Friday, August 9, 2013

The Most Bizarre Introduction to Chesterton I've Ever Read

Yesterday I came across an anthology of Chesterton's essays called On Lying in Bed and Other Essays, edited by one Alberto Manguel, and published in 2000 by Bayeux Arts publishing in Canada. The selection of essays is rather unobjectionable, though many of the "essays" are not actually essays but extracts taken from Chesterton's longer works. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.) The essays are grouped into themed chapters, and given my own dislike of detective stories I could have wished that one whole chapter was not headed A Defence of Detective Stories, but since it only contains four essays it is not too much of a blight. The choice of themes is rather idiosyncratic but none the worse for that-- the other chapter headings are The Walking Paradox, On Writing Badly (which contains sixteen essays!), Poor Old Shakespeare, A Defence of Nonsense, Monsters and the Middle Ages, the American Ideal, The Defendant and the Worship of the Wealthy.

All that is fair enough-- in fact, pleasingly different to the usual run of Chesterton anthologies. However, the introduction written by the editor, Alberto Manguel, is truly bizarre.

(Perhaps this is not too surprising, considering that one of the other books Mr. Manguel edited-- as the back of the volume proudly proclaims-- is The Gates of Paradise: The Anthology of Erotic Short Fiction!)

Mr. Manguel begins well enough: "Reading Chesterton we are overwhelmed by a remarkable sense of happiness. His prose is the opposite of academic: it is joyful. Words bounce and spark lights off one another as if a clockwork toy had suddenly come to life, clicking and whirring with common sense, that most suprising of marvels..."

So far, so good, and so it continues for a few pages. We are told about Chesterton's sense of wonder and his carelessness about factual accuracy. There is an amusing and interesting quotation from a letter to Frances, one which I had never encountered before, in which Chesterton suggests that household objects should have Scriptural quotations written upon them or around them-- "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered" beside the hairbrushes, for instance. His libertarian dislike of the State, or indeed private philantropists, meddling with the personal lives of the poor is described at some length.

But then, five pages in, the weirdness begins:

"In the ancient dispute between content and form, or sense and sound, Chesterton stood halfway. He only partly followed Lewis Carroll, who had admonished: "Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves." Sense, Chesterton believed, could, if properly sought, exploit the effects of sound and rise unbidden from the clashing of rhetorical cymbals-- from oxymoron and paradox, from hyberole and metonymy. Chesterton was more inclined to agree with Pope, who once compared the followers of mere sound to those who attend church "not for the doctrine, butthe music there." Chesterton loved the music of words, but realized their limited ability to signify; whatever doctrines they might announce must needs be incomplete, haphazard glimmers rather than flashes of truth."

An extensive quotation from Chesterton's monograph on the painter Isaac Watts is produced as evidence. The quotation does indeed support the point Manguel is making, but it seems like a perverse choice of subject, especially when it occupies more than a page of a ten-page introduction to Chesterton's thought. I think I can fairly say that the conflict between "sound and sense" was simply not one of Chesterton's themes. He did indeed defend rhyme and alliteration, he is famous for his use of paradox, and he fairly often wrote about the slippery and misleading nature of language, at least in the way it is often used. (Take, for instance, his objection to the term "making good", a vague and objectless phrase which, he thought, was sneakily used to imply that making money was praiseworthy in itself.) But this is not one of the great Chestertonian topics.

This is only the beginning of Manguel's transgressions, however. We are used to politically correct handwringing over Chesterton's less fashionable views, but this introduction goes further than most:

"But there is a darker side in his writings of which he seems not to have had any inkling at all. It is impossible to read Chesteton thoroughly and not come across clumsily anti-Semitic, antifeminist, and racist remarks that war lightly the same rhetorical devices that make his essays intelligent, moving and brilliant. It is as if a deeper, uglier side of society's collective madness suddenly held sway, forcing the writer to pay a debt to his time and to those in power in his time, overpowering the language of recollection, making his words stilted, superficial, obscene. These are the moments when one senses that his fruitful memory, the epiphany of wonder that he said was at the source of his imagination, comes not uncalled from Chesterton himself, from the individual, but from the man of his age, from the member of the class that spoke derisively of "our friends the Israelites", of "the primitive Negroes", and of "the weaker sex". Then his eclectic politics lose their individuality, paradox becomes contradiction, and the bon mots read as mere conservative slogans. He spoke against Hitler but made ugly anti-Jewish pronouncements: "I am fond of Jews/Jews are fond of money/Never mind whose/I am fond of Jews/Oh, but when they lose/Damn it all, it's funny". He imposed the imperialistic Boer War at a time when even Shaw and Wells were for it, but his anti-imperialism stemmed from a beleif that nothing foreign could be part of England; English minds will not be broadened, he thought, "by the study of Wagga-Wagga and Timbuctoo". He passionately believed in every person's free will but laughed at women's efforts to become free: "Twenty million young women rose to their feet with the cry 'we will not be dictated to' and proceeded to become stenographers". Funny as the phrasing may be, the joke is spoiled by being spoken in an age of brutal sufragette repression, late and voracious imperialism and the Third Reich."

