Archive for the 'Books' Category

An incident

October 13, 2014

W. Jackson Bate relates an episode from the life of Dr Johnson, drawing on the memoirs of Frances Reynolds, sister of Johnson’s friend Joshua Reynolds:

“An incident occurred shortly afterward — again at the Miss Cotterells’ — which both Reynolds and his sister thought amusingly characteristic. While Johnson was following some ladies upstairs on this visit, the housemaid, noticing his shabby dress, seized him by the shoulder and tried to pull him back, exclaiming, “Where are you going?” Startled into shame and anger, Johnson roared out like a bull, “What have I done?” Meanwhile a gentleman behind him quieted the maid, and Johnson “growled all the way up stairs, as well he might.”

Already chagrined, he became more offended when two ladies of rank suddenly arrived (the Duchess of Argyle and Lady Fitzroy), and the Miss Cotterells, engrossed in their titled visitors, neglected to introduce him or Reynolds. Inferring that this was because they were ashamed of him and Reynolds as “low company,” he sat for a while in silent meditation and then, “resolving to shock their supposed pride,” called out to Reynolds in a loud voice, “I wonder which of us two could get most money by his trade in one week, were we to work hard at it from morning to night.”

Reynolds: St Nicholas Owen

October 11, 2014

St Nicholas Owen
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
(Gracewing, 2014)
200 p.

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been a long-standing area of interest for me, and, of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen has long been a subject of particular personal interest. In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — he appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. I was therefore delighted to see this recently published biography devoted to him.

Nicholas was from a staunch, working-class Catholic family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. This, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was sufficient grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a man of discretion and trustworthiness. He was also a carpenter and a mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests of the time. The country homes of wealthy Catholic families served as harbours and safehouses for the priests ministering clandestinely to Catholics, but they were subject to sudden search by government-funded “priest hunters”. If a priest was present in the home at the time of a search, he would, if possible, retreat into a hiding place — a “priest-hole” — and wait out the search, sometimes for as long as 8 or 10 days. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen, over a period of several decades.

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized who they had captured, they had him tortured for information in the Tower of London. Records of these interrogations still exist, and in this book Reynolds does a nice job of showing just how little useful intelligence Nicholas yielded up under duress. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of his interrogators; the authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but Reynolds does a good job picking that story apart. St Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is 22 March.

Readers who do not know much about this absorbing period of English and Catholic history would, I expect, find this little volume fascinating. Reynolds does a good job introducing the main people within Nicholas’ world, and although the focus is on Nicholas himself, Reynolds is able to tell the broad story of the Jesuit mission through those crucial years. He also gives a concise but well-judged overview of the historical background which led to the straitened circumstances in which Nicholas and his Jesuit friends were forced to operate. On the other hand, those who, like me, have previously read some of the first person accounts surviving from this period, such as those written by Fr. John Gerard and Fr. Oswald Tesimond, will find much of the story familiar. Even in this case, however, Reynolds filled in some details drawn from official government records that I did not remember having seen before. There have been a few other books published in recent years covering some of the same territory — such as Michael Hodgetts’ Secret Hiding Places, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, and Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors — but I appreciated Reynolds’ rather more forthright admiration for Nicholas and sympathy with his cause. It’s a very nice little book.

Related Book Notes:

Pratchett on Chesterton

September 3, 2014

Since I like to keep an eye on Chesterton-related items, I’ll draw your attention to a recent interview with Terry Pratchett in the New York Times Book Review:

Sell us on your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer.

G. K. Chesterton. These days recognized — that is if he is recognized at all — as the man who wrote the Father Brown stories. My grandmother actually knew him quite well and pointed out that she herself lived on Chesterton Green in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, here in the U.K. And the man was so well venerated that on one memorable occasion, he was late in sending a piece to The Strand Magazine and a railway train actually waited at the local station until Mr. Chesterton had finished writing his piece. When she told me that, I thought, Blimey, now that is celebrity.

[...]

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? And the prime minister?

Well, it would have to be The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a damn good read that I believe should be read by everyone in politics.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman, because he’s a mate who knows how to order the most excellent sushi.

