Seeing things as they are
F. A. Lea on the imaginative vision of G. K. Chesterton
While clearing off some bookshelves in a corner of my basement, I came across a little hardback volume by F. A. Lea (1915-1977) titled The Wild Knight of Battersea: G. K. Chesterton. First published in 1945, the book was completed during the early months of the Second World War. In 2019 it was reprinted by Wipf and Stock in a paperback edition. It was originally part of a series published by James Clarke & Co. called “Modern Christian Revolutionaries,” which also included studies of the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Eric Gill, C. F. Andrews, and Nicolas Berdyaev.
Lea is critical of some aspects of Chesterton’s social and political ideas. For example, he thinks that Chesterton’s rejection of pacifism was “his greatest mistake. Pacifism was, we believe, the logical outcome of both his politics and his patriotism; and it was more than that: it was the natural consummation of his ethics.”
But on the whole, Lea admires Chesterton’s thought and his style, judging his greatest strength to be his literary criticism. “Chesterton possessed the direct, imaginative vision of a child, and it is this that makes his greatness, as it does that of nearly all really great men: for the power to see things, not as we have been brought up to see them, nor as our preconceived theories demand that we should see them, but as they actually are, is the privilege of creative genius. Many have seen that this is true in the realm of art; and it was in that realm that Chesterton himself most often emphasized the truth.”
Several pages later, Lea describes the characteristic imaginative vision that is present in Chesterton’s writing:
“Chesterton the philosopher is one of the most captivating, and at the same time one of the most bewildering writers in the world. To open any one of his books is to be caught, as securely as a fly in a spider’s web — only rather more pleasantly. Imagine yourself, like a fly, entangled in a web. You are held by a mesh of interwoven threads, all glittering with dew-drops, all stretching far away to some end beyond your sight; you are aware of a pattern uniting them, but what it may be you have no idea. You try to free yourself. If you are impatient you begin by fluttering about, buzzing frantically — and find yourself all the more firmly held. Then you consider the best means of unraveling the knot. The first necessity is to find an end; and with that view you start following one of the threads that envelop you. But as with the threads composing a web, so with the strands of Chesterton’s thought: if you want to find an end, you must needs wind all round the spiral until you reach the middle. Only when you have found that will you be able to break away — and the middle happens also to be the one place from which you may discern the pattern of the whole.
“Chesterton spent a lifetime arguing (he said once that his occupation in life was ‘catching flies’); he threw out his lines of argument in every direction: but he always threw them out from the same standpoint. It was the standpoint of an imaginative vision. There is no direct communication of that vision in his works. What there is is an endless series of rationalizations of its component parts (the rationalization of the whole being thomist). If we wish to share the vision, therefore, we must follow the arguments; but we shall in all probability be unable to follow the arguments unless we share the vision, in some measure, already. ‘To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath.’
“This is a paradox. But things discerned by the imagination can only be formulated, intellectually, by means of paradoxes. That is why Chesterton’s own writing abounds in them. The body of his wit is paradoxical, because the soul of it is truth. That is why, also, some of his most brilliant epigrams were made to crystallize the views of other imaginative men, the most brilliant of them all to crystallize those of the most imaginative of them all. The marriage of wit and insight in his remark concerning Middleton Murray — ‘He is a voice crying in the wilderness, “There is no God, and Marx is his prophet”’ — was surely made in Heaven.”