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He is greatly assisted in this enterprise by the British Library’s recently completed cataloguing of many previously unpublished — and even unknown — early papers, which collectively provide a good deal of new evidence about Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual development.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


Watts on Chesterton

June 8, 2014

I do not know much about Alan Watts. I gather that he was (after his departure from the Episcopal clergy) a kind of popularizer of Eastern religious traditions to the West. That he would have an affinity for G.K. Chesterton might therefore seem a bit odd — for Chesterton had little positive regard for Eastern religion — but it seems to have nonetheless been the case. In this lecture he describes, quite winsomely, the principal things he learned from Chesterton, with particular attention to the need for wonder, surprise, and humility in a well-lived life.

The date of this lecture is unknown to me, but, considering that Watts died in 1973, I feel quite confident that it must have been given before then. The duration is about 40 minutes.


Chesterton: A Miscellany of Men

June 6, 2014

A Miscellany of Men
G.K. Chesterton
(Dufour, 1969) [1912]
180 p.

This is a collection of Chesterton’s newspaper columns, about 40 in total, written for (I believe) The Daily Mail. As the title indicates, the essays cut a wide swath, but are unified insofar as each focuses on a particular “character” or “figure” who might have been found walking the streets of London in 1910. Thus these pieces bear titles such as “The Suffragist”, “The Miser and his Friends”, “The Mummer”, “The Sentimental Scot”, and so forth. In some cases the material has become dated, but not in as many cases as you might think. This is mostly due to the fact that Chesterton was, famously and incorrigibly, unable to stick to the point. Whatever the ostensible point of any particular column was, it almost always broadened out to include interesting observations on any number of topics: gothic architecture, tourism, umbrellas, ritual, millionaires, democracy, and so on.

Today I am not really inclined to cite quotations, especially since I plan to reserve the choicest of them for The Hebdomadal Chesterton. What I can do, however, is direct the interested reader to a few of the essays that I considered the best, which can be read in their entirety at leisure. Thus: “The Man who Thinks Backwards”, “The Real Journalist”, “The Conscript and the Crisis”, “The Architect of Spears”, and “The Angry Author” (an autobiographical piece, oddly enough).


“Like a mere window”

June 4, 2014

“Humility has infinitely deeper roots than any modern men suppose; it is a metaphysical and, one might almost say, a mathematical virtue. Probably this can best be tested by a study of those who frankly disregard humility and assert the supreme duty of perfecting and expressing one’s self. These people tend, by a perfectly natural process, to bring their own great human gifts of culture, intellect, or moral power to a great perfection, successively shutting out everything that they feel to be lower than themselves.

“Now shutting out things is all very well, but it has one simple corollary—that from everything that we shut out we are ourselves shut out. When we shut our door on the wind, it would be equally true to say that the wind shuts its door on us. Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism really leads to, no one can reasonably pretend that it leads to knowledge. Turning a beggar from the door may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories the beggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practically the claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtain knowledge. A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man—the matter awaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of which a man is entirely ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view, he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he is not a beetle. The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietzsche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly, and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightful experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is really seen when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of the ego sees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he sees everything foreshortened or deformed.

“Now if we imagine that a man wished truly, as far as possible, to see everything as it was, he would certainly proceed on a different principle. He would seek to divest himself for a time of those personal peculiarities which tend to divide him from the thing he studies. It is as difficult, for example, for a man to examine a fish without developing a certain vanity in possessing a pair of legs, as if they were the latest article of personal adornment. But if a fish is to be approximately understood, this physiological dandyism must be overcome. The earnest student of fish morality will, spiritually speaking, chop off his legs. And similarly the student of birds will eliminate his arms; the frog-lover will with one stroke of the imagination remove all his teeth, and the spirit wishing to enter into all the hopes and fears of jelly-fish will simplify his personal appearance to a really alarming extent. It would appear, therefore, that this great body of ours and all its natural instincts, of which we are proud, and justly proud, is rather an encumbrance at the moment when we attempt to appreciate things as they should be appreciated. We do actually go through a process of mental asceticism, a castration of the entire being, when we wish to feel the abounding good in all things. It is good for us at certain times that ourselves should be like a mere window—as clear, as luminous, and as invisible.

