The Intemperance of Father Brown
Good men, whatever their background or cultural basis, are stars in the firmament.
Had I approached him from another angle, I might have seen Chesterton in another light. Granted, my bias is explicitly against religious texts that strive too hard—to make an argument. Witness my recent incomprehension at St. Anselm who “proved” the existence of God. The paragraph of his that I quoted in an earlier post struck me as off-the-wall to say the least—not in a very different fashion from Chesterton’s.
Chesterton’s nebulous thought was one thing; but that he went out of his way to denigrate Marcus Aurelius—that was “pushing the envelope” with me as they say.
I approached Orthodoxy at a friend’s behest—a friend whose judgement I respect, whose rationality I admire. So I find the weird congeries of the the text—sort of a witch’s brew of disparate and exceedingly grotesque ideational content—incongruent and shocking.
Almost at random—as though reaching into a hat—one may pull out the absurdest of ideas. Such as: “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.”
This perhaps is an example of what Wilson labeled his “mechanical” paradoxes. That the statement is dull and insipid is not my point; it is incontrovertibly wrong. Chesterton may have felt that he arrived at some pinnacle—but the plain and simple fact is that man cannot understand everything. Or, as Sahl Abdullah remarked after experiencing “a state of violent agitation, with physical manifestations, during a religious meeting.” “Power,” he said, “is when something like this enters, and the mind and body manifest nothing at all.” (Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi)
Chesterton may not have “set reason up for judge/ of our most holy mystery,” but he certainly cramped it and flattened mystery into a planisphere. However, had I approached Chesterton differently...
P.D. James, whose death has just been reported by the media, lauds Chesterton’s seminal detective Father Brown:
[His] output was prodigious, and it would be unreasonable to expect all the short stories to be equally successful, but the quality of writing never disappoints. Chesterton never wrote an inelegant or clumsy sentence. The Father Brown stories are written in a style richly complex, imaginative, vigorous, poetic and spiced with paradoxes.
. . .
I have never suffered from literary indigestion when reading the stories, partly because of Chesterton’s imaginative power and his all-embracing humanity. (P.D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction)
In my youth, I read Dorothy Sayers, something of an admirer of Chesterton. “As my whimsey takes me,” the slogan of her fictional Lord Peter, is something I have spouted many times. I bought an omnibus containing all the Lord Peter novels—but I don’t believe I ever got much past the first one or two. (I remember someone being murdered by a syringe filled with air.) The Father Brown stories were readily available, and looked intriguing, but possibly I grew out of the youthful detective fiction phase of a boy’s exploratory reading before ever having a chance to try one.
Because she was so celebrated, I did manage to read one by Dame Agatha Christie—though God knows which it might have been. Edmund Wilson classifies her style as the “puzzle mystery”, “brought to a high pitch of ingenuity” (such was the reputation) under her handling, yet my experience roughly parallels his:
I confess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised. Yet I did not care for Agatha Christie and I hope never to read another of her books.
Mrs. Christie, in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or, rather, fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it. In this new novel, she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of the two men the heroine will marry. It is all like a sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards, and it may mildly entertain and astonish you, as such a sleight-of-hand performance may. But in [such] a performance... the patter is a constant bore and the properties lack the elegance of playing cards.
Hoping to find something out about William Butler Yeats’ interest or compulsion with detective fiction—a genre much in vogue “between the two wars” —and whether or not he read or admired Chesterton, I looked into the only text I have readily available, his letters to Dorothy Wellesley. There was nothing, save for a delightful anecdote by way of hearsay:
My sister the embroidress has a pleasant memory of Chesterton. She was staying there. He got very drunk one night. Next morning he did not appear at breakfast. Presently a servant came in to say “Mr. Chesterton asks for a Bible and a tumbler of milk”. Mrs. Chesterton in unbroken gloom told the servant where the Bible could be found.