Belloc on Chesterton

December 14, 2009

On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters
Hilaire Belloc (Sheed & Ward, 1940)
84 p.  First reading.

Belloc published this essay several years after the death of his friend G.K. Chesterton.  In it he attempts — if Belloc ever merely attempted anything — to enumerate those special qualities which Chesterton brought to his writings, and to assess his likely place in English-language literature and culture.

It might be a good exercise to begin by asking ourselves how we would assess Chesterton, before looking to see what Belloc has to say.  I suppose it is a debatable point today whether Chesterton has a place — a stable, solid, enduring place — in English letters.  He has his admirers, of course (and a happy band of warriors they are), but mostly he is ignored, especially by those who command the heights of our culture.  This may not have bothered him on the literary front, for he had few pretensions in that direction and loved his penny dreadfuls, but he devoted many pages to the promulgation of arguments, and today those arguments, despite their frequent relevance and insight, are all too rarely heard.

Yet we should not overstate his marginality either.  It is often said today that Chesterton is best known for his Father Brown detective stories.  This claim has the effect of inflating — if it is possible to further inflate Chesterton — the benign and jovial scribbler, while submerging the obstinate and jovial controversialist who so unerringly defended politically incorrect causes.  Interestingly, however, the claim seems to be untrue.  A look at which books people actually have on their shelves at home reveals that his most popular books today are, by a good margin, his phantasmagoric nightmare novel The Man Who Was Thursday, and Orthodoxy, his spiritual autobiography.  His most sustained work of religious argumentation, The Everlasting Man, competes in popularity with Father Brown, and then the long tail begins.  Meanwhile, new books on Chesterton and new volumes in the enormous Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton continue to appear.  He is not going away just yet.

Belloc identifies six special Chestertonian qualities which together define the (presumed) place he has in English literature.

In the first place, he was a national writer.  Chesterton was an Englishman to his bones.  Like Dickens and Johnson, his spirit struck roots and grew in specifically English soil.  “He is a mirror of England,” says Belloc, and “he writes with an English accent”.  His attachment to the English way of life was such that it was, for a time, an obstacle to his conversion to Catholicism, as being something that, since the 16th century at least, has been something foreign to the sensibility of his nation.  Allied to his national spirit is his special relationship to the English language.  His epigrammatic wit found expression through wordplay and rhythm.  Belloc goes so far as to claim that Chesterton cannot be successfully translated into other languages.

The second quality is precision of thought.  This might seem to casual readers of Chesterton an odd note to strike, for Chesterton is notorious for his digressive, diffuse literary style.  Aquinas he is not.  Yet it is true that he had a healthy impatience with ambiguity, and a rousing contempt for relativists and “free-thinkers” who would not take a position or say what they really meant.  I recall one of his epigrams: “The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close on something.”  It is undoubtedly true that Chesterton had definite views and sharp insights.  Belloc’s point is a fair one.

Third, Belloc notes “the weapon peculiar to Chesterton’s genius”: his prodigious capacity for analogy, or what Belloc calls “parallelism”. A central element of Chesterton’s method of argumentation is to show the value of an argument, for better or worse, by constructing a parallel argument on another topic.  Belloc says that this ability to construct analogies was not just a literary gift, but something which Chesterton frequently introduced even into ordinary conversation.  I would add that this penchant for analogical reasoning is a consequence of Chesterton’s more basic ability to see connections between things.  He never, it sometimes seems, thought of one thing, but always of a thing in relation to other things. His digressionary tendencies were perhaps a consequence of this manner of thought, but it also, I believe, contributed to his robust good sense, for it is easier to retain one’s balance when one stands not just on one or two legs, but on several.

Next, Belloc points to Chesterton’s eminence as a literary critic. Anyone who hopes to influence public affairs needs, in Belloc’s view, a solid grounding in either history or literature.  Chesterton’s grasp of history, though solid enough, and though generally superior to that of his contemporaries, was not, according to Belloc — himself an historian — sufficiently deep and broad.  Instead, Chesterton had a deep understanding of English literature.  Belloc remarks on his particularly keen insight into Pope, Dryden, Milton, and Shakespeare (anyone who doubts the latter should read Chesterton’s superb essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  Today Chesterton is regarded as one of the finest critics of Dickens.  And, of course, he wrote books on Browning, Stevenson, Shaw, and Chaucer.  He is a very fine literary critic, though under appreciated today.

A long and somewhat testy section of the book is concerned with the fifth of Belloc’s chosen points: Chesterton’s religion.  Certainly Chesterton’s friendly attitude toward religion, his defence of the importance of religion, and, especially, his own conversion to Catholicism distinguished him sharply from the leading literary and intellectual figures of his time.  Belloc takes pains to argue for the centrality of religion to history, and to stress the short-sightedness of his contemporaries who dismiss it.  He particularly wants to emphasize the importance of the Catholic Church, which is “beyond comparison the most important fact not only in European history but in the modern world to-day”, and that because of its claim to address the most fundamental concerns of human life and its claim to universality.  Of its very nature, it lays a claim, or ought to lay a claim, to the attention of everyone.  In any case, in human affairs religion is more important than politics or science or literature, and this Chesterton understood.

Finally, and appropriately, Belloc writes of Chesterton’s leading virtue: charity. It has been said that he had no enemies, for his cheerful and generous heart won the admiration even of his opponents.  This, in my judgement, is one of the most appealing things about Chesterton.  There is much to learn from such a man.

A curious omission from Belloc’s list is the Chestertonian wit, which I consider to be one of his most attractive and distinctive qualities.  True, much of his humour and energy is expressed in wordplay, and so is perhaps subsumed under Belloc’s point about his special relationship to the English language.  But that special relationship was associated by Belloc with Chesterton’s nationalism, and it seems odd to have his wit be an aspect of his love of England.  If I had been Belloc, I’d have given more attention to Chesterton’s good humour.

In the end, Belloc refrains from speculation about Chesterton’s ultimate place in the history of English culture and letters, contenting himself with the observation that a man’s eminence depends at least as much on his audience as on his own achievements.  Time will tell whether we are good enough to appreciate this good man.  In the meantime, Belloc reminds us that Chesterton himself can have relatively little interest in the matter, for, as he writes in the book’s closing sentence, “He is in Heaven.”

2 Responses to “Belloc on Chesterton”

  1. Janet Says:

    Last year when I was looking for a Chesterton Christmas play, you told me about The Turkey and the Turk. This year we read it, and What You Won’t at the CSL Christmas meeting. Thanks for the tip. I especially liked What You Won’t.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for remembering that, Janet. You are like the one leper who returned to give thanks. I’m very glad that you enjoyed reading them. I myself have not read “What you Won’t”, and perhaps I should do so this year.

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