Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What's Wrong With the World

What's Wrong With the World, by G.K. Chesterton (1910) is a book I wouldn't ordinarily read; Ron put it in my hands at the beginning of last summer, when I was looking for books I thought I'd disagree with. It took me about a month of last summer and a few days of this summer to finish plowing through it, but finally I have. This is my last book for the critical monkey contest. I still have a list of a few books that friends thought I'd disagree with, so I may continue to read and comment on those from time to time, but I'm going to slow my pace!

Most of what Chesterton thinks is wrong with the world is that the family is disintegrating. It's hard for me to argue with him on the big points, especially because he makes them so charmingly. I have trouble finding a place to disagree when he says:
"Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can anyone contrive to talk of 'free love'; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he 'drew an angel down' and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man."
Of course I would like--out of habit, if nothing more--to take issue with his use of the word "Nature." I hate it when people defend what they're doing by saying it's "only natural." But I do believe there are consequences attached to sex, and am not convinced that my belief-- arising from my disdain of the baby boomers' declarations of "free love" during my formative years--is merely old-fashioned, as Chesterton's turn-of-the-century opinions so often seem to me.

His stance on women wearing "trousers" (he doesn't like it) or on why women shouldn't want the right to vote (because their role as keepers of home and hearth should leave them free to be generalists, rather than the kind of specialist you have to be in order to compete in public life) strikes me as--to use the gentlest word--dated. Indeed, I'm sure this is part of why Ron knew I'd disagree with the book.

The part where I most agree with Chesterton is about education, as he points out that "the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him" and that teaching is more than "drawing out the dormant faculties of each person," that a teacher must instill knowledge. Chesterton even seems ahead of his time when he declares "you will hear venerable idealists declare we must make war on the ignorance of the poor; but, indeed, we have rather to make war on their knowledge. Real educationists have to resist a kind of roaring cataract of culture. The truant is being taught all day."

The parts that charm me have a thread of humility in common (less rare than I'd expected in a book that proposes to diagnose what is wrong with the whole world). I was disarmed by the part of the dedication to a friend in which Chesterton refers to
"the many arguments we have had; those arguments which the most wonderful ladies in the world can never endure for very long. And, perhaps, you will agree with me that the thread of comradeship and conversation must be protected because it is so frivolous. It must be held sacred, it must not be snapped, because it is not worth tying together again."
In fact, I am less fond of argument than Ron and other male friends, and there's nothing that makes me bristle faster than the claim that their animated arguments are somehow more important than the more conciliatory discussions I prefer. So the admission that such arguments are "frivolous" disarms me completely.

What Chesterton says about Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer, strikes me because of a recent discussion I had about why I could like Johnson despite the way he phrases some of his opinions:

"If anyone wishes to see the real rowdy egalitarianism which is necessary (to males, at least) he can find it as well as anywhere in the great old tavern disputes which come down to us in such books as Boswell's Johnson. It is worth while to mention that one name especially because the modern world in its morbidity has done it a strange injustice. The demeanor of Johnson, it is said, was 'harsh and despotic.' It was occasionally harsh, but it was never despotic. Johnson was not in the least a despot; Johnson was a demagogue, he shouted against a shouting crowd. The very fact that he wrangled with other people is proof that other people were allowed to wrangle with him. His very brutality was based on the idea of an equal scrimmage, like that of football. It is strictly true that he bawled and banged the table because he was a modest man. He was honestly afraid of being overwhelmed or even overlooked. Addison had exquisite manners and was the king of his company; he was polite to everybody, but superior to everybody; therefore he has been handed down forever in the immortal insult of Pope--
'Like Cato, give his little Senate laws
And sit attentive to his own applause.'
Johnson, so far from being kind of his company, was a sort of Irish Member in his own Parliament. Addison was a courteous superior and was hated. Johnson was an insolent equal and therefore was loved by all who knew him, and handed down in a marvelous book, which is one of the mere miracles of love."

