirit. I like little devotional magazines with covers showing cornfields and daffodills and stone walls, magazines that mix meditations on the Gospels with household tips and trivia about The Great Wall of China. I like gently-coloured hoIy pictures. I even like programmes like A Prayer at Bedtime. I don’t like any of those things ironically or knowingly, nor do I consider them kitsch. I like them for what they are.

I like thinking of all the millions of very different men and women, all over the world and all through the centuries, who spoke the same prayers that I speak today, who meditated upon the same mysteries of the Rosary, who recited the same Creeds, who partook of the same Eucharist. I cherish the spiritual communion with all those souls. I don’t see how watering down that continuity makes the Church, somehow, belong more to The People.

No doubt the Still Catholics who trudge reluctantly to Mass and who call for radical “renewal” in the Church would consider me otiose, complacent, brainwashed. They might even call me a sheep.

But I don’t mind that too much. After all, Our Saviour never used that comparison as a slur, did he?