More Bad Chesterton Criticism
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.