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.

1 comment:

  1. Auden's point about the birthrate is quite correct. The distributists never really came to terms with the fact that the modern world supports a much larger population than the mediaeval, or that the French peasants whom Chesterton and Belloc praised as the embodiment of the Catholic ideal were notoriously widespread in the practice of birth control and infanticide. (The post-Famine Irish peasantry achieved the same result - avoiding division of their landholding among heirs - through exporting their surplus children.)