The whole interview is worth a read; it’s not long, but it brings in Tolkien, Kenneth Grahame, and an old joke that Chesterton himself once used.

I confess I’ve never read one of Pratchett’s books, but on this evidence perhaps I ought to do so. That he would bring Neil Gaiman to dinner with Chesterton and Twain is not surprising: Pratchett and Gaiman co-authored a book some years ago called Good Omens and they dedicated it to Chesterton, “a man who knew what was going on”. Indeed, he did.

Brown: Augustine of Hippo

August 28, 2014

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown
(California University Press, 2000; Second Ed.) [1967]
563 p.

Though it is now nearly 50 years since its first publication, I believe that this biography by the distinguished historian Peter Brown is still considered to be among the most eminent modern studies of Augustine’s life and thought. I first read it — in a fragmentary and harried fashion — when I was an undergraduate taking a course on medieval philosophy. To revisit it now, many years later (though still under circumstances that only a satirist could describe as leisurely), has been a great pleasure. I may have greater affection for one or another saint of the Church, but there is no saint whom I revere more than Augustine.

All biographers of Augustine have to contend with the fact that they are writing about a subject who has already written, famously and with penetrating insight, about himself. Of course his Confessions were published when he was yet “in the middle of the way,” and there remains much to say about his long and productive life. Brown covers the principal events of his life — his boyhood in north Africa, his migration to Italy as a young, ambitious man, his embrace of Manichaeism, his encounter with St. Ambrose and conversion to Christianity, his election as bishop of Hippo, and his many subsequent struggles to defend the Christian faith against rivals, struggles which decisively shaped Christianity itself. More than this, however, his purpose is to set Augustine in his context, filling in the background not with gold-leaf, as in so many of those beautiful medieval portraits, but with the intellectual and social ferment of the times. In this he is notably successful, though it must be said that even his living, breathing Augustine turns a bit wan and pale when Augustine’s own voice is given room on the page. Is there another figure from antiquity who speaks to us today with such immediacy?

Brown emphasizes the influence of Plato, mediated by Plotinus and Porphyry, on the thought of Augustine. His reading of Plotinus was a deep and creative one; he assimilated that mystical system so thoroughly that he was able to extend it in a way that was distinctively his own, grafting it fruitfully onto his theological work. Yet as he aged he moved away from the neo-Platonism of his youth in important ways, and the care with which Brown traces this gradual change is one of the principal virtues of the book.

As a young man, Augustine believed that with the proper discipline, education, and determination it would be possible to achieve a kind of complete spiritual transformation in this life, to live the life of a “philosopher”: wise, virtuous, and untroubled by sin. But his own experience, not to mention his troublesome duties as a bishop among his wayward flock, gradually convinced him that this was mistaken. Our hearts are so ‘wounded’ (his own word) that in this life they are likely never to be entirely healed; even our baptism does not lift this burden from us; we struggle onward, helped by grace but struggling even to co-operate with it. Much of his most potent and valuable philosophical and theological work, on grace and freedom, on faith and reason, and on love, was born directly out of this darker view of our human condition. Brown puts the matter this way:

“The ideal remained the same: the ‘purification’ of the mind, where shadows gave way to reality. ‘In the morning I shall stand before Thee and contemplate.’ But the process of ‘purification’ itself, had become infinitely more complex. In Augustine’s early works the soul needed only to be ‘groomed’ by obvious and essentially external methods, by a good education, by following rational demonstrations, by authority conceived of primarily as an aid to learning. In his middle age, this ‘purification’ is treated as more difficult, for the soul itself, he thought, was more deeply ‘wounded'; and, above all, the healing of the soul has come to involve more parts of the personality. The problem is no longer one of ‘training’ a man for a task he will later accomplish: it is one of making him ‘wider’, of increasing his capacity, at least to take in something of what he will never hope to grasp completely in this life. No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart’. This profoundly human truth is what Augustine will always tell his readers: they must ‘look into the Scriptures, the eyes of their heart on its heart’.

“… To separate ‘faith’ and ‘reason’… goes against the grain of Augustine’s thought. For what concerned him was to set a process in motion: it was to ‘purify’, to ‘heal’ a damaged mind. He never doubted for a moment that this process happened through the constant interplay of the two elements: of faith ‘that works by love’, of understanding, ‘that He may be known more clearly and so loved more fervently’.”

