One of the books I’m teaching this semester is a title that, over the years, I’ve found indispensable for my sanity, such as it is: G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. If you don’t know the book, stop reading now. Click over and order your copy. Go ahead, I can wait . . .
When your package arrives, settle into a comfy chair with a decent supply of monastic beer, because you’re in for a wild ride. In this easy book of medium length, Chesterton tries the impossible — and nails it. A roistering tale of earthly life, and its fitful pilgrimage from the primordial ooze up through the conversion of Evelyn Waugh, The Everlasting Man is the ale-drinker’s answer to Hegel.
The audience for this apologetic is a reading public not so different from our own — composed in large part of lazy ex-Christians, hazy post-Christians, New Age skeptics, old-fashioned modernists, and wistful, romantic materialists. The book was written in answer to The Outline of History by H. G. Wells — a novelist who turned in serious moments from science fiction to fictional science. (He also predicted that progress and contraception would lead at last to an all-white planet, opining once that "those swarms of blacks, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people . . . will have to go." So much for Wells’s liberality, and powers of prediction.)
Where Wells tried to explain away, through airy appeals to evolution, man’s sense that he is unique among the animals and his chronic craving for God, Chesterton decides instead to squat beside the caveman and try to suss out the anthropologists. He takes that queer beast, the pipe-smoking scholar of comparative religions, and holds him up by the tweed to the light of day — to find him much stranger in his way than any of the wine-god’s "bacchantes gone wild."
In prose that’s heavy with paradox, Chesterton strips off the yellow crust of cultural varnish that renders in meaningless sepia the flabbergasting figure of Jesus Christ. With the deft hand of a pickpocket, the convert nabs this narrative from 2,000 years ago and makes it new — indeed, he makes it news. For instance, reading Chesterton’s retelling of the Nativity, one somehow feels suspense. You wonder how things will turn out in the end, and quake as Herod’s riders thunder over the cave that holds a manger. Conversely, when Chesterton notes that the Church has "died" at least five times throughout her history (we postconciliar kids can chalk up six and call it even), he makes the wild surmise that she will rise again — and you’re tempted, despite all evidence, to believe him.
Chesterton’s prose is like a steaming bowl of Creole turtle soup with a dash of sherry — an acquired taste. I’ve come across finicky folks who find his writing a bit too rich and a tad too wild. It’s full of clever turns of phrase that for some are too clever by half, of metaphors that thunk the reader on the head with a cognitive meat ax. But I’m the kind of person who likes a good thunking, from time to time.
I’ve found from teaching the book that more men than women seem to appreciate Chesterton’s style. If this is widely true, I suspect that the sex difference has two sources:
- Chesterton’s use of lengthy, extended metaphors, his Donne-like determination to violently yoke together opposites — with the puckish glee of the bachelor punster.
- His heavy reliance on the Classical technique in rhetoric that dictates that each important point be made three times, with different examples.
All of which works very well over cigars and shots of Basil Hayden. For all I know, it may be possible over frozen banana daiquiris. But put two sexes together in a discussion and you can say goodbye to lengthy, extended anything. Men won’t finish their metaphors and women won’t finish their stories, and the sleepy persuasive spell that rhetoric wishes to weave gives way to the sharp staccato produced by a bottle rocket attempting to communicate with a cuckoo clock. I think those women who find Chesterton infuriating don’t so much wish to disagree with him as to interrupt him. To those who have this experience, I suggest reading Chesterton in a quiet room, in very short snippets — and talking back to the book.
This book — for all its flourishes, for all the times when the writer seems to jump the snark — is a stirring answer to one, straightforward question: Who are you people, and what on earth do you want?
I won’t boil down the writer’s reply into my own pedestrian prose, but this much I’ll reveal: Having fallen, quite allegorically, away from a primitive monotheism — the "old religion" of Eden — men have sought by a maddening variety of means to express their sense of mystery and meaning, to tap into the glamour that hides behind the surface of the world. Man’s quest has taken three broad forms, only two of which are innocent:
Mythology, the half-baked, half-believed stories of gods and monsters, fairies and fauna, that rural people confabulated to explain the very particular sacredness of old trees, haunted streams, and beloved cities. For Chesterton, the Hellenist, the Hindu, and even the Voodoo pantheon were more like "Just-So" stories than failed attempts at dogmatic theology. They were inspired, but not by spirits. They sometimes coexisted with an uneasy cultural memory of the One God — who hovered, inaccessible, hidden behind the heavens. Were metaphysics an art, they’d amount to youthful doodles. But they showed talent. For the Catholic equivalent, think of those little old ladies in ethnic neighborhoods who are sure that Our Lady of Fatima is much more powerful than Our Lady of Guadalupe — or the other way round.
Philosophy, the solitary attempt of men who have willingly sloughed off all particulars, abstracted themselves from senses and sentiment — the better to coolly view the macrocosm. They look to principles rather than people, and systematically strip away arbitrary elements of history, culture, and creed, lest they seem credulous. If they posit a god, at best it is a supernatural Watchmaker, at worst some jaded lab technician who watches us run through the maze and records the results on a spreadsheet. At its most extreme, this enterprise takes the form it did with Descartes, who insisted on doubting any assertion that lacked the certainty of a math problem. In my experience, this attitude is most commonly found today among religion teachers at Catholic high schools. A dead giveaway is the habit of using sentences that begin, "Do you really expect us to believe . . ." Fill in the blank.
Diabolism, the fruit of cynical reflection on the fact that nice guys finish last, and the willingness to do whatever it takes — however disgusting — to tap into the dark and dismal forces that rule the universe. As Chesterton notes, the vilest religious practices seen in history are found not among hunter-gatherers or roving barbarian hordes but in highly developed, commercial civilizations. The cannibalism of Aztec priests and the infant sacrifice that fed the gods of Carthage would have been unimaginable to Eskimos or Apaches. Our pagan ancestors may have exposed unhealthy infants; but it took the learned justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in Casey v. Planned Parenthood that the right to kill one’s infant is part of our civic creed, a sacramental guarantee of our "basic liberty."
In Chesterton’s telling, the coming of Christ answered each of these. To the mythmaker dreaming of gods who walk the earth, Christ points out His footprints in Galilee. To the philosopher straining his faculties to work out the divine attributes, He warmly answers, "All this, and more besides." To men sufficiently sophisticated to warm themselves by the heat of Hell, He warns that He long ago harrowed the place, and it holds no fears for Him.