Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Real Reason Readers Love G. K. Chesterton

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,/The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,/balm of hurt minds"(2.2.35-37 from Shakespeare's Macbeth 
Ever since that monumental day a year and a half ago when Andrew asked Valerie to marry him and she said “Yes!” I’ve had trouble sleeping. I knew they were in love, I could see it, but I thought they might be engaged around Christmas and married in May 2009 when my garden would be in perfect bloom.
That did not happen.
Instead on a perfect day in June, it happened. Also, on this same day in June, the upper floor of my house was smack in the middle of a major repair/renovation. And now, there was a wedding! First I had to get the upstairs done which meant waiting out the end of the construction while sewing drapes, making roman blinds, new bedspread and etc. I had to rid the attic of 23 years worth of junk, etc. etc. Then the wedding plans, and don’t forget all the sewing I had always wanted to do for Valerie’s trousseau.

I know trousseaus are old-fashioned, but I wanted to make her beautiful things to take with her. Thinking about all this kept me up at night. So I got up and sewed and thought. I’m not that good at change. I have to sort of think through everything and thinking is not easy for me.
Instead, an autumn wedding and one year later, an autum baby

Another surprise! Valerie and Andrew were having a baby! More sewing! More thinking and adjusting. The changes kept coming and sleep fled.  It got so bad that I’d have to stop for coffee on the way home from anywhere to keep from falling asleep on the road! I’d be falling asleep at my computer, or even sitting at my sewing machine, but the minute my head hit the pillow, I was wide awake.

Nothing worked.

Finally, my husband suggested I read to relax a bit rather than working ‘til the moment I fell into bed… maybe something like the first fifty pages of The Scarlet Letter, which always kept me sleeping during my teaching years.

I had a book I wanted to read. It was a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. My middle name is Clare and when I was young I was given several books on the life of St. Clare of Assisi, but she was always in the back of the book, the first part typically devoted to St. Francis. So I developed an interest in St. Francis.

Assisi in the hills of Italy
I thought I’d like to read more a more detailed version. I had the privilege of visiting Assisi five years ago. We arrived by train on a day so hot the iron rails smelled like they were melting. We boarded a bus which took us up a winding road to the hilltop town. The moment I stepped off the bus, I could feel the difference. The heat sizzled, but it didn’t oppress and the air smelled of mint and rosemary. Some places in the world are holy and Assisi is one of them; its very soil is steeped in the prayers of the hopeful. I floated through the town, the basilica and down the road to the “sublime” St. Damian, my deepest self effortlessly refreshed.

That visit reminded me of how interesting and important St. Francis was. Poet, thinker, man of faith in action, his biography would be fascinating. My son kindly gave me one written by the great G. K. Chesterton. I was thrilled. Several of last year’s students raved about G.K. Chesterton, my teaching colleagues loved to quote him and my sons love his work. This would be interesting, give me something to think about besides all the tasks I had to get done and all the changes in my life. It would be written by a renowned author whose thoughts and style would enrich my mind.

Besides, the back of the book promised, “A great read. Chesterton has a rollicking style. He was an author in love with the English language.”

This was a lie.

Rollicking means carefree, high spirited and boisterous. Not true. Not at all.

I have to tell!  It’s not a biography! After two hundred pages, Chesterton explains that “… in the matter of history and biography, which have their place here (he means in the book “about” St. Francis) nothing is fixed at all.” That explains why in all those pages, nothing happened.

Not one word to one bunny! Not one miracle described. Lots of theories and metaphors and tangents about St. Francis and the crusades, nothing about his visit to the pope! Chesterton admits lest the reader be ready to throw his book across the room, that “…it must be remembered, that this book is avowedly only an introduction to St. Francis or the study of St. Francis.” Avowedly? Really, G.K.?

Did he really write “avowedly” and no editor had the guts to axe it?

The book gives me nothing but an overlong defense of St. Francis’ existence. Imagine someone who plays a game with you —any game you love— but he never tries to score or win, he only plays defensively. This is Chesterton’s tactic. DEFENSE! He must have a closet cheerleader shouting to Francis' fans to rally around his reputation and cheer. Or maybe he was a prodigy and wrote it when he was 14. Chesterton sets out to prove that Francis was not a myth, not a heretic, not insane, not a trickster, not sexually involved with Clare of Assisi.

 St. Damian's cloister- the peace there lets you walk above the ground
There are two problems with this approach.

I already know Francis was none of the above. I believe he talked to the animals, I believe he walked through fire and lived an exemplary life. I admire his attempt to stop the Crusades – wish I’d been with him. I accept that God used him to accomplish miracles. This is not a problem for me. In fact, I want to hear all this described and explained. I want to read about the visit to the Pope, I want to see him begging for stones to rebuild St. Damian’s church while by example and in poetic reality reforming the way the Christian church worked.

Chesterton doesn’t prove any of the above because he avoids using examples. He does this on purpose saying about his book, “… this thin and scratchy sketch” mentions “…one anecdote here or there.” Chesterton theorizes, then repeats his theory, then explores a tangent, mentions people I can’t even find in the dictionary and what they think about it and then says it again in an elaborate and somewhat beautiful metaphor, and then says it one more time, maybe twice for emphasis and lack of clarity.

