An Ordinary Day in the Life of G. K. Chesterton

I recently spent a delightful evening in Nashville with a good friend, Trevin Wax. There he shared with me a letter from G. K. Chesterton I had never seen before. It was discovered by Maisie Ward, and published in her celebrated biography (on pages 102–104; all online).

In his own enchanted way, here’s Chesterton narrating an average day, by letter, to his inquisitive fiancé, Frances.

11, Paternoster Buildings
Sept. 29, 1899

I fear, as you say, that my letters do not contain many practical details about myself: the letters are not very long to begin with, as I think it better to write something every day than a long letter when I have leisure: and when I have a little time to think in, I always think of the Kosmos first and the Ego afterwards. I admit, however, that you are not engaged to the Kosmos: Dear me! What a time the Kosmos would have! All its Comets would have their hair brushed every morning. The Whirlwind would be adjured not to walk about when it was talking. The Oceans would be warmed with hot-water pipes. Not even the lowest forms of life would escape the crusade of tidiness: you would walk round and round the jellyfish, looking for a place to put in shirt-links.

Under these circumstances, then, I cannot but regard it as fortunate that you are only engaged to your obedient Microcosm: a biped inheriting some of the traits of his mother, the Kosmos, its untidiness, its largeness, its irritating imperfection and its profound and hearty intention to go on existing as long as it possibly can.

I can understand what you mean about wanting details about me, for I want just the same about you. You need only tell me “I went down the street to a pillar-box [mail box],” I shall know that you did it in a manner, blindingly, staggeringly, crazily beautiful. . . .

As to what I do every day: it depends on which way you want it narrated: what we all say it is, or what it really is.

What we all say happens every day is this: I wake up: dress myself, eat bacon and bread and coffee for breakfast: walk up to High St. Station, take a fourpenny ticket for Blackfriars, read the Chronicle in the train, arrive at 11, Paternoster Buildings: read a MS called “The Lepers” (light comedy reading) and another called “The Preparation of Ryerson Embury” — you know the style — till 2 o’clock. Go out to lunch, have — (but here perhaps it would be safer to become vague), come back, work till six, take my hat and walking-stick and come home: have dinner at home, write the Novel till 11, then write to you and go to bed. That is what, we in our dreamy, deluded way, really imagine is the thing that happens. What really happens (but hist! are we observed?) is as follows.

Out of the starless night of the Uncreated, that was before the stars, a soul begins to grope back to light. It gropes its way through strange, half-lighted chambers of Dreams, where in a brown and gold twilight, it sees many things that are dimly significant, true stories twisted into new and amazing shapes, human beings whom it knew long ago, sitting at the windows by dark sunsets, or talking in dim meadows. But the awful invading Light grows stronger in the dreams, till the soul in one last struggle, plunges into a body, as into a house and wakes up within it. Then he rises and finds himself in a wonderful vast world of white light and clear, frankly coloured shapes, an inheritor of a million stars. On enquiry he is informed that his name is Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

This amuses him.

He goes through a number of extraordinary and fantastic rituals; which the pompous elfland he has entered demands. The first is that he shall get inside a house of clothing, a tower of wool and flax; that he shall put on this foolish armour solemnly, one piece after another and each in its right place. The things called sleevelinks he attends to minutely. His hair he beats angrily with a bristly tool. For this is the Law. Downstairs a more monstrous ceremony attends him.

He has to put things inside himself. He does so, being naturally polite. Nor can it be denied that a weird satisfaction follows. He takes a sword in his hand (for what may not befall him in so strange a country!) and goes forth: he finds a hole in the wall, a little cave wherein sits One who can give him the charm that rules the horse of water and fire. He finds an opening and descends into the bowels of the earth. Down, among the roots of the Eternal hills, he finds a sunless temple wherein he prays. And in the centre of it he finds a lighted temple in which he enters. Then there are noises as of an earthquake and smoke and fire in the darkness: and when he opens the door again he is in another temple, out of which he climbs into another world, leagues and leagues away. And when he asks the meaning of the vision, they talk gibberish and say, “It is a train.”

So the day goes, full of eerie publishers and elfin clerks, till he returns and again puts things inside him, and then sits down and makes men in his own head and writes down all that they said and did. And last of all comes the real life itself. For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper, words that are not picked and chosen like those that he has used to parry the strange talk of the folk all day, but words in which the soul’s blood pours out, like the body’s blood from a wound. He writes secretly this mad diary, all his passion and longing, all his queer religion, his dark and dreadful gratitude to God, his idle allegories, the tales that tell themselves in his head; the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it!) at the sacred intoxication of existence: the million faults of idleness and recklessness and the one virtue of the unconquered adoration of goodness, that dark virtue that every man has, and hides deeper than all his vices — he writes all this down as he is writing it now. And he knows that if he sticks it down and puts a stamp on it and drops it into the mouth of a little red goblin at the corner of the street — he knows that all this wild soliloquy will be poured into the soul of one wise and beautiful lady sitting far away beyond seas and rivers and cities, under the shadow of an alien Cathedral.

