Saturday, January 9, 2010

The World of GK Chesterton And What's Wrong With It


This year is the centenary of one of Chesterton's oddest, but most intriguing, booksRenewal of interest in the work of GK Chesterton continues apace. The writer whose career began when he dictated his first story to his aunt Rose at the age of three started early and aimed high, and his intellectual development was among the more conspicuously interesting of the Edwardian age. His Orthodoxy of 1908 has become a sort of touchstone text during the present vogue for philosophical theology, much cited by the likes of Slavoj Zizek and the radical theologian John Milbank, while oddball novels such as The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) retain the power to entertain and bemuse in equal measure.This year, however, sees the centenary of one of his rather less high-profile publications. What's Wrong with the World represents an extrapolation of Chesterton's original response to a query posed in so many words by the Times to a selection of eminent writers and thinkers of the day. "Dear Sirs," ran GK's succinct rejoinder, "I am". The publication of the book suggested that, on reflection, there might have been more to say on the subject.The Chesterton offered us by his latter-day biographers and critics is a lost proto-radical, if we could but make him out as such. Along with his close friend Hilaire Belloc, he was the proponent of a species of Third Way politics avant la lettre, a plague-on-both-your-houses confutation of capitalism and socialism known as distributism. Drastically simplified, the vision was of an atomised entrepreneurialism in which as many individuals as possible pursued the goal of profit, so as to wrest capital accumulation from both a few vastly powerful interests (such as "Jewish banking families") and a monolithic socialist state.What's Wrong with the World opens with an analysis of the predicament of modern humanity, too obsessed in the great age of political idealism with visions of the future. Has the Enlightenment ideal of continual social progress been a reality, or has it all been a piece of western myth-making? "Are we still strong enough to spear mammoths, but now tender enough to spare them?" he wonders. But then again, "Does the cosmos contain any mammoth that we have either speared or spared?"What it does contain is the wreckage of half-realised ideals. There is a lack of conviction in attempts to enact the radical doctrines of Christianity or of political justice, and too often the espousal of great causes results in panic at the consequences of one's own actions. Where national leaders paid lip-service to such humanist ideals as egalitarianism, they came to rue their faith in humanity. "Joseph of Austria and Catherine of Russia quite agreed that the people should rule; what horrified them was that the people did."Much in the section on women would take a lot of swallowing today. Woman is naturally thrifty, as against the prodigality of man, "the aim of the good woman [being] to rummage in the dustbin". This is cognate with her moral inclination to chastity in the face of masculine concupiscence. There is scarcely any point in female suffrage (the burning question of the day) where it is so little wanted. The saving grace of not having the vote is that it allows a woman to remain above the level of the baying mob. What she really needs is liberation from drudgery. A paradise of domestic labour-saving devices will spread more spiritual freedom than would the vote. Where many saw the constitutional equality of the sexes as an ideal, meanwhile, Chesterton suspected only the urge to "plodding, elaborate, elephantine imitation" of the male by the female. "Boys play football, why shouldn't girls play football … boys go to Oxford, why shouldn't girls go to Oxford – in short, boys grow mustaches, why shouldn't girls grow mustaches[?]"The cumulative impact of the book is a little like reading a supremely elegant, aphoristic Nietzsche, but one domesticated for the English gentleman's study. There is the same vertiginous thrill at lurching from exemplary declarations of universalist ethics ("Men have never wearied of political justice; they have wearied of waiting for it") to the flared-nostrilled defence of Edwardian privilege, such as public schools. But for its sober humanism, as much as its infuriating patrician conservatism, it deserves to be read.

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