Friday, May 14, 2004


I've been re-reading some of Chesterton's collected works, most recently Volume III, which contains several books and essays on religion. I'll be featuring some quotes that caught my eye.

Like this one:
The Catholic Church and Conversion, chap. 5. (1927).

We do not really want [need] a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong. . . . [Modern people] says they want a religion to be social, when they would be social without any religion. They say they want a religion to be practical, when they would be practical without any religion. They say they want a religion acceptable to science, when they would accept the science even if they did not accept the religion. They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already. They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it.
In a chapter of another book, Chesterton discusses H.L. Mencken's theory that literary criticism is nothing more than catharsis on the critic's part:
The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 2 (1929).

[H]e appears to state most positively the purely personal and subjective nature of criticism; he makes it individual and almost irresponsible. "The critic is first and last simply trying to express himself; he is trying to achieve thereby for his own inner ego the grateful feeling of . . . a katharsis attained, which Wagner achieved when he wrote Die Walkurie, and a hen achieves every time she lays an egg."
Chesterton vigorously disagreed with Mencken, and demonstrated by writing his own review of a novelist named Theodore Dreiser, whose novels are described in a footnote as rather grim:
If the critic produces the criticism only to please himself, it is entirely irrelevant that it does not please somebody else. The somebody else has a perfect right to say the exact opposite to please himself, and be perfectly satisfied with himself. But they cannot controvert because they cannot compare. . . . Neither I nor anybody else can have a controversy about literature with Mr. Mencken, because there is no way of criticizing the criticism, except by asking whether the critic is satisfied. And there the debate ends, at the beginning: for nobody can doubt that Mr. Mencken is satisfied.

. . .
I can take something or other about which I have definite feelings -- as, for instance, the philosophy of Mr. Dreiser . . . . I can achieve for my own inner ego the grateful feeling of writing as follows:

"He describes a world which appears to be a dull and discolouring illusion of indigestion, not bright enough to be called a nightmare; smelly, but not even stinking with any strength; smelling of the sale gas of ignorant chemical experiments by dirty, secretive schoolboys -- the sort of boys who torture cats in corners; spineless and spiritless like a broken-backed worm; loathsomely slow and laborious like an endless slug; despairing, but not with dignity; blaspheming, but not with courage; without wit, without will, without laughter or uplifting of the heart; too old to die, too deaf to leave off talking, too blind to stop, too stupid to start afresh, too dead to be killed, and incapable even of being damned, since in all its weary centuries it has not reached the age of reason."

That is what I feel about it; and it certainly gives me pleasure to relieve my feelings. I have got it off my chest. I have attained a katharsis. I have laid an egg. I have produced a criticism, satisfying all Mr. Mencksen's definitions of the critic. I have performed a function. I feel better, thank you.


Blogger Michelle Dulak said...


That passage on Dreiser is the best single piece of literary invective I've ever happened upon. I found it first in one of these tiny Chesterton miscellanies that proliferated in the middle of the last century. The compiler of this one was uncommonly savvy. Someone really ought to send that paragraph to Matthew Parris (author of a brilliant little book called Scorn), for inclusion in the next edition.

2:54 PM  

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