Illustrated London News 1932-34
Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 36
The penultimate volume in the complete run of Chesterton’s weekly columns for the Illustrated London News shows Chesterton already looking back at his career as a prolific journalist and revisiting the same issues of his early literary life and reaffirming his conclusions.
The artist who began his trade writing about art is now writing about art again: “There is nothing more dangerous than talking about Art when you are not an artist; except perhaps when you are.” Art, both in form and content, was beginning to grow obscure in his youth, now it is a vast fog of nonsense. Writing, on the other hand, was going from complex to simple, or rather subtle to banal. Now it is the screaming headlines of journalism and the sky signs of advertisement. Poetry, which was fleeing in free verse, is now largely gone, and Chesterton, who says that “art is manual labour,” wonders if the practical problem of free verse was liberality or laxity.
In the meantime, tradition, which was “the democracy of the dead,” is now “the teeming vitality of the dead.” With the break up the modern world, there is one of those traditions that will “stand out stark and strong as it did before the beginning of history”: the Family. He warns about what is going to happen when we find ourselves living in a society which has lost its balance, “in which what was abnormal may have become normal; nay, in which the bad may become good and the good abnormal.” Chesterton, the great defender of Christendom, says that there is only one thing for Christians to do if their society is no longer Christian: “launch a crusade to convert or conquer it.”
But the world of the early 1930s is busy fighting off the newest threats without the benefit of knowing exactly what it is defending. But even the new threats are not new. Chesterton had warned about the Prussians; now he is using the same language to warn about the Nazis. He had warned about Marxism as a theory; now he is warning about Russian Communism as a reality:
If anything is new, it is not the ideas which are supposed to belong only to this generation. It is the riots, massacres, wars, military proclamations, and wholesale executions, which were always supposed to belong especially to the past barbaric and superstitious generations. I knew all about the Communist theory of Karl Marx before I was twenty-five [1899.] What I did not know was that the Communist theory would ever make ferocious use of the Russian Secret Police, or would shoot down workmen by the score for going on strike. I had heard all about Nietzsche and the master Mind and the reaction against democracy when I was a young art student. [1892-1895.] What I did not dream of was that a mob of Master Minds would ever be able to silence the Centrum by force and drive the Jews out of Germany. If bludgeons, bloody sabres, streets swept by artillery or rebels hanged or shot for differences of opinion—if these are new things, then I willingly agree that the situation is entirely new. But I do not see anything particularly new about the notion of a Communist State; and still less about the notion of a Dictator.
There is another lurking philosophy that is not new to Chesterton, something he saw in his youth, something he repeated in The Man Who Was Thursday about the philosophers who hate life itself, something which is still an utter mystery to him in 1934: “The idea that life is not liveable, that joy is not enjoyable, remains as utterly unmeaning to me at my present age as it did when I was sixteen years old.”
Chesterton’s writing remains as strong as ever, just as his confidence in the truth. But as an older man, we can notice a slight change in his style. He has moved somewhat away from the clearly cut epigram that leaves no doubt to the rhetorical question which entreats us and encourages us not only to think for ourselves, but to think well. It is a good exercise to be questioned by G.K. Chesterton.
What I want to know is why those who are now boys, as I was then a boy, are so strangely and stubbornly twisted towards making a case against life? We also were morbid, because we were boys; we also were maniacs, because we were boys; we were quite capable of killing ourselves, because of the positive beauty of a particular woman; we also were quite capable of killing somebody else, because of the positive justice of a particular revolution. But it was always because of the positive goodness of a particular good thing. Why is it that so many people only want to make a case for the negative badness, not only of a bad thing, but of all things as being bad? The present generation has had more pleasure and enjoyment than any previous generation. Is that the right way of stating the riddle? Or is that the answer?