And, in another place:

Augustine’s early ideal had been to lead a life of spiritual elevation achieved through intellectual effort and in the company of like-minded friends. He later came to see himself much more as a pilgrim, seeking something which he would never find in this life, and always necessarily incomplete: “Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? … I cannot refrain from this longing: I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control; and, in this sweet yearning, I seek some small consolation.”

These mature views entered directly into Augustine’s famous conflict with Pelagius. In many respects, in fact, Pelagianism bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s own youthful views, consisting as it does of an essentially optimistic view of human nature, a simple notion of human freedom, and an expectation that a life of moral perfection is attainable in this life. In struggling with Pelagius, Augustine was, in a sense, struggling again with his own self, and this perhaps accounts not only for his perceptiveness but also the passion with which he entered the fray.

Against Pelagius’ rosy view of human nature, Augustine’s can seem dire. Yet Brown argues that it was, deep down, the kinder and more forgiving: “Paradoxically … it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.” And he did find room: it is reassuring to hear the language with which this pastor of souls discussed his own moral failings and those of the flock entrusted to him: “Many sins are committed through pride, but not all happen proudly… they happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress…”.

For Augustine in his maturity, self-control and reason were insufficient: man was beset by unconscious and conflicted desires that eluded control, and could only be healed by a long process, under grace.

A fundamental difference between Pelagius and Augustine was the way they understood freedom: “For Pelagius, freedom could be taken for granted: it was simply part of a common-sense description of a human being…” For him “the difference between good and bad men was quite simple: some chose the good, some the bad.” But for Augustine matters are more complex: “‘I could say with absolute truth and conviction (that men were not sinless) because they did not want to be sinless. But if you were to ask me why they did not want to be so, then we are getting out of our depth’.”

At the root of our action and even our thought, for Augustine, is our love. He distinguished his two great cities, the City of God and the City of Man, on the basis of the objects of their love. “My love is my weight,” he said, and so no account of human life can be adequate if it does not place love at the center of things:

“For an act of choice is not just a matter of knowing what to choose: it is a matter in which loving and feeling are involved. And in men, this capacity to know and to feel in a single, involved whole, has been intimately dislocated… Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love…

“Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.”

That last thought is a rather striking one. I remember being startled by it when I first encountered it — not in the pages of Augustine, mind you, but in Aquinas. It is, perhaps, just one small indication of the pervasive influence which Augustine’s life and work has had on subsequent Christian history.

There are many threads running through this book; I have here plucked at only a few. In an extended (~100 p.) epilogue for this second edition, Brown surveys the extensive academic work that has been done on Augustine and his world since he first wrote. I was surprised to learn that substantial collections of otherwise unknown sermons and letters of Augustine were discovered as recently as the 1970s and 1990s; he gives an overview and discusses their importance. And he candidly assesses his book’s strengths and weaknesses. The latter, while not absent, are rather minor when set beside the book’s sobriety, competence, and humane spirit.

Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

August 20, 2014

I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
(Harper, 2004)
738 p.

A satire about modern university life has, among the many targets that leap into view, three that are nearly irresistible. There is, first, the prevailing political correctness. A related second target is the quality of intellectual life in our halls of learning, which consistently — and, one sometimes suspects, deliberately — fails to turn out students who are educated, in the sense of being well instructed in the great intellectual tradition of the West. Third, there is the delinquent social life of undergraduates.

In his novel about freshman life at a premier American university, Tom Wolfe has touched on all three of these themes, but his focus falls very much on the last: the drunken debaucheries and sordid spectacles that pass for social functions, the predatory and exploitative sexuality that passes for dating, the inarticulate vagary that you know passes for like intellectual life, and the corrosive effect of all this on the hearts and minds of the students.

