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Friday, June 10, 2011

Chesterton

Sir James Gunn (1893-1964)
Conversation piece
1932
Oil on canvas
59 1/2 in. x 43 1/2 in. (1511 mm x 1105 mm)
The National Portrait Gallery, London

To celebrate Belloc's 60th birthday, Gunn painted the work which was exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1932

Left to right are: Gilbert Keith ('G.K.') Chesterton (1874-1936), Maurice Baring (1874-1945), and (Joseph) Hilaire Pierre Belloc (1870-1953)

It should be compared to a portrait photograph below taken in 1932 by Paul Ferdinand Anton Laib and which is also in The National Portrait Gallery in London

Paul Ferdinand Anton Laib (1869-1958)
(Joseph) Hilaire Pierre Belloc; Gilbert Keith ('G.K.') Chesterton; Unknown man
1932
Vintage print
8 1/8 in. x 6 1/4 in. 207 mm x 157 mm
The National Portrait Gallery, London

Like Belloc, Chesterton as journalist, poet, novelist and critic was celebrated in the early twentieth century. Such was his fame he even made it to a popular "Hall of Fame": the cigarette card.

Alick P.F. Ritchie (1868-1938)
Gilbert Keith ('G.K.') Chesterton
1926
Cigarette card
The National Portrait Gallery, London

Larger than life, Chesterton was a phenomenon which is probably difficult for many to realise and appreciate. He was a "celebrity" in his time but when the word had a different meaning from what it has today. Fame reflected reputation, honour, ability and achievement. An entirely different notion from being known or being notorious.

He was frequently paired with Belloc. Indeed George Bernard Shaw used to refer to them as “Chesterbelloc"

There are now two recent biographies of Chesterton which have been reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement

Both are by authors who have well earned reputations in the British Catholic world and elsewhere.

The first is by the distinguished Newman scholar, Ian Ker and entitled G. K. CHESTERTON : A biography 747pp. Oxford University Press. £35 (US $65)

The other is a deliberately lesser work but still impressive in its terms. It is a collection of essays and edited by the Catholic Herald`s William Oddie and entitled THE HOLINESS OF G. K. CHESTERTON 152pp. Gracewing. Paperback, £9.99 (£17.99).

At his Requiem Mass Monsignor Ronald Knox said of Chesterton:

'Blessed are they that saw him and were honoured by his friendship. They found in him a living example of charity, of chivalry, of unbelievable humility which will remain with them, perhaps as a more effective document of Catholic verity than any word even he wrote.'


Pope Pius XI sent a telegram describing him as a ‘gifted defender of the Catholic Faith’

The campaign has started to have a cause of canonisation opened for him.

I first started to read Chesterton when I was ten when I was given The Collected Father Brown which I read twice in sharp succession

The TLS review is by Bernard Manzo who is a freelance writer and editor based in London. The review is a remarkable work, a profound essay on Chesterton, his thought and beliefs.

If you do not read the books under  review, do read the review which will make you want to read Chesteron`s words and perhaps know something more about the man himself.

Of his Christian faith, Manzo writes:

"Any attempt to assess the achievement of Chesterton must, ultimately, involve a judgement on his “silly exuberance”.

Such a judgement is relevant not only to the question of whether there is much of substance in his philosophy, but to the question of whether one can speak of him as a “mystic”, for his “optimism”, or, better, his loyalty to existence, first emerged out of an experience he described, in a letter to his friend E. C. Bentley, as an experience of “speaking to God face to face”.

In his Autobiography (1936), he wrote of a period in his life when, as a student at the Slade School of Art, he had been overcome with a “mood of unreality and sterile isolation”.

The dominant artistic mode of the time was Impressionism, and Chesterton believed that the technique of seeking to render things as immediately perceived implied the “metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all”, a philosophy close to the “philosophy of Illusion”.

Influenced by this attitude, he thought his way to a “denial of fundamental things”. While “dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind”. The traces of this experience are preserved in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a “nightmare” vision of an attempt by a philosophical detective to unmask a group of anarchists, in which there is not so much a narrative as a sequence of vivid scenes, with each scene in succession being shown to be illusory, and with the sequence of images culminating in a question about the ultimate nature of the world: is everything – as the experience of “nightmare” might suggest – ultimately absurd?

Chesterton threw off this “incubus” of extreme doubt when he recognized that “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting . . . . Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare”; and existence becomes all the more “exciting”, when its otherness, its reality, is recognized: “how much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

Chesterton chose to be happy, and it was a choice that made it possible for him to believe in something more than personal choice, to get out “in the open” and to believe in objective reality.

In Orthodoxy, his first complete articulation of his religious beliefs, he defended Christianity as creating a particular state of existence – a sense of life as a “romance”, in which one can “contrive to be astonished at the world and yet at home in it”. It secured this way of living by appealing to something beyond human existence: that is, it established the dignity of human life through the idea of a God who so transcended the world as to be capable of becoming, in Christ, one with it.

Chesterton sought to show that Christianity sustained forms of life that other philosophies tended to destroy; it was not proved by this, but if one were predisposed to value these forms of life, one would be disposed to accept Christianity, or, rather, one might already have a degree of implicit belief in Christianity. In an essay written a few years before Orthodoxy, Chesterton maintained that to make aesthetic experience the supreme value was to render oneself incapable of aesthetic experience; one could only take pleasure in something as simple as sparks flying from a bonfire if one lived in a certain way:

“the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see . . . . That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues . . . . Be really bad, and they will be to you like the spots on a wall-paper”.

