Saturday, July 5, 2008

Retractions: Outing a Pig in Lipstick

In December 2007, prompted by the adulation which I had frequently encountered on Catholic and other blogs, I read and enthusiastically posted on two books by British author, G. K. Chesterton -- Orthodoxy and Heretics. Beginning with a post on December 1st, and continuing with subsequent posts on December 2nd, December 5th, and finally on December 14th, I affirmed my enthusiasm for Chesterton’s prose.

Prior to reading Orthodoxy and Heretics, I had been familiar with Chesterton only through his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, and his life of St. Francis of Assisi, both of which are in my personal library. I no longer remember what prompted me to buy The Man Who Was Thursday. As a reader of a wide range of fiction, I had probably seen the novel mentioned by some writer or critic of fiction whom I respected as being similar to the fiction of Kafka. I read the book on St. Francis strictly out of my interest in St. Francis. As a non-Catholic I had little interest in Chesterton per se. I admired his aphoristic writing style, but I knew nothing of his biography, nor of his writings other than the four books cited above. I should have been forewarned by Chesterton’s popularity with the authorial hate-mongers at What Wrong With the World that there was something wrong with Chesterton. But I must now admit, red-faced, that my guard was down.

One should never be surprised to discover that any Brit who came up during the waning days of the British Empire was a racist. Nonetheless, I was a bit taken aback when the July 7th and 14th edition of The New Yorker arrived with an article revealing Chesterton to have been a nasty and explicit anti-Semite. I suppose that it’s also the case that one should never be surprised to discover that a Catholic, especially a typically hyper-zealous and orthodox convert, is an anti-Semite. But Adam Gopnik’s article for the “A Critic at Large” feature, entitled “The Back of the World” has now caused me some embarrassment. My gushing over the pious virtues of Mr. Chesterton was badly misplaced. I had kissed a pig.

Unfortunately, the on-line version of The New Yorker does not include the full article, but you can read an abstract of it here.

Gopnik’s article, the occasion for which is to note, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of The Man Who Was Thursday, the publication of two new editions, most tellingly characterizes Chesterton’s racism with passages typified by the following:

The insistence that Chesterton’s anti-Semitism needs to be understood “in the context of this time” defines the problem, because his time – from the end of the Great War to the mid-thirties – was the time that led to the extermination of the European Jews. …He claims that he can tolerate Jews in England, but only if they are compelled to wear “Arab” clothing, to show that they are an alien nation. Hitler made a simpler demand for Jewish dress, but the ideas was the same.

Gopnik provides several instances of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism in his own words. I will let the following autobiographical excerpt stand for the rest:

… [Chesterton] writes of how he appreciates that “one of the great Jewish virtues is gratitude,” and explains that he knows this because as a kid at school “I was criticized in early days for quixotry and priggishness in protecting Jews; and I remember once extricating a strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose from being bullied, or rather being teased.”

A strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose: nice stuff. So much for the magisterial Catholic sage. My enthusiasm of last December is retracted. Mea culpa. Discipleship does not cancel out race hatred; it’s the other way around: Chesterton was a false prophet and a swine.

[Note: I was going to link to my previous posts on Chesterton, but have decided against it. Why shed light on my own past follies? If anybody wants to read them, he has the dates, and he will have to go to the trouble of using the archives.]


Anonymous said...

I kind of knew about Chesterton's extremism, through reading Orwell in high school. At least Ezra Pound's prejudices were of such an epic sweep that they could have been made into a widescreen cinema outing!


Rodak said...

Somehow, I missed it. Pound, of course, was an outright fascist. Chesterton, apparently, was only a fellow-traveller.

Kyle R. Cupp said...


I'm not familiar enough with Chesterton's life and thought to know the merit of the New Yorker piece's charges, but there are some defenders of Chesterton you might look at who have responded to the article in question. Dale Ahlquist's comment in this post's combox is worth looking at. There may be something to these as well.

Anyhoo. Thought you might like another take before you get too red in the face.

Rodak said...

Well, Kyle, Chesterton's own words speak for themselves, don't they?

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Yes and no.

Rodak said...

How "no?"

Kyle R. Cupp said...

I'm non-committal.

Actually, I'm refraining from forming an opinion till I've read the article and considered as many interpretations as I can. I've too little to go on at this stage.

Rodak said...

Fair enough.

Marion (Mael Muire) said...

Would Martin Luther fall into the category of a "Pig in Lipstick," too?


Rodak said...

Luther's sins don't cancel out Chesterton's.

Marion (Mael Muire) said...

Even highly spiritual and insightful human beings remain flawed human beings. Not as flawed as most, perhaps. But still flawed. Flawed human beings have their share of blind spots and/or character defects (sin) that causes them to fall prey to some of the hellish belief systems endemic in whatever cultural milieu they happen to be in. Notions such as misogyny, anti-Semitism, xeonphobia, "might makes right" or "It's OK to do evil that good may come", etc.

These are all lamentable and damaging customs and belief systems. I don't excuse them or make light of them. I just see them as part of our fallen human condition.

Only one perfect human being, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, was immune to the effect of those influences. But even His disciples fell prey. "Lord, won't you call down fire upon the village that rejects You?"; "Lord, which of us will be the greatest in your kingdom?", and "Lord, God forbid you should go to Jerusalem!" Wrong, wrong, wrong! Sin!

If Peter, James, and Andrew and John, who lived with Him weren't immune to sinful ideas, then how much sense does it make to be surprised when any of the rest of us is not?

Do we then do a baby / bath water thing? Or do we "take what we like and leave the rest"?

Rodak said...

I guess that depends on whether or not you still like your ointment with a big ol' fly in it.

Rodak said...

The thing that I found disturbing about Chesterton is that his anti-Semitism was apparently not of the let me go about their business, but don't mix with them socially type. No. He would have had Jews wear "Arab dress" to identify them as an alien nation within England; and this as an alternative to purging them all completely. And this he was expressing in print to people who admired his exemplary Christian morality. He was an opinion-maker and he was spreading hate at the worst possible juncture of European history.
It is hard to overlook.

Rodak said...

NOTE: that should be "let them go about their business, but..."