Critiquing Chesterton

18 Jan

Last fall I came across an article about G. K. Chesterton in which the author said that most people, except for members of a small “Chesterton cult,” were unfamiliar with most of his writing. “Chesterton cult?” I hadn’t known that scouring the website of the American Chesterton Society made me a member of a cult. Now I do.

To be honest, I don’t think I’m obsessed with Chesterton. I do, however, value his writings—I’ve re-read Orthodoxy numerous times, and his Ballad of the White Horse helped me survive a statistics final. (I got a D and was prepared for an F. That the passage I marched off to class quoting was “That though we scatter and though we fly,/ And you hang over us like the sky,/ You are more tired of victory,/ Than we are tired of shame.” That may sound depressing, but I knew what I was in for.)

I’ve heard that Chesterton tends to be a polarizing influence—that people either love him or hate him. I’m not sure that I fit neatly into either category—perhaps admiration is the best word I can muster. C.S. Lewis seems to have felt similarly, praising Chesterton, paraphrasing Chesterton, and (sometimes) critiquing Chesterton. Because Chesterton is not always right. In fact, there are times that he contradicts himself. So why do so many of us admire him?

First of all, Chesterton is funny. By that I don’t mean he inserts jokes into his serious works so other people will read them. Rather, there is a good humor about his entire writing style. Among all the nonfiction I have read, Chesterton’s is the most entertaining. For example, Chesterton declares tradition to be “the democracy of the dead.” (Who else would put it like that?) “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarcy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.”

And, as the passage I just quoted suggests, Chesterton thinks for himself. He calls himself a liberal (in the 19th century sense) while simultaneously casting himself as a traditionalist. And both descriptions seem accurate. In an age of bipolar politics, Chesterton offers another way to look at life. He does the same thing in regards to Christianity; by starting with an informal anthropology, his book The Everlasting Man reveals Christ in a very different way.

In the end, I think one of the main reasons that I admire Chesterton is simply for his viewpoint, for his unique way of looking at things, and for his incomparable means of expressing them. As J.R.R. Tolkien said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton’s “MOOR EEFFOC” –“COFFEE ROOM” seen backwards—is limited in its ability to make the world look new to us. It is good to realize, once in a while, that rivers really could flow backwards, or the grass be red, or houses be upside-down. But according to Tolkien (and I believe he was right) most of us cannot think that way for long. If we want to see the world in a new way, our best recourse is found in fairy tales. Yet, whatever he called his view, Chesterton’s way of thinking is that of a man permeated by the fairy tales that Tolkien so revered. Chesterton, unlike Tolkien, may never bring someone to the level of high myth. But he has convinced many people to learn what Cinderella did. If there is a pumpkin in the garden, the best response is to say “Thank you.”

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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Classic Literature


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