Feasting on Chesterton

December 27, 2015

As the end of the year approaches, I am cleaning up my desk. Here are brief notes on an armful of books I read this year, all by Chesterton, and arranged in order of publication.

gkc_saint

Twelve Types
G.K. Chesterton
[1903] 100 p.

These twelve brief biographical studies were originally published as part of Chesterton’s journalistic work when he was in his 20s. These were still his formative years, but the work feels like it comes from the pen of the Chesterton we know and love. He would go on, in fact, to publish whole books on several of the people sketched here, notably Tolstoy, Stevenson, Carlyle, and, most interestingly, St. Francis. We also get enlightening essays on the Brontes, on Walter Scott, on Byron and on Pope, and on historical figures like Charles II and Savonarola, as well as some lesser figures such as William Morris and Edmond Rostand. It’s a very quotable collection, with quite a number of Chesterton’s striking aphorisms:

Humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption.

or

We should all like to speak poetry at the moment when we truly live, and if we do not speak it, it is because we have an impediment in our speech.

or

It may be easier really to have wit, than really, in the boldest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A man may indulge in a sham rhapsody, because it may be the triumph of a rhapsody to be unintelligible. But a man cannot indulge in a sham joke, because it is the ruin of a joke to be unintelligible.

or

The superficial impression of the world is by far the deepest. What we really feel, naturally and casually, about the look of skies and trees and the face of friends, that and that alone will almost certainly remain our vital philosophy to our dying day.

and so forth. This is not one of Chesterton’s books that draws a large number of readers these days, and it is true that it should, by his standards, be considered minor, but it is still very much worth getting to know.

***

All Things Considered
G.K. Chesterton
[1908] 200 p.

This is another collection of Chesterton’s essays; he seems to have issued one every few years. In the preface he describes the book in this way:

It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after. They must go out now, with all their imperfections on their head, or rather on mine; for their vices are too vital to be improved with a blue pencil, or with anything I can think of, except dynamite.

Naturally this is mere playful self-depreciation. The essays are better than those that you or I would write. The topics are truly all over the map: politics, sport, literature, education. There are about two dozen in total, and they include a few Chestertonian classics: “On Running After One’s Hat” and “Fairy Tales”, and there is also an excellent essay on Henry Fielding. Much to enjoy, as usual. I have reaped a plentiful harvest of quotations which will eventually find their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

***

Alarms and Discursions
G.K. Chesterton
[1911] 110 p.

A collection of short essays on a variety of subjects. Presumably these were originally published separately and later collected, but I do not know the story behind it. The essays are of variable quality, and some are very good indeed (“The Chorus”, “The Appetite of Earth”). They are, in general, less polemical than is typical with Chesterton. One gets the impression that they were written at idle moments, when he was day-dreaming, or when alone. There is a relaxed quality to them, and a gentle geniality, that is quite appealing. And he gets in a few good aphorisms too: “The most sentimental thing in the world is to hide your feelings; it is making too much of them.”

***

The Appetite of Tyranny
G.K. Chesterton
[1915] 70 p.

This is the same book as The Barbarism of Berlin, with the addition of some additional material under the heading “Letters to an Old Garibaldian”. Note well the date of publication: it is part of his war-time propaganda campaign against the Prussian forces. I have found it to be among the least interesting of Chesterton’s writings, and for almost the first time I felt that Chesterton was more interested in scoring points than in presenting a balanced and truthful view of a matter. Disappointing.

***

The Crimes of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1916] 75 p.

Another of Chesterton’s wartime propaganda books, The Crimes of England finds him attacking the Germans by attacking all those times and ways in which England has been a friend to Germany:

On many occasions we have been very wrong indeed. We were very wrong indeed when we took part in preventing Europe from putting a term to the impious piracies of Frederick the Great. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the triumph over Napoleon to be soiled with the mire and blood of Blucher’s sullen savages. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the peaceful King of Denmark to be robbed in broad daylight by a brigand named Bismarck; and when we allowed the Prussian swashbucklers to enslave and silence the French provinces which they could neither govern nor persuade. We were very wrong indeed when we flung to such hungry adventurers a position so important as Heligoland. We were very wrong indeed when we praised the soulless Prussian education and copied the soulless Prussian laws.

He proceeds, chapter by chapter, taking the historical material case by case, and arguing that whenever England had sided with Germany it had sided with tyranny, oppression, deviousness, and other German things. Putting it that way gets at my main complaint: this is not nuanced. Chesterton sees the Germans as the clear villains of the war, and (in consequence?) he has nothing good to say about them. They are toxic through and through, and in his eyes England has always been weakened and shamed by its associations with them.

