Literature as Praise, Resistance, and Consolation: Part I

G. K. Chesterton at work (Wikimedia Commons)
The dreary strictures of modernism will never displace the classics, old and new.

Concluding a teaching career of 50 years, I have been kindly asked by the Swiss university where I have taught every spring for the last 25 years to give some valedictory public lectures in early 2020. (I have taught in five U.S. states, on two continents, and in three European countries and three linguistic regions, starting 50 years ago in New York City, and including a remote poverty-area rural American high school and six universities on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as mostly doctoral students over 15 autumns at Boston University.)

Although I have also taught history and educational policy, my first love has always been literature, and it occurred to me to conceive a few public lectures on it in terms of praise, resistance, and consolation, looking at six 20th-century Anglophone thinkers and writers, put in three groups of two each: G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers; Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King; C. S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge.

Every coherent writer praises something, implicitly or explicitly. It was a risky strategy for the editors of a recent anthology of George Orwell’s essays to call it “All Art Is Propaganda,” since the phrase may throw us back into the literary and artistic disputes of the 1930s, when Marxists and other ideologues narrowly construed and judged artistic works in terms of political orientation and content. Yet the sturdy truth-teller Orwell himself made the assertion: “All art is to some extent propaganda,” he wrote in his 1942 essay on T. S. Eliot. Every artwork propagates a world-view and a scheme of valuations.

We may well say that some art media — music without words, painting without representation — escape this generalization; but even they promote some value: in their case the valorization of aesthetic experience itself — the implication that we ought to look at or listen to the works of the composing artists, that they have value. Artworks in whatever medium not only are self-expressions, but implicitly communicate that such expression is worth our attending to. Art without an implicit audience is mere exhibitionism, infantilism, solipsism, or mental illness.

Yet much of the literature of the last 200 years, with steadily increasing frequency, has been a documentation of dehumanization and absurdism, and frequently of what might accurately be called mental illness. Mind-numbing valuelessness is rife in modern literature. One of my great teachers, the Dante scholar and polymath Joseph A. Mazzeo of Columbia University, argued in a 1976 essay that “in our era the idiosyncratic has triumphed over the normative.” C. S. Lewis said that modern literature could not “paint virtue” any longer — making us value life, loving the good and hating the bad — and didn’t even try. Another of my teachers, Lionel Trilling, drew attention to the nostalgia of the Romantic poets in the face of the philosophical reductionism and materialism of the so-called Enlightenment: “Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem The Prelude gives the classic account of the damage done to the mind of the individual, to its powers of cognition no less than to its vital force, by the scientistic conception of mind that prevailed among intellectuals at the time of the French Revolution.” (“Mind in the Modern World,” 1973; emphasis added.)

Perhaps the two greatest novelists of the modern period — Dickens and Tolstoy — are thus very unusual in their pervasive sense of the value and beauty of life (even social life), nature, and the world itself. By the end of the 19th century the traffic was all going in the other direction: bitterness, rage, or irony — from Flaubert, Zola, and Dreiser to Gide, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Norman Mailer — and perhaps only the great, grateful prison-camp survivor Solzhenitsyn strikes feelingly and convincingly the notes of joy and gratitude. W. H. Auden somewhere writes of “enlightened” modern “liberation,” saying a plangent prayer: “In the desert of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.”

In this light, or twilight, the literary career of G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) stands out strangely. In the Oxford scholar John Carey’s fine study The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (1992), he argues that in this 60-year period only two major English-language writers resisted the Nietzschean bacillus of bitter irony and aristocratic contempt: Arnold Bennett and Chesterton. We may add that the “scientific intelligentsia” was overwhelmingly attracted to scientistic Marxism in the same period, also with catastrophic consequences.

Chesterton knew through experience the fin-de-siècle pessimism of the aesthetes, the braggart jingoism of the imperialists, the cynicism of the capitalists (think of Andrew Undershaft in the play Major Barbara (1905), by Chesterton’s longtime friend George Bernard Shaw), the collectivism of the Marxists. Yet some intuitive genius turned him against these “heresies” (the title of one of his early books is Heretics (1908)), without succumbing to the “peter pan-theism” of the nostalgic longing for childhood, nature, and the past — or to the “Whig interpretation of history,” which envisioned the future as a gradual or rapid arrival in utopia. Long before 1914 he realized that the 20th century was more likely to be catastrophe than utopia. The philosopher Sidney Hook was to say that 1914 commenced “the Second Fall of Man,” due its spectacular disappointment of Whig-liberal and Marxist hopes. We still live in the shadow of that Fall.

