talk given at the 2015 Louisiana Chesterton Conference
Good afternoon. I am honored to have this opportunity to share this weekend with you all and share this stage with men who have been doing this kind of thing longer than I have been alive. I am perhaps one of the youngest in the room, which for Chesterton would really just mean I am the most likely to still believe in fairy tales and dragons, which I do. Still, I am as one standing alongside each of you, shoulder to shoulder, both looking at the same man, the same life, the same literary and theological works. I am happy each of us has been given a set of eyes, a set of desires, and a framework of experience by which to understand Chesterton, thereby adding to the mosaic which was Chesterton’s life and work.
In classical rhetoric we are taught that when speaking on any subject whatsoever, we must consider our audience. So, what to say about Chesterton to a room filled with Chestertonians, Chestertones, Chestertonites, and Chestertonistas? If I were a cage rattler, I would criticize Chesterton’s criticisms of John Calvin. If I were a peace-maker, I would criticize George Bernard Shaw or the lunatic, or perhaps criticize both with the same breath. To be true to form, we must do what Chesterton would have done, say what Chesterton would have said: he would have pointed beyond himself…shortly after a humorous jab at a fledgling politician.
When we recover or safeguard anything whatsoever, particularly something as noble as a rightly renewed interest in G.K. Chesterton and literature, we must be sure that we are not recovering the thing in itself. We do not recover or safeguard Chesterton in the same way we do not recover classical Christian education, Aristotelian logic, or grandma’s old brownie recipe. We do not recover these things for themselves, but for the sake of something beyond them, something more infinitely beautiful. Chesterton brings us to our humanity. Aristotelian logic brings us to certainty. Grandma’s brownie recipe brings us to grandma. When seen rightly, these sacramentally bring us to God. As Chesterton said, “If a man is first with us, it should be because of what is first with him. If a man convinces us at all, it should be by his convictions.” (page 199 Heretics in Ignatius copy) If we are here, it is not because we love Chesterton. It is because we love his convictions, or because someone pulled you all the way here, to Ponchatoula, because you ought to love his convictions, and Chesterton just so happened to exhibit and explain those convictions better and more delightfully than perhaps any other Englishman.
When we recover a man such as Chesterton, dusting his philosophical lapels and shining his theological shoes, we make no attempt at full resurrection. His time is coming. What we ought to do is consider why he matters for our own time; why we, swimming in postmodernity, would gather near the swamp and do something more than a thought experiment. When speaking of reading old books and learning from dead men, C.S. Lewis states, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” (intro to Athanasius). Modern man needed Chesterton in 1915. This has not changed in one-hundred years. More than that, we not so much need Chesterton or what Chesterton had as much as we need what had Chesterton.
My particular angle this afternoon will be Chesterton’s literary theory and criticism. For the past several months, my colleague Sean Johnson and I have been compiling and organizing all of what Chesterton had to say about literature. It has been no small task. In telling folks about this project, we have had the same kind of response from anyone who has extensively read Chesterton. The warning, which is a good one, runs something like this: “if you compile all Chesterton said on literature and literary figures, you might as well compile every page he has ever written.” This is quite true, which makes his absence from most discussions on literary theorists and critics that much more astonishing. Having written over eighty books, two-hundred short stories, four-thousand essays, and innumerable newspaper columns, Chesterton’s body of work was larger than he was, and there are few pages, if any, that do not in some way teach us something about literature. Here, for now, I want to briefly impress upon each of us the importance of Chesterton’s philosophy of literature. In short, we need to learn to read and love literature as Chesterton did. Chesterton didn’t have literature; Literature had Chesterton. And if we get this right, it will have us.
Some may find it odd to speak of Chesterton as a literary theorist and critic. When one thinks of literary theory and criticism, gest and joke do not readily come to mind. Neither do trifles nor ordinary phenomena turned cultural criticism. When we think of modern literary theory and criticism, we are told not to think of religion, of theology. And we certainly shouldn’t befriend such a word as dogma or orthodox. We are basically told not to think. It is thought today that if a man is a theologian, he cannot be a trustworthy critic. If he is a philosopher, he cannot be a poet.
The history of literary theory and criticism has been filled with great thinkers, but none more colorful, none more clever and candid, none more tasteful than G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a journalist by trade and a literary warrior by necessity. As the former, he has been semi-adequately praised. As the latter, he has been embarrassingly ignored. His name, much less extended excerpts from his several works, is not quickly found in most anthologies on literary theory and criticism. Perhaps this was because Chesterton’s criticism was poetic, intuitive and creative, rather than scientific, academic, or analytic. It certainly wasn’t relativistic and by it he didn’t attempt to be tolerant. His catholic wit, his balance of imagination, philosophy, theology, and outright humor, may also be why this important man of letters so easily goes unnoticed in any serious discussion about modernity’s best literary theorists and critics. This kind of oversight is not a problem for Chesterton. It is our problem. These, his wit and copiousness, are likewise the same reasons why we must freshly consider Chesterton’s unique contributions to a philosophy of literature. When our tradition gives us great men, it gives us great gifts. And it is up to us, like with any gift, to squander it or rightly handle it with gratitude.
