- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

G. K. CHESTERTON: THINKING BACKWARD, LOOKING FORWARD

By Stephen R. L. Clark

Templeton Foundation Press, $29.95, 248 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

In his poem “Dover Beach,” published in 1867, Matthew Arnold famously described the decline of religious faith during the 19th century, likening it to the ocean clutching at the shoreline during ebb tide: “But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”

Although still powerful as a force for cultural stability, faith was in retreat, and with it the customs, conventions and aspects of sustaining continuity that had undergirded the West since the age of the Roman Empire. But as the “conventional” 19th century gave way to the “progressive” 20th, there were some who resisted the decline of wise tradition and long-established ways.

Among those who fought in the forefront of a rear-guard action against modernity was the English man of letters G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), whose beliefs and works are examined insightfully and with precision by Stephen R. L. Clark in “G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward.”

Mr. Clark, professor of philosophy at the University of Liverpool, is an admirer of and expert on Chesterton, well suited to reintroduce his subject to the reading public. Chesterton, perhaps best known as the creator of the “Father Brown” mysteries, author of several memorable novels and the lively treatise “The Everlasting Man” (1925), as well as a rollicking defender of the Roman Catholic faith, was a rebel who fought with witty savagery against the coming orthodoxy of the early 20th century.

This new, largely secular faith, held that evolutionist Charles Darwin ought to be accorded the same unquestioning reverence previously accorded the Church Fathers; that man is (in the end) a pliable, trousered ape who can be conditioned to become anything his superiors might desire; that history is the ongoing story of progressive human improvement; and that the very idea of original sin is a hoary myth from the childhood of the race.

Chesterton believed otherwise, and his inventive works of fiction as well as his lively essays, widely read during his day, defended a vanishing world. That world had been characterized by near-universal recognition of authority, lives lived close to one’s native soil, and ancient usage. In contrast to this loomed the incoming tide of efficiency, utilitarianism and homogenization of culture, overseen by a new breed of managerial elites in positions of political power, bound by no code of belief and conduct other than the slippery bands of expediency.

These new forces threatened to march roughshod over the worldview held by Chesterton’s fictional priest-detective, Father Brown, who in one story gazed into the night sky and claimed to the thief seated beside him:

“Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

In the years since his death, Chesterton has been the subject of many books and articles, and most of these assessments tend to focus upon the Catholicism at the heart of his life and works. Mr. Clark’s study is unique in that he has engaged Chesterton’s accomplishment from the perspective of a lifelong science-fiction enthusiast.

Until the appearance of the present work, no writer has devoted a full-length study to examining Chesterton’s stories, novels and ideas for themes and plot developments that foreshadow or coincide with similar aspects of modern science fiction. In doing so, Mr. Clark has entered a wide-open field for exploration, considering Chesterton’s own fascination with fantasy literature and his long friendship with science-fiction writer H. G. Wells.

Chesterton’s novels, such as “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” (1904), “The Man Who Was Thursday” (1908), “The Ball and the Cross” (1909), “The Flying Inn” (1914) and “The Return of Don Quixote” (1926) are well-told, inventive tales that have at their core a handful of ideas about the folly of overreaching, the fact that adventure, romance and rightful authority are central to life, and the danger of dispensing with the past while attempting to mold humanity into something new and Utopian — themes reflected in much of modern science fiction.

As Mr. Clark explains in his preface, “Science fiction has grown more ‘literary’ over the years, and sometimes in ways that Chesterton would have regretted, but at its core still lies a love of adventure and the marvelous, conjoined with ardent questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ that he shared.”

The author devotes a chapter to each of the above-named works and notes intriguing parallels between thematic and plot devices in Chesterton’s fiction and such novels as Wells’ “Star-Begotten” (1937), C. S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet” (1938) and Jack Finney’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1954), among many others. Mr. Clark discovers that while Chesterton was (like every person) bound to the cultural prejudices and blind spots of his age, his writings were prescient, and he was altogether on the side of all that makes modern life civil, kindly and full.

For example, he was one of the few prominent Englishmen who — as early as 1936 — warned that Adolf Hitler was shaping Germany into a threat to all Europe, the continent once known as Christendom. His warnings, like those of Winston Churchill, were ignored by a populace that wanted peace above all else, and preferred to view Nazi Germany as a land of happy kite-fliers, obnoxious to be sure, but entirely harmless. Time proved Chesterton right in this and many other matters.

Which is not to say that Chesterton’s every pronouncement was right or admirable. Mr. Clark provides chapter-length discussions of his subject’s views on women and Jews, areas that have provoked accusations of insensitivity on Chesterton’s part. On the subject of women, Chesterton is revealed to be man who reverenced women to the point of putting them on a pedestal; for example, during early 20th-century debates on woman suffrage, Chesterton argued against giving women the franchise because (he believed) politics is an unregenerate, dirty game, and it would degrade women to get mixed up in it, either as politicians or as voters.

On the “Jewish Question,” so widely discussed in Europe during Chesterton’s life, Chesterton was afflicted with the mild anti-Semitism of the English middle class, though his was not of the violent variety that led the Nazis to exterminate one-third of Europe’s Jews during the 1930s and ‘40s. Chesterton’s prejudice in this matter was shared with Churchill, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot and a host of other English and American public figures — which does not excuse it, but certainly puts it into context. Mr. Clark is to be commended for examining, dispassionately and honestly, some of the aspects of Chesterton’s beliefs deemed objectionable by some commentators.

Chesterton was a true Radical — in the true sense of the word: one who looks back to origins, to the root of the matter under discussion, and who faces current affairs by the light of the past. He recognized that the mores observed by generations past provide orientation — a sense of who we are, how the lives of others have been undone by folly and how we fit into the small circles of influence we inhabit during our lives — which enables us to live with some degree of hope, courage and joy, sometimes amid circumstances that leave us perplexed and spiritually desolate.

The past can provides the spark of hope for the future, and enables joy to break in. One of Chesterton’s contemporaries, T. S. Eliot, stated this succinctly when he wrote that “the purpose of re-ascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope.”

Now as in Chesterton’s day, it sometimes seems that we are living in an age in which it seems that the fountains of the great deep are broken up, with confusion despair widespread. Mr. Clark notes Chesterton’s belief that whatever might happen to our civilization, the Church of Christ would remain.

He adds that this apocalyptic conviction “has been shared by later writers — for example, Walter M. Miller’s ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz.’ Survivors without the backward glance will often not understand the things and the institutions that they find around them, but they would be foolish to dismiss them all without that understanding. Even before a catastrophic fall, we are in a similar position: not understanding whence we came, and why, we may dismiss, unthinkingly, the institutions that we need.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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