There is much talk of the possible canonization of one of Catholicism’s favorite “secular saints,” G. K. Chesterton. Inevitably, people point to one thing that doesn’t sit well in the American consciousness: Chesterton was fat.
I hear little buzzings about it all over, and the subject of gluttony vs. abstemiousness comes up repeatedly as it concerns Catholicism and living a good, moral life. Almost as inevitable as the topic of Chesterton’s corpulence is the matter of his innately Catholic character: For many, his very existence stood as a round and booming critique of Puritanism. Those who dismiss or excuse his girth actually come to declare it a badge of anti-Protestant vigor. But we are dealing with a dichotomy, and a rather false one at that; and with it comes all the quizzical confusions and pathologies of thought that emerge in false dichotomies, revealing our endearing tendency to lurch to one side of an argument or another and sign up for Team Glutton or Team Saint, just like young teenagers signing up for Team Edward or Team Jacob.
The issue of whether Chesterton was a glutton recently conjured images in my mind, planted there by various biographers and historic epistles, playing — at times, I’m sure, without my full awareness — in the background of other thoughts: Chesterton sitting at a table putting food in his mouth as it tumbled out onto the floor and onto his clothing; disappearing for long working lunches filled with beer and food, as he plotted out how he would describe those lunches to his affianced, Frances, in his letter to her that night; a growingly perturbed Chesterton trying to focus on the enjoyment of his food as violinists, like gnats, hover near his plate.
So there are two things that we can know for sure about Chesterton: One, he was fat. And two, he liked to eat (and drink). And yet, we find ourselves nowhere closer to discovering whether he was a glutton.
Now, it is not surprising that one would link these two facts together — the fact that he liked to eat, and the fact that he was fat. Generally speaking, there is a strongish correlation between how much we eat and how much adipose tissue we lug around from place to place. But it is on this point that I’m apt to adopt the attitude of Chesterton himself, as he expressed through his flights on grotesquerie, appearances, illusion, and, in one remarkable, early essay, on skeletons: The outside and the inside of something don’t necessarily agree with each other. The way something appears is not necessarily what it is. That is not to say, in the old cliché way, that “all that glitters is not gold”; rather, it is to say that the illusion isn’t necessarily the outside. The illusion is that there is no inside at all.
And here I come to two things we can say with some degree of scientific certainty: One, there are skinny gluttons. And two, there are fat ascetics. Though the appearance of the body may have something to do with whether we are gluttons, that is not the same as saying it has everything to do with it. And though the mechanics of weight gain seems easy to reduce to “calories in, calories out,” if you know anything about biochemistry — and thermodynamics — there is something peculiarly deceiving in that simple, commonsense formula. When a body begins to put on an increasingly dense fat layer, that adipose tissue becomes something like its own organ system; it literally grows its own blood vessels to keep itself alive, and, slightly less literally, it grows its own endocrine system to ensure its maintenance and growth. (My physician husband likes to call it “the fat parasite.”) The fat layer secretes hormones, and those hormones, ironically, make one even more likely to put on fat. As the hormonal imbalance of obesity continues, it increases cravings and appetites, giving one less and less control over one’s eating habits — making you, once again, more likely to put on fat.
The typical American attitude, uncomfortable with our growing reputation for being a nation of corpulent, sedentary lemmings (like the ones depicted in the futuristic dystopia Wall-E),is quick to judge those of larger girth as lacking in self-control; we are equally quick to assume that one who is fat is, by definition, eating too much. And it is that Puritan inheritance that adds the tone of moral turpitude to the accusation. In the most convenient and general terms, this is correct. But who defines what is enough and what is too little and what is, as one golden-locked little girl said some time that is rumored to have been long ago, “just right”?
I return here to the idea that “calories in, calories out” is “curiously” deceiving. I say curiously deceiving because that’s exactly what I mean: It is deceptive, but curiously so — as in from the Latin curiosus, “full of care,” “taking pains.” The question of obesity and its relationship to gluttony — as well as the larger questions of whether Chesterton was a saint, and what relationship the appearance of a phenomenon has to the essence of it — is one that cannot be reduced easily, because the whole is larger (or fatter) than the sum of its parts. I can imagine a rail-like wraith of a man, with similar propensities toward drink and food, who does not suffer from a hormonal imbalance driving his appetites; his drive is solely a gluttonous one. So while he may, in fact, even eat a smaller amount than his more fleshed-out brethren, his drive toward food and drink could be pure gluttony; whereas for the latter, the drive toward food and drink is magnified by an increasing and imbalanced hormonal cycle that seems to have at least some genetic components to it. Remember, too, that the endocrine disruption presented by the disproportionate fat layer not only increases an organic desire to eat more, it also simply makes it easier to put on more fat. Which means a long, lanky man, like Chesterton in his youth, may eat the same amount as a wonderfully round bear of a man and not put on an ounce.
And still we have not come any closer to our answer. Certainly Chesterton occasionally committed gluttony in one form or another, as have most of us in a culture of abundance. But was he a glutton? Chesterton himself once said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Gravity may not have taken him as lightly, but that’s not to say, necessarily, he wasn’t light. Even though one may find it difficult to say whether he was a glutton, one thing that you must say about Chesterton is that, in making decisions about the world (and about others), he was so very careful that he seemed to be able to see things from all sides at once. It is what draws so many different people to him, from George Bernard Shaw to Hilaire Belloc, from Neil Gaiman to Tim Powers. It is my hope that he might receive the same careful, nuanced consideration from us. It seems the curious thing to do.