Hitchens vs. Chesterton
The last essay by the late Christopher Hitchens appears in the March issue of The Atlantic, and I finally got around to reading it this morning. Craig Burrell has written about it here, and I'm pretty much of the same mind, though he is a little more generous to the piece than I am about to be. I leave myself open to criticism that I'm breaching the rule against speaking ill of the recent dead. But that's a rule of manners, not directly of morality, and I take it as forbidding malice and encouraging charity, with some extra sensitivity to the fact that the person cannot defend himself and is in any case beyond the reach of earthly criticism or correction. I don’t think, though, that there is anything to blame in discussing the very public views of a very public man, even if one will not be dealing out many compliments to him.
I’ll admit right off that I am not very widely acquainted with Hitchens’s work in general, having read mostly his literary essays in The Atlantic and the occasional polemic or interview. So any conclusions I draw are open to correction, if there are other published works that warrant it.
And I may as well go ahead and make it clear that my opinion of him is lower now than when I wrote an obituary of him a couple of months ago. I had given him credit for being open to the truth and committed to it wherever it could be found, but have found too many instances of frivolous half-truths delivered with magisterial certainty, and important truths missed entirely precisely because they came from a source he hated and to which he was entirely closed. Moreover, there seems to be some real question as to whether he ever repudiated his Communism in principle, though he condemned its evils; he may (may—I don’t know) have been like those Christians who evade the evil done in the name of Christianity by saying that those weren’t real Christians.
And I have to note in fairness that his essay on Chesterton was written while he was literally on his deathbed. But there is nothing in it that doesn’t seem entirely characteristic of him, or that is less skillfully written than usual, so I don't think we need suppose that he might have done better or differently had he been healthy.
I can’t say that Hitchens speaks ignorantly of Chesterton, as he appears to have read quite a bit of him. I can say that he frequently speaks blindly and sometimes stupidly. By the time I was two-thirds or so of the way through this essay, I found myself picturing a dog or other small predator—I think Hitchens bears more resemblance to some sort of cat—chewing on an elephant’s leg, and imagining, when he draws blood, that he has inflicted a mortal wound.
It’s a commonplace that everyone has a religion and a god, something which he believes is the ultimate reality, and which constitutes the meaning of his life and gives it a purpose. For many that place is occupied by the ordinary material circumstances of life, and they don’t think much beyond improving those. For intellectuals it may be something more abstract, frequently art or politics. For Hitchens it seems to have been the sort of metaphysical politics of the Enlightenment, which sees history as the struggle for freedom in general, against rulers of all sorts and especially against religion, which he follows skeptics like Voltaire in regarding as irrational and repressive. And, not surprisingly, the Catholic Church generally seems for him a fount of evil, perhaps the fount of evil, though, unlike many leftists, he did in recent years recognize Islamic theocracy as a greater danger, in fact if not in principle, the Church being pretty much on the political sidelines in the West.
I ought to be used to it by now, but I’m still sometimes surprised by the way the secular, if not atheist, Englishman so often continues to be a Protestant when he has long ceased to be a Christian. It’s almost as if the lore of Bloody Mary and Guy Fawkes and sinister Jesuits is somehow in their very genes. That being impossible, one must suppose that it runs very deep in the culture.
And so Hitchens focuses almost entirely on Chesterton’s politics, and in particular spends far more time than I would have thought warranted on Chesterton's attempt to blame most of what is wrong with the modern world on the Reformation. I don't entirely disagree with Hitchens here; the Chesterbelloc view of history seems idiosyncratic to say the least. But it is far from the most important aspect of Chesterton's writing--unless of course your religion is politics, in the broad sense, and you see the struggle between good and evil as principally manifested there. In that case there is nothing more important than a writer's politics, and the question of whether he is on the right side or not, because whether he is on the right side is the same as whether he is worthy of much admiration.
Not surprisingly, Hitchens finds Chesterton to be on the wrong side, and therefore not in the end worth very much. He cannot be taken very seriously, except in his role as an enemy of the good, his virtues (his charm, as Hitchens calls it) being mostly irrelevant. It is not a completely ungenerous assessment; he closes by admitting that he enjoyed the encounter. But it is not an insightful one.
Hitchens has scathing things to say here, as he frequently does, about inquisitors and heresy-hunters. Yet I can’t escape the impression that he read GKC in much the same way that an inquisitor might, only passingly interested in anything that did not touch upon the effort to establish that he was a heretic. And I don’t see anyreason to think Hitchens began with an open mind on that question.