Charlotte Simmons has been raised in a small mountain town in North Carolina, but earns a full scholarship to the (fictional) Ivy League university of Dupont. She is extremely intelligent, academically far superior to anyone she has ever known, and she looks forward with anticipation to starting university, eager to live the life of the mind to its fullest. But Dupont is not what she expects. To be sure, she takes classes, and has a few moments of joy in intellectual discovery, but mostly she is appalled. Her fellow students are, if anything, more surly, debased, and vulgar than those she left at home. For a while she maintains her balance and her focus; “I Am Charlotte Simmons!” she says to herself. She is destined for greater things.

But before long a crushing loneliness together with a complete lack of privacy in the student dorm (even the bathrooms are co-ed at Dupont) conspire to break Charlotte’s spirit. It’s hard enough not having friends; it’s worse to be rejected and excluded as a killjoy or a naif. Urged on by friends (whom she meets while ‘sexiled’ from her room at the insistence of her skanky roommate), Charlotte ventures out to some parties, and begins to attract the attentions of a number of men. From there the details of the story become more complex, but the general shape of the story does not: it is the beginning of a long, slow spiral of decline for Charlotte.

Why is it, I have often wondered, that those whose lives are most debauched and corrupt also show the greatest confidence in the conduct of that life? They are the most shameful and the least shamed. This happens at Dupont, and Charlotte, to her peril, falls for it.

There are a few central male figures in the story. Each of them has an interest in Charlotte, and that interest enters into their personal struggles to grow up as men. There is Hoyt, the ultra-cool frat boy who has his pick of campus women, and sees Charlotte’s innocence and reticence merely as a special challenge. Then there is Adam, a nerdy, slightly pretentious intellectual, who nevertheless has a genuine passion for learning and a good heart, and who proves, in a time of crisis, to be the only real friend that Charlotte has. And there is ‘JoJo’, a campus basketball star (Wolfe has a lot of fun skewering the phenomenon of the ‘student-athlete’) whose friendship with Charlotte does him great good. All of them see in Charlotte something extraordinary, and respond to it in different ways. Hoyt sees her as prey, something to despoil; Adam sees beauty and intelligence, and falls in love, but is too unsure of himself to be successful; JoJo is simply, confusedly, dazzled, encountering in her something intangible that he has not known before, but which he is unable to bring into focus. The ways in which these relationships unfold and interconnect are central elements of the story.

Wolfe’s writing is, on first acquaintance, decidedly mediocre. He is no great stylist. The tone is colloquial, informal, artless. There appears to be little craftsmanship in the prose, and the dialogue is unremarkable — unremarkable, that is, except for the astonishing density of profanity. His characters speak a kind of patois in which certain four-letter words function as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, imperative, and pretty much any other part of speech. It’s appalling.

Yet, on further acquaintance, my assessment of his craftsmanship changed; the merits of his writing become more obvious on the large scale. The novel is well-constructed, the characters are life-like and distinctive, and the story is compelling. Indeed, I liked Charlotte very much, and it was hard to watch her wander, step by painful step, off the high road. And although it is true that his dialogue is poorly written, perhaps this is only because if you were to write down what people actually say, it would be poorly written dialogue.

The book could be read as a critique of the sexual revolution, and in that respect would make excellent penitential fare for the baby boomers who raised the liberating cry in the 1960s. What hath freedom wrought? On Wolfe’s campus, the old standards of decorum and respect, which were guardians of the sense of mystery which the one sex ought to inspire in the other, are entirely gone. The moral law and its social adjuncts, which had rightly sheltered the intimacy of lovers from the wolves of appetite and power, has been forsaken. Even the tradition of dating has died, replaced by ‘hooking up’, a euphemism for casual and frank mutual sexual exploitation. These young people who have learned the technicalities of sex before having experienced love, approach sex mechanically, so that it almost fails to be interpersonal at all — a condition captured brilliantly by Wolfe in a jargon-laced depiction of Charlotte’s seduction.

Perhaps most painful was Wolfe’s canny portrayal of this crack-up on young women. In this book they have forsaken the feminine virtues of modesty and grace, yet remain strong on the feminine vices of manipulation and guile. Worse, they have begun to adopt the vices that have traditionally been the peculiar province of men: they are foulmouthed, lewd, and boorish. Is there anything less attractive? Is there anything less likely to inspire in men the honour and devotion that men are able, and, in my opinion, really want to owe a woman? It is very sad.

