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Hot Water and Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes
| Janet E. Smith
"I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean."
G. K. Chesterton
When the accounting comes and we all are asked to report why we are grateful
to Father Joseph Fessio, the list will be long. Not least among the gifts
he has given us is his project of putting the complete works of G.K. Chesterton
back into print. Should that long evening ever arrive in which we might
devote ourselves to reading all the books on our shelves, it is sweet to
think that G.K. will be awaiting us.
Chesterton was prolific, profound, and pretty darn funny (please pardon
the pathetic attempt at alliteration). In this day, which eschews polemics
and pugilism in print (I dont know what is happening here!), it is
a real treat to read G.K.s pungent criticisms of his foes. He did
not mince words. He devastated and lacerated his opponents. In a gentlemanly
English way to be sure, but he gave his enemies no quarter. Nonetheless,
he remained great friends with his foes and seemed to enjoy the battle as
much as the victory; what would he do without his worthy sparring partners?
He seemed grateful to have found such terrific foils for his brilliant insights.
Of his arch-enemy, George Bernard Shaw, he would say,
"For the truth is that Mr. Shaw has never seen things as they
really are. If he had he would have fallen on his knees before them.
When we really see men as they are, we dont criticize, but worship
and very rightly. For a monster with mysterious eyes and miraculous
thumbs, with strange dreams in his skull, and a queer tenderness for
this place or that baby, is truly a wonderful and unnerving matter.
And Mr. Shaw, on the practical side perhaps the most humane man alive,
is in this sense inhumane. He has even been infected to some extent
with the primary intellectual weakness of his new master, Nietzsche,
the strange notion that the greater and stronger a man was the more
he would despise other things. The greater and stronger a man is the
more he would be inclined to prostrate himself before a periwinkle."
Chesterton was never dismissive of his enemies. His sharp words against
their views did not suggest that they were idiots; indeed he routinely depicted
his opponents as being sincere and intelligent. Yet he did not hesitate
to express his frustration that they used their intelligence and talents
to advance unthinking cant. He generally convicted them of gross illogic.
The following passage may explain his approach: "Reason is always a
kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart,
however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of
touching a mans heart, but we can do nothing to his head
but hit it." Chesterton spent much of his life in a single-minded expose
of the political correctness of his time.
Chestertons penetrating critique of contemporary dominant opinion
did not cause him to become bitter or melancholic. He had the great grace
to find foolishness not hateful but amusing. One cannot find a more cheerful
man than Chesterton; in fact he dubbed cheerfulness one of the triad of
Christian virtues (the others being humility and activity). When I read
Chesterton and about Chesterton, I cannot figure out whether he was temperamentally
cheerful or resolutely cheerful, but it is both inspiring and unnerving
to encounter someone so relentlessly fascinated and delighted and amused
by the world and its inhabitants as G.K. Boredom and cynicism seemed absolutely
foreign to him. He re marked about himself: "I do not think there is
anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves
as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the
fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of
mud. It is just the same with people." He clearly bowed before many
Imagine my delight when I found in one of his essays defending the claim
that everything is poetical, the assertion: "If you think the name
of Smith prosaic, it is not because you are practical and sensible;
it is because you are too much affected with literary refinements. The name
shouts poetry at you." Else where, "In the case of Smith, the
name is so poetical that it must be an arduous and heroic matter for the
man to live up to it." Oh, so true.
The Internet has several sites listing several individuals favorite
quotations from Chesterton. Such is not surprising; what is surprising is
that each list is not five hundred pages long. It is difficult to read a
paragraph from Chesterton without highlighting half of it. Personally, I
have long clung to and used as guiding principle of my life the aphorism,
"if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." This is
the last phrase in his collection of essays, Whats Wrong with the
World. He writes it in defense of women, and thus of everyone, who would
dabble in painting and poetry and music or in short, in any endeavor
for which they may have few talents but much love.
For all his genius and combativeness, G.K. remained one of the most humble
men alive. Worthy of long hours of meditation is the simple response he
gave in a letter to the editor. I couldnt locate the passage I have
in mind, but my very imperfect memory has him saying, "You ask what
is wrong with the world. I am." This, of course, is a funny remark
and a deadly serious one.
G.K. often had to defend himself against charges that he was frivolous about
serious matters. He responded by asking, "About what other subjects
can one make jokes except serious subjects?" He was wise enough not
to take the serious too seriously. His lightheartedness was, I think, a
product of his faith; he had ultimate confidence in the providence of God,
not in the goodness of man. His chief campaign was against social reformers
who thought that by letting experts run society we would achieve a kind
of utopia. Chesterton knew that without personal reform, social reform could
only be misguided and fruitless.
I believed Chesterton labored so hard to debunk the foolishness of his times,
because he knew that all of us, himself included, are prone to latch on
to the trendy. In Orthodoxy, he lays out his own personal odyssey
of discovering the truth and calls it an "elephantine adventure in
pursuit of the obvious." He acknowledges, "I freely confess all
the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like
all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them
I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that
I was eighteen hundred years behind it." For my part, I am with Chesterton
in praying for the grace to recognize the obvious. I have seen too many
get entangled in subtleties and nuances to the point where they become incapable
of breathing fresh air and eventually asphyxiate themselves.
Perhaps reading Chesterton would be the cure, for he is always a breath
of fresh air.
[This column originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of The Catholic
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Dr. Janet E. Smith is the
Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary
in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later
and editor of Why
Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader and many articles on ethical and
bioethics issues. Over 700,000 copies of her tape, "Contraception:
Why Not?" have been distributed. She taught for nine years at the University
of Notre Dame and twelve years at the University of Dallas. She speaks nationally
and internationally on several issues, especially the Catholic Church's
teaching on sexuality. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the
Pontifical Council on the Family.
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