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"The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton"

What Peter Steinfels did for Hilaire Belloc in the October 26 issue of Commonweal, Adam Gopnik now does for (or is it to?) G.K. Chesterton in this week's New Yorker. (The article, not available online, is titled "The Back of the World.") Gopnik is a fierce champion of Chesterton's literary reputation and an equally fierce critic of his politics. "Chesterton," he writes, "is an easy writer to love -- a brilliant sentence-maker, a humorist, a journalist of endless appetite and invention." Gopnik thinks Chesterton's aphorisms are better than any but Oscar Wilde's, and he describes some of them as "genuine Catholic koans, pregnant and profound." For example: "Blasphemy depends on belief, and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor." "But," Gopnik continues:

[Chesterton] is a difficult writer to defend. Those of us who are used to pressing his writing on friends have the hard job of protecting him from his detractors, who think he was a nasty anti-Semite and medievalizing reactionary, and the still harder one of protecting him from his admirers, who pretend that he was not.

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.

Still, it is hard to say what is more impressive about Gopnik's article: his literary brilliance or his political complacence. He does a pretty good job of explaining how at least one road leads to Rome, but he also seems to think that all roads leading away from liberal capitalism lead to totalitarianism, so that, since Chesterton was not a Communist and not quite a fascist, he must have been a Falangist, at least "in spirit."

[H]e dreamed of an anti-capitalist agricultural state overseen by the Catholic Church and governed by a military for whom medieval ideas of honor still resonated, a place where Jews would not be persecuted or killed, certainly, but hived off and always marked as foreigners. All anti-utopians cherish a secret utopia, an Eden of their own, and his, ironically, was achieved: his ideal order was ascendant over the whole Iberian Peninsula for half a century. And a bleak place it was, too, with a fearful ruling class running a frightened population in an atmosphere of poverty-stricken uniformity and terrified stasis -- a lot more like the actual medieval condition than like the Victorian fantasy.

There are many good ways to interpret Chesterton's distributism, and there are good ways to criticize it. But this is not one of them. It is a very long way from The Napoleon of Notting Hill to Alczar. Chesterton was, as Gopnik insists, a localist, but there was really nothing localist about Franco's regime, which was characterized by strict centralization, cultural uniformity, and militarism -- things Chesterton always opposed. (Ask a Catalonian about Franco's tolerance of localism.) Chesterton's main criticism of "Prussianism," and later of Nazi Germany, was not, as Gopnik says, that it resembled Judaism in its belief in a chosen people, but that it was essentially militarist and autocratic.

Despite Chesterton's "medievalism," it is not at all obvious what sort of modern political mechanisms would have best embodied his distributist theory, which is arguably the theory's greatest weakness. What is clear is that distributism was as different from Franco's brutal politics as it was from Bernard Shaw's socialism. Gopnik is impatient with such theoretical distinctions. For him, it is all about tendencies: all radical critiques of capitalism tend toward Communism, which has failed, or toward some kind of anti-Semitic authoritarianism. One is allowed to have a few mild reservations about capitalism, of course, and even to look down at the pitiless people who seem to have fewer reservations (i.e., Republicans), but any less mild opposition to our political economy, whatever its name or origin, is headed toward trouble: if not the Gulag or the gas chamber, then the Inquisition.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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I read a lot of GKC as a teenager and have no memory of anything antisemitic. A doughty but generous and good-natured reactionary -- ripening to a visionary glow at times, or a lurid dreamscape.Would he have benefited from an editorial hand to prune and trim?Steinfels is picking up the aphoristic bug: "It was as obvious that Chesterton was headed to Rome as it was that Wilde was headed to Reading jail."

This was a very interesting article. The anti-semitism appears to have begun after Chesterton wrote his more widely known novels (e.g., The Man Who Was Thursday), and seems to have been part of his journalistic efforts, as well as his autobiography, where he tried to explain it. His youngest brother was successfully sued for libel for his public writings casting aspersions on the legality of business dealings of two brothers, who happened to be Jewish. Chesterton's brother was then killed during WWI. Anyway, this all seems to have figured into his views/commentary on Jews, who he seems to have viewed as foreigners no matter how long they lived in England. He even proposed that they be forced to wear special clothing so that they could be identified. But again, I doubt if you were reading his contemporary journalism, which is where most of these kinds of subjects must have appeared.

