"The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton"
Matthew Boudway July 1, 2008 - 3:14pm
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.