Monday, June 22, 2009

What's Wrong With The World, by G. K. Chesterton

After enjoying Chesterton’s collected newspaper columns in Tremendous Trifles, I decided to try another collection of this author’s critical writings, published by the good people at Dover. The back of the book says that the writings in this slim volume were ‘culled from thousands of essays he contributed to newspapers and periodicals over his lifetime’. This doesn’t make sense to me, because the whole book seems entirely cohesive.

There are five parts to the book, each comprising of up to 14 chapters. Each chapter in each section seems to neatly segue into the next, picking up themes and ideas from the previous chapter. So if you’re thinking that this book sounds like a hodge-podge or Chesterton’s writings, think again.

In essence, this is more of Chesterton’s war with the fripperies of modernity. Modern politics, modern thinking on social questions, the primacy of markets over people, fashionable ideologies with no correlation to reality, all are put under Chesterton’s critical lens. The strange effect is to make this adherent to common sense seem almost eccentric.

Reading Chesterton today, he does seem quite mad. And yet, he makes arguments that are amazingly relevant to today. For example, Chesterton talks about the demands of modern capitalism putting too much pressure on families (remember this argument being launched when attacking John Howard’s industrial relations reforms?).

Writes Chesterton: ‘For the plain truth to be told pretty sharply to the Tory is this, that If he wants the family to remain, if he wants it to be strong enough to resist the rending forces of our essentially savage commerce, he must make some very big sacrifices and try to equalise property.’

Chesterton writes in a subtle, poetic manner that demands much attention, and I confess to not always catching his drift. However, I was amazed by how much cheered to read some of his arguments. For example, his ideas on thrift, and how they can necessitate much creativity, is something I’ve long thought about.

‘Thrift is really a romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance.’

And again:

‘Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste. It is prosaic to throw money away because it is prosaic to throw anything away; it is negative; it is a confession of indifference; it is a confession of failure. The most prosaic thing about the house is the dustbin, and the one great objection to the new fastidious and aesthetic homestead is simply that in such a moral message the dustbin must be bigger than the house. If a man could undertake to make use of all the things in his dustbin he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare.’

My god, imagine if Chesterton knew how much stuff we throw out in our own day!

In another section, Chesterton talks about a person’s household being a work of art, as it is the one place where they are free to do exactly what they want.

‘For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions – the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and although he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot pain the sunset whole colours he admires; but he can paint his own house with what colour he chooses; and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of democracy.’

As you can see, Chesterton offers something for all sides of politics. I can imagine John Howard finding that last passage music to his ears. But then he can say things that would most certainly upset the freewheeling capitalists of our age:

‘Certainly, we would sacrifice all our wire, wheels, systems, specialities, physical science and frenzied finance for one half hour of happiness such as has often come to us with comrades in a tavern. I do not say that the sacrifice will be necessary; I only say it will be easy.’

Ah, Chesterton, a haven of common sense in our mad modern era of systems and rationality.

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