Notorious G.K.C.

Far be it from me to question the wisdom of Mother Angelica, but why does her Eternal Word Television Network exile its hottest property to the small-screen Aleutians of Saturday afternoon? With a roster of repeats and retreads trying to fill up a twenty-four-hour cable schedule, EWTN leaves only disoccupied weekenders to savor G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, the best literary television show nobody’s ever seen and an undiscovered gem of the Twin Cities.

If it’s been awhile since you thought about Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), the English essayist, novelist, playwright, hagiographer, Catholic apologist, and journalist, then the Bloomington-based American Chesterton Society is here to set you straight. Chesterton, says ACS president and Apostle host Dale Ahlquist, was the greatest writer of the twentieth century. “He said something about everything,” Ahlquist asserts. “And he said it better than anybody else.”

Or, at least, he said it more paradoxically than anybody else. In one hundred nonfiction books, five novels, five plays, more than four thousand newspaper columns, and, most famous, his popular “Father Brown” mysteries, Chesterton was the Prince of Paradox, a master of phrases and imagery that turn arguments inside out and ideas upside down. Some examples:

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax
and a fine, except that the fine is generally
much lighter.

The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.
There is nothing that fails like success.

The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine.

We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild [train] engine strikes a distant station?

Chestertonian paradoxes serve various purposes: to cut through received ideas, to render an opponent’s argument absurd, to follow reason to its logical end. But taken together, they place Chesterton among the revolutionaries of modern literature. His best novel, 1908’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a philosophical mystery about undercover policemen tracking anarchists, is a proto-surrealist work of non-sequitur images, shifting ideas, hints of divinity, and dream logic. In his nonfiction Chesterton was at once plain and absurd (“One elephant having a trunk was odd: all elephants having trunks looked like a plot”). The cliché of modern criminal fiction, that cop and crook are mirror images, owes something to Father Brown, whose central sleuthing device is a conviction that he is no better than the criminal he catches. Jorge Luis Borges claimed Chesterton as an influence. Franz Kafka was a fan. In leading their respective countries’ revolutions, Michael Collins and Mohandas Gandhi drew on lessons from The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton’s libertarian fantasia of a self-selected premodern community battling a total world government.

So why isn’t G.K. Chesterton better known? To the folks at the American Chesterton Society, it’s a scandal, with possibly anti-religious overtones, that Chesterton (a staunch defender of Catholic authority and a late-life convert to the Roman church) is no longer taught in schools while his secular and atheist interlocutors George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells are held up as literary giants. “The world finds it much more convenient to ignore him rather than to engage with him in argument,” says Ahlquist, “because to argue with Chesterton is to lose.”

To keep that argument alive, the Chesterton Society hits the public with Gilbert magazine, a schedule of symposia and lecture tours (Ahlquist promotes Chesterton as a full-time job), book sales, and the Apostle TV show.

The Apostle of Common Sense is appealing in large part because of its not-ready-for-prime-time format and style. From a set at EWTN’s Alabama studios decorated as a gentleman’s study with first editions, comfy leather chairs, Chesterton memorabilia, and a fireplace, Ahlquist delivers the good news in a leisurely, anti-televisual manner; he has the quiet confidence of a man assured that error must ultimately yield to truth. Direct quotations from the author are delivered by Normandale College professor John “Chuck” Chalberg, dressed as Chesterton on a stage set done up as a foggy London street. In an episode devoted to the question “What’s the one Chesterton book I should read?,” Ahlquist commits the classic salesman’s gaffe of not knowing when to stop. He recommends four categories—the Elementary Chesterton, the Indispensable Chesterton, the Fundamental Chesterton, and the Necessary Chesterton—and each category contains four or more books! This is full Chesterton immersion, powered by the host’s infectious enthusiasm for his subject; you’d have to be a pretty jaded viewer not to feel some urge to hang with Dale Ahlquist in his study, exchanging Chestertonisms far into the evening.

Is Chesterton really underappreciated? I’m not so sure. He’s never gone out of print. He’s received accolades from such leading lights as W.H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Kingsley Amis, and Anthony Burgess. San Francisco-based Ignatius Press is currently working on the thirty-sixth volume of a Complete Works. He’s the subject of two magazines. (Hardcore Chestertonians can supplement the populist Gilbert with Seton Hall University’s more scholarly Chesterton Review.) Chesterton himself showed up as a character in Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman comics in the early 1990s. The columnist George Will quotes him regularly. He has fifty-nine entries in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Then there’s The Apostle of Common Sense: Neither Shaw nor Wells is the subject of a weekly television series—even Bill Shakespeare doesn’t have one. In terms of literary reputation, Chesterton seems to occupy the catbird seat: He’s still read, still admired, still adored by a devoted fan base, but he’s not so prominent that his deficiencies as a writer and philosopher come up for regular review.

