G. K. Chesterton: Some Prophetic (and Comforting) Words on Modernity

Today I would like to share a couple of passages from G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The book contains many memorable soliloquies, but the following bear particularly acute witness to the puzzling condition of modernity, and this witness is coupled with a prophetic tone which mitigates the essentially dispiriting diagnosis of our current state. Chesterton manages to simultaneously uncover with great precision the distressing banality and cultural confusion of our age and bring his observations to their resolution with a sense that recovery is not only possible, but in some sense inevitable:

What a farce is this modern liberality. Freedom of speech means practically in our modern civilisation that we must only talk about unimportant things. We must not talk about religion, for that is illiberal; we must not talk about bread and cheese, for that is talking shop; we must not talk about death, for that is depressing; we must not talk about birth, for that is indelicate. It cannot last. Something must break this strange indifference, this strange dreamy egoism, this strange loneliness of millions in a crowd. Something must break it. Why should it not be you and I?

taken from The Napoleon of Notting Hill (2001), p.87, House of Stratus.

                The second passage, this time from the end of the book, counters more specifically the weaknesses of progressivism – the school that believes we must rip it up and start again, reject tradition to bring about renewal and sally forth intoning the creed ‘change for the sake of change’. There are many arguments that can be levelled against such a position, but here Chesterton specifically critiques its existential aspect – the enervating effect that the progressivist worldview has on the soul of both culture and individual – and does so by invoking his perennially present (and perennially uplifting) philosophy of thanks for the simple things in life; the things which are also most noble, most human:

It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who has been in love thinks that anyone has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.

ibid, pp.177-178.

                Prophetic words, as are many that fell from Chesterton’s pen. However, not only is his analysis of our cultural condition as relevant to our age as it was in his own, but, as is also often the case with Chesterton, the analysis is accompanied by a profound and very real sense of hope – he sees things according to the long view, and recognising that the woes of our age are rooted in inconsistency, that our supposed march forward is based on the presupposition that we pick apart the road we are walking on, he knows that it cannot last. ‘Something must break’ as he has Adam Wayne say in Napoleon – a culture that finds its only point of consensus in denying the heritage which alone provides it with all it finds to be agreeable, that is built on contradiction papered over by triviality and empty rhetoric, really cannot last.

Moreover, people will eventually begin to tire of such a world, given that its contradictions fail to bring forth anything that truly nourishes or sustains, and that it continually tries to deny those simple gifts of creation that provide us lasting joy, preferring instead various simulacra that tick boxes but subvert any real sense of what made the original so blissful and life-giving. Indeed, there are signs to suggest that people are already tired of the world we have made for ourselves, even if they sometimes do not know why they feel so, or what the roots of the banality and hollowness that they intuit really are. It is thus not so much a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and also ‘who’. As to the time when change occurs, God alone knows, but as to the identity of those who help to return us to sanity, why indeed should it not be you and I?


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