A Most Unlikely Saint
The case for canonizing G. K. Chesterton, the bombastic man of letters and paradoxical militant for God
If the Catholic Church makes G. K. Chesterton a saint—as an influential group of Catholics is proposing it should—the story of his enormous coffin may become rather significant. Symbolic, even parabolic. Chesterton’s coffin was too huge, you see, to be carried down the stairs of his house in Beaconsfield, its occupant being legendarily overweight at the time of his death, in 1936. So it went out a second-floor window. Very Chestertonian: gravity, meet levity. Hagiographers might pursue the biblical resonance here, citing the Gospel passages in which a paralyzed man, unable to penetrate the crowds surrounding the house in Capernaum where Jesus was staying, is lowered in through a hole in the roof. Or they might simply declare that Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s was a spirit too large to go out through the conventional narrow door of death—that it had to be received, as it were, directly into the sky.
In his vastness and mobility, Chesterton continues to elude definition: He was a Catholic convert and an oracular man of letters, a pneumatic cultural presence, an aphorist with the production rate of a pulp novelist. Poetry, criticism, fiction, biography, columns, public debate—the phenomenon known to early-20th-century newspaper readers as “GKC” was half cornucopia, half content mill. If you’ve got a couple of days, read his impish, ageless, inside-out terrorist thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. If you’ve got an afternoon, read his masterpiece of Christian apologetics Orthodoxy: ontological basics retailed with a blissful, zooming frivolity, Thomas Aquinas meets Eddie Van Halen. If you’ve got half an hour, read “The Blue Cross,” the first and most glitteringly perfect of his stories featuring the crime-busting village priest Father Brown. If you’ve got only 10 minutes, read his essay “A Much Repeated Repetition.” (“Of a mechanical thing we have a full knowledge. Of a living thing we have a divine ignorance.”)
Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”; he was an anti-modernist (he hated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”). He was a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true, and none of them would matter in the slightest were it not for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius. Touched once by the live wire of his thought, you don’t forget it. And what is genius? Genius is Hammy the squirrel, in DreamWorks Animation’s 2006 classic Over the Hedge, five seconds after he gulps down an energy drink. The Earth stutters on its axis and then stops turning, the soundtrack comes to a soupy halt, and Hammy saunters through a sudden, humming immobility, past the transfixed pest-control guy and around the frozen laser beams of the lawn-alarm system. He is, of course, moving at incredible speed—but with supernatural nonchalance. His ecstatic velocity has put everything around him into the slowness and vagueness of a dream. That’s what geniuses do.
“It would have been better perhaps,” Chesterton’s friend Hilaire Belloc wrote, “had he never fallen into verbalism (wherein he tended to exceed).” But he did not so much fall into verbalism as come somersaulting out of it, chucking one-liners like ninja stars. His prose, if you don’t like it, is an unnerving zigzag between flippancy and bombast—and somewhere behind that, even more unnerving, is the intimation that these might be two sides of the same thing. If you do like it, it’s supremely entertaining, the stately outlines of an older, heavier rhetoric punctually convulsed by what he once called (in reference to the Book of Job) “earthquake irony.” He fulminates wittily; he cracks jokes like thunder. His message, a steady illumination beaming and clanging through every lens and facet of his creativity, was really very straightforward: get on your knees, modern man, and praise God.
In his use of paradox it could be said, per Belloc, that he tended to excess. “One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.” “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” And so on. But Chesterton—born under Gemini, the sign of doubleness—is paradoxical because the world is paradoxical. I recently watched an episode of National Geographic Channel’s Outlaw Bikers in which was recounted the strange tale of the Fort Lauderdale Warlocks, a motorcycle gang consisting of undercover ATF agents. Swap the biker gang for a group of fin de siècle anarchists, and the ATF agents for English secret policemen, and you have, basically, the plot of The Man Who Was Thursday (except that in the novel the secret policemen are secret even to one another, each thinking that he alone has infiltrated the anarchist cell).
Besides, Jesus loved a paradox: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” The Chestertonian paradox, in fact, was a kind of ideogram of the foundational paradox of the Incarnation, of God being born as Man, when “the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle,” as he wrote in another book of Christian apologetics, The Everlasting Man. And has anyone gone further than Chesterton into the agonizing paradox of the Crucifixion—Jesus’s cry of abandonment from the cross, when “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist”?
Which brings us to the Catholic Church. Why should it want to make him a saint? Why Chesterton and not—if you’re talking about great Catholic writers—Gerard Manley Hopkins? Or Walker Percy? Or Flannery O’Connor? Because Chesterton, in his jolly way, was a militant. A blaster of the superstitions of modernity, a toppler of the idols of materialism. He inveighed ceaselessly, at great length, and without ever once repeating himself, against “the thought-destroying forces of our time”: pessimism and determinism and pragmatism and impressionism. Wait—impressionism? The nice paintings? Oh, indeed. Impressionism was a terrible heresy, a kind of manifesto for self-absorption. “It means believing one’s immediate impressions at the expense of one’s more permanent and positive generalisations,” Chesterton argued in his study of William Blake. “It puts what one notices above what one knows.” He wasn’t always right, in other words. The chief obstacle to his sanctity will no doubt be his indefensible heap of writings on “the Jewish problem,” which brought out the worst in him—and continues to bring out the worst in his defenders.
But when he was right, he was prophetically right. Fearing and detesting the centripetal, black-hole suck of the almighty modern Self, he faced the other way: into the fact of Creation. There is a reality outside the mind, Chesterton insisted—and part of his energy was his innocent, unflagging astonishment that he had to keep on making the point. To us, the great solipsists, for whom the recognition of another human being requires a galvanic imaginative act, he speaks very directly.
The campaign for the beatification of G. K. Chesterton has now reached the prayer-cards stage. Late last year, I walked into a Catholic church in Stowe, Vermont, and found on a table near the entrance a stack of cards inviting me to pray for Chesterton’s intercession “so that his holiness may be recognized by all and the Church may proclaim him Blessed.” In other words, I should ask him for a miracle. All right then, Gilbert, here it is: grant me a flash, just a flash, of your double-natured vision, the intuition that I, James Parker, have been summoned out of an “almost nihilistic abyss” into a world of radiant ordinariness, that my existence depends second by second upon the creative gesture of a loving God, continually renewed, and that I should be astounded and grateful. Make that happen, you rocketing squirrel in a fat man’s body, and I’m down for the cause.