I said at the beginning that this is a satire of university life. Like all satires, it reveals while concealing. The world presented here is not the whole of campus life — certainly it bears little resemblance to the life I lived on campus, but then I expect that I was rather atypical. Much of what Wolfe portrays rings true (take, for example, his superbly barbed depictions of campus dance parties, so aptly called ‘clubbing’), and that is both admirable and depressing.

Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.

Oddie on Chesterton

June 13, 2014

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy
The Making of GKC, 1874-1908
William Oddie
(Oxford, 2008)
411 p.

In this book William Oddie examines Chesterton’s early life, from his birth in (so we are told) 1874 through his boyhood, schooling, and eventual emergence into the journalistic and literary world of England in the early years of the new century, culminating in the watershed year of 1908 in which Chesterton, still in his early 30s, published two of his most enduring and widely read books, The Man who was Thursday and Orthodoxy, and had reached a point at which, in Oddie’s words, “he had fully established the intellectual foundations on which the massive oeuvre of his last three decades was to be built.” Oddie’s purpose is to trace the development of his mind and his talents, in an effort to understand how Chesterton came to be Chesterton.

He is greatly assisted in this enterprise by the British Library’s recently completed cataloguing of many previously unpublished — and even unknown — early papers, which collectively provide a good deal of new evidence about Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual development.

Chesterton came from a lively home. He had an argumentative younger brother, Cecil, and a creative father much devoted to a variety of hobbies: painting, drawing, writing, and theatre. (Chesterton’s life-long love of toy theatres was an inheritance from his father.) It was a fine home for the cultivation of a young writer, but it was not the sort of home from which one might expect a noted establishment critic and Christian apologist to arise. He had little in the way of religious formation, and that he did have was at odds with his later views: he was anti-clerical and anti-dogmatic as a teenager and young man, though these tendencies were counter-weighted by a longstanding fascination with the Blessed Virgin and an enduring admiration for medieval culture, both of which would eventually have a hand in moving him toward Catholicism.

While still in grade school Chesterton formed, together with several friends, the Junior Debater’s Club (JDC), of which he was the official chair and the unofficial heart. It was in the context of this club that he really began to stretch his intellectual wings as a critic, a moralist, and a debater. It was here that we first begin to hear his distinctive voice. (“A dragon is certainly the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities,” began one paper, given at age 16 but already characteristically “Chestertonian”.)

After his graduation from high school, when his friends went off to university, Chesterton chose instead to enrol at the Slade School of Art. The time he spent there was probably the most unhappy of his life. This period is usually characterized as something like his “dark night of the soul,” and though Oddie cautions against overstating the case, it is true that it was during this time that he confronted, in his heart, as it were, a moral and intellectual darkness that he saw gathering around him, and indeed around Western society as a whole. “I dug quite deep enough to discover the devil,” he later wrote. He was particularly troubled by the decadents in the English artistic world, represented by Oscar Wilde, with their cry of “art for art’s sake”, a formula that filled Chesterton with dismay, and even horror, for he always saw art as having a moral purpose.

It was Walt Whitman who had a large hand in helping Chesterton through this trial. Under Whitman’s influence he was fortified in a basic belief in the goodness of all things, in the equality and solidarity of men, and in “the redemption of the world by comradeship”. He emerged from this bleak period with a fresh sense of gratitude for life and art, as captured in the famous quotation from his Autobiography:

“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

Oddie argues that he began at this time to take a greater interest in theological questions, and even described himself as “becoming orthodox” because “heresy is worse even than sin”. At this time Christian theology began to be for him a point of reference. But it was only when he met Frances Blogg, his future wife, that his interest in religion and doctrine was really catalyzed. Frances was a devout Anglican, and in her social circle Chesterton met, for the first time, a group of intelligent and articulate Christians. Interestingly, the influence of this group on Chesterton’s thought is largely hidden from view to the biographer; we simply do not know very much about the arguments and ideas which Chesterton found persuasive at this time.

We do know that by 1903, being by now a well-established columnist with The Daily News and having published a well-received study of Robert Browning (which really marked his entrance into the world of serious English letters) he was ready to enter public debate in defence of traditional religious ideas — these are the so-called “Blatchford controversies,” after his principal opponent, Robert Blatchford.

