Lecture 84: The Spice of Life

G.K. Chesterton says that he stopped reading novels when he began to be a reviewer of them. Yet he keeps writing about the books that he really has read, long after he has read them. His favorite novel is Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, but he says he read Pickwick only once, yet has walked into it whenever he chooses, as a man walks into a club. It is a book to be lived in, and like a house, and it is a little untidy.

For anyone who loves Chesterton, his books offer a similar invitation: to be walked into whenever one pleases, books that can be lived in, books that are a little untidy. The Spice of Life, might be the best organized of any of the posthumous collections of Chesterton’s writings assembled by his secretary and literary executrix, Dorothy Collins, and yet it is a little untidy and therefore welcoming and comfortable. Here are some of his strongest essays gathered for the first time between the covers of a book: his delicious takes on Macbeth and Lear, on Aesop, on Alice in Wonderland, on Samuel Pepys and Charlotte Bronte, and even on Aladdin. We also get an essay on humor, on how to write a detective story, on holidays, on the little known but very important Scipio, on peasants.

Though the subject matter seems scattered, the essays are held together not only by the same philosophy, but by the very theme of complete thinking in a world where everything is fragmented. He defends, as usual, what others dismiss, even mere sentiment, for sentiment, he says, “stands for that frame of mind in which all men admit, with a half-humorous and half-magnanimous weakness, that they all possess the same secret, and have all made the same discovery.” He even allows that the destructive philosopher and modern madman Nietzsche a sentimentalist.

But it is something more than sentiment that holds everything together. That role falls to religion, which is the thing the modern world keeps trying to remove from everything so that it falls apart. It is only religion that makes education meaningful. Education has to serve religion, not the other way around. A secular education is simply a collection of broken knowledge. As Chesterton writes in “The Religious Aim of Education”:

The deepest of all desires for knowledge is the desire to know what the world is for and what we are for. Those who believe they can answer that question must at least be allowed to answer it as the first question and not as the last. A man who cannot answer it has a right to refuse to answer it; though perhaps he is rather too prone to comfort himself with the very dogmatic dogma that nobody else can answer it if he can’t. But no man has a right to answer it, or even to arrange for it being answered, as if it were a sort of peculiar and pedantic additional question, which only a peculiar and pedantic sort of pupil would be likely to ask.

Though the furniture is comfortable in this club we have walked into, we soon realize that we are not exactly here to relax. Chesterton reminds us, “Life is a fight and not a conversation.”

It is the title essay that drives this point home. It is the transcript of his one of his final radio broadcasts for BBC. It is Chesterton’s parting shot. He refers to none other than T.S. Eliot, who in many ways would be his successor as the great man of letters in the English language, who, though he shared many of Chesterton’s ideas and certainly admired him, nonetheless represents a change in outlook towards the modern world.

Eliot, says Chesterton, has not found repose. “And it is just here that I will have the effrontery to distinguish between his generation and mine. It used to be thought impudent for a boy to criticize an old gentleman, it now requires far more sublime impudence for an older man to criticize a younger.” Eliot writes of desolation in “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men.” And Chesterton quotes a famous passage to describe Eliot’s “impression of many impressions”:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

To which Chesterton responds:

Now forgive me if I say, in my old-world fashion, that I’m damned if I ever felt like that. I recognize the great realities Mr. Eliot has revealed; but I do not admit that this is the deepest reality. I am ready to admit that our generation made too much of romance and comfort, but even when I was uncomfortable I was more comfortable than that…I knew the world was perishable and would end, but I did not think it would end with a whimper, but if anything with a trump of doom. It is doubtless a grotesque spectacle that the great-grandfathers should still be dancing with indecent gaiety, when the young are so grave and sad; but in this matter of the spice of life, I will defend the spiritual appetite of my own age. I will even be so indecently frivolous as to break into song, and say to the young pessimists:

Some sneer; some snigger; some simper;
In the youth where we laughed and sang,
And they may end with a whimper
But we will end with a bang.

MENU