GK Chesterton, 75 Years and Still Getting The Attention
On 14 June 1936 the world lost one of the most colourful and controversial writers of the modern era, and it is this man that I raise a glass to and say many thanks to Mr. G.K. Chesterton. It has never been a secret that I have great appreciation for the Beneficent Bomb, and I would go so far as to say that I owe him so much that I often wish he were alive so that I could in some way pay his debt. It is not just for his use of paradox, his exciting mysteries and thrillers, but it is the combination of his witty prose and larger-than-life attitude that I have been thankful for, but a combination of these things that have made him admired by authors such as Aidan Nichols, Slavoj Zizek (who actually quotes GKC more than any other non-Christian critic I know), Graham Greene, and C.S. Lewis. For all these things he is admired, but for me it is because he did what so few authors outside of the realm of mysticism were capable of doing: showing that innocence and joy were within reach without succumbing to ignorance.
Innocent, But Not Ignorant
Chesterton and many of his followers are often derided for a “Chestertonian Gusto” that can frankly be annoying to the more cynically-inclined like myself. Kafka is said to have remarked that Chesterton was so happy that one would think that he had found God, which is perhaps closest to the truth of the matter. There has been much written on the happiness exhibited by Chesterton and the almost controversial nature of his joy, but there is one thing that many writers seem to miss when analysing and scrutinizing how a man can be so happy at a time when so much seemed to be going wrong. The assumption that I have long suffered from and one that permeates almost all of society is that if one is innocent or has a feeling of joy then they are not paying attention. I believed this myself, and often still do during my ‘black dog days,’ but it is from this illusion that I will forever be thankful to Chesterton. In a way, he literally saved my life.
I can still remember on one bus ride from work in Boulder and reading my copy of Orthodoxy when a seed from Chesterton’s work was planted with the simple sentence, “I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” This was one of three times in my life where depression had actually made me into a monster most would never recognise; I had ceased believing in any form of spirituality and had come to suspect each and every person I encountered with a paranoia that I still find unbelievable. I had planned on suicide and had even composed a rather angry letter towards everyone I blamed. It is true that depression makes one act almost like the worst caricature of adolescence, and believe me it is embarrassing to think I am even capable of such behaviour. What Chesterton had planted was an idea that there was a goodness beyond the failures and inconsistencies of life, and in fact that there was great joy to be found in the very things we take for granted.
The world of Chesterton was always a search for a man with a golden key, a figure from his childhood toy theatre that opened a world of possibilities behind the most simple of doors to find something as exciting as a dragon or a piece of chalk. While it is easy to call him a childish optimist it cannot be understated that even Chesterton knew that blind belief in the perfection of the world always led to disappointment. Writing of these peculiar optimist, Chesterton states:
“If optimism means a general approval, it is certainly true that the more a man becomes an optimist the more he becomes a melancholy man. If he manages to praise everything, his praise will develop an alarming resemblance to a polite boredom. He will say that the marsh is as good as the garden; he will mean that the garden is as dull as the marsh.”
His view from the first sentence and through the many adventures confirmed in my mind for the first time that you might say that there are defects–what theologians call the stain of sin–throughout the whole of creation, but there is still an affirming goodness that we often forget about. The Chestertonian view found a goodness in the world that was rooted in the Christian belief that God created out of love, a love so great that God through Christ chose to become one with its creature. For someone who grew up in an Evangelical and liberal setting that imagined all suffering was just perception and could be defeated with prayer and positive thinking, Chesterton was an iconoclast who came to destroy the weak images and open the windows to a new world.
Chesterton believed that all people had the dignity of God in their character as it was imprinted in the order of creation; but this glory was expressed in the rest of the world that he often called a playground or a fairytale. Indeed, he probably looked to many as a mythological figure who had wandered into the real world and needed to be shaken back. However, this joy at life was not at all in ignorance. Chesterton was among the first to warn about Eugenics and the consequences that scientism could reap. Though he certainly spoke an anti-Jewish statement, he was also aware of Hitler and the dangerous ideology he represented while much of Europe remained ignorant, and even in his time he was debating issues that we now know are monstrous but in his own time were fashionable. This was a man who was in love with God and all of His creation, but that love did not mean he had to be delusional about it. When he affirmed the goodness of chalk, trees, his faith and his wife he also knew that this love would drive him to fight ardently while never forgetting why he started fighting. “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
All of this, as I mentioned, was quite revolutionary for a young man who was in a rather great fit of despair. While I have read philosophers and theologians since that bus ride who have helped me in changing how I see the world, Chesterton still holds a great place with me for showing that such a vision was possible. I still have the black dog days and will always struggle with my own cross, but on that day I was able to walk back from the bus stop and look at the mountains with the single thought, “Perhaps it is good, but just has something missing.” Not profound, and certainly not a new idea, but it was something that probably has saved my life. For this alone, I agree with George Bernard Shaw when I say that the world is not thankful enough for G.K. Chesterton.