ChesterBelloc | Ralph McInerny | IgnatiusInsight.com
ChesterBelloc | Ralph McInerny | IgnatiusInsight.com
relatively young, with his authorial boots on, whereas Belloc lived on to
enormous old age. There are several evocations of him in the diaries of Evelyn
Waugh. "He has grown a splendid white beard and in his cloak, which with his
hat he wore indoors and always, he seemed an archimandrite." But the great man
had become garrulous and obsessed. "He talked incessantly, proclaiming with
great clarity the grievances of forty years ago." That was in 1945. Some seven
years later, there is this. "Enter old man, shaggy white beard, black clothes
garnished with food and tobacco. Thinner than I last saw him, with benevolent
gleam. Like an old peasant or fisherman in French film. We went to greet him at
door. Smell like fox. He kissed Laura's hand, bowed to me saying, 'I am pleased
to make your acquaintance, sir.'"
Old age, Charles de Gaulle was to say, is a shipwreck. In
these lines of Waugh we certainly see the captain of the Nona beached and
bewildered in a present in which he only fitfully lived. Somehow they seem a
not altogether inappropriate coda to the years of ferocious literary activity.
That had ceased now but it was Belloc's achievement as a writer--among other
things--that elicited the admiration and piety of Waugh. Visits to Belloc were
a duty that sat lightly on the younger writer. He attended the great man's
funeral and chided Diana Cooper for wanting to stay away. "The chief reason, of
course, for attending funerals is to pray for the soul of the dead friend. The
other reason is courtesy to the surviving relations..."
We have been spared the sight of Chesterton grown senile
and a bore, but of course that would not have affected our estimate of his
achievement. No more do these glimpses of a shuffling old man detract from the
enormous achievement of Hilaire Belloc. The two men were linked, by themselves
and others, and fused into the Chesterbelloc. Perhaps the most charming
examples of their collaboration is to be found in those novels of Belloc that
were illustrated by Chesterton. One thinks of the portrait by Gunn in which
Chesterton is seated at a table, drawing, with Belloc to his left, looking on,
and behind the two, egg bald and somewhat aloof, Maurice Baring. Maybe Baring
seems a little embarrassed to be there when the two seated giants are so
visibly enjoying themselves.
There are three common notes characteristic of Gilbert
Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. First, there is their fecundity, the
seemingly ceaseless flow of words from their pens. Second, is the variety of
their literary products. Third, is the Christian vision that was as natural to
them as the air they breathed.
There is a sense in which it does not matter whether an
artist produces much or little: the quality of his opus is the salient thing.
Mere quantity is neutral in the sense that some artists produce a very great
deal and it is only mediocre or bad, whereas others labor over one or two works
which achieve perfection. Obviously it is large amounts of good stuff that one
means when he invokes fecundity as a mark of greatness.
It will of course be said that neither Belloc nor
Chesterton had time to agonize over any particular work. They wrote under
financial pressure or to make deadlines and had to get the thing done. That
makes the high quality of most of their work all the more impressive. But it is
the sheer fun the two seemed to have had in doing most of what they did that
characterizes them. Try and imagine either Belloc or Chesterton with writer's
block or talking about the agony of creation. They did not have time for the
mannerisms of the second-rate. Analogously, Chester ton remarked about art
school that there seemed to be far more artists than people who produced art.
It would be inaccurate to portray Chesterton as a failed
artist though the career he eventually had was scarcely the normal outcome of
an art school education. The fact is that he became an artist in a minor sense
at least. He had a sure hand and the illustrations already mentioned exhibit a
visual imagination of great variety. The faces are all clearly by the same
artist but no two are alike. There is a clear family resemblance to the figures
Chesterton painted for his puppet theater when he was a boy. Belloc on the
other hand had aspired to be a don, for years hoping for election as a fellow
of an Oxford College. That did not happen and this failure bothered him for
many years. Had he won the sinecure of an Oxford fellowship he would have been
able to write in a more leisurely and academically acceptable fashion. That was
his claim. But surely from time to time it must have occurred to Belloc that
failure to become an Oxford don was one of the best things that ever happened
to him. As a member of Parliament he came to despise the company he had to
keep. It is doubtful that he would have found prolonged proximity to the dons
he excoriated in his poetic defense of Chesterton any more palatable. In their
different ways, Belloc and Chesterton became free lances, fighting battles of
their own choosing on multiple terrains. There was no job description for
either man that preceded his endeavors. Ubi vult spirat.
