Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why James Hitchcock is Wrong: A Defense of G. K. Chesterton

Is it my imagination, or are standards of criticism deteriorating at an unprecented rate? It is one thing to criticize something you know, but another to criticize something you don't know. Inside Catholic has reprinted a 1997 article by the normally sensible James Hitchcock on Hillaire Belloc, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton (HT: Carl Olsen at Ignatius Scoop) in which he offers a more than dim assessment.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear upon reading the piece that Hitchcock does not adequately understand the writers he takes to task.

Hitchcock is a Catholic scholar of longstanding reputation, which makes his misfiring here all the more unfortunate. It isn't as if he doesn't recognize his own shortcomings in the article, he clearly does. In a discussion on C. S. Lewis, "I awkwardly confessed not to have read very much of that famous writer." He also admits:
As a critic of their work my qualifications are certainly inadequate -- I have not read more than a small fraction of their writings.
Indeed. Hitchcock sees his own warning signs, but doesn't heed them; he sounds a note of caution and then throws it to the wind. What he does do is admit his lack of knowledge: but admitting it doesn't make up for it. He makes an attempt, despite the admission, to justify proceeding with his critique:
I have never felt any strong attraction to the school of English Catholic thought whose leaders were G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc ... But in a way that does have relevance -- the fact that an author's work does not produce a taste for still more is itself a critical judgment.
That is true. But when a reader does not find a writer to his liking, the lack of quality in the writer is not the only thing that may be wrong. The question is whether the problem is the author--or the reader. If you do not appreciate a work of literature, it could be because it has little literary value. But it could also be the result of a lack of literary sense in the reader. I would not pretend to say that this is true of Hitchcock. What I would say is that whether the problem is Chesterton and Lewis--or Hitchcock--is something that cannot be determined unless he were to have read more on what he is criticizing than he has. But Hitchcock apparently thinks it can.

He's wrong.

Here is the Hitchcock's self-described method of approach to prepare him for what he thinks is a competent critique of the three authors:
In writing this article I practiced sortes Virgilianae, opening at random books by and about these authors and taking samples. At no point did I feel compelled to revise my earlier impressions.
This is not an approach calculated to impress. Does Hitchcock really think this will inspire confidence in his readers? The corpus (corpora?) of these authors is massive. Taking a "sample" of a very small fraction of their writings and trying to render a competent judgment is not a promising exercise, and would require some sort of actual bibliomancy of the kind he invokes in sortes Virgilianae. It would be one thing if this sampling were to yield an accurate picture of their thought, but Hitchcock clearly fails in taking an accurate sounding of his subjects. His lax approach to his subject is illustrated in his criticism of Hillaire Belloc's portrayal of Pelagianism--on the basis of one of Belloc's drinking songs:
A window into my misgivings about Belloc is the wonderful drinking song about the Pelagian heresy that my college friends and I sang lustily. A few years ago I sang it to myself in the magnificent church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois, in the shadow of the Louvre. The Pelagian heresy was resolved, the song tells us, when St. Germanus "thwacked and banged" the heretics with his crosier, until they finally saw the orthodox light.

Belloc was in part a historian, but in that role he seems to me like a man with a machine gun -- by spraying shots everywhere he inevitably hit some of his targets, but many of his bullets went astray. He does not seem to have understood how historical judgments are formed, through patient sifting of evidence, and seemed rather to deduce them from his principles.
Is he really making a scholarly critique of Belloc on the basis of a drinking song? He implies that he is not: "Obviously, serious writers should not be judged by their entertainments, but the song seems to me a distillation of Belloc's characteristic attitudes." Yet he offers no real evidence of his judgment here other than one of Belloc's widely known aphorisms, and we begin to suspect that Hitchcock really is basing his judgment on song meant to be sung while swinging your beer stein in the air.

This is, in fact, a common theme throughout Hitchcock's essay: calling attention to the weaknesses of his critique as if in doing so he has innoculated himself against criticism for them--or, alternatively, calling attention to them and saying he's not really doing what he very clearly is doing.

