Hitchens on Chesterton

February 16, 2012

A posthumous essay from Christopher Hitchens appears in the March issue of The Atlantic, and his subject is G.K. Chesterton. As usual with Hitchens, it is a beautifully written piece, is obviously the fruit of a keen intellect, and is plump with interesting observations. It also seems to me to largely miss the point.

The fact that Hitchens chose to write about Chesterton at all comes as something of a surprise. In a great many respects, the two men had pervasive and irreconcilable differences, and I would not, a priori, have expected Hitchens to have much good to say about GKC. And I would have been right, starting with the article’s title and its subtitle (well, “charming” is good), and carrying on through much of the article itself:

The verdict one must pass on GKC, then, is that when he was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous (as with the pub revolution to set off the Distributist revolution); when he was apparently serious, he was really quite sinister (as in calling Nazism a form of Protestant heresy and Jews a species of conspicuous foreigner in England); and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most “dogmatic.”

Ah well. It seems that Hitchens and I (and, I do believe, many others with me) see different Chestertons. I won’t say that he is entirely wrong; Hitchens had a much sharper mind for politics than I do, and Chesterton’s political and economic ideas do not much interest me; it is possible that they are, as Hitchens contends, half-baked. Though to say that GKC was “on the wrong side of the debate about Nazism”, as Hitchens does, is plain nonsense at best; Chesterton’s fulminations against Hitler were frequent and sustained throughout the 1930s (though, naturally, only until he died). And the idea that he was “ventriloquizing” John Henry Newman is equally bizarre: even granting that there may have been an influence there (which I had not particularly suspected), to claim that a man who expressed ideas as creatively as Chesterton always did, investing them with the strength of his own robust personality, could possibly be held to be merely “ventriloquizing” strikes me as peevish.

Certain other of Hitchens’ opinions are surprising and a little perplexing: he thinks Chesterton a pretty good poet, and he thinks his reputation for paradox overrated. There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose. On the other hand, he is right that the much-vaunted Father Brown detective stories are not actually very good (“the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley”), he correctly notes that GKC often took ten times longer to say a thing than was necessary (though he fails to praise the exuberance and ceaseless invention that were the sunny side of that prolixity), he justly criticizes him for his condescending attitude toward Americans, and, happily, he exonerates him of the more hysterical charges of anti-Semitism which have been floated from time to time.

But the Chesterton that I most admire doesn’t make it into Hitchens’ essay at all; indeed, the overall portrait he draws is strangely sullied and partial, as though viewed through a blackened window. Chesterton had a big heart. He loved life, was full of joy and good humour, and lived with a sense of wonder that most of us lose in childhood. His life exemplified the beauty of the virtue of humility, which he always claimed was at the heart of any just appreciation of the goodness of the world. To Hitchens all this is apparently “frivolous”. He was not the first to think so, and Chesterton himself has answered the charge:

To sum up the whole matter very simply, if Mr. McCabe asks me why I import frivolity into a discussion of the nature of man, I answer, because frivolity is a part of the nature of man. If he asks me why I introduce what he calls paradoxes into a philosophical problem, I answer, because all philosophical problems tend to become paradoxical. If he objects to my treating of life riotously, I reply that life is a riot. And I say that the Universe as I see it, at any rate, is very much more like the fireworks at the Crystal Palace than it is like his own philosophy. About the whole cosmos there is a tense and secret festivity — like preparations for Guy Fawkes’ day. Eternity is the eve of something. I never look up at the stars without feeling that they are the fires of a schoolboy’s rocket, fixed in their everlasting fall. — Heretics (1905).

Who cannot smile at that? Anyway, despite its defects, the essay is worth reading.

Addendum: Over at Korrektiv, Matthew “Eagle-eye” Lickona spotted some details about the circumstances under which Hitchens’ essay was written. A rather poignant picture.

10 Responses to “Hitchens on Chesterton”

  1. chiefofleast Says:

    I have a robust appreciation for GKC also. I’m not all surprised at Hitchens’ critique; I’m sure CH doesn’t appreciate how many of GKC’s atheist counterparts admired the same man who Hitch is now trying to downplay.

  2. cburrell Says:

    It would be surprising if Hitchens were unaware of Chesterton’s reputation for affability. Perhaps it just didn’t interest him much — and given the circumstances in which he was writing, that would be understandable.

    It is worth noting that Hitchens, too, had something of a similar reputation. I have heard, at least, that he was a good table companion to his opponents in debate. He seems to have been somewhat less cordial when he sat at his desk.

  3. Mac Says:

    I’m at least two months behind on The Atlantic and haven’t read this yet. I’ve found that my opinion of Hitchens has actually gotten lower since his death, as the flurry of obituaries and commentaries brought to light some of the dumber and nastier things he’s said over the years, many of them not that long ago. So my first reaction to the title of this post was “oh no!” But I’ll try to read the essay generously, with that description of its composition in mind. I thought this piece by Peter Collier in The New Criterion seemed fair.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Mac. I agree that he said some pretty shocking / absurd things. In the spirit of not kicking people when they’re down (so to speak), I passed over that and praised the real strength of his writing. Even when, as here, he’s wrongheaded, he writes far, far better than I shall ever be capable of doing.

    I haven’t had time to read the link yet, but I’ll certainly do so when I get a chance. Thanks.

  5. […] more deeply into his prose. A good defence becomes a better offence, and we find a host of loyal bloggers cheerfully demonstrating to the ghost of Hitchens passed that his dismissal of GKC as “deeply […]

  6. Rob Says:

    Too bad Hitchens and Chesterton were separated by so many years. To see them confront each other in person would have been worth any price. Almost.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Yes, on those occasions when I watched Hitchens in action (on YouTube) I more than once thought how pleasant it would have been to have had Chesterton for his opponent.

    At least one of Chesterton’s debates with G.B. Shaw — which would be something like Hitchens’ equivalent for the time — has been preserved, and it makes for good reading.

  8. Rob Says:

    Thanks for the link. I’ll be reading it.

  9. alexbpop Says:

    I missed both this post and the essay that inspired it when they were first published. I think your last couple paragraphs do as good a job as any of summarizing Chesterton.

  10. cburrell Says:

    Thank you, Alex. That’s a nice site you have as well. Anyone who puts a Chesterton quote into his blog header is a friend of ours.

    You might find my other, dedicated Chesterton site, The Hebdomadal Chesterton, worth an occasional look.

    Thanks for your comment.

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