Chesterton said that the world of Charles Dickens was the
best of all impossible worlds, and something similar is often thought of his.
After all, he was an optimist, he wrote a rollicking prose that often runs away
from sense to become a music that mystifies and delights. He can seem so
innocent, almost prelapsarian. I suspect that this is one of his greatest
Because it was an accomplishment. Chesterton was not born
Chesterton, nor was his future persona thrust upon him. The choice he made was
between being Chesterton or going mad. What would going mad have been like? He
was attracted to the sensuous decadence of Swinburne. There is a point in his
young manhood of which he wrote almost allegorically when he turned from
darkness and evil toward the light.
The chapter in his autobiography called "How to be a
Lunatic" covers the years during which he studied art at the Slade School in
London and became enthralled with spiritualism and the Ouija board. In the
period of despair through which he went, Chesterston dabbled in diabolism;
later he came to think that he was one of the few who did who really believed
in devils. His emergence from this slough of despond is what made him seem an
optimist. "Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very
daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare." What
remained to him of religion was the "one thin thread of thanks." Wonder.
Gratitude. Wonder, it has been said, is the origin both of philosophy and of
poetry. It turned Chesterton into an exuberant poetic philosopher of gratitude.
To see being against the background of nothingness is to see it as created.
Second, there is the variety of their output. Poems
serious and comic, novels, book length essays, monographs, collections of
essays, memoirs, literary criticism, biography, apologetics, political
philosophy, economics--these are genres in which both men wrote. Chesterton
even tried history in A Short History of England and it can be said without too much stretching that Belloc wrote
detective fiction. To say that the two men overlapped may seem a pun, but they
did, even where they seemed most to differ. But if we consider only the kinds
that both wrote lots of it is striking. Their poetry deserves more attention
than it has received, though it has not been overlooked. Garry Wills some years
ago wrote a marvelous essay on Chesterton's poetic works. Belloc's verse for
children has been so popular that his other verse is almost eclipsed by it. But
Tarantella, to which Marvin
O'Connell alludes in his piece, is a hauntingly beautiful poem, intricate in
its prosody, sustained in its music.
Third, there is the Catholic outlook that defines the bulk
of the work of these two men. In this post-conciliar time when Catholics are
alleged to have moved out of the ghetto so as to address the modern world with
renewed confidence, the apologetic voice is all but silent. More seriously
still, there seems to be missing the robust confidence that the faith is an
inestimable gift. Where is the unambiguous assumption that the Roman Catholic
Church is the fullness of Christianity and that the faith is the best thing
that ever happened to the human race? Belloc and Chesterton were ferocious
Catholics, unequivocal Catholics, confessing Catholics, labeled and known to be
such. This was the source of their catholicity, not an obstacle to it.
Were ever two thinkers less denominational and sectarian?
Neither man thought of the faith as one option among many. It was for everyone.
Their missionary zeal was based on the realization that they did not own
Christianity; they knew that there are only brethren and separated brethren. It
is in very small degree the defects of those in the Church that explain that
separation. Men and women have been seduced by the siren song of modernity, to
which the faith is an antidote. Try to imagine either Belloc or Chesterton
suggesting that, while modernity is a great thing and enjoying success after
success, nonetheless we ought to turn back to the Middle Ages and to a
discredited view of things. It can't be done. Yet how often this seems to be
the choice believers pose to their contemporaries.
The odd contemporaneity of these two men lies above all in
their faith. It is our shared faith that makes what they say seem inevitable
even when no one else ever said it half so well. C. S. Lewis said of his return
to the faith that it put him in possession of the outlook of the writers whose
works it was his task to teach. A bonus. There is more than this in the case of
Belloc and Chesterton. They enable us to recover gratitude for the faith and
wonder at its possession. Not only do we see the role it played in their own efforts.
We begin to see the role it should play in ours. All the time. Exuberantly.
(This article originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue
of Catholic Dossier magazine.)
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Hot Water and
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The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Fr. Randall Paine
Dr. Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), was a longtime professor of philosophy and director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre
Dame. He began teaching at the University of Notre Dame in 1955; he was the author of two dozen scholarly books and many more scholarly essays, as well as
numerous general interest works. He was an expert in the work of Thomas Aquinas,
Soren Kierkegaard, and Jacques Maritain, and wrote and lectured extensively on ethics, philosophy of religion, and medieval philosophy. He also wrote over fifty novels,
including the well-known Father Dowling mystery
series and The Red Hat.
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