The Cruciform Aesthetics of G. K

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					                  The Cruciform Aesthetics of G. K. Chesterton:
                         A Theological Interpretation
                                           Ralph C. Wood
                                          Baylor University

        There is no scholarly book devoted entirely to G. K. Chesterton’s aesthetics, specifically
his understanding of the imagination in its moral and theological implications. My research
project will attempt to answer this very specific question: How did Chesterton’s Christian
convictions inform both his literary theory and thus his literary work?

         The method underlying my study is not complicated though neither is it easy. It involves
my reading of the remaining parts of Chesterton’s voluminous work that deal specifically with
aesthetic questions, gleaning from them his many pronouncements on things imaginative, seeking
to assemble his leading aesthetic ideas into an ordered whole, and then determining how they
inform selected novels and poems. I will of course pay careful attention (when such things are
germane) to the circumstances of Chesterton’s life, his heavy involvement in radical British
politics, his program of land reallotment called Distributism, his lasting commitment to
democratic culture, his important work as a journalist of ideas, his opposition to both
accumulated wealth and eugenics programs, his public debates with George Bernard Shaw, and
the like. But chiefly I will deal with Chesterton’s convinced Christian faith as the central
formative source of both his theological vision and literary work. Thus might my project be
called an essay in the “old criticism,” as the literary theorist George Steiner famously defined it: a
refusal to reduce Chesterton’s work to extrinsic terms or concerns, yet neither to view it in
isolation from its personal and cultural milieu, but rather to fathom the intrinsic qualities of his
aesthetics and fiction as they are shaped by his abiding religious commitments and as they have
continued relevance for our own time.

       The old criticism is engendered by admiration. It sometimes steps back from its text to
       look upon moral purpose. It thinks of literature as existing not in isolation but as central
       to the play of historical and political energies. Above all, the old criticism is philosophic in
       its range and temper. It proceeds, with most general application, on a belief …. [that in]
       works of art are gathered the mythologies of thought, the heroic efforts of the human
       spirit to impose order on the chaos of experience. Though inseparable from aesthetic
       form, philosophic content—the entry of faith or speculation into the poem—has its own
       principles of action. There are numerous examples of art which moves us to performance
       or conviction through its proposal of ideas. (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism
       [New York: Vintage, 1959], p. 6.

        Accordingly, the plan for my work is at once straightforward and simple. In the opening
chapter, I will lay out the problem—namely, to ask how it is that Chesterton’s Christianity
provided him aesthetic proclivities that gave the philosophical and theological content “its own
principles of action.” Indeed, they are what make his work not only unconventional but also
strange and sometimes startling. Why, in his view, can Christian imagination never be devoted to
the symmetry and equilibrium that characterizes much of Western aesthetics under the influence
of the Greeks? Why did he imbue his work with a saving humor and light-heartedness—as over

against a heavy moralistic emphasis on stern judgment and strict seriousness? The Gospel is an
asymmetrical reality, Chesterton answered, with a huge inclination and imbalance in favor of
redemptive mercy and forgiveness. Yet Christianity does not proffer pardon without
truthfulness—i.e., without naming and judging the evils that have been committed but that still
may be forgiven. The prime question, for Chesterton, is how literary art can serve to undeceive
those who are sinfully deceived, especially the self-deceived? How, in sum, does the central
Christian image of the Cross prompt Chesterton to adopt a cruciform aesthetics of undeception?

        In the second chapter, I will seek to answer such questions by laying out Chesterton’s
central conviction that human beings are the unique art-creating creatures: “Art is the signature
of man,” he liked to say. We humans are truly asymmetrical creatures with the world of rational
beings, the only animals who are not only created but also creating: we make things that serve no
practical purpose or use but that provide delight for their own sake. The human urge to
creativity, Chesterton argues, finds primary expression in noticing the wonder of things
previously unnoticed, in turning obvious things on their head to reveal their subtlety, in
discerning the surprising sanity of seemingly insane things, in discovering indeed that nothing is
intrinsically boring—not even the proverbial dullness of ditchwater, which (as he points out) is
teeming with interesting life.

