The Paradoxes of Mr. Chesterton

Anyone familiar with G.K. Chesterton knows his trademark delight in paradox. Take his story “The Shadow of the Shark” in The Poet and the Lunatics. We are introduced to Mr. Amos Boon, the ex-missionary turned infidel. Chesterton describes him as a man who traveled the world with a big Bible which he studied “first for oracles and commandments, and afterwards for errors and contradictions; for the Bible-smasher is only the Bible-worshipper turned upside down.” This is a very good contrast. Despite superficial differences, the militant doubter and the do-it-yourself Christian zealot share a hatred of established religion.

Where Chesterton’s fondness for paradox gets the better of him occurs later  in the story when the hero Gabriel Gale says he prefers Boon’s South Sea paganism to the stark atheism of Dr. Wilkes: “Better make a fetish of the fish. Better sacrifice yourself and everybody else on the horrible huge altar of the fish. Better do anything than utter the star-blasting blasphemy of saying it is only a fish.” I understand Chesterton’s point, but not the emphasis.  Oddly enough, he contradicts this view in the story “The Crime of Gabriel Gale.” Confronted by a madman with theological delusions, Gale says that materialists “are at least near enough to heaven to accept the earth and not imagine they made it. The dreadful doubts are not the doubts of the materialist. The dreadful doubts, the deadly and damnable doubts, are the doubts of the idealist.”

Unfortunately there is a danger in adopting ironic poses for their own sake. Oscar Wilde did so quite fashionably and Chesterton copied him, albeit for different motives. I am reminded of the paradoxical excesses of his essay “Three Foes of the Family” (The Well and the Shallows) where he berates the materialism of an ill-defined “Capitalism,” and exasperatedly proclaims: “Better Bolshevist battles and the Brave New World than the ancient house of man rotted away silently by such worms of secret sensuality and individual appetite.”

It is tempting to contrast one’s own situation at a disadvantage with another’s in order to make a point. One should do so sparingly. It’s hard not to feel that Chesterton failed to appreciate just how insincere, vicious and “rotted away” the leaders of Bolshevism were.  As many contemporaries could testify, highly undesirable traits like dishonesty, lust and greed were systematically encouraged and compounded by a sadism and hatred lacking in the West. Although I don’t question the English author’s genius, his partiality for paradox was a weakness. One should never employ irony to the point that it becomes mere contradiction or contrariness.

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