G.K.C. as M. C.


ABBREVIATIONS, so far as this essay is concerned, are a lengthened form of saying a thing. And in regard to this abbreviated and dilatory manner there is no doubt that the dark and sinister mystery of the symbol G.K.C. (on which some very penetrating speculation has been made somewhere in the last paper of this book) is only matched by the harassing problem and puzzle of the term M>C> In no conceivable sense, of course, could G.K.C. be dismissed as an airy nothing; but, if not so dismissed, it would certainly be an exhilarating change for Gilbert Keith Chesterton (for as such has he been revealed by nothing less than an oracle in this book’s sub-title in fear of a murky and all-pervading ignorance) to appear, not as usual in an atmosphere vibrating with his approach, but, if possible, as a complete and almost cataclysmic surprise. And to reciprocate, let everyone else put aside that old newspaper notion of a familiar figure. For he himself has expounded the sacred duty of surprise, and praised dogs and other philosophers for their need of seeing the old road as a new road. Such a need for seeing the old thing as a new thing (which is the same virtue defined philosophically) would certainly mitigate the crime of these pages inserted here. And rising to the height of that argument, and by a precipitate and radical loss of memory, I should urge at once that all the writings extant supposed to bear the name of G.K.C. are probably phantoms of other people’s brains, but that this book is the only one I am now aware of as the real product of his own.

As for the rest of the mystery, it may forthwith be imagined by some people that this is a book to commemorate the investiture of G.K.C. with the Military Cross for some notable deed of muckle valour; and, considering the extraordinary pugnacity and championship of Christian counsels which are associated with his name in mere rumour, the conjecture would be deeply reasonable. Then a school of thought which remembered hearing in floating legends how masterfully G.K.C. planned and carried out the strategy of the English Napoleon on Notting Hill might feel gratified that he had after all been gazetted as Master Commandant; while those who knew from vague hearsay of the transactions of the Club of Queer Trades and the League of the Long Bow could very plausibly rejoice that this was an appointment to be Member of the Council. But, while leaving each group of opinion full liberty of conscience, I should wish to put forward my own personal and partisan view- and perhaps the less satisfying explanation at that- that this is the book of G.K.C. as Master of Ceremonies. And, it should be added at once, not merely the Master of Ceremonies, but the Grand Master himself. For, during all this century, he has functioned in that dignified and picturesque office, and with due pomp and circumstance heralded the approach of contemporaries and the return of classics. In this aspect of the literary art I rather doubt if one could recall a longer or worthier record, nor could one think of a more diverse array of persons for whom the ceremonial services of introduction could have been performed. But the question at the moment is not the exquisite sense of ritual with which each has been presented, or the mastery of language with which the words of initiation have been spoken. Some of these introductions do indeed display rich veins of the refined gold of criticism; others, the sentimentality, chaste as a lily, of a rich poetic insight. But the question at the moment is (one which may be addressed to me with withering scorn), should there be and what is the ceremony for the induction of a Master of Ceremonies? And in a complete disregard of the wasteful excess of painting that lily and gilding that refined gold I may be taken to have answered.

It may now be said that, when G.K.C. arrived and wrote the first of the prefaces selected in this book, the last century was promptly rounded off and the present one begun. And in view of the determined agnosticism of this essay described earlier, it would be true to say that his achievement between the turn of the century and this moment has been a remarkable sequence of introductions contributed to various books by other people. They have shown a decided tendency to increase and crowd in the recent years, and all together make an impressive catalogue of some sixty-seven papers, of which thirty, for other reasons than that they were not valuable or important enough, have had to be left out. To this omission should be added also a series of introductory papers to a whole uniform library of Dickens, which stand too compact to be touched. If some cosmic revolution had occurred in the publishing business, followed by a general shaking-off of other people’s rights, the course of true love, in the present undertaking, would have been so smooth as to have included all. But as this volume, in spite of that good intention, yet remains a selection, several doubts and difficulties may reasonably be brought up against it.

It may be questioned, for example, why anyone should select anything and serve up a patchwork of stray papers and pieces; and the answer can be collected from the first preface included here, that on Boswell. If it may be questioned how the excerpts have been ordered, the order is chronological; but no theory is to be advanced on it. In the history that G.K.C. understands, it has been remarked apocryphally, there are no dates, and even this book may be read backwards; and no countenance is to be given by me to the perverse doctrine that with time he progressed. By which is meant, not that G.K.C. is Peter Pan or the person unconscious of modernity known to some of his (purely hypothetical) critics; but that what he wrote yesterday might in substance have been written twenty odd years ago, and vice versa, a phenomenon which cannot be adequately described by a mere metaphor from the road. Accordingly, the apology for Boswell at the beginning of this volume, and the apology for his own weekly paper at the end, could well change places without any inward difference; because the essence of either apology would yet be the same. And for another reason, even a cursory comparison with Masters of Ceremonies in other walks would reveal that the whole worshipful company have been born majestic and remain. The third doubt would arise from critics with the contextual cast of mind as to whether these introductions could somehow stand alone. This may be resolved on two points, that any formal capacity would read them here with a footnote and the contextual mind could explore them in their original settings; if one breaks the other will hold, but if both break (in the noble phrase of Shakespeare) your gaskins fall. But of such a crisis, however, there need be no fear; for, to begin with, these introductions do read as independent essays and may well be as self-contained as those which popular imagination so credulously attributes to G.K.C. in the weekly issues of the Illustrated London News. Only, these essays boast a dignity which the spurious journalism alluded to does not claim. These essays are prefaces to which other people have fervently contributed excellent books.

