I’m just back from two weeks’ holiday in Richmond, Virginia. If you ever find yourself in that part of the world, I highly recommend a bookshop called Black Swan Books. I am something of a connoiseur of bookshops and this one ranks very highly in my ratings. Like all decent bookshops, it sells secondhand books. It has extensive poetry, philosophy and religion sections, and its choice of background music is perfect; a mellow jazz that induces the sort of reflective, dreamy mood that is just right for book browsing. It’s not cheap, but it’s not egregiously expensive either.
One of the books I picked up was entitled Yeats’s Blessings on Von Hügel: Essays on Literature and Religion by Martin Green. I love literary criticism, as long as it steers clear from post-modernist zaniness. It pleases me immensely that there are people who devote their time and energy to analysing fictions and webs of words, and who take literature just as seriously as politics, economics or the housing market—or even such solemn subjects as food and gardening.
I can remember the happy shock of my first “serious” English lessons in school, when I realised that you could not only go further into reading, but also deeper. The double-take of reading a text for a second time and seeing what else might be there thrilled me, and has never ceased to thrill me. I find myself thinking about that childhood revelation—those classroom exercises of a teacher drawing our attention to the nuances in a line of verse-- more and more recently. How come it’s easier to read a 500 page thriller than a five verse poem? What does it say about our society that we are so reluctant to reflect, and so eager to hurry from entertainment to entertainment, to work hard and play hard but never take time to ponder and savour? Why does growing up so often mean growing impatient?
So I have an appetite for literary criticism recently, and the fact that this book exploes the relation between literature and religion gave it an added appeal to me. I could see that the author was a liberal Catholic, but I didn’t let that discourage me.
However, I was more than a little displeased by the author’s attitude to Chesterton. The first example comes during a discussion of Wilfred G. Ward, a mathematician and convert to Catholicism at the time of Newman:
“His demand for the subordination of the laity to the clergy, for a purely Catholic education, for a Continental as opposed to a British Catholicism, his distrust of the whole modern world—but the point is surely made. We all recognize that kind of infantilism working itself out in the largest cultural terms, discovering with ever-renewed delight that logic will cut through the most massive-seeming of commonsense adult assurances, being the enfant terrible who can yet prove himself more serious than anyone else at the drop of a hat. We recognize it the more easily because we have seen often before this whole syndrome—fatness, infantilism, love of the abstract, cleverness (often at chess, or comic songs, or anagrams, or detective work)—combined with an authoritarian Catholicism. This combination is naturally most to be looked for in converts and Chesterton is the most famous British example.
Men who exemplify this pattern may be admirable in many respects, but they are archetypal enemies of “life”. The sense of senses in which we are using that term will become clearer as the essay proceeds [it doesn’t], but let us say that it refers here primarily to mature relationships and personality structures which allow full dignity to the instinctive powers of the self. Such men exemplify the triumph of pure intellect and abstract will over the more instinctive parts of the mind.”
I hardly know what to say to a set of claims like that. I never thought of Chesterton’s bulk, his love of detective stories, and his authoritarian Catholicism as forming a “syndrome”, but the author of this book seems to know better. I do think it is rather unfair to accuse Chesterton of exalting logic at the expense of “commonsense adult assurances”. There could hardly have been a stauncher champion of the “common man’s” healthy instincts than Chesterton, and the opening of Orthodoxy is a protest against logic and rationalism gone mad.
Later on, Green is even more dismissive:
“Wilfrid Ward, welcomed Chesterton on to The Dublin Review and into his home immediately he appeared as a writer, and before he was received into the church. But the Baron stayed aloof. Dickens and George Eliot were his novelists, and one can guess that Chesterton’s paradoxes and debating skills and inability to grow up must have seemed to him a poor performance for a “Catholic writer”."
I can understand someone resenting a supposed inability to grow up. I can even understand somebody viewing a taste for paradoxes with suspicion. But it seems tough to be dismissed for being a good debater. This author seems to share an attitude to Chesterton that is all-too-common amongst those in literary, intellectual and academic circles: “Chesterton is to be admired in his own way, but one shouldn’t take him seriously, you know.”
It’s a pity this book is so unduly harsh towards my favourite author in the world, because I agree with some of its points. Especially this one:
“What ‘Catholic writer’ means today can be suggested by reciting a few names from current French, British and American fiction. Mauriac and Green in France, J.F. Powers and Flannery O’Connor in America, Greene and Waugh in England-— with Muriel Spark and William Golding as post-war epigoni. And what these names most importantly connote, taken together, is surely an anti-humanist sensibility; in these writers’ novels, human achievements and modes of being are consistently and triumphantly shown to be inadequate, egotistic, evil, just in being themselves, in being human. Under stress all natural goodness breaks down; only grace-assisted goodness is valid, and grace-assisted badness is even better.”
The author laments this tendency, and I think that he is correct. I have never been able to enjoy the works of Graham Greene, and I disliked Brideshead Revisited, for this very reason. I don’t care much for authors who are more excited about sin than about grace. (As Lewis said of writers like this: “What I am attacking…is a set of people who seem to me . . . to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad”.)
Since the late nineteenth century or so, humanism has become hubristic, and liberalism has celebrated moral laxity. Does that mean that there is no such thing as good humanism, good liberalism? Of course not.
I think Martin Green would have found Chesterton an ally in the cause of Catholic humanism, if he could have suspended his distaste. I don’t think Chesterton’s firm belief in original sin (which he regarded as a “cheerful doctrine”) blinded him to the genuine good to be found in fatally-flawed humanity.
I think Chesterton’s Christian humanism can be seen in many, many passages, but perhaps it is best exemplified in this meditation on Charles Dickens (it concerns literary taste rather than morality, but I think it shows Chesterton's essential tenderness towards ordinary humanity):
Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted. And with this was connected that other fact which must never be forgotten, and which I have more than once insisted on, that Dickens and his school had a hilarious faith in democracy and thought of the service of it as a sacred priesthood. Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. The belief that the rabble will only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. Mr. Fergus Hume has no more respect for the populace than Mr. George Moore. The only difference lies between those writers who will consent to talk down to the people, and those writers who will not consent to talk down to the people. But Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up to the people. He approached the people like a deity and poured out his riches and his blood. This is what makes the immortal bond between him and the masses of men. He had not merely produced something they could understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonised to produce it. They were not only enjoying one of the best writers, they were enjoying the best he could do. His raging and sleepless nights, his wild walks in the darkness, his note-books crowded, his nerves in rags, all this extraordinary output was but a fit sacrifice to the ordinary man. He climbed towards the lower classes. He panted upwards on weary wings to reach the heaven of the poor.
His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. But with this mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error. Commonness and the common mind are now generally spoken of as meaning in some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight; that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody: everybody means Mrs. Meynell. This lady, a cloistered and fastidious writer, has written one of the best eulogies of Dickens that exist, an essay in praise of his pungent perfection of epithet. And when I say that everybody understands Dickens I do not mean that he is suited to the untaught intelligence. I mean that he is so plain that even scholars can understand him.
Perhaps if Martin Green had looked past Chesterton’s fatness and love of detective stories, he would have seen more to admire.