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GK Chesterton
Chesterton is dismayed at the onward march of relativism and secularism. He also thinks the novel has lost its way, understands Islamic grievances against the west and is a proud mentor to satirists

Tobias Jones


Tobias Jones: For decades you were one of Britain's favourite writers. Then your name became almost an embarrassment among literary people: you were seen as a reactionary traditionalist. Are you happy with your posthumous reputation?

GK Chesterton: Well, one's stock always declines somewhat when stone cold. But I'm flattered to see that, almost a century after the publication of my most significant works, I'm recognised as being prophetic: I diagnosed the malaise of postmodernism before the term was coined. People always said I was behind the times, a throwback; they're now recognising that a traditionalist is always ahead of his era. There are dozens of Chesterton societies around the world. No self-respecting American campus is without one. Even in Italy and Russia there are societies dedicated to the study of my work. Two magazines are published in my memory: the Chesterton Review and Gilbert! Then there's a thing called a "blog," which purports to be written by myself.

TJ: You've been compared to a man you censured, Oscar Wilde, because you're so quotable. But the criticism usually levelled at your writing is that it was flippant, almost facetious. What do you say to that?

GKC: In reply, let me quote a line I wrote decades before Tony Blair came grinning into view. It's from one of my Father Brown books: "People like frequent laughter, but I don't think they like a permanent smile. Cheerfulness without humour is a very trying thing." The point about humour is that for effect it must be surrounded by sobriety. For levity to work it requires the contrast of gravitas. Humour is a serious business. Without surrounding solemnity it does, as you say, become flippancy. Possibly the people, especially journalists, who quote me for light relief may think me facetious, but that is because they don't engage with the most important part of my thought, which is a defence of the Christian faith. My reputation dipped not because of a few good jokes, but because, on the contrary, I was thought all too serious. You dippy postmoderns love frivolity, hence you love Wilde and publish tomes on ephemera. Everything is a joke, all is reduced to a demented triviality. Had I been only frivolous, I would be a postmodern icon. Actually, my humour was disparaged because the laughter it produced was the gleeful endorsement of a noble religion which most of you in the west seem embarrassed even to acknowledge.

TJ: We'll come back to Christianity. But you mention postmodernism: what do you take it to mean?

GKC: Ha! Have you ever asked a postmodernist the meaning of postmodernism? It's all absolute hogwash, or as they would say, meta-hogwash. The whole point is that postmodernism is the negation of meaning and belief and faith. Postmoderns can't say what they mean because that would imply meaning, something they're at pains to deny. Of course, at table you can ask them to pass the mustard, and they seem perfectly able; and they know two plus two is four, even though they get very cross if you affirm your belief in objective reality. In some ways my entire oeuvre, published before and after the first world war, was dedicated to battling the nascent phenomenon of postmodernism. I described the tendency in a book called Heretics and summarised its motto with the line: "let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it." That is their ambition: to be relieved of the responsibility of deciding what is good and what evil by pretending that those concepts don't exist. As George Bernard Shaw, the first postmodernist, wrote in his The Quintessence of Ibsenism, "the golden rule is that there is no golden rule."

TJ: Might that not be sensible in a multi-faith society? The intolerance and absolutism of monotheism can be swapped for the tolerance of multiculturalism.

GKC: Dear dear, I can see that you too have been hoodwinked. That is their rhetoric: tolerance, the peaceful coexistence of competing beliefs. In reality, now that their heresy has become enshrined as orthodoxy, you're not even allowed to express a belief. Take, for example, the country which was the cradle of this silly craze: France. There, tolerance apparently implies that one isn't even allowed into school with a veil. Come come. If I may quote myself again, "the old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it." Or take the case of Rocco Buttiglione and his interrogation before joining the European commission: he expressed a personal belief about homosexuality and distinguished between a sin and a crime. That distinction is the cornerstone of a secular body politic; in a theocracy, and in liberal totalitarianism, it is non-existent. Buttiglione was displaying both sincerity and subtlety and tolerance. What could be more tolerant than a man believing that something is wrong but allowing it to happen because he accommodates other beliefs? By contrast, postmoderns believe in nothing and so countenance no dissent.

