Thursday, August 7, 2014

Alarms and Discursions, by G. K. Chesterton (1910)

Over the past many months we have been reading quite a bit of that brilliant author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 – 1936), creator of the delightful Father Brown detective stories.  Though little-remembered today, Chesterton was one of the outstanding critics and thinkers of his age.  There are many reasons to admire GKC, but perhaps the most sensible is that he had never lost his childlike sense of wonder.  It was his innocence and clarity, mixed with a prodigious erudition, that resulted in his gargantuan influence as a writer and thinker.  He is simply the finest critic of Dickens and Stevenson I have ever read, and his take on Shakespeare is enthralling.  To read Chesterton is to see these writers anew, as if some profound truth were staring us in the face and it took a little boy to point it out.

The Falstaffian figure of GKC was familiar to all literate people in the US and UK for decades.  Tall and fat, he wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat and cape, and often carried a sword cane.  Of such figures legends are made, and Chesterton, the man himself, influenced writers who converted the easily recognizable figure into a string of fictional characters.  (His influence on detective fiction is vast – and the man himself served as the model for the fictional Dr. Gideon Fell, who appeared in mysteries by John Dickson Carr.)  The most contemporary figure similar to GKC would be Orson Welles; but though brilliant, Welles did not have his deep and profound depth of learning, his purity of soul, nor his sense of fun.  Welles was old before his time; GKC was forever young.

Chesterton earned his bread and cheese as a journalist, writing for the London Daily News.  His 1910 book Alarms and Discursions features dozens of columns on a variety of different subjects.  Paging through this book, the reader would learn his thoughts on everything from democracy, to cheese to the failure of the English upper classes.   Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man should look at his newspaper columns while also reading his many novels and books of sustained criticism.

Here are some quotes:  When a man says that democracy is false because most people are stupid, there are several courses which the philosopher may pursue. The most obvious is to hit him smartly and with precision on the exact tip of the nose. But if you have scruples (moral or physical) about this course, you may proceed to employ Reason, which in this case has all the savage solidity of a blow with the fist. It is stupid to say that "most people" are stupid. It is like saying "most people are tall," when it is obvious that "tall" can only mean taller than most people. It is absurd to denounce the majority of mankind as below the average of mankind.

Isn’t that grand?  And here is GKC writing in 1910 something that is even more pertinent to 2014:  In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold. I always notice with pain, however, a curious absence of the portraits of living millionaires from such galleries of awful examples; most of the portraits in which we are called upon to remark the line of the nose or the curve of the forehead appear to be the portraits of ordinary sad men, who stole because they were hungry or killed because they were in a rage. The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head; sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development, sometimes to the striking deficiency of the back of the head. I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists in being poor.

GKC had a remarkably Christian point of view – and by that, I don’t necessarily mean he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve.  He was a Christian humanist – someone who, seemingly against all odds, genuinely loved people.  This is a rare quality among those who live in the mind, but GKC was a rare man. 

The charm of a book like Alarms and Discursions is that it can be read through in one sitting, or can be dipped into almost indiscriminately.  There is not a page without gold of some kind, and, in addition, even his most interesting observations are presented with a puckish insouciance.  Read this, and savor, especially, the last line:  Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves. The second class may be called for convenience the Poets; they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking, a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind. Of course, the classification sometimes overlaps, like all classification. Some good people are almost poets and some bad poets are almost professors. But the division follows lines of real psychological cleavage. I do not offer it lightly. It has been the fruit of more than eighteen minutes of earnest reflection and research.

Alarms and Discursions is available at Project Gutenberg, and the invaluable  It makes for wonderful reading.

1 comment:

Compton Studio said...

Just found your blog. Great post! Look forward to reading through the archives.