OK, OK. That’s not fair. If you want the whole quotation, then here it is:
“If you want stability alllied to imagination, Catholicism has everything else beat.”
– Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008
It’s one of the many striking lines in Adam Gopnik’s beautifully-written and fascinating article on G. K. Chesterton in The New Yorker entitled, “The Back of the World: The Troubling Genius of G. K. Chesterton.”
The article is affectionate toward Chesterton – the author’s sympathy is obvious, and he includes himself among those “who love Chesterton’s writing” (indeed, among those “who are used to pressing his writing on friends”) – and full of solid insights.
Along the way, Gopnik’s tries to wrestle with what he calls Chesterton’s “Jew-hating.” This leads him to posit a drift from the unadulterated delights of early Chesterton (“The Napoleon of Notting Hill” and “The Man Who Was Thursday” are his favorites) to the more problematic “orthodoxy” and anti-Semitism that, according to Gopnik, comes later. Nowhere in the article does he directly discuss Chesterton’s book entitled “Orthodoxy.” This is an odd omission, but it is difficult to imagine how he could have addressed it without upending his version of Chesterton’s development, since “Orthodoxy” was written in 1908, the very same year as “The Man Who Was Thursday,” and the discovery of “orthodoxy” recounted in that book is already a thing of the past. In short, the Chesterton of “Orthodoxy” and the delightful “early” Chesterton are one and the same.
It is true, of course, that Chesterton didn’t become a Catholic until 1922, but most of the specific instances that Gopnik sees as evidence of anti-Semitism are prior to that conversion (from the years 1912, 1918, 1920).
Gopnik deserves great credit for including in his account the elements that, at the very least, complicate any accusation of anti-Semitism. In fact, it would be interesting to see how the article would have turned out if, instead of asserting Chesterton’s guilt at the outset, he had begun with these phrases, with which his discussion of anti-Semitism more or less concludes:
“[Chesterton] did speak out, toward the end of his life [ie, 1936], against the persecution in Nazi Germany, writing that he was ‘appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities,’ that ‘they have absoutely no reason or logic behind them,’ that ‘I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.’”
Now, one can’t help but wonder how many Jew-hating anti-Semites were speaking openly of Hitler’s atrocities – before 1937, mind you – and talking about dying in defense of Europe’s Jews. If this is anti-Semitism, then it is a very strange form of it.
If one re-reads Gopnik’s criticism of Chesterton’s “Jew-hating” in the light of these statements, one immediately notices that the evidence for the prosecution is not any explicitly-stated hatred of Jews, but mainly Chesterton’s repeated reference to what he called “the Jewish problem.” And here again, Gopnik deserves credit for pointing out that there were, as he puts it, “points of contact between Chesterton and Zionism.” This is a useful reminder that, speaking about a “Jewish problem” in the 1920s was not necessarily a sign of anti-Semitism. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Clearly, if one wants to uncover the true meaning of Chesterton’s references to “the Jewish problem,” then his later comments have to be taken seriously.
Gopnik considers himself a proselytizer for “the pre-Catholic Chesterton” and claims that Chesterton’s later writing “suffers from conversion sickness.” But what he sees as defects in the Catholic Chesterton are the very same virtues that he sees in the early “pre-Catholic” one (I note again that the “pre-Catholic” Chesterton is the one who wrote “Orthodoxy” in 1908 at the same time he wrote the masterpieces that Gopnik loves). Speaking of Chesterton as “a Pangloss of the parish” (a fine expression!) for whom “anything Roman is right,” Gopnik claims, “It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strong about St. Francis’s intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas’s pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to.” It is precisely this combination of apparent opposites, however, that attracted Chesterton to “orthodoxy” in 1908 and eventually to Catholicism. And – this is the best part – Gopnik knows this. I started with that opening quotation for a reason. Here it is at a bit more length:
“If you want a solution, at once authoritarian and poetic, to the threat of moral anarchism, then Catholicism, which built Chartes and inspired Dante, looks a lot better than Scotland Yard. If you want stability allied to imagination, Catholicism has everything else beat.”
On one side, St. Thomas (authoritarian stability); on the other, St. Francis (poetic imagination). Chesterton realized that, somehow, both of these were necessary for sanity, and he found them together in the Catholic Church. And, as I say, Gopnik appreciates precisely this doubleness in Chesterton, at least when he finds it in “The Man Who Was Thursday”:
“This double vision, where the appetite for romantic violence is imagined as the flip side of the desire for absolute order, gives the book its permanence.”
It would seems that Gopnik simply needs to read the later “Catholic Chesterton” with the same insightful appreciation that he shows for the “pre-Catholic” one. After all, it’s the same, albeit extremely large, guy.
|| Print This Post  || Email This Post ||