As a Literary Theorist
First, let’s consider Chesterton as a literary theorist. It is said that literary theory began with Aristotle and his Poetics. This is quite true, and it is safe to say that nearly every major category in Aristotle’s Poetics may be found amidst Chesterton’s several essays. In this way Chesterton continues a dialogue started 2500 years ago, and he continues it into modern times, which most certainly needs clarity on the issues.
Still, if we read Chesterton on literature, looking for buzz-words to trip our modern literary sentiments, we will be wholly disappointed. Above all, Chesterton’s literary philosophy was something of a study in the ontology of literature, literature by its very presence. He understood, to the dismay of most of today’s college English professors, that literature itself takes place in a narrative, a fixed and sacramental narrative where, for each one of us, orthodoxies abound. He did not look for the opportunity to place writers in scholastic categories, to strip an author of his religion, of his humanity, in order to see his philology. Chesterton sought to understand the very presence of an author or a work, the miraculous moment of their existing whatsoever. If the Russian Formalists at the turn of the 20th century said that ‘making strange’ was the essence of literature, then Chesterton would tell us the world is God’s poem, for every bit of the world is wonderfully strange, including the very presence of literature.
Literature occurs in the real world; literature itself is a creation within a creation. It therefore must abide by all the rules of the real world. Literature must be logical, though not rationalistic and rarely prosaic. It must love dogma, boundaries and lines without which there would be no art. It must deal in human terms, which must account for the divine. Literature is not literature without religion, ethics, philosophy, love, pain, hope, fear, sin, and sacrifice – without mankind. A hedonistic nihilist may write something which adheres to his worldview better than he can adhere to his worldview, but whatever he writes he has not given us literature.
One literary device Chesterton knew quite well was what Aristotle called reversal, peripeteia in the Greek. In Homer, Odysseus the beggar is really Odysseus the king. In Sophocles, Oedipus is the very criminal he seeks. In Genesis, Joseph, Pharaoh’s guardian over Egypt’s grain, was Joseph, the younger brother sold into slavery. In the Gospels, Judas with the affectionate kiss is Judas the betrayer. For Chesterton, peripeteia is the story of the world. A tree gave us forbidden fruit because a tree was to give us a crucified God. The second Adam did what the first Adam failed to do; a fall becomes ascension. A suspected prostitute is the virgin mother of God. The crown of thorns was a crown of life. The garden becomes a city. The servant is the savior. The baby is the king. Those who lose their lives find it. Those who try to save their lives lose it. The humble are brought high, and the high are cut down. God is a God of reversals, because he is a God of surprises, of gifts.
Furthermore, we could say that Chesterton had a working theory of literature in as much as he had a working theory of poets, philosophers, and critics. Chesterton’s philosophy of literature, and his theory about those who write it as well as those who have anything whatsoever to say about it, was first and foremost a theory of man, an anthropology. In this way, Chesterton forces us to define our terms, to not remain content with the mere use of such popular terms like “progress,” “research,” “tolerance,” “feminism,” or “multi-cultural.” He makes it clear that to say anything about literature whatsoever, we must first say something about man. And if we are to say anything true about literature, we must first say something true about man. What is true of man? One thing true of man is that we want the benefits of being a man without the implications of understanding what that means. That is to say, we want literature, but not as much as we want idols.
As a Literary Critic
Next, let us consider Chesterton as a literary critic. Dr. Ian Ker writes in the Preface of his biography of Chesterton, “Perhaps the most serious way in which Chesterton has been underestimated is as a literary critic: this may be because, apart from his book on Browning, his best criticism is not of poetry but of prose…Chesterton is one of our great literary critics, to be mentioned in the same breath as Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Eliot.” (page xi in Ker’s biography)
Literary criticism may be broadly defined as the discourse about literature and its constituent parts. It is said that literary criticism, which answers the questions “What is literature and what do we do about it?” began with Plato and his Republic. If we charge Chesterton with neglecting to write a formal treatise on literature, such as Sir Philip Sydney’s Defense of Poesy or Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, this would not be enough to accuse Chesterton of not being a literary critic, for he wrote extensively and adequately on, if not literature-proper, than everything which makes literature possible: language, the imagination, reason, sociology, religion, values, history, philosophy, political theory, mystery, family, poets, and wall paper.
If we plan on getting literary criticism right, we can only do so by recovering a kind of Chestertonian criticism, where the classical tradition is taken seriously and the truth value of the literary arts is considered anew. Likewise, Chesterton follows Plato in the classical tradition by affirming that literature should not exist without “a sustained philosophical critique, which raises fundamental and enduring questions about the nature of literature and its justification…his concerns for poetry and art are ultimately subordinated to his larger philosophical aims, whether epistemological, ontological or ethical, hence [Plato’s] discussions of poetry are always embedded in some wider context.” (page xxiii-xxix in the Penguin edition of Classical Literary Criticism). The same may be said of Chesterton. For one cannot know Dante if one does not know St. Francis; one cannot know Dickens if one does not know Christmas.
