Thursday, May 2, 2019

On Chesterton's Family Essay

I discovered GK Chesterton when I was a devout Christian. I read his book Orthodoxy at least five times during college and in the years immediately following. I also read The Everlasting Man once, The Man Who Was Thursday several times, The Club of Queer Trades (short stories) once and various essays, including a previous stab at the book I’m reading currently, In Defence of Sanity. This last is a best of collection; 67 essays from the 5,000 or so he wrote. I made it approximately halfway through that time. Recently, despite the fact that I am now an agnostic, I find myself referencing Chesterton in conversation fairly often. He could really turn a phrase, and was consistently able to invoke a sense of wonder at the paradoxes he saw around him. Paradoxically, I use a paraphrase of his answer to the question of what made him convert to Catholicism when I’m trying to explain how I lost my faith: It wasn’t one single thing, rather a gradual accretion of a lot of different things that added up to me being a different person with a different worldview.

If I saw an essay titled “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” written in our day, I would likely toss my phone aside and run the other way. If I couldn’t avoid it, I’d brace myself for a right wing screed. In Chesterton’s hands, while I certainly do not agree with every jot of his argument in the piece, the title belongs to a trenchant and often funny account of how much harder it is to care for the person next to you than it is for people in general:

“It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our
religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant,
that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth.
It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical
ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity.
The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family,
are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind.
Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable,
like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind.
Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.”

I may not agree with Chesterton wholly, but I find him a great spur to thought, and an entertaining writer.

As a side note, I think I caught something I had never noticed in his work before. Chesterton is a man of his times in many ways, but I caught a whiff of disdain for or at least a complicated relationship with the Imperial system he wrote in (early 20th century England). I’ll be interested to see how that plays out in the rest of the essays in this collection.

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