I g And There Enters Heaven Chesterton . . The Child"
Autobiography, by G. K. Chesterton. (Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 10s. 6d.) Reviewed by MICHAEL DE LA BEDOYERE There is a school of very modern and rather young Catholics which affects to despise Chesterton, murmuring that he may have done for an earlier generation but that he does not speak for the present one.
It is possible that G. K. C. heard of them, for he was a reader of the Catholic Herald and, in one issue, a dictum to the above effect of a member of the school was printed under the heading Recent Remarks: Wise and Otherwise.
feel sure that if he saw it he instinctively thought of it as wise rather than otherwise, not only because of his profound humility, but even more because it was so obvious throughout his life that he had always failed to speak in a manner satisfactory to any mere generation. He only wanted to speak in a way that was tolerably satisfactory to himself, for, perhaps of all the world's thinkers, he was the one who spoke most evidently for himself and out of himself. "Nothing could prevent Balfour," he writes, " being Prime Minister or MacDonald being Prime Minister; but Cunninghame Graham achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham. As Bernard Shaw remarked, it is an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in romance."
Chesterton not only achieved the adventure of being Chesterton: he achieved the adventure of remaining the same Chester
ton as he was born. His very autobiography is a circle which starts with his first memory of seeing a young man carrying a large key and walking across a bridge that joined the edge of a perilous mountain chasm to a castle tower, the whole being a scene in a toy peep-show constructed by his father; it ends with the vision of a man who crosses a bridge and who carries a key: "But I know that he who is called Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, is called also Claviger, the Bearer of the Key; and that such keys were given him to bind and loose when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea."
pliment, for the phrase "thinking of oneself " usually means "thinking of the effect one is making on others." Vain and selfcentred men are always thinking of others. Chesterton actually thought of himself, or rather into and out of himself.
It is not a mere fancy on his part when he says that it is the child who sees reality and lives earnestly, whereas it is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending, with his head in a cloud of illusion. For it is the child who sees and takes things as they are, even if he cannot understand them as an abstracroWhole, and it is the grown man who is so busy trying to understand them as a whole that he fails even to see them as they are.
Thus the little boy who delighted in the toy pantomime for what it was (he was not a bit disappointed. at the figures being made of • cal-dboard) retained enough of the cNIA's v,kion to see the world as it really is,'Ilnadnfki guarded by God who entrusts His authority and responsibility to Pontifex, the Bridge-Builder, and Claviger, the Key-Bearer. And the reason why Chesterton retained this clear vision of childhood was simply that he never ceased to see himself and to be himself.
It is, for example, significant that in this autobiography, in which he touches but slightly on his .actual conversion he emphasises only one reason for joining the Church of Rome: "thave found only one religion which dared to go down with .tne into the depths of myself . . . The Sacrament of Penance gives anew life . . . The gift is given at a price, and is conditioned by .a confession. In other words, the name of 'the:p.rice is Truth, which may also be called Reality, but it is facing the reality about oneself. When the process is only applied to other people, it is called Realism."
To look into oneself throughout life, as Chesterton did, not only makes the superficial think of vanity and self-centredness, it also suggests a kind of solipsism, the belief that oneself alone exists. But just as self-centredness really comes from thinking too much of others, so solipsism comes from looking for ins,zad of seeing oneself. The self is not a whole or an infinity, but a limit. The grown man may fall into the illusion that real things are infinitely expandable, and that such terms as progress or liberty imply a constant moving outwards: the child, even if he understood the terms, would never do so.
"It is plain on the face of the facts that the child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternative pavingstones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered to himself . . . In that sense I have constantly tried to cut down the actual space at my disposal: to divide and sub-divide, into these happy prisons, the house in which I was quite free to run wild. And I &lieu that there is in this psychological freak a truth without which. the wlutle rn world is missing its opportunity."
In seeing himself, then, Chesterton not only saw a limited self, but a glory in limits and the glory of the self because it was limited. This really was the very core of his whole outlook: the greatness of being limited, the, fact that .progress consists in seeing deeper, not further, and that liberty is something that works inwards, not outwards.
Because of this perception. the natural perception of the child, which, instead of being lost with the years, was strengthened by constant attention to himself as God made him and not as he tried to make himself by imitating others, Chesterton was not only not in agreement with his contemporaries and their movements: Socialism, Liberalism. Imperialism, Evolutionary Progress.; he was also nearly always in disagreement • with • those who opposed them. He explains how, in the South African War, his trouble lay not so much in his being against the war, but also against those who were against the war. And so he remained.
As a journalist and controversialist his energy and brilliant talents were expended on defending the truth that a man must know himself and be himself and know things as they are, love them and be grateful for them. His primary problem was "how men could be made to realise the wonder and splendour of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead . . . They believe in a great growing and groping thing like a tree: but I believe in the flower and the fruit: and the flower is often snzall. The fruit is final and in that sense finite: it has a form and therefore a limit. There has been stamped upon ü an image. 'which is the crown and consummation of an aim: and the medieval mystics used the same metaphor and called it Fruition. And as applied to man, it means this: that man has been made more sacred than any super-man or super-monkey; that his very limitations have .already become holy and like a home; because of. that sunken chamber in the rocks, where God became very small."
In his generation. Chesterton would have been unique-had it not been for one 'ism -Catholicism-which is not an 'ism at all.
It is not surprising that the flower of his genius yielded its natural fruit, membership of the ChurCh. There have been millions • of converts since the first Pentecost, and• it is grace which has converted them all,. but Of The millions there can have been few who grew into the Church so naturally and so perfectly as G. K. Chesterton.
G. K. Chesterton Omnibus. (Methuen 7s. 6d.) In a compact space is Napoleon of Notting Hill. The Man Who Was Thursday, The Flying Inn. The Way of a Man with a Maid. anthology compiled by Vernon Rendall. (Metheun. 8s. 6c1.1 Collection of "typical wooings" from English writings. Range from the Authorised Version to The Sheik.