The charming, sinister G. K. Chesterton
Professor Ker’s spirited and double-barreled attempt at a rehabilitation of his cherished subject is enjoyable in its own right, and takes in such matters as Chesterton’s dialectical genius for paradox, the authority of the Father Brown stories in the detective genre, and the salience of Charles Dickens in the English canonical one. But for him to show that his hero was the protagonist of a superior form of English democratic virtue, Ker would have to meet me where we are at agreement: on the high quality of Chesterton’s poems. It’s at exactly this sublime point, though, that he comes undone.
In his obituary, T. S. Eliot alluded to GKC’s capacity for “first-rate journalistic balladry,” and this high praise I think almost insufficient, because it understates his magic faculty of being unforgettable. Selecting from “one of his handful of good serious poems,” Ker makes important use of “Lepanto,” the verses of which Chesterton employed to mark off a certain English Protestant memory from a Roman Catholic one. Inspired by GKC’s friend Father John O’Connor, the poem shows how the great 1571 battle of the papacy against the Ottoman Porte was, and is, a minor Rorschach blot for a discrepant national memory.
Aiming off an early line (“The cold queen of England is looking in the glass”) as a kind of establishing shot, Chesterton presses on to conscript all the images of sullen northern Protestant indifference in the face of the sultan’s mobilization:
St. Michael’s on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,—
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
In one rather gallant stave, then, the finer aspects of Christendom detach themselves from the frigid dogmas of the Reformation, and reproclaim the magnificence of the Crusades. In a separate but intimately related poem, “The Secret People” (the historic refrain of which is “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget / For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”), Chesterton summarizes the woes and dispossessions of his fellow-countrymen in this way:
Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed stuck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain.
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires ride slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land and still it is not we.
A tribute by Atlantic literary and national editor Benjamin Schwarz
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic
A collection of writings by and about the late writer
Thus, and in a few small phrases, Chesterton hopelessly undermines his own project of defending England against the secular pallor of Protestantist greed. Instead, by making it seem as if they were to be condemned for their neutrality and abstention at Lepanto, he confines his chosen people inside the enclave that had been fashioned for them by some rather strict Catholic intellectuals: intellectuals who were later to get themselves on the wrong side of Europe’s most important quarrel by being shady on the question of Fascism. (Professor Ker somewhat confidingly, if not devastatingly from his own viewpoint, adds that this poem “could hardly have been more Catholic in its view of English history.”) One might also note that Chesterton wrote his jaw-dropping line about the “cringing Jew” at a time when England was becoming preoccupied by the so-called Marconi case, involving the “scandal” of Jewish commerce in politics, and thus helped to cement the idea that there was a connection between the two. At any rate, I don’t think even the best of the poetic quotations can redeem Chestertonianism from the reactionary implications of the prosaic ones: they put one too much in mind of another critique of his work by T. S. Eliot. Reviewing him on Robert Louis Stevenson in 1927, Eliot found him suffering “under a misunderstanding that we are not likely to labor under,” “attacking misconceptions which we had not heard of and in which we are not interested,” and putting forth “a style exasperating to the last point of endurance.”
Chesterton’s overbuilt reputation for paradox was founded on his Paradox of Conservatism, which was to the effect that if you want to be a conservative, you had better not be too much of one. He gave us this, which he deemed to be a distillation of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “theory of development”:
All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.
But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
(One wishes, as on other occasions, that he had not reserved his recommendation of brevity until the last. The old buzzard could be a master of prolixity.)
So there was GKC’s enduring problem. Instead of occupying massive portions of the landscape (“there came a sound like that of Mr G. K. Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin”) for his meditative verses and polemics, he was compelled to be active so that his fellow reactionaries could be involved in something worth calling a movement. For an instance of the operations of paradox in practice, incidentally, we may examine the founding of the only movement that ever bore the name he gave it: that of “Distributism.” This scheme for a more equitable sharing of existing property took form in late 1926, the year of class convulsion that saw the defeat of the General Strike and the mobilization and demobilization of millions of British workers. The initial founders of the Distributist League could fit into one hall in the Strand, and could not at once decide upon a unifying name. An early suggestion was “The Cow and Acres,” which sounded to GKC rather too much like a pub. Another was “The League of the Little People,” which with its air of plaintive populism also retained the aura of a fairy glen. It was later generally agreed that the only genuine disagreement concerned the question of whether a true Distributist should also be a Roman Catholic.
