You may--if you read the comments--have noticed a little exchange last week with BMH, who mentioned that, while he'd read GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy a dozen times, he now regarded Chesterton as using his flamboyant rhetoric to camouflage his fundamental hollowness. To quote Gertrude Stein, he could wonder if, with Chesterton, there was a there there.He brought that up because I'd quoted Chesterton twice within the week, once to kick off our series of posts about sex. I'm sympathetic to BMH's point, as I'll expound upon in a moment. But, in a breather from our posts on sex, I wondered if some of you might enjoy hearing just a bit more about this one-of-a-kind writer.
He was one-of-a-kind for just the reasons BMH mentions. Many have tried to imitate Chesterton's style, but he pretty much patented it himself: a blend of self-conscious humor and paradox, a love of whimsical metaphor, and a kind of forceful bluster.So, a few "for instances." Here's one of his most famous lines from his greatest book, the afore-mentioned Orthodoxy:
If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.
He was one of the authors solicited by The London Times to contribute to their series of essays on the subject "What's Wrong with The World." Here's the essay he submitted.
Dear Sirs:I am.
I think it was a statement about sin.
By the time he wrote his late-in-life autobiography (he died at 63), he'd been in endless debates with his secular opponents and was getting a little cranky at their constant sneering at the unthinking, unquestioning credulity of religious people. Here’s the first sentence of his Autobiography.
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington.
But I’ll stop. The fun with writing about Chesterton is the chance to quote him endlessly.A word on who he was. He was a journalist and writer on religion who was entering his prime at the turn of the 20th century, in London. CS Lewis credited Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man with playing a key role in his conversion and Lewis shows some marks of being a Chesterton devotee. Chesterton, like Lewis, was famously obese.
(I can’t resist a few of his own lines about his obesity. During the First World War, a disapproving old lady said to him, “Young man, why aren’t you at the front?” His reply: “Madam, if you walk around to the front of me, you’ll see that I am.” And—I’m quoting this from memory—he had a give and take with his friend, the great playwright and atheist writer, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was a vocal (what we could call today) vegan and was rail-thin. [Shaw lived to, I believe, 94 and once said it would take an accident to kill him, because his body would never give out. He died from a fall from a ladder.] In one of their public debates, Chesterton looked at Shaw and said, “Sir, if a foreign visitor were to see you, he’d think that all England was in famine.” Shaw’s reply: “Sir, if the same visitor were to see you, he’d think that you caused it.”)
BMH isn’t the first person by a long shot to suggest that Chesterton’s flashy prose conceals an emptiness. Many of his opponents in his own era doubted that he was even a person of faith. For one, they thought he was too smart to believe what he was writing (did I mention they were prone to sneering?). But, secondly, his rhetoric was so flashy and deft that he could feel hard to pin down. Was it all a big put-on?
I don’t want to put words in BMH’s mouth, but one of you, responding to BMH, wondered how he could read Orthodoxy a dozen times if he regarded it as so “hollow.” I could be wrong, but I feel like I know exactly how he could do that.
The first time I read Orthodoxy, I was astounded at its boldness and its humor, but I always felt I was on the very edge of understanding what Chesterton was saying. I knew that great minds like Lewis had regarded it as being a very great book. I knew that Chesterton, along with Thomas Merton (another tough kettle of fish) was regarded as one of the two great non-pope Western Catholic writers of the last century. So I went back to it a couple years later. Again, I was even more taken with his deft, bold prose and understood it about 20% more. By this time, I’d started to read a little more Chesterton, so I had some context. A couple years ago, I read Orthodoxy for probably the fifth time. And I had a crashing crisis of confidence. By this time I’d been around—let me be delicate with this—a few blowhards who, it seemed to me, loved the sounds of their own voice. Was Chesterton just one of these? He was so bombastic and he wrote so much (I have his collected works on my Kindle—we’re talking about 200 books) and not everything was so worth reading.
But I went back to Orthodoxy one more time this fall (I’m working on a book in which he might play some small part) and I repented. This time—maybe I needed six passes at it—every word struck me as genius. Mysticism? ( As we were talking about last week.) Chesterton may be the world’s first and only slovenly hard-smoking and drinking mystic. But, very much on Richard Rohr’s terms and beyond, it seems to me the man is a mystic. A man of faith firmly ensconced in the larger culture? He’s perhaps the greatest of these of the last couple hundred years. A spiritual director? Orthodoxy, to my mind, has a ton to recommend it on those terms. A defense of faith from more than a few very unexpected directions? Check.
I’ve read, multiple times, just about everything CS Lewis ever wrote. (Okay, I haven’t taken on some of his academic material—A Study in Words, and so on.) I’m assuming many of you love Lewis. I defy you to have given more time to Lewis than I have. And yet, from my current vantage point, I feel like (gulp) I’ve mastered Lewis. I can’t imagine going back to that well anytime soon. Chesterton? It’s hard to imagine hitting that point anytime soon.
I’m not sure how to solicit your thoughts here, but, of course, I’d love them if you have any. Clearly if you’ve read Chesterton and have opinions, fire away. Or if this meditation stirs anything in your of any sort, let’s hear it.