Learning to Read Chesterton

Learning to Read Chesterton May 30, 2013

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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