Revision is like shining a new light on a work.  Highly recommended and requiring humility.
The final confusing outrage is that he did not earn his conclusion. The last words of the “biography” describe the moment of St. Francis’ death by first recapping what Chesterton sees as Francis’ contributions: he was the first poet to write in Italian and without reference to “pagan” (read classical) influences, he created in reality the scenes that Giotto painted for posterity, and he was “the wandering fire” that lit the torches of men’s lives to lead them from the darkness of the medieval age. I like these ideas and wish the book had actually been about these things in a way that was palpable, explorable and exemplified. The book ends with the statement that when Francis died, it was the “stopping of the great heart that had not broken till it held the world.”

Huh? Held the world? When did that happen?  I looked back through and couldn't even find this idea in metaphor form.  Did he make this statement inevitable in my understanding? No, no and again, no.

I’m told Chesterton never edited. He leaned back, eyes half closed and dictated his work to a cowering secretary afraid to mention that the emperor was naked. If the sketch is as he admits, “thin and scratchy,” and the prose, as Chesterton himself calls it, straggling and meagre,” why not fix it? Why not write well and earn your conclusion? If Chesterton was as, “in love with the English language” as his fans claim, why not work on that language until it sings clear notes?

Now I understand why those students who loved Chesterton were always whispering to each other during class. They probably figured I was going to say things five or six times and so they only had to listen to every other paragraph.

Not a rollicking read, not a biography, no satisfying ending, I waded through maze-like prose, hoping with each page that it would get better. It didn’t.

But I know why people love him. I love him, too. I LOVE him and I’m devoted to him.

He put me to sleep. I’ve had two weeks of sleep! No need to count sheep; the repetitive phrases work like a lullabye and in light of this convoluted prose, the changes in my life finally make sense. I’m going to start again tonight at the beginning. I’m going to reread (the cousin of revision) and enjoy nights of deep, restful sleep. Thank you, G.K.; thanks for all the sleep.

A statue of St. Francis can be seen in the garden at St. Damian's church where he is said to have written "Canticle of the Sun."  How I wish Chesterton had included this picture, whis is avowedly worth a million words.


  1. hahaha. you just have to read his fiction. It's much better (although not rollicking).

  2. I wouldn't say rollicking. Besides, the book all of your terrible students whispered about was Orthodoxy. Desire life like water, drink death like wine.

  3. I never said terrible, Caleb. I said "whispering."
    And he does have some good metaphors but what you have to wade through to get to them!

  4. You're funny. I'm glad you're finally sleeping. I will have to buy a copy of this book for all my insomniac friends. No more ambian

  5. I think you ought to give him another chance, Mrs. Nebbia. I've never read St. Francis' biography, and I can't speak for it. But I have read Orthodoxy, and I've never read such delightfully lucid prose as I found there.

    And he's funny.
    "Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde."

  6. Terrible was a bit facetious. But here Sam and I stand together again, the loyal opposition.

  7. Hilarious! Oh have mercy! Maybe read G.K. on another, less beloved subject where your expectations cannot be so easily crushed. I know the feeling and the sensitivity to being let down by anticipated literature. I've recently decided to forgive Mr. Lewis for being sexist and being all but worshiped by modern Western Christians and take the good with the bad. But I found the forgiving had to be done deliberately.
    The description of Assisi is delectable. I'm very inspired to research its two saints
    -Lissa Grunert

  8. Sam officially recommends:

    Orthodoxy (where the above quote on Wilde is found)
    The Everlasting Man (the work that CS Lewis says "baptised my intellect")


    The Man Who Was Thursday

    They are all available for free online.

  9. This was wonderful! I have finally learned the merit of many of those required history books written by my professors. I shall have to reorganize the shelves to include a section for the insomniacs.

  10. The description about Assisi is maybe the loveliest thing I have read this month. Just a delight.

    And though reading Chesterton often puts me to sleep too, the reason I persist is that I have never met a mind so thoroughly converted. He sounds like a man who never has a doubt, not because he's proud, but because he is so enthralled by the truth of his faith, he cannot think of anything else.

    As Chesterton himself pointed out, it is the sane man who knows the difference between sanity and insanity.

    And check out "On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small" in _Heretics_. "The brute repose of Nature, the pasionate cunning of man, the strongest of earthly metals, the wierdest of earthly elements, the unconquerable iron subdued by its only conqueror, the wheel and the ploughshare, the sword and the steam-hammer, the arraying of armies and the whole legend of arms, all these things are written, briefly indeed, but quite legibly, on the visiting-card of Mr. Smith. Yet our novelists call their hero 'Aylmer Valence,' which means nothing, or 'Vernon Raymond,' which means nothing, when it is in their power to give him this sacred name of Smith--this name made of iron and flame." If that's not rollicking style, I don't know what is.

  11. This is hysterically funny. I'm always looking for good "put you to sleep" books. I may have to try this one. I wonder if you'll have a different opinion after a second time through.