When I first decided to read Chesterton – I approached his work like a treasure hunt. I knew that so many people found these amazing quotes and looked really smart repeating them, and I was up for the game. What I discovered was that finding these quotes was near impossible because I did not understand Chesterton’s voice. His ideas seemed disjointed and near stream-of-conciousness. Reading his essays, for me at the time, was like eating a chocolate chip cookie without the chips.
As I persisted, I found that understanding Chesterton’s distinctive voice was essential to understanding his work. His essays resisted proof-texting because he had such a strong reliance on literary devices like metaphor, hyperbole, and paradox. Like the readers of his serialized weekly columns, I had to develop a relationship with him before his work was accessible and intelligible. Chesterton’s intent can only be understood in the context of his larger body of work and the relationship he cultivated with his regular readers over decades of writing.
I do not claim to be an expert in Chesterton, nor do I have advanced theological or literary degrees; but neither did he nor his intended audience. The bulk of the time, Chesterton was writing to readers of his weekly columns. It was a continuing conversation that went on for three decades, and towards the end, certain things did not need to be explicitly stated with each essay. The reader knew the voice and understood the general morality of GK Chesterton, including his use of humor and sometimes shocking literary devices to serve the greater purpose of moving the reader towards an appropriate moral judgment by an argument ad absurdum.
Over the years, I, too, have developed a relationship with Chesterton through studying and discussing his works with others in our local Chesterton Society and beyond. Gradually, Chesterton’s writings have infiltrated many areas of my philosophy and even spirituality. His love of the ordinary, reverence for the domestic, and common sense way of approaching economic issues in a just fashion have directly affected my life choices and helped me to justify and intensify my counter-cultural leanings. One of the major areas I am ardently working at emulating in Chesterton’s life is his ability to disagree vociferously with his opponents, yet treat them with a Christ-like love. At Chesterton’s death, atheist HG Wells stated “if I ever get to Heaven, presuming that there is a Heaven, it will be by the intervention of Gilbert Chesterton.” His love for those who opposed him was well known and sincere.
It is in this context and with this lens that we must approach all of Chesterton’s writings, including those which appear to contradict authentic Christian teaching. Throughout Chesterton’s life and even today, concerns have been raised that Chesterton might be racist or even anti-semitic. Naturally, both of these disgusting dispositions are met with revulsion by those of us honestly seeking the Truth and its expression in our lives in the form of personal holiness.
One way to interpret writings of the past is to assume that the author was a product of his time. In this case, we might assume that all people were racist in Chesterton’s time, so if something appears in his writings that is racist, we can assume it was benign neglect and that he did not benefit from the enlightenment we have now achieved. Chesterton himself would shoot this argument down, arguing as he does in his book The Everlasting Man, that there is absolutely no evidence that man has evolved in his morality or intelligence one bit throughout history, and that we are not necessarily more enlightened than our grandparents. We must thoroughly reject this reductionist argument.
Similarly, the argument that everyone from the past, due to the accident of evolving speech patterns and word usage, was an utter racist is completely nonsensical. Those who read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as anything other than a complete repudiation of the idea that Black men are created less than equal are completely missing the point because they are blinded by the N-word. This position, too, lacks depth and honesty. Frequently, those seeking to take an easy path to the moral high ground use this aesthetic argument, which is an objection to the coarseness of the literary devices or language used because they do not meet the current standard of neutered and politically correct speech. This position must be rejected as well.
I propose that in order to understand Chesterton’s intent, we must look within his voluminous body of work to find out what he said about his intent. We can’t discover what he thought about a certain subject by simply searching on a keyword and proof-texting all the hits on our search. We must understand his voice, his general dispositions, and the literary devices he used to convey his messages. Furthermore, we must judge each of his writings by the medium he used: letter, article, novel, or book. He has given us so much through his writings, including the key to interpreting his work. If we are ever in doubt about his intent, we must consult the numerous essays wherein he explicitly discusses his style, intent, and method of conveying his thoughts.