There are many other threads to Chesterton’s intellectual and literary development during these years: his talent for posing fruitful paradoxes, his social and economic advocacy (in which an early socialism eventually turned into distributism), his love of the Middle Ages (in Oddie’s words, “a parallel dimension…in which truthfulness and humanity perpetually and exuberantly flourish”), his belief in the wisdom of fairy tales (in which “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition”), and many others. Oddie does a very good job of pulling them together into a unified portrait of the man.

As already mentioned, the two great books Chesterton published in 1908 mark, for Oddie, his maturity as a thinker and write, and he closes the book with an interesting analysis and appraisal of each.

Over the years I have read quite a few books about Chesterton; this is among the best. It is certainly one of the most scholarly treatments of Chesterton’s life and thought that I have encountered, but never at the expense of accessibility. What sets it apart from other biographies — of which there are quite a few now — is, first, the thoughtful detail in which these early years are treated, and, second, the access Oddie had to previously unavailable papers. The story of Chesterton’s life comes alive in these pages. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

Chesterton: The Defendant

June 12, 2014

The Defendant
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2012) [1901]
112 p.

One of Chesterton’s first writing gigs was an occasional column in the Speaker paper in London. The Defendant is a collection of those early essays, issued when he was just in his mid-20s, and the collection is so called because each of the essays bears a title of the form “A Defense of [Something]“.

Despite its early date, I was a little surprised to find that his voice in these short pieces is already recognizably his own: the wit, the playfulness, and the splendid, quixotic joy in sallies against received wisdom were already well evident. For Chesterton came bounding to the defence not of great things like beauty, art, or friendship, but overlooked or snubbed things like juvenile fiction (“A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”), plumbers and mailmen (“A Defence of China Shepherdesses”), lower-class entertainments (“A Defence of Farce”), and trivia (“A Defence of Useful Information”). I am told that while the book was fairly well received on first publication, many readers took it as a kind of facetious provocation, a novelty item in which he defended the indefensible for mere amusement. The prevalence of paradox in these pages led one early reviewer to remark, “Mr Chesterton’s salad is all onions.” Only with time, as Chesterton’s views were reiterated and extended in his many books and articles, could his initial seriousness be fully appreciated. For the happy truth is that Chesterton really did love these unloved things, he really did regard them with gratitude, and he really did think them worthy of praise. That “Chestertonian spirit” was the gift which he was, in these essays, just beginning to bestow upon the world, and they make for good reading still.

Choice excerpts from The Defendant can be read at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; the full text is also freely available.

“So tiny a thing”

June 11, 2014

“The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.”

– G.K. Chesterton
The Defendant (1901).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

The Holiness of Chesterton

June 9, 2014

The Holiness of Chesterton
William Oddie (Ed.)
(Gracewing, 2010)
152 p.

In 2009 a conference was held at Oxford to explore the spiritual life of G.K. Chesterton. A group of scholars, some quite eminent, delivered lectures on the theme, which are here collected in book form. The contributors are Ian Ker (biographer and anthologist of Chesterton), Aidan Nichols, John Saward, Nicholas Madden, Robert Wild, and Sheridan Gilley. William Oddie, as editor, contributes an introduction and appendix.

John Saward focuses on the place of childhood and childlikeness in Chesterton’s life and thought, drawing on Jesus’ maxim that one must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Saward argues that Chesterton lived this childlikeness, in the relevant sense, to an exemplary degree; spiritual childhood is, he says, “the still point around which the whole Chestertonian universe turns” and “the chief quality of his soul.” Readers of Chesterton will not be surprised by such claims; his sense of wonder, his admiration of children, his affection for children’s games, and so forth all speak to the point. Saward digs deeper, bringing out the way in which, for Chesterton, childhood represented a spiritual ideal. Upon his conversion, for instance, Chesterton said that among his principal motives was the desire to make a sacramental confession, which he saw as returning the penitent to a childlike state. Saward also briefly explores Chesterton’s thoughts about the pre-eminent child-saint of recent Catholic history, St. Therese de Lisieux.