Still, if you’re convinced your guy is the greatest writer of the last century, any neglect will seem like an insult. “I do really feel that part of it is a conspiracy,” Ahlquist says. “The leading thinkers in our colleges and universities don’t want the kind of thinking Chesterton represents.” One Chesterton Society member, a Lawrence University student named Christopher Chan, did his senior thesis in the form of a five hundred-page novel and lecture demonstrating Chesterton’s superiority to such modernist luminaries as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and James Joyce.

My own Chesterton fandom could be called “enthusiastic but qualified.” His fictional characters are as perfunctorily differentiated as chess pieces, and his dialogue tends to consist of a declaration followed by a rebuttal. He rarely uses one word where fifty will do, with the result that beautifully turned epigrams often mutate into page-gobbling digressions. Even if you have an appetite for verbal paradox, Chesterton can be wearying when he (frequently) paradoxes on autopilot. And his consistent distaste for any character of Semitic origin creeps out even broad-minded readers.

A deeper question is whether Chesterton belongs more to theology or to secular literature—and even there, his output is too exhaustive for easy handling. “More perhaps than with any other writer,” says Neil Gaiman, a lifelong fan, “you have to read Chesterton critically; you have to find diamonds in the chaff. That’s part
of what makes him wonderful; he was larger than life in every way. But one of the results is that he wrote too much.”

In the process, he produced something to attract and repel everybody. Social conservatives who love his anti-progressive zingers have little time for his anti-imperialism and contempt for the wealthy. Libertarians attracted to his small-government, pub-based localism balk at “distributism,” Chesterton’s effort to overlay a feudal economy on a private-property society. Even science- fiction fans who grok works like Thursday and Notting Hill can’t abide his lofty (and, frankly, often ignorant) dismissals of science and technical progress. “The Man Who Was Thursday would make a great movie,” says Gaiman. “But again, he’s so big: Are you selling him to Pynchon fans? They might like him. To science-fiction fans, who also might be interested? To Christians, who might appreciate this idea that God is large enough to contain the devil within himself?”

“Big” and “large” are favorite terms when Chesterton is discussed. He offers such heavy doses of charm and self-deprecation, such a generous helping of mental energy and comical phrasing, that it’s easy to see why the Society’s nearly three thousand members and subscribers love to spend time with his six-foot-four, three-hundred-pound ghost. And, ironically, the multi-volume syllabus Dale Ahlquist suggests is inviting because of its breadth, the serendipitous pleasure of dipping at random into the ocean of Chestertonia.

The Apostle of Common Sense has just begun its third season, with a slightly expanded format and a troupe of actors performing scenes from the author’s work. “Chesterton himself said that every great writer will go into a period of eclipse after his death; and if he comes back it will be for the right reasons,” says Ahlquist. “Now people are rediscovering him, as a universal writer. The more I read Chesterton the more I’m confirmed that he’s one of the most complete thinkers who ever put pen to paper. I feel lucky to be the one trying to promote him.”

I don’t think that promotion will lead to Chesterton’s displacing Shaw, Wells, or Joyce in whatever “the canon” is these days. Nor, for fear of enraging the ghosts of James Branch Cabell, Joseph Hergesheimer, and Jerome Weidman, do I claim that he is the twentieth century’s most forgotten popular writer. But I suspect the Chestertonians are right about something. What keeps me coming back to Chesterton is his tendency, even at his most witty or lighthearted or smugly pontifical, to court a sense of cosmic dread and despair. I suspect he writes so frequently about tradition and sanity because he has an oversize horror of their opposites. In the following passage from his great 1908 apologia, Orthodoxy, you get a forecast of the infinite-but-bounded universes Borge and Kafka would write about a few years later:

The grandeur or infinity of the…cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear the gaol now covered half the country. The warden would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.

Maybe Chesterton’s real reputational counterpart is another prolific, demotic, roughly contemporary writer with glaring weaknesses and superhuman strengths, one who was also deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment, and who also can be described as “wildly popular” and “sorely neglected” at the same time. If G.K. Chesterton was the twentieth century’s Gallant, H.P. Lovecraft was its Goofus. Chesterton imagined a God large enough to contain the devil; Lovecraft imagined a devil large enough to contain God. Read a sample of their works together—say, Chesterton’s story “The Angry Street” and Lovecraft’s similar “The Music of Erich Zann”—and you’ll see how the one’s witty rationality and the other’s howling madness go together like sweet and sour. You don’t have to believe in the God of Roman Catholicism to dig Chesterton any more than you need to believe in Cthulhu to appreciate Lovecraft. But when the two are working their magic, both ideas seem completely plausible.