TJ: You're not seriously telling me we're less tolerant than we were, say, in the Edwardian era?

GKC: My dear boy, I think you're mistaking tolerance for relativism. If the only dogma you have is tolerance, the only thing you believe in is relativism. What nobility is there in tolerance if you don't believe in anything in the first place? You're like someone who makes a great show of denying themselves something they didn't even want anyway. It's an illusion of virtue. Your entire morality, if so it can be called, is negative: against racism and against sexism and against war and so on and so forth.

TJ: We do believe in things: democracy, freedom….

GKC: Your thinking is irredeemably muddled. Those are means, not ends. You can't say you believe in democracy per se. You would have to tell me what you believe democracy can achieve. Besides, I think you're confusing liberty with libertinism, freedom—as Milton said—with licence. Freedom, for your generation, implies the removal of all constraint. That's not freedom but licentiousness; from a Christian point of view, it's nothing other than the complete removal of freedom. It is slavery to sin. You see, freedom only has meaning if it is accompanied by morality, if it implies a choice between good and evil. You can hardly blame the vast majority of the Arab world if they equate your freedom with immorality because they know that you no longer believe in good and evil. A few decades into my afterlife I met Viktor Frankl, and I greatly admired his notion that if the east coast of America has a statue of liberty, the west one desperately requires a statue of responsibility. The one without the other has no meaning. Talk all you want about human rights, gay rights, women's rights… but I insist that you tell me what you think are the complementary human responsibilities, gay responsibilities, women's responsibilities. That is why I wrote in What's Wrong With The World that: "Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities."

TJ: I'm happy to enunciate my responsibilities, I'm happy to accept a rulebook for life. But I don't want your rulebook. I want my own, with rules I accept as legitimate. If you impose yours upon me you replace my consent with your coercion and that—no offence—is why you're a Catholic and I'm a Protestant. Catholicism is about obedience and Protestantism about responsibility—true responsibility because it's chosen, not imposed.

GKC: Like most of your generation you revel in strident self-assertion. You will, you say, write your own rulebook. You've inherited the attitudes of four centuries of reformation thinking and are convinced that the truth will out if only we all go our own way and make our own mistakes. "Listen to Milton's 'inward oracle,'" you say, "and all will be well." Like the scientists of the 17th century, you're excited about testing laws against experience and so when it comes to personal morality the self is your only arbiter. That is the foundation stone of modernity. I dissent from this ardent humanism because it is sceptical towards what should be revered (scriptures, church, tradition and truth) and too reverent to what should be questioned (human nature). I trust centuries of wisdom and revelation rather than an instant of my own inspiration. You put your faith in the wrong place: yourself. You think you can write your own morality, but that is absurd: it's like saying that the batsman can be an umpire. Morality, like authority, lies outside the self. It means a restriction of the self, and true religion (and true happiness) has always been about not stretching, but reducing, the ego. I am convinced that the epidemic of depression in the west is caused by an excess, rather than lack, of individualism.

TJ: It sounds as if you have more in common with the Muslim world than with most Britons.

GKC: Remember that the word Islam means "surrender," which is what I've just been saying. Muhammadans, like me, still believe in words which, for you, have no meaning, or only a pejorative one: authority, obedience, sacred. Christians are accused of intolerance towards other religions, but that's poppycock. We understand Islam better than secularists: only with a religious outlook can one understand Muhammadans' understandable grievances.

TJ: But in your novel The Flying Inn, you parodied Islam by having a zealous Islamic prophet decree a ban on alcohol across Britain.

GKC: Many aspects of Islam mirror Protestantism: scriptural literalism, puritanism and a lack of ecclesiastic and apostolic authority which tends to doctrinal extremism. I was writing at a time in which the temperance movement was threatening what I thought was the most enduring trait of British culture: the warm wisdom of the public house, the common sense to be found in a tankard of ale. As is well known, I advocated "irrational drinking"; I wrote in my poem "The Secret People": "it may be beer is best." I've been following closely the recent discussions about British identity and for me the epicentre of Britain is still the public house: it is the one place that excludes fanaticism and doctrinal cruelty, it is a bastion against political correctness. It celebrates normality rather than abnormality. Whether they drink alcohol or not, anyone who isn't at home in a public house can hardly be at home in Britain.