All of Hitchcock's criticisms seem to be based on the flimsy ground of a few popular quotes. He does it to Chesterton too:
Chesterton's image of orthodoxy in its chariot, tenaciously holding tight the reins to forestall catastrophes right and left, has caught the imagination of many people, and it obviously identifies a truth. But there and elsewhere it seems to me Chesterton comes close to identifying truth with the banal, essentially pagan principle in medio stat virtus.
This is a reference to a commonly quoted passage out of Orthodoxy, one which William F. Buckley,--who, like Hitchcock, never read much Chesterton, but, unlike Hitchcock, had a high opinion of him--was fond of quoting:
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (Orthodoxy)
But does even this passage establish that Chesterton believed in some dull kind of moderation? Even a cursory perusal of its context in Chesterton's Orthodoxy would serve as a refutation. Hitchcock needs to read Chapter 6 of that classic book, where Chesterton explains his doctrine of the "Paradox of the Parallel Passions," the idea that Christianity was not a sort of mean between extremes, but a kind of dialectical synthesis of conflicting opposites.

Chesterton recounts his initial confusion upon hearing completely contradictory criticisms of Christianity: that it was too pessimistic--and too optimistic, too pacifistic--and too warlike; too ascetic--and too ritualistic.
Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable. (Orthodoxy)
Does this sound like the in medio stat virtus ["virtue stands in the middle"] that Hitchcock perceives? Obviously not. That is the pagan view, according to Chesterton, but not the Christian--or the Chestertonian view. It is the Chestertonian dialectic:
Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite ... It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both ... Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious ... It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is -- Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved. (Orthodoxy)
Hitchcock not only misses what Chesterton thought, he interprets him to say the exact opposite of what he actually said. Again, this could have been avoided if he had simply read him. And the fact that he didn't--or didn't do it adequately--makes another of his criticisms seem a little ironic:
Chesterton and Belloc presciently reacted to certain modern threats to faith whose full menace has only become apparent in our own day. Yet just as they tended to dispose of heresy with a wave of a hand or a thwack from an episcopal staff, they did not trouble really to understand the secular movements they so valiantly opposed.
It is not only ironic that Hitchcock criticizes Chesterton for failing to understand those he criticized, it is simply mistaken. He criticizes him, for example, for not understanding psychology, and compares Chesterton unfavorably with a number of better versed modern critics. But is this a legitimate criticism? Chesterton died in 1936. Freud had only really been widely known outside continental Europe for a few years. Can we really expect Chesterton to have taken his full measure?

Probably not, although one of my favorite Chesterton ditties is called "Sigmund Freud":
Sigmund Freud

The ignorant pronounce it "Frood"
To cavil or applaud.
The well-informed pronounce it "Freud,"
But I pronounce it "Fraud."
Okay, okay. It's a cavalier treatment. Like Belloc's drinking songs. Lighten up.

And speaking of drinking, here is another area in which Hitchcock thinks the three come up short, accusing them of treating alcohol consumption too lightly, and ignoring the problems drinking can cause. There is some truth to this, but Hitchcock is not primarily concerned with the problem of alcoholism, he is primarily concerned with the idea that the three men considered a wine a symbol of good cheer.

Belloc certainly thought this, as his many drinking songs are witness. And Lewis once said he liked his Christianity the same way he liked his Scotch: "Straight." Chesterton too had a high view of wine:
The Song of Right and Wrong

Feast on wine or fast on water,
And your honor shall stand sure,
God Almighty's son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind attentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.
This cheery attitude rubs the somber Hitchcock the wrong way. But it is not their view of wine per se that seems to be the fundamental problem for Hitchcock, but cheer itself. Hitchcock argues that, since wine is used in the Eucharist, it cannot therefore be utilized to "gladden the heart" (a Biblical expression):
As to the wine of the Eucharist, its very elevation to sacral status seems to draw an uncrossable line between sacrament and normal drinking. Surely Catholics ought to view alcohol as they do sex -- something good and in context even sacred but a volatile, dangerous substance nonetheless, which easily plunges people into depravity.
So sex too must be treated with this same grim religiosity? And if the utilization of wine in the Eucharist implies that the normal drinking of wine is out of bounds, then why doesn't the use of bread in the Eucharist imply that normal eating of food is out of bounds? While at least this criticism is of something that Chesterton, Belloc, and Lewis actually believed, it is just not a very good argument.

