Television jokes about the new pope generally have been lame, like this one from Jay Leno: "We have a new pope! Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany is now the most powerful Catholic in the world. Well, second most powerful, if you count Mel Gibson." Much funnier was this crack attributed to Dennis Miller: "Whenever I see a German on a balcony with an adoring throng, I get nervous."But seriously, folks, the dearth of really witty Ratzinger/Benedict jokes ought to be a disappointment for Catholics who agree with G.K. Chesterton, that great convert to Rome, that "it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it."
Writer Hilaire Belloc once wrote: "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There's always laughter and good red wine."Or a stein of Bavarian beer.
"[T]here is another strong objection which I, one of the laziest of all the children of Adam, have against the Leisure State. Those who think it could be done argue that a vast machinery using electricity, water-power, petrol, and so on, might reduce the work imposed on each of us to a minimum. It might, but it would also reduce our control to a minimum. We should ourselves become parts of a machine, even if the machine only used those parts once a week. The machine would be our master, for the machine would produce our food, and most of us could have no notion of how it was really being produced." GKC
A reader who browses through the fourteenth edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations will learn on page 918 that the General Motors pavilion at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago ("A Century of Progress") was inscribed with this quotation from Tremendous Trifles (slightly misquoted): "The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder." On the next page of Bartlett's readers are told that in a note-book dated 1945, John F. Kennedy ascribed to Chesterton the following: "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up." This alludes to the idea expressed by Chesterton in the opening paragraph of "The Drift from Domesticity," which is chapter IV of The Thing.
On: Orestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction By R. A. Herrera
There was a man born in the nineteenth century. He converted to Catholicism in middle age and became one of his country’s leading apologists. He wrote prolifically and was one of the leading intellects of his age. He was a huge man, standing over six feet tall and crushing the scales with hundreds of pounds.
This same man once walked into a room and heard a guy vilifying him for becoming a Catholic. After unsuccessfully warning him to curb his tongue, he grabbed the guy by the coat-collar and seat of his pants and threw him over a stovepipe.
Okay, it’s not Chesterton.
It’s Orestes Brownson, a man every bit as colorful as Chesterton but for different reasons.
In Orestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction, R. A. Herrera provides a compact biography of Brownson’s life, his era, and his philosophical bent.
In less than 140 pages, Herrera covers Brownson’s 1803 birth in Vermont to a family of Ethan Allen supporters to his 1876 death at his son’s house in Detroit. The quick-reading yet scholarly pages pack pounds of information. Herrera covers Brownson’s religious wanderings (Presbyterianism to Universalism to skepticism to Unitarianism to Roman Catholicism), his collaboration with early feminist radical Fanny Wright, his involvement with the New England Transcendentalists, and his role as a Northern literary leader during the Civil War.
Perhaps most importantly, Herrera provides a broad overview of Brownson’s writings and a detailed assessment of them. This is no small task (indeed, after the initial 140 pages of text, Herrera adds forty more, largely devoted to a scholarly review of his writings). Brownson’s collected writings fill twenty thick volumes, and the writings don’t come in neatly-arranged books (of which Brownson wrote few). Brownson primarily wrote for Brownson’s Quarterly Review, a journal he published for over twenty years and for which he provided most of the script for each 20,000-plus word issue.
The surface similarities between Brownson and Chesterton, as already noted, are remarkable, but it’s difficult to imagine two men more different in their literary approach. In his writings, Brownson was always uncompromising, frequently slashing, and sometimes downright mean when dealing with his opponents. According to Herrera, Brownson had an “inclination to use a battle ax to crush a butterfly.” Another recent biographer wrote: “There is in Brownson’s style a rhetorical habit of using the harsh blow of a miner’s sledge when the tap of a carpenter’s hammer would be more effective.” Brownson made many enemies in his career as a writer and, though he was the intellectual gemstone of Catholic America, he was repeatedly a source of embarrassment as well. A man more distant than Chesterton can’t be imagined.
But if you dig yet deeper and get past the writings, similarities between the men crop up again. Brownson was a kind man, his made-for-public-consumption polemics notwithstanding. He was tenderly affectionate toward his wife and children and had many friends. He was deeply devoted to God; after his conversion, always writing with a crucifix in front of him and a statue of the Virgin Mary at his side.
He was also an untiring philosopher. All biographers have agreed that Brownson was an unflagging pursuer of truth. In his efforts, he mastered foreign languages and read volumes of the best thinkers in Western Civilization, from Plato to Kant, in their native tongues. Wherever the truth took him, he went.
