on January 19, 2004
A 1905 collection of twenty Victorian journalistic essays and articles still worth reading, and not merely on historical or nostalgic grounds? Some pieces are of mainly historical interest, but not most. Neither is it a 'religious title', in fact it is nearly irreligious in places. It merely takes issue with arty types like Mr. Kipling, G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Whistler. It is also vintage Chesterton, at his usual paradoxical, oblique, witty, funny, slapstick, sardonic, jolly, and generous best.
It is a positive and happy book, but it was accused of Negativism in its day (Kafka said Chesterton was so full of joy that you might almost suppose 'he had found God'--perverse but honest.) Another exasperated opponent, said that if he was so clever and all-knowing he should write down his own personal positive beliefs. So he did. They are still read today, and many who enjoy 'Orthodoxy' (1908) will enjoy this, its progenitor too, which is impossible to summarize, so I have given a thumbnail of each chapter.
Chapter 1. Introductory remarks on the importance of orthodoxy
The examined life - meaninglessness of modern subjective attitudes of not owning your own point of view. Decline of respect for reason and rational argument - political correctness, or 'Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions'. To know a man's worldview is to know him. Pernicious effects of subjectivism in literature and the arts.
2. On the negative spirit
Essential need for positive belief - no society can prosper on negative laws alone. Progress in human rights of liberty, education, free speech, and tolerance are only guaranteed with 'a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals'.
3. On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and making the world small
Kipling considerable poet but no true patriot, but proto-fascist. [GKC probably first to spot this.] Worships strength and discipline, empire-building, for their own sake. 'He admires England, but he does not love her'.
4. Mr. Bernard Shaw***GOOD***
[GKC being good friend of GBS.] GBS brilliant and witty, but hopeless subjectivist. GBS attacks all pretensions as 'every moral generalization oppressed the individual; the golden rule was there is no golden rule'. But then why should we allow Him to make the One Rule that rules them all? Perpetrates errors of sociologist/anthropologist, still with us today.
5. Mr. H.G. Wells and the giants***GOOD***
Wells' faith in Evolutionism (as opposed to evolution) shown to be false - 'the scientific fallacy...of not beginning with the human soul...but with some such thing as protoplasm'. The demonstrable fact of original sin in the universal existence of selfishness. Wells' Utopia assumes selfishness can be cured by ignoring it, not curing it. 'Heresy of immoral hero-worship' (ie, celebrity).
6. Christmas and the aesthetes
Essential nature of ritual. Attacks 'The religion of Comte, generally known as Positivism, or the worship of humanity'. Comte's attempt to institute a secular religion - ritual the only sensible part of his theory as it expresses the deepest meaning and emotion. 'Take away what is supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.'
7. Omar and the sacred vine***EXCELLENT***
Correct attitude to wine and the good things of life. Not a mere mean between excess and teetotalism but a proper enjoyment of what is good. 'Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable...poetical drinking...is joyous and instinctive'. 'Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized...If we are to be truly gay, we must believe that there is some eternal gaiety in the nature of things.'
8. The mildness of the yellow press
Tabloids. No so much sensational as stunted, mendacious, and silly. [So no change there then.]
9. The moods of Mr. George Moore
Satirical. Pride, least attractive of all faults.
10. On sandals and simplicity
Gentle mockery of the vegetarian impulse.
11. Science and the savages***GOOD***
Materialism (philosophical). Sociology/anthropology inadequate methodology. Starts by excluding what they pretend to disprove existence of. Study of primitives less revealing than study of one's own soul. [cf. Pascal Boyer]
12. Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson***EXCELLENT***
Dickinson represents ancient Greeks as 'an ideal of full and satisfied humanity', ie, he is a humanist/New Ager. Replaced by Christianity because rational but sad pagan virtues such as justice and temperance insufficient. Great Christian virtue is humility. Mystical and happy values of faith, hope, and charity are essential, even if seem irrational.
13. Celts and Celtophiles***GOOD***
Race: a non-concept [genetically ahead of his time!]. Nationhood: a definable spiritual concept. Irish a nation, not a race.
