The current issue of The New Yorker includes a lengthy essay (not available online) by Adam Gopnik on our man Chesterton. The table of contents promises a reflection on “The genius of G.K. Chesterton”, which is an honest and sensible topic for an essay, but turning to the article itself we are troubled to see the promise overshadowed by a doubt: “The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton”, it says. He is such a jolly man, Mr. Gopnik. What, pray tell, is the matter?
In fact, the essay doesn’t let the trouble entirely overpower the genius. It is a largely appreciative and frequently insightful piece, with special attention given to several of Chesterton’s best-known works: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man who was Thursday, and the Autobiography. Gopnik has a real feel for the spirit that animated Chesterton, focusing in particular on his love of the small and local and the eminence he gave to imagination in rightly interpreting experience.
“All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary line that brings one thing sharply against another,” he writes. “All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window. To the grief of all grave dramatic critics, I will still assert that the perfect drama must strive to rise to the higher ecstasy of the peepshow.” The two central insights of his work are here. First, the quarrel between storytelling, fiction, and reality is misdrawn as a series of illusions that we outgrow, or myths that we deny, when it is a sequence of stories that we inhabit. The second is not that small is beautiful but that the beautiful is always small, that we cannot have a clear picture in white light of abstractions, but only of a row of houses at a certain time of day, and that we go wrong when we extend our loyalties to things much larger than a puppet theatre. (And this, in turn, is fine, because the puppet theatre contains the world.)
Why is Chesterton’s genius “troubling”? If a man loves local traditions and ways of life, he’s going to be suspicious of outsiders. A devotee of localism cannot also be devoted to multiculturalism. Fair enough, I suppose. If you’re striving hard to be a good global citizen, Chesterton may well trouble you. But I have the feeling that the man himself would put you at ease, and welcome you to a pint of good English ale. There is something expansive about this narrowness.
Gopnik is also troubled by Chesterton’s Catholicism — not, as you might expect, simply because he was a Catholic, but rather, if I understand correctly, because he was such a happy one. He just liked the Church too much. Gopnik turns a nice phrase, calling him “a Pangloss of the parish”, but then ruins the effect by making the miserly claim that no-one could possibly admire both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi in the way that Chesterton claimed to. What a very odd thing to say. Did not all three of them share a basic devotion to the foundational goodness of creation? It seems grounds enough for a fraternal bond.
But the really troubling thing about Chesterton’s troubling genius, says Gopnik, is that he was a Jew-hater. This is not the first time I have heard it claimed that Chesterton was an anti-Semite, yet in all my reading — and I have read a fair bit of his work — I have yet to come across the damning passages. When I saw that Gopnik was raising the charge again, I sat up in my chair and leaned forward with genuine interest.
Alas, the evidence he provides is pretty thin. As a child Chesterton defended a Jewish boy from being bullied, but then described the boy as having a “hooked nose”. For shame. Later in life he noted that Jews, even those who had been in England for many years, were like foreigners. This is “the Jewish problem”. Yet it is not clear if this problem is with the Jews, or for the Jews. Which, after all, is more anti-Semitic: to view the Jews as a people set apart, or to consider them as being just like everybody else? In any case, this is hardly enough to justify a statement like this: “Chesterton wasn’t a fascist, and he certainly wasn’t in favor of genocide, but that is about the best that can be said of him”. No, Mr. Gopnik, it is very far from the best that can be said.
Against the charge of anti-Semitism, I offer a few passages for your consideration. Gopnik claims that Chesterton’s antipathy to the Jews was racial, not cultural, but Chesterton had this to say about racism:
About all those arguments affecting human equality, I myself always have one feeling; which finds expression in a little test of my own. I shall begin to take seriously those classifications of superiority and inferiority, when I find a man classifying himself as inferior. It will be noted that Mr. Ford does not say that he is only fitted to mind machines; he confesses frankly that he is too fine and free and fastidious a being for such tasks. I shall believe the doctrine when I hear somebody say: “I have only got the wits to turn a wheel.” That would be real, that would be realistic, that would be scientific. That would be independent testimony that could not easily be disputed. It is exactly the same, of course, with all the other superiorities and denials of human equality, that are so specially characteristic of a scientific age. It is so with the men who talk about superior and inferior races; I never heard a man say: “Anthropology shows that I belong to an inferior race.” If he did, he might be talking like an anthropologist; as it is, he is talking like a man, and not infrequently like a fool.
I have long hoped that I might some day hear a man explaining on scientific principles his own unfitness for any important post or privilege, say: “The world should belong to the free and fighting races, and not to persons of that servile disposition that you will notice in myself; the intelligent will know how to form opinions, but the weakness of intellect from which I so obviously suffer renders my opinion manifestly absurd on the face of them: there are indeed stately and god-like races- but look at me! Observe my shapeless and fourth-rate features! Gaze, if you can bear it, on my commonplace and repulsive face!” If I heard a man making a scientific demonstration in that style, I might admit that he was really scientific. But as it invariably happens (by a curious coincidence) that the superior race is his own race, the superior type is his own type and the superior preference for work the sort of work he happens to prefer. (G.K.’s Weekly, 25 April 1925)
As for his thoughts on the Jewish people specifically, consider this passage from The Everlasting Man:
…the world owes God to the Jews… [T]hrough all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle…The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe…
And as for the place of Jews in European politics, Chesterton was a long-standing critic of what he called “Hitlerism”, and though he died several years before the war began, he wrote, “I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.”
There are things for which Chesterton can be justly criticized. By all means, let his economic theory be poked and prodded with sharp instruments until it squeals, let us pillory his blustery excess and poor preparation, let us lament his bondage to an alliterative vice, let his corpulent frame serve as a terrible warning to all who would neglect their exercise, but this business of anti-Semitism is unconvincing. The man was not perfect, and with his penchant for colourful exaggeration he may have occasionally let slip an unsavoury phrase, but this charge is too severe and uncharitable to sustain on such slender evidence. That Gopnik dwells on it as he does marrs an otherwise fine and much appreciated essay.