His pursuit eventually took him into the Catholic Church, an extremely odd journey for an intellectual in nineteenth-century Protestant America. Catholicism was exotic. Brownson had never even seen a Catholic church until his early twenties and, true to the temperament of the age, gave Catholicism little thought. He was probably a little taken back when his friend, Daniel Webster, saw him idly glancing at some Catholic works in a used bookstore and warned him, “Take care how you examine the Catholic Church, unless you are willing to become a Catholic, for Catholic doctrines are logical.”
It is telling that, when he was already highly-Catholic in his ideas and writings, Brownson was totally unaware of it until a Catholic journal re-produced one of his articles. He was somewhat stunned as he suddenly realized that his studies and ideas had unwittingly brought him to the threshold of “Catholicity” (his word). After he realized this, he investigated the possibility of conversion, but got cold feet and delayed his entry for a year.
The reason for the delay? A very Chestertonian one and a reason that contributed to Chesterton’s prolonged delay: he didn’t want to ostracize or hurt his non-Catholic friends. It’s not surprising and it illustrates the deepest layer of Brownson. Underneath Brownson’s intellectual pursuits, underlying the argumentative writings, stronger than his occasional flares of temper, ran a consistent theme: Love for his fellow men and a desire to see them happy and saved. And in this most important though often hidden trait, this large man was most like Chesterton.
Hilaire Belloc wrote his humorous "True Advertising" essay in hope that advertising would start telling the (whole) truth. I will remove my AdBlock filter on any advertising source so frankly humorous. Belloc wrote in 1926:
"I suppose the people who sell chemical food in any of its hundred forms will write something like this:
"'This stuff which I am putting up in tins for you may be easily described. It is made from the flesh of the pig: honestly it is. Not from any part of the pig in particular, but just from any or all parts chopped up. Most of the pigs were healthy, and your chance of getting part of a bad one is quite small. One the other hand, it is only fair to tell you that I have put a poison to keep the stuff from putrefying, and I have put in another chemical, not poisonous, to give it colour, and another chemical, which is only poisonous in large amounts, to give it consistency. That is all I have to say about it. P.S. - Even the poisonous chemical is not there in such large quantities as to do you any immediate harm. Your health will gradually suffer, but you won't feel any acute physical pain until you have got a great accumulation of it into your system after many years.'"
Chesterton on laughter: "It is obvious that the mind is moved by incongruity . . .". Schall on Chesterton's view on laughter: "Laughter is indeed a sign that there is a right order and we recognize it."
Excerpts from the first pages of Christopher Dawson's Christianity and the New Age:
"The men of letters . . . turned to literature and art as a means of escape from reality. That was the meaning to many of the catchword, 'Art for Art's sake.' Symbolism and aestheticism, the Ivory Tower and the Celtic Twilight, Satanism and the cult of 'Evil,' hashish and absinthe; all of them were ways by which the last survivors of Romanticism [in the late nineteenth century] made their escape . . . There was, however, one exception, one man who refused to surrender . . . Friedrich Nietzsche."
"So we have the paradox that at the beginning of the Renaissance, when the conquest of nature and the creation of modern science are still unrealized, man appears in god-like freedom with a sense of unbounded power and greatness; while at the end of the nineteenth century, when nature has been conquered and there seem no limits to the powers of science, man is once more conscious of his misery and weakness as the slave of material circumstance and physical appetite and death. . . Man is stripped of his glory and freedom and left as a naked human animal shivering in an inhuman universe."
In the September 1923 issue of The Adelphi, the biographer Hesketh Pearson published what appeared to be a verbatim report of a private quarrel between Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. (Shaw: "Have you any adequate excuse for not being drunk?") In fact it was entirely Pearson's invention. Chesterton was delighted and told Pearson that he ought to write his next book for him. However, the transcript was thought to be authentic by most readers, and to this day it is accepted and often quoted by Chesterton scholars. [Ian Hunter, Nothing to Repent, London: 1987, p. 94]
"In his remarkable little primer, “Letters to a Young Catholic,” Mr. Weigel took his readers on a series of pilgrimages to places where great Catholic personalities have struggled to reconcile this world and the next, places like the bar in London’s Fleet Street, where G.K. Chesterton used to drink. Chesterton was as worldly a scribbler as ever drained a pint of beer, but whereas the hack work of his journalist contemporaries has perished, his books and essays still glow with an insight that owes everything to his faith. What makes Catholic Christianity distinctive among religions is, in one sense, its worldliness."
This review appeared in Gilbert Magazine a few years ago
Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind By James E. Person Jr.
