Lecture 17: Alarms and Discursions

In this collection, Chesterton the master essayist – and master discursionist – moves easily from the mirthful to the magnificent, observing that poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese, that Futurists don’t know a damn thing, and that England is the only place you can find Weather. He has us watch a neighbor’s house being built to make us better see the mysterious place that is our own house. He brings us to a puppet show where the two great eternal jokes of mankind are repeated: the idea that the poor man ought to get the better of the rich man and the idea that the husband is afraid of the wife. And he climbs the walls of the cathedrals to show us gargoyles and explain to us that the ugly animals praise God as much as the beautiful. “The frog’s eyes stand out of his head because he is staring at heaven. The giraffe’s neck is long because he is stretching towards heaven. The donkey has ears to hear – let him hear.” Gargoyles attached to a great church spire are romantic and alive. But detached and decaying in the long grass they suffer from a lack of proper context, which is to suffer from something known as realism. Romance is a holy donkey going to the Temple. Realism is a lost donkey going nowhere.

We find in this book a corollary to the famous Chesterton precept that a dead thing goes with the stream, only a living thing goes against it: “The whole curse of the last century has been what is called the Swing of the Pendulum; that is the idea that Man must go alternately from one extreme to the other. It is a shameful and even shocking fancy; it is the denial of the whole dignity of mankind. When Man is alive he stands still. It is only when he is dead that he swings.”

Defending the dignity of the common man is the essence of defending democracy. “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.” Chesterton says that a people is a soul. It can sin, it can steal, it can repent, it can be heroic, it can sacrifice itself. And when a people acts together to refuse wealth by refusing to give in to the pressure from giant business interests, there is hope for a democratic government. “Self-denial is the test and definition of self-government.”

“Try to grow straight and life will bend you,” is a often-quoted line of Chesterton’s that at first glance does not strike us as being Chestertonian. It sounds pessimistic, almost defeatist. But like a gargoyle, it must be put into its context to be understood. Chesterton sees a furrowed field on a slope. He sees that the furrows, like everything, try to be straight, and, like everything, just fail. Which is just fine. The farmer still sets out to plow a straight row. He does not set out to plow a crooked row. “The foil may curve in the lunge; but there is nothing beautiful about beginning with a crooked foil. So the strict aim, the strong doctrine, may give a little in the actual fight with facts; but that is no reason for beginning with a weak doctrine or a twisted aim. Do not be an opportunist; try to be theoretic at all the opportunities; fate can be trusted to do all the opportunist part of it. Do not try to bend, anymore than the trees try to bend. Try to grow straight and life will bend you.”

We discussed the discursions, now here is the alarm. Chesterton wrote almost 600 essays for the London Daily News from 1901 to 1913. Less than a third of these were collected into books such as Tremendous Trifles, A Miscellany of Men, Alarms and Discursions and a few others. The Daily News represents some of Chesterton freshest and most creative writing, essays which are even better, I think, than the greater part of his contributions to the Illustrated London News, and this collection is a good example. But unlike the Illustrated London News, most of which are available in the Collected Works from Ignatius, almost none of the essays from the Daily News are in print, including this volume. Some of them have been lying hidden for a hundred years. Now that’s alarming. The American Chesterton Society is presently engaged in a project to bring all of Chesterton’s Daily News essays back into the light. But we need some help. Your donations are tax deductible.

This book is currently out of print.

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