I read the article in the New Yorker. For the record, I sent the following response to the magazine. I don't know if it will get printed, but here it is:To the Editor of the New Yorker:Mr. Gopnik has besmirched the good name of the good Gilbert Keith Chesterton, even while sandwiching his comments between thick slices of praise. Maybe its just revenge. After all, Chesterton said, New York reminded me of hell. Pleasantly, of course.For those of us who love Chesterton, we are always distressed to see him subjected to any vile charge. But weve gotten a little tired of the charge of anti-Semitism. Hes been absolved of that one too many times for us to count from the tribute by Rabbi Stephen Wise to the official statements of the Weiner Library (the archives of anti-Semitism and holocaust history in London). Mr. Gopnik has added a new technique to making the charge stick declaring that Chestertons admirers should not defend Chesterton against the horrible accusation. Hm. That is certainly one way to end the debate. I would meekly suggest that a better way would be for people to stop repeating charges that have already been dropped. But we are still going to take Mr. Gopniks article as a sign of hope. Fifteen or twenty years ago, Chesterton was simply dismissed by the literary establishment as an anti-Semite and not taken seriously. Now he is at least being taken seriously before being dismissed as an anti-Semite. As the Chesterton revival kicks into high gear, we expect the trend to continue to the point where Chesterton is simply taken seriously without the obligation to mention anything about how Chesterton judges the Jews or how the Jews judge Chesterton. In the meantime, we regret the unfortunate turn in Mr. Gopniks otherwise brilliant essay. There is something a little too desperate, too anxious in his attempt to prove that Chesterton is anti-Semitic. He is dancing as fast as he can to explain away Chestertons Zionism and his outspoken stance against Hitler for oppressing the Jews. (I will die defending the last Jew in Europe. What does it take to convince some people?)Among the worn out arguments Mr. Gopnik uses is: Chesterton should not treat the Jews as if they are different becausewelltheyre different. But far more troubling is his argument that Chesterton, the Catholic convert, has this pervasive nastiness woven into the very fabric of his philosophy. Whether consciously or not, Mr. Gopnik has broadened his implication to include the whole Catholic Church. Perhaps some future literary critic will be discussing Mr. Gopniks anti-Catholicism rather than Chestertons anti-Semitism. He can only hope that he will one day be considered so noteworthy a controversialist.For now, however, the most important consideration should be of the following passage from Chestertons The Everlasting Man:the world owes God to the Jews [T]hrough all their wanderings they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacleThe more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universeDoesnt exactly sound like the writings of an anti-Semite. Sounds more like someone who has a deep respect for the Jews. Also sounds like a pretty good argument for localism. Chesterton has thrown Mr. Gopniks main point into serious jeopardy. Either Chesterton is right to defend localism, which is what preserved the Jews, or localism is a menace and the Jews should have melted into their surroundings three thousand years ago. Mr. Gopnik cannot have it both ways. Your servant,Dale AhlquistPresident, American Chesterton

I'm with Mr. Ahlquist. If I'm to be told that it's a "mistake" to defend Chesterton against charges of anti-semitism, why can't I at least be shown the evidence that he was one?

Mr.Gopnik, apart from criticizing GK Chesterton for real or perceived Anti-semitism, somehow managed to introduce in his critique "brutality" of Franco government. It is always amazing how the people from the left tend to forget about the real brutality of what is the real socialism, existing on the sixth part of the world for 74 years and costing tens of millions of lives (major culprits -- Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin) , but always "kick" a mildly authoritarian rule by Franco, who ,by the way ,saved Spain from the Stalinist inhuman regime, and finally led Spain to a transition to a liberal-democratic form of Government. But such an attitude is very common for the left-wing intelligentsia, which considers the bloody regime in Russia ( by the way really anti-Semitic for the las 40 years of its existence) with either omission, or a very mild criticism.

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