The child Russell Kirk was visiting the family’s ancestral home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan. He woke up one night in the front parlor and saw two men looking in the bay window. Thinking he must be seeing things, he put on his glasses and saw two men—one tall with a tall hat, the other short with a round hat. Frightened, he hid under his covers; the next morning, Kirk looked for footprints in the snow but didn’t see any. Years later, his old Aunt Fay—a long-time resident of Piety Hill—told Kirk how, as a young girl, she played with two men outside the bay window who no one else could see—Dr. Cady, a tall man with a tall hat, and Patti, a short man with a turban. She knew nothing of Kirk’s experience years earlier.
A fascinating story. And not one you’d normally associate with Kirk, a pioneer of the modern conservative movement in America.
This story is recounted in James Person’s Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, an excellent primer on Kirk’s life and enormous corpus of writings (thirty-two books and thousands of columns and articles).
A primer was needed. Many people have read Kirk, but few have fully understood him. Kirk had a tendency to use terms and phrases without concisely explaining them. His readers often walk away from his books with an amorphous appreciation for what he was saying, but not knowing exactly what he meant, especially when he used phrases like “the permanent things” or “the moral imagination” (two of Kirk’s favorites that are found throughout his works).
Person clears away any fogginess. The permanent things, for instance, are mores or norms that transcend the world’s cultures. A basic list, Person tells us, can be found in the appendix of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, such as the duties to help others, to take special care of family members, to be faithful to one’s spouse, and to be brave. The moral imagination is the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events, especially as embodied in poetry and art and sustained by religion. (“The democracy of the dead” was another of his favorite phrases, Kirk being a big fan of Chesterton.)
Person’s book touches all areas of Kirk’s thought and writings, from his most famous book that shaped the modern conservative movement, The Conservative Mind, to his landmark study on T.S. Eliot, Eliot and His Age. Person recounts Kirk’s writings on education, history, social criticism, and economics.
Person also devotes a substantial amount of time to a line of Kirk’s writings that many people don’t know about: his fiction. Like Chesterton, Kirk’s talents as a writer were diverse. In addition to his non-fiction books, columns, and articles, Kirk became an accomplished fiction writer, publishing numerous ghost stories and three novels, including a Gothic romance, Old House of Fear, that would sell more copies than all his other books combined. His story-telling was good enough to earn him various awards, including appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of Count Dracula, an honor bestowed by the Count Dracula Society.
Person’s book also makes it clear that Kirk was not wholly conservative, at least as that term is popularly understood today. Again like Chesterton, Kirk’s worldview transcended the pettiness of party politics, and he can’t easily be pinned down on the political spectrum. Kirk, for instance, admired the trust-busting and early conservationist Teddy Roosevelt and listed him as one of the top ten conservatives of all time. Kirk also endorsed environmental protection legislation that was opposed by some conservatives at the time.
Perhaps most significantly, Kirk, like Chesterton, did not have an unquestioning confidence in the competitive market economy. Kirk, an admirer of Wilhelm Roepke, the man who architected Western Germany’s economic recovery after World War II, favored what Roepke called a humane economy: “an economic system suited to human nature and to a humane scale in society, as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of counterproductive personal and social consequences.” Person points out that Kirk’s economic views were similar to distributism. Person devotes much space to exploring the merits of Kirk’s economics, and in the process sheds much light on the merits of distributism.
Finally, like Chesterton, Person tells us that Kirk was a convert and led a life marked by Christian virtue. He was a good father and husband, and a charitable man who cared for the poor and downtrodden, taking many of them into his own home for extended stays.
Overall, Kirk was a writer who labored in God’s vineyard in an age that tramples His grapes. A few more such Christians and, as Kirk would often say about other great men and women of the twentieth century who spoke out against vulgarizing modernity, contemporary civilization might be redeemed by now.
Schall on Chesterton From Midwest Chesterton News, October, 1996.
Just when I thought that I had the importance and delight of the essay pretty well figured out, I ran across an essay of Chesterton that made me doubt the line of thought I have often used to praise Chesterton himself. The occasion for these reflections was a very nice book review of my Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays, by Professor James Finn Cotter at Mt. St. Mary's College, in Maryland. Cotter remarked, with much eloquence, that "the personal essay is a most creative form of human expression when it comes to reaching out to the reader. It is natural, authentic, and unique, and it cannot be easily faked, like a poem or a story. When read aloud, an essay touches our emotions directly and makes us think more clearly."
My Idylls and Rambles (Ignatius Press, 1994) itself contained a defense of the essay and argued that it was quite the most delightful of all forms of writing. I rejoiced that Belloc and Chesterton wrote essays with such humor and insight. I even cited Stevenson and Hazlett as favorite essayists. Now, I know that some people prefer poetry or the novel or the solid book to the short essay. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot enjoy every form that comes along, if it is good. I knew that the early essay in French was an "effort", an "attempt" or a "try" at explaining or accounting for something. Its genius is that it is open to every topic and mood, whimsical or solemn.