Whew! Where to begin, with this one? I think the easiest way is to begin at the end. Manguel seems to have missed the point of the famous quotation about stenographers. It was not simply an amusing play on words, but a very concise expression of Chesterton's belief that women did not become free, that they became quite the opposite, through exchanging the role of wife and mother for that of a wage-slave. And what is wrong with being "antifeminist", as Manguel puts it? I'm anti-feminist. Probably most women are anti-feminist. It is an entirely different thing to being anti-woman, which Chesterton certainly was not.

The piece of doggerel about Jews is constantly trotted out in discussions of Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism. But we have to remember that we are hyper-sensitive about this sort of thing after the Holocaust. If it is acceptable to say that Germans are methodical, that Italians are fiery, that Scots are dour, why is it not acceptable to say that Jews are acquisitive? I am not claiming that they are, I am simply making the point that attributing particular characteristics to a people is something that almost everybody does all the time. Far too much is made of Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism, though there are some uncharitable and ill-advised remarks about the Jews in his work. But he did not hate (or even dislike) the Jewish people and he certainly did not regard himself as their enemy. As Manguel mentions, he condemned Hitler's persecution of them, though he died three years before World War II and the Holocaust.

I don't know where Chesterton referred to the "primitive Negroes". Wrenched from its context, it's impossible to evaluate. But everybody knows that "negro" was simply a descriptive term at this time, and I am not at all sure that Chesterton would have meant "primitive" in a pejorative sense. He was not a racist. In fact, he frequently poked fun at racial theory, which was very fashionable in his time, long before the Nazis came on the scene.

But what I really object to in this passage is the suggestion that Chesterton was paying "a debt to his time" in any of this. None of us are unconditioned by our age but I think few people can have been less conditioned by the times he lived in. He knew what he believed and he knew why he believed it, even when it is unpalatable to Manguel.

A few lines down from this denunciation, the editor makes an even more questionable claim: "Chesterton...will refute himself, time and again, with deadly accuracy. Once, when his adversary at a debate failed to make appearance, Chesterton took both stands and argued brilliantly both for and against the question of the evening. In the same way, his most bigoted remarks [!] are demolished by his own arguments a few pages later. The man who makes fun of a man for being black or of a woman for wanting independence, is the same man who writes: "I can well imagine a man cutting his throat merely because he has stood by and seen a woman stripped and scourged quite late in the history of England and Ireland, or some negro burnt alive as he still is in the United States. But some part of this shocking shame lies in us all."

Perhaps, rather than accusing Chesterton of inconsistency, Manguel should have asked himself whether he had really understood his subject. Though I can well believe Chesterton took two sides of a debate, for the sheer fun of the thing, he was anything but self-refuting. The man who opposed his country's actions in the Boer War and heartily supported them in World War One did so for the same reason in both cases; because he abhorred the theory that might makes right. He believed that Britain was behaving like a bully in the Boer War, but was standing up to a bully in the Great War. The man who supported and then abandoned the Liberal Party never ceased to be a liberal in his own mind; he simply cease to believe in the Liberal Party. The man who converted to Catholicism towards the end of his life had always written as though he was a Catholic. It would be hard to find another writer as consistent, coherent and clear-minded as Chesterton.

I invite my reader to simply savour Manguel's last paragraph, where he truly surpasses himself:

"That events and their causes change according to the telling, mirroring common features or dark oceans of difference; that our understanding of the world may depend on the arrangement of words on a page and on the inflection given to these words; that words, after all, are all we have with which to defend ourselves and that, like our mortal selves, the worth of words lies in their very fallibility and elegant brittleness-- all this Chesterton knew and incessantly recorded. Whether we have the courage to agree with him is, of course, another matter."

This simply staggers me. How could any literate person edit a book of Chesterton's essays and then sum up his work in such weird, utterly irrelevant terms? It would be like an introduction to an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse stories finishing: "That the human spirit can never entirely submit to bureaucracy and engineering, that the passions will ultimately win over logic and caution, that civilization is a thin veneer over man's essential savagery-- this P.G. Wodehouse knew, and never tired of asserting."

Perhaps Manguel has read too much erotic fiction.

I think the literati and the intelligentsia don't really know what to make of Chesterton. They see that he is a genius, and they can't exactly ignore him, but they can't quite believe that his message was really as emphatic and as unabashed as it seems to be. Chesterton could be extremely subtle, of course, but he was never ambiguous, or tortured, or enigmatic for the sake of it-- and these are all characteristics which the modern man of letters can barely do without.

So we find Chesterton receiving bizarre accolades, such as those in Manguel's introduction, or such as the tribute paid to him by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in the dedication to their book Good Omens (which I've never read and never will read), where they described him as "a man who knew what was going on". Considering that Pratchett is a distinguished member of the British Humanist Association, who has recently become an advocate for assisted suicide, and that Gaiman is a writer of "subversive" fairy tales who claims that the existence or non-existence of God "doesn't really matter to me", you have to wonder if they knew what was going on with Chesterton.