He misses entirely the essence of Chesterton’s spiritual vision, which is to say that he misses the essence of Chesterton, period. This is the vision articulated best, I think, in Orthodoxy, and is the thing I value most in him. I don't expect Hitchens to share or approve the vision, but you don't have to be a Christian to appreciate the sheer literary skill of its presentation, and to grasp the significance of the philosophical questions it raises. And while I know it’s common for people to think Chesterton wonderful in one genre and negligible in another, to spend a lot of time defending the Reformation against Chesterton’s attacks (which I agree are not always convincing) and yet never mention the great vision which informs everything he wrote, is evidence of at best a severely constricted perception.
I don't idolize Chesterton, and in fact I’m significantly less enthusiastic about him than many of my general beliefs and tastes. I find his prose tiresome at length, and have little taste for either his poetry or his fiction. His political and economic ideas, while sound in principle, are wrapped in romantic sentimentality which helps to make them unpersuasive to many. A touch , and more than a touch, of romance is not a bad thing at all in politics, but sentimentality is ruinous, and I can’t entirely blame those who dismiss Chesterton’s distributism and agrarianism as being only, as Fr. Richard Neuhaus put it in one of his weaker moments, “poetry and preachment.” (I call it a weak moment because Neuhaus was intelligent enough that he should have been able to see through the sentimentality to the core of truth.) So my quarrel with Hitchens is not that he refused to become a Chestertonian. A matter of taste? No, not entirely: we wouldn't think much of a critic who dismissed Dante as "a Christian creep," which I once heard someone do. There is a level of literary achievement which a person of good judgment can recognize and appreciate even if it does not suit him. That's the literary failure of Hitchens's last essay. And I can't help conjecturing that it may also have been a spiritual failure, which, considering the circumstances, seems tragic.
One point on which I did agree with Hitchens was the Father Brown stories.
Father Brown I give up and return to you. The character is deliberately vacant and the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley.... The debt is overwhelmingly to Conan Doyle, with no indebtedness to any of the great formulas of detective fiction. As a consequence, the little priest’s summings-up are usually arid and often iffy.
Some thirty years ago, full of enthusiasm for GKC, I bought a collection of the Father Brown stories and found them disappointing. I don't think I read more than the first three or four: they seemed thin mechanical puzzles with a moral attached.
I wanted to see whether my view of thestories might be different now, and so I sat down with my Father Brown Omnibus and picked a story at random, opening the book somewhere near the middle, so as to be sure it was one I hadn’t read. It was “The Oracle of the Dog,” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, the plot is a preposterous contrivance—in this case “clanking trolley” may actually be too kind, because it suggested a Rube Goldberg device to me. And Fr. Brown’s powers of deduction and inference are not credible. And it’s all fairly didactic—I laughed out loud, although I doubt I was supposed to, when Fr. Brown turned away from the murder case to work on a series of lectures on Rerum Novarum. But it was great fun to read, full of sharp and frequently amusing descriptions and asides, and with a much more vivid atmosphere than I recalled.
Hitchens complained that the character of Fr. Brown was vacant, but I think he misses something important. It is true that Fr. Brown is in a sense largely absent from the story; he functions as a sort of calculator to which someone brings clues and which eventually dispenses a solution. But the questions he asks, and the observations he makes, and the reasons he gives for his conclusions, all create a sense of the mostly off-stage person as a deeply sympathetic intelligence, the sort one would expect of a very wise and skillful spiritual advisor.
I’ve given up coffee for Lent, which is a difficult thing for me. Today being Sunday, I allowed myself my first taste of it since Ash Wednesday, when I had half a cup in hopes of staving off the usual caffeine withdrawal headache (it worked). I made myself a cup with great care, and settled into my favorite chair with the Father Brown Omnibus in my hands, a cat on my lap, and a dog nestled between me and the arm of the chair. I was alone, my wife being in Paris helping out with our newest grandon, and the house was silent except for the ticking of the clock. This is a kind of quiet bliss that one will be happy to remember in heaven; it is a pure pleasure, because it doesn't depend on any intoxicant, physical or emotional. I’m pretty tired of taking care of our animals, and of being prevented by them from leaving home for more than a day or two without a lot of preparation and expense, etc. etc. But it was rather nice to have them at that moment.