Saturday, October 08, 2022

'The Most Obscure of All Classes'

“Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving the vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about.” 

A second lieutenant in the Marine Corps working on his master’s degree in computer engineering, my middle son has been reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908). The passage above is the only one from the book I hold roughly in memory, almost verbatim, probably because it reads like a self-evident truth and has remained a sort of artistic mantra. Most of us can’t say or write a thing without hearing, often unconsciously, the voices of forebears whispering in our ears like Cyrano de Bergerac. Originality is a myth. We channel what others have said, reconstituting it according to our own needs and limitations, and hand it along – a process resembling what Michael Oakeshott called “conversation.” Everyone is welcome, anyone can add his voice.


Chesterton is not a systematic thinker; more of an intellectual polemicist. He revels in paradox and writes aphoristically. Like his hero, Dr. Johnson, he is eminently quotable, and Orthodoxy is rich in memorable sentences, like this:


“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”


In a witty nutshell, he gives the lie to free verse, automatic writing, “spontaneous bop prosody, so-called “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poetry and other narcissistic delusions. Chesterton is no saint, though some admirers have called for his beatification. His occasional anti-Semitism cannot be pardoned. The late Terry Teachout described it as “the only blot of any significance on the character of the man George Bernard Shaw described as ‘friendly, easy-going, unaffected, gentle, magnanimous, and genuinely democratic.’” Chesterton’s best work, rich in imaginatively articulated uncommon sense, is often a joy. I’ve suggested my son read Chesterton’s best fiction, The Man Who Was Thursday, published the same year as Orthodoxy.


Teachout published “Coming to Terms with Chesterton” in the Winter 1989 issue of The American Scholar. He offers a prudent warning:


“It is possible to read fairly widely in Chesterton and still come away thinking that he is an amusing trifler, a clever but perverse literary critic, an unbelievably inept novelist, a sentimental purveyor of shopworn religious rhymes. To get anything like an accurate sense of what Chesterton was about, it is necessary to read him carefully and in bulk, in much the same way that a miner sifts through endless pans of sediment in search of gold dust.”


 Getting back to the centrality of tradition to his thinking, Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy: “It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.”


Thomas Parker said...

A few years back I finally got around to reading GKC's The Napoleon of Notting Hill and was stunned by its brilliance and by its percipience. I have long held the best of the essays, the cream of the Father Brown stories, and The Man Who Was Thursday in awe, but I know firmly believe that Napoleon is the best thing the man ever wrote.

Faze said...

The anti-semitic passages in Chesterton and Lamb are shocking because they are so unexpected. Nothing elsewhere in their work suggests that these good-humored, high-minded men would proudly declare such a vulgar, unexamined prejudice.

michael said...

i love chesterton, though we would have argued on almost every issue if me had actually met.