Books March 2012

The Reactionary

The charming, sinister G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton hoped to show that the English had seen through the Protestant Reformation, and would survive it because they liked those who laughed. Yet the life of the great Samuel Johnson, we learn, was constrained because of “the absence of the pleasures of religion” in it. There’s something weirdly self-regarding about that formulation, especially coming as it does from a man who believed that the great English strength—deployed all along a rampart of joviality and confidence that extends from Chaucer’s Tabard Inn to Charles Dickens’s own prospect of Kent and the Medway—is founded on mirth. The sort of mirth that puffs away fanaticism and narrowness need have no connection to “the pleasures of religion.” Behind this crude camouflage, we can see being wheeled into position a large block of stone or paper, incised or authored by Cardinal John Henry Newman but helped along by Chesterton’s own main force, on which all the needs and promptings and moral suasions of the English people will need to be sternly written down. And yes, Messrs. Johnson and Dickens may well be casting around themselves for the exits. It may be true that the Protestant Reformation delivered the poor and the squires into the bondage of the “new, unhappy lords” who raised their grievous rent, but this does not mean any general English nostalgia for the old regime of throne and altar and the incineration of martyrs. And Chesterton did end up by wrestling his own block of moral admonition into shape, and publishing it as a sort of summa. Here’s Ker’s version of GKC’s account:

The previous year Chesterton had contributed a brief chapter to Twelve Modern Apostles and their Creeds, entitled ‘Why I am a Catholic’, which began with the assertion that there were ten thousand reasons, ‘all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true’. The Catholic Church simply was ‘catholic’—‘not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world … indeed larger than the world’. It was the only ‘corporate mind in the world’ that was ‘on the watch to prevent minds from going wrong.’ The Church, ‘looking out in all directions at once’, was ‘not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even of the present, but equally against those of the future, that may be the exact opposite of those of the present’. She carried ‘a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze’. Uniquely, she constituted ‘one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years’. The resulting map marked clearly ‘all the blind alleys and bad roads’.

Chesterton rested this on the relatively small paradox that few young people by then regarded the old wars and divisions of Christianity as important: one could be a Roman Catholic or Protestant almost as according to taste. (A brief pause for a moment to reflect on what it took to attain to that compromise after centuries of war and torment …) The idea of a body that actually did all the official thinking was probably not unrelated to the Mussolini concept of the corporate state. This would be repulsive to the English and American tradition. If there was a collectivity that “did” all the thinking, in England it was expressed in the definite skepticism concerning such matters as the Inquisition, the Spanish Armada, and the question of papal infallibility. In America it was still the durable sign system pointing to Danbury, Connecticut. In neither case was there any requirement for that minatory block of text or stone, forever guarding the outer doors of orthodoxy and unsleepingly seeking to entrap or expel the heretic and the dissident. The more that attempts were made to codify truth, the more elusive truth became. Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems that there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or the cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.

As to the durability or importance of GKC as a fictionist: the late Sir Kingsley Amis once told me that he reread The Man Who Was Thursday every year, and on one of his annual visitations wrote a tribute. That novel, with its evocation of eeriness and solitude, and its fascination with anonymity, has been credited by some with a share of influence on Franz Kafka. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is not in the same class, and may even be drawn to a meaner scale in order to attenuate the frame of “rights.” Father Brown I give up and return to you. The character is deliberately vacant and the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley. A figure named Father Bond makes a brief reappearance—the only one I think he merits—on what must be intended as the shelf of a good Catholic schoolboy in Amis père’s well-wrought anti-Vatican and anti-castration fantasy The Alteration. The debt is overwhelmingly to Conan Doyle, with no indebtedness to any of the great formulas of detective fiction. As a consequence, the little priest’s summings-up are usually arid and often iffy. When told of a minor crisis in his financial affairs, we are informed by Ker, the proprietor of G.K.’s Weekly would reply: “‘Oh, well. We must write another Father Brown story,’ and this would be done at lightning speed a day or two later from a few notes on the back of an envelope.” It showed, I fear. Evelyn Waugh may have been able to squeeze part of a Brideshead evening out of a phrase of Brown’s—about “a twitch upon the thread”—but my conjury is not equal to his.

Then at last we come to the sordid but inescapable question: Why did GKC feel the imperative to drape that drooping English squire in that cringing Jew? I could have done it in one blow, and simply said that Chesterton wrote and believed that Englishmen, if they wished to be “chosen” as public servants like Sir Rufus Isaacs, should agree to wear a different national dress and thus to signify their apartness. This was the direct ancestor of the Yellow Star, even if applied more selectively, and it made the same point: Jews were a foreign nation and should have a state of their own. GKC was more of a Christian Zionist than an anti-Semite, let alone an exterminationist or eliminationist one. Thus, one cannot quite place him in the Yellow Star camp as we have come to think of it.

But he and his fellow Distributists and other stray reactionaries did get themselves on the wrong side of the debate about Nazism. And they did so, furthermore, because of self-imposed blinders in their own view of matters ethnic and ideological and confessional. For instance, in search of a good taunt, Chesterton decided that the Protestant Reformation was originally Jewish! And that the concept of a “Chosen Race” came to us as a Jewish one; and, not content with this, that it also descended through Protestantism. Thus, through an obsession with the Covenant with Israel had come “the great Prussian illusion of pride, for which thousands of Jews have recently been rabbled or ruined or driven from their homes.” So that the laugh, here, comes at the expense of the Jews.

An even more extensive, not to say wild, rewriting of history involved GKC’s view that Hitlerism was a last attempt to Protestantize the old Bismarckian empire. Professor Ker has the integrity to step in at this stage, if only to adumbrate the fact that the führer who grabbed Austria as a limb of a future “Greater Germany” was himself an Austrian Catholic. But Chesterton would not be persuaded:

The racial pride of Hitlerism is of the Reformation by twenty tests; because it divides Christendom and makes all such divisions deeper; because it is fatalistic, like Calvinism, and makes superiority depend not upon choice but only on being of the chosen; because it is Caesaro-Papist, putting the State above the Church, as in the claim of Henry VIII; because it is immoral, being an innovator of morals touching things like Eugenics and Sterility; because it is subjective, in suiting the primal fact to the personal fancy, as in asking for a German God, or saying that the Catholic revelation does not suit the German temper; as if I were to say that the Solar System does not suit the Chestertonian taste. I do not apologise, therefore, for saying that this catastrophe in history has been due to heresy.

In that closing, Chesterton missed one or two opportunities for wit and ducked a couple of openings for a tu quoque (especially on the matter of Henry VIII and church-state compromises). But he most of all sacrificed his duty to moral courage and historical truth, blaming Nazism on the wrong culprits. And this was because he put his theocratic allegiance higher than those claims, and at a time when civilization was in danger from the men of the Hitler-Vatican Concordat. Another way of phrasing it might be to say that, when the hour really struck, Chesterton could not detect a paradox when it truly reared up to confront him and his prejudices. Harsher but correct would be the verdict that his Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism; a judgment that Professor Ker strives to avoid but is, I think, in part compelled to admit. Confrontation with GKC has been enjoyable, even if the main elements of the debate have come to seem extraordinarily archaic.

The verdict one must pass on GKC, then, is that when he was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous (as with the pub revolution to set off the Distributist revolution); when he was apparently serious, he was really quite sinister (as in calling Nazism a form of Protestant heresy and Jews a species of conspicuous foreigner in England); and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most “dogmatic.” For the time and hour in which he lived, “Chestertonianism” came to represent a minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge.

Christopher Hitchens’s most recent book is Arguably.
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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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