Reading Chesterton

We have had and continue to have a number of people say that they can’t understand Chesterton, or that they wish he’d just get to the point.  This is sometimes because we’re simply not used to literature of this kind. In the 1942 Sheed & Ward edition of What’s Wrong With the World? there is a tutorial introduction to the book by Frank Sheed himself. It is also a four week study guide. What follows here is part of the First Week study guide, titled Reading Chesterton. It is very slightly abridged, to make it stand alone as a general introduction rather than a lead-in to a study guide peculiar to the book. Maybe it will be helpful.

In most of our reading the author does all the work for us, so that all we need do is read on in a state of pleasant receptiveness, no intellectual effort of any kind being called for. Our mind, so to speak, just sits : and the book passes in procession before it. This is, of course, very agreeable to us, but it softens the muscles of the mind; the mind indeed grows fat and comfortable and sleepy. If that is our habit of reading, Chesterton comes as a shock, an irritation, and a challenge. Unless the reader’s mind is prepared to work along with Chesterton’s, nothing will come of the reading. There simply isn’t any procession to sit and watch. The reader’s mind must move step by step with the writer’s: this means that all sorts of new muscles will be called into action, and this will pain us at first; all our old muscles will have to show unaccustomed activity, and this too will pain us at first. There is no growing of muscles, for body or mind, without pain.

Many people coming new to Chesterton, complain that he makes them feel “tired” or “dizzy”. Now climbing a high mountain might also make us tired or dizzy; but the fatigue and the dizziness are defects in ourselves, not in the mountain. And anyhow the view from the summit is worth it: no fatigue, no view. And again anyhow, as the muscles grow, the fatigue lessens and we not only have the view to reward us but the exhilaration of the exercise as well.

What is there in Chesterton’s writing that calls for this sort of activity in the reader?

  1. He himself is so very alert. He hears what he is saying. This is a most important matter. Most people know what idea they mean to express, but they do not actually hear themselves expressing it; they are so concerned with what they mean to say that they have no energy left to attend to what they have actually said. Take as an example: if we have been bored by a book or a play, we say that it was as dull as ditchwater. The episode, so to speak, closes there. We meant to express our boredom, we have expressed our boredom. Just that. Now Chesterton, having had the same experience of being bored by something might likewise say that it was a dull as ditchwater. But he would hear himself saying it: and would instantly ask “But is ditchwater dull?” And would continue “My friends with microscopes assure me that it teems with quiet fun.”
  2.  Then there is what is called his habit of paradox. This word has two meanings, and Chesterton does give us examples of both:

    • It means a statement that appears to contradict itself. Thus he says somewhere “Nothing succeeds like failure”. The phrase startles the mind to protest. But after all anything that makes the mind act is good: protest is a healthier state of mind than happy apathy. And in this instance the phrase is true: Chesterton is referring to the “failure” of Calvary. The habit of paradox in this sense can be overdone; but it is a good corrective of the mind’s tendency to take life for granted and overlook both its surface surprisingness, and its root mystery;
    • It means a statement contrary to received opinion, contrary, that is, to the routine the mind has fallen into upon a particular subject. Thus there is the common proverb “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well”. It gives the reader a start to Chesterton saying “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” : yet in fact this is as true, from a different angle, as the other and it is the more human truth of the two: it legitimizes some of the most human activities of our lives. Singing for instance is worth doing: let us sing, therefore, even if we sing badly.
  3.  There is a good deal of sheer exuberance, even fooling, in Chesterton, and this is very puzzling to people who regard thinking as a sort of religious rite, not to be conducted save in the most rigid solemnity. Someone has said that if Chesterton were a schoolmaster teaching geometry, he would draw all his triangles with noses. But this would not make the triangle any less apt for the teaching of such profound truths as schoolmasters teach about triangles; and it would make the geometry lesson pass more pleasantly. The reader with any sense of humor will distinguish what is triangle from what is only nose: and will not mind a little high spirits thrown in with such high thinking.
  4. Is Chesterton obscure? Not in the least. He only seems so, because he goes so deep: under the surface it is always darker than on the surface. A man who gathers sticks moves about more easily, more lightly, and more in the light than a man who mines for coal; but there is no comparison in the illuminants that result. A sociologist treating of the Family, who concerns himself only with statistics – as for instance the number of children in the average family, according to wage group, according to profession, according to locality – is perfectly easy to understand (if not very gay to read). But Chesterton goes deeper: when he treats of the Family, he wants to find out what a man is and what a woman is. The statistic-sociologist is gathering sticks: Chesterton is mining.

With all these things in mind, [read Chesterton]  (a) examining […] statements made by Chesterton, and dredging our own mind to see whether we can make sense of them or what our own views are on the same subject; (b) considering what Chesterton himself has to say about them.

Some of these statements will seem plainly wrong to us, some of them will seem only baffling or of little meaning. But in either event let us think as hard as we can about them; let us jot down anything that occurs to us; and compare our thoughts with his. We are not bound to agree with him; but even if we decide in the end that we do not accept his views, it is worth asking if in the beginning we had any views at all. If […] you find that Chesterton had important or interesting thoughts that you did not manage to have, pause and try to find out why […]. Analyze your own thinking. In almost every case, what Chesterton said will seem obvious to you once he has said it. But why did you not get to it unaided?

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One thought on “Reading Chesterton

  1. Thanks Tom!
    What a fine essay and guide to GKC! Frank Sheed is a paragon of Catholic apologists and I doubt he ever wrote a sentence that was not clear and straighforward. The theme I like best that runs through his books is that you have to exercise the brain- the intellect is a faculty that is so underused in modern society. So much is given over to the imagination and emotion; bringing these into proper perspective is key. The intellect and the emotions must inform the will, which then acts. Imagination is a very weak substitute for actual thought.
    I would definitely recommend Sheed to all people who want to understand their faith better: “Theology for Beginners”, “Theology and Sanity” and “A Map of Life” are the three I have read and each one had sections that really disabused me of lazy habits of thought that I had grown up with or slipped into or been indoctrinated into accepting.
    An analogy he used that really rang true to me was the idea of changing the swing you use in playing tennis once you’ve been playing awhile. You get a coach who sees that a new approach would be beneficial to your power and so you start using it. At first it will seem ungainly and your muscles will complain that they aren’t used to being moved in this way; at this point many people will give up and get rid of the soreness by going back to their old way of swinging. But the ones who train their muscles and work through the soreness will be rewarded with greater ability. If tennis isn’t your cup of tea, substitute your own choice of physical activity to bring it home to your experience. And then start exercising your mind by ready more Chesterton!!!

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