Re­mem­ber­ing a lively writer who re­sisted moder­nity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

In­his­poem“DoverBeach,”pub­lished in 1867, Matthew Arnold fa­mously de­scribed the de­cline of re­li­gious faith dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, liken­ing it to the ocean clutch­ing at the shore­line dur­ing ebb tide: “But now I only hear / Its melan­choly,long,with­draw­ingroar.”

Al­though still pow­er­ful as a force for cul­tural sta­bil­ity, faith was in re­treat, and with it the cus­toms, con­ven­tions and as­pects of sus­tain­ing con­ti­nu­ity that had un­der­girded the West since the age of the Ro­man Em­pire. But as the “con­ven­tional” 19th cen­tury gave way to the “pro­gres­sive”20th,therew­ere­some­who re­sisted the de­cline of wise tra­di­tion and long-es­tab­lished ways.

Among those who fought in the fore­front of a rear-guard ac­tion against moder­nity was the English man of let­ters G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), whose be­liefs and work­sa­re­ex­am­inedin­sight­fullyand with pre­ci­sion by Stephen R. L. Clarkin“G.K.Chesterton:Think­ing Back­ward, Look­ing For­ward.”

Mr.Clark,pro­fes­so­rof­phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Liver­pool, is an ad­mirer of and ex­pert on Chesterton, well suited to rein­tro­duce his sub­ject to the read­ing pub­lic. Chesterton, per­haps best known as the cre­ator of the “Fa­ther Brown” mys­ter­ies, au­thor of sev­eral mem­o­rable nov­els and the lively trea­tise “The Ev­er­last­ing Man” (1925), as well as a rol­lick­ing de­fender of the Ro­man Catholic faith, was a rebel who fought with witty sav­agery again­st­the­comin­gortho­doxy­ofthe early 20th cen­tury.

This new, largely sec­u­lar faith, held that evo­lu­tion­ist Charles Dar­win ought to be ac­corded the same un­ques­tion­ingrev­er­en­cepre­vi­ously ac­corded the Church Fa­thers; that man is (in the end) a pli­able, trousered ape who can be con­di­tioned to be­come any­thing his su- pe­ri­ors might de­sire; that his­tory is the on­go­ing story of pro­gres­sive hu­man im­prove­ment; and that the very idea of orig­i­nal sin is a hoary myth­fromthechild­hood­ofther­ace.

Chesterton be­lieved oth­er­wise, and his in­ven­tive works of fiction as well as his lively es­says, widely read dur­ing his day, de­fended a van­ish­ing world. That world had been char­ac­ter­ized by near-uni­ver­sal recog­ni­tion of author­ity, lives lived close to one’s na­tive soil, and an­cient us­age. In con­trast to this loomed the in­com­ing tide of ef­fi­ciency, util­i­tar­i­an­ism and ho­mog­e­niza­tion of cul­ture, over­seen by a new breed of man­age­rial elites in po­si­tions of po­lit­i­cal power, bound by no code of be­lief and con­duct other than the slip­pery bands of ex­pe­di­ency.

Th­ese new forces threat­ened to march roughshod over the world­view held by Chesterton’s fic­tional priest-de­tec­tive, Fa­ther Brown, who in one story gazed into the night sky and claimed to the thief seated be­side him:

“Rea­son and jus­tice grip the re­mote­s­tandth­eloneli­est­star.Lookat those stars. Don’t they look as if they were sin­gle di­a­monds and sap­phires? Well, you can imag­ine any mad botany or ge­ol­ogy you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of bril­liants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a sin­gle ele­phan­tine sap­phire.But­don’tfan­cythatallthat fran­tic as­tron­omy would make the small­est dif­fer­ence to the rea­son and jus­tice of con­duct. On plains of opal,un­der­cliff­s­cutout­of­pearl,you would­stillfin­d­an­otice-board,‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

In the years since his death, Chesterton has been the sub­ject of many books and ar­ti­cles, and most of th­ese as­sess­ments tend to fo­cus upon the Catholi­cism at the heart of his life and works. Mr. Clark’s study is unique in that he has en­gaged Chesterton’s ac­com­plish­ment from the per­spec­tive of a life­long sci­encefic­tion en­thu­si­ast.

Un­til the ap­pear­ance of the present work, no writer has de­voted a full-length study to ex­am­in­ing Chesterton’s sto­ries, nov­els and ideas for themes and plot de­vel­op­ments that fore­shadow or co­in­cide with sim­i­lar as­pects of mod­ern science fiction. In do­ing so, Mr. Clark hasen­teredaw­ide-open­field­for­ex­plo­ration, con­sid­er­ing Chesterton’s own fas­ci­na­tion with fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture­and­his­longfriend­ship­with­science-fiction writer H. G. Wells.