The day after I read Cotter's review, I decided to do a column for the Midwest Chesterton News. About a year ago, as I mentioned in an earlier column, I bought several volumes of the Collected Works, but I had noticed that I had not read any of Volume XXXV, 1929-31. So I opened up the book rather arbitrarily to the column of March 2, 1929, on "Buddhism and Christianity", a most pertinent topic considering John Paul II's remark on Buddhism in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and his Ut Unum Sint. Just as I was about to begin my essay on Buddhism (hold your breath), however, I thumbed backward to the Chesterton column of February 16, 1929. Its title was, I could hardly believe it, "On the Essay"! I, being only fourteen months old when it was written, had never seen this essay before; it was like discovering gold in your own backyard. I thought maybe Professor Cotter might like a copy of it, so I xeroxed it. I figured I knew exactly what Chesterton would say in his essay.
Then I read Chesterton's essay "On the Essay" only to discover that he did not at all say what I assumed he would say. He did say, much to my consolation, that he himself indulged in the essay all his life and loved it as a form of writing. Chesterton began his essay, however, with this quite upsetting sentence for someone, like me, prepared to exalt the essay at all costs: "There are dark and morbid moods in which I am tempted to feel that Evil re-entered the world in the form of Essays." "Wow!" I thought to myself, that is quite a surprising remark -- evil re-enters the world in the form of essays! Here I had been thinking that the essay could save the world and I discover the Devil as its author! It has been my experience, as devoted readers of the Midwest Chesterton News well know by now, however, that whenever Chesterton talks about evil, I had better pay attention; something momentous is about to happen. The plot thickens when Chesterton remarked that the essay came into English letters from the French via Francis Bacon. Chesterton added, "I can only believe it. I always thought he (Bacon) was the villain of English history." It was Bacon who taught the English that knowledge is purely positive, purely useful.
So what's up with the essay, the form of literature Schall likes most? Is the truth now out, that, as many of his best friends have darkly hinted for years, Schall himself is a cooperator in the Evil that re-enters history, no small problem as even Schall recognizes?
Chesterton admitted that "I take my greatest literary pleasure in reading them (essays); after such really serious necessities of the intellect as detective stories and tracts written by madmen." Well, you just have to laugh at such a remark. We readers of Father Brown know about Chesterton and detective stories; we readers of Orthodoxy know of Chesterton and madmen; we readers if a hundred of his books know about Chesterton and essays. So here Chesterton is telling us that essays are something of a serious intellectual problem through which evil re-entered the modern world. Why so?
Chesterton maintained that the essay is a modern invention -- though it was known to the Romans, I think, say to Horace and Cicero. Most readers know that I also do a monthly column in Crisis entitled "Sense and Nonsense". Needless to say, I have always understood that this title comes from Chesterton. Let us see how it works into our present plot:
"There is any amount of sense and nonsense talked both for and against what is called medievalism. There is also any amount of sense and nonsense talked for and against what is called modernism. ... But if a man wanted the one real and rational test, which really does distinguish the medieval from the modern mood, it might be stated thus: The medieval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay. The man who wrote a Thesis, stated what he held and then proceeded to prove it by known, orderly, logical rules. The man who writes the essay holds nothing so definite."
Chesterton said that he enjoys Stevenson, but he worried about the man who preferred, as Stevenson said in a famous essay, the travel to the arrival at the end of the road. Chesterton always preferred the flagons at the Inn at the End of the World. In logic, Chesterton pointed out that if the end of travel were not more important, no one would ever set forth. The travel itself may well be diverting enough, but it cannot be the end or purpose of the journey. The essayist, not the thesis maker, has unfortunately become our moral philosopher. He, like the traveller, has nothing definite in mind when he sets out or when he concludes. "After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or to go home," Chesterton observed. "It is one thing to travel hopefully, and say half in jest that that it is better than to arrive. It is another thing to travel hopelessly, because you know you will never arrive." Needless to say, the medievals travelled hopefully, knowing by their theses to where they would arrive, while the moderns travel hopelessly, not having anywhere to go.
Chesterton thus was able to take that which he himself wrote thousands of times, the very essay, and subject it to critical examination about what it did and what he was doing. Chesterton found an element in modern letters that is, because of its inconclusiveness, "indefinite and dangerous." For he understood that it is dangerous for the mind not to do what the mind does of its nature, that is, come to conclusions, on the basis of a thesis, of an open argument. In this sense, Chesterton understood that the "article", the unit of argument in St. Thomas' Summae, was a far different proposition from the essay that only rambled on about one's own feelings.
