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A Book Review… GKC: The Wonder Of The Child And The Mysteries Of Faith

September 16, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006), 336 pp. $16.95. Available through or 1-800-651-1531.

A great writer’s past, family background, and the formative influences of childhood always evoke great human interest. In narrating the story of his life, Chesterton naturally begins with his family background and the lives of his parents and grandparents.
In these recollections he touches on favorite themes and ideas that inform his famous works. Always skeptical of big government, big education, and big business with its obsession about larger, more, and greater, he begins his story with a reflection on his father’s life as a respectable businessman who rose above avarice and the worst excesses of capitalism.
Chesterton’s father belonged to a class of respectable old middle-class gentlemen spared “that more advanced and adventurous conception of commerce, in which a businessman is supposed to rival, ruin, destroy, absorb, and swallow up everybody else’s business.” Self-employment and private property implied an honest livelihood and self-sufficiency but never meant “enterprising” in the sense of the attainment of wealth.
Lamenting the loss of this old world middle class remarkable for its values of simple contentment, proper respectability, common sense, and local patriotism for neighborhoods, Chesterton observes the negative consequences of the disappearance of this layer of British society. Snobs (“those who want to get into Society”) and prigs (“those who want to get out of Society, and into Societies”) have replaced the respectable Victorian middle-class gentleman living in simple contentment.
Comparing the Victorian England of his grandfather and father to life in the early twentieth century, Chesterton regrets the loss of “ceremonial manners,” of the charm of “convivial courtesy,” and of the fun of “pompous conviviality.” And he finds his own age impoverished for missing the jovial “glow” that Dickens’ Merry Old England still preserved.
He distinguishes between the “strict standard of commercial probity” in the previous generation where success never meant prosperity by way of commercial “adventure” or “daring” speculation. Chesterton sees a world of difference between the business practices of his age with the commercial practices of the previous generation:
“Anyhow, there has been a change from a middle class that trusted a businessman to look after money because he was dull and careful, to one that trusts a businessman to get more money because he is dashing and worldly.” No one asks, he adds, whose money this merchant gets and who benefits from this fortune.
Chesterton fondly recalls his happy childhood in which a toy theater constructed by his father captured his imagination and filled him with wonder: “Why should looking through a square hole, at yellow pasteboard, lift anybody into the seventh heaven of happiness at any time of life?”
Fairy tales performed in a toy theater not only influenced his childhood but shaped his worldview and whetted his love of life — a theme developed in the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” from Orthodoxy where he writes, “The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.”
To Chesterton these stories are not unrealistic fantasies but glimpses into the wonder of real things filled with magic: “A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.” For Chesterton, then, the imaginative life awakened by toy theaters and fairy tales educates the mind to think: “Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense” which teaches lessons like the exalting of the humble in Cinderella and the need for someone to be loved first in order to become lovable as taught in The Beauty and the Beast.
Chesterton describes his childhood of play, innocence, and imagination as an introduction to a miraculous world in which “an hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.”
Another unforgettable memory Chesterton cherishes is the richness of the interior world of the home, a lesson impressed upon him in the story of the Man with the Golden Key who opened the gates of goblins and the tombs of the dead. The small interior world filled with secrets and mysteries did not represent confinement or narrowness but the heart of things: “In everything that matters, the inside is much larger than the outside,” a paradox that he grasped from the inner life of the home that offered more fascination than the outside world of business and work.
Chesterton marveled to see things done and admired the skillful hands that accomplished them, whether it was baking pies, making toffee, or using cardboard to make pictures and decorate them: “All the things that happened in the house…linger in my imagination like a legend; and as much as any, those connected with the kitchen and the pantry.” Domesticity, then, was not work, but play to Chesterton — a hobby to enjoy rather than drudgery to be endured.
As he writes of his father, “The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living, but filled his own house with his life.” He remembers his household as a place of not “of one hobby but a hundred hobbies,” not as an occasional recreation “for half a day but half a lifetime.”
In the course of his autobiography, Chesterton continually satirizes the doctrine of evolution that pervaded the intellectual life of the age. Describing the theory as “the unfolding of what is not there” and contrasting it with normal development, “which means the unfolding of what is there,” Chesterton insists that in childhood “I was all there.”
The life of the imagination nurtured by fairy tales, Punch and Judy shows, and art were not illusion or fantasy but introductions to the nature of things. The scenes of Punch and Judy were real “drama” and not “dream,” and fairytales conformed to the way things are: “as a general principle, people ought to be unhappy when they have been naughty.”
To Chesterton the realm of make-believe does not entail escape from reality or confusion between fact and fiction but a vision of seeing the world through a white light that brought clarity, solidity, and sharp distinction to all the sights around him.
His life story provides many reflections on the nature of education, another favorite topic he addresses throughout his works. Lightheartedly contrasting the love of learning in childhood with the resistance to formal education in boyhood, Chesterton confesses to the juvenile behavior of boyish poses of “affected stupidity” and the wish for anonymity — a period of immaturity when boys act like snobs and ridicule the pomp of learning and joke about the reasons boys are sent to school. Because he is a “nuisance” to mother and father and a “plague” to the servants, the parents think, “So we’ll Pay Some Man.”
Viewing school as a social occasion for friendship, Chesterton admits, “The idea that I had come to school to work was too grotesque to cloud my mind for an instant.” The idleness of boyhood, however, ends with the choice to enter art school and a time of serious reflection about religion.
Keenly aware of “the objective Solidity of sin,” Chesterton, without any strong religious background, describes his embrace of Christianity and his conversion to Catholicism as “a reckless course” that shocked and surprised many — a decision he never doubted because he called the Catholic faith “a religion rooted in humility,” doctrine founded in antiquity and tradition, and teaching governed by reason: “the only reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be antiquated.”

