Professor Ker’s spirited and double-barreled attempt at a rehabilitation of his cherished subject is enjoyable in its own right, and takes in such matters as Chesterton’s dialectical genius for paradox, the authority of the Father Brown stories in the detective genre, and the salience of Charles Dickens in the English canonical one. But for him to show that his hero was the protagonist of a superior form of English democratic virtue, Ker would have to meet me where we are at agreement: on the high quality of Chesterton’s poems. It’s at exactly this sublime point, though, that he comes undone.
In his obituary, T. S. Eliot alluded to GKC’s capacity for “first-rate journalistic balladry,” and this high praise I think almost insufficient, because it understates his magic faculty of being unforgettable. Selecting from “one of his handful of good serious poems,” Ker makes important use of “Lepanto,” the verses of which Chesterton employed to mark off a certain English Protestant memory from a Roman Catholic one. Inspired by GKC’s friend Father John O’Connor, the poem shows how the great 1571 battle of the papacy against the Ottoman Porte was, and is, a minor Rorschach blot for a discrepant national memory.
Aiming off an early line (“The cold queen of England is looking in the glass”) as a kind of establishing shot, Chesterton presses on to conscript all the images of sullen northern Protestant indifference in the face of the sultan’s mobilization:
St. Michael’s on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,—
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
In one rather gallant stave, then, the finer aspects of Christendom detach themselves from the frigid dogmas of the Reformation, and reproclaim the magnificence of the Crusades. In a separate but intimately related poem, “The Secret People” (the historic refrain of which is “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget / For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”), Chesterton summarizes the woes and dispossessions of his fellow-countrymen in this way:
Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed stuck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain.
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires ride slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land and still it is not we.
A tribute by Atlantic literary and national editor Benjamin Schwarz
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic
A collection of writings by and about the late writer
Thus, and in a few small phrases, Chesterton hopelessly undermines his own project of defending England against the secular pallor of Protestantist greed. Instead, by making it seem as if they were to be condemned for their neutrality and abstention at Lepanto, he confines his chosen people inside the enclave that had been fashioned for them by some rather strict Catholic intellectuals: intellectuals who were later to get themselves on the wrong side of Europe’s most important quarrel by being shady on the question of Fascism. (Professor Ker somewhat confidingly, if not devastatingly from his own viewpoint, adds that this poem “could hardly have been more Catholic in its view of English history.”) One might also note that Chesterton wrote his jaw-dropping line about the “cringing Jew” at a time when England was becoming preoccupied by the so-called Marconi case, involving the “scandal” of Jewish commerce in politics, and thus helped to cement the idea that there was a connection between the two. At any rate, I don’t think even the best of the poetic quotations can redeem Chestertonianism from the reactionary implications of the prosaic ones: they put one too much in mind of another critique of his work by T. S. Eliot. Reviewing him on Robert Louis Stevenson in 1927, Eliot found him suffering “under a misunderstanding that we are not likely to labor under,” “attacking misconceptions which we had not heard of and in which we are not interested,” and putting forth “a style exasperating to the last point of endurance.”
Chesterton’s overbuilt reputation for paradox was founded on his Paradox of Conservatism, which was to the effect that if you want to be a conservative, you had better not be too much of one. He gave us this, which he deemed to be a distillation of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “theory of development”:
All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.
But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
(One wishes, as on other occasions, that he had not reserved his recommendation of brevity until the last. The old buzzard could be a master of prolixity.)
So there was GKC’s enduring problem. Instead of occupying massive portions of the landscape (“there came a sound like that of Mr G. K. Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin”) for his meditative verses and polemics, he was compelled to be active so that his fellow reactionaries could be involved in something worth calling a movement. For an instance of the operations of paradox in practice, incidentally, we may examine the founding of the only movement that ever bore the name he gave it: that of “Distributism.” This scheme for a more equitable sharing of existing property took form in late 1926, the year of class convulsion that saw the defeat of the General Strike and the mobilization and demobilization of millions of British workers. The initial founders of the Distributist League could fit into one hall in the Strand, and could not at once decide upon a unifying name. An early suggestion was “The Cow and Acres,” which sounded to GKC rather too much like a pub. Another was “The League of the Little People,” which with its air of plaintive populism also retained the aura of a fairy glen. It was later generally agreed that the only genuine disagreement concerned the question of whether a true Distributist should also be a Roman Catholic.
