Monday, June 12, 2006

Gilbert's Travels

This is miserably late, but such is life. It would probably have been up half an hour ago if not for the fact that Blogger keeps crashing my browser, for some reason.


Over the course of our treatment of Chesterton, he has been referred to variously as the Englishman's Englishman, the man of Fleet Street, and a small-town homebody. All of this accurate. It is the mark of a great and expansive man that he can fit so many varied and often contrary descriptions of his person without giving the reader worrying pause.

But today we may add another epithet to this worthy stable: globetrotter.

Yes, though Chesterton deplored the cosmopolitan mindset - believing that it eroded one's respect one's own country while promoting only a superficial admiration of others - he was himself no stranger to travel, and some of his finest and obscurest works are the result of his voyages. There are four major excursions to be covered, though I will not do them in order for the simple reason that I can not, for the life of me, remember their order. Also, they really will be brief, I swear to you on my life.

1. America
"He wished to discover America. His gay and thoughtless friends who could not understand him, pointed out that America had already been discovered, I think they said by Christopher Columbus, some time ago, and that there were big cities of Anglo-Saxon people there already, New York and Boston and so on. But the Admiral explained to them, kindly enough, that this had nothing to do with it. They might have discovered America, but he had not." - From The Coloured Lands
Gilbert loved the United States of America, and went there twice. These two trips occasioned two books, What I Saw in America and Sidelights on New London and Newer York, respectively. Calling America "the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed," Gilbert found himself enchanted by the no-nonsense energy of the American citizenry, the then-widespread prevalance of the family farm, and the furious zest with which an entire country pursued the tenets of Democracy, in one form or another.

But he was not without his worries, of course. We all remember his famous quip about the lights of Broadway: "How beautiful it could be for someone who could not read." He was similarly disenchanted with the American city's pretension to soulless skyscrapers and brick-laid labyrinths, as well as urban sprawl. As we have come to see, these worries were quite legitimate.

As I was not there with him, my commentary on his travels is essentially uninformed. I will leave the rest of this description to the American journalists he so admired.

From the docks:
[On disembarking] he shook hands with some half-dozen Customs officials who welcomed him to the city on their own behalf. The impression given by Mr. Chesterton as he moved majestically along the pier or on the ship was one of huge bulk. To the ordinary sized people on the pier he seemed to blot out the liner and the river. Mrs. Chesterton was busy with the baggage.

"My wife understands these things," he said with a sweep of his stick, "I don't."
From New York:
I found, with Mrs. Chesterton at the Biltmore, this big, gentle, leonine man of letters, six feet of him and 200 odd lb. There is a delightful story of how an American, driving with him through London, remarked "Everyone seems to know you, Mr. Chesterton."

"Yes," mournfully responded the gargantuan author, "and if they don't they ask."

He really doesn't look anything like as fat as his caricatures make him, however, and he has a head big enough to go with his massive tallness. His eyes are brilliant English blue behind the big-rimmed eyeglasses: his wavy hair, steel grey; his heavy moustache, bright yellow. Physically he is the crackling electric spark of the heaven-home-and-mother party, the only man who can give the cleverest radical debaters a Roland for their Oliver.
Still more:
Mr. Chesterton speaks clearly, in a rather high-pitched voice. He accompanies his remarks with many neverous little gestures. His hands, at times, stray into his pockets. He leans over the reading desk as if he would like to get down into the audience and make it a sort of heart-to-heart talk.

Mr. Chesterton's right hand spent a restless and rather disturbing evening. It would start from the reading desk at which he stood and fall to the points of that vast waistcoat which inspired the description of him as "a fellow of infinite vest." It would wander aimlessly a moment about his - stomach is a word that is taboo among the polite English - equator, and then shift swiftly to the rear until the thumb found the hip pocket. There the hand would rest a moment, to return again to the reading desk and to describe once more the quarter circle. Once in a while it would twist a ring upon the left hand, once in a while it would be clasped behind the broad back, but only for a moment. To the hip pocket and back again was its sentry-go, and it was a faithful soldier.
One would never suspect him of being our leading American bestseller. His accent, mannerisms, and dress are pro-Piccadilly and he likes his Oolong with a lump of sugar. He thinks with his cigar, a black London cheeroot...

When asked which of his works he considered the greatest, he said: "I don't consider any of my works in the least great."
And finally:
During the whole inspired course of his brilliant reasoning, he caught the little rivulets which ran down his face, and just as they were about to drop from the first of his several chins flicked them generously among the disconcerted people who sat actually at his feet. From time to time, too, unaware of this, he grasped deep in his pockets and rattled coins and keys, going from point to point, from proof to proof, until the Constitution of England was quite devoid of Law and out from under his waistcoat bulged a line of shirt.

It was monstrous, gigantic, amazing, deadly, delicious. Nothing like it has ever been done before or will ever be seen, heard and felt like it again.
As you can see, he was well-received.

