(This post picks up where part 1 left off.)
As I’ve already mentioned twice, Chesterton wrote an enormous amount in many different forms and genres. He also wrote in many different literary styles and employed them all with great success, a trick that few authors can claim. Yet despite all that, there’s very little danger of confusing Chesterton’s writing with anyone else’s. His personality is so distinctive and shines forth so clearly in his writing that he’s nearly impossible to miss. Now we’re left with the task of figuring out exactly what it is that defines Chesterton.
Chesterton was big on common sense. He believed in the things which the mass or ordinary people believed in. He also believed in traditions, habits, and customs, with a view that the received wisdom of earlier generations was a bulkwark against untested ideologies. Once can see this in his approach to nearly any topic. One of the most obvious is in poetry. Chesterton thought that poetry should rhyme and have meter. His own poetry certainly did. In this, he was moving against the current of contemporary English poets who were busy experimenting with free verse and other such nonsense.
Or, to take another example, Chesterton stuck to traditional modes of storytelling in his fiction. All of his stories begin at the start and move linearly to the end. They have an omniscient narrator, a clear plot, and well-defined characters. Chesterton did not mess around with stream-of-consciousness, disjointed non-linear plots, or other post-modernist tricks. He stuck with the literary techniques that had worked for centuries.
It would be a gross error, though, to conclude that Chesterton wanted his writing to be dull and predictable. He was always trying to surprise us, catch us off guard, hit us where we least expect it.
These two themes–respect for tradition and constant surprise–may seem contradictory. Indeed they are contradictory, and the contradiction lies at the heart of Chesterton. His goal was to help the reader see old things in new ways. He was not concerned with inventing new styles or new viewpoints. To him, the existing styles and viewpoints were just fine. Rather, he was worried that people were losing sight of things that should be immediately evident. He sought to point out those things in ways so unexpected that we’d have to think about them.
Lest this become too abstract, here’s an example from the famous essay On Lying in Bed.
Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus on the premises. I think myself that the thing might be managed with several pails of Aspinall and a broom. Only if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way, and laid on the colour in great washes, it might drip down again on one’s face in floods of rich and mingled colour like some strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages. I am afraid it would be necessary to stick to black and white in this form of artistic composition. To that purpose, indeed, the white ceiling would be of the greatest possible use; in fact, it is the only use I think of a white ceiling being put to.
But for the beautiful experiment of lying in bed I might never have discovered it. For years I have been looking for some blank spaces in a modern house to draw on. Paper is much too small for any really allegorical design; as Cyrano de Bergerac says, “Il me faut des géants.” But when I tried to find these fine clear spaces in the modern rooms such as we all live in I was continually disappointed. I found an endless pattern and complication of small objects hung like a curtain of fine links between me and my desire. I examined the walls; I found them to my surprise to be already covered with wallpaper, and I found the wallpaper to be already covered with uninteresting images, all bearing a ridiculous resemblance to each other. I could not understand why one arbitrary symbol (a symbol apparently entirely devoid of any religious or philosophical significance) should thus be sprinkled all over my nice walls like a sort of small-pox. The Bible must be referring to wallpapers, I think, when it says, “Use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do.” I found the Turkish carpet a mass of unmeaning colours, rather like the Turkish Empire, or like the sweetmeat called Turkish Delight. I do not exactly know what Turkish Delight really is; but I suppose it is Armenian Massacres. Everywhere that I went forlornly, with my pencil or my paint brush, I found that others had unaccountably been before me, spoiling the walls, the curtains, and the furniture with their childish and barbaric designs.
Those two paragraphs have everything that we expect from Chesterton: humor, literary and Biblical references, political commentary, and clever wordplay. What you might almost miss is that it’s all about things that are utterly everyday, namely ceilings and walls. Now we all see at least one ceiling and four walls per day, usually more, but how often do we actually think about them? Virtually never, of course. We think about things that we can’t see, such as the budget deficit or carbohydrates or the War in Afghanistan. We do not think about the ceiling or the walls because we’ve seen them tens of thousands of times. We’re not likely to ever think about them unless Chesterton points them out.