The Illustrated London News 1911-1913
Volume 29 of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton
At some point we will try to do some sort of calculation to figure out exactly when Chesterton was at his most prolific, but for now I will make the case that it was during this two year period of 1911 to 1913. He was writing regularly for three weekly newspapers and occasionally for dozens of other publications. He wrote his two greatest poems, Lepanto and The Ballad of the White Horse, during this time, and he started cranking out the famous Father Brown stories as well. Add a novel and a play and a masterpiece of literary criticism to the mix. Yet there is no sign of fatigue or even rush in his Illustrated London News essays in this stretch. He is evidently at the height of his creative power and full of energy. Though I would have no problem arguing that the height of his creative power and energy came earlier. Or later.
If there is a theme to this collection of weekly essays, it is the difficulty of defending the normal. We could almost say it is the disappearance of the normal, which Chesterton notices everywhere. He gets on a train and notices that there is a first class carriage and a third class carriage. That would seem to imply that there is a second class carriage. But there isn’t. “It is typical of our time,” he says, “that the middle thing has been knocked out. The central, the normal is sacrificed. The middle class is going or gone.”
It is difficult to speak idealistically about the middle. But it is impossible and ridiculous to have to choose between extremes, between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, between Scylla and Charybdis. “We are not merely asked to choose between things equally bad, [but] between things that are exactly the same.”
Defending the normal is difficult when even normal speech has been jarred. People abuse language along with reason. “They contradict the dictionary more than they do the Bible.”
From one side, Chesterton sees that Prohibition is coming, a Puritan attack on one of the normal pleasures of man. While he admits that life is not all beer and skittles, he insists that it is not all skittles, either.
But from the other side, he sees the Pagans attacking the normal. And the Barbarians, too.
During this time the Titanic sank. Chesterton sees it as a symbol of the age: the “sinking of an unsinkable ship,” the pride before the fall, the “touch of over-civilization which is always the first touch of a returning barbarism.”
The barbarism can be seen in the loss of respect for human rights but the weird new respect for animal rights. The new nature worship has no limits, the sympathy with earth and animals has no verifiable results. “They pour their tears into this bottomless bucket: because it is bottomless. They use in pathetic imaginings, by their nature useless and eternal, an energy of the heart which, if directed against real and certain wrongs, might release millions of men from the rack of an artificial agony.”
Chesterton is most prophetic in defending that normal thing called marriage against bizarre attacks, such as the attempt to re-define it.
If we do not yet know what marriage is, doubtless it would be well to find out; though many generations of men seem to have been occupied in the inquiry in its most practical and scientific form.
He has no hesitation in ridiculing the “immoralists” who attack marriage, because they represent no imaginable ideal: “I do not myself think it is wrong to laugh even at a morality in which I do believe. I most certainly think it right to laugh at a morality in which I don’t believe. And I shall certainly laugh my longest and loudest about a morality that nobody has yet discovered.”
But he sees that there is no forum in which the normal man’s voice may be heard. “The only judge of ordinary intelligence is – ordinary intelligence,” but this judge has been banished from the court of opinion. The heretics are not persecuted because they are the ones in power. It is the normal man who is persecuted, who is imprisoned because he cannot afford to pay a fine, who is punished for making speeches because he has not the money to publish books.
Chesterton is loyal to the common man, loyal to the normal, but “in the last intellectual resort” he knows that loyalty “is only due to that yet higher thing that made all of us and is above us all.” And that is where the real battle rages. “If you are loyal to anything and wish to preserve it, you must recognise that it has or might have enemies; and you must hope that the enemies will fall.”
Nothing has changed. As others have pointed out, it is more useful – and more timely — to read Chesterton’s Illustrated London News essays from a hundred years ago than any of today’s newspapers. His weapons are as sharp as ever.