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More Bad Chesterton Criticism

September 8, 2010

Via Sullivan, Austin Bramwell professes his dislike for GK Chesterton. Orthodoxy, Bramwell tells us, is “completely unpersuasive” as spiritual autobiography; Chesterton is “an irrationalist” who “tries to keep reason permanently cabined”; his writing “creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality.”

If Chesterton creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality, Bramwell creates the feeling of commenting on Chesterton without the reality. Bramwell has clearly not experienced any of the literary or philosophical delights of reading Chesterton, and is therefore in no position to comment on his faults. (Explaining why a specific argument of Chesterton’s is unpersuasive is obviously fair game, but this Bramwell does not do. Instead, we get the generalization that Chesterton the philosopher lacks profundity, which is too broad to have much significance.)

Chesterton is as much a poet as a he is a philosopher, and should be evaluated accordingly. As Chesterton explains in his remarks on mythology (excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Everlasting Man), pleasure is a prerequisite for intelligent criticism of poetry:

It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. It needs a poet to make it. It needs a poet to criticise it. There are more poets than non-poets in the world, as is proved by the popular origin of such legends. But for some reason I have never heard explained, it is only the minority of unpoetical people who are allowed to write critical studies of these popular poems. We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science. Unless these things are appreciated artistically they are not appreciated at all. When the professor is told by the Polynesian that once there was nothing except a great feathered serpent, unless the learned man feels a thrill and a half temptation to wish it were true, he is no judge of such things at all. When he is assured, on the best Red Indian authority, that a primitive hero carried the sun and moon and stars in a box, unless he clasps his hands and almost kicks his legs as a child would at such a charming fancy, he knows nothing about the matter.

Now, of course, it is possible for intense literary pleasure — whether inspired by Polynesian myth or Chestertonian paradox — to degenerate into mere idol worship. This, I think, is what has happened with traditionalist Catholics like Dale Ahlquist and Mark Shea — Catholics who revere Chesterton’s writings as Protestant literalists revere the scriptures. Chesterton’s case for the superiority of all things medieval and all things Catholic is, for this crowd, self-evident — just as the case for public education, birth control, and industrialization is self-evident to the rest of us.

Chesterton criticism is difficult to come by these days, while insightful, balanced criticism is practically non-existent. (The one exception of which I am aware is Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece.) It’s a shame, really.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark P. Shea permalink
    September 20, 2010 9:09 pm

    But I don’t revere Chesterton’s writings as Protestants revere Scripture. I don’t think him infallible, nor do I think he has the answer for everything, nor do I agree with him on everything. I do think him wise and astonishingly prescient on a number of topics though. And fun to quote.

    Nice name for the blog, BTW. Innocent and I are particularly close.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      September 22, 2010 8:25 pm

      Mark, thanks for the correction. The comment was based on my experiences attending American Chesterton Society meetings. You came to mind as a traditionalist of the Ahlquist ilk, but I suppose it was unfair of me to assume that all traditionalists take their cues from Chesterton.

  2. Mark P. Shea permalink
    September 24, 2010 8:07 pm

    I hate to be a pain, but even Ahlquist is not a Traditionalist of the Ahlquist ilk. (Hmmm…. “ilk”? Do you think Ahlquist a disagreeable person? I think him hilarious–and a very good man.) That’s the funny thing: Ahlquist is not a Traditionalist (assuming that term means for you what it means for self-described Trads: namely, utterly obsessed with the nitnoid details of the Latin Mass, convinced that Vatican II was a catastrophic betrayal of the Faith, filled with simmering contempt for both Paul VI and the JPs, fizzing with anti-semitic paranoia, bubbling with contempt for “Neo-Catholics”, and often majoring in such minors as Pants for Women, the dream of America as a confessional monarchy, and sundry other lunacies.

    Ahlquist shares in none of these enthusiasms and, in particular, has chuckled on my phone many a time about his contentment with a reasonably-celebrated Paul VI rite, his disinterest in being filled with Traditionalist rage, and his generally laconic approach to so much that animates what is typically known as Traditionalism. He is *orthodox*. That is, he is also as inert to the passions animating Progressive dissenters as he is to Reactionary ones and has no gnawing “issues” with the teaching of the Magisterium. But that only makes him a “Traditionalist” in the sense that he affirms the Tradition. He emphatically does not regard himself as a “Traditionalist” in the sense of “Reactionary Dissenter who divides the Church into a pre- and post-V2 Church. He (and I) don’t believe there are two Churches. That for factionalists and ideologues.

    Just FYI. Have you had a chance to get to know him? Lovely man. Brave and brimming with a charism of faith that get out of the boat at our Lord’s command and is willing to walk on water on His say so. That’s why there’s an American Chesterton Society. By rights it shouldn’t exist, but he romantically tossed away his former live of assured income just to make the ACS happen and God has kept him afloat (and amazingly generous to boot) through thick and thin.

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    September 25, 2010 6:05 am

    It appears that I have inadvertently used a theological term (“traditionalist”) when what I meant to describe was more of an attitude toward political and cultural modernity. I didn’t have in mind the traditionalist-orthodox-liberal divide within Catholicism so much as Ahlquist’s characteristically Chestertonian attitude toward things like public education, feminism, industrialization, and evolution. To the extent that Ahlquist affirms Chesterton’s manichaean distinction between distributism (understood by the ChesterBelloc as a restoration of Catholic faith and culture) and the accursed “modern world,” I have characterized his position as “traditionalist.” I have, moreover, tended to assume (probably wrongly) that an unreconstructed distributist is a distributist who has accepted Chesterton uncritically. Partly, I’m inclined to think this based on repeated assertions — at ACS meetings, though not necessarily on Dale’s part — that “Chesterton was nearly always right.”

    I should be clear that I am strongly sympathetic to distributism — especially its simultaneous critique of capitalism and socialism — and am by no means dismissive of homeschooling, agrarianism, or traditional gender roles. At the same time, most distributist rhetoric strikes me as essentially irrelevant to today’s concerns — or, at least, in serious need of reconsideration and revision. (John Medaille is, to my knowledge, the only contemporary distributist who has made a serious attempt at this. At the same time, even he is making wildly unrealistic proposals, such as calling for the abolition of the federal reserve.) Additionally, I am comfortable with many aspects of modernity: public education seems to me imperfect, but not without merit; female suffrage and employment outside the home (both of which Chesterton rejected) no-brainers in the present context; industrialization a boon for living standards — though not without raising serious environmental concerns.

    Theologically, I am liberal — mainly due to my (admittedly predictable) disagreement with the magisterium about contraception, homosexuality, and related matters. (I am, incidentally, strongly pro-life.) Unlike a lot of liberals, though, I have enormous respect for the Church’s positions on sexuality and — due to that respect — actually refrain from receiving communion, despite regularly attending mass. I may be a factionalist and ideologue in your book, but the truth is that I take no great pleasure in dissent. Quite the contrary.

    Finally, as for Dale, I have met him a few times and would wholeheartedly concur as to his many admirable qualities. (If the word “ilk” has pejorative connotations, that’s news to me.) The point of the post was to express discontent with the current divide between those for whom Chesterton is a guiding star and those who simply dismiss Chesterton wholesale. Dale’s name (along with yours, though incorrectly) came to mind as an example of the former. To make that observation is, I suppose, a criticism — but it was by no means intended as an attack.

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