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.]