The case for canonizing G. K. Chesterton, the bombastic man of letters and paradoxical militant for God
If the Catholic Church makes G. K. Chesterton a saint—as an influential group of Catholics is proposing it should—the story of his enormous coffin may become rather significant. Symbolic, even parabolic. Chesterton’s coffin was too huge, you see, to be carried down the stairs of his house in Beaconsfield, its occupant being legendarily overweight at the time of his death, in 1936. So it went out a second-floor window. Very Chestertonian: gravity, meet levity. Hagiographers might pursue the biblical resonance here, citing the Gospel passages in which a paralyzed man, unable to penetrate the crowds surrounding the house in Capernaum where Jesus was staying, is lowered in through a hole in the roof. Or they might simply declare that Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s was a spirit too large to go out through the conventional narrow door of death—that it had to be received, as it were, directly into the sky.
In his vastness and mobility, Chesterton continues to elude definition: He was a Catholic convert and an oracular man of letters, a pneumatic cultural presence, an aphorist with the production rate of a pulp novelist. Poetry, criticism, fiction, biography, columns, public debate—the phenomenon known to early-20th-century newspaper readers as “GKC” was half cornucopia, half content mill. If you’ve got a couple of days, read his impish, ageless, inside-out terrorist thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. If you’ve got an afternoon, read his masterpiece of Christian apologetics Orthodoxy: ontological basics retailed with a blissful, zooming frivolity, Thomas Aquinas meets Eddie Van Halen. If you’ve got half an hour, read “The Blue Cross,” the first and most glitteringly perfect of his stories featuring the crime-busting village priest Father Brown. If you’ve got only 10 minutes, read his essay “A Much Repeated Repetition.” (“Of a mechanical thing we have a full knowledge. Of a living thing we have a divine ignorance.”)
Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”; he was an anti-modernist (he hated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”). He was a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true, and none of them would matter in the slightest were it not for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius. Touched once by the live wire of his thought, you don’t forget it. And what is genius? Genius is Hammy the squirrel, in DreamWorks Animation’s 2006 classic Over the Hedge, five seconds after he gulps down an energy drink. The Earth stutters on its axis and then stops turning, the soundtrack comes to a soupy halt, and Hammy saunters through a sudden, humming immobility, past the transfixed pest-control guy and around the frozen laser beams of the lawn-alarm system. He is, of course, moving at incredible speed—but with supernatural nonchalance. His ecstatic velocity has put everything around him into the slowness and vagueness of a dream. That’s what geniuses do.
“It would have been better perhaps,” Chesterton’s friend Hilaire Belloc wrote, “had he never fallen into verbalism (wherein he tended to exceed).” But he did not so much fall into verbalism as come somersaulting out of it, chucking one-liners like ninja stars. His prose, if you don’t like it, is an unnerving zigzag between flippancy and bombast—and somewhere behind that, even more unnerving, is the intimation that these might be two sides of the same thing. If you do like it, it’s supremely entertaining, the stately outlines of an older, heavier rhetoric punctually convulsed by what he once called (in reference to the Book of Job) “earthquake irony.” He fulminates wittily; he cracks jokes like thunder. His message, a steady illumination beaming and clanging through every lens and facet of his creativity, was really very straightforward: get on your knees, modern man, and praise God.
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SOURCE: The Atlantic