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Seeker of Truth

A mind as wide as the legendary waistline.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By EDWARD SHORT
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G. K. Chesterton
A Biography
by Ian Ker
Oxford, 688 pp., $66

G.K. Chesterton

George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, 1927

Getty Images

Many will know Ian Ker as the author of the definitive life of Cardinal Newman. Now he has focused his biographical and critical skills on G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the great journalist, critic, poet, novelist, and biographer, and the result is a discriminating portrait that does welcome justice to the full richness of his subject’s hitherto undervalued work.

In his life of Newman, Ker encapsulated his subject’s quest for reality by translating Newman’s motto, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem: “Out of unreality into Reality.” In G. K. Chesterton he persuasively argues that his subject was Newman’s successor precisely because he shared the 19th-century convert’s passion for reality, a quality which Hilaire Belloc also discerned in his friend: “Truth had for him,” Belloc recalled, “the immediate attraction of an appetite. He was hungry for reality. But what is much more, he could not conceive of himself except as satisfying that hunger .  .  . it was not possible for him to hold anything worth holding that was not connected with the truth as a whole.”

Chesterton was a servant of the truth, as well as a champion of reality, and it is these qualities together that make him so salutary a figure for our own age, which is not only reluctant to acknowledge objective truth but embraces unreality with frenetic abandon. The entertainer in Chesterton might have been intent on making his readers laugh, but he also extolled what many in his time (and our own) wish to see diminished, including the Christian tradition, the sanctity of life, the dignity of the family, and personal liberty—and it is refreshing to see these vital aspects of the man given their prophetic due.

With the same critical distillation that distinguished his life of Newman, Ker has sifted through Chesterton’s massive output to identify several major themes which, taken together, demonstrate the unity and depth of his thought. In his introduction,
Ker writes:

Chesterton’s philosophy of wonder .  .  . is well known, but I have also highlighted the complementary principle of limitation that informs all his thinking about art, literature, politics, and religion. Linked, too, to his philosophy of wonder is his concept of the role of the imagination in enabling us to see the familiar afresh, as it were for the first time.

Unlike other commentators, who insist on seeing Chesterton the thinker as separate from Chesterton the funny man, Ker appreciates how the two were fused. For Chesterton, our misconceptions, our lies, our manifold allegiances to unreality cry out for exposure; and it was his abiding sense of caritas, no less than his keen sense of humor, that impelled him to use paradox to show his readers the comic discrepancies between truth and falsehood. Every reader will have his favorite Chestertonian sallies; one of mine is from his introduction to David Copperfield:

The wise old fairy tales never were so silly as to say that the prince and the princess lived peacefully ever afterwards. The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever afterwards; and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at each other. Most marriages, I think, are happy marriages; but there is no such thing as a contented marriage. The whole pleasure of marriage is that it is a perpetual crisis.  

Marriage meant a good deal to Chesterton, and it is another merit of Ker’s life that he shows how, at once, it saved and renewed his wayward hero. To appreciate this fully, however, the reader needs to know something of Chesterton’s life.

Born on Campden Hill in 1874, he was educated at St. Paul’s School and the Slade School of Art. His father worked for a firm of estate agents and his mother was of Franco-Scottish ancestry. Her Aberdeen forebears, the Keiths, gave Gilbert his middle name. A dilatory learner, Chesterton never shone in his studies, though he excelled at comic drawing. It was after becoming a publisher’s reader that he took up journalism, and for the rest of his life he would see himself as a journalist, who only wrote novels and plays, poetry, and biographies as a sideline.

This insistence of his that he was only a journalist has led some to conclude that Chesterton was shallow. Yet in a piece on Marshal Ferdinand Foch, which would have amused his mother, he gave the lie to such dismissive appraisals.

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