Friday, May 20, 2011

"Thats what dries a writer up..not listening. Thats where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening."

I'm grateful for my husband. Not every life is blessed with love that understands. My husband can defend my thoughts better than I myself can - and calls me to live them better than my own self-discipline ever will. I've been discussing Literature on many fronts recently, Literature and the value of art. In these discussions my husband has been my greatest support in clarifying and directing my thoughts, as well as curbing my tendency toward tactlessness, especially in conversation.

I owe him a lot in the development of my understanding of Literature, he's helped me immensely to move beyond a narrower definition fo Literature, and encouraged me to recognize the artistic qualities in all genres. He also helps me to be honest in my assessments and avoid rejecting true art simply because it doesn't coincide with my personal tastes. The ability to recognize and appreciate beauty should not be limited by the fact that some beauties are more attractive to me than others. I certainly haven't perfected any of this, but I'm grateful for his support and encouragement.

In my recent literary discussions, the writing of GK Chesterton has come up often. I'm not surprised, as many discussions are with fellow graduates of my own university, where Chesterton is very popular. When I first discovered him, I enjoyed Chesterton's writing immensly. I read The Man who was Thursday and adored the imagery, the symbolism, and the living writing. The male characters are interesting, the lone female, iconic, and the mythic tone of the tale allows this without flaw. As I followed his writing though, I became more and more dissatisfied. The Flying Inn was a disaster of prejudice and undeveloped characters: evil arabs, weak-women, and self-satisfied heroes who swoop in to expel the immigrants and rescue life-as-it-always-has-been from alteration. I loathed it. His non-fiction frustrates as much as the Inn, with the overall impression I came away with being that "Whats wrong with the world" is nothing more than women wanting to vote, work, and otherwise exist in reality, the discussion of ideas not his own, and art that can represent both modern and premodern mindsets. His writing seems primarily focused on ensuring that life as he knew it would never change, that there would be no development of thought. I'm not saying that his writing isn't impressive. Thursday is beautiful, artistic, and interesting. The Inn could have been, if he hadn't chosen to make it propaganda. His talent is obvious, but he seems to be working against it - as he writes against most art - in an attempt to hold his world in suspension.

My youngest brother, I'm sure, will disagree with my entire assesment. I hope he responds, and anyone else who really appreciates Chesterton. I'd like to hear his defense. I feel as though, because I know so many people who enjoy him, I must be missing something when I read him. What do you think of GK Chesterton, am I unjust?


  1. And lo, your wish is granted.

    Wow, I had no idea you were so dissatisfied with Chesterton! To be sure he had his problems, like all of us, but I think you're being way too hard on him.
    In the first place, he didn't want life to stay just the way he knew it, indeed he was emphatic that it shouldn't. He certainly wasn't against 'progress' as such and he didn't think the world should be held in suspension. What he was against was people calling for progress without any real idea of what they were progressing towards or who had ideas that were based more on their conceptions of humanity than on how people actually behave.

    With regards to the woman's rights movement, yes I agree that he was largely mistaken there. But I don't think it's fair to say he didn't want women to 'exist in reality.' Rather, he saw work and voting and the like as a step down for women, that involvement in politics and the workforce was degrading and much less important than the 'traditional' female roles. Yes, he may have been idealizing there, but I find it hard to fault him for that. Another problem he had with the woman's rights movement was that he thought they were too small a minority to be speaking for all women: I don't think he was against women voting per se, but he didn't think most women wanted it.

  2. I definitely think it's unfair to say that he despised the discussion of ideas other than his own. He practically dedicated his life to discussing ideas other than his own! He disagreed with them and spoke against them, but you can't fault him for that, can you? The thing is that he viewed a lot of those ideas as potentially dangerous to the common man if implemented and so of course he counted them as a sign of things wrong with the world.

    Actually, one of Chesterton's main points he repeatedly made was that most modern philosophies and mindsets precluded development of thought. He wanted there to be development of thought, and that is why he attacked modern ideas and, I think, he made a very good case against them on that very point.

    I haven't read his thoughts on modern art lately, but quite frankly, I think a lot of the art emerging at the time does perfectly merit his criticism. I'm not sure what you mean by art that 'can represent both modern and premodern mindsets.' I would think 'traditional' art of the kind he loved can do that just as well if someone took the trouble to try. So, honestly, I can't fault him on modern art because I tend to agree with him there.

    Your main problem seems to be that Chesterton appears to be a kind of luddite trying to suspend the world as he knew it, but I don't see him that way. I see him as someone who saw a lot of what is good under attack and defended it at a time when very few people were doing so. I can see where this might give the impression of 'suspension,' but I don't think it's a fair assessment.

    Your thoughts?

  3. I'm so glad you responded!

    Like I said, I think Chesterton has some good points: his writing can be fantastic, and he seems to be striving for an ideal of beauty in the world to become a reality. His problem seems to be that at some point in his career, he "stopped listening, except to the answers to [his] own questions."

    He as much as anyone, and more than some based his ideas on what ought to be on his "conception of humanity" rather than people themselves. Its most obvious in his complete rejection of the women's movement. Seeing voting and work as a "step down for women" implies either that it is also a "step down" for men, in which case he as a man is degrading himself by participating in the processes, or that women are something completely Other than man, something outside of the life of the society they live in and unaffected by it, which is difficult to believe. If they are a part of their society, though, why is it degrading to have a say in that society? He is idealizing women, and in idealizing them, he's taking away their place in humanity and making them figments of imagination, without regard to them as people.

  4. As for the discussion of ideas, I think he did at one point, actually discuss ideas, but much of what I've read by him is not discussion, it's "shouting down" ideas with "one-liners" that can be absorbed without being considered.

    By Art that can represent both modern and pre-modern mindsets I mean pure Art, which is timeless. Chesterton seems stuck in a time. I think I mis-wrote in saying he wanted his world to stay the same, what I mean is, he wanted aspects of his world to stay, and other aspects to regress into the idealized past.

    I hope this clarifys a bit. A lot of your response boiled down to "I agree with him" which is hard to respond to. Why do you agree with him? What convinces you that Chesterton wasn't just another reactionary?

    Much love little Bro

  5. Tanaka-san!

    I also had fun reading The Man Who Was Thursday, and a lot of the curmudgeonly things Chesterton says are funny and appeal to the curmudgeon in me, but I feel like he's one of those authors who sour on closer acquaintance. Chesterton tends to produce a lot of snappy quips that sound true if you don't look at them too closely and get repeated a lot as if they were mathematical proofs for social conservatism. But he very seldom makes any effort to sympathize with, or even to understand, the people and ideas and art that he opposes.

    That's a moral failing, but it's also, always, an artistic failing. Chesterton was a smart guy who could have done a lot better than he did, and his popularity now has a lot to do with his ability to telling people what they already believe in a way that makes them feel smart.

    Being told what we already believe in a way that makes us feel smart is a lot of fun. I don't deny it. But it's not art and it doesn't make us any better and a lot of the time it makes us worse. It shuts down channels of thought and inquiry and empathy. It keeps us from asking important questions.

    It's not a matter of agree = like, disagree = dislike. It's the dismissive, deflective, talk-show-host approach that I object to in much of Chesterton's writing.

    Hope all is well!

  6. . . . actually, Chesterton suffers by comparison with another Franciscan U favorite, J.R.R. Tolkien-- who put a lot more thought into his characterization of Sauruman and Gollum than Chesterton seemed to have been willing to grant the suffragists.

  7. ..ooh, good point about Tolkien, because he does at least understand the attraction of the Wrong Way to Sauruman and Gollum and he gives them a lot of forgiveness in the book, he makes them human, in other words, with more complexity than Chesterton tends to allow, especially in The Flying Inn, where the villians have no complexity whatsoever.

    Are you coming back, little bro? I hope the job is going well!

  8. I'm Back!

    One thing you both cite is that Chesterton deflects arguments with snappy phrases rather than engaging them. Well, that's not my experience of Chesterton. From what I've read he tends to back up his snappy phrases with solid arguments: the snappy phrase comes only at the beginning or the end of a page-or-two of discourse. No, he doesn't do this all the time, nor do all his arguments work, but I don't think you can say that he just dismisses objections with a pithy quip. Quite honestly, I think his ability to condense his arguments into a pithy quip is an advantage since it allows the average reader to more easily grasp the concepts he's addressing. I think the trouble that you find is when people know the quip but not the argument that goes along with it.
    I'm remembering in "Screwtape Letters" where Screwtape gloats that God lags behind the devils in practical propaganda. I read Chesterton as a kind of return fire in that regard.

    I also don't think it's true that he makes little or no attempt to understand or sympathize with his opponents. Reading his articles on Socialism, it seems to me that he understands the idea behind socialism and what is so appealing about it even when he also understands what it's fatal flaw is.
    I don't think it's quite fair to compare him to Tolkien. Chesterton was much more of a satirist than Tolkien, so he wrote in broad caricatures not because he couldn't write any better, but because he chose to for that particular work (for sympathetic Chesterton antagonists, see most of the Father Brown stories, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill," and "The Ball and the Cross," where the atheist is at least as sympathetic as the Catholic).