books, faith

An Ode to Chesterton

There is an excellent essay about G.K. Chesterton, written by Adam Gopnik, in the July 7 & 14 issue of The New Yorker. Gopnik begins by noting that Chesterton’s most famous book, The Man Who Was Thursday, turns one hundred this year. Chesterton, he writes, “is an easy writer to love … [but] a difficult writer to defend.” In the easy-to-love ledger, Gopnik lists Chesterton’s prolific literary output and bustling good humor, illustrated in some of his better known “zingers”: “The tall building is itself artistically akin to the tall story. The very word skyscraper is an admirable example of an American lie”; “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.” In the hard-to-defend column, Gopnik cites Chesterton’s reputation as an anti-Semite and religious convert whose literary sensibilities were diminished by the dogmatism of his later beliefs. Both judgments are fair. Today, though, I (Ben) am interested only in the first one.

Gopnik identifies a central theme to Chesterton’s life and work in a chapter in Chesterton’s autobiography titled “The Man with the Golden Key.” In that chapter, Chesterton describes a scene from his childhood watching toy theater puppet shows. He is still young enough to believe in the fiction of the puppet show and just old enough to know it is also an illusion. As Gopnik writes, “Chesterton’s point is that childhood is not a time of illusion but a time when illusion and fact exist (as they should) at the same level of consciousness, when the story and the world are equally numinous.”

Chesterton hints at this blurring of fact and fantasy, and makes a “case for the romance of everyday existence” to borrow Gopnik’s words, in his essay, “On Running After One’s Hat”:

Most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences — things altogether of the mind. For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys’ habit in this manner. They also serve who only stand and wait for the two fifteen.

Later in the essay, Chesterton mentions a friend who is aggravated daily by a stubborn drawer that will not open smoothly. Chesterton admonishes him to reframe his understanding by refraining from the assumption that, every day, “the drawer could, should, and would come out easily.” Instead, Chesterton tells him to imagine that every battle with this drawer is like “a tug-of-war between French and English,” an epic contest requiring all of his friend’s wits and perserverance. He concludes,

I have no doubt that every day of his life he hangs on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright with battle, uttering encouraging shouts to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring. … An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

The brilliance of this insight is almost so commonplace as to be overlooked, as every one of us is prone to do on a daily basis. We always have a choice. We all know people for whom an inconvenience is no adventure at all, and life nothing more than a utilitarian exercise where mystery is a fancy. We have all seen the driver thrown into a rage by the oblivious senior who yields when there is no yield sign, or the co-worker whose entire day is ruined because a copier/computer/fill-in-the-blank is being uncooperative, and said co-worker just knew it would be so today, knew it in his bones, and carries on with an aggrieved spirit that colors everyone and everything around him. We know these people because, if we’re not attentive, we are them too.  

—————

I was introduced to The Man Who Was Thursday by Chris Cooke, who described it as one of his all-time favorites. The charm of the book for me, aside from Chesterton’s prose and the scenes of elephant chases, jousting, and pursuit by hot air balloon, is how deeply philosophical it is. The man who is Thursday, Syme, is a poet who becomes a policeman in order to fight a society of anarchists. Syme, once embedded inside the society, is named Thursday. The others are all named after days of the week. Sunday is the dreaded chief: elusive, terrifying, and mysterious even after he removes his mask in the final pages.

The paradox of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy side-by-side and sometimes existing within the other, runs throughout the book. There is the artifice of the story, where no one is quite who he seems. (The reader catches on to this as more and more of the secret agents are revealed.) And yet the story is utterly convincing; Thursday’s pseudo-life as a double agent becomes a more pressing and urgent reality than the life he knew before he went undercover. Gopnik writes, “[Chesterton] recaptures a childhood sense of what it feels like to be frightened by a nothing that is still a something, and by the sense that ordinary things hold intimations of another world.”

Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday as he was wrestling with the Book of Job. The battle between anarchy and order, good and evil — and the (sometimes interchangeable) faces they wear — echoes Job’s existential crisis with a God whose ways are inscrutable. Just as the Voice in the Whirlwind points Job toward hints of God’s existence and providence over all creation, Chesterton’s book is sprinkled with these same intimations of holiness in a world verging on chaos.

The great achievement of The Man Who Was Thursday, though, is its ability to capture the romance and adventure of everday faith, and while it can certainly be read as an allegory, it is a strange, bizarre sort of allegory that enlarges — rather than reduces — its themes of good and evil, and the theological knot of free will that forces us to navigate between them. “Chesterton’s conundrums of imagination and fact retain their grip on us,” Gopnik writes,

because they remind us that we know two things. We know that we have our experience of a limited world. … We also know that this experience doesn’t feel limited, that it includes far more — all of myth and religion and meaning, as the children’s puppet theatre does. The desire for mystery and romance can’t be argued out of importance, but it can’t be willed into existence, either.

As with so much in life, faith is a paradox. It is the hope in things unseen which must thrive in a seen world. Chesterton’s vision, unlike so many writers of faith, is not diminished by his fiction. It is compelling, challenging, hilarious, complicated and subversive. “Chesterton himself said that the modern age is characterized by a sadness that calls for a new kind of prophet,” writes Philip Yancey in his own ode to Chesteron, “not like prophets of old who reminded people that they were going to die, but someone who would remind them they are not dead yet.”

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2 thoughts on “An Ode to Chesterton

  1. I can only imagine I am safe to assume the Chris Cooke cited here is Chris Cooke your old roommate, and not the Chris Cooke with whom we share an alma mater?

    Literary taste alone seems to answer that question, but I need to be sure of this.

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