        “Sanity” and “balance” are rough synonyms in Chesterton’s work, but they do not imply
anything safe and secure, certainly not a symmetrical equilibrium that makes opposites necessary
to each other. This is the view that he attributes to the East with its elevation of the Circle and
the Mandala as its chief symbols. For in these images, Chesterton argues, good and evil do not
serve as asymmetrical opposites so much as echoing contraries that dwell in necessary symbiosis.
There can be no good without evil, no light without dark, etc. The irony underlying such an
allegedly all-inclusive aesthetics is that it is inherently exclusive: it cannot include or acknowledge
the Transcendent, confining itself only to possibilities immanent within a self-confined cosmos.
For Chesterton, by contrast, Christian imagination uproots all such immanentist contraries by
centering itself in the Cross, and thus in an aesthetics that is not circular and self-enclosed but
cruciform. The figure of the Cross opens the imagination to unlimited heights and depths, to a
horizontal range that reaches backward to the Creation and forward to the Consummation of all
things. As his successor Flannery O’Connor would later say, the Cross is the only tree having
limbs wide enough to embrace all the living and roots deep enough to enclose all the dead.

         In a second chapter, I will explore Chesterton’s conviction that the ancient immanentist
conception of reality has reasserted itself in the modern world. The aesthetics of objective realism
on the one hand, and the aesthetics of subjective self-expression on the other, both confine art
within things immanent; i.e., within the possibilities latent in human existence. Chesterton’s
cruciform aesthetics are concerned, as I have suggested, with things transcendent; i.e., with the
hazards and hopes, the potentialities and limits inherent in human existence as they are already
and always being transformed by divine grace. In addition to tracing Chesterton’s assessment of
such an immanentizing aesthetic, this chapter will also take notice of Chesterton’s remarkably
proleptic critique of the world-scorning aesthetic implicit in Islam, with its anti-trinitarian and
disincarnate God. GKC suggests, in The Flying Inn, that the Crescent Moon is, ironically, a more
oppressive and threatening image than the Circle or Mandala. Unlike the already completed
circle, it constantly seeks to surround and silence all contrary forms of life, especially the
Christian enjoyment of beer and ale and the other bibulations that make for joyful life:

                       Feast on wine or fast on water,
                               And your honour shall stand sure;
                       God’s almighty son and daughter,
                               He the valiant, she the pure.
                       If an angel out of heaven
                               Brings you other things to drink,
                       Thank him for his kind intentions,
                               Go and pour them down the sink.

        As itself the ultimate Paradox—redemptive human Life enabled through redemptive
divine Death—the Cross gives Chesterton a virtual obsession with paradox, as I will seek to show
in a third chapter. He notably defined paradox as truth standing on its head and waving its legs
to get our attention. Paradox is to Chesterton’s prose what rhyme and rhythm are to his poetry.
His constant recourse to paradox is grounded, I will argue, in an aesthetics of surprising Joy.
Hence his summons to imaginative wonder and humility and gratitude before the teeming
fecundity and outrageousness of the universe itself. Hence also my contention that Chesterton’s
cruciform aesthetics enables him to create works of profound gratitude for the strangeness of
natural things as they reflect the oddity and eccentricity of the Gospel itself, loving and honoring
without worshipping them. The Club of Queer Trades will be the novel that is here most apropos, as
are also Chesterton’s remarkable Christmas poems.

        In a fourth chapter, I will explore an aspect of Chesterton’s work which (to my
knowledge) no one has previously given much scholarly attention—namely, Chesterton’s
devotion to the ugly and the grotesque. As a Christian, Chesterton has an aversion to traditional
forms of beauty, convinced that they are capable of conveying only the obvious. The Cross
challenges all conventional notions of beauty because it is an ugly instrument of death. As such, it
prompts an aesthetics, Chesterton argues, capable of conveying the transcendent Joy that comes
through redemptive suffering. “[O]f all the varied forms of the literature of joy,” he writes, “the
form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce’—or its
wilder shape in pantomime.” Chesterton adds elsewhere that mummery also lies at the heart of
the matter: “This is the soul of Mumming,” he declares; “it is the ostentatious secrecy of men in
disguise.” People are revealed in their essence, not by being merely themselves, but by wearing
masks. Hence the aim of this chapter is to display—as has not been done before—the ways in
which Chesterton exalts both the grotesque and the ugly, both farce and mime, both mummery
and masquerade, as surprisingly Christian forms of art. The Man Who Was Thursday will figure
large in this exploration.