GKC himself took heart from the launch of this frail bark, despising the niceties of theory and nomenclature because in his own mind an essential point had already been established. Disputes about machinery and capital were to be put on one side. The English people had already been shorn of their property rights before the advent of industrial capital. This is a clear reference to the lines, in “The Secret People,” about the “men of the new religion, with their Bibles in their boots,” who had “eaten the abbey’s fruits.” The Protestant Revolution, in other words, had been an act of theft and not an action of redistribution. To Chesterton’s bucolic conservatism, and his view that a certain kind of revolution was necessary to keep the counterrevolution in action, was to be added a working alliance with Roman Catholic conservatism. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, this was actually an unpromising initiative, as Chesterton failed to note when he traveled to Rome and saw Mussolini and formed the verdict that while Fascism could be criticized as hypocritical to the point of flagrance, the same could surely be said of liberal democracy. This shows the moth-eaten fringe of absurdity that always hung around his political reflections, as it did his vastly draped and histrionic form.
Let us try some of his other paradoxes and see how they hold up. The first one states that those who affirm that they conduct themselves by “the spirit of Christianity” rather than its outward dogmas do in fact keep “some of the words and terminology, words like Peace and Righteousness and Love; but they make these words stand for an atmosphere utterly alien to Christendom; they keep the letter and lose the spirit.” It would be just about as useful to say that GKC could re-infuse the higher concepts of faith by restoring them to upper and lower case: we are all fully familiar with the religious practitioner who can’t or doesn’t live up to the merits of his creed. There’s nothing innately paradoxical in that. Any solution, however, is a bit like the Golden Rule: the creed is only as morally strong as the person who happens to be uttering it. If Chesterton ever managed the feat of preserving the letter and the spirit, or knew anyone who had, or anyone who could temporarily separate letter and spirit, he would have done well to inform us. (Professor Ker, sadly, describes the above effort as “one of [Chesterton’s] most brilliant paradoxes.”)
Had he been tempted down to cases, GKC might have extracted more profit from his mischievous idea that the book of Job portrayed God as “paradoxically” atheist, but this, when compared with other and mightier speculations on that text, was a trifle thin. His American tour yielded a small handful of what one might call minor ironies or contradictions (he began ostentatiously to call himself “a democrat” and “an equal”), while on the larger point, he missed a critical chance. It was unfortunate, Chesterton asserted, that although America had “a great political idea … it had a small religious idea.” This came out as follows:
This ‘individualism in religion’ explained why Americans were not proper republicans in the sense of every man having ‘a direct relation to the realm or commonweal, more direct than he has to any masters or patrons in private life’: in America the individual made ‘good in trade, because it was originally the individual making good in goodness; that is, in salvation of the soul’.
One has immediately the sense of a big chance being forfeited, with the elements of paradox being discarded along the way. The opposition is not between a small and a large concept in any case, Mr. Chesterton, sir: the United States is its own guarantee of some kind of noble scale in the business. How annoying it is that a certain kind of English voice seems so determined to condescend to Americans. No, it is the simple ingenuity (if I might be allowed a paradoxical locution) of the Jefferson/Madison religious signpost, with its clearly made pointer to Danbury, Connecticut, that is so graspable by the minds of the simplest as well as the most superior persons. Given time, the symbol of a simple wall of separation has fashioned and established itself inside our own crania, so that almost every American has an approximate idea that they are entitled to a great degree of “freedom of,” as well as a marked amount of “freedom from,” with a good deal of debatable latitude in between. This is not a small or inert legacy.
