~G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Running dialogue between Christie and Masha and I on the topic of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, author, b. May 29, 1874, d. June 14, 1936, m. Frances Blogg—on account of her surname I presume he'd approve what we're doing here—running dialogue on this giant among Englishmen, anyway, has resulted in all three of us blogging to explain why we love or can't bear him. Christie knows his work intimately and loves him. Masha has read a few of his books and can't bear him.
I count his Orthodoxy as one of my favorite books, cried tears the size of gumdrops over his biography of St. Francis, have read a few of his other books to interest if less effect, and still occasionally laugh or well up over one of his poems. And I love him. For a lot of reasons: I like happy-go-lucky people, and I like paradox. I like long sentences. I love his enthusiasm for words and his shameless glory in the magical and traditional and childlike and beautiful. I needed his straw-spun-to-gold thoughts as key to unlock the final gate to a splendid, open realm—this bright kingdom in which sacraments work on body and soul, in which fairy tales are taken to heart. I needed him very much for that. I love him very much for that.
And I, like Christie, am often struck by the truth in his statements—some of which, ripped from context and examined at face value, are obviously false. There's no one like Chesterton for gleeful, goofball hyperbole: for instance, the quote at the top of this page. Which of us—including G.K.C. himself—literally believes in fairies? And yet, that statement encapsulates the problem I have with purely rationalistic thinking. Encapsulates it with greater breadth and strength then when he later says, flatly, that "Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials."
Christie and Masha have exemplified two very different responses to the same author and the same texts. Masha's response to him was startling and a little overwhelming—it was like hearing one of your friends, in whose goodness you have never had the slightest doubt, suddenly described by another friend as dark-spirited and destructive:
"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."The mocker? All that rambling, high-spirited playfulness came off as mockery? Has my inner Jane Bennet failed to see the evil in a good man, or did his high spirits lead him into speaking hurtfully to a friend of mine, or is all this just some big misunderstanding? Is it just that reading works this way, that a phrase that pulls its weight in good work for one reader will leap from the shadows, teeth and claws bared, at another? I liked "the awful authority of a mob", not because I like mobs in general—quite the opposite, actually; I tend to think mobs are unstable creatures, liable to insanity and brutality—but because the words came as part of the point about "the democracy of the dead", and as something of a traditionalist, I desperately want the people of the past to have a voice in the present.
But Masha's response was real and emotional, not something to be brazenly argued with; in that situation, the best I can think of to say is, Well, I'm confident that he's a well-meaning person, but I am truly sorry he came off that way. I like the guy, but I suppose he can seem brash.
From here I can trust Christie's praise and defense of Chesterton to speak for me. She spoke with exceptional warmth:
"Here was a man who unlocked all the tightly raveled God-knowledge of my nascent soul and presented it to me: not as a bride, like Tolkien, in beauty and mystery; not as a mother, like Lewis had, in comforting familiarity and profound love and awe and devotion; but as my own child, an impish joyful thing, astoundingly complete in itself, innocent yet immortal, infinitely familiar to me, utterly surprising and unpredictable."I think Chesterton would have loved that. "Impish joyful thing" is a compliment for the ages. I am not likely to top it, so I'll move on to the matter at the core of this dialectic, which is this: how can kindred spirits like Masha, Christie and I have such disparate reactions to the same author, the same words?
How is it that Tolkien's work is all wonder and glory to Masha and Christie, a wide-open path to all things faerie, when for me, it's... okay, he's quotable, and what he did is undeniably impressive, and I do wish I spoke Quenya, and Galadriel is cool and I like Legolas and Aragorn and Sam and all... but The Hobbit bores me silly and I can't read The Lord of the Rings without sadly missing the intimacy of my favorite stories, and I wish with all my heart there were more girl characters...?? It's like I'm missing a gene of comprehension somewhere, which is probably how Masha feels when Christie and I talk about Chesterton. (We haven't yet discovered which author Masha and I love but Christie can't bear.)
How is it that I seem to have to look so far and wide to find people who are, like me, enchanted by the vivid contrasts and thoughtfulness at the heart of the Twilight story? Why do people instead get excited over the Hunger Games trilogy, a set of books so overbearingly dark and violent that I cannot to this day think of them without a visceral shudder, the three-o'clock-in-the-morning horror of waking from the kind of nightmare in which your loved ones die in terrible ways before your eyes? Half of you will think I'm nuts for writing this paragraph, but I feel it.
How is it that G.K.'s style reads as banter to Christie and I, but as mockery to Masha?
It's funny and terrifying and sad and beautiful when like-souled readers respond so divergently to the same work. It's hard to say how much of a reaction is due to the reader and how much to the writer—a fact I feel rather powerfully as both novelist and reviewer. Every reader brings a custom set of sensitivities to whatever they read, and no writer can wholly predict that. But writers are subject to the Book of Proverbs' warning that, "When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable." Chesterton wrote with at least the appearance of blithe effusion, as if no qualms over the possibility of his words' permanence could staunch the exuberance. As someone who has probably spent five or six hours on this post already, I fear and admire that freedom. It is impossible that he wrote all those words without error, but he also wrote so much good.
In the end, of course, disagreements over mere strong tastes matter little. It's just another curious question among friends—friends who can raise a glass together and toast even the great authors that only some of them love. At least, I think so. I'll happily put one up for The Professor. Or even Suzanne Collins. But I'll also tilt up my pint and name G.K. Chesterton, because when I read the cheerful scrawls that make up Orthodoxy, there was a grandfatherly wink in the pages, and the wink came with magic, and the magic was faith.
Though giant rains put out the sun,
Here stand I for a sign.
Though earth be filled with waters dark,
My cup is filled with wine.
Tell to the trembling priests that here
Under the deluge rod,
One nameless, tattered, broken man
Stood up, and drank to God.
~G.K. Chesterton, The Deluge