Okay, maybe it's easy to win me over with declarations of love for 18th-century literary figures. But Chesterton wins me over and over, repeatedly, persistently. He'll say something general that offends me and then he'll follow it up with an observation so specific I can't help but agree.

I didn't finish What's Wrong With the World with the impression that Chesterton's recommendations would work in today's world, but I did finish with a sigh for his example of the family of a little red-haired girl whose hair has to be cut short because of a law made by people who don't see that "the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair." In a world where lice have been making a comeback in public schools and bedbug infestations are making the first page of my regional newspaper, many of Chesterton's pronouncements just don't seem quite dated enough.


Aarti said...

I think he'd lose me on the women's voting rights and pants front! Though I think I'm with you on education. And him, I suppose, though I don't like to admit it!

Trapunto said...

I really enjoyed this review. The one time I read Chesterton it was exhausting: the push-pull-push between enjoying his bon mots, being irritated by some of his ideas, and being intrigued by others. On top of which, his writing would see-saw between being delightfully fulsome and *too* fulsome. He made me seasick! I always meant to go back to him. I hope you get some Chesterton lovers here. I'll be interested to come back and read their comments

I would have pegged you for an arguer. In a good way. But maybe I don't know quite the kind of arguing you're talking about? There is certainly a kind I really dislike, where it's as if there's this tacit agreement to steamroll over subtleties while everyone finds new complicated ways to press their one point. Quickly becomes boring, because no topic gets opened out in new directions.

I like fractal arguments.

And I had a crush on James Boswell when I was 18. He was the real hero. Johnson was just a smelly narcissist genius.

Lori L said...

What a marvelous review and critical monkey choice!

Jeanne said...

Aarti, it does make it less inexplicable that we didn't have universal suffrage in this country until 1920!

Trapunto, exhausting is the right word for it!
And you're right; I am an arguer. When I say that I am less fond of argument than Ron, what I am saying is kind of like claiming that I am less fond of sin than Satan...

Lori, thanks. I knew it would be a culminating critical monkey experience!

Nymeth said...

"There's nothing that makes me bristle faster than the claim that their animated arguments are somehow more important than the more conciliatory discussions I prefer."

I know - that and the implication that it's somehow spineless or wishy-washy of me not to enjoy debates that are too aggressive and confrontative. Or that it's a sign that deep down I know that my positions are "wrong" and wouldn't survive a debate. Grrr.

I'm sure I'd find a lot here to disagree with, but Chesterton can be charming for sure. And his still seems to agree with me somehow. I love Father Brown, and I loved The Man Who Was Thursday.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I also love the Father Brown stories, of course.

And I like the words you use about argument--there is a point at which the males of my acquaintance get more aggressive and confrontational than I am comfortable with, although I'm fine at a level past what makes the children nervous.

Jenny said...

"Disarming" is the perfect word for Chesterton. I can't read him too often, because he does say a lot of things that annoy me. But every time I am about ready to hurl one of his books against the wall, he says something so pithy and brilliant and spot-on that I love him again.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in how I feel about Chesterton. Is the back and forth you describe enough to make you--in Trapunto's term--seasick?!

Trapunto said...

"...less fond of sin than Satan"


Jenners said...

I always have a hard time reading books that were written in a different time period because I can't help but read them with my "modern" eyes.

The only think I've ever read by Chesterton was a quote that always stuck with me: "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."

Amanda said...

Though in the end I ultimately appreciated The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton, I've been real leery to pick up any other works by him. It was just so hard to read and understand, and someone had to explain it bit by bit to me afterward in order for me to appreciate it.

Jeanne said...

Jenners, it's true; I can't think of any poems about cheese, and I happen to know quite a few poems about food! Hmm, I may take that as a challenge.

Amanda, I read Chesterton slowly and only when I had the time to devote my whole attention to it, which is why it took me a year to finish!