Some of GKC’s other half-developed insights have the unintended result, like the post-Falstaffian bulk problem, of straining and breaking the branch on which he leaned for effect. (An irresistible digression: In 1908, GKC rented a house in Rye, East Sussex, adjacent to that of Henry James. James was aghast that such a mind was “imprisoned in such a body,” and the regular viewing of “the unspeakable Chesterton” with his awful pachydermatous silhouette horrified James, who otherwise admired GKC. To picture The Master in such a predicament …) He could not understand why anti-Catholics accused their foes of forming secret societies while forming them—like the KKK—in their own right. But this in turn meant that he never “got” the appeal of camp and sinister formations like Opus Dei.
Chesterton hoped to show that the English had seen through the Protestant Reformation, and would survive it because they liked those who laughed. Yet the life of the great Samuel Johnson, we learn, was constrained because of “the absence of the pleasures of religion” in it. There’s something weirdly self-regarding about that formulation, especially coming as it does from a man who believed that the great English strength—deployed all along a rampart of joviality and confidence that extends from Chaucer’s Tabard Inn to Charles Dickens’s own prospect of Kent and the Medway—is founded on mirth. The sort of mirth that puffs away fanaticism and narrowness need have no connection to “the pleasures of religion.” Behind this crude camouflage, we can see being wheeled into position a large block of stone or paper, incised or authored by Cardinal John Henry Newman but helped along by Chesterton’s own main force, on which all the needs and promptings and moral suasions of the English people will need to be sternly written down. And yes, Messrs. Johnson and Dickens may well be casting around themselves for the exits. It may be true that the Protestant Reformation delivered the poor and the squires into the bondage of the “new, unhappy lords” who raised their grievous rent, but this does not mean any general English nostalgia for the old regime of throne and altar and the incineration of martyrs. And Chesterton did end up by wrestling his own block of moral admonition into shape, and publishing it as a sort of summa. Here’s Ker’s version of GKC’s account:
The previous year Chesterton had contributed a brief chapter to Twelve Modern Apostles and their Creeds, entitled ‘Why I am a Catholic’, which began with the assertion that there were ten thousand reasons, ‘all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true’. The Catholic Church simply was ‘catholic’—‘not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world … indeed larger than the world’. It was the only ‘corporate mind in the world’ that was ‘on the watch to prevent minds from going wrong.’ The Church, ‘looking out in all directions at once’, was ‘not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even of the present, but equally against those of the future, that may be the exact opposite of those of the present’. She carried ‘a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze’. Uniquely, she constituted ‘one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years’. The resulting map marked clearly ‘all the blind alleys and bad roads’.
Chesterton rested this on the relatively small paradox that few young people by then regarded the old wars and divisions of Christianity as important: one could be a Roman Catholic or Protestant almost as according to taste. (A brief pause for a moment to reflect on what it took to attain to that compromise after centuries of war and torment …) The idea of a body that actually did all the official thinking was probably not unrelated to the Mussolini concept of the corporate state. This would be repulsive to the English and American tradition. If there was a collectivity that “did” all the thinking, in England it was expressed in the definite skepticism concerning such matters as the Inquisition, the Spanish Armada, and the question of papal infallibility. In America it was still the durable sign system pointing to Danbury, Connecticut. In neither case was there any requirement for that minatory block of text or stone, forever guarding the outer doors of orthodoxy and unsleepingly seeking to entrap or expel the heretic and the dissident. The more that attempts were made to codify truth, the more elusive truth became. Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems that there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or the cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.
