Saturday, November 12, 2016

Chesterton, War and After

Sometime back in the early 80s, while I was a graduate student at Baylor University, I started reading G. K. Chesterton’s columns from the London Illustrated News. I found hard-bound collections with editors’ titles such as Tremendous Trifles and Alarms and Discursions in the university library and read all I could. I could see by the rarely stamped log pasted inside the covers that these volumes hadn’t been checked out by anyone in twenty years, so I freely marked the tables of contents, putting one slash by the titles of essays I especially liked and two slashes by the titles that had caused healthy mental upheavals. I figured I might want to go back and reread just the favorites before I graduated: and I did give a second, third, and possibly fourth read to “Sound and Sense in Poetry,” “A Tax on Talking,” and “On Cheese.”

A few years ago, I purchased all the weekly columns – published now by Ignatius Press with no fanciful titles other than the journal’s name and the years – and now finally I’m on a multi-year project to read them all, two published years per reading year. This plan went along pretty well through the 190x’s and the early teens. I started up my old system again and marked the titles I would ideally read again one day: one mark by some and, three to five times a year, two marks by others. But in 1914, World War I broke out, and the Chesterton began to devote every column to the war, to England’s duty, and to Germany’s moral shortcomings. It was so difficult to get through, I decided that for the duration, I’d read in each year of my time one war year and one year from after the war. This year, for instance, I read all the columns from 1917 and 1922.

Now, the war years have become more interesting since the first shock of 1914. In the 1917 set, Chesterton delves into political theory, the Russian Revolution, Wilson and America’s role, whether a League of Nations could work, the nature of war, and more fascinating veins. But still, as with last year and the year before, when I moved ahead to the post-war columns, the variety, insight, and pertinence seemed to explode. Over the last week, I’ve read about dangerous toys, modern poetry, the fascination with royal weddings, popular views of esoteric science, spiritualism, political activity of youth, Thomas Hardy, Edwin Drood, free love, the Fascists, Ireland, laws about beggars, misconceptions about the Middle Ages, prohibition, realism in the theater, cinema, the rules of writing a detective story (or rather the need for a compilation of the rules), King Arthur, Christmas, and much, much more. As I did a couple of years ago, I enjoyed them so much, I marked at least 80% of the titles. If I really intend to reread all those in the future, it will take me twenty years again to go through it all. I could limit myself to the ones I mark with two marks, but I still ended up double-slashing seventeen of the fifty-two weekly titles from 1922: about four times as many as I marked in any year between 1905 and 1914.

So then I start to wonder why I go so crazy with the approval ratings. Am I just so relieved to get away from anti-Prussian rhetoric, everything sounds brilliant by contrast? Or does Chesterton start to talk more frequently about timeless (or at least less topical) issues after Armistice in 1918? Did he feel relieved from the burden of speaking on the national catastrophe every week?

I’m starting to think that my enthusiasm doesn’t just come from the contrast with the war columns. I think Chesterton hit his mature stride around 1919 and I’m just now, thirty-five years after I started, rediscovering what I fell in love with from the beginning: the inimitable turns of phrase, the clinical splaying of nonsense in the words of others, the courageous stances for Christianity as sanity in a world gone mad. Maybe I should just start looking forward to rereading hundreds of these essays yet again. If I’m still around to finish them all in ten years, I guess I’ll find out. In the mean time, though, if I ever pass through Waco again, I’m thinking I should find the old books in the school library and see just how many marks I made.

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