Dogmas, for Chesterton, create thought; they create the possibility of argument, and perception (“with this idea once inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them”). Whether one accepts or rejects Christianity, one must ultimately avail oneself of dogma (“every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly”); so that one cannot so much prove the dogmas of Christianity as show that the alternative dogmas (of materialism, fatalism or whatever) issue in absurdities and contradictions, and that the dogmas of Christianity sustain values that would be lost if those values were affirmed in isolation.

To affirm, for instance, the total autonomy of reason could be to destroy reason – because reason can doubt itself, and annihilate itself. One must have faith in reason. To affirm the goodness of the world might be to countenance a kind of quietism; but Christianity affirms all at once the goodness of the world, its separateness from the highest good, and its fallenness from its own intrinsic perfection: the world is good, but one must fight for goodness in this world – we must “hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing”.

More than that, for Chesterton, Christianity maintained a balance between potentially competing ideas and values – indeed, potentially dangerous ideas and values – and the achievement of this balance was in itself an intimation of its divinity.

Reflecting, in Orthodoxy, on the “gigantesque” and wild “diction” of Christ – “full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea” – Chesterton remarked that “Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other”, and that “the one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it, is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis”. The danger here is that one might call mere contradiction “mystery”; but Chesterton took the view that the reasonableness of the “startling synthesis” of Christianity could be shown by its making sense of experience as a whole, where other philosophies issued in contradictions, or in a denial of certain aspects of common experience.

For Chesterton, the mysteries of Christianity made sense of common sense."


Of Chesteron and literature, music and the arts, the reviewer writes:

"Chesterton considered that the office of art was to reveal reality by transforming it: the “object of the artistic and spiritual life” is to “dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy”.

His criticism was very much an exploration of the nature of things, and an articulation of his own philosophy, and his greatest works of criticism – the works on Browning, Chaucer, and, above all, Dickens – were efforts to show how these artists had got something right about the way things are.

In Heretics (1905), he discusses several contemporary writers not “in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach”, insisting that one could not treat the aesthetic as something apart from “doctrine”; yet he did not reduce artistic works to philosophical statements, and sought always to discern how artistic forms showed something that could not be shown in any other way. There was, indeed, something quasi-aesthetic in his response to Christianity – his sense that its strangeness fitted the “oddities of life”, that it was “like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years” – and he celebrated Christianity as the “philosophy of stories”: by affirming the reality of human freedom, and by declaring the world to have a meaning, Christianity declared life to be like a story, and stories to be true to how things are"

But of the man himself, Chesteron was a happy and joyful man and always filled with hope:

"G. K. Chesterton once said that he had been “indefensibly” happy for most of his life.

There is a note, not simply of happiness, but of joy, in much of what he wrote; but what meaning should one give to this happiness? Is there a self-delighting, whimsical, even wilful obliviousness in the merriness of Chesterton? Was he just a bit silly?

T. S. Eliot once said that he found the cheerfulness of Chesterton entirely “depressing”.

Yet Chesterton claimed that his levity came from his deepest beliefs: “Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy”.

That is, of course, the sort of thing that Chesterton often said, the sort of thing not likely to satisfy anyone in a captious mood. (T. S. Eliot had been a Christian for just under a year when he said that he found Chesterton depressing; but then it is difficult to imagine Eliot ever being wholly in sympathy with the high spirits of Chesterton.) It could be that Chesterton saw Christianity as “jolly” because he was temperamentally inclined to be cheerful; but it could also be that this made him responsive to something essential in Christianity.

The happiness of Chesterton came not from anything in particular but from everything in particular.

For Chesterton, the best thing to rejoice in is everything – existence itself – and to contemplate existence, to realize in a “sunlight of surprise” that there is something when there need not be anything, is to experience joy. While this joy is of a transcendent character – a response not to a definite situation but to the very existence of things – it depends on the particularity of things, because it is in seeing what makes each thing itself that one can delight in its very existence. This joy is “a certain silly exuberance” – “silly” in every sense, including the older senses of “simple”, “innocent”.

It was a joy that Chesterton could see in St Francis of Assisi, who “understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing”. To perceive existence against nothingness, to realize that reality “stands on nothing”, is to see the “whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God”: it is to realize that existence is a free gift from God, and it is to become capable of gratitude to God. ...

Belloc praised Chesterton in his essay “On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters” for his “supreme talent for exact logic”, his “precision in reasoning”; yet the real power of Chesterton is something other than “precision in reasoning”; it has more to do with sudden insights and realizations, and with the evocation of a sense that one should expect much of the world, that one should expect it to mean something.

He said of himself, “I have had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness . . . . Existence is still a strange thing to me and as a stranger I give it welcome”. In the mid 1890s, he jotted down in a private notebook the reflection

"there is one thing which gives radiance to everything, streets, houses, lamp posts, communities, politics, lives –
It is the idea of something round the corner."
In the same notebook he asks the question

"Have you ever known what it is to walk
Along the road in such a frame of mind
That you thought you might meet God at any turn of the path?"

It was a mood that he would seek to evoke in many of his writings over the following decades and was a mood for which he saw the justification in Christianity. Perhaps this is simply to say that the greatest of the gifts of Chesterton was hope."



For more about Chesterton the man and his works see The Internet Archive

See also