The Sanest Crazy Man Who Ever Lived

He was crazy. And he was one of the sanest men who ever lived. That is what is called a paradox, and it is appropriate. If anyone understood paradox, delighted and luxuriated in it like a child splashing in a bubble bath, it was he: G. K. Chesterton.

Chesterton is easily one of the most quotable writers of our time. Epigrams burst from his pages like popcorn. He wrote more than 70 books, hundreds of newspaper columns, essays, and reviews. Yet he consistently wrote with astonishing originality. “You may tap any subject you like, he will find a theme on which to hang all the mystery of time and eternity,” said one of Chesterton’s editors.

But Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who died in 1936, has been too quickly neglected. He is the “master without a masterpiece,” the witty wordsmith who has been forgotten even though his words haven’t (“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” is Chesterton, for example).

Alzina Stone Dale’s biography comes at a good time, then. Chesterton, one of the supreme columnists of his day, is now liberally quoted by the best of our day, George F. Will. George Orwell’s 1984 is soon upon us; it is well to be reminded that Orwell borrowed the ominous date from one of Chesterton’s novels. The Outline of Sanity does its readers the best favor it possibly could—it informs them of an immensely appealing man and inspires them to get their hands and eyes on his books.

Dale’s book is not a typical modern biography. She leans against the prevailing biographical trends of psychoanalyzing and second-guessing the subject. She is not an intrusive biographer. There are advantages and disadvantages to her approach.

An advantage is that the reader is not forced to second-guess a second-guessing biographer. We do not have to worry that the biographer is forcing her subject into the ideological mold she prefers. A disadvantage is that the reader finishes the book with less of a grasp of Chesterton as a single, identifiable personality. The biographer has not completely taken on the task of sorting out the actions and attitudes that make a personality, then laying them out in a coherent pattern. Such biography, of course, requires more interpretation. If anything, Dale errs on the side of too little interpretation, leaving her readers to define their own pattern.

But Dale’s biographical method makes The Outline of Sanity a fine introduction to Chesterton, inviting the reader to engage Chesterton’s thought more than an intrusive biographer’s. Dale quotes liberally from Chesterton, footnoting each quote and allusion so that the curious reader can find the original source. Typographically, the book is cluttered. The margins are narrow, and chapters begin with quotations jammed near the top of the page.27.11. But the quotations that have the book bursting its seems are worthy. By using so much from Chesterton, Dale not only displays the colorful writing of her subject but demonstrates the color of his personality. Not the least of that color came from Chesterton’s legendary absent-mindedness.

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That absent-mindedness manifested itself even when he was a schoolchild. He was believed when he said he forgot his homework, and he wandered about the playground during class, muttering that he thought it was Saturday.

The absent-mindedness, typically enough for Chesterton, was paradoxical. He was anything but empty-headed. It was intense concentration that left him suddenly aware he was stationary and engrossed in the middle of a street buzzing with traffic. He forgot that the pub he was leaving was only 200 yards from his newspaper office, and hailed a taxi. He once telegraphed his wife: “Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” Unflappably used to Gilbert, Frances wired back, “Home.”

The woman knew what she was marrying into. Gilbert, with the help of his best man, arrived on time for his wedding—but without tie and with price tags hanging from his new shoes. He stopped twice on the way to the station where they would depart for the honeymoon. First he bought a gun to “protect his wife from the pirates doubtless infesting the Norfolk Broads,” then stopped again to buy her a glass of milk at his favorite dairy bar. They missed their train. Finally they caught a later one, and, after arriving at their inn, Gilbert advised the understandably exhausted Frances to rest. He went for a walk. And got lost.

We are talking about the same man who often authored two pieces at the same time, scribbling one himself while dictating another to a secretary. His scholarship was slapdash yet uncannily insightful. He was too lazy to look up quotations and wrote them from memory. Charles Dickens’s daughter found glaring mistakes in Chesterton’s biography of her father, but admired the book overall. When asked to do a biography of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton accepted. He had read Summa Theologica years before, yet launched into the writing without review. Halfway through dictating the biography he asked his secretary to get some books on Aquinas. He flipped through them aimlessly, dumped them in a pile, then dictated the rest of the biography. Chesterton’s genius was such that the biography made the great Thomist theologian Etienne Gilson despair that he “could never have written such a book.”

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Chesterton may be in danger of neglect today, but his influence while alive was considerable. He was a friend to George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Hilaire Belloc, and acquainted with Henry James. Henry’s famous brother, the psychologist William, so wanted to glimpse Chesterton that he climbed a ladder to peek over shrubbery and fence. Chesterton reportedly made a monkey out of Clarence Darrow in a debate on evolutionism. One of his newspaper columns inspired young Mohandas Gandhi with the idea not only to nationalize India but to return it to its native ways of non-Western dress and custom.

