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Memories of G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874–1936

984 words

Editor’s Note:

The following is from Anthony M. Ludovici, Confessions of an Anti-Feminist: The Autobiography of Anthony M. Ludovici, ed. John V. Day, ch. 7, “My Friends, Part II.”  The book remains unpublished, but we hope to raise funds to finally bring it into print.

Despite his extreme Leftish prejudices and his innocent acceptance of Bolshevik professions, he [Leonard Magnus, a Jewish acquaintance of Ludovici’s] had an acute intellect and was a dear good fellow. I owed him many happy hours and much generous hospitality. If I had to thank him for nothing else, it was at least through him that I had the privilege of seeing a good deal of one of the most celebrated journalists of that day, G. K. Chesterton. My repeated meetings with this popular Fleet Street figure at Magnus’s chambers and the opportu­nity they afforded of a close study of his personality have left me with a vivid recollection of his character and outlook.

Chesterton was my antipodes. Very fat and anything but polished in his appearance and manners, he and I revealed our fundamental dispari­ties by our looks alone. He was a pyknic; I was a schizothyme. He was massive and ponderous; I was slight and wiry. He appeared to be wholly unaware of the handicap his extreme obesity imposed on his activities. Indeed, owing to the unaccountable and inveterate predilec­tion English men and women, especially the latter, are wont to show for fat men—hence the ease with which people of the Horatio Bot­tomley type become trade union leaders, Members of Parliament, suc­cessful commercial touts and prosperous racecourse tipsters—Ches­terton’s experience had no doubt taught him that, far from being a drawback, his bulk had always been one of his greatest assets.

He usually wore a frock-coat, the lapels of which, owing to his habit of constantly fingering them when speaking, shone with grease; nor did his fingers ever strike me as too clean. There was a look about his heavy mustache as of a beer-drinker and heavy smoker, and I sometimes sus­pected that he rather liked to be thought of as a modern Dr. Samuel John­son. His huge head with its mane of long hair made his shoulders seem narrower than they actually were, and when he sat down his great bow-front kept him so far from the table that there was always something pompous and magisterial in his appearance at a meal.

He spoke with that curious fluctuation of two keys so often heard in the voices of fat men. Thus the noises would rise and fall from bass into falsetto and back again, with an undeniably pleasing effect which often lent persuasiveness to a remark.

Anthony M. Ludovici, 1882–1971

But he was a most difficult opponent in debate, and to come to grips with him was usually impossible. As I soon found, however, the greater part of this difficulty was due more to the behavior of the rest of the company than to him, for, no matter what he said, they insisted on thinking it funny, and as in England to raise a laugh in debate amounts to proving your point, no matter how far-fetched, Chesterton was an easy winner in all our arguments.

Once, for instance, I was trying to argue that the sense of sin might be merely the inability to digest or forget a reprehensible action, and that people endowed with smoothly functioning bodies which quickly dis­posed of their waste or harmful products would be less likely than the costive and congested to harbor feelings of guilt. “That’s all very well, young man,” he exclaimed, “but when you stand before your Maker with your knapsack of sins across your shoulders, you won’t cut much ice with that sort of argument.”

Everyone laughed, and the discussion closed with G. K. the ac­knowledged victor.

When one evening I tried to explain that it was quite impossible, even if you believed in Him, to imagine what the Almighty was like, as none of us could possibly grasp what a being looked like who could create something out of nothing, Chesterton objected most violently. “Not a bit of it!” he said. “Think of the kind of thing you find most lov­able and seductive on earth. I can easily imagine God as a beautiful glossy Newfoundland dog [loud laughter]. I can honestly, and I like to think of Him as that.”

On yet another occasion we were discussing aristocracy. He had been saying that all aristocracies had abused their power, and I rejoined that not only was this untrue historically, but that there were also many reasons for believing that under an aristocracy people might be much more free than in a democracy.

“Oh, get along with you,” he retorted. “You are the sort of romantic who wants the joy of fireworks at midday.”