2. The Holy Land

Gilbert's trip to the Holy Land with Frances was instrumental in his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and it produced his best travel book: The New Jerusalem. His arrival, he writes, was met with the fall of snow in those deserts of the East; a circumstance rarely repeated, and about which he had arch commentary, of course. A picture from a recent snowfall in Jerusalem follows below:

I can offer no greater comment on his journey to the Holy Land than can be found in The New Jerusalem (available here), so my remarks here will be brief. There is one essay in that book in particular, called "The Meaning of the Crusade," which sums up everything in a deliciously visceral and poignant way. There is in that essay all of the cold fury that is anger without rage. The modern perversion of the history of the Crusades is one of the greatest scandals to afflict the West, and has largely informed the decline of Christendom in the world. Gilbert knew this, and the distaste for such revisionism comes through dramatically.

Gilbert's trip to the Holy Land also underscores his often complex relationship with Zionism and the Jewish people in general. Though he writes scornfully in his Autobiography of a Zionist driver he had while touring Palestine, it must nonetheless be noted that he was a firm proponent of solving "the Zionist problem" by giving the Jews a real Zion; that is, the creation of a Jewish nation. As always, of course, he was ahead of the curve. Anyhow, the best cure for charges of anti-Semitism on Gilbert's part is to actually read The New Jerusalem, which is often held up as the firmest evidence of this alleged lapse on his part. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

The trip to the Holy Land came about as a result of both Gilbert's desire to take Frances on a journey for the good of her delicate health, and of his friend Maurice Baring's insistence to publishing friends that Gilbert could write a book about the voyage of unequalled value and insight. Would that we all had such friends, who could bring such things about.

There are delightful parallels between Gilbert's trip through Rome and the Holy Land and Mark Twain's jaunt through the same places as described in his masterpiece, The Innocents Abroad. I will leave these up to the reader to discover, however, as this is neither the time nor the place.

3. Rome

Gilbert's time in Rome was controversial in a number of ways, some of which are just, and some of which are not. It was the first trip to Rome that cemented in Gilbert his determination to finally join the Roman Catholic Church, having seen as he did all of its glories distilled into one, eternal city.

This proved controversial in itself, as Lee admirably pointed out last week. For though England has a distinctly Catholic history, she existed at the time in a distinctly Protestant present, generally inhospitable to the Church even as she tried to erase her own Then to appease the Now. It is even worse, nowadays, for even Protestantism is seen as an embarassment, and fair England has slid, as have all Western nations, into the abysmal cesspool of vague, directionless secularism.

But I'm speaking about Gilbert. His conversion was of course lauded by his Roman Catholic friends, such as Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc and Fr. John O'Connor, but in the nation at large it was actually a subject of some heated discussion. It is a mark of just how exorcised religion has become from public life in the West that the religious conversion of a great man of letters would be viewed now as none of the nation's business, and unworthy of real comment; but it is just as well, for we have no great men of letters to discuss.

The second sting of controversy regarding Rome came with his second trip to Rome, in 1929. The sting is perhaps more deserved, though it can be somewhat dispelled with the application of charity and careful analysis. While in Rome, Gilbert found himself impressed by the strong national identity of "the New Italy," and remarked upon its serious potential. He went so far as to interview Mussolini himself, and the exchange has been seen as almost an embarassment to Gilbert for his lack of criticism.

Maisie Ward suggests - not without merit, I would argue - that this mutedness on Gilbert's part is more to do with his desire to "be fair to Fascism" than with any sympathy or admiration he may have therefor. What's more, Mussolini - apparently a fan of Gilbert's work - took the opportunity to conduct his own interview of Gilbert, asking him about distributism and literature and the like. There was a sort of curious interplay to the whole thing that could be mistaken for An Understanding, but we must remember that Gilbert was not one to let a discussion become unpleasant, and Mussolini, whatever else he was, was a man of great charisma. In any event, Gilbert certainly spoke out against Fascism in various articles, and in the book about his trip to Rome itself.

That book - The Resurrection of Rome - is not particularly good, as far as Gilbert's work goes, but it is worth reading to get an understanding of just what some of his contemporary critics are carping about; for indeed, they carp on.

4. Poland

The trip to Poland was one of the most fascinating for Gilbert, as he found in the Polish people and in the Polish nation much that was in common with England, and much else that was utterly inextricable from well-endowed Christendom. The trip was a result of an invitation to Gilbert on the part of the Polish government, who were grateful for his untiring defense of their country against those in Western Europe who dismissed it as little more than a political football to be passed and punted as circumstances required.

His time in Poland was spent on something of an official tour, although he took a good amount of time to himself as well. Everywhere he went he was reminded of the constant struggle between Prussia and Russia that was waged, with varying degrees of intensity, over the small parcel of land that, for the moment, belonged to the people who actually lived there. His comments on this tragic situation set the stage in a grim and ironic way for the war the he would not live to see.

