July 07, 2008

Gopnik's Chesterton

It's not every day you check the table of contents of The New Yorker & see an article subtitled "The Genius of GK Chesterton". In the latest issue, Adam Gopnik waxes enthusiastically about the great one. Tis always interesting to see how revered figures with Catholicism are seen outside the fold. (Gopnik is an atheist.)

Chesterton and Friends has already made note, linking to Brookhiser of "The Corner" and Commonweal, which has a few snippets:
Gopnik has many good things to say about Chesterton’s style and sensibility, about changes in English prose style in the twentieth century, and about the differences of outlook between cradle Catholics and converts. An atheist (or, as he likes to put it, a “freethinker”), Gopnik is not insensible to the appeal of religion, and of the Catholic religion in particular:
[I]t was as obvious that Chesterton was headed to Rome as it was that Wilde was headed to Reading jail. If you want a solution, at once authoritarian and poetic, to the threat of moral anarchism, then Catholicism, which built Chartres and inspired Dante, looks better than Scotland Yard. If you want stability allied to imagination, Catholicism has everything else beat.
But this, for Gopnik, is part of the problem. Chesterton’s hunger for stability and authority led him not only to Rome, but to a rebarbative political philosophy that logically entailed “Jew-hating.” Gopnik argues that Chesterton’s anti-Semitism was not merely casual or customary; it was personal (his brother, Cecil, had been one of the main players in the Marconi Scandal, a small-scale English version of the Dreyfus Affair), and it was programmatic:
The trouble for those of us who love Chesterton’s writing is that the anti-Semitism is not incidental: it rises from the logic of his poetic position. The anti-Semitism is easy to excise from his arguments when it’s explicit. It’s harder to excise the spirit that leads to it — the suspicion of the alien, the extreme localism, the favoring of national instinct over rational argument, the distaste for “parasitic” middlemen, and the preference for the simple organ-grinding music of the folk.
It is a mistake to try to defend Chesterton (or Belloc) against the charge of anti-Semitism. Looking back from this side of the Final Solution, as we must, we are bound to find many of Chesterton’s arguments about the Jews — and much of his language about them — suspect or disgraceful. Nor is it any use to try to quarantine our judgment about his attitude toward the Jews from our more general opinion of his merits as a thinker and writer. Anti-Semitism was a part of the package, though never a big part.
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Gopnik says all the favorite historical arguments for Jesus - "that he had to be either crazy or right, and he doesn't seem crazy; that he changed the world with a suddenness not plausible in the ordinary human... apply just as equally to Muhammad" - but Jesus did it without killing anybody, i.e. without force, and that of course makes all the difference.

For Muhammad to use power in order to create a religion is of this world and not surprising. And this is the rub isn't it? The thing we boast of Jesus - that the "still small voice" does not impel belief is also that which can be exasperating. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once said, we could wish God would manifest Himself with greater clarity and power, but then it gives more glory to God that He not, allowing the little of the world to know the secrets.

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It's interesting to me that Chesterton hated homogenization and the leveling of differences and yet celebrated the mundane, saying that we ought look in wonder while being stopped for a train, observing the red and green of the stoplight as it were the sun and moon, and becoming entranced by the long arm that falls as the train nears. (Sort of like being enthused over "spam poetry"?) Train crossings seem awfully homogenized don't they?

Chesterton loved the denseness of a city like London ("a city is, properly speaking, more poetic than even the countryside, for while nature is chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones...a city has more significant symbols than nature." Reminds me of my trip to New York. I suppose while Chesterton relished diversity he did not require it. Very Christian in the sense that for Jesus fasting and feasting was not either/or but and/both. For Chesterton it wasn't diversity/homogenization, but dealing with whatever came (preferably diversity).

Chesterton's answer to the mundane seems to be to infuse it with imagination so that it acquires what it appears to lack. Of a friend whose desk drawer was constantly jammed, creating frustration, Chesterton said "imagine you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, and the struggle will become exciting, not exasperating...an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

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