Saturday 8 April 2006

GK Chesterton

[From my review, awaiting publication, of Fr Ian Ker's 'The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961'.]

Fr Ker 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, second, 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. And 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 third, 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 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."
Fr Ker traces these themes in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. The former presents Catholicism, in profoundly Dickensian terms, as "that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly termed romance", which meets the need "so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome." Yet so to view the world is precisely to realise "that there is something the matter", which is why pagans have always been "conscious of the Fall if they were conscious of nothing else", since (and this is obviously much more controversial) Original Sin "in the only part of Christian theology which can be proved," so that "the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition", but rather "the normal itself is an abnormality." Once again, this is like Postmodernism, only older, wiser, better.
Better not least because, for Chesterton, it was this view of the world’s flawed goodness that made Dickens a social reformer, since he recognised people’s degraded dignity. One is made by Christianity "fond of this world, even in order to change it", in contrast to simple (one might say, Whig or Marxist) optimism or simple pessimism (such as that of much of the political Right), each of which discourages reform. We have to "hate [the world] enough to want to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing", for it is "at once an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet our own cottage, to which we can return at evening."
Such was the view of Dickens and of Chesterton; and such is the Christian view, uniquely, as all its critics unwittingly concede by simultaneously accusing it both of excessive optimism and of excessive pessimism. Chesterton presciently predicted that an age of unbelief would be an age of conservatism (in the worst sense), whereas for the orthodox "in the hearts of men, God has been put under the feet of Satan, so that there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration." Furthermore, "A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary for rebelling", since "a fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any sort of revolution."
Chesterton extends this concept of limits as necessary to freedom, to the explicitly theological. Liberal Protestants are most illiberal, wishing to diminish rather than to increase the number of miracles, and to disbelieve in things rather than to believe in them, so as to curtail "the liberty of God." Orthodoxy is here the limit necessary for liberty: Calvinism reserved it to God; and now scientific materialism, in succession, "binds the Creator Himself". But Catholicism holds to the spiritual freedom both of God and of Man, whence we proceed onto the familiar ground of "the democracy of the dead" and all that.
Fr Ker shows these themes as continued in Chesterton’s books on Chaucer, and on Saint Francis of Assisi, who stands against the evolutionary or pantheistic view of nature as "a solemn Mother", instead recognising her as "a little dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved." Supremely, though, they are re-expressed in Saint Thomas Aquinas (1933). That Doctor gave it its definitive philosophical formulation, since "the primary or fundamental Part" of Thomism "or indeed the Catholic Philosophy" is "the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World."
Alas that Chesterton defines Aquinas against the Christianised Neoplatonism of the Augustinian illuminist tradition, rather than recognising Thomism’s Christianised Aristotelianism as nevertheless belonging within, and greatly enriching, that tradition. Had Chesterton done this, then he would have been quite astonishingly prescient in this as in so many other areas. However, what Chesterton writes about Thomism as the definitive philosophical articulation of the world-view that he shares, and argues convincingly was shared by Dickens, is of course entirely correct.
What would it mean to revisit each of the great public intellectuals, from Dr Johnson onwards, on Chesterton’s terms? How might one re-read each Dickens novel in turn in the light of Chesterton’s insights? What else may be re-read, or re-understood in any other medium, in that same light, as standing in that same tradition? Is The Man Who Was Thursday really so "slight" a novel? Is Chesterton really only a minor poet? Cannot the things that can be said about Belloc’s prescience with regard to the study of the Reformation also be said about Chesterton’s Short History of England?
And what of Thomism as the perennial philosophy of the Dickensian-Chestertonian world-view, as it surely is? Thomism is now recognised as within and not opposed to Augustinianism. Meanwhile, the late Holy Father in 'Fides et Ratio' commends at once Thomism (paragraphs 43 and 44) and the works of Newman, Rosmini, Stein and Russians of various stripes alongside Maritain and Gilson (paragraph 74), not to mention engagement with Indian and other non-Western philosophies (paragraph 73).

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