Thursday, 18 April 2013

GKC and Me

I guess you could call me a Chestertonian.  One of my most prized possessions is the (so far) Complete Works of G.K. Chesterton published by Ignatius.  I was a regular subscriber to Gilbert Magazine before finances got tight.  So much of my thought on faith and fairy tales is informed by Chesterton's childlike wonder, intelligence, and simplicity.  I'm a bit of a Chesterton quote spammer.
This post is about GKC and me; how I learned of him; what book of his I first picked up; what about his life, writing, and philosophy resonated with me; how I've come to call him a my patron saint and spiritual father.  This post was inevitable, but a few expressed reservations from kindred spirits makes the time ripe for an introduction.

Before we go any further, the caveats:

1 // Chesterton is a polemicist.  

He's not an apologist of the breed of Dinesh D'Souza, C.S. Lewis, and Scott Hahn.  He's certainly not a theologian like Saint Thomas Aquinas or Peter Kreeft.  He's a debater, both verbal and literary; and debate is a unique school.  It requires pithiness; it assumes an ideal listener/reader, and includes an appeal to pathos as well as logos.  There are certain truths, whether timeless or circumstantial, that must be kept in mind when reading Chesterton, and often there are obscure references to current events that would not have been at all obscure at the time of publication.

Chesterton is timeless in the sense that our repeated failures are timeless.  Otherwise, he is very much a man of his time and culture.  That's very important to keep in mind when reading any author, but even more so with GKC because a lot of what he says assumes pre-established facts.  As a debater, he just wouldn't have had time to go into them, and rightly leaves those metaphysical arguments to the experts.  His one-liners are almost never meant to be taken super-literally and, out of context, can appear downright absurd.

2 //  Chesterton is not antisemitic.  

This ridiculous and unfounded rumor has been proliferated and preserved by figures as weighty as T.S. Eliot.  The slander of antisemitism is lifted from quotes taken out of context, a modern day backwards application of political correctness, and super sensitivity that sacrifices necessary honest but respectful dialogue for "not hurting anyone's feelings."  Gilbert Magazine devoted a whole issue to address this claim, which can be downloaded for free.  There's no longer an excuse to accept the malicious accusation.

I hope that wasn't too unpleasant.

I consider Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton to be My Big 3.  My love for Tolkien led me to Lewis.  My love for Lewis led me to Chesterton.  Each one shaped who I am today, each person tapped into a part of my personality and soul and nourished it; and, if all did it using different techniques and strengths  from different perspectives and at different angles, that part of me that they shaped is the same and oriented toward the same ultimate good.

Toward the end of my first year of college, I had devoured 19 books by C.S. Lewis, a staggering accomplishment for the world's slowest-reading bibliophile.  Still I wanted more.  Much like I did with Tolkien when I "discovered" Lewis, I frequented articles and forums online, gleaned little bits of information and anecdotes.  I had read Surprised by Joy, of course, and once again saw the name Chesterton popping up with reference to Lewis.  Somehow, I ascertained that this guy was a Catholic.  Naturally, my interest piqued.

I read Orthodoxy and was not disappointed.  Now I'll attempt to describe something that is very hard to communicate in prose.  It's more naturally expressed by art and poetry.
A sentence of Chesterton's is a microcosm of any book; a book, of his entire body of work.  When I read Chesterton, his sentences slapped me in the face, like getting a cold shock of water first thing in the morning.  They literally struck me as truth.  This isn't because his thought is so original that I'd never heard of it before and was astounded to realize him right about it.  Rather, he presents what-is in clarity, distilled in purity, like snow melted mountain water.  Here was a man who unlocked all the tightly raveled God-knowledge of my nascent soul and presented it to me: not as a bride, like Tolkien, in beauty and mystery; not as a mother, like Lewis had, in comforting familiarity and profound love and awe and devotion; but as my own child, an impish joyful thing, astoundingly complete in itself, innocent yet immortal, infinitely familiar to me, utterly surprising and unpredictable.

So, in a parodox (of which Chesteroton is a great advocate), I was knocked off of my feet by this unflinching sense, what we call common sense; only it's not so common anymore.  Since the Fall there's been this dichotomy between good human instinct and an idolatry of human thought.  Some people reason themselves into madness; some into a sanitized, inoffensive creed (Luther, for instance, and the philosophers of the Enlightenment).  Since the Catholic Church lost her queenship in the west, sense has dwindled to a rumor, dismissed as prosaic, found altogether inconvenient.  So there's this strange effect of hearing from Chesterton something both new and familiar.

I've heard people more or less chalk up the popularity of Chesterton to bias confirmation.  And to that I would answer: yes, absolutely.  In the sense that siding with the truth, the kind of truth that can't be tested with the scientific method, is bias confirmation.  Chesterton affirms our instincts.

I can see how someone wouldn't like Chesterton.  His word-play and hyperbole is only one taste out of many.  He's easy to mistake for cocky because of his confidence, though his confidence is like that of a saint: completely unfocused on himself but rather on truth, indeed the Truth, out of pure love and devotion to it.  As he says in The Catholic Church and Conversion, "It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong," and he demonstrates that true humility to a T.  Still others consider him chauvinistic.  To that, I point insistently to caveat #1.  As to the rest of it, I can only say: even Tolstoy didn't like Shakespeare.  There's no accounting for taste!
One final thing.  Chesterton is also my teacher in poetry.  Although that wasn't his thing (Tolkien put his perfectionist frown on The Ballad of the White Horse), his worldview is that of the poet.  He said something profound and simple and alarmingly obvious when he said, "The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say.  The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say."  He gets it.

Much of Chesterton's revelations come to him because he sees the wide world the way a poet does.  Not as something familiar and taken for granted, but as an astounding and strange thing, like a fairy tale.  Why, he asks in Orthodoxy, do we assume that because a tree grows apples that it couldn't very well have grown tigers hanging by their tails?  And what will it take for us to notice, gooseflesh and tiny hairs rising, that apples grow on trees?  That the sun rises every day, without having to be wound up?  That breathing is a miracle, and babies laugh, and wine is so, so warm and good?  How can we make ourselves smell and hear and taste, and be shocked out of complacency?

What is the job of a poet if not to bring forth those delightful shivers?  To dare to inspire a soul to prayer or a call to action?  To look at things-that-are in a way that makes us tremble with fear and wonder and walk away changed; either like the man who went away sadly when Jesus told him what he must do to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven, or like the healed one who went out and proclaimed, "I was blind, but now I see."

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