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I probably sound like a broken record, (gosh, isn't that a dated phrase!), but
there are a couple things that rarely change in my opinion of Chesterton. One is that, because he was a journalist and very up-to-date on current events and
politics, especially in England, one does not always "get" his humor and rambling comments
unless they are very familiar with that era. The other thing is that his essay style never seems to have changed. One may compare it to Dave Barry. I used to
read his humorous columns regularly, but they were downright predictable. For that reason, I cannot imagine reading a whole book by him, at least not in the
course of a couple days.
Chesterton excelled in turning things upside down and inside out and perceiving his reality in a whole new way. The first time one reads his materials, they are fresh and interesting. However, after the fourth or fifth book, his comments seem, not profound as he would wish, but actually conventional, in a Chesterton sort of way. And like Dave Barry, he sure does ramble habitually. In fact, a page into each essay, it is easy to forget what the subject actually is. (In defense of Chesterton, this is NOT the case in his Father Brown mysteries.)
This is a rather long book. Ideally, I should have read one of the twenty-five short essays per day, and then I think I would have enjoyed them more. But, as I am working on a (self-imposed) timeline to keep new reviews posted on my site, and as I set a quota for the minimum number of books I read each year, I did not want to extend the reading of this one. But having said that, there is a still a great deal of humor and material to ponder in this collection even when reading fast. I took lots of notes and will attempt to provide a good overview of the essays included.
In On Running After One's Hat (No.4), Chesterton points out that things that annoy us should instead be perceived as exciting and worthwhile. He says:
When I last saw an old gentleman running after his hat in Hyde Park, I told him that a heart so benevolent as his ought to be filled with peace and thanks at the thought of how much unaffected pleasure his every gesture and bodily attitude were at that moment giving to the crowd.
He later comments on his friend who swore every time his drawer was jammed:
Again, I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out. A friend of mine was particularly afflicted in this way. Every day his drawer was jammed, and every day in consequence it was something else that rhymes to it. But I pointed out to him that this sense of wrong was really subjective and relative; it rested entirely upon the assumption that the drawer could, should, and would come out easily. "But if," I said, "you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating. Imagine you are tugging up a lifeboat out of the sea. Imagine you are roping up a fellow-creature out of an Alpine crevasse. Imagine you are a boy again and engaged in a tug-of-war between French and English."
The Vote and the House (No. 5), is less humorous, but more profound. In fact, it would apply today more than ever. He talks about power and how those in power sneak up on people to the point that they do not question the insanity of power. He asks us to suppose that he had, by some prehistoric law, the power to make every man in Battersea nod their head three times before they got out of bed. It seems harmless, but is it? He says:
If I had nodded their heads for them for fifty years I could cut off their heads for them at the end of it with immeasurably greater ease. For there would have been permanently sunk into every man's mind the notion that it was a natural thing for me to have a fantastic and irrational power. They would have grown accustomed to insanity.
For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment.
Wow! How true! And look at us today. Few care that our own president lies when
the truth doesn't suit him, and lies blatantly. The United States government and military certainly have most of the population nodding their
heads three times before getting out of bed and they are surely preparing to cut off our heads next!
In French and English (No. 9), Chesterton speaks of countries retaining their characteristics. He begins with an interesting statement, and keep in mind, at that time, England was still usurping countries like India. He says:
If we are to be international we must be national. And it is largely because those who call themselves the friends of peace have not dwelt sufficiently on this distinction that they do not impress the bulk of any of the nations to which they belong. International peace means a peace between nations, not a peace after the destruction of nations, like the Buddhist peace after the destruction of personality. The golden age of the good European is like the heaven of the Christian; it is a place where people will love each other; not like the heaven of the Hindu, a place where they will be each other.
And here is another one that is appropriate for our day, although he was speaking of Germany. (This set was published in 1908, incidentally.) It is called Thoughts Around Koepenick (No. 15). Chesterton says:
It would be the end of German soldiers to be affected by German philosophy. Energetic people use energy as a means, but only very tired people use energy as a reason. Athletes go in for games, because athletes desire glory. Invalids go in for calisthenics; for invalids (alone of all human beings) desire strength. So long as the German Army points to its heraldic eagle and says, "I come in the name of this fierce but fabulous animal," the German Army will be all right. If ever it says, "I come in the name of bayonets," the bayonets will break like glass, for only the weak exhibit strength without an aim.
In The Boy (No. 16), Chesterton comment on how the press has become unable to call a wicked act wrong.
If I beat my grandmother to death tomorrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it was wrong. Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage. Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or aesthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady had definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before. Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter. The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.
And that hasn't changed much either, has it? If only our press would call
government officials what they really are.
And so, this is just a smattering of what is available in this collection. Please check out the G.K. Chesterton Index Page for a listing of all his books I have reviewed on this site.
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