Learning to Read Chesterton

A couple of days ago, in drawing a contrast to Pope Francis, National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters remarks that Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput may love God, but often seems not to like people. I see his point. It’s easy to imagine Chaput, for all his good qualities, starting each day by spelling out A-N-A-T-H-E-M-A in his Alpha-Bits. But Winters can be quite the crab in his own right. Get him started on one of his pet peeves, and you’ll see why he got out of the restaurant business. When diners order a taco pizza, they don’t like for the manager to dismiss their order as “post-modernist drivel,” or throw a plate of roughage at their heads.

None of this is meant to knock Winters, or for that matter, Chaput. After struggling to play the pundit for two years, I’ve finally figured out that whoever commits himself to commenting on the world, is bound to sound pretty cranky. The world’s that rotten. Absent an extraordinary talent, an observer is reduced to prophetic bluster, sarcasm, or some combination of the two. After a while, any of those is bound to sound monotonous, to make a reader feel like someone’s slamming his head in a car door.

Only after gaining this understanding the hard way do I feel qualified to pay a proper tribute to G.K. Chesterton, whose 140th birthday was yesterday. Whatever else the big guy was, he was not monotonous — at least not in the sense of sharing a style or a tone with any other English-language writer of his time. Throughout the Boer War, the Great War, and the rise of Bolshevism — events as grim as any in our headlines — he remained cheery, whimsical, and wildly imaginative. Best of all, he always seemed to like people.

While cuffing his age’s “negative spirit” in Heretics, he lets slip why he, a Christian moralist, sees fit to manage this trick. When people lose their faith, they also lose their ideals. Only morbidity, an obsessive dwelling on the worst-case scenario, remains as a motivating force. He writes: “A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease,” or “He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary.” Chesterton, the confirmed believer, preferred the second.

And, bless his heart, Chesterton found Virgin Marys everywhere. In “A Piece of Chalk,” he writes of tramping out to the moors with colored chalks and brown paper to do some sketching. Realizing none of his chalks are white disappoints him terribly. To him, white representes the positive force of religious virtue — “God paints in many colors; but he never paints so gorgeously…as when He paints in white.” After a moment’s panic, he realizes that the white chalk he craves so much is right beneath him, in bulk — southern England’s cliffs are made out of it. And I say to myself: What a wonderful world…

Plenty of readers could school me on Chesterton’s life, the evolution of his thought, his relationship with Hilaire Belloc, his marriage, his glands, etc. etc. I’m writing here not as an expert, or even as a fan, but as someone who’s tried to flee him and failed. Years ago, when I ran across a couple of his short pieces in Philip Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay, I had no idea that I would one day find him ubiquitous. But in the world of Catholic letters, that’s exactly what he is. If you can go from sunup till sundown without seeing him quoted somewhere, then either: 1) you’re not looking very hard; or 2) all the writers are away on retreat.

Last winter, a First Things contributor named Elliot Milco snapped and posted a blog entry titled “Against Chesterton Quotations.” His point was that the lines that charm readers most, and most often end up in Facebook profiles, are the ones that turn out, under scrutiny, not to make any sense. Milco’s right — Chesterton churned out no shortage of alluring crap. I remember reading his life of St. Francis and being brought up short by his assertion that the future friar’s father couldn’t have been a robber baron-type capitalist because he employed Francis, the last person anyone would choose to employ given other options.

“Whoa there, son,” I imagined telling the author. “Have you ever worked in retail? In any kind of sales? You can take it from me that it’s the one field where flakes with people skills can expect to make their fortunes.”

Chesterton’s writing put George Bernard Shaw through a few of these moments, especially when Shaw was the subject of it. In 1909, he answered Chesterton’s portrait of him with a laundry list of gripes: Chesterton had misquoted Major Barbara, mischaracterized his philosophy, read erroneous significance into his teetotaling. But Shaw prefaces his rant by admitting that the portrait’s resemblance to him has no more bearing on the its value “than whether Velasquez’s Philip was like Philip or Titian’s Charles like Charles.” Chesterton, like the man who sees a taxi as a chariot of fire and a cabbie as an angel, is “an observer of genius” — that’s the bottom line.