Chesterton often relied on hyperbole to illustrate his points- frequently absurd and outrageous images came forth which cleared away the routine patterns of thought that obscure the truth. One example is his musing that “it is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.” The Cleveland Press (3-1-1921) Do we take this quote as a full-throated endorsement of capital punishment? A call to erect the gallows? Was GK an insurrectionist? Is there a reason that we do not perceive it that way? Perhaps the reason those who read a lot of Chesterton do not see it that way is NOT that we are blind to his faults, but rather we understand his voice. We recognize the exaggeration as a tool to prove a point – one that might be hidden if the literary devices Chesterton uses to lay bare the naked truth failed to be employed. Although his method may feel grotesque or crude at times, one could argue that it was necessary to shock the reader in order to shake him out of his routine way of viewing the world. It seems that Chesterton’s genius is the ability to both make the truth painfully known and the potential to be tragically misunderstood.
In his essay On Taking Metaphors Literally, Chesterton noted that “when we know that people will remember the metaphor, even when they cannot realize the meaning, it is a little perilous to choose metaphors with mere levity even if they are quite consistent with mere logic.” (ILN, 8-10-1935) He knew that his work had the potential to be interpreted incorrectly by those who, intentionally or not, misunderstand his voice. As he points out in this essay, metaphors taken literally can be quite horrific. His solution though, was not to remove colorful speech – something that he likened to a curse in his essay On Speaking Flat, “a great curse has come upon us, the curse of a real flat earth, if we do all talk so flatly that we cannot make mountains out of mole-hills.” (GK’s Weekly 10-10-1935)
It may have been this understanding that prompted Sheed, an editor of some of Chesterton’s work, to remove some hyperbolic speech from an essay called On War Books that has been recently emphasized in a speech based on Simon Mayers’ book Chesterton’s Jews. Sheed removed the last part of the following quote “They beat and bully poor Jews in concentration camps; and, what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses.” First of all, if we understand Chesterton’s penchant for hyperbole and his sense of humor, we understand that he not advocating that anyone be beaten at all. In the same way that we understand that he is not an advocate for anarchy and mass murder of politicians, we can clearly see that he does not advocate beating up Jews, rich or poor. His point, in the context of the rest of his work, is that the hypocrisy of the Nazis who colluded with wealthy industrialists, Jew and Gentile alike, adds another layer of evil to the already evil acts they have committed. If we misinterpret his intent, the problem lies with us and not him.
Clearly, looking at Chesterton’s work backwards through the lens of the Holocaust makes his use of caustic sarcasm seem insensitive at best. However, if our true intent is to understand the intent of the author, we must consider his words in the context of his time and the body of his work. Chesterton, as he insists out in the essay Cockneys and Their Jokes from his book All Things Considered, was a Cockney, and “if [he] were a humorist, [he] should be a Cockney humorist.” He goes on to explain that Cockney humorists “conceal our sorrow behind a screaming version. You speak only of people who laugh through their tears; it is our boast that we only weep through our laughter.” Later, he says that “when once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea. The men who made the joke saw something deep which they could not express except by something silly and emphatic. They saw something delicate which they could only express by something indelicate.” His advice for interpreting his humor is that “in order to understand vulgar humor it is not enough to be humorous. One must also be vulgar, as I am.” Chesterton jokes about painful matters in order to arrive at a deeper truth, not to offend his reader. If we are to understand his work, we must read him through this lens.
Ultimately, the question of interpreting Chesterton’s work leads us to larger questions. If Chesterton’s style and sense of humor – the possibility that he might offend, precludes us from considering him a saint, what does that mean for the rest of us? Must our speech be flat so that we do not offend? Can GK’s satirical style ever conform to the same standards we apply to flat, academic speech? Would we want to read it if it did? Would it be able to break down our paradigms and point us to the Truth effectively? It is clear the answer is a definite “No.” God laughs – and he clearly has a sense of humor – he made us, after all.