All that I know of his trip there comes from his own account in his Autobiography, so two anecdotes therefrom shall suffice.
I was driving with a Polish lady, who was very witty and well-aquainted with the whole character of Europe, and also of England (as is the barbarous habit of the Slavs); and I only noticed that her tone changed, if anything to a sort of coolness, as we stopped outside an archway leading to a side-street, and she said, "We can't drive in here." I wondered; for the gateway was wide and the street apparently open. As we walked under the arch she said in the same colourless tone; "You take off your hat here." And then I saw the open street. It was filled with a vast crowd, all facing me; and all on their knees on the ground. It was as if someone were walking behind me; or some strange bird were hovering over my head. I faced around, and saw in the centre of the arch great windows standing open, unsealing a chamber full of gold and colours; there was a picture behind; but parts of the whole picture were moving like a puppet-show, stirring strange double memories like a dream of the bridge in the puppet-show of my childhood; and then I realised that from those shifting groups there shone and sounded the ancient magnificence of the Mass.
And, my favourite:
I made the acquaintance of a young Count whose huge and costly palace of a country house, upon the old model (for he had quite different notions himself), had been burned and wrecked and left in ruins by the retreat of the Red Army after the Battle of Warsaw. Looking at such a mountain of shattered marbles and black and blasted tapestries, one of our party said, "It must be a terrible thing for you to see your old family home destroyed like this." But the young man, who was very young in all his gestures, shrugged his shoulders and laughed, at the same time looking a little sad. "Oh, I do not blame them for that," he said. "I have been a soldier myself, and in the same campaign; and I know the temptations. I know what a fellow feels, dropping with fatigue and freezing with cold, when he asks himself what some other fellow's armchairs and curtains can matter, if he can only have fuel for the night. On the one side or the other, we were all soldiers; and it is a hard and horrible life. I don't resent at all what they did here. There is only one thing that I really resent. I will show it to you."

And he led us out into a long avenue lined with poplars; and at the end of it was a statue of the Blessed Virgin; with the head and the hands shot off. But the hands had been lifted; and it is a strange thing that the very mutilation seemed to give more meaning to the attitude of intercession; asking mercy for the merciless race of men.

And so we conclude this treatment of Gilbert's travels around the world. There were trips to Spain, to Ireland and to France that could have borne mention, but they were not anything near as important (or, vitally, as well-documented) as the ones outlined above. I think that in the quartet of New York, Warsaw, Rome and Jerusalem we can find a startling and profound statement on the variety of the human condition, as well as upon its essential sameness. I should have liked to have written about Ireland et al., but I do not think I have done the cause a disservice by neglecting them.

Be sure to return tomorrow for Eric's treatment of the Chesterbelloc, and on Wednesday for the final, apocalyptic vision of Gilbert Chesterton, the man who died.


Anonymous said...

If I could make a suggestion... the exposition of the life of Chesterton is something worth continuing. It has been enlightening for me (I haven't missed an episode). It encouraged me to read again some works of his of which I had forgotten the significance, and has given me something extra to look forward to in the evening after work.

I hope that the CAF team will carry on with the project and continue to give us their insights on Chesterton's character, which, as far as I can tell from what I have read of him, is every bit as pleasant and domestically maniacal as dear Mr. Smith's.


Nick Milne said...

Agricola, I should be happy to keep up this sort of thing, though hopefully on a basis more blessed by brevity. I am in the happy situation of having access to a well-established University library in which can be found everything he ever wrote, as well as dozens upon dozens of secondary sources about him and his life and times.

Though this is "Chesterton and Friends," I must confess that, apart from the occasional pretension to Belloc, none of the Friends interest me all that much. It's Gilbert that I'm here for, and Gilbert that I plan to continue addressing.

In short: no worries.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad the stories will continue Furor. As I have been quite caught up in the reading of Chesterton since I received the book 'Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief' from my eldest sister over ten years ago. The glowing character of Chesterton shone out above his mighty contemporaries, and I don't think it is by chance that out of all the magnificent minds of the Catholic literary revival of the 20th century he is many peoples' darling.


Kyro said...

Im glad that The New Jerusalem was mentioned here. Ive spent some time dealing with Moslems in the Middle East, as well as Bosnia, and I think the observations and nuances that Chesterton gives us in TNJ are very, very good.

Have to disagree about Belloc, I love the guy both as a writer and as a Catholic Adventurer. I saw somewhere some detailed reports of his treks....beyond just The Path to Rome.....and he was truly a machine. When I was in the Army, I was a good ruck marcher....could do 10K carrying 70lbs in under 70 mins...Belloc didnt carry as much weight, but gosh he covered ground, beyond an ironman --in an age before $200 boots and personal trainers.