Chesterton scholars will probably insist there are more intelligent ways of reading him than as an observer whose frequent unreliability is a by-product of his dreamy brilliance. But that’s the way that makes most sense to me. His is a fun headspace to play in. When the subject is something so normally un-fun, or even anti-fun, as Catholicism, there are worse draws. In the summer of 2009, when I was thinking about joining the Dominicans, I fell in love with his vision of St. Francis as poet, adventurer, and beau ideal of chivalry. (How Chesterton, most avid purveyor of sentimental John Bull-shit since Shakespeare, missed Francis’ resemblance to Robin Hood, I’ll never know.) I was on the phone with the OFM’s Santa Barbara province while the book was still warm from my hands.

The idea that personality is the ultimate selling point, a commodity that will keep readers tuned in long after they’ve stopped believing more than half of what they read, is a dangerous one for a newbie writer to take into her head. If I were teaching journalism 20 years ago, I’d thrash it out of my students with a hickory switch. But now, with the entire publishing industry imploding, I’d pin a medal on anyone who wanted to be more than an aggregator and contextualizer of sensational news items. While writing for the popular press (cultivating work habits that would have put many bloggers, including me, to shame) and never compromising his accessibility, Chesterton remained determinedly, incurably original.

Jaron Lanier has warned that the Internet is creating a culture of “digital Maoism,” where producers of content learn to pander to the great mass of readers — and by extension, the lowest common denominator — or else. Endemic Chesterton-quoting may be a symptom of this, an unwelcome reminder that he, like Oscar Wilde, owes much of his popularity to the ease with which attractive sound bytes can be pried from his body of work and used toward whatever purpose. But Chesterton himself stands as a lively and lumpy reproach to all of it. For that, he’s earned his place, and his beer, in heaven.

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  • Zac

    I find the occasional outburst against GKC as strange as the animosity of the new atheists; so i can only assume, as a foreign observer, that GKC and Religion alike must be much more ‘in your face’ over in the US. Milco’s article was presented as a critique of Facebook quoters, but the author turned out to have a surprising hostility toward GKC on his own terms. In any case, it seemed strange to single out GKC quotations for special condemnation, unless every instance serves as a personal reminder that one doesn’t understand his writing and finds his relative celebrity unworthy and unwarranted.

    It’s actually really hard to quote Chesterton. I’m always tempted to quote larger and larger sections, because the context is so important. Here’s your reference: “The name of the father was Pietro Bernadone and he was a substantial
    citizen of the guild of the cloth merchants in the town of Assisi.
    It is hard to describe the position of such a man without
    some appreciation of such a guild and even of such a town.
    It did not exactly correspond to anything that is meant in modern
    times either by a merchant or a man of business or a tradesman,
    or anything that exists under the conditions of capitalism. Bernadone may
    have employed people but he was not an employer; that is; he did
    not belong to an employing class as distinct from an employed class.
    The person we definitely hear of his employing is his son Francis;
    who, one is tempted to guess, was about the last person that any man
    of business would employ if it were convenient to employ anybody else.
    He was rich, as a peasant may be rich by the work of his own family;
    but he evidently expected his own family to work in a way almost
    as plain as a peasant’s. He was a prominent citizen, but he belonged
    to a social order which existed to prevent him being too prominent
    to be a citizen. It kept all such people on their own simple level,
    and no prosperity connoted that escape from drudgery by which in
    modern times the lad might have seemed to be a lord or a fine
    gentleman or something other than the cloth merchant’s son.”

