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Chesterton as Journalist

Chesterton As Journalist

In the 12 October 1929 issue of the Illustrated London News, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“. . . How much more melancholy is the condition of those, in modernised and rationalised Western communities, who have to go about conducting secretly the cult of the Great God Namse! How much more uncomfortable it is to call on Namse morning, noon, and night, and yet never be allowed to call him by his name! How miserable is our condition in industrial Europe and America, who dare not call on Namse as Namse, but have to call him National Welfare or International Peace or the British Empire or the New Republic, or Progress . . . .”

Chesterton was commenting on some photos, provided to the November 1928 issue of National Geographic Magazine by Joseph F.C. Rock, of certain religious processions at the Choni monastery in Tibet. Namse is the Tibetan god of wealth, whose image was carried in solemn reverence, just ahead of the Tibetan god of hell.

Chesterton goes on to argue the advantages of making Namse official god of England.

Suppose a member of Parliament asks as a supplementary question “Can the right hon. gentleman tell the House why he disposed a peerage on Mr. Bunk, formerly known as the Vanishing Bookmaker?” It would be healthy, but all too heroic if the Cabinet Minister rose and said simply, “I did it for the money.” But nobody could complain of unparliamentary language, if he rose and said with great gravity, “I did it for Namse.”

The quotes above are from a collection of Chesterton’s weekly columns in the Illustrated London News, issued a few years ago by Ignatius Press, part of Chesterton’s vast production of topical print.

Most people today think of Chesterton as a detective writer, then as a Christian apologist, sometimes as a poet and or a playwright. But Chesterton considered Chesterton as a newspaper man.

He was proud of it too, but we should add that he wasn’t a reporter in the Front Page vein. He did not climb fire-escapes to interview fugitives or shout “get me rewrite!” Rather, he wrote what we would call advocacy journalism (anti-imperialism, Christianity, distributionism, the sins of the Cadbury Company, and so on).

He wrote a lot of it. The ILN essays, which ran weekly  from 1905 to 1931 dress out as nine very thick paperbacks. And yet this is a thin slice of the ham. Chesterton wrote for other newspapers, indeed for any newspaper that would pay. Later in life he and his brother wrote their own newspaper, and after his brother’s death it was carried on as GKC’s weekly.

There is much one could say on this subject, but one point that comes to mind is the question of the relative value of the topical and the universal.

As a general rule, there is a prejudice that allows more worth to what is supposed to be finished, conclusive and more-or-less permanent over what is topical, largely improvised and designed so-to-speak to be today’s entertainment and tomorrow’s fish-and chip wrap. Just so, the Magisterial Textbook outpoints transcripts or video transcriptions of the classroom lectures from which the textbook rose.

This is hardly unreasonable.

But  the topical, even the very stale topical, has value too.

It testifies to the flavour of its time, and is often revealing, sometimes shocking, in what is assumed to be too obvious to mention. An hour in the Athenian agora in the fourth century would tell us lot of things Plato didn’t mention.

Also, we can read what was immediate then in light of what (to them) was to come. This is sometimes also revealing.

In reviewing these short essays, your columnist was struck, (shocked?) by the strong continuities between Chesterton’s milieu, and our own. Who could deny that there have been developments and changes, sometimes radical? After all, then we had a British World Empire, today we have a (sort of) American global reach. Then, there were tensions with China and Europe. And today? But some  issues are still on the agenda.

Popular writers:

“. . . If realism means an astonishing genius for making things seem real, Mr. Kipling is, or has been, a great realist. If it means caring a button whether things are real or not, he never has been and never could be . . . ” (The Delusions of Kipling, 3 December 1910)

Third world nationalism:

“. . . The principle weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national . . .
The Indian Nationalist Movement, 2 October 1909″

Race:

“. . . . Moreover there are two or three perfectly practical mistakes in this philanthropic anthropology. The first is the vast assumption that it is always to the good that races should come together–without reference to whether they come together like lovers or come together like motor-cars . . . .” (On the Relations between the Races, 19 August 1911)

War:

“. . . If he is really so impartial that he cannot see any difference between St. George and the dragon, he is much too impartial to be just . . . .” (On Trusting President Wilson, 24 February 1917)

and Taxes:

“The recent official policy in the matter of the income-tax is a very interesting example of the rather strange trend of our social experiments . . . It is marked by a readiness to grant favours or conveniences to the citizen if he will give up part of his old independence or isolation as a citizen . . . .” (The Income Tax as Social Experiment, 12 April 1913)

Hic sunt lacrimae rerum.

Now, Chesterton’s topical journalism can be read for the same humanity and humour as his other writing. The insights are as thick as raisins in a rice pudding, and he is often, very often, hilarious.

But to consider  his journalism as journalism has the merit that we can use it as a kind of time machine. We have been here before, and we know it, but to see it in process is belief and wisdom.

To collect all of his journalism would make an unwieldy volume and there must be repetitions and material genuinely trivial. But wouldn’t it be a nice public benefaction if someone (Yoo-hoo, Mr. Gates! ) would put the whole of GKC’s Weekly in an accessible on line database?

As a book it would be too much but as a subject of exploration it would be fascinating.

Max Arnott

Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.

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