The Preacher of Orthodoxy to Nonconformists
The following post is an old newspaper review of G.K. Chesterton from the “The Sun: Books and the Book World,” published on Sunday, August 11, 1913. I found it folded up in one of my old books and the aged paper is falling apart. I couldn’t find this article online, and, since I think it is quite interesting and entertaining, really quite good, I decided to preserve it here digitally for posterity sake. Here it is:
CHESTERTON, who wrote the best biography of G.B. Shaw, said this of his victim:
“Most people either say that they agree with Bernard Shaw or that they do not understand him. I am the only person who understands him, and I do not agree with him.”
“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong” (as Chesterton began The Napoleon of Notting Hill) and whose mental biography of Chesterton is always writing, often has difficulty to understand the first half o his intellectual propositions; but the whole is generally clear. Sometimes the human race is stubborn enough not to agree with him, but it always has to admire. He is the only one of the Three Masters of the Monstrous who dares to look back upon the past and congratulate it. The other Masters—Wells and Shaw—look into a future made by themselves and have raptures over it. Chesterton lays the Middle Ages before his reader and says, “Beat them if you can!” He does not say, “Let us go back to the Middle Ages.” He says, “Bring the Middle Ages forward to us.” To G.K.C. the future is for weaklings; the past is strong men’s meat:
“The truth is that all feeble spirits naturally live in the future, because it is featureless; it is a soft job; you can make it what you like . . . . It requires real courage to face the past, because the past is full of facts that cannot be got over.”
The Soul of the Race
Chesterton, however, is not one of these past worshippers who believe that the past worshippers who believe that the past can be restored by buying old furniture or dancing, with a fixed smile, around a Maypole:
“Our live today is marked by perpetual attempts to revive old fashioned things while omitting the human soul in them that made them more than fashion.”
Chesterton wans an England, perhaps a world—that will eat heartily, drink with freedom, pray earnestly and think sanely. To bring about old fashioned reforms he works in new fashioned ways. As one of his biographers, Walter M. Haushalter, says, “he is the most radical thinker in England and yet his issues are the most conservative.” One of his most religious books, The Ball and the Cross, is positively shocking to the pious—in the earlier chapters. Chesterton puts madmen into his novels and then shows you how perfectly sane they are and how insane is the modern world around them. He has created, as Haushalter remarks, “an heretical defense of orthodoxy; a radical defense of conservation.” He hits the errors of modernism over the head with a medieval staff and you can hear the skull crack:
“The old religionists tortured men physically for a moral truth; the new realists torture men morally for a physical truth.”
He brings down the two handed old sword on the helmet of factitious theories of democracy:
“If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rick more fit to govern!”
The Great Paradoxer
CHESTERTON has gained most notoriety as a maker of paradoxes. He has made more money out of his novels than anything else. He is regarded most respectfully in England as a philosopher. His intimates look up to him as a critic.
He is the greatest paradoxer the world has ever known, yet he does not usually make paradoxes for the sake of the startling inversion. Sometimes he does indulge. “The reason why they burned Rome was because Nero played the fiddle” is merely humor. But “the only way to go to England is to go away from it” is a paradox that must have touched Englishmen in every quarter of the earth.
“The longer we look at a thing the less we know about it” is a paradox that puts away the riddle of existence.”
“Logic is a convenient tool with which to exterminate logicians” is not a paradox to Chesterton, for that is the purpose for which he uses logic—and paradoxes.
“Infinity is unthinkable, and yet necessary to thought” is a paradox in form only.
Somebody wrote of Chesterton that he “would pawn a logical position for a paradox.” That critic was only pawning a genuine estimate of his subject for an epigram, as every student of Chesterton realizes.
How He Breaks Through
CHESTERTON employs paradoxes because they make up the shock troops of modern literature. Most of the authors who scorn to employ them are those who cannot conscript them. This fat strategist employs the First Pounding Paradoxes to rush through the barrage of the stubborn readers’ imagination:
“Thieves respect property.”
The enemy falls back, leaving its mind stunned and open. The General Chesterton sends in the steady, middle aged reserves: “They merely wish the property to become their property so that they may more perfectly respect it.”
The troops di in for the winter.
Sometimes Chesterton sends in one wave of shock sentences after another:
“There are only three things that women do not understand.”