In all this, Chesterton was a thoroughly ordinary man, not given to scandals like Oscar Wilde or breakdowns like Virginia Woolf. He gloried in revealing the excitement of domesticity, the mundane and everyday. Chesterton said only God is “strong enough to exult in monotony,” exhorting the sun to “do it again” every morning and never tiring of making each daisy alike but separately.

Chesterton was, of course, speaking from the perspective of a child, who does find each daisy wondrous. Gilbert loved children and remained childlike all his life. He fought writer’s block by throwing paper birds out the window and shooting them with bow and arrow, or by attacking defenseless bushes with his swordstick. Children visiting the Chestertons remember a man who, though weighing 270 pounds, never acted as if they were smaller or less important than he. “The Big Uncle” was apt to remove his slipper, slap the tea table, and firmly announce that he was “putting his foot down” so the children could stay up late or have a treat.

Chesterton realized that the only way to get his desensitized, adult reader to appreciate the ordinary was to turn it upside-down. He was always gleefully pointing out, in one form or another, that a glass could only be half empty if it was half full. He agreed that life was as “dull as ditchwater,” but impishly added, “Naturalists with microscopes have told me that ditchwater teems with quiet fun.” All good writers hope to shed light on the commonplace; Chesterton shed light by setting off fireworks. His magic is that he wrote so extraordinarily about the ordinary, becoming the “Charlie Chaplin of theology and the Walt Disney of religious parable.”

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Alzina Stone Dale points out that Chesterton is relevant to our day on several fronts, not the least being his disarmingly good-natured defense of Christian orthodoxy in a world giddy with post-Christian “enlightenment.” It was Chesterton’s wild talent that he could simultaneously communicate the lofty mystery of Christian truth and its urgent, gritty practicality, offhandedly writing that “I believe a larger number of other mystical dogmas, ranging from the mystical dogma that man is the image of God to the mystical dogma that all men are equal and that babies should not be strangled.”

As Dale writes, we worry about genetic manipulation; Chesterton fought “eugenics,” the political notion that the handicapped be legally barred from bearing children. Feminist Betty Friedan now talks of the family as the building block of society, something Chesterton zestfully affirmed. He championed the individual and common man, upholding a decentralized democracy long before “small is beautiful” became a slogan. Were he alive, Chesterton would certainly be cheered by Solidarity, since during his life he was invited to Poland, feted like royalty, and greeted by an officer who said, “I will not say you are the chief friend of Poland, for God is our chief friend.”

In short, Christian journalists of a later generation have an all-too-formidable example to follow. Not possessing his pyrotechnic logic and acrobatic humor, I suspect we will have to imitate Chesterton in lesser ways. So I might go on, but I seem to have developed writer’s block, and there is a particularly sinister-looking bush outside the window.…

The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, by Alzina Stone Dale (Eerdmans, 1982, 328 pp., $15.95). Reviewed by Rodney Clapp.

Our Nation At The Crossroads Of Decision

There is widespread agreement among sociologists that the 1970s was a decade characterized by inwardness, self-fulfillment, and narcissism. The stress on the individual has robbed our country of its stabilizing cultural forces, according to Amitai Etzioni in his new book, An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century. Excessive individualism has led to the “hollowing of America”—that is, it has eclipsed the family unit, the school system, and other institutions that perpetuate American culture. The “maximization of individualism” is the critical error of our age, says the author, because such an emphasis serves neither the economy nor the community.

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Etzioni sees our country at an important juncture in its history. We have lived through the “Golden Age of Consumption,” which lasted roughly from 1950 to 1975. During this time, median real income rose by 85 percent, and per capita disposable personal income rose by an astounding 69 percent. With the increase in wealth came an increase in consumption and a preoccupation with the seemingly sacrosanct self. The consumptive age has placed our country in a precarious predicament, because for decades, our nation has been consuming more than it has produced (between 1950 and 1979, for example, consumer debt multiplied more than 18 times). At present our nation stands at the crossroads of decision. The author suggests that we essentially have two options: “continual drift and erosion … or an age of economic and societal development” (p. 186). Etzioni argues that we should take the latter course, and he tells us how in the second half of his book.

The agenda of the study is indeed “immodest,” as the author expects a great deal of altruism from a hedonistic people. While what Etzioni proposes may not be likely, his study is insightful as he adroitly analyzes our culture. Evangelicals will find his contentions intriguing as he argues against the attitudes unleashed since the 1960s, attitudes that have corroded American life. His call for a return to the nuclear family unit with its concomitant parenting responsibilities is particularly welcome in an age of single parenthood and proliferating day-care centers.

In spite of its excessive price tag, An Immodest Agenda deserves careful reading by pastors and Christian workers who desire to understand the spirit of our age. Etzioni presents a thorough body of research with extensive documentation of his sources. The rebuilding of America will indeed be an arduous task. Etzioni’s social analysis will at least help evangelicals estimate the depth of the problem.

An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century, by Amitai Etzioni (McGraw-Hill, 1983, 418 pp., $26.95). Reviewed by Reed Jolley, Santa Barbara, California.

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