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Ha! I do find all the Chesteron acolytes irritating. Time to think for yourself, folks. (Not you Max; you don’t seem like the acolyte type.) I’ve not read a lot of Chesterton, so I can’t appraise his work. I did read his novel The Man Who Was Thursday earlier this year and found it enjoyable, but I can’t say I would place it in the “great” catagory. Father Brown stories are charming, but not more than that. I guess his greatness rests on his social commentary and apologetics. Can you recommend a work or two I should take up? What would I like?

  • Michael

    The real difference is between just copy-and-pasting in a “quote”, and actually reading the whole piece, understanding it, and illustrating what you understood with a quote. Most “Chesterton quoting” is clearly the former.

  • Michael

    Zac, you should be writing the Chesterton blog posts.

  • TheReluctantWidow

    I have to admit, the only Chesterton I have been able to read are The Father Brown stories. I began reading Everlasting Man at my husband’s suggestion but I am just too dumb. However, I truly enjoyed the cleverness and intelligence in Father Brown.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I think his penultimate was All Things Considered. Written originally as a series of essays for the newspaper, it makes even the robotic audiobook version at librivox quite, well, it’s Chesterton so I have to say paradoxal.

  • zmayhem

    It’s actually really hard to quote Chesterton. I’m always tempted to
    quote larger and larger sections, because the context is so important.

    Oh, yes, yes, so much yes! When I first discovered Chesterton I used to drive my mom nuts by calling her to say, “Listen to this great thing he said… No, wait, I need to go back a few lines so you can get it… Well, no, you actually don’t get the impact of that last sentence without the whole paragraph… How much time do you have? Can I just start from the beginning of the chapter?”

    It reminds me of the playwright character in Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell, who was asked by an interviewer what one of his plays meant and, in trying to answer, ended up reading the whole thing out loud.

  • zmayhem

    His book on Aquinas is quite good, and parts of The Napoleon of Notting Hill are gloriously, comically absurdist (literally absurdist — I read it once while doing an Ionesco play and there were chunks of it you could have inserted right into the play and nobody would have batted an eye).

    Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are probably not very convincing apologetics to anyone who isn’t already convinced, but they’re both written with such energy and good will and sheer pleasure in being a human, alive in the world and playing with language, that they’re great reads even if they are not, strictly speaking, great.

    But I may be kind of an acolyte — I do love Thursday, dearly; I stumbled on it by accident in the middle of a sort of slow-motion nervous breakdown, and it was a literal lifeline. Still the only book I’ve ever bought that I can remember exactly where and when I got it and where I was when I first read it. But in the decades since, I’ve only ever managed to get maybe five people to read it. One of them stayed up all night devouring it and then called me the next morning to say, “I give up. This is the only book I’ve ever wanted to write my whole life, and somebody else already wrote it” (he’s since written two of his own), and the other four thought it was… adequate, but meh.

    So I hesitate to recommend any Chesterton to anyone, because I’m clearly somehow skewed; but I think the Aquinas book might be okay. Or almost any of the collections of essays, which are all short and brisk and easy to hop and skim through looking for something that catches your eye and mind.

  • Christina

    Max, where did you go? I am waiting for your next post! Hope all is well.

  • Caspar

    “Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are probably not very convincing apologetics to anyone who isn’t already convinced, but they’re both written with such energy and good will and sheer pleasure in being a human, alive in the world and playing with language, that they’re great reads even if they are not, strictly speaking, great.”

    Not so!


    “Lewis recalls the impact of reading The Everlasting Man in his autobiographical workSurprised by Joy, “In reading Chesterton…I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” If Lewis had wished to remain an atheist, he should have left Chesterton’s books alone. I, for one, am thankful that he did not.Among the multiple influences that shaped Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, Chesterton looms large. In fact, in response to one writer in 1947 who asked for an apologetics resource, Lewis wrote, “As for books, the very best popular defense of the full Christian position I know is G.K. Chesterton The Everlasting Man.” While Chesterton’s impact was lasting, it was initially met with bewilderment:

    “I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love.” (Surprised by Joy, 190)”…”