Chesterton’s early career has been carefully considered and charted in a fine scholarly book by William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874–1908 (Oxford, 2008). What Chesterton recovered on his own was a philosophy of life that resisted both pessimistic and optimistic simplifications, literary subjectivism and scientific materialism, desperate or arrogant Nietzschean immoralism and fanatical Marxist moral inversion. He felt that the modernist “heretics” evaded certain basic facts of life — first of all, perhaps, that being itself was good — the being of the world, the beings of others, and the being of the self. Initially he probably identified this insight most with Charles Dickens, on whom he wrote two great books (1906, 1911) at a time when Dickens’s literary reputation (though not his popularity) was at a low ebb. Gradually Chesterton was to credit this profound metaphysical intuition to earlier classic English writers — Chaucer and Shakespeare — and to William Blake and Robert Browning, but his intuitive philosophical wisdom ultimately saw it in those great medieval Italian, pan-European figures St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas, on each of whom he wrote a brilliant, classic book (1923, 1933), as he did on Chaucer, Blake, and Browning. “Bonus et ens convertuntur” — Goodness and being are convertible, as St. Thomas put it. Being itself is real and good.

Only at the end of the 19th century did the Catholic Church really renew its deep debt to St. Thomas Aquinas, and Chesterton would not become a Roman Catholic until the early 1920s, but William Oddie shows that Chesterton’s personal evolution was the result of a profound meditation on philosophical and existential issues very early on, an odyssey reflected in his drawing, poetry, journalism, literary criticism, biographies, and novels, perhaps most beautifully in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). John Carey’s identification of Chesterton as a very lonely exception to the Nietzschean bacillus afflicting literary intellectuals during his lifetime is an important revelation about modern cultural history. Chesterton’s literary legacy thus strikes the note of praise and gratitude for mere existence itself — his works are permanent resources of ‘grave levity’ and philosophical-intuitive insight along the lines of Blaise Pascal’s “l’esprit de finesse.”

Among the many whose morale was renewed and whose philosophical-religious faith was strengthened by reading Chesterton was the brilliant young student and writer Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), as a standard biography of her by James Brabazon (1981) makes clear. One of the first woman graduates of Oxford (1915; her degree finally granted with honors and an M.A. in 1920), the brilliant but homely Sayers lived a deeply unhappy and privately anarchic life but became a self-supporting writer with her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels in the 1930s. But the turning point, or deepening experience, of her life, was her reading of Charles Williams’s book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice (1943). As with Chesterton’s experience of reading Dickens, and then St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas, Sayers’s reading of Williams on Dante, and Dante’s Commedia itself, finally gave her the missing piece in the puzzle of life.

“Enlightened” modernity was in flight from being itself, in the interest of either endless, relativistic, “evolutionary” becoming or bitter, epiphenomenal self-assertion and irony. But like her contemporaries T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, C. S. Lewis, and Étienne Gilson (and John Erskine and Mortimer Adler in the U.S.), Sayers saw that the “medieval synthesis” of St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and the Gothic cathedrals was not only an object of nostalgia (as it was for the American Henry Adams in Mont.-St.-Michel and Chartres), but an instantiation of an ever-renewable, and always necessary, “perennial philosophy” that had been frequently obscured over subsequent centuries, but to which human recourse, in new forms, would always be necessary and possible. It was the great work of Pope Leo XIII to recover this realization, not only for the Church but for the world at large (see my “Lincoln and Leo XIII against the Nietzscheans” (2018) on this site).

The great work of Dorothy Sayers’s life was not the popular Wimsey detective novels that gave her fame and financial security by the end of the ’30s, or her theology (much appreciated by Jacques Barzun: See From Dawn to Decadence (2000)) or religious dramas, but the poetic translation for Penguin Books of Dante’s Commedia, on which she spent the last dozen years of her life until her death in 1957. Her terza-rima verse translation of Hell appeared in 1949, and Purgatory in 1955. Left unfinished at her death, Heaven was completed by her Cambridge disciple and friend, the Italian scholar Barbara Reynolds, and published posthumously in 1962 (see Reynolds’s biography of Sayers (1994) and her The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy Sayers’s Encounter with Dante (1991)). Sayers’s notes and commentaries to her translation and her two volumes of popular lectures on Dante are heavily indebted to Williams’s 1943 book.