As to the durability or importance of GKC as a fictionist: the late Sir Kingsley Amis once told me that he reread The Man Who Was Thursday every year, and on one of his annual visitations wrote a tribute. That novel, with its evocation of eeriness and solitude, and its fascination with anonymity, has been credited by some with a share of influence on Franz Kafka. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is not in the same class, and may even be drawn to a meaner scale in order to attenuate the frame of “rights.” Father Brown I give up and return to you. The character is deliberately vacant and the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley. A figure named Father Bond makes a brief reappearance—the only one I think he merits—on what must be intended as the shelf of a good Catholic schoolboy in Amis père’s well-wrought anti-Vatican and anti-castration fantasy The Alteration. The debt is overwhelmingly to Conan Doyle, with no indebtedness to any of the great formulas of detective fiction. As a consequence, the little priest’s summings-up are usually arid and often iffy. When told of a minor crisis in his financial affairs, we are informed by Ker, the proprietor of G.K.’s Weekly would reply: “‘Oh, well. We must write another Father Brown story,’ and this would be done at lightning speed a day or two later from a few notes on the back of an envelope.” It showed, I fear. Evelyn Waugh may have been able to squeeze part of a Brideshead evening out of a phrase of Brown’s—about “a twitch upon the thread”—but my conjury is not equal to his.
Then at last we come to the sordid but inescapable question: Why did GKC feel the imperative to drape that drooping English squire in that cringing Jew? I could have done it in one blow, and simply said that Chesterton wrote and believed that Englishmen, if they wished to be “chosen” as public servants like Sir Rufus Isaacs, should agree to wear a different national dress and thus to signify their apartness. This was the direct ancestor of the Yellow Star, even if applied more selectively, and it made the same point: Jews were a foreign nation and should have a state of their own. GKC was more of a Christian Zionist than an anti-Semite, let alone an exterminationist or eliminationist one. Thus, one cannot quite place him in the Yellow Star camp as we have come to think of it.
But he and his fellow Distributists and other stray reactionaries did get themselves on the wrong side of the debate about Nazism. And they did so, furthermore, because of self-imposed blinders in their own view of matters ethnic and ideological and confessional. For instance, in search of a good taunt, Chesterton decided that the Protestant Reformation was originally Jewish! And that the concept of a “Chosen Race” came to us as a Jewish one; and, not content with this, that it also descended through Protestantism. Thus, through an obsession with the Covenant with Israel had come “the great Prussian illusion of pride, for which thousands of Jews have recently been rabbled or ruined or driven from their homes.” So that the laugh, here, comes at the expense of the Jews.
An even more extensive, not to say wild, rewriting of history involved GKC’s view that Hitlerism was a last attempt to Protestantize the old Bismarckian empire. Professor Ker has the integrity to step in at this stage, if only to adumbrate the fact that the führer who grabbed Austria as a limb of a future “Greater Germany” was himself an Austrian Catholic. But Chesterton would not be persuaded:
The racial pride of Hitlerism is of the Reformation by twenty tests; because it divides Christendom and makes all such divisions deeper; because it is fatalistic, like Calvinism, and makes superiority depend not upon choice but only on being of the chosen; because it is Caesaro-Papist, putting the State above the Church, as in the claim of Henry VIII; because it is immoral, being an innovator of morals touching things like Eugenics and Sterility; because it is subjective, in suiting the primal fact to the personal fancy, as in asking for a German God, or saying that the Catholic revelation does not suit the German temper; as if I were to say that the Solar System does not suit the Chestertonian taste. I do not apologise, therefore, for saying that this catastrophe in history has been due to heresy.
In that closing, Chesterton missed one or two opportunities for wit and ducked a couple of openings for a tu quoque (especially on the matter of Henry VIII and church-state compromises). But he most of all sacrificed his duty to moral courage and historical truth, blaming Nazism on the wrong culprits. And this was because he put his theocratic allegiance higher than those claims, and at a time when civilization was in danger from the men of the Hitler-Vatican Concordat. Another way of phrasing it might be to say that, when the hour really struck, Chesterton could not detect a paradox when it truly reared up to confront him and his prejudices. Harsher but correct would be the verdict that his Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism; a judgment that Professor Ker strives to avoid but is, I think, in part compelled to admit. Confrontation with GKC has been enjoyable, even if the main elements of the debate have come to seem extraordinarily archaic.
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.” For the time and hour in which he lived, “Chestertonianism” came to represent a minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge.