In response to Christie’s article at Everything to Someone, which reminds just how much beautiful diversity is in the world, even among kindred hearts.
First, some disclaimers:
1. I haven’t studied Chesterton in depth. Apart from Orthodoxy, The Man who was Thursday, The Flying Inn, most of What’s wrong with the World, bits of Father Brown, and articles shared by mutual friends, Chesterton and I are not well acquainted. He’s like that guy in college everyone wants you date, and you begin to suspect it’s just to get you in a relationship, you go to coffee and leave wondering “is it just because we’re both Catholic..because really who sees me with him?” But your friends mean well, and so - probably - does he. It’s just a missed connection. Chesterton is my missed connection. Our friends want us to get married and have a million babies, but I can’t even sit through coffee with him.
2. We are a missed connection, in part I think, because I’m already in love. Long before I was introduced to Chesterton, I met Soren Kierkegaard, who introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke, who became my ultimate infatuation. Rilke and Kierkegaard spoke to me, nurtured in my heart the unreasonable love of beauty and magic that grew there, and made me long for kindness and charity in my thoughts. They are the soft-spoken poets, the artists who call out to God in low, rocking songs..leaving them for Chesterton’s loud company made me feel battered, unseen, and alone. He is the mocker, the one who seems to write against individuals and for the masses. They are the mocked, the lonely ones whom God nestles close - and I feel Chesterton’s judgment of them; he who calls on the ‘awful authority of the mob’ against my friends who remember that the mob “is nonsense - a sum of negative ones” of people who have given up themselves. We are starting at opposites and cannot find a place to meet.
3. Apart from this basic bias, I have others. I’m not a feminist, but I have - for better or worse, been influenced by feminism both within and without the Church -and Chesterton’s writing on women grates on me. It’s frustrating. It gives me the impression that he doesn’t see individuals so much as collectives. He has some lovely thoughts: Christie’s blog title being one of them, but the underlaying attitude - the argument for mediocrity in women, the tendency to idealize is something I struggle to read without judgment. I have a tendency to be overly harsh in my reading, I get bogged down in the details, and distracted by small frustrations. Chesterton gives me an abundance of details to pick at, and my reading derails.
All that said, I know he’s popular with many, many good and holy people. He’s popular with people whose artistic-sense does connect with mine in a deep and beautiful way, whose respect for people as individuals is obvious. So I wonder, would I be more able to forgive him his flaws if I was more taken with his style, or if I had needed a friend in my own dream-like interior life? I still sometimes love his words out of context - many of them are good and true and uplifting. I want to use them sometimes like I want to use the words of other writers I know only lightly and dislike in passing; I don’t, for the most part, because it seems dishonest to borrow words from a man I don’t read.
G.K. Chesterton, in some ways, reminds me of a less saintly version of Padre Pio, a man God loves, a man the Church of God obviously loves, and yet a man I can’t help but dislike. I’m thankful for all the cases of saints disliking each other and arguing amongst themselves. Chesterton is not a saint, so I feel better rejecting him for his different vision and his harsh words. I remember reading ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ - Chesterton writes to tell me I “cannot imagine two and one not making three.” - I realized he wasn’t writing to me, or of me, and that his fairy is not mine. Because I can imagine it (which probably accounts for my failure in math class). And I immediately remembered the connection I felt with Kathleen Norris who has the same tendency to “focus on the fuzzy boundaries where definitions give way to metaphor” where numbers are not so dull as to always come out the same, where the dreams live and shift the world we see.
But I hope I don’t sound too harsh. Christie and Jenna (my dear blogging friends) have a different relationship to him. Christie obviously understands him better than I, she is closer in life and education to British thought, which is really, despite my love of Jane Austen and The Simple Things magazine, foreign to me in so many ways. Jenna is much better at reading critically in charity, and I think, much less self-focused than I am, and less likely to consider her own opinions sacrosanct. My brother - who is welcome to join the discussion on his own blog - is also a student of Chesterton, so I do know there is good there, and deep thought, and probably even charity. I doubt I’ll ever enjoy him, but I’ll try to humbly absorb your thoughts and let them warm my heart a little towards him.