Friday, July 20, 2007

Chesterton the Propagandist: A Response to John Peterson

I don't remember who said it, but it was worth saying: if you want to know what to think about something, just consult Chesterton. You can always count on him for common sense. I have always considered this sage advice--so much so that one of my prized possessions is a volume titled An Index to Chesterton, by Joseph Sprugg, published in 1966. It is a little known book, I imagine, even among the most avid Chesterton aficionados, and I guard it with my life. I have many friends whom I hold dear, but if any of them asked to borrow it, I would greet their request with a cold stare, and show them to the door.

But this practice of consulting Chesterton for philosophical wisdom and practical advice--of using Chesterton as a sort of philosophical Dear Abby--has now come into question. According to John Peterson, in a paper presented to the Chicago Chesterton in 1987 but recently posted at The American Chesterton Society's very excellent blog, this practice constitutes a sort of abuse of Chesterton. He challenges the "habit of using Chesterton as an encyclopedia—asking for the great man to supply us with definitive answers to highly specific questions."

"Does Chesterton teach us," he asks,
the meaning of cheese or beer or student ragging and rioting? Or does he teach us how to see cheese and these other things in order that we ourselves may be able to find meaning in them? Does he give us meanings or does he show the way to find meanings?
It is a nicely asked question, and one which Peterson answers by denying the first disjunct. But I would submit that Peterson's analysis is one that Chesterton himself would have not only have disagreed with, but found disagreeable. That Chesterton would have found the idea that he was chiefly valuable not for his wisdom but for his method should seem doubtful on the face of it for anyone who is familiar with his thought. Chesterton, Peterson seems to say, should be valued chiefly, not for his tenets, but for his technique; not for his mind, but for his manner.

I am convinced, in fact, there are few things that Chesterton himself would have found less satisfactory than this approach to his writing.

Peterson's argument is based on a few examples of essays in which Chesterton drew a moral from an event, and did not judge it. He quotes several of Chesterton's Illustrated London News essays. Now I suppose I should be wary, thinking I can match Peterson, who is one of the few people who have taken the trouble to read the ILN essays, quote for quote, epigram for epigram. Call me wreckless, but I think I can. I too know the ILN essays--or many of them anyway, having read all of the weekly articles from 1908, when he began writing them, to 1915. But there are his other writings too, and they provide the most decisive refutation of Peterson's claim.

In saying that we cannot or should not go to Chesterton for meaning we may be conveying a truth (although I doubt it), but we are certainly not expressing a belief that has any relation to Chesterton's own thinking on such matters.

The first point is this: it seems to make sense that, if we are Chestertonians, we should judge Chesterton--whose trade was, in part, judging other writers--in the same way as Chesterton himself actually judged writers. But when we look at how he judged other writers, we do not find him, as Peterson proposes we do with Chesterton, valuing them chiefly for how they teach us to think. He judges them rather by the truths they teach. Not only that, he warns against doing anything else.

When Chesterton spoke of writers, he spoke of their "great truth and passion." For Dickens it was his "sense of joy in things," for Thackeray, a "sacred ... sense of pathos" in them; for Hawthorne, the sense of their "weird significance."

Chesterton was certainly concerned with matters of style and literary technique, but he was more concerned with what a writer had to say than with how he said it. Not only did Chesterton judge a writer on this basis--that of the truth that was expressed, but he judged what was literature at all by the very same criterion: "Literature," he says, "is only that rare sort of fiction which rises to a certain standard of objective beauty and truth."

In fact it could be truly said that one of the distinctions of Chesterton's approach to literature was precisely this: that he judged a writer primarily by what he said, not by how he said it; by his meaning, not his method--that it is a writer's dogma, not his disposition, which we should read and assess. Indeed I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that Chesterton wrote his book Heretics as a refutation of the very approach with which Peterson suggests we judge Chesterton.

"Man," he says, "can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas":
As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
In all the criticism he makes of those he has found to be heretics in the book, one of the things he praises them for is the fact that they say something definite, and ask their readers to accept it:
Now of all, or nearly all, the able modern writers whom I have briefly studied in this book, this is especially and pleasingly true, that they do each of them have a constructive and affirmative view, and that they do take it seriously and ask us to take it seriously.
In fact, Chesterton not only rejects the idea that he is not being dogmatic, even propagandistic in his writing, but spends a good part of Heretics criticizing people who claim they are not, pointing out that in doing so, they are. This was the difference he saw between himself and George Barnard Shaw: "I hold that I am dogmatic and right," he said, "while Mr. Shaw is dogmatic and wrong."

Furthermore (and this I take as the definitive point against Peterson's thesis) Chesterton questions whether great art can exist outside propaganda. "The fiercest dogmatists," he says, "make the best artists":
In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda ... The men who have really been the bold artists, the realistic artists, are the men who have turned out, after all, to be writing "with a purpose."
Chesterton wrote for the same reason as he said Shaw wrote: "to convince or to enrage us," and to have any other reaction to his writing, including gleaning "ways to think" as opposed to "what to think," Chesterton believed was an insult to the writer. "If a man comes to Hyde Park to preach it is permissible to hoot him; but it is discourteous to applaud him as a performing bear."

I said that it was the connection between dogma and art that was the definitive point against Peterson's theory, but I should perhaps come clean, and confess that it is not. I have actually saved my most crushing and decisive blow for the last, and this is it: I have assailed him with the weapon he should fear the most. I have devised my entire case against Peterson by consulting my Index to Chesterton. My entire argument opposing his case against the encyclopedic approach to Chesterton was conducted by means of an encyclopedia.

I cannot, of course, lend him my copy. I can only hope that I have at least made him want one.


gramps said...

John Peterson writes:

This is well said. I am tempted to leave the field of valor in disgrace. Still, I too have the index referred to and I have used it often, although I confess it has been some years since I felt the urge to learn GK's position on a given topic from that source. All I need do is ask Peter Floriani and - Presto! - he supplies all the references in AMBER, which is a more comprehensive resource.

I do not want to judge Chesterton the way he judged other authors becuase I have always thought Chesterton unique. And the thought that has always blown me away is his command of informal logic, blowing away HIS opponents' claims and arguments with dazzling fireworks of logic. I don't go to him to learn that Dickens was a fine author, or that Christianity is the Way, or that Rerum Novarum was an earthquake encyclical, because these ideas are well known anyway. But I do steal his ways of criticizing literature, his ways of defending the faith, and his ways of interpreting meaning in history. Maybe the answer is that I am well along in my seventies, and I have forgotten that much of what I know I learned from Chesterton, having breathed the man in and out since high school.

My problem comes down to this: traveling in Chestertonian circles, I have too often encountered the argument that Chesterton believed so-and-so, and thus the matter is closed to discussion. That's really all I am objecting to. But it is a very big and widespread abuse.
~ Gramps

But when we look at how he judged other writers, we do not find him, as Peterson proposes we do with Chesterton, valuing them chiefly for how they teach us to think. He judges them rather by the truths they teach.

Martin Cothran said...

Please see John's comment on the main blog with a comment of my own.