TJ: Talking of fanaticism and Islam, what do you make of Bin Laden's crusade against the west?

GKC: I yield to no one in my disdain for what Bin Laden has done. He disseminates murder and hatred throughout the world. Yet he is a man I understand and with whom I can identify. His entire diction is one of good and evil. He works within parameters I appreciate. You can accuse Bin Laden of many things but he's neither an anarchist nor a nihilist.

TJ: What then of the "war on terror"?

GKC: In the Arab world, many consider the "war on terror" an old-fashioned crusade against Muslims. It is, they say, another war of religion. The interesting thing is that in the west, in cultural if not military circles, it has become not a war of religion, not a "war on terror," but a war against religions. September 11th is used as the opening exhibit in the case against belief in God. The predictable chant, that religion is at the root of all wars, is trotted out again and again. "If this is what religion makes man do, better to be entirely irreligious," goes the logic. One might as well say one doesn't believe in science because it gave us the atom bomb. Certainly, the misapplication of religion or science causes death and destruction, but that doesn't mean we should stop scientific or religious research and denounce centuries of discoveries.

TJ: You sound like one of those diehard communists who say that communism doesn't have to imply institutionalised murder. "It's only that real communism has never been tried," they say. Christianity has had two millennia at the helm and only a tiny minority remain committed because the rest have judged it on dubious results: crusades, colonialism and all the rest.

GKC: What always amuses me about anti-Christian rhetoric is its predictability. One can always guarantee that war, crusades and colonialism will be the first three exhibits. I went to see Lewis Wolpert the other day ranting against religion and I could have written his speech, word for word, a hundred years ago. In fact, as you would know if you had read my Orthodoxy, one of the things that first tempted me towards the church was the inconsistency of anti-Christian logic. I'm glad you mentioned communism, a secular invention. It has caused mass murder on an unprecedented scale in human history, and yet I don't see you rushing to denounce secularism as you would surely rush to denounce religion. And why is it that you only list the negative aspects of Christian history? Why do you forget that it was Christians that most bitterly opposed the Spanish conquest of central and southern America, that it was Christians who brought about the abolition of slavery and so on? I only wish, as the great Schleiermacher said, that you should be fully informed about what it is you so disdain. So, in brief, let me tell you what I understand Christianity to be. It is the most profound, thorough, paradoxical and, I believe, true explanation of the world in which we live. You will tell me that it has absurd certainties but it is the rationalist, the logician, the secularist, the materialist who never has doubts. The Christian is convulsed with doubts, but admits them and allows them to become the whole secret of his mysticism: he accepts that he can understand only with the help of what he doesn't understand. The materialist is driven mad by mysteries and incomprehension, he wants to conquer them; the Christian expresses wonder for them, gives thanks for them. And only in Christianity is the correct response to the world both delight and indignation. This is, and yet isn't, our home; we're natives here, but also foreigners. Our God is both close and remote, present and transcendent. And of all the belief systems, only in Christianity does the believer display humility, because his belief is predicated upon the fact of his own, unutterable worthlessness and yet a recognition of the magnificence and uniqueness of his fellow creatures. You'll notice many paradoxes there, and my writing, as you know, is characterised by paradox. True religion is based upon paradox.

TJ: How do you see the spiritual state of the nation?

GKC: Abject. The academics and journalists who apply themselves to questions of religion can be counted on the fingers of one hand. How many religious thinkers were there on Prospect's list of 100 public intellectuals? The only "religious thinkers" given airtime are the evangelical atheists. The public is offered a Christianity so watered down that it is indistinguishable from new age benevolence. By now, being religious seems to imply having a candle-lit bath listening to Enya. Even Private Eye wrote in the week after Easter that "television regulators should either allow completely secular schedules or insist that the religious programmes shown are seriously about belief. The current view that any programme which is solemn or arty or has suffering in it is religious is failing to serve either the religious audience or the secular one." The problem is that religion is now equated with feeling all gooey inside, whereas in reality Christianity is a very sinewy thing. The vast majority of your peers believe in immanence and monism, even though they lack the religious vocabulary to say so, but Christianity pulls things apart, it separates, metaphorically, with a sword. Vices and virtues stand in sharp relief. It is the opposite of the new age that Christianity has claimed as an ally in the battle between the sacred and secular.

