GK Chesterton, wrestler with the universe

G.K. Chesterton: a biography, Ian Ker, Oxford University Press, $A56.16

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is well-known as an English writer whose prolific output ranged from detective fiction to Christian apologetics.

Ian Ker's biography confirms him as a great thinker. He wrestled the universe inside out. The big question for the Christian, as he put it in the magazine Orthodoxy, was: "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?"

Chesterton became a Catholic only at the age of 48. Like Newman, he reached certainty by the convergence of probabilities or a jigsaw of evidence.

At 20 came his great crisis as an art student. It was an existential crisis and a moral one – not concerned, as some have presumed, with sexual impulses but with a terrible prospect of nihilism and diabolism, “a nightmare of negations about mind and matter”, as he put it.

Ker shows that he resolved it not so much by a methodic optimism (a “half-truth” in Chesterton’s judgment) but by rejoicing in existence. He followed not Pollyanna but the book of Job.

As a journalist, Chesterton would write 14,000 words, week after week. But if he was a jolly journalist, he was a jolly bad editor of the paper he took on when his brother died. His dramas are unstageable and his novels mere toy theatres of debate, excepting the “nightmare” of The Man Who Was Thursday.

Along with this, the great books out of the dozens he published, remain Orthodoxy and, Ker suggests, Charles Dickens, The Everlasting Man  and, soon before his death, the Autobiography and St Thomas Aquinas.

In Aquinas he discovered not so much metaphysics as “a hunger and thirst for Things”. This matched Chesterton’s sacramentalism. A recurrent theme in his thought is limitation, which includes materiality, form and incarnation. Reading with him is like mining for gold: Ian Ker’s tremendous biography is an incitement to read Chesterton afresh.

Wrestler with the universe (The Tablet)

www.spectator.co.uk/books/6880848/the-man-mountain-of-fleet-street.thtml (review by A.N. Wilson)

G.K. Chesterton ([email protected])

G.K. Chesterton on modernism and orthodoxy (AD2000)


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