Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Man Who Was Thursday On The Man Who Saved Christmas

In The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, Fr Ian Ker of Oxford proposes "a new way of looking at Chesterton’s literary achievement which has gone by default." He sees the author of the Father Brown stories, and even of The Man Who Was Thursday, as "a fairly slight figure". But Chesterton the non-fiction writer is "a successor of the great Victorian "sages" or "prophets", who was indeed compared to Dr Johnson in his own lifetime, and who can be mentioned without exaggeration in the same breath as Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold and especially, of course, Newman."

Fr Ker identifies Charles Dickens (1906) both as Chesterton’s best work and as the key to understanding his Catholicism. "It is a typically Chestertonian paradox that while Dickens was nothing if not ignorant of and prejudiced against Catholicism as well as the Middle Ages, it is his unconsciously Catholic and Mediaeval ethos that is the heart of Chesterton’s critical study."

First, Chesterton’s Dickens celebrated the ordinary, and rejoiced in sheer living and even sheer being. He was originally a "higher optimist" whose "joy is in inverse proportion to the grounds for so rejoicing," because he simply "falls in love with" the universe, and "those love her with most intensity who love her with least cause." Hence the exaggeration of Dickens’s caricatures, expressing both the heights of the highs and the depths of the lows in the life of one who looks at the world in this way.

For, secondly, Dickens created "holy fools": Toots in Dombey and Son, Miss Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend, the Misses Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, to name but a few. Dickens also "created a personal devil in every one of his books," figures with the "atrocious hilarity" of gargoyles. In either case, since the everyday world is so utterly extraordinary and extraordinary things so much a part of the everyday, so the absurd is utterly real and the real is utterly absurd. Postmodern, or what? Read Dickens, then read Chesterton on Dickens, and then re-read Dickens: who needs wilful French obscurantism in the name of ‘irony’?

And thirdly, then, Dickens was the true successor of Merry England, unlike his "pallid" contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites and "Gothicists", whose "subtlety and sadness" was in fact "the spirit of the present day" after all. It was Dickens who "had the things of Chaucer": "the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England"; "story within story, every man telling a tale"; and "something openly comic in men’s motley trades".

Dickens’s defence of Christmas was therefore a fight "for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian", i.e., for "that trinity of eating, drinking and praying that to moderns appears irreverent", unused as the modern mind is to "the holy day which is really a holiday."

Dear reader, may you eat, drink and pray most merrily.

As, indeed, will I.

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