For Chesterton, “Criticism does not exist to say about authors the things that they knew themselves. It exists to say the things about them which they did not know themselves.” If this be true, we may rightly say Chesterton’s evaluation of a man was always a critical evaluation. As a critic, Chesterton unfolds the characters and the author. He lays a body of work on the operating table and, far from sedating it, he revives it so that it may speak to us.
Still, perhaps the greatest critical contribution Chesterton can give us is his unrelenting emphasis on paradox. As David Lodge states, “Yet there is a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry…apparently the truth which the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox.” (page 292 in 20th Century Literary Criticism) While modern literary theory and criticism tends to distort, turning plain language into subversive language about race relations, gender wars, or economic injustice, Chesterton had the ability to simplify without distorting, to simplify so as to clarify, which makes him all the more dangerous for modern thinkers. While modern man attempts to turn the world on its head so that man may feel upright again, Chesterton turns us on our heads so that we may see the world aright. Chesterton knew that to be a good critic meant that one must first be a man, and this meant having a large dose of humility.
Chesterton’s final contribution to literary criticism is his broad influence on his literary successors. To these literary giants - Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, and Alfred Noyes - Chesterton was a kind of spiritual and intellectual father figure. As our very own Joseph Pearce states in his excellent book Catholic Literary Giants, “Those literary figures who have expressed a specific and profound debt to Chesterton as an influence on their conversions include C.S. Lewis, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Alfred Noyes. Thus, without Chesterton, it is possible that the world would never have seen the later Christian poetry of Noyes, the subtle satire of Knox, the masterful translation of, and commentary on, Dante by Sayers, and the multifarious blossoming of Lewis’ prodigious talents. Clearly we, as the inheritors of this cultural treasure trove, have much for which to thank Chesterton.” (page 59)
We can recover a proper understanding and appreciation for literature by having a proper understanding and appreciation for Chesterton. And I would say it is only in recovering Chesterton’s fundamental understanding of literature that we may appreciate literature at all.
To be sure, Chesterton does not so much seek to explain literature in the same mode as Cleanthe Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Chesterton seeks to recover a world in which literature is worth existing whatsoever. Chesterton does not lead us, as most literary theorists and critics do, into the depths and shining brilliance if literature qua literature. Chesterton does not fight where most critics fight; he does not fight with the technical, the mechanistic. He fights with the heart of literature, the poet, the author, the men and women who write literature.
For Chesterton, literature was gest. It was culture. It was tremendous. And in as much as it put forth humanity, the incarnate life in the lived-body, literature is full of beautiful trifles, full of the paradox and the orthodox, full of the ordinary and divine. Separating these not only creates false dichotomies, it creates harmful fissures, thwarting any real success in seeing the parts for what they are and seeing the whole whatsoever. Literature is meant to be made, to shine forth in humanity as a pathway to personal and societal redemption. It is likewise meant to be guarded. In the war of words, the war of ideas and principalities, literature was both Chesterton’s battlefield and sword. Chesterton was a theorist as much as he was an essayist and poet. He was a critic as much as he was a Catholic.
Part of Chesterton’s genius was the complex and entangled, certainly not confused, way in which he could in one breath write on both orthodoxy and literature, democracy and rationality. It is likewise part of the difficulty in parsing out his less obvious voice on literature-proper. In squeezing his thoughts on literature into one anthology, we did not go through the trouble of straining the seeds of other worthwhile subjects. This, after all, would have been a great injustice to a man of such academic breadth. It would have likewise been a caricature of what he thought of literature. He did not separate politics, religion, and fear from literature. Neither should we present him that way.
If one reads the forthcoming anthology and charges us with the academic crime of creating not an anthology of literary theory and criticism, but creating an anthology of religious beliefs, he would be quite right, but not because we set out to do this. There is perhaps no 20th century scholar more religious than G.K. Chesterton. And there is perhaps no human artifact more religious than literature, than art, and certainly no human action more religious than criticism. It should likewise be pointed out that by its nature an anthology is an exercise in religion, an attempt to make a whole out of parts, further evidence that man is homo liturgicus. Sure, we have made an anthology of religious beliefs. We will wear this badge proudly, but only because, like Chesterton, we are not afraid to be human.
To end, Chesterton not only spoke of paradox, basing much of his worldview on the ever-present paradoxical nature of life and Christianity; Chesterton was a paradox. He was rational because he was no rationalist; he knew reason’s limits. He was brilliant because he dwelled among the trifles. And he was literate because he could take his nose out of a book. He could read more than text; he could read the world. He could look past the text and exegete the man. A man can understand Dickens only by reading Dickens; he can understand Aquinas only by studying Aquinas; but a man cannot understand a great deal of literature without becoming a wordsmith or poet. In becoming a man of letters, he himself is the phenomena which he studies. Chesterton’s philosophy of literature is worth recovering, because his theory and criticism of the art of letters was that of a man of letters. And like his philosophy of everything else, Chesterton’s philosophy of literature was one anchored in ordinary life, ever pointing to an extraordinary Gospel.