Ian Ker takes as his subject the place of comedy in Chesterton’s spiritual life. “Laughter is as divine as tears,” he once wrote, and he is one of a relatively small number of thinkers — certainly in the past century — to see humour as a matter of great profundity and wisdom. For Chesterton the enjoyment of humour was closely linked to the virtue of humility, for it is humility that allows a man to really enjoy, to relish, the comedy of life. He said, “There is nothing to which a man must give himself with more faith and self-abandonment than to genuine laughter.” This is a stimulating address.

Aidan Nichols begins with the startling claim that Chesterton might justly be considered a Doctor of the Church. In good Chestertonian fashion, he is punning: his meaning is that Chesterton may be a Doctor of the Church as Augustine (for example) is the Doctor of grace. In other words, Nichols believes Chesterton has special insight into the nature of the Church, especially in her role as guardian of “the balance of subtlety and sanity,” and this he explores in his address. The flavour of his remarks can be gathered from this complimentary assessment:

“What commends him above all is the spaciousness of his Christian mind, the range of his experiential materials, the sense he conveys of Catholicism as a wider room than any of the competing ‘isms’ of religious — or, for that matter, secular — history. No one has written better of the gift of creation, the mystical quality of ‘ordinary’ life, the fulfilling of the pagan in the Christian, the practicality of a religion that synthesizes doctrine, ritual, and the everyday, the way the puzzle of the world and of life requires a revelation at once complex and single-minded to solve it, the liberating function of dogma for the imagination, and the self-defeating quality of schism. In a difficult age of the Church such as our own, when the invidious choice is often between, on the one hand, the vague and woolly whose religion is hardly more than humanism with a spiritual tinge, and, on the other, cribbed and cramped zelanti, he is surely the apologist-doctor of the hour.”

Two of the contributors take up the question of whether Chesterton was a Christian mystic. Robert Wild, whose book on this topic I read and reviewed recently, argues that Chesterton was blessed with a supernatural “charism of truth,” a special wisdom “to treat of human affairs in the light of faith.” Interestingly, this line of argument was only a minor theme in his subsequent book, which focused instead on Chesterton’s “Creator mysticism,” his habitual awareness of the radical dependence of created things on God. Nicholas Madden, on the other hand, though praising Chesterton’s “genius, bristling with originality, his wholesome goodness, his generous humour, [and] his massive modesty,” nonetheless raises a doubt as to whether he can rightly be considered a mystic. He questions whether Chesterton ever enjoyed the special encounters with the divine that are characteristic of Christian mystics through history, and he notes, too, that in his writings Chesterton often spoke disparagingly of “mysticism” and had a special antipathy for the way of introspective spirituality, which has, however, been followed by many Christian mystics and has the implicit endorsement of the Church. Now, Chesterton’s use of the word “mysticism” has been addressed at length by Fr. Wild in his book, and does not, I think, raise any serious concerns, but Madden’s other criticisms are worthy of consideration. His is the only sour note sounded in the book, and for that I think we must thank him.

In the appendix, William Oddie contributes an essay — relegated to the appendix only on account of its not having been delivered at the conference, rather than on account of its limited ambition — on the theme “The Philo-Semitism of G.K. Chesterton.” Those who follow these matters know that Chesterton has sometimes been accused of anti-Semitism, and such accusations will certainly be renewed if, as seems possible, the prospect of his sainthood is ever seriously considered. For this reason, Oddie’s essay is a welcome contribution to the debate — although I confess that I find such accusations, in Chesterton’s case, unpersuasive and strangely petty.

In short, this is a stimulating collection of essays on aspects of Chesterton’s life and character that have not often been considered. There is little doubt in my mind that Chesterton was a good man whom we — whom I — could profitably emulate, and this book has helped me to reflect more deeply on why. At his Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral, Ronald Knox said of Chesterton that those who knew him “found in him a living example of charity, of chivalry, of unbelievable humility which will remain with them, perhaps a more effective document of Catholic verity than any word even he wrote.” We should all hope for such an encomium. The book closes with a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession, approved by none other than Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio — now, of course, Pope Francis.

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