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

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)


Chesterton to music

June 2, 2014

From time to time I have thought to compile a catalogue of musical settings of Chesterton’s poetry. He wrote scads of poetry — now three fat volumes in the Collected Works — and though most of it is of middling quality, there are some gems within. A number of composers have taken up the challenge.

Here is a list of settings, incomplete but still valuable. From it we learn that composer John Gardner has made an extensive setting, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, of The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton’s most ambitious poem; I should dearly love to hear it, but there seem to be no recordings available. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the poem “O God of Earth and Altar” with the hymn tune KING’S LYNN in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal [hear it]. The most frequently set among his poems appear to be “The Donkey”, “Wine and Water”, and “The Christ-Child lay on Mary’s lap”.

This last is the poem that has attracted the most eminent composers. It has been set by, among others, Judith Bingham, Will Todd, Gabriel Jackson, and Kenneth Leighton, all of whom, while not exactly household names, are well-known to choral music enthusiasts.

A couple of these settings are available on YouTube; I’ll close this post by linking to them.

Here is Will Todd’s setting of “The Christ-Child”:

And here is Gabriel Jackson’s setting of the same text:

Merry Christmas?


Chesterton: The Victorian Age in Literature

May 30, 2014

The Victorian Age in Literature
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1989) [1913]
118 p.

Chesterton provides an opinionated survey of English literature in the Victorian period (and a bit later), covering the principal writers from John Henry Newman up through G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells. This was a period plump with major figures: Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Arnold, Carlyle, Kipling, Wilde, and so on, and it is delightful to read Chesterton’s thoughts on them, which are always generous though not always approving. As is evident from that list of names, he discusses not just writers of fiction, but also poets and critics.

According to Chesterton the Victorian era had made a kind of compromise with the rationalism of the eighteenth century, assenting to its premises but resisting its various implications. He sees many of the principal Victorian writers as engaged in a reaction against this rationalism:

They have succeeded in shaking it, but not in dislodging it from the modern mind. The first of these was the Oxford Movement; a bow that broke when it had let loose the flashing arrow that was Newman. The second reaction was one man; without teachers or pupils — Dickens. The third reaction was a group that tried to create a sort of new romantic Protestantism, to pit against both Reason and Rome—Carlyle, Ruskin, Kingsley, Maurice — perhaps Tennyson.

I do not know enough to judge whether this is a sensible way of framing the discussion, but it at least helps to organize the book. One thing that is early evident is that Chesterton has written the book as a critique and analysis, not as an introduction. Upon its publication an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted that he “writes not for those who wish to know, but for those who know already,” and this is quite true; having myself not read some of the authors he treats, I was, at times, at sea. But this was compensated by the lively good humour of the writing and the pithy judgments that he occasionally lets drop:

[On George Eliot] [The Victorian age] took, I will not say its pleasures, but even its emancipations, sadly. Definitions seem to escape this way and that in the attempt to locate it as an idea. But every one will understand me if I call it George Eliot.

[On Jane Austen] She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains.

[On Charles Dickens] The art of Dickens was the most exquisite of arts: it was the art of enjoying everybody.

And so on. The TLS reviewer summed it up well when he wrote that

The book is everywhere immensely alive; and no one will put it down without the sense of having taken a tonic or perhaps having received a series of impertinently administered electric shocks.

The Victorian Age in Literature is not to be counted among Chesterton’s finest works, though if we confine our attention to his works of literary criticism it might rank, on the strength of its ambitious scope, ahead of much that he wrote — though well behind his marvellous book on Dickens.

**

I have been posting occasional excerpts from The Victorian Age in Literature at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; more will appear in the future. The full text is also available.


Another Chesterton Mini-Festival

May 29, 2014

Picture_of_Chesterton_and_Dog

Two years ago I ran a G.K. Chesterton Mini-Festival on this site during the roughly two-week interval between the anniversary of his birth (on May 29) and the anniversary of his death (on June 14). A good time was had by all, and this year I’ve decided to do it again. As before, this will be a modest affair, a one-man job, with perhaps a half-dozen posts in total. Probably it will consist mostly of comments on some of Chesterton’s lesser-known writings, which I’ve been reading lately.

The full series of posts which constituted the Chesterton Mini-Festival in 2012 can be seen here.


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