        The fifth chapter will attempt to discern whether Chesterton’s cruciform aesthetics is
rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition to which he professed allegiance. Here my guides
will be the two most prominent modern exponents of this tradition: Jacques Maritain and
Umberto Eco. I will argue that, especially in The Ball and the Cross, Chesterton at once embraces
and yet radically modifies the Aristotelian emphasis on outward dramatic action. He revises
Aristotle’s contention that plot is the soul of a literary art—and that the supreme moment of
recognition must occur by way of an event at once surprising and yet completely convincing—by
creating an utterly outrageous plot and yet by bringing it to an utterly persuasive conclusion.
Against the critics who view The Ball and the Cross as a failed work of art—precisely because it

includes so many outrageous scenes and improbable acts, including a drastic conversion at the
end—I will argue that the novel is perhaps Chesterton’s most brilliant exercise in convincing
farce and mime.

         Despite the repeated attempts of an atheist and a Christian to have a public debate about
their radical differences, London society conspires to balk their battle. Chesterton was convinced
that modern Western societies are premised precisely on this avoidance of open engagement
between conflicting ideologies. The result, he maintains, is a massive cultural deceit. Neither the
churches nor the culture is served by a polite civil religion that confines the most important
questions to the private sphere. Not that Chesterton wants the Christian roundly to trump the
atheist. On the contrary, he wants to dramatize the many merits of atheism, while also exposing
its limits. So does he also refuse to exalt the Gospel as an easy answer to the world’s vexations;
indeed, Chesterton admits that there is much that counts against Christianity. Thus does he have
his atheist Turnbull and his Christian McIan perform a series of wildly improbable acts in order
finally to engage each other about the things that ultimately matter. Ironically, they become the
dearest of companions in their very attempt to have the bitterest of arguments. The result is that
the ball (the great round globe of the world) and the cross (the instrument meant not to dominate
but to order its life aright) are brought into magnificent unity by “the ostentatious secrecy of men
in disguise.” How then, I will ask, does Chesterton’s attempt to create a dialogical aesthetics serve
as a model for moral discourse in our time? The Ballad of the White Horse will also figure
importantly here, especially its emphasis on the forgiveness and conversion of enemies.

         In a short final chapter, I will investigate the development of Chesterton’s aesthetics,
asking whether, as is commonly assumed, his early work is superior to the late. If so, why—
especially when he had not yet been received into the Roman Catholic Church at the time his
first novels and poems were published? I will also seek to determine the reasons for Chesterton’s
growing disenchantment with democracy as the ideal means for ordering political life in the
modern world. Having once been confident that the confessional and residual Christianity of the
masses would protect them from the blandishments of materialism, Chesterton became
convinced that unfettered personal freedom usually means unfettered material self-interest. Thus
will I examine his increasing attention to poetry and fiction grounded in the worship and
practices of the church as drastic alternatives to the degradations of mass culture. My aim in this
last chapter is to determine the ways in which Chesterton’s recourse to both conventional and
outrageous forms of art—both ballad and farce, for example—serves as a viable Christian
aesthetic in a post-Christian age, a proper means for undeceiving a massively self-deceived

                       The Probable Impact of the Research Project

        While the work of G. K. Chesterton has been subject to careful scholarly scrutiny for
many years (he died in 1936), there has been no major assessment of his aesthetics. There is only
a single popular work by Thomas C. Peters (The Christian Imagination: G.K. Chesterton on the Arts [San
Francisco: Ignatius, 2000]), and it has been largely ignored by Chesterton scholars because it
makes such a quick trip through his work. Thus would my project fill a gaping lack in Chesterton
scholarship. It would also help rehabilitate Chesterton’s theological ideas and their literary
embodiment in a time when his work is often neglected if not forgotten.

        Because, like J. R. R. Tolkien, Chesterton was a popular writer, it is sometimes assumed
that he is not a serious writer. My book will help correct this huge misprision of his work. It will
be published by Baylor University Press in a series being edited by Professor Stephen Prickett
and entitled The Making of the Christian Imagination. The series features major scholars writing on
major literary and philosophical and theological figures. Archbishop Rowan Williams, for
example, is doing the volume on Fyodor Dostoevsky. I have enclosed a letter from Professor
Prickett confirming this agreement.