Barbara Reynolds wrote in 1962 that Sayers’s translation of the Comedy and her prose commentaries “brought Dante within the reach of thousands of readers for whom he would otherwise have remained unintelligible.” She adds that between the publication of Sayers’s translation of Inferno in 1949 and the publication of the composite Sayers-Reynolds translation and completion of Paradiso in 1962, “the Divine Comedy has had more English-speaking readers than it has ever had over a comparable length of time in all its history.” This is even more true today, due of course also to T. S. Eliot’s great essays on Dante (1929, 1950) and to other good translations: Since Sayers’s version we have lived in the great age of English-language Dante translation, in prose as well as poetry. It has also benefited from a great body of modern Dante commentary and analysis by scholars such as John D. Sinclair, Joseph A. Mazzeo, Charles S. Singleton, and Robert Hollander, not to speak of the Italians. (See one of my own modest contributions, “The Heirs of Canto III of Dante’s Inferno,” in Lectura Dantis (1988).) Though Penguin Books has subsequently published at least two other translations of Dante’s Comedy, it regularly republishes the Sayers-Reynolds version too, a version that the fastidious Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco (1932–2016) considers the best poetic rendering in English.

Writing several years before the publication of Sayers’s Hell, the great Scottish literary scholar Sir Herbert Grierson described Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXI, as “the impassioned vision of the worth of things.” Goodness and being are convertible: “Bonus et ens convertuntur.” G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers had discovered and articulated the human need to give praise — one of the greatest functions of literature, though of course not its only one. And they realized that language can be not only a medium of praise, but an object of praise — against all relativisms and reductionisms whatsoever. In an important book first published in 1924, the American philosopher E. A. Burtt wrote that “the only way to avoid being a metaphysician is to say nothing.” Language is itself metaphysical — not only physical marks on paper or sound-waves through air. Not to see and understand this momentous, dualistic fact of civilization is to be utterly blind and deaf to the history of culture and literacy from Moses, Plato, and the Gospels to Martin Luther King and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Cognition, conceptualization, and language themselves are irreducible aspects of “the worth of things” that Dante’s poem both indicates and embodies (to use a phrase of A. N. Whitehead). In this light, modern absurdism retires to its dark and silent home in hell.

Commentaries on the great literary texts — Biblical, philosophical, imaginative — keep alive “the impassioned vision of the worth of things,” and this heritage of literary criticism is thus a precious resource. We have great and distinguished bodies of it at both high and popularizing levels, not least on Dante. Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare (1765) and the recent, definitive annotated edition of T. S. Eliot’s poems, edited and annotated by Sir Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (which I reviewed in National Review in 2016), are culture-sustaining works, preserving and extending the life of literary creations perennially worthy of praise, on which the human spirit is dependent for its wisdom, health, and happiness.

It is a poignant fact that in the cosmopolitan, polyglot contemporary critic George Steiner’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation (1966), he did not choose any translation of Dante from among the many modern English-language poets who have translated him, including John Ciardi, C. H. Sisson, or Dorothy Sayers herself, but from that splendid amateur G. K. Chesterton: his fragment of the Paradiso’s visionary Canto 33 (lines 49–72), the great poem’s concluding section, and one of the greatest passages of praise in the history of literature:

Then was my vision mightier than man’s speech;
Speech snapt before it like a flying spell;
And memory and all that time can teach
Before that splendid outrage failed and fell.
As when one dreameth and remembereth not
Waking, what were his pleasures or his pains,
With every feature of the dream forgot,
The printed passion of the dream remains:—
Even such am I; within whose thoughts resides
No picture of that sight or any part,
Nor any memory: in whom abides
Only a happiness within the heart,
A secret happiness that soaks the heart
As hills are soaked by slow unsealing snow,
Or secret as that wind without a chart
Whereon did the wild leaves of Sibyl go.
O light uplifted from all mortal knowing,
Send back a little of that glimpse of thee,
That of its glory I may kindle glowing
One tiny spark for all men yet to be.

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