After recounting case after case of England’s simpering acquiescence to German malice, Chesterton takes up in his last few chapters the English response to Germany at the start of WWI, which is the context within which he is writing. Here he sees a break with the historical pattern: here England, and especially the common English people, rose up against Germany. He writes to rally the troops and praise their courage. He is rather good at painting the terror of the German advance:

It is almost impossible to repicture what was, for those who understood, the gigantic finality of the first German strides. It seemed as if the forces of the ancient valour fell away to right and left; and there opened a grand, smooth granite road right to the gate of Paris, down which the great Germania moved like a tall, unanswerable sphinx, whose pride could destroy all things and survive them. In her train moved, like moving mountains, Cyclopean guns that had never been seen among men, before which walled cities melted like wax, their mouths set insolently upwards as if threatening to besiege the sun. Nor is it fantastic to speak so of the new and abnormal armaments; for the soul of Germany was really expressed in colossal wheels and cylinders; and her guns were more symbolic than her flags.

And it was this imposing force that the English and French armies confronted at the Battle of the Marne (known to us, though not to Chesterton at the time of writing, as The First Battle of the Marne), a battle which Chesterton saw as decisive not necessarily for its tactical value, but for its moral value, as a sign that German aggression could be resisted successfully:

Much was to happen after—murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky; but all men knew in their hearts that the third Prussian thrust had failed, and Christendom was delivered once more. The empire of blood and iron rolled slowly back towards the darkness of the northern forests; and the great nations of the West went forward; where side by side as after a long lover’s quarrel, went the ensigns of St. Denys and St. George.

It’s a lovely image, but a premature one, for even Chesterton could not have foreseen just how much murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky was in store.

***

Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 130 p.

This collection of essays is centered around a longer piece which gives the collection its title. Like the title essay, most of the topics treated herein are social and economic, the main target being capitalism.

Attacks on capitalism are not rare in Chesterton’s corpus, but I sometimes wonder just what he meant by it. The fact that he has a tendency to cast specific aspersions at Rockefeller and Ford suggests that his complaint is with “big business”, with millionaires, rather than with (what is equally capitalism) people making a living by starting businesses and providing goods or services. He objects to the power big employers have over their employees and to the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

In “Utopia of Usurers” he sets out

to take, one after another, certain aspects and departments of modern life, and describe what I think they will be like in this paradise of plutocrats, this Utopia of gold and brass in which the great story of England seems so likely to end. I propose to say what I think our new masters, the mere millionaires, will do with certain human interests and institutions, such as art, science, jurisprudence, or religion—unless we strike soon enough to prevent them.

In other words, if wealthy capitalists gain enough power in society, how will they shape society? In our own time, where big businesses are bigger than ever before, when they make substantial financial contributions to university departments, and when they endorse political positions on even social issues, the question seems relevant.

For instance, he predicts that the arts will be assimilated more and more to advertisements:

The improvement of advertisements is the degradation of artists. It is their degradation for this clear and vital reason: that the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but only to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower. After all, it was as a human being that a pope took pleasure in a cartoon of Raphael or a prince took pleasure in a statuette of Cellini. The prince paid for the statuette; but he did not expect the statuette to pay him.

On the other hand, certain of his speculations (“I think Prison will become an almost universal experience”) sound ridiculous.

Not one of his first, or even second, tier books, “Utopia of Usurers” was nonetheless worth a quick read, if only as a respite from the unrelenting wartime propaganda of these years!

***

A Short History of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 140 p.

Chesterton set out to write a kind of everyman’s history of England, a history “from a standpoint of a member of the public,” a history to treat of the big and obvious features of the nation’s past rather than the minutiae and special interests that might reasonably be thought the preserve of professional historians. Academic histories are just so German.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, his book is almost entirely devoid of dates; I counted, I think, only 2 or 3. In fact, there is a sense in which this history, whether intended for everyman or not, is not intended for those everymen who come to the book innocent of history. One could learn some history from Chesterton, of course, but admixed with so much commentary and (occasional) polemic that one would do better to read Chesterton as a gloss on a more sober survey.

He begins with the Roman influence on England (“The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains.”) and proceeds forward, covering the major epochs and prominent figures (St Augustine of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, St Thomas More, Lord Nelson, and so forth). Round about the 18th century, where my prior knowledge is weakest, I lost the thread for a while.

As in so many of his books written while the Great War raged, Chesterton finally brings his history around to what one suspects may have been its original motivation: an attack on Germany and the Germanic influence on England. That final chapter weakens the book as a whole, not necessarily because the argument it makes is flawed, but because it feels inorganically related to the whole. One sympathizes with his motives, but laments the “topical” intrusion.

***

The New Jerusalem
G.K. Chesterton
[1920] 175 p.

In all my reading about Chesterton over the years, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone make reference to The New Jerusalem; I assumed it was one of his minor books. And, when set against Orthodoxy or Charles Dickens, it is indeed minor, but when set against the average Chesterton book — against the ones described above, for instance — it compares rather favourably. It is an account of a journey he took to Egypt and (as it was then called) Palestine, to visit the Holy City.