         It is my hope that this year of research will produce not only an important book but also
provide stimulus for further investigation into Chesterton’s perduring importance as a
imaginative writer and theological thinker. I am especially interested in exploring the much-
neglected relation of Chesterton to Maisie and Frank Word. Their entire correspondence is
housed at Notre Dame, and thus should provide a rich lode for further mining. If so, these
shorter scholarly pieces would likely be published in such venues as The Chesterton Review, Religion
and Literature, Christianity and Literature, Literature and Theology, Book and Culture, First Things, etc.

                   Contributions of the Research Project to the Mission
                             of the Center for Ethics and Culture

        The work of G.K. Chesterton trenches powerfully on the mission of the Notre Dame
Center for Ethics and Culture. Though my project doesn’t wrestle with practical moral
considerations as such, it will certainly deal with the ethical issues that Chesterton repeatedly
agitated: the social injustice inherent in the British class system, “the revolution of the rich” (as he
called the takeover of the monastery holdings in the 16th century and then again of the public
lands two centuries later), the horrors of eugenics and euthanasia (especially the so-called Feeble-
Minded Bill), the invidious effects of advertising (he said that Times Square would be truly
impressive if one didn’t know how to read), the destruction of the British countryside by
consumerist materialism, the new emphasis on bodily cleanliness (as if it produced moral health),
the false rectitude of reformers who would deny the ordinary delights of beer and rum to
ordinary people. All of these moral matters, and many others, will figure tangentially in my
research and writing.

        The chief concern of my work, though perhaps seeming to be only indirectly related to
the work of the Center, will bear on its mission profoundly. For my major interest lies with
Chesterton’s attempt to reinvigorate the degraded state of modern popular culture, especially by
way of his aesthetic claims as they become incarnate in his fiction and poetry. As T. S. Eliot aptly
observed, our leisure reading and ordinary pastimes often do more to shape our souls than do
our engagements with so-called high culture. There are tyrannies and addictions of the
imagination no less than a culture of death afflicting the body politic. In fact, Chesterton
attributes much of our moral malaise to the invidious separation between high and low culture.
Hence his attempt to revitalize the popular culture of his time with works of art whose appeal
would reach across the entire cultural spectrum, so as to engage include all intelligent readers—
both lay and clergy, both Christian and non-Christian.

        That Chesterton refused to retreat into any sort of Catholic ghetto is the heart of the
matter. Here his work is most closely allied with the Center’s. He operates on the assumption
that the Gospel is meant to embrace and appeal to all people, not to the pious alone. As he
declares in several places, Christianity is not only the largest thing in the world (for the church
excludes no one on principle) but is actually larger than the cosmos, for it claims that the triune
God is the author and finisher of all things. For Chesterton, therefore, human nature—while
certainly it is culturally conditioned—is a universal and inexpugnable thing. We are Logos-
centered creatures made in the image of God—no matter how much we may be cut off from the
church or allegedly secular in our ethos. It follows, for Chesterton, that human life cannot
flourish without the truth, nor without the beauty and the goodness that are intrinsic to our
divinely-created nature.

        Yet for him these are not abstract and bodiless assertions. They have enabled Catholic
Christianity to create an artistic culture no less than a moral and intellectual vision. Hence the
link between the imaginative world of Chesterton’s art, on the one hand, and the ethical-
philosophical-theological assumptions that undergird it, on the other. Thus will I seek to explore
what might be called Chesterton’s aesthetics of indirection. In Orthodoxy, for example, he does not
begin with the contention that human nature is sinful. Already in 1908, he was convinced that
the classical categories had slipped their religious moorings, that they had become coins rubbed
faceless by facile overuse and misunderstanding. He makes the startling decision to begin,
instead, with the argument that the vast preponderance of souls are ethically and religiously mad!
Thus does Chesterton offer, in response, a remedy concocted from a salubrious kind of Christian
sanity. Only gradually do readers come to see that Chesterton is writing as a Catholic, and that
he is engaged in a program of Christian undeception.

         My research project will seek to show not only that Chesterton’s aesthetic strategy informs
his fiction and poetry, but also that his imaginative work has enormous currency and viability for
our time. I believe that it will thus serve the Center’s effort to transform our culture with a new (if
also ancient) vision of human dignity as grounded in authentic freedom, to set forth Christian
faith as the right reconciliation of reason and revelation, and to resist both obvious and subtle
tyrannies over the human spirit.


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