Now I do not think there is anything particularly wrong with feelings or rambling, but it is not to be done for its own sake. Chesterton saw that evil re-enters in the world when the world is so proposed to us that all there is in it is travel, no goal. The evil is fuzziness, the inability to make a decision or to live by one when made, the certainty of uncertainty that paralyzes the mind and the culture.
In writing an essay, we can deal with theoretical or practical matters. This is the liberty of the essay. But properly to present theoretical matters we must put forth a theory and arrive at a conclusion based on that theory. If we substitute the looseness of the essay for the rigor of the thesis and the argument, we will end up simply roaming and wandering about the intellectual landscape.
After I read this essay of Chesterton on the essay, I asked myself, is Chesterton, in his essays, guilty of the fault that he attributes to the heritage of Bacon, of letting evil into the world because the essayist could not make up his mind about what he was arguing? I thought of the many times in these pages that I have reflected on, analyzed, commented on, one or another Chesterton essay. I realized that what was to me always unique and striking about Chesterton's essays, what made them different, was that his essays, while always revealing a good amount of wonderment and delight, were always theses. He always knew what the mind was for. Even in his playful essays, in his "attempt" to wander about within an experience or an event, Chesterton came to a clear conclusion based on principled argument. Chesterton managed to combine the virtue of the medieval thesis with the modern essay. He was so delightful, so perceptive that he taught the truth, in both sense and nonsense, under the guise of evil re-entering the world.
Reproduced with gracious permission of James V. Schall
In 1985 the heavy-metal rock band Iron Maiden released an album with the cheerful title, Live after Death. One of the songs included therein bears the title "Revelations"; and barely decipherable there, amid the successive detonations of electric guitar, someone is singing the words of Chesterton's famous 1905 Christian hymn, "Oh God of Earth and Altar."
"Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to do if we are to fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be happy for long—but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one's food—and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus." Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome
For those who missed it, The American Conservative last year (2/16/04) ran a nice piece on GKC's poetry. Among choice passages, "It is this faith that allows Chesterton to gaze upon the 'proletarians' of the world and see not misery requiring bloody revolution to correct, but workmen of the divine." Chesterton's joyful poetry is "a scandal to the true-blue modern intellectual, who combines despairing sadness with fanatic utopian dreams."
Sebastian Flyte: a young man with a sense of his English nobility and the oppressive air of dignity that title required him to assume. A young man with an acute sense of holiness. A young man with an intense desire for joy that he wrongly tried to capture with drink.
In the process, he blew out the transcendental receiver we're all hard-wired with. But the signal didn’t stop coming to him. He kept pursuing the exceptional feeling through more intense rounds of debauchery and drunkenness.
Fortunately for Sebastian, with the transcendental signal also comes grace. And with grace even the distortion can become a type of holiness.
This becomes clear in Waugh’s final words about Sebastian. Sebastian’s drinking worsened until he ended-up living with a shiftless German named Kurt, a pitiful and despicable man who took advantage of Sebastian, living off the small allowance that Sebastian continued to receive from his family. Sebastian provided for the man and cared for Kurt, for some inexplicable reason, but “as long as Sebastian had him to look after, he was happy.”
Sebastian’s call to holiness that he had translated as the call to drunkenness was becoming transformed in his soul and erupting in a proper form—the call to service. After serving Kurt for awhile, Kurt was caught by the Nazis, made to serve as storm trooper, escaped, was caught, and hung himself in a concentration camp. Sebastian spent a year looking for him in Europe, then went to Morocco when he learned Kurt was dead.
Eventually, Sebastian landed in a monastery near Carthage, not as a monk, but as a drunken porter. He was fit for neither the secular world nor the religious world, pathetic by both worlds’ standards.
But Waugh leaves us with the impression that Sebastian obtained a good life. The portrait painted of Sebastian’s future is touching, in an odd sort of way. In response to Charles Ryder’s question about how Sebastian will end, Sebastian’s sister responds (in a way that leaves no doubt that is Waugh’s opinion):
"I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of the [monastic] community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, ‘Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,’ and then he’ll come back dishevelled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. . . If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life."
Waugh tells that Sebastian, the noble drunkard, would become a man whose vice was permanently affixed to his back, but a man who was becoming holy by carrying that self-inflicted cross as nobly as possible. His transcendental receiver, through nothing less than unmerited grace, carrying a better tune, even if still somewhat distorted.