Treating G.K. Chesterton as an authority whose aphorisms can be quoted for any purpose other than amusement is, as Elliot Milco maintains , silly. One might as well treat Edward Lear as an authority. (Though an exception should be made for literary matters, an area where he wrote with real expertise; we owe our current appreciation of Dickens more to Chesterton than to anyone else.) But Chesterton was a genius of some kind. So I don’t think his hot-headed combox supporters need retreat an inch. After the posts of last week that roused the fury of the readers of this website, however, some clarification of the nature of his project might be valuable.
What is that particular project? When his writing works the way it’s supposed to, criticisms like Elliot’s miss the point entirely. Like a poet, Chesterton wants to write directly against the brain, as it were, without using propositions as intermediaries. But his specific targets are philosophical, not sensory, and of course his work is not really literature any more than it’s philosophy.
If my characterization of his project is correct, immediate appreciation of his work might require something so literal as a certain configuration of neurons. This configuration doesn’t seem to correspond to intelligence or literary sensibility or any such thing. But some happen to have it and some do not. This comports with the observation that his admirers and his detractors are equally diverse. There must be something quite unusual about texts that are delightful to Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, T.S. Eliot, and Gandhi, but not to so many other intelligent and charitable readers. Since nothing observably distinguishes the two groups, I am forced to call the distinction a mystery of physiology.
Those who play Chesterton’s game of neuronal musical chairs are rewarded richly, which explains the devotion he receives, a devotion which mystifies readers who are looking for philosophical treatises. C.S. Lewis’s account of reading The Everlasting Man is a striking example. The book is not remotely plausible as a factual history, but after Lewis read it he was permanently incapable of believing in Whig history. Like an intellectual prion, Chesterton’s fancies destroy certain falsehoods merely by contact.
Nonetheless, as with poets, one should be able to help those whose neurons are not in the necessary configuration. One could point out layers and types of irony, offer historical context, and notate thematic counterpoint. Such education will not always succeed, as for instance there exist people who are unable to acquire a taste for Alexander Pope even after earnest striving, but the method is more likely of success than adverting to a list of beloved aphorisms.