It’s begun to dawn on me, as life becomes more and more focused on books, how often we base our opinions on particular authors and their work on the faintest of impressions: one review, half a dozen out-of-context quotes, a set of annoying people who seem to love it far too much, etc. Social dynamics are particularly powerful: anyone who has paid even a few years’ attention to public reactions to books, or read about historical ones, is aware of how quickly and frequently hearsay, groupthink, political posturing, and general irrationality replace a book’s actual content at the center of the discussion. (For a great on-screen depiction of this dynamic, see Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic Hannah Arendt.)
This sort of baseless-strong-opinion-forming has without a doubt characterized my relationship to more authors than I would like to admit. There are all kinds of things that encourage it: none of us has the time to read everything (or even much of anything, considering how many books there are). It can be fun to hold and defend strong opinions, and the more ignorant a person is, the stronger their opinions tend to be. It’s easier and often more socially rewarding to stay away from certain books “those people” read and to frequently embark on disquisitions on how a particular thing you’ve only experienced second or third hand is obnoxious and overrated. (If I didn’t think this was a relatively common feature of humanity I might not risk convicting myself so publicly.)
Noticing this tendency over a year ago, I had the idea of staging a confrontation with my own literary (or perhaps theological or philosophical) prejudice. Pick one of the books that provokes a strong negative reaction when mentioned or quoted—particularly with reverence by certain kinds of people—despite my never having read it. Admit my prejudice in some detail. Read the book carefully and and methodically, doing my best to set aside prejudgements and biases. Write about the result.
This would be distinguished from simply reviewing a book I am inclined to dislike in the following ways: it would be a more serious engagement, perhaps chapter-by-chapter; it would have the explicit goal of looking for anything that might be valuable rather than simply performing a devastating critique; it would be frank about its objectives and methodology, thus avoiding some of the posturing inherent in the published takedown. Most importantly, perhaps, it would be presented gradually, as time permitted, and in a forum that invited engagement from people who have had very different experiences with the same book.
On paper, at least, this always sounded like a fun idea. I had no idea what the execution would be like, if it would be enlightening or dull, or simply more posturing fitted with an extraordinarily elaborate ruse of objectivity. But after thinking it over occasionally for a long time, I’ve decided I’m finally going to find out.
This is a bit of an odd choice for me at this point; even if Orthodoxy is a masterful work, Chesterton’s point of view is at this point pretty far from my own. (Of course, I reserve the right to revise all provisional statements about the book until I’ve actually, you know, read it.) But I think there remains value in my engaging with it. As I understand it so far, Orthodoxy is framed by questions about the intellect and the role thinking plays in what we might call our “philosophies of life”; it engages one of the central issues of Western philosophy, the status of reason and its relation to what kind of beings we are. It arises out of an effort I understand and am also involved in, that of thinking about and articulating ways of thinking that make sense of the world in the way we all need deeply. Even if Chesterton and I have different ideas about some major things, there seems to be plenty there to engage; I hope that the fact that I don’t share many of his assumptions will enhance rather than diminish the value of the effort.
Presentation of Prejudices
Now for the part where I lay down my cards. The reasons for my dislike of Chesterton are intertwined with my reasons for wanting to write about it, most importantly that it ranks as one of the favorite books of almost every last intellectual-ish evangelical I know. Its near-universal popularity in my former world of conservative Christianity had a lot to do with the formation of my opinions of it, and is the main reason I still think it’s important to examine.
I’ll categorize my reasons as follows:
1. Intellectual positioning. At the basest level, you might categorize my dislike as a kind of reflexive distrust of universal agreement: if Orthodoxy was listed as a favorite on the Facebook profile, the Twitter profile, the Goodreads featured shelves of almost everybody I knew, and if it was always and everywhere described in hyperbolic tones, then it must have been overrated. Compounding this reaction was the fact that Chesterton tended only to appear in these superlative mentions alongside one other author: C.S. Lewis. Judging by some of my friends’ internet presences, the works of Lewis and Chesterton made up the entire canon of evangelical Protestant “secondary literature.” (I trust we all know what the primary text is). Because this seemed like an awfully short list I, as silly as it was, reacted by developing a dislike of both.
2. Chesterton’s seeming triviality. Chesterton was apparently known for making use—and often inverting—well-known sayings and proverbs, and had a flair for inverting the paradoxes of his intellectual opponents. This means his books contain lots of quips and “one-liners” that are easily stripped from context and pasted into Facebook statuses. I’m not the only one to notice this: Elliot Milco wrote on First Things a few months ago how often he’s encountered Chesterton proverbs on Facebook and the fact that “so many of them are awful.” Exactly! After years of seeing these damn things everywhere, I got the impression that Chesterton wrote exclusively in precious aphorisms that pretended to dissolve important objections or to swiftly disarm secular wisdom with a quick wave of the hand. This style has always come across to me and others as a type of schtick-y cuteness presenting itself as profundity. It didn’t help that Chesterton admits, right in the introduction to Orthodoxy, that he is often accused of being “flippant” and a “light sophist.”
3. Chesterton’s mockery of reason and the intellect. There are few things that annoy me as much as anti-intellectualism, and nothing that does as much as intellectual anti-intellectualism. Unfortunately for Chesterton, I first picked up Orthodoxy in the middle of a brief rationalist phase. When he compared rational intellectuals to madmen in the first chapter? “You have got to be kidding me; this is not an argument!” I was right enough about that; Chesterton’s cuteness in the first chapter (which I haven’t re-read yet) wasn’t exactly a great argument, though I think I now probably understand better what he was up to. Having at the time recently emerged from a religious background that was deeply hostile to the human intellect, I wasn’t prepared for what seemed to be shaping up as yet another diatribe on the silliness of intellectuals. I think I quit somewhere in the second chapter.
A Few More Introductory Caveats
I won’t be engaging with Chesterton as an author in general, nor with the historical context of his work except to the extent it involves events and figures I’m already familiar with. I know virtually nothing about him as a man, and just as little about the rest of his work. I will be taking Orthodoxy as for the most part sui generis, and as a result am likely to make a few comments that are obviously wrong to those better read in the Chesterton library. Feel free to correct me on any such points, though be aware that broader context is not the primary point of my project. Obviously there are limitations to this type of reading, but it seems fair enough considering that Orthodoxy is not a highly theoretical work, and most of his contemporary evangelical readers are probably just as uninformed about his context as I am.
This may be obvious, but I’d also like to be clear that, while I intend to put serious thought into these posts, they will be closer to rough reactions than polished essays. I want not only to read Chesterton but to read my own response to him in a gradual way. So I may say something about Chapter 1 you know is altered significantly by what he says in Chapter 4, and I’ll thus be “responding” to an incomplete picture. I’ll be well aware of that, and in fact that’s kind of the point.
Finally, I’d like to invite as many people as feel inclined, especially those who have read Chesterton and consider him a favorite, to comment on these posts or respond in their own spaces. I’ll do my best to follow alternate readings and answer questions, and hopefully doing so will sustain my interest in the project amid the inevitable busyness and laziness to come.
Click here to continue to Chapter 2, “The Maniac.”
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