Chesterton had a prophetic power, capable of standing outside his own time
I have just been charmed, provoked and stimulated by reading Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist (Ignatius Press). Only someone who is not merely familiar with Chesterton’s enormous body of writing but who is saturated with it could succeed in conveying his uniqueness and lovableness in only 170 pages. Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, has done just this. Something of his favourite writer’s gusto and zest has rubbed off on him. He admits that he has spent 36 years “listening to him talk” – and Chesterton wrote as he talked. The result is both an excellent introduction to Chesterton for those who do not yet have the inestimable pleasure of knowing him and a comfortable, affectionate summary for those who do.
Ahlquist has divided his book, of which portions have been revised from articles, into three sections: The Man; The Writer; The Saint. This is the simplest way to encompass such a prodigious author though one might add the proviso that Chesterton was all three most of the time; the man cannot be separated from the writer or from his holiness. We rightly use the word “genius” sparingly, suggesting someone whose gifts are not so much the result of hard work or talent as the overflow of creative abundance. This was how Chesterton struck his contemporaries.
What strikes the casual reader (as I would describe myself) is Chesterton’s prophetic power – the characteristic of someone capable of standing outside his own time. Ahlquist includes many quotations, confessing that he “could go on and on. I often do.” I note, “There was a dramatic drop in moral standards on the day they discovered that the test-tube is mightier than the sword” and “A strange fanaticism fills our time: the fanatical hatred of morality, especially of Christian morality.” Bear in mind that despite its startling contemporary note the man who wrote thus died in 1936.
Ahlquist rebuts the regular attack on Chesterton, that he was an anti-Semite, drawing attention to his advocacy of a Jewish homeland at a time when to be a Zionist was uncommon, his long and loyal friendships with individual Jews and his conviction that “The world owes God to the Jews.” Could the deadly sin of sloth be laid at GKC’s door? Ahlquist points out that his work was writing “and the fact is, he worked and worked. His typical day consisted of 8 to 10 hours of writing” in a career that produced over 100 books, thousands of essays, hundreds of poems, alongside editing two newspapers and giving hundreds of speeches.
The author provides a lovely and characteristic anecdote of Chesterton, the indefatigable writer, “of how when he was being moved from his flat in Battersea, he was writing an essay and had to keep switching to a different piece of furniture as each was being hauled out of the room, till finally he was using the mantelpiece.” Writing was his vocation – and his vocation was pursuit of the truth.
On the fatuous charge that GKC wrote “too much”, Ahlquist is dismissive, commenting that “His critics cannot approach him because they are overwhelmed.” This is probably truer today, given over as it is to experts and professionals, where to be an “amateur” is to be thought of as shallow.
People might admit to GKC’s prodigality with his pen – but to push for his canonisation: surely that is going too far? Reading the author’s section on The Saint has convinced me of his cause. If Chesterton didn’t radiate holiness with every fibre of his being – alongside humour, generosity, charity and unworldliness – then we have the wrong idea of what holiness is meant to be. As Ahlquist demonstrates, all his writings are “a continuous act of wonder, an expression of gratitude, a cry for justice, a psalm…”
Some people, including TS Eliot, found GKC’s love of paradox exhausting. That is the only fault I can find with his style – aware that his champions recognise it as a mark of his originality and insight. Leaving this small caveat aside, Chesterton, whose very happy marriage was not to include a longed-for family of their own, was a great champion of the family, writing in one of his innumerable trenchant passages, “Hardly anybody…dares to defend the family. The world around us has accepted a social system which denies the family. It will sometimes help the child in spite of the family; the mother in spite of the family…It will not help the family.”
I conclude this very brief survey of this commendable introduction with a final anecdote, which somehow gives the flavour of GKC’s effect on people during his life: “His gardener used to pick up Chesterton’s cigar butts and smoke the remnant in his pipe. It was not because he was being thrifty; it was a way of showing reverence.”