Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kevin Belmonte's "Defiant Joy: G.K. Chesterton": Book Review

Chesterton's impact, through his many writings, remains the emphasis; his life's the backdrop for a talented critic, fantasist, poet, and controversialist who never seemed to stop working. Belmonte covers GKC's career efficiently, in many short chapters, most focusing on a particular major work. That some are forgotten now only highlights how renowned they once were. Graham Greene on "The Ballad of the White Horse," T.S. Eliot on "The Napoleon of Notting Hill," or Orson Welles on "The Man Who Was Thursday" jostle with H.L. Mencken, H.G. Wells, and G. B. Shaw, his formidable adversaries and friends, for as his biographer documents, GKC knew how to debate spiritedly while keeping his balance, and his wit and warmth with those who were his intellectual opponents.

Such a quality endears him to Belmonte, and to us. We see through Gerry Wills or Philip Yancey, J.R.R. Tolkien or Harold Bloom, C.S. Lewis and Sir James Murray of O.E.D. fame the effect of GKC as informed critic as well as Christian apologist. While Belmonte does relegate Chesterton's supposed anti-semitic or racist-tinged rhetoric to an endnote, and while he blurs such facts as exactly when and how he converted to Catholicism while writing his study of St. Francis of Assisi, or his relationship with Hilaire Belloc, these details get subsumed in his mission: to provide lengthy excerpts from the original works and from those who responded to them, positively and negatively, then and now, a century and more later.

It's astonishing to read a student essay at St. Paul's, from his teens, on Milton; its acumen and prose style appear worthy of an Oxford don. He never got through much university training, starting in his early twenties and producing criticism that has the aplomb and depth of few skilled critics of any age. While some of it has dated, and while his paradoxes and barbs sometimes weary modern readers, Belmonte diminishes their mustiness, and deflects those who ignore or denigrate his criticism, as compared to his Christian defenses such as "Heretics" and especially "Orthodoxy."

That 1908 book, along with "Thursday" the same year (Belmonte gives hints of that anarchic fantasy's compelling plot without spoiling it!), makes the strongest impact here. What applies to the preceding "Heresy" stands for his motive. He decried a second fall of Man. The first had brought at least knowledge of good and evil. The second, in an atheistic and secular age of progress towards a good that nobody believed in or could define or agree upon, led to, in GKC's paradoxical view, the knowledge of evil. What previous ages had labored towards as the role of the good man or the right life had collapsed for those entering the modern era and the new century. Instead, the 20c had rejected a truth that was not relative, in a time of "a great silent collapse" of belief.

Belmonte defends his subject, although he may share his subject's generosity towards aphorism and the well-turned phrase while the more intricate philosophical and theological points get deflected in the deft parry that GKC perfected. Belmonte and Chesterton tend to forgive their foes rather than mow them down as thoroughly as we in a more confrontational age may expect. But this tolerance is part of the message of this biography.

Parts of the debates get short shrift, but this may be due to GKC's own ability to dazzle with a dexterity on the page and I assume in person that left contenders speechless, in awe, and/or sputtering. But there's a generosity here missing from many contemporary showdowns between believers and deniers, skeptics and the convinced. So, for a brisk, accessible, and thought-provoking introduction (or refresher-- it's been years since I read some of these books and others I never have), this is recommended for any open-minded thinker.  (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 3-1-11.)

1 comment:

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