Monday, May 29, 2006

A Chestertonian Celebration!

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.
- Autobiography, 1936
Yes, today is indeed the birthday of Gilbert Keith Chesterton - were he still alive, he would be one hundred and thirty-two years old.

And what a life was his! Few men have done so very much while simultaneously doing so very little. Gilbert never fought in any wars, invented any machines, or made any scientific or medical breakthroughs. He was not a bullfighter or a riverboat captain. He was a man - plump, genial and eccentric, but a man of great character and imagination. A man, you might say, who knew what being a man really meant even if circumstances often conspired against him living up to that glorious template. He knew the value of Fatherhood with a comprehensiveness rivalled only by that of God Himself, and yet was sadly denied children of his own. He knew the value of chivalry with that awful clarity that can only come to the Knight on the walls of Jerusalem, or on the fields of Agincourt, and yet was never called upon for that last, heroic defence; never drew his sword except in merriment or passion; never fired his revolver except in sport.

And yet, here we are, paying homage to him. Gilbert Chesterton was the avatar of successful theory, and that theory has been both expansive and plentiful. I once heard it said of Hilaire Belloc that we no longer remember how right he was about everything because we simply can not bear to consider how tragic has been our ignorance of his wisdom. There is in his warnings all of the power of "I told you so," with none of the spite. I would argue that the same is true of Gilbert, who made it his business to be right when everyone else was wrong, and who can only be properly appreciated in retrospect. For a man so utterly devoted to history and tradition, such a description is, perhaps, accurate.

He was born to honest and caring parents. His father - Edward - was the sort of attentive polymath that one would hope all men might be - an avid record-keeper who took great interest in philosophical and political matters. Better still, he was of the sort who delighted in becoming sufficiently accomplished at numerous small crafts that he would have the means of enteraining even the most mixed of company. One such outpouring of this talent was the production of a small puppet theater that would, obliquely, inform much of Gilbert's view of the world. The young man crossing a bridge to a tower. The man with the golden key. His play, The Surprise.

His mother was of the sturdy sort that belies some Scotch heritage, and of course this was the case. It is to his mother's side of the family that Gilbert claims he owes all of the infamy and intrigue that attended his early days, with that mighty ancestral name of Keith echoing across the centuries like the fall of the axe. Mrs. Chesterton was of the type who would work herself ragged for the comfort of others, though she had no compunctions about sometimes being imperious in her own home. She is remembered by contemporaries as a witty and pleasant woman, albeit one who would brook no nonsense. Gilbert's relationship with his mother was complex and - on the whole - quite positive.

Gilbert was himself an unusually serious child, but also an unusually happy one. There was in him a delight in all the world, merely as it had been presented to him, that would endure in the man even unto his dying day. He had well-developed romantic and intellectual streaks that were fostered at every turn by the learned discussion that his parents constantly brought into their home. Art was his calling, even from the beginning; as he was himself made in the image of his Creator, so too would he become a Father of Craft.

He was not without his problems. An early infatuation with the works of Walt Whitman and a burgeoning interest in the field of mysticism produced results that he has himself described as alternately morbid and embarassing, though his respect for both Whitman and the mystic would abide forever. His accomplishments at school were never what we might call astounding, during his early years, coming frequently under the censure of his masters for his slovenly inattentiveness to most everything to which one might potentially attend. Nonetheless, they saw in him the raw literary brilliance that would become his greatest gift to the world in later years, though they despaired of him ever accomplishing anything.

And so, it is those very accomplishments that I and the other contributors of this blog intend to discuss and celebrate in the coming days. Gilbert was born on May 29, and died on June 14. Between now and the anniversary of his death, you can look forward to daily articles covering various epochs and areas of Gilbert's life, ranging from a treatment of his life with Frances Blogg to his work on Father Brown to his travels around the world. These little articles - some involved, some concise - will be presented topically rather than strictly chronologically, and aim to serve as introductions to the life and work of a man who was as broad as the Earth itself.

What is more, this is an opportunity for reflection and action on the part of you, the reader. Though his political and social views were necessarily varied, Chesterton stood above all for faith, sense and family. The Internet, though wonderful in various ways, is not in and of itself highly complementary to any of those of things.

On the two Saturdays that fall within this extended festival, you will find articles about exactly these issues. The first will be an approach to the Chestertonian Life. Socrates famously opined that the unexamined life is not worth living, but we know that this is only half of the truth; the corollary to this is that the unlived life is not worth examining. Life should be a romance, even if it is a necessarily tragic romance; it should be an adventure, even if it is a dangerous one. This danger and this tragedy are both acceptable - and even necessary - because the prize at the end of the quest and the kiss at the end of the courtship are far too precious and sweet for anything mundane.

So I say to you, then, during this microcosmic treatment of Gilbert Chesterton's life, bring your family together and be. Embrace your sense, and know. Strengthen your faith, and love. This night is a night for celebration, so celebrate. The evening of Wednesday, June 14 will be a night for valediction, so celebrate all the more.

Let's get serious about life. It's what Gilbert would have wanted.

11 comments:

michaelk borussia said...

Nick, you write beautifully. I think he of whom you speak would approve.

Dim Bulb said...

Dude, I wish I could write like you.
I read an essay on GKC's life in a book GIANTS OF THE FAITH just a few months ago. My sister, who is a GK fan, encouraged me to do so. Of the four people profiled in the book he interested me the most. Besides the Father B mysteries are there any other GK writings someone my age (early teen) might find useful?

Dr. Mabuse said...

