Lecture 62: All is Grist

This gathering of Illustrated London News essays from 1930-31 demonstrates two things about Chesterton. First, that he could write a profound and provocative piece on any subject whatsoever – hence the title of the book: all is grist for Chesterton’s mill. The phrase is a wonderfully apt metaphor: he could make his daily bread from anything at all. Secondly, the book demonstrates is why Chesterton is a master of the paradox. By definition the paradox is the truth that runs contrary to accepted opinion. This is the truth that Chesterton is constantly pointing out. In a world heavily influenced by an information industry and an entertainment industry, accepted opinion has a nasty tendency to be wrong. When it comes to art, literature, politics, business, education, theories about raising children, new religious sects, popular science, even more popular psychology, and still even more popular fashions about dressing, dating, drinking and dabbling in sex, every modern idea is based on the simplistic idea that new is good and old is bad. And newer is even better, and older is even worse. And newest is best and oldest is worst. In modern ears, anyone who defends tradition will always sound paradoxical. Hence, the world is shocked when a prophet understands the future better than a progressive. But the prophet has the advantage of having a better grip on the past. As Chesterton says: “The decay of thought may be due to the general notion of merely going forward; whereas all thinking is thinking backwards.”

At this stage in his career, Chesterton was rubbing many of his earlier admirers the wrong way. That is because he had not changed. But the arguments he had made as a young writer were now being proved true.

The advantage of advancing years lies in discovering that traditions are true, and therefore alive; indeed, a tradition is not even traditional except when it is alive. It is great fun to find out that the world has not repeated proverbs because they are proverbial, but because they are practical.

While Chesterton has learned from his experiences, one of his targets is the artist or writer who insists on having certain experiences before being able to describe them. Usually the experience is something unlawful. Or sinful.

We might politely inquire exactly how much Experience is needed to equip a novelist to write novels? How many marks does he get for being vamped or for being intoxicated; and which are the particular discreditable acts by which he can get credits? How many liaisons give him this singular rank as a literary liaison officer; and how many double lives does it take to constitute Life? Is it only after his fourth divorce that he may write his first novel? For my part, I do not see why the same principle should not be applied to all the other Ten Commandments as well as to that particular Commandment. It should surely be obvious that, if love affairs are necessary to the writing of this particular sort of love story, then it follows that crime is necessary to the writing of any kind of crime story. I have myself made arrangements (on paper) for no fewer than fifty-two murders in my time; they took the form of short stories; and I shall expose myself to the withering contempt of the young sages of Experience when I confess that I am not really a murderer, and have never yet committed an actual murder. And what about all the other forms of criminal Experience? Must a writer be a forger, and manufacture other men’s names before he is allowed to make his own? Must there be a journalistic apprenticeship in picking pockets as well as in picking brains; and have we to look to the establishment of an Academy of Anarchy, with the power of conferring degrees? Novelists might proudly print after their names the letters indicating the degrees they had taken; such as F.Y.B., meaning “Five Years for Burglary, “ or T. N. H., for “Twice Nearly Hanged.”

The typical criticism of Chesterton is that he is simply naïve, out of touch with the real world. Chesterton’s response is that the real world is out of touch with reality: “I do not think it can be fairly said that I have neglected the most recent realities of the real world. It seems rather the real world that neglects them.”

The value of reading these essays is that many of the “new” ideas are still being served up as new, and the arguments against them are as solid as ever. For instance, bad behavior is still being blamed on heredity and not on bad choices. “Business education” still flies in the face of the purpose of education, which is to make a person broad instead of narrow. Democracy is still a noble idea but it does not exist, in spite of the politicians who say they are defending it. The people are not allowed to govern, and the governmental system we have created do not protect liberty but crush it. Divorce still tries to look respectable, but it isn’t. Nature-worship is still the worship of something inferior. Christian Science is still a crazy idea. Civilization is still under attack.

This book is currently out of print.

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