The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton

G K Chesterton’s metaphysical nightmare.

G K Chesterton is first and foremost an Edwardian writer. In that era, as now, most people wanted to believe in some version of progress. Whether they were liberal imperialists or international socialists, apostles of revolution or Fabian gradualists, most assumed that the improvements in society they had seen in the 19th century would continue and accelerate. The growth of knowledge was creating new possibilities and it seemed reasonable to look forward to an enhanced version of the world that was forming around them.

Chesterton ridiculed this Edwardian belief in progress. Although he did not convert to Catholicism until 1922 (he was born in 1874 and died in 1936), he seems always to have believed that things had gone downhill after the break-up of Christendom in early modern times. Like other early 20th-century reactionary thinkers - his friends Hilaire Belloc and T S Eliot, for example - Chesterton looked backwards not forwards for inspiration, finding his utopia in a roman­ticised vision of the "organic" societies of medieval Europe. Chesterton used his position as a popular writer and journalist topromote "distributism", the belief that the future lay not with capitalism or socialism, but with the restoration of an earlier social order in which everyone was a property-holder. Distributism was widely mocked - "two acres and a cow" is hardly practical in modern industrial societies - and predictably came to nothing.

The trouble with nostalgic utopias of this kind is that the organic past is as delusive as the radiant future envisioned by the radical left. The Middle Ages were a time not of peace and stability, but of nearly continuous war. Far from everyone having some property, most people had nothing at all. Moreover, not only is the attempt to re-create dead cultures delusional, it can also be dangerous. If you believe there was once a golden age in which society was an organic whole, you will tend to be hostile to minorities.

Chesterton was no exception: as Bevis Hillier notes in an engaging and illuminating introduction to this well-chosen selection, he "was fiercely and notoriously anti-Semitic. In his columns he is forever expressing anti-Semitic views; the Jewish characters in his novels and short stories are invariably unappealing to the point of grotesqueness."

Hillier's candid acknowledgement of the ugly blemishes in an author he admires is refreshing, and extends to Chesterton's cranky politics.

In an assessment of Chesterton that Hillier quotes, George Orwell dismissed the distributist project with crushing finality: "Even in Chesterton's time, it was perfectly obvious that no large number of people effectively wanted it, and after his death the movement that he tried to found disintegrated." There could be no clearer epitaph for Chesterton's pretensions as a political thinker.

Hillier compares Chesterton to the Japanese fugu pufferfish - a delicacy that can be eaten safely only after a "foully poisoned section" has been cut out by an expert. It is an intriguing analogy, leaving one wondering what remains in Chesterton that is so delicious. The 20 sections of Hillier's selection - Chesterton's bons mots on literature, the press, art, class, love, religion and much else - are not exactly filled with delights. There is much tiresome jollity and treacly flattery of the reader: "The public is not an ass," Chesterton writes. "It appreciates great geniuses better than great geniuses appreciate each other." There is very little of the sharp edge that makes Oscar Wilde's epigrams still so memorable.

Where, then, must we look for Chesterton's celebrated wit? Hillier cites his love of paradox. As an example, most of his readers subscribed to a faith in progress that he viewed as ridiculous, yet he refrained from directly attacking the progressive creed. Instead he observed that the idea of progress was looking rather antiquated: as he put it mischievously, "The Crystal Palace is the temple of a forgotten creed." Describing a monument to modernity as an abandoned temple is a characteristic Chestertonian paradox - a striking half-truth.

Chesterton was right that belief in progress was becoming shaky. He was wrong to think it would collapse (the mildewed structure of progressivism still stands). The paradox is weakened by his creepy love affair with med­ievalism - an attempt to find progress in an idealised past. Whereas Wilde's paradoxes pointed to real contradictions in the nature of things, Chesterton's were used in the service of a dated orthodoxy. That is why his work is so rarely remembered today.

What survives is not his sub-Wildean wit, but something more exotic, which he hardly understood himself. When Jorge Luis Borges described Chesterton as "Poe's great successor", he was doing more than making the point that Chesterton is one of the masters of detective fiction (which Poe invented). Although they are spoiled by a streak of moralising didacticism, his Father Brown stories are a notable addition to the genre; but at its best his work is not a series of brilliant puzzles. Instead, it testifies to a powerful sense of insolubility, a
vision of the absurd that contradicts his official philosophy.

Chesterton's metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled A Nightmare, a coda that indicates the author's unease. The novel gives the lie to his Christian faith in a meaningful universe. In an article published on 13 June 1936, the day before he died, he insisted that a nightmare was all that the book recounted: "It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was . . . It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair, which the pessimists were generally describing at that date."

Yet it is hard to resist the thought that the world portrayed in the book is the one Chesterton suspected was real. Its protagonist, Gabriel Syme, joins a secret anarchist council of seven men - each named after a day of the week - who are dedicated to destroying order in the world, only to discover that five of the other members are undercover police operatives, as he himself is. Thursday (as Syme is now called) discovers that the centre of the conspiracy is the mysterious Sunday, a godlike figure. But what does Sunday want? He will not say, only crying out "in a dreadful voice, 'Have you ever suffered?'" The book ends with Syme waking up suddenly, as from a disturbed dream.

Though some have tried to interpret The Man Who Was Thursday as a type of Christian allegory, the world it describes has more in common with the interminable labyrinth of Kafka's Castle. In the orderly Christian cosmos, in which Chesterton wanted to believe, nothing is finally tragic, still less absurd. The world is a divine comedy, the ultimate significance of which is never in doubt. In The Man Who Was Thursday, the world is illegible and may well be nonsensical. This was the nightmare he struggled, for the most part successfully, to forget. Producing a succession of wearisome polemics and mechanical paradoxes, he spent his life denying the vision that informed his greatest work.

John Gray is lead reviewer of the New Statesman. His latest book is "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings"