Search This Blog

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Mr. Chesterton" by G.S. Street

The following is (needless to say) not a writing by Chesterton, but rather a contemporary review about Chesterton that I came across this morning. It is, however, a unique review because that Chesterton singled it out in particular in the first paragraph of the introductory chapter to his masterpiece Orthodoxy as to why Chesterton wrote that book. Given such prominence of the review in inspiring my favorite of Chesterton writings (and indeed, my favorite book of all time outside obvious exceptions such as the Bible), I was delighted to come across the original review, and so have included it below. First, though, let me quote from Orthodoxy where Chesterton references it:
THE only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. When some time ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers, under the name of "Heretics," several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect (I may mention specially Mr. G. S. Street) said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with example. "I will begin to worry about my philosophy," said Mr. Street, "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his." It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation. But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book, he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in its pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.
Similarly, at the end of his introductory chapter, Chesterton writes:
I add one purely pedantic note which comes, as a note naturally should, at the beginning of the book. These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed. When the word "orthodoxy" is used here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography. But if any one wants my opinions about the actual nature of the authority, Mr. G. S. Street has only to throw me another challenge, and I will write him another book.
And now, the review....

By G. S. Street. 
 The Outlook, June 17, 1905

I HOPE no one will discourage Mr. Chesterton. So far it has been roses all the way with him. Reviewers, a graceful throng, have strewn them in his path, crying "Brilliant! Clever! Delightful!" But they are a fickle tribe. It seems to be a law with most of them that they can never praise the same man for long, though he continues doing the same thing. Then they disgust each other, and are morbidly anxious to be independent. Each likes to think a new writer his own discovery, and observing his roses to be merely part of a heap turns away, or even picks up a stone for use what time the unfortunate comes his way again. What a shout of praise greeted Mr. E. F. Benson's first novel, and how sharp they were with his second! The thought of Mr. Benson's bewilderment used often to torment me in those days. Mr. Chesterton's publisher furnishes us at the end of his last book* with imposing excerpts from the encomia on his Napoleon of Notting Hill. It was a very readable book because it had a genuine idea in it, but Mr. Chesterton is not as yet skilful in creating either people or an "atmosphere," and Heretics, where such a gift is not necessary, is incomparably better stuff. For one or two ideas rather thinly drawn out, it has a thousand, a feast indeed (though the feeding be as confused as fine) for a mind which loves ideas. Yet I have not seen it so lavishly bepraised as the other, and have noticed, on the contrary, in one or two reviews I have had the curiosity to read, an ominous disposition to speak of satiety. Originality and fertility of mind are apt to tire most people, to be sure. Mr. Chesterton must be prepared for that, and he must be prepared for a caustic critic or so who hates anything new and fresh. I hope he will not be discouraged, and I am pleased to think that he is not in the least likely to be. Meanwhile if he can derive any sort of small encouragement from my approbation he is heartily welcome to it.

But I offer it with some mistrust. He is so fond of turning things inside out that he will easily prove eulogy to be insult. If I say, for instance, that I care more about his mental agility than for any goal he may reach by it, he will reply that that is to treat him like a performing bear; his doctrine is the important matter. If I say that his youthful joyousness in thought raises my spirits, as it does, he will reply that that is as bad as the medicinal drinking he attributes to Omar; only the high-spirited ought to enjoy high spirits in another. Perhaps, however, he will redress the balance by treating my adverse criticism in the same manner, and it may be politic to begin with it.

He does not write as well as he should. I agree that a man who really has something to say generally finds the right way of saying it, and that one who begins with style commonly ends with it, though there are many exceptions. But that is no reason why a writer should not write his best, and this one is hasty and careless, and therefore sometimes clumsy. Take his exercises in the art of paradox, of which he is fond. The detractors of paradox say with equal obviousness and stupidity that it is only an arbitrarily inverted platitude. The finest paradox is a true step beyond the platitude in the way of truth. The merely plausible paradox, which also is a delightful thing, is the forcing of a word or a phrase until the platitude is reversed. It must be done gently and tactfully. Mr. Oscar Wilde at his best did it perfectly. He would lead you to it gradually, discoursing reasonably and without effort until you were landed in it apparently by accident. Mr. Chesterton, over-anxious to astonish, begins with it. "All other people say stones are hard: I say they are soft, and I'll prove it in a jiffy," so to speak. That is not effective. His taste is sometimes very bad. He will be easy about it because he believes that " good taste" is " the last and vilest of human superstitions." Nevertheless, when a coarse parody (on page 27) of a sacred part of the Church liturgy sickens a reader's mind I suggest that attention to the argument is distracted. The age of faith was the age of irreverence, as he says—at least I think he does, but he says so many things, bless him—but that was a gay irreverence, and this is culpable, because it is earnest and for a good motive: he shall not retort that I am sickened because I am irreligious. Lastly—for this occasion, anyhow—his doctrine is vague. That would not signify if he did not insist that a man's doctrine is the most important thing about him—I do not believe it—and that the fault of the age is its lack of doctrine. But he is always so insisting, and all I can gather of his own doctrine is his belief that everyone else ought to have one. I shall not begin to worry about my philosophy of life until Mr. Chesterton discloses his.

Now I come to what I like in him. I like the freedom with which he discusses his contemporaries—a freedom I have tried respectfully to imitate in these remarks. He is sometimes wrong, as when he insists on the egotism of Mr. George Moore, whose one great merit is a really beautiful power of sympathy with other people's emotions; and he is sometimes obvious, as when he insists on Mr. Shaw's sincerity, which no intelligent student of that propagandist ever doubted. But he looks at his contemporaries with a fresh eye, and that is no common feat. I like his heartiness in attack. I like his provocativeness, his ambition to leave the world a little noisier than he found it. I like his genuine originality, which one perceives even when he seems anxious to display it. I like him for discussing abstractions, and I like his mischievous play with paradoxes. But above all I like—I might say revel in— the amazing continuance of his agility. There is nothing derogatory in calling him an intellectual acrobat. I know he is full of an earnest purpose, though I do not quite know what it is, but there is no harm in admiring the vitality of the leaps and bounds with which he prosecutes it. They seem inexhaustible, and I could watch them for ever.

* Heretics. By G. K. Chesterton. London: John Lane. 5s. net.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.