Whenever at public dinners I heard him speak I noticed without fail that, as soon as his name was called, all present began to laugh just as audiences used to do, but with much greater justification, at the old Tivoli and Oxford music halls the moment Dan Leno’s number ap­peared on the front of the stage. And when he actually began to speak, and offered us one of his many variations on his elephantine figure, the company would rock with laughter. Often one could not help admiring the resolute good will with which, in Chesterton’s case, the crowd re­sponded to the sheer power of a reputation for “humor.”

I do not know what modern readers think of him. But when I look again at his essays and stories I find them quite unreadable, and it seems to me most likely that quite soon—unless this has occurred already—he will be regarded by most people as among those celebri­ties of the twentieth century who were consistently and grossly over­rated by their age.

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  1. Posted March 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink
    • Jeff
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I agree, that would be a good choice.

  2. Ryan Oblivion
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    The wit (Chesterton) and the witless (Ludovici).

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Ludovici was a serious man, concerned with the truth. Chesterton was a mountebank concerned with making an impression.

  3. meh
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Greg Johnson and with Ludovici: GK Chesterton is very overrated. Most of his “wit” consists of nonsensical and/or paradoxical sayings that don’t prove anything and mean less and less the more you think about them.

    In one famous encounter between GB Shaw and Chesterton, Shaw accused Chesterton of evading the point – Chesterton replied that he was supposed to evade the point: “consider the history of fencing”. Haha, very funny, but that just proved Shaw’s point: Chesterton was wont to avoid the point and play to the crowd with the cheap laugh or the deliberately paradoxical utterance that impresses the foolish as being “deep” when in fact it means nothing at all.

    Chesterton has what reputation he has today chiefly as a Catholic apologist; outside of that, Ludovici was correct: Chesterton’s reputation did not last past his own era. His comical stage presence simply does not translate on to the printed page very well, nor on further reflection do most people think that the person getting the laugh has “won” the argument.

    In the end, seriousness does count for something after all, and the point will have to be dealt with, not evaded.

  4. Gary Clark Chesteron
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Chesterton, it seems to me, is more relevant today than he was in his own time. His arguments are only gibbering non-sense to those who equate the truth with seriousness, or who think that humor is the anti-thesis to seriousness. Wit is often far more effective in conveying a truth than a bland, dry statement. Oh friends, Chesterton is alive and well. There is a Chesterton revival. Indeed, he is the most important, and the most prolific, writer of the 20th century. His common-sense and clear-headed arguments frustrated his opponets, who, just as today, remain enamoured with arguments that sound complicated and sophisticated, but in reality mean nothing. I often find, with Chesterton’s opponents, both in his own day and today, that they either have not read him enough to understand his unmistakable genius (a genius that his greatest opponent, GB Shaw, attested to) or they find his humor annoying because they are prigs and snobs just like their historical counter-parts, the stoics. And finally, Chesterton proved his genius by this: he made predictions about where modern theories of his day would lead in the future, and his predictions are almost always, if not always, correct. Chesterton was able to see things through; he saw the roots of things, and thus, he saw the fruits of things. Just because the man had a sense of humor, well, this is no argument against his importance or his intellect… no, in fact, the humor only brings to life, animates, the profound wisdom of a forgotten genius whom future generations are beginning to discover and appreciate. His joy was complete; for he believed in that certain divine man who said: “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full… that their joy may be complete.”

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Wow, I have not seen such relentless, breathless, and transparent spin-doctoring since Tony Blair was in power.

  5. Evan McIan
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Chesterton’s work constantly attacks the Eugenic and Nietsczhean philsophies and though Chesterton died in 1936, his grave warnings of these ideas proved prophetic with the rise of the 3rd reich. What he had to offer was JOY, and I think Ludovici totally missed the point.

  6. Rich S
    Posted September 20, 2015 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    This is a very funny excerpt. I hope the full book is published soon.

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