TJ: What about the state of the nation's literature? Are we at least blessed with many talented novelists?

GKC: No. The novel, as I understand it, implies romance and romance relies upon rules. It's what I call the doctrine of conditional joy and is the background to every decent story and fable: the characters are told to behave in a certain way and are guaranteed happiness if they do so. Inevitable transgression leads to knowledge and melancholy. It's the skill of the narrator to establish the rules, describe the transgression and the reconciliation. Now, in a society and literature in which there are no rules, that narrative trajectory is lacking. Lawlessness doesn't usher in either happiness or good novels. Without moral parameters, you're left with amorphous, meandering plots. Moreover, the greatest literature is about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Only that way can the reader identify with what happens. You postmoderns put extraordinary people in ordinary situations: think of all the superhero comic strips and movies. The other important aspect of romance is that it requires finality. Matrimony and posting a letter are two of life's most romantic events precisely because they are (or were) irrevocable. Within any decent narrative one requires consequences, cause and effect, and one only gets that through actions which are conclusive. Since you are allergic to finality because it would exclude all the other options, most narrative suffers from lack of direction. It goes back and forth and round in circles.

TJ: How about the health of British democracy?

GCK: I've always maintained that tradition is the greatest democracy known to man since it extends the franchise to those who have gone before us. That's what a truly civilised society is: the involvement of the dearly departed and the dearly not-yet-born in our decisions. The present should only be a bridge between the past and the future. That's what true community implies: a congregation not only of the living, but of all souls. A democracy which rides roughshod over centuries of precedent, abolishes hereditary peers and legislates for widespread foetal murder under the clinical appellation of "abortion" is not one I find admirable. The insistence upon novelty, upon the "newness" of an old political party, should set alarm bells ringing. It's always been my contention that we should rebel not against antiquity, but against novelty. The only consolation is that there's an internal debate within the Labour party about the legacy of the 1960s and some people are finally realising that rights have to be balanced by responsibilities.

TJ: Who do you think you've most influenced since you died almost 70 years ago?

GKC: I can't really be held responsible for who I've influenced and how. For example, one of my best known poems, "The Secret People," was once chosen as poem of the month on the website of the BNP.

TJ: Well, that is partly your responsibility. Lines about a squire clutching "a cringing Jew" were bound to endear you to the far right.

GKC: Listen, I was extraordinarily prolific. I wrote over 100 books. Do not take one couplet from thousands and thousands of pages and distort my philosophy. It was a regrettable line, but I needed something to rhyme with "Waterloo." I'm aware that that poem, with its memorable, populist line, "we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet" has been used by people who believe that they represent the historic rump of the country which is now being ignored: Ukip, the Countryside Alliance and so on. I have also, perhaps, had a small effect upon the eloquent Roger Scruton and his philosophical conservatives at the Salisbury Review. But my real influence lies, I believe, elsewhere, in a rather surprising place: Private Eye. You see, a satirist, like a Christian, is both an idealist and a pessimist. He insists that we should be better, but doubts we ever shall be. The source of satire's ribaldry is the same as the Christian's: the satirist teases post-lapsarian humanity for its vanity, foibles and aspirations. And funnily enough, Richard Ingrams is a Christian. He plays the organ in his local church each Sunday. I wrote a book on Cobbett; Ingrams has almost finished a book on the same subject. It's rumoured that he's even writing a book on me, though I've been waiting a long time for it. Ian Hislop, too, is an almost-Christian. Interviewed a while ago by a Christian magazine, he said: "I believe in belief… I believe in other people's belief, in being genuine. I believe in the possibility of belief." When Hislop gave a Lent talk for Radio 4 some years ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, telephoned him to ask if he wanted to take the cloth. So in reply to your question, I think my influence is most felt not on the right of politics, but with the noble, committed, but politically unaffiliated satirists. Because, like me, they hope, even perhaps believe, that "the comedy of man survives the tragedy of man." End of the article



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