GKC himself took heart from the launch of this frail bark, despising the niceties of theory and nomenclature because in his own mind an essential point had already been established. Disputes about machinery and capital were to be put on one side. The English people had already been shorn of their property rights before the advent of industrial capital. This is a clear reference to the lines, in “The Secret People,” about the “men of the new religion, with their Bibles in their boots,” who had “eaten the abbey’s fruits.” The Protestant Revolution, in other words, had been an act of theft and not an action of redistribution. To Chesterton’s bucolic conservatism, and his view that a certain kind of revolution was necessary to keep the counterrevolution in action, was to be added a working alliance with Roman Catholic conservatism. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, this was actually an unpromising initiative, as Chesterton failed to note when he traveled to Rome and saw Mussolini and formed the verdict that while Fascism could be criticized as hypocritical to the point of flagrance, the same could surely be said of liberal democracy. This shows the moth-eaten fringe of absurdity that always hung around his political reflections, as it did his vastly draped and histrionic form.
Let us try some of his other paradoxes and see how they hold up. The first one states that those who affirm that they conduct themselves by “the spirit of Christianity” rather than its outward dogmas do in fact keep “some of the words and terminology, words like Peace and Righteousness and Love; but they make these words stand for an atmosphere utterly alien to Christendom; they keep the letter and lose the spirit.” It would be just about as useful to say that GKC could re-infuse the higher concepts of faith by restoring them to upper and lower case: we are all fully familiar with the religious practitioner who can’t or doesn’t live up to the merits of his creed. There’s nothing innately paradoxical in that. Any solution, however, is a bit like the Golden Rule: the creed is only as morally strong as the person who happens to be uttering it. If Chesterton ever managed the feat of preserving the letter and the spirit, or knew anyone who had, or anyone who could temporarily separate letter and spirit, he would have done well to inform us. (Professor Ker, sadly, describes the above effort as “one of [Chesterton’s] most brilliant paradoxes.”)
Had he been tempted down to cases, GKC might have extracted more profit from his mischievous idea that the book of Job portrayed God as “paradoxically” atheist, but this, when compared with other and mightier speculations on that text, was a trifle thin. His American tour yielded a small handful of what one might call minor ironies or contradictions (he began ostentatiously to call himself “a democrat” and “an equal”), while on the larger point, he missed a critical chance. It was unfortunate, Chesterton asserted, that although America had “a great political idea … it had a small religious idea.” This came out as follows:
This ‘individualism in religion’ explained why Americans were not proper republicans in the sense of every man having ‘a direct relation to the realm or commonweal, more direct than he has to any masters or patrons in private life’: in America the individual made ‘good in trade, because it was originally the individual making good in goodness; that is, in salvation of the soul’.
One has immediately the sense of a big chance being forfeited, with the elements of paradox being discarded along the way. The opposition is not between a small and a large concept in any case, Mr. Chesterton, sir: the United States is its own guarantee of some kind of noble scale in the business. How annoying it is that a certain kind of English voice seems so determined to condescend to Americans. No, it is the simple ingenuity (if I might be allowed a paradoxical locution) of the Jefferson/Madison religious signpost, with its clearly made pointer to Danbury, Connecticut, that is so graspable by the minds of the simplest as well as the most superior persons. Given time, the symbol of a simple wall of separation has fashioned and established itself inside our own crania, so that almost every American has an approximate idea that they are entitled to a great degree of “freedom of,” as well as a marked amount of “freedom from,” with a good deal of debatable latitude in between. This is not a small or inert legacy.
Some of GKC’s other half-developed insights have the unintended result, like the post-Falstaffian bulk problem, of straining and breaking the branch on which he leaned for effect. (An irresistible digression: In 1908, GKC rented a house in Rye, East Sussex, adjacent to that of Henry James. James was aghast that such a mind was “imprisoned in such a body,” and the regular viewing of “the unspeakable Chesterton” with his awful pachydermatous silhouette horrified James, who otherwise admired GKC. To picture The Master in such a predicament …) He could not understand why anti-Catholics accused their foes of forming secret societies while forming them—like the KKK—in their own right. But this in turn meant that he never “got” the appeal of camp and sinister formations like Opus Dei.