Wednesday, September 21, 2011

GK Chesterton

A good article by Jay Parini about Chesterton in... The Chronicle of Higher Education. This mainstream attention to GKC might be due to the publication of a new major biography, by Ian Ker, followed by featured articles in the Times Literary Supplement and, I suppose, other outlets of the literary world. This is all good news. Chesterton is a delight to read, especially when he is at his best, which I would consider to be in Heretics and in  Orthodoxy (both are available online, for free - if you follow these links). But it would be mightily unfair to reduce the mighty Chesterton to only these two gems, and not mention his brilliant book on Thomas Aquinas, about which the eminent Tomist scholar Etienne Gilson said decades later,

I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a "clever" book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called "wit" of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. [source]
A typical anecdote about GKC is that he never actually read the Summa from cover to cover, but only browsed through it; but that was enough, because he understood it, in the deeper meaning of the word; he understood it, because his mind worked like Aquinas' - it understood the whole of existence, and how all things fit within it.

And let us not ignore the superb detective stories featuring Father Brown - stories that are both entertaining and philosophical (a common-sense philosophy, accessible to any and all, by virtue of existing).  Or my favorite novel from him, The Flying Inn; or the famous and avant-la-lettre surrealist The Man Who Was Thursday.

Returning to the Chronicle piece, what is interesting about it is that it reveals, inadvertently, some of the academic biases of the moment; the author has to couch his praises in terms that we could consider, with a bit of effort and exaggeration, Marxist or postmodernist. Thus, he needs to underline that GKS stood up for the poor - against the rich, certainly; that he "questioned facts and reality" - how Postmodern! This, in order to assuage the readers' possible, automaton-like reactions to the perceived "conservatism" of Chesterton.

It is sad, sad indeed, that readers and writers can not think outside these ideological boxes dominating our times - and certainly the world of letters, and the academia. Terms that have little meaning, of course, and that fail to account for reality. Terms that are bound by space and time - the understanding of these terms in America is not the same as their meaning in Europe, let alone Africa or Asia; these terms are all part of a tiny little stretch of time in history, namely the post- industrial revolution age, and would make little sense outside of it (was Aristotle a conservative? a liberal? but how about Augustine? ... how silly).

The good news is that Chesterton is not reducible to these puny terms (of derision, I would say). Not even politically per se. As Parini mentions, even politically Chesterton stood for something else that the two twin embodiments of modern materialism, namely socialism and capitalism. He is, after all, one of the "founding fathers" of Distributism, which is a view of society and economy that is rooted in the recognition of the dignity and freedom of the individual, and of the intrinsic value of community and of localism. But by now I am starting (???) to sound dry and empty, so I will leave it at that, about politics.        

What is more important is that Chesterton is not the author of, but the expression of, something greater - a view of the universe and of the human being inhabiting it that is comprehensive, common-sense and, briefly put, true. A view that is realistic and idealistic at the same time - but a healthy idealism, the realistic idealism of fairy tales, not that of dreams and nightmares (as exemplified in Marxism, Fascism, and all the other ideologies). Fairy tales teach us essential truths about the human condition  (there is much death and suffering in them; the hero fights evil, in fairy tales), are optimistic, and, most of all, are filled with wonder - just like existence! Existence is filled with wonder, and this child-like (and not childish!) wonder is the deep root of Chesterton's optimistic, yet at the same time thoroughly realistic, view of human existence.

A joy to read, an even greater joy to discover GK Chesterton.


Finally, here is a good list of GKC works available on the web (yes, gratis).

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