The Resurrection Changes Everything

I’m of the opinion that great quotes on the resurrection are never out of season. This one comes from G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, as taken from The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius; 1986), 2:344–5:

They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulture [burial] and guarded by the authority of the Caesars.

For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

On Reading Nonsense Satire

From the mailbag, Daniel writes to ask: Have you read Rabelais? In your reading of and about the classics, do you know of any reason why a Christian should hesitate to read him, for moral reasons or otherwise?

Good question, Daniel.

François Rabelais (1494–1553) was a contemporary of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the two Frenchmen couldn’t be more unalike. More on that in a moment. Rabelais’s two novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel are named for the central characters in each book (two giants). The works are non-sensical satire of farce, loaded with scatological humor.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the novels in the past and found his works to be so unnecessarily vulgar to lose all luster for me as a reader (there’s an entire paragraph describing how to use a live goose as toilet paper, and worse things I dare not share on this blog).

These novels raise other related questions. Here are a few things to consider regarding Rabelais (in particular) and the genre of nonsense satire (in general).

For a good start, be sure to read two G. K. Chesterton essays (both mention Rabelais).

In A Defence of Nonsense, Chesterton writes, “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”

And in A Defence of Farce, he writes: “The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce.’”

Traveling back in time to Calvin’s Geneva, Rabelais’s novels were condemned as obscene and one could face church discipline (i.e. public lashings) for being found with them.

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, draws an interesting comparison (8:266):

These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny [??], the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

But this comparison is a bit overdrawn. Calvin was widely read and appreciated more literature than he commonly gets credit for, and he certainly appreciated the value of wit and sarcasm, as B. B. Warfield explains (W, 5:10–2):

The Reformation was the greatest revolution of thought which the human spirit has wrought since the introduction of Christianity; and controversy is the very essence of revolutions. Of course Calvin’s whole life, which was passed in the thick of things, was a continuous controversy; and directly controversial treatises necessarily form a considerable part of his literary output. We have already been taught, indeed, that his fundamental aim was constructive, not destructive: he wished to rebuild the Church on its true foundations, not to destroy its edifice. But, like certain earlier rebuilders of the Holy City, he needed to work with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. . . .

Of course he had nothing in common with the mere mockers of the time — des Périers, Marot, Rabelais — whose levity was almost as abominable to him as their coarseness. Satire to him was a weapon, not an amusement. The proper way to deal with folly, he thought, was to laugh at it. The superstitions in which the world had been so long entangled were foolish as truly as wicked; and how could it be, he demanded, that in speaking of things so ridiculous, so intrinsically funny, we should not laugh at them “with wideopen mouth”? Of course this laugh was not the laugh of pure amusement; and as it gained in earnestness it naturally lost in lightness of touch. It was a rapier in Calvin’s hands, and its use was to pierce and cut. And how well he uses it!

More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a very good point about why Rabelais’s works may appeal to the postmodern mind (Is There a Meaning?, 432–3):

Nietzsche and Derrida capture the spirit of much postmodern interpretation — what I call the “spirit of carnival” [a phrase coined to describe Rabelais’s novels]. In the festivities associated with the medieval carnival, hierarchies are turned on their heads (fools become kings and kings fools) and the sacred is profaned. Everything authoritative or serious is mocked and subverted. Indeed, one critic has suggested that Derrida’s most important, though perhaps unintentional, effect has been the “carnivalesque impetus” that has taken hold of and overturned the humanities. To view the world, with Nietzsche and Derrida, as a Dionysian carnival is to celebrate its openness and indeterminacy. Yet the spirit of carnival is ultimately a rebellious spirit, one that undoes authority by mocking it: “Deconstruction subverts from within the system that liberation seeks to change from without. . . . Carnival as a social event is the mockery by the oppressed of the structures of oppression, through an ironic mimicry by the subordinate of the dominant, a reversal of roles.” Carnival is thus an apt metaphor for the postmodern condition.

Finally, I scanned through Douglas Wilson’s blog and books for mentions of Rabelais but with little to show for it. He’s a Chesterton-Calvin-Vanhoozer blended thinker, and I’m certain he could put all these thoughts together on Rabelais in a way I cannot.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the genre of nonsense satire, but for now — for my money — I’d skip Rabelais strictly on the basis of his gratuitous scatological humor and his filthy and crude joking (Eph. 5:3).