Friday, November 5, 2010

Why GK Chesterton Doesn't Matter

I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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