The first thing I noticed is that the book is unusually well-written. Chesterton was never — well, rarely — an outright bad writer, unless you have a strong alliteration aversion or pun problem, but he wrote so voluminously that although he is not dull he is often unpolished and a trifle slapdash. Here, however, he sounds more patient, writing quite beautifully at times, and has invested his account with more structure and craft than was typically the case. I suppose it is possible, or even likely, that he was writing as he travelled, and was therefore at some distance from the usual interruptions and pressures of Fleet Street.

The opening sections of the book approximate to a kind of travelogue, a series of impressions about the places he visits — the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, the Holy City itself, Gethsemane, the Dead Sea — and about the people he sees. He takes a keen interest in the close abutment of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations in Jerusalem. The middle section of the book looks back at the history of Jerusalem, and in particular at the era of the Crusades, when the city’s configuration of religions and cultures first took something like its current form, and when the seemingly irresolvable triangular conflicts between them first attained something like their current shape. The final sections of the book, which, from our vantage point a century later, are much the most uncomfortable for the reader, grope toward possible means of resolving the tensions.

I will not dwell here on the travelogue and historical sections of the book; I’ve harvested a host of excerpts for eventual airing at The Hebdomadal Chesterton. There are juicy bits about the hazards — the poetic and spiritual hazards — of sight-seeing, alongside some lovely descriptions of the impressions the sacred sites made on him. The historical material is enlivened by a quite gripping account of the Crusader’s siege of Jerusalem, and again of the eventual fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. (Not that Chesterton gives us any dates, of course.) He speculates that the failure of the Crusades to accomplish their objectives, and in particular the fall of Jerusalem, was so discouraging to Christendom that it deflated the whole cultural project of the High Middle Ages and led, in time, to the collapse of its ambitions and the transition to early modernity. It’s a tough thesis to defend, and he is candid that it is based on little more than intuition. It is perhaps best to leave it at that.

As I said, in the final chapters of the book Chesterton turns his attention to the religious and cultural tensions woven into the fabric of Jerusalem, and in particular to what he calls “the Jewish problem”. Right off, this strikes the modern reader as a most unfortunate choice of words, bearing, as it does, such a close resonance with “the Jewish question” to which the Nazis offered their unconscionable answer. To be sure, for Chesterton “the Jewish problem” is not a problem with the Jews, but a problem for the Jews: namely, how can Jews be a coherent, unified people without having a homeland? He thought that a homeland would make it much easier for them to live as Jews, and so he supported the creation of such a homeland. And he thought it would be good, for their own sake, if Jews would move there. Therefore, by implication, he thought it would be good if Jews would move away from England, France, America, Germany, and wherever else they had been scattered. For this he was at the time, and has continued to be, regarded by some as an Anti-Semite. As luck would have it, in The New Jerusalem he responds to the accusation directly:

There is an attitude for which my friends and I were for a long period rebuked and even reviled; and of which at the present period we are less likely than ever to repent. It was always called Anti-Semitism; but it was always much more true to call it Zionism… It was in substance the desire to give Jews the dignity and status of a separate nation. We desired that in some fashion, and so far as possible, Jews should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews. I am an Anti-Semite if that is Anti-Semitism. It would seem more rational to call it Semitism.

There was nothing unusual in the fact that he advocated for Jews to live together in their own, self-governed state. Against the ambitions of his own country he wanted the same for the Irish. He wanted the same for the Boers in their struggle against England. Readers of his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill will know that in his fancy he would extend this independence and self-rule even to the distinct neighbourhoods of London. So I am inclined to believe him when he says that his support for Zionism was, in his own mind, support for Jews. He understood himself to be supporting what Jews themselves would, naturally, support. And, indeed, as we know, some Jews did support it. But had Chesterton lived to see the founding of the State of Israel, I think he would have been surprised to discover how many Jews did not emigrate there.

In the light of that historical fact, and especially in light of how (rightly) sensitive we are to criticism or stereotyping of Jews, it is undeniable that Chesterton’s comments about how Jews are strangers in European society, and his light-hearted digression on the advantages of Jews wearing distinctive clothing, and his suggestion that Jews live in designated enclaves — well, it all makes the reader cringe. But, in fairness to him, we must do our best to imagine ourselves back to his own day, before anyone imagined the Holocaust, and also do our best to read such comments in the light of his own consistent political ideal of self-governing, religiously unified, and culturally distinctive peoples. I’m not saying it’s easy.

In this connection, I note that a new book, Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender, by Ann Farmer, has recently appeared. I haven’t read it, but it appears to treat this question in some detail.

Apart from these reservations about the closing chapters of the book, I am happy to recommend The New Jerusalem as a delightful read, a very interesting window into the way Jerusalem looked and felt a hundred years ago, and a good opportunity to spend some time on the road with Chesterton.

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