Dim Bulb, I think that 'The Everlasting Man' would be great for a young person. It starts with the evolutionary explanation of how man happens to be, and pretty much demolishes it. But in a nice way - Chesterton could be nice even when he was blowing something to smithereens. He was a Victorian himself, and he lived through these controversies - and it's interesting how nothing has really changed in the arguments, after all these years. Then he goes on to trace the origin of Catholicism, coming from Judaism and then through Roman paganism; and he also does a bit of what we'd call "comparative religion", describing how similar thoughts developed in other religions. I think it's perfectly suited to a young person, it's filled with Chestertonian wit and fun, and it'll teach you a lot.

Eric said...

Nick: Excellent opening essay for our 16-days of GKC.

Dim Bulb: It depends on where you are with your faith. For a young person who is a serious Christian, I'd recommend GKC's biography of St. Francis of Assisi. If you're not particularly religious, I'd recommend 'Orthodoxy.' I would also highly encourage you to get Dale Ahlquist's 'The Apostle of Common Sense.' GKC's style is kind of like wine: it's sometimes hard to get used to. Dale's book makes the adaptation much easier.

Nick Milne said...

michaelk: Thank you very much. One tries one's best, and is often outclassed, but it's nice to know that successes sometimes sneak through.

dim bulb:

Thanks for stopping by, and for the praise. I've seen your witty rejoinders on CC, and have enjoyed them greatly.

The suggestions made heare are excellent, though I worry about how a teen would take The Everlasting Man, which has been described as his most difficult work. It's tremendously good, of course, but if you're not already familiar with his style it might prove daunting.

The way I was myself introduced to Chesterton as a teen was by browsing the stuff on the American Chesterton Society's site, which has been selected by Mr. Ahlquist himself for being both accessible to the neophyte and indicative of the Chestertonian ouevre. Failing that, starting with a few of his essays would be a good idea, for they are brief capsules of thought that do not (necessarily) demand a familiarity with his full body of work, while simultaneously doing much to demonstrate his philosophy.

In this light, I would say that All Things Considered and The Common Man would be worth checking out. In the former, try "The Fallacy of Success" on for size first; in the latter, "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach." The essay that directly follows this last one is a real barnstormer too, but not for the faint of heart.

And of course, his fiction is a fair place to start. Both The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill are short and delightful, as well as being magnificent examples of the sort of thing Gilbert is wont to do. The latter is my favourite of the two, but that's mostly because I'm more interested in medievalism than in anarchism.

So, there you are. Hopefully you can find something here that tickles your fancy, and you should, as Eric suggested, check out Dale Ahlquist's The Apostle of Common Sense. There's also a series of "lectures" on the ACS site that I linked above that serve as an introduction to his various books.

You can find the full texts of almost all of Chesterton's books (including all the ones mentioned here) at Martin Ward's excellent archive.

Good luck, dim bulb! It's a wide world that looms before you.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, beautiful writing. I look forward to the next 16 days with major anticipation.

Maria said...

I don't think I can agree, Furor. I enjoyed The Everlasting Man enormously, but found The Common man hard to get through. I also had some trouble with The Man Who Was Thursday, The Flying Inn, and Napoleon of Notting Hill. I mean, I enjoyed reading them, but I finished with the feeling that I didn't quite get the point of the plot: almost as if I was doubtful that there was a proper plot, in a sense.

Oh, and I read all this as a teen.

Chestertonian said...

Dim Bulb,
Nice online handle. I'd ditto what the other said here for reading suggestions, and also add, for a teen who wants to know his Faith better, The Thing: Why I am a Catholic.

Chestertonian said...

I'd also add that I think this daily meditation on the life and thought of Chesterton is a great idea. Kudos for you folks here for thinking of it.

--Chestertonian, editor-in-chief of The World's Greatest Magazine. ;-)

Nick Milne said...

Maria: Well, you are a dazzling light, then. The first time I tried to read The Everlasting Man I made it through the first hundred pages or so before I had to leave off for the day, but found myself so muddled about what it was I had just read that I never got around to trying it again.

I have since gone back and reread the whole thing, of course, but that first time was a real doozy. There is no questioning the book's utter brilliance, certainly, but I just don't feel like it would be a good place for a young man to start. Another concern I have about TEM is that it's best read in conjunction with H.G. Wells' The Outline of History and, if one is hardy, Belloc's reply to Wells' tome. This is only for people with far too much time on their hands, thought, as I was myself one wonderful week.

But anyhow, it is up to Dim Bulb to decide. If he is a clever man - and I have seen by his wit that he is - perhaps TEM really would do the trick.

The first Chesterton I ever read was his poem, "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." The first of his prose that I read was an essay called "On Flocking," though I don't remember which book it came from (might be All is Grist). These suited me just fine, so I pushed on.

And here I am today. Time elapsed: a little over a year.

--

Chestertonian: I'm glad you're enjoying it. Perhaps reminiscences of the event might even make their way into a future issue of your august journal...?

Dr. Mabuse said...

I'm a bit like Maria - I didn't really understand 'The Man Who Was Thursday' at all. Maybe I'd do better on a second reading. But 'The Everlasting Man' was terrific - I tore through it in a few days! I felt the same way I'd felt when first reading Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' - "Yeah, I was thinking just the same thing! Finally, someone who can really describe the way the world really is!"

Now, of course, I'd already been converted as a teenager by C.S. Lewis's writing, so it's not like I was absolutely green when it came to Christianity. I just came to think that Chesterton has a better style when it comes to young people; personal taste, I suppose. When I get in certain moods, Lewis can just get right up my nose, and I find his style annoying. (It's a temporary fit - I always go back.) The first Chesterton I read was the Father Brown stories. I had a summer job at the school board office in the mid-70s, and I remember walking down the hall with my library book - "Collected Stories of G.K. Chesterton", or something like that. One of the older administrators spied the title and said, "Oh, I didn't think ANYONE read Chesterton anymore!" Heh. Back before Chesterton was cool.