The enemy, puzzled looks at the sky. Chesterton sends in the second wave:
“They are Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
These three words tick in Chesterton’s mind. In his Short History of England he says that the story of his country may be found in the French motto: “We gained the first, and we have lost the others.” For “G.K. ” fairly screams for everyday good fellowship, for the killing of the caste and the general spirit which permeates France. He loves the crowd:
“Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.”
The Crowd, but Not the Mob
Don’t confuse the crowd with the mob. Chesterton is not for the mob. He is for the kind considerate friendliness of whole peoples, not for the lazy, discontented, turbulent, selfish sections of populations. It was a long time before the overturn in Russia that he wrote this epigram:
“You can never have a revolution to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to establish a revolution.”
R.A. Scott-James, who is not the kindest of Chesterton’s critics, says of this brilliant democrat:
“It would not be far wrong to describe Mr. Chesterton’s philosophy as a sort of sublimated public opinion minus the opinion of the intellectuals.”
That never hurt Chesterton’s feelings. “The intellectuals” is a phrase that just about describes the writers with whom he likes to break a lance. It is a synonym for “highbrows.” Yet he devotes most of his attention to those who are really intellectual or have the form of intellectuality. He respects nobody’s fame or pretentions:
“Mr. Bernard Shaw’s philosophy is like black coffee; it awakens, but it does not inspire.”
And there is the other one of the Three Masters of the Monstrous—Mr. H.G. Wells—but that is a subject which Mr. Chesterton himself is going to take care of in this magazine next Sunday.
Everybody knows Chesterton as a novelist, and particularly as writer of the fantastic. Three of his stories are classed as detective tales: The Club of Queer Trades, The Man Who Was Thursday and The Innocence of Father Brown. Most critics will be inclined to smile over the classification of the second book named, for as a detective story it is of course a joke, being rather a fantastic argument against anarchy, although it is one of the most diverting books of the last twenty years. In the narratives of Father Brown Chesterton shows his powers as a short story writer—what could have more genuine atmosphere that The Sins of Prince Saradine or The Brown Sword?
However, it is as a critic that the readers of this page will see this Englishman who has been found to shine aslo as essayist, novelist, historian, philosopher, poet and paradoxer. He is not always a kindly critic. He once referred to Thomas Hardy as “a sort of village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot.” That was rough on the Old Master; it is possible that he may have stung Chesterton by referring to him as a socialist—one of the common but utterly absurd mistakes of those who have only heard that “G.K.” wants democracy, but who have not taken the pains to discover what kind of democracy he is shouting for.
Let us look upon the critic Chesterton in his most polite mood. He is writing an essay on Browning:
“The supreme and most practical value of poetry is this, that in poetry, as in music a note is struck which expresses beyond the power of rational statement a condition of the mind; and all actions arise from a condition of the mind.”
Perhaps there is a better broad definition of poetry than this, but if there is somebody has filed it out of sight. It is a good example of the culture of Chesterton; but it may as well be said, for the benefit of timid readers, that Chesterton will not wear soft gloves next Sunday. He will not be writing of the mysteries of Browning, but of the mistakes of Wells. He will not be discussing the past, but the present.
Chesterton’s personality is interesting, but unimportant. He is 45 years old and was educated at St. Paul’s School. He is married and lives at Overroads, Beaconsfield, Bucks, England, in a house as proportionately small as he is large. He weighs around 300 pounds and looks like a composite picture of Balzac and Samuel Johnson. Between Greybeards at Play, which he wrote in 1900, and The Crimes of England (a paradoxical title for a tremendous outburst against Prussianism), which was published recently, Chesterton has written more than thirty books, and every one of them worth reading. He is England’s greatest authority on Dickens, but personally he prides himself as being England’s greatest authority on hams and bacon. He does most of his work in a library that he built in a field across the road from his house.
A good deal of his time is spent in London, where he preaches Middle Age common sense to his colleagues at the Savage Club and, while sitting at table, writes essays for the New Citizen, the publication which has been favored with most of his critiques since he left the London Daily News in 1913 after thirteen years of “preaching orthodoxy to nonconformists,” as Julian West remarks in his book on Gilbert Keith Chesterton. For Chesterton is incurably orthodox. Of this he says himself:
“There is only one way of really guarding ourselves against the excessive danger of dogmatism . . . and that is to be steeped in dogmatisms and soaked in philosophy.”
He is, as Holbrook Jackson says, “the happiest and heaviest of men.”