Mere Existence

Troubled by the skeptical thinkers of his time, confused by conflicting schools of art like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and disenchanted with spiritualism and its claims of mediums and ghosts, Chesterton suffered a profound pessimism in which he found his mind “often drifting onto very dangerous rocks.”
Spiritualism, materialism, Darwinism, and atheism drove him into “the darkest periods of the contemporary pessimism” that he compared to a nightmare. Without the help of religion or philosophy, Chesterton, using the common sense that distinguished his intelligence, reasoned that “even mere existence…was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing.”
Recalling the words of his grandfather who thanked God for the gift of life even if he were a lost soul, Chesterton clung to this remnant of religion — “a mystical minimum of gratitude” — to lead him from despair to hope — a journey inspired by writers like Robert Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson who rejected the fashionable nihilism of Victorian doubt.
Chesterton’s self-portrait also reveals his love of the small. Always more fascinated by looking through the microscope than the telescope and more interested in definite places with limits and boundaries than in vast regions of space or great empires where the sun never sets, he took more delight in “looking through a little hole at a crystal like a pin’s head” than in gazing at the Milky Way.
London and the British Empire were too large to engage the mind, but “the look of one small block of little lighted shops” provided a world of exploration. He calls a book shop, a grocery store, a pub and restaurant, and an antique dealer (“an old curiosity shop bristling with swords and halberds”) the epitome of civilization. Great social movements like imperialism and socialism held no abiding interest for him, but patriotism always piqued his interest — a theme that informs The Napoleon of Notting Hill in which heroic patriots defend their traditional way of life and love of home and neighborhood from social planners and big businessmen.
Chesterton’s doctrine of distributism that favored small businesses and local markets also follows from his “fancy for having things on a smaller scale.”
In the spirit of his book Manalive, Chesterton as a writer finds as his greatest challenge the task of rousing men “to realize the wonder and splendor of being alive” in environments they blindly treated as “dead-alive, and which their imagination left for dead.”
Resigned to live in drab cities devoid of beautiful architecture, attractive clothing, and gracious manners, the inhabitants of London, infatuated with progress and growth, have made their city prosaic and their country mean in the hurly-burly of exports and imports and trucks and trains ruining the charm of old quaint places like Clapham Junction, human beings living and working in houses “like ill-drawn diagrams of Euclid, or streets and railways like dingy sections of machinery,” he wrote.
To rescue the utilitarian mentality from “this drab background of modern materialism” — a byproduct of an agnostic, secular worldview that never sees the fairies like the common farmer — Chesterton writes in defense of “the Celtic twilight” as opposed to “the materialistic midnight.” He sympathizes more with the magician in tune with the supernatural and a poet like William Butler Yeats who sees elves than with the skeptical cynic “who seemed to proclaim that the modern world, even when it is festive, is only the more funereal.”

The Goodness Of Creation

In the clash of many opposing ideas, Chesterton’s defense of sanity and common sense rests on “a dogmatic mind,” the orthodoxy of Catholic thought that navigates between the many extremes of competing philosophies: theists versus theosophists, George Macdonald versus Thomas Hardy, imperialists versus socialists, free will versus determinism.
For example, his quarrel with the atheism of Thomas Hardy rested on a simple self-evident truth, the goodness of creation and the gift of life: “I argued that nonexistence is not an experience; and there can be no question of preferring it or being satisfied with it.”
In the conflict of rival ideologies and heresies, Chesterton noted the common error of fanaticism — one narrow idea that ignored the rest of reality because “the more they claim to be universal, the more it means they merely take something and apply it to everything.”
In praise of the Catholic faith that preserved his sanity from fanaticism, opened his mind to the whole of reality, rescued him from the sea of doubt, and filled his heart with a love for the miracle of life, Chesterton concludes his autobiography with gratitude for “the one religion which dared to go down with me into the depths of myself” and for the Church whose authority gave truth a foundation in reason, nature, and revelation “so that even madmen might hear her voice, and by a revelation in their very brain begin to believe their eyes.”
This ancient faith is for Chesterton “the one key that can unlock all doors” — an image he recalled from his childhood when he glimpsed through the window of a toy theater and saw “the figure of a man who crosses a bridge and carries a key.” This figure, known as Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, also has the name of Claviger and the Bearer of the Key, “and such keys were given him to loose and bind when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea.” Chesterton never overlooks the link between the wonder of the child and the mysteries of the faith.
To read this autobiography is to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Chesterton even more than from one of his famous works.
(Mitchell Kalpakgian is a professor emeritus of humanities.)

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