14. On certain modern writers and the institution of the family
Defence of the family against Nietzsche & co.
15. On smart novelists and the smart set
Analysis of 'penny dreadfuls' and 'halfpenny novelettes'.
16. On Mr. McCabe and a divine frivolity
Use of humor defended in serious debate (against po-faced atheist).
17. On the wit of Whistler***EXCELLENT***
Errors of relativism in art as in ethics: illustration of the mutable camel. The artist Whistler: 'He was one of those people who always live up to their emotional incomes, who are always taut and tingling with vanity'. Three type of satirist who are also great men (illustrated by Rabelais, Swift, and Pope. Whistler talked too much about his art to be a great artist.
18. The fallacy of the young nation
A nation may be chronologically young and spiritually old, or vice versa. Eg, Ancient Greece and America.
19. Slum novelists and the slums***EXCELLENT***
Patronizing novelists writing of the lower classes, eg Somerset Maugham. Undemocracy in Britain.
20. Concluding remarks on the importance of orthodoxy
'Man can be defined as the animal that makes dogmas.'
'If we want doctrines we go to great artists.'
'The more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.'
'We have a general view of existence, whether we like it or not; it alters, or, to speak more accurately, it creates and involves everything we say and do, whether we like it or not.' True.
on January 31, 2008
Heretics is somewhat neglected in Chesterton's oeuvre, possibly because it is an early work (1905), and many of the writers discussed are out of fashion now. Yet, I believe Heretics contains not only his best writing, but it already establishes the main themes of his life's work.
Technically, it is a book of literary criticism, but from an unusual point of view, that of his subjects' philosophy.
"I am not concerned with Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a heretic--that is to say, a man whose philosophy is solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong." (p. 22)
Brilliant though he was, Shaw expected reality to conform to an inhuman ideal:
"He has all the time been silently comparing humanity with something that was not human, with a monster from Mars, with the Wise Man of the Stoics, with the Economic Man of the Fabians, with Julius Caesar, with Siegfried, with Superman. Now, to have this inner and merciless standard may be a very good thing, or a very bad one, it may be excellent or unfortunate. but it is not seeing things as they are." (pp. 62-63)
This is excellent writing, whether we entirely agree or not. It may be a little unfair to Shaw, but it is fair to life.
Chesterton is often called an optimist. But he knew the other side, as anyone reading Alzina Stone Dale's life, The Outline of Sanity, can find out. Joy in living, good beer, conversation, balance, sanity, these were achievements, not just nature.
I have never read, or even found, the books of Mr. George Moore who wrote an autobiography. Chesterton attacks his egoism, the interest in the world as related to his own temperament:
"We should really be much more interested in Mr. Moore if he were not quite so interested in himself. We feel as if we were being shown through a gallery of really fine pictures, into each of which, by some useless and discordant convention, the artist had represented the same figure in the same attitude. 'The Grand Canal with a distant view of Mr. Moore," "Effect of Mr. Moore through a Scotch Mist,' 'Mr. Moore by Firelight,' 'Ruins of Mr. Moore by Moonlight,' and so on seems to be the endless series." (pp. 131-132)
That has to be one of the funniest sentences ever written, and I could barely type it for laughing. A bit later on the page, Chesterton gives his vision of originality:
"Thinking about himself will lead to trying to be the universe; trying to be the universe will lead to ceasing to be anything. If, on the other hand, a man is sensible enough to think only about the universe; he will think about it in his own way. He will keep virgin the secret of God; he will see the grass as no other man can see it, and look at a sun that no man has ever known."
There is no space to mention all the wonderful writing in Heretics. I will mention his often expressed view of the narrowness of the larger world, where one can choose one's companions, as opposed to the nation, the neighborhood or the family, where one has to take people the way they are, with all their foibles.
"The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day he was born." (p. 190)
As always, Chesterton's ideas are eminently discussable! No commentary of mine could do justice to the variety, wisdom, and good humour in this book. The best thing would be to find a copy and read it.
I have the John Lane, edition, 1905.