Chesterton’s nov­els, such as “The Napoleon of Not­ting Hill” (1904), “The Man Who Was Thurs­day” (1908), “The Ball and the Cross” (1909),“TheF­ly­ingInn”(1914)and “TheRe­turnofDonQuixote”(1926) are well-told, in­ven­tive tales that have at their core a hand­ful of ideas about the folly of over­reach­ing, the fact that ad­ven­ture, ro­mance and right­ful author­ity are cen­tral to life, and the dan­ger of dis­pens­ing with the past while at­tempt­ing to mold hu­man­ity into some­thing new and Utopian—themes­re­flecte­d­in­much of mod­ern science fiction.

As Mr. Clark ex­plains in his pref­ace,“Sciencefic­tion­has­grown­more ‘lit­er­ary’ over the years, and some­timesin­waysthatCh­ester­ton­would havere­gret­ted,bu­tatitscorestil­l­lies a love of ad­ven­ture and the mar­velous, con­joined with ar­dent ques­tions about ‘life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing’ that he shared.”

The au­thor de­votes a chap­ter to ea­chofthe­above-named­work­sand notes in­trigu­ing par­al­lels be­tween the­matic and plot de­vices in Chesterton’s fiction and such nov­els as Wells’ “Star-Be­got­ten” (1937), C. S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet” (1938) and Jack Fin­ney’s “In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers” (1954), among many oth­ers. Mr. Clark dis­cov­ers that while Chesterton was (li­keev­eryper­son)bound­tothecul­tural prej­u­dices and blind spots of his age, his writ­ings were pre­scient, and he was al­to­gether on the side of all that makes mod­ern life civil, kindly and full.

Which is not to say that Chesterton’s ev­ery pro­nounce­ment was right or ad­mirable. Mr. Clark pro­vides chap­ter-length dis­cus­sions of his sub­ject’s views on women and Jews, ar­eas that have pro­voked ac­cu­sa­tion­sofin­sen­si­tiv­i­ty­onCh­ester­ton’s part. On the sub­ject of women, Chesterton is re­vealed to be man whorev­er­enced­wo­m­en­tothe­p­oint of­puttingth­e­mon­a­pedestal;forex­am­ple, dur­ing early 20th-cen­tury de­bates on wo­man suf­frage, Chesterton ar­gued against giv­ing women the fran­chise be­cause (he be­lieved)pol­i­tic­sisa­nun­re­gen­er­ate, dirty game, and it would de­grade women to get mixed up in it, ei­ther as politi­cians or as vot­ers.

On the “Jewish Ques­tion,” so widely dis­cussed in Europe dur­ing Chesterton’s life, Chesterton was af­flict­ed­with­themil­danti-Semitismof the English mid­dle class, though his was­notofthe­vi­o­lent­va­ri­etytha­tled theNazis­toex­ter­mi­na­teone-thirdof Europe’s Jews dur­ing the 1930s and ’40s. Chesterton’s prej­u­dice in this mat­ter was shared with Churchill, Eve­lyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot and a host ofotherEnglis­handAmer­i­can­pub­lic fig­ures — which does not ex­cuse it, but cer­tainly puts it into con­text. Mr.Clark­isto­bec­om­mend­ed­forex­am­in­ing, dis­pas­sion­ately and hon­estly,some­ofth­ea­spect­sofCh­ester­ton’sbe­liefs­deeme­dob­jec­tion­ableby some com­men­ta­tors.

Chesterton was a true Rad­i­cal — in the true sense of the word: one who looks back to ori­gins, to the root of the mat­ter un­der dis­cus­sion, and who faces cur­rent af­fairs by the light of the past. He rec­og­nized that the mores ob­served by gen­er­a­tions past pro­vide ori­en­ta­tion — a sense of who we are, how the lives of oth­ers have been un­done by folly and how we fit into the small cir­cles of in­flu­ence we in­habit dur­ing our lives — which en­ables us to live with some de­gree of hope, courage and joy, some­times amid cir­cum­stances that leave us per­plexed and spir­i­tu­ally des­o­late.

Now as in Chesterton’s day, it some­times seems that we are liv­ing in an age in which it seems that the foun­tains of the great deep are bro­kenup,with­con­fu­sion­de­spair­widespread. Mr. Clark notes Chesterton’s be­lief that what­ever might hap­pen to our civ­i­liza­tion, the Church of Christ would re­main.

Headdsthatthis­apoc­a­lyp­tic­convic­tion “has been shared by later writ­ers — for ex­am­ple, Wal­ter M. Miller’s ‘A Can­ti­cle for Lei­bowitz.’ Sur­vivors with­out the back­ward glancewil­loften­no­tun­der­standthe things and the in­sti­tu­tions that they find­aroundthem,but­they­wouldbe fool­ish to dis­miss them all with­out that un­der­stand­ing. Even be­fore a cat­a­strophic fall, we are in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion:no­tun­der­stand­ing­whence we came, and why, we may dis­miss, un­think­ingly, the in­sti­tu­tions that we need.”

James E. Per­son Jr. is the au­thor of the bi­og­ra­phy “Earl Ham­ner: From Wal­ton’s Moun­tain to To­mor­row” (Cum­ber­land House).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.