Lecture 81: Lunacy and Letters

After Dorothy Collins had assembled a posthumous Chesterton book consisting of previously uncollected essays from his Illustrated London News columns, she did the same thing with his earlier columns from the Daily News. The result was Lunacy and Letters. (But because Dorothy’s filing system perhaps left something to be desired, two of the essays in this collection were not from the Daily News, but were from the Illustrated London News). The intent was to create another book like Tremendous Trifles, the essays being from the same time period for the same publication, having the same tone, with Chesterton’s novel approach to a broad range of topics. More of these books had been planned during Chesterton’s lifetime, since the essays were already written, but both he and his secretary were too busy to get the collections put together. This one was worth the wait.

Though Lunacy and Letters has never been as popular as Tremendous Trifles, it is every bit as good, and it is one of my personal favorites. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that in reading it we get to watch another book being written: we see ideas and phrases introduced in these early essays that would later be repeated and developed in Orthodoxy.

It starts with the title essay of the book, which will be clearly reflected in “The Maniac.” The theme of sanity and lunacy is a theme throughout Chesterton’s books (The Poet and the Lunatics, The Outline of Sanity, etc.), and here Chesterton shows that madness is narrowness – as he would later describe it as “the clean, well-lit prison of one idea.” He makes a remarkable connection between madness and idolatry. Idolatry is also narrowness. The worship of the false god leads to madness, because the false god will always be less than the real God.

We then go on to get a glimpse of Elfland in an essay entitled “A Fairy Tale.” In another essay we foresee the Doctrine of Conditional Joy: “In Eden there was a maximum of liberty and a minimum of veto; but some veto is essential even to the enjoyment of liberty.”

We also have an early defense of tradition and the Democracy of the Dead: “The old literatures of the world, which are still unsurpassed in the matters of the mind and the heart; when they speak of the spiritual nature of man, speak with a wisdom and an authority which are still unsurpassed.”

We see Chesterton establishing himself as a champion of the common man and his frank distrust of the literary class to which he happens to belong: “I believe in the judgment of all uncultured people; but it is my misfortune that I am the only quite uncultured person in England who writes articles.”

And the exquisite concluding parable, “The Roots of the World,” foreshadows almost exactly the closing lines of “The Romance of Orthodoxy”: “For the enemies of religion cannot leave it alone. They laboriously attempt to smash religion. They cannot smash religion; but they do smash everything else.”

But besides laying the groundwork for Orthodoxy, Chesterton here gives us some of his incomparable insights into drama and dreams and death and dogs, art and laughter, history and heroes, and Shakespeare. In one four-star passage, he draws the distinction between the false romantic who likes the ruins of castles, and the true romantic who likes the ruins of cathedrals. The former likes medievalism “because it is now dead, not because it was once alive.” His pleasure in the poetic past is “as frivolous as a fancy-dress ball.”

For the castles only bear witness to ambitions, to ambitions that are dead; dead by being frustrated or dead by being fulfilled. But the cathedrals bear witness not to ambitions but to ideals; and to ideals that are still alive. They are more than alive, indeed they are immortal because they are ideals that no man has ever been able either to frustrate or to fulfill.

Also answered in this volume is the question, Did Chesterton ever have writer’s block? Did this incredibly prolific author ever go blank, unable to put a word on the page? The answer is no. It is, by the way, a ridiculous question. No one who had to write as much as Chesterton wrote could possibly afford the luxury of pausing and brooding about what to write. What we have here, however, is an example of Chesterton creating an essay out of absolutely nothing. It is a masterpiece of writing when the only thing to write about is that there is nothing to write about. He simply describes the impossible situation in which he has to write something. The situation is that he is in the process of moving from London to Beaconsfield. He is trying to write this article to meet a deadline, but the furniture around him is being hauled away piece by piece. There is soon no table to write on, and puts the paper on his knee. But then there is no chair to sit on, so he sits on the floor. The room is eventually empty, but the page somehow is full. And just as Chesterton is sad to leave his old home, but looking forward to his new one, we are sorry this story has come to an end, but we are excited to see what the next one will be.

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