Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Seedbed of War

I finally made it through Chesterton’s ILN columns from 1915 and started 1920. What a relief! As I explained a couple of posts ago, when I found out that he wrote about nothing but the Great War while it was raging, I decided that as a prize for making it through one year of war essays, I should treat myself to a post-War year. The path through the rest of 1915 continued to be almost as bleak as a road through No Man’s Land, so my decision still makes sense. But why did he write so narrowly during this time? Chesterton himself suggests an explanation for the problem in a 1920 piece I read just yesterday: politics is topical but religion is eternal. Of course religion shows its nose here and there in his 1915 pieces, but he emphasizes politics, and as long as he emphasizes politics, his writing remains mortal; he writes to readers familiar with the latest events and editorials and German edicts, but that readership disappears soon after the era in question. As a case in point, GKC wrote several times in 1915 about pessimism and optimism, but it was only in September that he mentioned the existence of a pessimist press. If I had known earlier who had a habit of speaking pessimistically, I would have understood the earlier essays; his contemporaries, on the other hand, would have known the background situation and didn’t need any explanation.

Another cause is Chesterton’s faith in rhetoric. In his column from October 16, 1915, he says, “I decided, when private accident put me among those who cannot fight directly for the flag, that there was work to be done for it in the way of intellectual fighting.” In other words, he persistently wrote about the War because he thought it his patriotic duty to fight and found the pen the only weapon feasible for him. But did he truly change minds? Logical arguments rarely convert souls to a faith, and presidential debates sway few voters’ preferences. If in the previous paragraph I maintained that a bullet fired a hundred years ago can have no impact today, having long since fallen and been trampled into the earth, here I’m suggesting that a bullet made from a goose quill usually kills very few enemies even in its own day. I can’t say that words never change minds; if I believed that, I wouldn’t be working through year 16 of a reading plan of great books. But I do believe that words are most effective in the service of two tasks: (1) moving the hearer from no position to some position (rather than shifting the hearer’s already established position), and (2) nourishment of a nascent love for truth, beauty, and goodness. When I read Chesterton, I learn a little bit about his times, but the greatest effect I sense is the renewal and reinforcement of my belief that Christians can be rational and eloquent. I could lament the situation that leaves me in need of that renewal, but that discussion were better left for another day.

Of course, it could be that I just wasn’t in the mood to read about World War I; maybe I should read the war essays in a month when my job isn’t so demanding. Whatever the reason for the dark road, though, the pall of 1915 lifted immediately when I began the first number from January, 1920. Here I found the classic Chesterton again, in an essay replete with, if not his famous paradoxes, his much more common inverses and surprising contraries. In this first column, for instance, he explains that self-described optimists have it all wrong when they see gloom in a religion that offers negative injunctions in its top Ten Commandments. The truth, he says, is that its insistence on only ten prohibitions invites a raucous celebration of the implied liberty; the Old Testament Law permitted too many actions to enumerate. Even further, negative imperatives always have some positive outcome; every action disallowed makes room and time for something else. Sometimes proscribed actions even participate in creation: the man who is not murdered, for instance, goes on to live a life that otherwise would not exist.

This kind of observation works because of the connections that exist between all things. Reminded now about the whirlwind tours across these connections through reality that Chesterton normally leads me on, I regret even more that he kept himself within such strict boundaries during the war years; he gave himself many more than ten negative prohibitions in determining not to write about any topic but war between 1914 and 1918. Just think: if he had for just one week told himself not to write about the war, that negative command would, by his own argument, have given him the freedom to indulge in topics too numerous to list.

Among the many great tragic losses of the Great War, I have to consider now the tragedy that Chesterton couldn’t depart from his chosen theme for even one week in 1915 to write about Christmas. But all things are connected, and aspects of Chesterton’s love of truth must have needed nourishment. So I have to believe that the strict discipline was good for him, as disappointed as I may be, and that he discovered new foundations of joy in the tragedy and nursed a small flame of light during the dark time. After all, Christmas reappeared in his column after the War. We tend to think of disappearance as a sign of weakness. But strength has no greater sign than reappearance, and Christmas is very strong.

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