Lecture 55: Generally Speaking

All Things Considered was the first and most famous collection of essays from Chesterton’s Illustrated London News columns. It is strange that after the success of that 1908 book, it took a full 20 years for another book from the Illustrated London News essays to be published. It was Generally Speaking, which came out in 1928. But then these collections suddenly appeared on a regular basis: Come to Think of It (1930), All is Grist (1931), All I Survey (1933), Avowals and Denials (1934), As I Was Saying (1936), and a posthumous collection, The Glass Walking Stick (1955). For 31 years, Chesterton cranked out an “Our Note-book” column for this popular and always fascinating weekly. If you should happen to pick up an old copy, you will still find it fascinating. There is very little text in it. The paper consisted mostly, as the name suggests, of pictures. But nothing in it was as illustrative and full of images as Chesterton’s words. Consider, for instance, this, from an essay on detective stories:

The detective story is, after all, a drama of masks and not of faces. It depends on men’s false characters rather than their real characters. The author cannot tell us until the last chapter any of the most interesting things about the most interesting people. It is a masquerade ball in which everybody is disguised as somebody else, and there is no true personal interest until the clock strikes twelve.

A word is worth a thousand pictures.

G.K. Chesterton was a generalist, as opposed to a specialist. He made sweeping statements that are instantly recognized to be true. Or generally true. What startles us is how startling the truth is. And refreshing. We have been made too timid to make generalizations. We are frightened of the exception that may be waiting in the weeds. But it is possible to speak in general terms, even though the world does not want to allow this possibility. As soon as we make a generalization, we are immediately challenged with a “But what about”¦?” in a voice which generally has a serpentine sound to it. But the general statement still stands. It is generally true. The exception may also be true, but it is simply an exception. We live in a world that pays to much attention to exceptions, and hence, we have too many specialists. We do not have enough generalists. We do not have enough Chestertons.

In Generally Speaking, Chesterton makes grand conclusions about archeology, leisure, pleasure, funeral customs, Buddhism, King Arthur, Christmas, Poland, Holland, Egypt, Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy. And a few other things. His most daring generalization, by his own admission, is this: “The Americans are a very self-conscious people. That is the nearest I have ever got to a generalization that really covers that great and mixed multitude.”

As usual, Chesterton defends tradition and casts a skeptical eye toward fashion and innovation. He takes on “Electric Houses” with some “sparkling” wit:

If I had a nice, neat, comfortable electric chair fitted up in my house, on the model of those fitted up in American prisons, I could quickly and quietly make a clearance of a great many of these social difficulties. It would be easy to receive a particular guest with gestures of hospitality; to wave him to a special seat with a special earnestness; to see him settled comfortably in it; and then to press a button with a smile and a sigh of relief.

But the same technique which he uses to achieve a warm comic effect, he can also use for rather chilling prophecy, as he does when he lays our modern commercial culture alongside that of Carthage “when the more poetic side of their nature led them to throw babies into the furnace of Moloch.”

But the comparison of commercial and religious centres is connected with another question that is perhaps more immediately modern than the worship of Moloch. We have not got quite so far as reviving that sort of Eastern mysticism as yet, though there is no saying what we may come to eventually, with a judicious combination of neo-pagan nature-worship and our efforts to restrict the population.

Chesterton acknowledges, however, that prophecy is tricky. That is, the next generation can play tricks on the prophet. The past is full of frustrated prophecies. In fact, the past is full of surprises.

A man looking at the round arches of the old Roman and Norman architecture could not possibly have calculated from them that, a hundred years afterwards, the delicate energy of the Gothic would be piercing the sky with spires and pointed arches as if with spears and arrows. That was an act of free imagination and, properly understood, an act of free will”; We may guess some of the fulfilments of a later generation; but we cannot share in any of its surprises. We may know a little about the heritage of our grandchildren, but nothing about their windfalls or their wilder adventures. If we want windfalls and wild adventures, we must consider the ways of our grandfathers and not our grandchildren. If we want the wildest emotions of novelty and astonishment, we can only find them in mouldering stones and fading tapestries, in the museum of antiquities or the place of tombs.

This book is currently out of print.

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