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Chestertonian wit

Books | The puncturer of modernity is more relevant than ever

Issue: "Rebel with a cause," Jan. 30, 1998

GK. Chesterton is making a comeback. Quotes from this big (300 lb.) British journalist seem to be appearing everywhere. A favorite of C.S. Lewis, Mr. Chesterton defended the faith in his books and articles with reason, common sense, and piercing humor. Ignatius, a conservative Catholic publishing house, has released Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. From his birth in 1874 to his death in 1936, Mr. Chesterton was a proud anachronism in a world racing toward modernity. He began life sadly lacking what today we often think of as the basics for a writer: a broken home, poverty, abusive parents, or racial injustices."I am sorry if the landscape or the people appear disappointingly respectable and even reasonable, and deficient in all those unpleasant qualities that make a biography really popular," Mr. Chesterton once wrote. "I regret that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am." Things didn't improve; he went on to have a happy marriage and a successful career. Most of the book is a romp through Mr. Chesterton's collected writings; there are excerpts from his columns, his books, his letters, and his poetry. Though he is now chiefly remembered for his Father Brown mysteries, those aren't his best works. What Mr. Pearce so ably demonstrates is that it must have been quite a joy to have a fresh column by Mr. Chesterton in the morning paper several times a week. In those columns, Mr. Chesterton (who seemed always up for a good fight) faced foes who seem surprisingly like those of the 1990s: eugenics societies, neo-orthodox theologians, evolutionists, and bad poets. He had long-running battles with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw (but considered them both friends) and sparred occasionally with Franz Kafka. Mr. Pearce captures these exchanges and shows the strength of the intellects behind them. It sounds like a glorious time, when men of honor settled things with real debates, not just clashing television news clips and dueling press releases. Although Wisdom and Innocence emphasizes Mr. Chesterton's long journey into the Roman Catholic Church, little attention is paid to his actual moment of conversion (which clearly came years before he joined). It thus leaves a number of spiritual questions unanswered. A good companion to the biography, then, is Mr. Chesterton's most enduring book, Orthodoxy (first published in 1908 and available in a number of editions). In Orthodoxy, Mr. Chesterton blusters through his reasons for his beliefs. But I would not want to outline his argument; Orthodoxy is as chaotic as it is charming. It's a literary Easter-egg hunt. The prizes are hidden, but they're not hard to find:"Believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter." "Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist." "The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he doesn't love what he chastises." Mr. Chesterton falters here (and in his other writings) in one particular area: He has a real enmity against Calvinism. It pops up occasionally in Orthodoxy, though not so violently as it does in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. Still, this gruff, gigantic Brit is worth reviving.

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