Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Liberalism

Isaac Chotiner makes some fair points in response to my remarks on Adam Gopnik's essay on G.K. Chesterton, so let me try to clarify my beef with the essay, and by extension with the style of criticism it embodies. My complaint was not that Gopnik brought up Chesterton's anti-Semitism, or that he deplored it. Rather, I objected to the disproportionate weight he placed upon it, which felt more appropriate to an essay on, say, Ezra Pound than to a figure like Chesterton, whose conduct in the shadow of totalitarianism compares relatively favorably to an awful lot of his intellectual contemporaries. And I especially objected to the way that Gopnik used the taint of anti-Semitism to dismiss nearly everything in Chesterton that a contemporary liberal might find challenging or troubling. His essay starts by reassuring the New Yorker's readership - whose familiarity with GKC is presumably extremely limited - that Chesterton "has a loving following among liberal Catholics, like Garry Wills and Wilfrid Sheed, and even nonbelievers, like Martin Gardner" (so it's okay to read him, folks), while simultaneously promising to rescue the Good Chesterton from his reactionary admirers - those "conservative preVatican II types" whose admiration for GKC makes him "a difficult writer to defend." And Gopnik ends, predictably enough, by suggesting that the Good Chesterton, the one New Yorker readers should admire, is the Chesterton who doesn't challenge any of their pieties or prejudices - Chesterton the anti-imperialist, Chesterton the critic of utopianism, and above all Chesterton the literary stylist, with his wonderful apothegms and allegories and "Catholic koans." The Bad Chesterton, meanwhile, is the one whom Gopnik's readership could be counted on the dismiss even without his saying that they should: Chesterton the Catholic apologist, that is, and especially Chesterton the reactionary radical. This Chesterton's arguments, sez Gopnik, are always tainted by "the spirit" of anti-Semitism even he isn't actually being anti-Semitic, and this Chesterton's politico-religious thought, with its radical challenge to the contemporary left and right alike, can be dismissed as just a way station to Falangism and Franco.

The problem with this approach is that of course there was only one Chesterton, however many multitudes he contained, and those aspects of his thought that contemporary liberals find congenial often flowed from precisely the sort of premises that Gopnik deplores as reactionary and medieval. Gopnik begins the essay by praising Chesterton for his anti-imperialism, his skepticism about capitalism, and his criticisms of the "fatuous materialist progressivism" associated with H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and others; he ends it by caricaturing Chesterton's underlying philosophy as the royal road to Franco's Spain, while allowing, with a touch of condescension, that of course we should still read him, because if "obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will - voices of tolerance and liberal democracy - we would probably be down to George Eliot." But it's precisely because Chesterton, though a self-described liberal, didn't conform to the liberal consensus - both of his time and of our own - that he was able to keep his head while many of his contemporaries were falling over one another to embrace imperialism, or Social Darwinism, or Marxism, or eugenics (a topic, like distributism, that somehow fails to make its way into Gopnik's essay, despite being crucial to understanding Chesterton's importance as a writer). True, the things he was wrong about - the Jews chief among them, though the list stretches on to include a host of other matters as well - illustrate the weaknesses inherent in his sort reactionary radicalism. But the things he was right about, when the bien-pensant types of his day were badly, badly wrong, illustrate the weaknesses inherent in certain strains of modern liberalism, and if you rush to dismiss his premises as inherently tainted by anti-Semitism and crypto-Falangism, then you don't get to blithely congratulate him for his conclusions.

I think the problem with Gopnik's approach is thrown into relief by the embarrassed and/or dismissive way that many of the obituaries for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have treated the Russian giant's more politically incorrect ideas - his mix of Christian humanism, Russian nationalism, and deep skepticism about modernity, which made him something of a curiosity both during his sojourn in the U.S. and upon his return to Russia. From the Times complaining about his "hectoring jeremiads" and puzzling over his willingness to criticize "democrats, secularists, capitalists, liberals and consumers" as well as Communists, to Christopher Hitchens griping absurdly about the "ayatollah-like tones" of his famous Harvard commencement address (the equivalent of comparing Chesterton to Franco), the coverage has often involved a Gopnikesque attempt to seal off the Good Solzhenitsyn from the Weird Solzhenitsyn, and to insist that the eloquent foe of Marxist tyranny can be celebrated even as the mystical reactionary is dismissed.

But as with Chesterton, the two faces of Solzhenitsyn were really one face: His witness against Communism emerged from the same ground as his critique of Western liberalism. When Hitchens writes that the great dissident's "mixture of attitudes and prejudices puts one in mind more of Dostoyevsky than of Tolstoy," he's absolutely right. But it's not a coincidence that Russia's two most eloquent and prophetic critics of utopian radicalism - Dostoevsky who attacked it in its infancy, and Solzhenitsyn who helped usher it into extinction - were both standing outside Western liberalism, while so many people inside liberalism busied themselves making apologies for terror and mass murder. Which is why Solzhenitsyn, like Chesterton, isn't important despite his deviations from "the current consensus of liberal good will." He's important because of them - because his deviationism allowed him to see things that others were blind to, and because reading past giants who stand foursquare outside the current New York Times/New Yorker consensus provides an opportunity to interrogate one's own premises, and ponder the ways in which contemporary deviationists might be right, and the contemporary consensus wrong.