KR Blog

Who Is G. K. Chesterton?

I used to think I knew how to answer the question: he’s a charming, sometimes witty, sometimes genial, sometimes irascible Victorian (he died more than three decades after the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, but to what extent did he ever exit the Victorian era?) Catholic who is little remembered and even less read now. But I keep discovering more and more interest in him. For example, there is The American Chesterton Society (and surely there must be a British Chesterton Society), and there are at least two magazines dedicated to the man and his work. Just a week or so ago, I saw an advertisement for a new book about Chesterton. According to the Wikipedia entry on Chesterton, Iron Maiden used a passage from one of his pieces in their song “Revelation.” And according to this same entry, one may find favorable remarks about Chesterton in the writings of Auden, Borges, Hemingway, Kafka, and Marquez.

Like, no doubt, many young Catholics, I read his books about St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas when I was in high school. About all that I can remember from them is his observation that were one to see these two great reformers of the church walking side by side from a distance, they would resemble Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Perhaps the most widely read of Chesterton’s works are his Father Brown mysteries, featuring the eponymous priest solving crimes. I’ve never read a Father Brown mystery, though I do remember watching–again in high school–a made-for-TV movie featuring Tom Bosley, who played Richie Cunningham’s father on Happy Days, as the mystery-solving priest.

I can’t say I’d given Chesteron much thought until a few years ago, when I started discovering that several writers whose work I admire began their publishing careers with Chesteron. The great literary critic Hugh Kenner published his first book about Chesterton, as did Garry Wills, one of our foremost polymathic public intellectuals. Wills started out doing research on Chesterton for a shorter piece, but the project developed into a book-length study. The great cultural critic Marshall McLuhan published his first article on Chesterton. I tend to think of all three of these writers as both grounded in a tradition and decideddly forward looking, two qualities that I think of as essential for creative and compelling work.

The consensus seems to be that Chesterton is a master of paradox. While there are some rather reductive versions of paradox–versions that would make of paradox little more than a shaking together of a lie and a platitiude, akin to Arthur Schnitzler’s chestnut about aphorisms–paradox in its deepest and truest sense signals the complexity of actuality and of human cognition. I’ve cribbed much of my idea of paradox from Walter J. Ong’s Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (1981); for his own part, Ong is quite explicit about cribbing his prime example of paradox from Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570). On the one hand, as Ascham points out, experience is the best teacher. It’s difficult to dispute this statement. After all, when I’m out driving, I want to be on the road only with drivers who have learned how to drive from experience, preferably under close supervision, not merely from reading about how to drive. Similarly, when I had my appendix removed, I was counting on my surgeon to have learned much of his art from experience. On the other hand, as Ascham also point out, experience is also the worst teacher. After all, some experiences can either kill a person or leave him or her so damaged as to nullify any lesson that might have been learned. But what should be pointed out is that these two statements–“Experience is the best teacher” and “Experience is the worst teacher”–are not strictly speaking contradictory. In strictly logical terms, the constradiction of the statement “Experience is the best teacher” is the statement “Experience is not the best teacher,” which does not mean at all precisely the same thing as “Experience is the worst teacher.” In other words, what is referred to by the term ‘experience’ is of sufficient complexity and depth to require the complexity and depth of true paradox, whose contradictions are only apparent. As Ong emphasizes, “truly profound and meaningful principles and conclusions concerning matters of deep philosophical or cultural import are, I believe, invariably aphoristic or gnomic, and paradoxical. Their meaning is both clear and mysterious, and dialectically structured.” Such dialectical structuring partakes of the kind of “yes, but also” exchange of meaningful dialogue. Such structuring also indicates that there is always more to be said and more that must be said, for any statement on its own will conceal at least as much as it reveals. Human cognition must remain on the move to know much of anything at all.

Do Chesterton’s paradoxes partake of such dynamism? I am moved to conduct a further study. I picked up a volume of selected writings from a local bookstore, and I shall pick up that new book about Chesterton, the one that I saw advertised not long ago. At a later date, I shall then report back.