Tuesday, July 9, 2019

In Defense of Sanity by GK Chesterton

Chesterton is an infuriating writer. Everyone who likes him has qualifications. Borges counted him among his favorite writers, but is reported to have said it was a shame he became Catholic. John Piper (a writer I have no use for) said that Orthodoxy was great and “a few chance misstatements” about protestantism shouldn’t put anyone off of reading it. Annie Dillard quotes him, but presumably, given her (to use her term) spiritual promiscuity, wouldn’t agree with his dogmatism. The same is likely true of Alan Watts, known for introducing many in the West to Buddhism, but gave a memorable lecture on Chesterton.  As best I can tell, Neil Gaiman is some stripe of atheist, but he liked Chesterton enough to make him a character in Sandman. All of that to say that I am in interesting company when I say that I disagree with well over half of what he says, but find him absolutely delightful to read. This compilation of 67 essays puts what I love in his work and what troubles me about it on display.

He is one of the most quotable writers ever. From Orthodoxy: "It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't." From the essay The Diabolist: "An Imperialist is worse than a pirate. For an Imperialist keeps a school for piracy disinterestedly and without an adequate salary." From the essay The Furrows: “There are some very clever people who cannot enjoy the joy unless they understand it. There are other and even cleverer people who say they lose the joy the moment they do understand it. Thank God I was never clever, and could always enjoy things whether I understood them or whether I didn't. I can enjoy the orthodox Tory, though I could never understand him. I can also enjoy the orthodox liberal, though I understand him all too well." From On Original Sin: "Man has scattered his own vices as well as virtues very arbitrarily among the animals, and there may be no more reason to accuse the peacock of pride than to accuse the pelican of charity."

Chesterton was a self proclaimed medievalist who resented progress. His definition of progress was broad enough that it seemed at times he was against everything (capitalism, feminism, socialism, imperialism, birth control (he HATED birth control), etc). Just about anyone could find something to object to in this book. He is vicious towards capitalism "...and what were the theories? Perhaps the best and broadest of them was a most monstrous and mythical superstition of Adam Smith; a theological theory that providence had so made the world that men might be happy through their selfishness; or, in other words, that God would overrule everything for good, if only men could succeed in being sufficiently bad. The intellectuals of this epoch taught definitely and dogmatically that if only men would buy and sell freely, lend or borrow freely, sweat or sack freely, and in practice steal or swindle freely, humanity would be happy. The Common Man soon found out how happy; in the Slums where they left him and in the Slump to which they led him." In the next paragraph he slams socialism.  He dedicated several essays to complaining about feminism.

In his essay on Mary Queen of Scots, he said "It is always well to leave a very wide margin of agnosticism in history, because all sorts of new things may be discovered." That agnosticism is rarely on display in his work. He was incredibly certain for someone who revelled so in paradox. His point was that if you don’t think your opinion is right, it’s not really your opinion. That is true to a certain extent, but what if you’re wrong? My tendency is to say, like Montaigne, “what do I know?” Chesterton would have thought that cowardly. I’m comfortable with that. On those points on which I agree with him, though, no one says it better.

The biggest attraction to his work, is the fundamental sense of wonder with which he approaches the world. The stories we tell ourselves about the world can fundamentally change how we feel and live. Otherwise placebos wouldn’t work. That’s not to accuse him of the power of positive thinking claptrap. Or to say that storytelling can conquer every malady. But there is something to be said for his approach, which is to mere optimism what Moby Dick is to a fishing anecdote.

I will come back to many of these essays again. I will never reread others. I often found myself laughing out loud, almost dropping the book and applauding one sentence then scowling, ready to throw it across the room at the next. A frustrating book, but an incredibly satisfying reading experience.

Recommended (with the caveat that I disagree with most of what he says)

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