My sister Masha at Cyganeria recently posted a piece discussing her ambivalence towards G.K. Chesterton. I encourage you to go read it and the ensuing discussion, because I’m going to be referencing it in this particular article as I try to give a brief explanation of my intense fondness for him.
At the moment I’m re-reading Four Faultless Felons, a book that delves into one of his favorite themes, the innocent man wrongly accused. While his fellow British Catholic Alfred Hitchcock liked using this theme to create tension and horror, Chesterton used it to examine and challenge modern conventions and assumptions. In each story there’s a character who commits what seems to be a crime, but which actually turns out to be an act of virtue (except for one, which turns out to be an elaborate practical joke). The stories are mostly told through the eyes of a young heroine whom the felon falls in love with and ends by sharing his secret with (though usually she guesses it before the reader does). We’re told upfront that each story will end with the sinner turning out to be a saint, but Chesterton usually disguises it well enough that we’re left guessing how until the end (personally, I only guessed one of them, in part because I’ve heard of something similar happening in real life).
These stories are typical of Chesterton’s style; he takes an assumption – i.e. shooting people is always wrong – and turns it upside down so that we explore both why it is typically the case and where it might not necessarily be true. He digs around the commandments to find the principle that they’re founded on. In the meantime, he finds time to make cleverly phrased comments on property, self-government, pop-psychology, and a host of other topics.
There are a lot of reasons why I love Chesterton. I suppose the most important is the fact that he was never a snob. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s snobbery; the attitude of "this work/idea/person is no good because it’s too common, too obvious, too ordinary, too shallow, etc;" the praising of difficult work because it is difficult, or of ugly paintings because they are ugly, or boring books because they are boring; the assumption that Goethe or Joyce is always better and more worthwhile than, say, Lewis or Doyle or Chesterton himself.
My all-time favorite Chesterton quote, the one I would frame and hang on my wall to read every day, is “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” Because, dang it, sometimes you just want the clichéd, shallow, unpolished story that you’ve read a dozen times already and there’s nothing wrong with that. Chesterton understood this, and he never took own works of fiction very seriously. He enjoyed books with idealized heroines, sudden twists, exotic locales, and ingenious murders, so he wrote them. He could be profound and difficult when he wanted (see The Man Who Was Thursday), but mostly he wrapped his profundity in the kind of stories that he enjoyed picking up from the corner store on his way to work.
This openness to the common and unpolished also extended to philosophy, where Chesterton was much more likely to give credence to everyday maxims and assumptions than to advanced philosophical conclusions. This perhaps led him to overestimate the sense of common people, but it also helped him to avoid the fashionable ideas of the day such as Socialism, Eugenics, and all the other waste products of the modern intelligentsia. The principle behind this was sound; the ideas of the educated elite are mostly based on the thoughts of a handful of men of similar backgrounds and experiences. The ideas of the common man are based on centuries’ worth of ancestors living, working, loving, and dying in the real world. The latter has much better credentials than the former, however intelligent the intelligentsia is.
Interestingly enough, history has born Chesterton out. He remains almost shockingly relevant in his thinking on politics, social issues, religion, family, and the like, while Socialism, Eugenics, ‘the Life Force’ and so on have all been nothing but dismal failures, to the point that even fans of Wells and Shaw don’t buy into them (there’s a reason Wells is almost exclusively known for the his science fiction stories, which he mostly produced very early in his career).
The thing that surprised me most about Masha’s post is how she describes Chesterton as being harsh and uncharitable. From what I’ve read by and about him, Chesterton was a singularly gentle and charitable man. Two of his best friends were H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who disagreed with Chesterton about practically everything. They often debated publically about religion, politics, and everything else, and certainly took the debates private whenever they met. Nonetheless, he remained good friends with them, and would praise their works and character to the heavens at every opportunity (as they would his). He was the same with practically everyone else he ever met and engaged with. The only person I’m aware of that he legitimately attacked personally and publicly was a journalist who had been writing disparaging articles about Chesterton’s recently-deceased brother, Cecil.
He had and expressed ire, to be sure, but mostly he directed it at broad, general groups (“certain scientists.” “businessmen” etc) while his charity was reserved for individuals. For instance, he might spend paragraphs expressing disgust at Eugenics and the mindset behind it before turning around and praising the virtues of Mr. Wells (who was a committed Eugenicist).
