Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gopnik on Chesterton

Adam Gopnik has an article on "The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton" in the current issue of The New Yorker (I don't think you can get the whole article online, I have the print version of the July 7 edition.) From the subtitle, you can probably guess what is coming. Gopnik will make a pretense of giving a balanced assessment of Chesterton by proclaiming himself to be one of his fans and then, oh so reluctantly, delve at length into the regrettable dark side of G.K.

As usual with this sort of critic, even Gopnik's compliments to Chesterton are backhanded. He writes that "Chesterton is an easy writer to love - a brilliant sentence-maker, a humorist, a journalist of endless appetite and invention." Gopnik praises Chesterton's technique but is careful not to praise any of the ideas it supports. But as Chesterton himself wrote, he never made a joke for the sake of being funny or propounded a paradox merely for the sake of itself. In fact, "mere light sophistry" was one thing he particularly despised. If Gopnik's assessment of GKC is that he was fundamentally wrong in his ideas, but was a clever wordsmith, then the only compliment Chesterton would have appreciated would be to chuck him out entirely. The point is not that Chesterton must be either abandoned or taken entirely and uncritically; it is that, if you are genuinely a friend of Chesterton, then judge him strictly on his ideas, and if you find those ideas wanting, them bid GK farewell. To praise him merely as a technician is to give him the only legacy he wished to avoid.

Chesterton had such a wide-ranging intellect that it is often difficult for the critic to get his own mind around him. The consequence is that the critic typically mistakes his own one or two favorite Chestertonian ideas as not only the keys to understanding his own view of Chesterton, but of Chesterton's view of Chesterton. In Gopnik's case, he boils Chesterton down to two ideas: "... that childhood is not a time of illusion but a time when illusion and fact exist (as they should) at the same level of consciousness...", and "the other epiphany concerned limits, localism... [it] is not that small is beautiful but that the beautiful is always small..." It is not a coincidence that these are also about the only Chestertonian ideas Gopnik finds congenial. Gopnik finds Chesterton's formal religious beliefs tiresome (his Catholic apologetics are "gassy"), and what we find tiresome we tend to ignore.

Gopnik is not mistaken that the two ideas of localism and the perceptions of childhood are fundamental to Chesterton. But there are many others that are equally fundamental, and without them our picture of Chesterton will be limited and distorted, as GK himself would look if we tried to force him bodily into a suit made for a man of ordinary size. Where are these ideas? Chesterton set them forth most directly and completely in his 1908 book Orthodoxy, the work generally acknowledged as the centerpiece to his career. Yet Orthodoxy does not merit a mention in Gopnik's article, nor does the book that preceded it, Heretics, even though Heretics is the work that really launched Chesterton's career as a polemicist. Instead, Gopnik concentrates on Chesterton's fictional works The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, as though Chesterton were primarily a novelist rather than an essayist.

Gopnik's Chesterton comes off as clever but dangerously parochial, as might be expected when GK is shoehorned into one or two ideas: "It's harder to excise the spirit that leads to it - the suspicion of the alien, the extreme localism, the favoring of national instinct over rational argument, the distaste for 'parasitic' middlemen, and the preference for the simple organ-grinding music of the folk." If Gopnik's Chesterton sounds like a Nazi, it is no accident. The charge Gopnik really wants to make stick is that Chesterton was an anti-semite and a proto-Nazi, indirectly responsible for the Holocaust. This is a difficult charge to sustain given that Chesterton was an early, forceful, and explicit opponent of the Nazis, but Gopnik does his best.

Chesterton, however, only seems like an advocate of "extreme localism" if the broader context of his work is ignored. In Orthodoxy, for instance, he states his principle of democracy: "That the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay they are more extraordinary... This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately... the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves - the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state." (This is from the chapter The Ethics of Elfland.) Chesterton's localism is a localism that finds its meaning in terms of a universal human nature that must be respected. The laws of England can be left to Englishmen and the laws of France left to France because the ordinary men and women of England and France are essentially the same; and ordinary men and women have a natural respect for universal human nature. (This is evidenced recently in the same-sex marriage campaign. It has been a universal failure when put to democratic vote; it only succeeds when a small unelected tribunal, like the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, imposes it by force on the Commonwealth. Ordinary men and women have a common sense understanding of natural law; it takes a great deal of expensive higher "education" to blot it out, which is why "progressive" revolutions are always imposed by force through an intellectual elite.) Gopnik notes Chesterton's opposition to the Nazis, but for Gopnik it is merely an anomaly out of character with Chesterton's general anti-semitism, an anti-semitism Gopnik proves, strangely, by the fact that Chesterton was a Zionist. But GKC hated the Nazis for the same reasons he opposed the Boer War and supported Zionism - because local and familiar democratic government, based on general common sense, the natural law and tradition (the "democracy of the dead"), will always be more humane and rational than a progressive uberstate based on the alleged wisdom of an intellectual elite (and the Nazis had their own intellectuals.)