But again, it is joy that Hitchcock seems to be gunning for:
It was of course not lacking on the doctrinal level. Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, and others of their school had much to say about sin and death, reminding modern skeptics precisely of the unavoidable reality of those things. But it seems to me that in practice the faith they displayed to the world was by design relentlessly cheery, just as they fashioned relentlessly cheery public personae for themselves.
At least in part, Hitchcock actually has something on his line, if he doesn't succeed in actually landing it in the end. Chesterton's penchant for mirth is one of the prominent features of his writing.
Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion) you must have mirth or you will have madness. (Lunacy & Letters)
To say this sentiment is not a Christian one is to find yourself at odds with the writer of Proverbs: "A merry heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones."

But where Hitchcock really goes wrong is in his argument that this praise of mirth constitutes a simplistic view of reality:
When Chesterton portrayed evil men, as the master criminal Flambeau, who was converted, or his adversary the detective, who became a criminal, they were never more than pasteboard cutouts. Father Brown's victories over evil are usually facile, as in the famous scene where he unmasks Flambeau as an impostor priest by observing that "You disparaged reason; it's bad theology." Has there never been a Catholic theologian who disparaged reason? Or, whatever theologians might say, have there never been priests who did so? The technique is not merely a way of resolving the plot of the story but a way of once again assuring the reader that through the eyes of faith the world is a tidy and controllable place, its mysteries readily penetrable by healthy common sense.
This is a reference to Chesterton's Father Brown short story, "The Blue Cross." It would take a rather shallow reading to take from that story that the author thinks the world is a tidy, controllable place, or that "mysteries readily penetrable by healthy common sense." It would also fly in the face of everything else Chesterton wrote. Again, Hitchcock not only gets Chesterton wrong, he gets him 180 degrees wrong. Not only did Chesterton not reject mystery, he puts it at the very center of his worldview:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. (Orthodoxy)
He even connects this back to the Paradox of the Parallel Passions we cited previously. And here is where Chesterton makes one of his great observations: that if you put solutions at the center of your philosophy, all you get is mysteries; but if you mysteries at the center of you philosophy, all you get is solutions:
It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
No one can read these chapters of Orthodoxy or The Man Who Was Thursday-- or "The Introduction to the Book of Job," where he makes the observation that unlocks the meaning of Thursday: "The mysteries of God are more satisfying than the solutions of men"--and say that Chesterton believed "the world is a tidy and controllable place, its mysteries readily penetrable by healthy common sense"--or that took part in fashioning "a reassuringly comfortable kind of faith."

Hitchcock mistakes Chesterton's mirth for an easy kind of optimism, a misinterpretation that, like much of what he writes here, could have been avoided by a real familiarity with what he was criticizing. Had he bothered to do more than sample around in Chesterton's writings, Hitchcock may have encountered this contrast of optimism with what Chesterton calls "cosmic patriotism":
My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.
Charge Chesterton with excessiveness as he pours another glass of wine, but don't challenge him as he raises a toast to the mystery of the universe.

Hitchcock accuses Chesterton, Belloc, and Lewis of dismissing those with whom they disagreed with a "wave of the hand." And yet he himself does not take the trouble to really try to understand the three men whose thought he criticizes. Had he done so, he would have found something very different from what he thinks he has discovered.


Lee said...

> Is it my imagination, or are standards of criticism deteriorating at an unprecented rate?

Why should standards of criticism be any different than anything else today?

Tim J. said...

Very well done. I can only hope this rebuttal is read as widely as Hitchcock's bit of sloppy condescension.

Another place where he gets Chesterton 180 degrees wrong is when he states "Yet just as they tended to dispose of heresy with a wave of a hand or a thwack from an episcopal staff, they did not trouble really to understand the secular movements they so valiantly opposed.".

This is, of course, the opposite of the truth, as Chesterton was especially well known for treating his interlocutors and their beliefs with the most assiduous respect, so that H.G. Wells (one of his fiercest opponents) was continually moved to defend Chesterton against exactly the kind of baseless accusations that Hitchcock makes here.

Chesterton was loved in a particularly fierce way by those with whom he argued.

Anonymous said...

A great post. Thanks-you!

Anonymous said...

I will never understand writers who compose articles on subjects they are not competent to cover, but at least in this case Hitchcock warns us at the beginning that he doesn't know what he's talking about--thus sparing us from having to read any further.