It’s true that Chesterton’s writings are saturated with jokes and mockery, but I’ve never found them particularly mean-spirited. Certainly his friends didn’t take much offense (being mostly humorists themselves). I think what Chesterton intended to do was to follow the advice of his near-contemporary Oscar Wilde, who said that “if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” He mocked because humor made the truth palatable. And a good deal of his humor was directed at himself; his poor research skills, his weight, his laziness (“I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.”), his bad memory, etc.
Chesterton could describe Shaw, for instance, as presenting “a bewildering welter of fallacies” right before praising his “real kindness of heart, which makes him tolerant of the humblest of the creatures of God” and rounding it all out with a joke about being knocked on the head with Shaw’s umbrella. Shaw and Chesterton remained friends precisely because they could joke about each other’s beliefs and laugh at those jokes. Shaw would mock Chesterton for his obesity; Chesterton would tease Shaw about his thinness. Shaw would make a joke ridiculing Christianity, Chesterton would reply with a joke mocking Socialism.
Coupled in this ability to joke was the fact that Chesterton assumed that Shaw and his other rivals really were honest in their ideas and intended well by them. He just saw their ideas for what they were – nonsense – and treated them accordingly. But his humor wasn’t limited to things he thought nonsensical; he made just as many jokes about Catholicism and everything else he loved and believed in. The idea that mockery implies disdain or judgment is one that he would have found shocking and absurd.
Chesterton is so popular (even among non-Catholics), I think, precisely because he could present his ideas in a simple, amusing form. He makes you laugh, not just as the sudden subversion of your expectations, but at the very obviousness of the subversion. You laugh because you realize that what he’s saying is what you’ve known all along, but couldn’t articulate. When he discusses the difference between contempt and simple forgetfulness, for instance, he notes that no one goes down the street “giving his mustache a haughty twirl at the thought of his superiority to a specimen of deep-sea fishes.” It’s funny both because it’s ridiculous and because it’s true.
There’s another element to his mockery, one which might account for Masha’s dislike of it. He used it, not only to help his ideas go down easier, but also to shock people into paying attention to things they otherwise wouldn’t have considered. For instance, he had a well-known habit where whenever he met someone who claimed that life wasn’t worth living he would pull out his revolver and offer to shoot them. “It always produced very satisfactory results,” he said (brandishing laws mean that, unfortunately, we can’t perform this particular act of mercy today). That’s the idea behind his love of paradox; by saying something so outrageous, he invites you to keep reading to see how he justifies it. He described this technique in a Father Brown story as “standing on your head to see what something really looks like.” Paradoxical, but true; familiarity with something tends to make us take it for granted. Making it suddenly unfamiliar – i.e. by turning it upside down – causes us to look at it as though it were new.
Masha calls Chesterton ‘loud.’ Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste, but I find his joyful directness refreshing; the voice of a man so full of life and joy that he can’t hold it in and wants to share it with everyone. In contrast, I find the almost pained isolation and softness of someone like Rilke alienating. I may enjoy reading him and find his thoughts and poems profound, but I don't really enjoy spending time with him as I do Chesterton.
Perhaps this can be well expressed by contrasting Chesterton with a much more popular writer whom I don’t enjoy at all: Mark Twain. I hear people talk about how witty and fun he is, but personally I just see an old cynic who thinks a talent for words equates with brilliance. Twain’s humor is caustic and iconoclastic; Chesterton’s reverent and friendly. Where Twain would assume the worst and joke about trying to hide it, Chesterton would assume the best and joke about falling short from it. Twain rips the rug out from under you; Chesterton tosses you up like a father playing with his baby.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a selection of my favorite Chesterton quotes:
“[I]t had been supposed that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by expanding our ego into infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero”
“There is no way of dealing properly with the ultimate greatness of Dickens, except by offering sacrifice to him as a god; and this is opposed to the etiquette of our time.”
“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.”
-The Ballad of the White Horse
“The great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad”
-The Ballad of the White Horse
“Art is the signature of man.”
-The Everlasting Man
"No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away…till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”
-Father Brown, The Secret of Father Brown
“It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions.”
-Father Brown, The Chief Mourner of Marne
“”But how hard it is for ugliness to rise against beauty. And we are an ugly lot!”
-Four Faultless Felons
“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”
“Children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”
“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
Vive Christus Rex!