Some of what Chesterton wrote can appear to us to be parochial and trading in stereotypes. Chesterton had no problem in describing people in terms of what he saw as universal national characteristics, the German as "slow and reverent" and the Frenchman "swift and experimental", for instance. These characterizations were not always positive. In our contemporary cultural context, we see any sort of trading in stereotypes as extremely dangerous because we no longer believe in the natural law or universal human nature. Unity and morality is, for us, entirely conventional; therefore the conventions of speech and society carry an absolute significance, as do the variety of human racial characteristics. Chesterton was not embarrassed about writing of a "swarthy" Jew with a "hooked nose", anymore than he was of a beefy German or a skinny Italian (or a fat Englishman!), because he saw such characteristics as trivial in light of the deeper, universal human nature. Since we do not believe in a universal, permanent human nature, the hooked nose, like the conventions of speech, takes on absolute significance. This makes us a lot closer to Nazis than Chesterton ever was. We sense that the only thing separating us from something like Nazism are fragile societal conventions, conventions that are threatened by rather than guaranteed by common natural wisdom (in which we don't believe.) This is the essence of political correctness, and is likely to lead to fascism, one of the few cures for which is a good does of Chesterton.

Gopnik's blinkered view of Chesterton also leads him to misunderstand GK's understanding of the wisdom of childhood. Chesterton did not write of the "illusions of childhood" because he never considered them to be illusions, either in childhood or after. That is Gopnik reading his own view of Chesterton into Chesterton's view of Chesterton. The passage Gopnik quotes from Chesterton's autobiography is enough to disprove it:

"... I was subconsciously certain then, as I am consciously certain now, that there was the white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man who afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it in self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud."

Gopnik's reference to a "time when illusion and fact exist (as they should) at the same level of consciousness" is a reflection of his own deep-seated materialism and his inability to see it for what it is (facts = the material world; illusion = the mystical interpretation of the material world). Because he takes his own materialism as self-evident and fundamental, he takes it for granted that Chesterton must have seen it that way as well. But it is just Chesterton's point that he never accepted the materialistic split in being; it is the materialistic split of the world into a realm of material "facts" and mystical "illusions" that is man's straying into self-deception. For Chesterton the world is sacramental; its material and intelligible aspects being but two sides of one being, just as a book is a unity of form and matter.

This is not deep Chestertonian insight for anyone familiar with the broad character of Chesterton's work, especially anyone who has read Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas. But GK's book on St. Thomas (a saint guilty of "pedantic religiosity", according to Gopnik) comes from the later years in GK's life, the period when, according to Gopnik, GK had morphed into the "bad Chesterton." The "good Chesterton" was the early Chesterton who, according to Gopnik, may have been religious but was not "neatly dogmatic", the only unforgivable sin in the modern intellectual's eyes. The "good Chesterton" was clever and brilliant, showing an admirable modern reluctance to draw general conclusions; the later, "bad Chesterton" became a vicious anti-Semite and a dogmatic Catholic, which of these fates being more lamentable Gopnik leaves to the decision of the reader.

But, of course, the later Chesterton is the same man as the early Chesterton as, again, Gopnik's quote from Chesterton's autobiography shows. The difference between Chesterton as a man and as a child is that he became consciously certain of the same things he was subconsciously certain of as a child. In other words, as a man he understood his early sacramental perception of the world for what it was. Orthodoxy, a book written during the period of the early, allegedly "good" Chesterton, is a systematic exposition of Chesterton's childhood perceptions interpreted through his mature philosophical vision. It is as Catholic a book as any Chesterton ever wrote; anyone reading Orthodoxy can see that Chesterton was already a Catholic in spirit at that point. Chesterton's eventual formal conversion to the Church involved a lot more than a solution to the problem of anarchism. Gopnik writes, "If you want a solution, at once authoritarian and poetic, to the threat of moral anarchism, then Catholicism, which built Chartres and inspired Dante, looks a lot better than Scotland Yard. If you want stability allied to imagination, Catholicism has everything else beat." This again, reads Gopnik's own voluntarism into Chesterton rather than appreciating Chesterton on his own terms. Gopnik can only see egotistical motivation in Chesterton because it is the only sort of motivation he recognizes; but Chesterton did not convert to the Church to satisfy his "wants." He converted because he came to believe the Church to be true. From chapter 9 of Orthodoxy:

"I have another and far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And this is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me to-morrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you any more... The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast... This therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true."

Gopnik's summation encapsulates his deficient understanding of Chesterton and his own fundamental materialism:

"We can take the belief in that puppet to be a delusion, as the rationalists did. Or we can take it to be an intimation, as Chesterton did, of the existence of another world, in which the things that we sense as shadows will become real, and we will see ourselves as puppets that have come alive in the hand of God. Or we can believe that the credit we give the puppet show is the credit it deserves, that the wonder of it cannot be explained, up or down, but only experienced; that the side we see is the side there is to look at, and that the white radiance of wonder shines from inside, which is where the light is."

Hopefully by now the reader will recognize that Chesterton was not a Platonist; he did not believe in the "existence of another world." Chesterton was a Thomist, and he believed in this world, only he held that this world is a lot more than materialists say it is. Chesterton's puppet show was not an intimation of another world; it expressed the magic of this world. Chesterton was always saying that ordinary things are more magical than magical things; that a nose is more wonderful than Roman nose.

But wonder is naturally directed beyond itself; a wonder that has given up the search for its own meaning is wonder no longer. There is no practical difference between Gopnik's mystical materialism and ordinary materialism. The puppet show is not sacramental for Gopnik. Its fundamental reality is material, onto which he permits us to project mystical illusions, if such things please us. They never pleased Chesterton.

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