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.