Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874-1908

The idea of a mystical journalist, like the idea of a Surrealist who works for the IRS, or an absent-minded hit man, or a vegetarian pig farmer, resides in that special class of impracticabilities we have come to call “Chestertonian.” The feeling is that only in a piece of writing by Chesterton would such a paradoxical character be done justice: a visionary scrivener, a seer on a deadline — a man, that is, who bangs out essays and opinions not because he has an attraction to the shallow topicalities of the hour, but because he is magnetized to the core of existence.

All of which is rather nice to think about, because a mystical journalist is just what Gilbert Keith Chesterton was. For this roly-poly Catholic, prodigy it’s really the only job description that will do. Never quite a novelist — his works of fiction are essentially comedies of ideas — and never quite a poet, although he excelled at the sub-arts of parody and nonsense verse, he was also far too flighty a thinker to be a theologian. But the hat of journalist fitted him beautifully, and the brain beneath it was mystically abuzz. “A talk in front of the fire,” runs an entry in one of his early notebooks, quoted in Dr. William Oddie’s splendid Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, “Two friends and I in front of the fire / But I come away from it as from a divine vision.”

“There is a sense,” writes Oddie, “in which we can see massive oeuvre as a continuing and lifelong endeavour to articulate the dazed vision of his early manhood.” Oddie’s book bucks the trend of modern criticism by regarding that vision not in the light of a forgiveable eccentricity or brainstorm but as the central fact of his subject’s life. “At the back of our brains,” wrote Chesterton in his Autobiography, “there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.” It is to these lines that Oddie returns in his book as to a mantra — the excavation of that “submerged sunrise”, through successive stages of belief, is the matter of his story. And so we see Chesterton the schoolboy, writing pompous and vaguely anticlerical verse; Chesterton the student, thrown into crisis by an encounter with a Beardsley-esque character he called “the Diabolist.” Inebriated with Walt Whitman; disgusted with Walter Pater; enjoying the company of certain churchmen; and so on. Using a wealth of unpublished material, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy provides a fuller account than we have yet had of the first development of Chesterton’s career and of his religious philosophy.

The two were coterminous, not surprisingly — as he began to realize what he was writing about, Chesterton became a better and more sought-after writer. With one foot in Fleet Street, so to speak, and the other in the Garden of Eden, he went to work. He inveighed against Schopenhauer in the Daily News (“Of all men whose souls have influenced the world, Schopenhauer seems to me the most contemptible”) and flooded The Clarion with the white light of Christ (“Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery…”). He polemicized zestily, ironically, habitually, passionately. He loved to write about the saints, particularly the more extreme ones — the loopier they were, the happier Chesterton was. He called good taste “the last and vilest of human superstitions.” In our own time the only possible comparison — and it’s a startling one — would be with Norman Mailer.

He was as aphoristic as Wilde, and his quotability, the perfectly turned finality of his phrasing, has in a sense become his greatest weakness. “Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” (Ba-boom!) “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” (Ba-ba-boom!) “No sceptical philosopher can ask any questions that may not equally be asked by a tired child on a hot afternoon.” (Ba-ba-boom-BOOM!) Such lines are bounced around the blogs: one finds them studding contemporary diatribes against atheism, or materialism, or evolutionary theory, or whatever it may be — in the culture wars, quoting Chesterton has become a sort of vice. The man himself might wince to see his words used at the end of thoughts rather than at their beginnings.

On the other hand, nobody’s quoting George Bernard Shaw, or H. G. Wells. The New Atheists need the new stuff, the latest research and theory, and the “heretics” against whom Chesterton so joyously went to bat have dated or become curiosities — his Orthodoxy, meanwhile, is fresh as a daisy. Oddie maintains that “Chesterton’s times were much more like our own than we imagine. To understand the development of his ideas in the context of his own age is not only to begin to understand why Chesterton came to write as he did; it is also to deepen our understanding of what it is to live in the modern world.”

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy is a long book, almost 400 pages, and I’d be lying if I said it flew by. But Oddie is engaged in some serious scholarly spadework — clarifying timelines, correcting misapprehensions, and so on — and he deserves the reader’s patience as he digs. Chesterton’s relevance to our own age is not always certain: his judgment, for example, that Impressionism was “another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe” might surprise those of us who have gazed from the dentist’s chair at a badly framed print of Monet’s Water Lilies. Or it might not surprise us at all. It might, indeed, sound just about right.