There is a wise old proverb that it takes all sorts to make a Chestertonian world; and the proverb has been rather much in advance of its time, seeing that the only ground for its truth is the present volume. In the thirty-seven cases picked out here there is as varied a parcel of humanity as you could meet on a summer’s day; but, unlike the comparative turmoil of a summer’s day, the assembly compose and lie here in a peace and reconciliation with the great dome over all. Johnson’s Boswell is in the same room as Dickens’ Forster; and only under a truce of God could Matthew Arnold refrain from turning round and proving the clear unhistoricity of H.M. Bateman, or the artist refrain from depicting in reply the tragic historicity of Matthew Arnold’s whiskers. Perhaps nowhere else could there be seen so edifying a spectacle of interior concord and sympathy as when it is Jane Austen who would be found harbouring a raging volcano and William Cobbett who would be found nursing a shy vestal fire; or when at the same seat of interpretation are found gathered the Muse of Job harmonizing with the muse of Mrs. Elizabeth Turner, the fabled animals of Aesop consorting with the fantastic humans of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the sanctity of the saintly Cure d’ Ars blending and communing with the lore of the Royal Society of Literature. And it goes without saying, there must keep recurring, in no wise inaptly, the great English Johnson, as there must too the great English Dickens. Johnson, among other things, the most magnificent of the Masters of Ceremonies, and Dickens, among other things, the pre-eminent Chestertonian.

All these and the rest could certainly converge and commingle because they have come into a spacious and catholic philosophy, which can include and find a use of all, just as certainly as in many another philosophy they could not so converge and commingle. In a Bolshevik order of society, for instance, there could be no letter written to a godchild, because there would be no godchild, because there would be no God. The Grandmamma who wrote moral rhymes for children would probably be summoned before the Ogpu for corrupting youth with morality, and that through the wicked and unbridled medium of rhymes. The reference to a literary London would have become quite unintelligible and obsolete, because by then the place would have been renamed Leningrad, and that ancient testament of Lud to Lyly and Lodge, Lamb and Landor, Lucas and Lynd obscured forever. Then in the Pussyfoot scheme of the world there would be no singing of the songs of the tap, if a man may not even say when; and another form of society would have banned the immoral and complex word, veal-and-ham-pie, because the world had become at heart very, very Vegetarian. These may be rather distant events. But there are also the very near and living realities. There is a reality called Ireland; and the question is whether she has a soul. There is a reality called the Catholic Church, and the question is whether she is anybody in particular and big enough to write her name in a Who’s Who. There is a reality called H.G. Wells, and the question is whether his favourite Utopia is real. And there is a reality called the English peasant, and the question is whether England has room yet for him or he must die. These questions have arisen casually, though they are far from casual, from the books which contained them, and G.K.C. has merely taken the cue. (A quite groundless report says he never declines.) And in that respect these prefaces open debate and are preliminaries; and some preliminaries answer to the name of principles.

In this way the introductions reprinted here could be made to yield up even other principles; but there is no need to extract them in this place. The prefaces will speak for themselves. They could also speak some other matter, which in view of the complaint voiced by so discerning and lucid a critic as Mr. John Freeman, may be referred to here. The complaint was that there is very little of what may be called autobiography in the writings of G.K.C.; to which I would answer that the complainant had no acquaintance with such an authentic work as this. This one is autobiographical. There could be nothing so true of our lives and so full of human kinship as that eternal hope of hearing a nightingale. G.K.C. had that aspiration, it is said, all his time at Battersea. It is said he relates stories to little boys. It is said he sings songs in the company of his friends. It is quite clear that he writes letters to his little god-daughters. To one in Germany there is included here a letter dated 1909, which carries a prophetic hint of war and is reminiscent (if G.K.C. will allow the reminiscence) of Johnson’s letter to the little daughter of Bennet Langton, written large and round that the child may read. It is said in this letter that G.K.C. once played Father Christmas at a children’s party, but on that occasion Father Christmas could not come down the chimney. Then somewhere else it is said that G.K.C. and his brother never quarreled because they always argued; that is, as others would add, almost forgetting to quarrel because of the paradox. Then there is a prevailing belief that Belloc and G.K.C. have been friends from creation, a belief promoted by a note picture in which the two are portrayed as perpetually holding ale-mugs in their hands (a delightful occupation) and perpetually denouncing the errors of Geneva (a comparatively dull business). But the sober truth is now available that they were once strangers; then they met and were translated into a quadruped.

Finally, as an excellent ending with a powerful moral, there remains the crux, whether literary introductions are any conceivable use. If it be roundly asked whether there is any earthly reason why anyone should introduce anyone else’s work, the question would indeed fetch a hearty response from G.K.C. that there is none. But as to the suggestion that he himself has produced the most conspicuous and admirable work in our time in that superfluous form of activity- that, on the other hand, would be a topic of embittered controversy with him. But the explanation that introductions to classics are largely a matter of course, and those to contemporaries largely a matter of courtesy, does not explain enough; for if they were useless the course would not long run smooth or the courtesy be long sustained. So that the earlier example of Johnson, again to be resisted by G.K.C., needs to be recalled, that Johnson had his hand in the work of his contemporaries because his hand was wanted there, and he had nothing of the bear except the skin, his contemporaries could be sure it would be a hand that he would extend, and a hand that could not maul. A similar word could, I think, be said by his friends of G.K.C. as a private person, but that should be a private word. But that he has introduced writings for a generation with nothing of a reserve of his genius but with a beautiful and splendid humility, depreciating himself but appreciating everybody else and rating the prologue as nothing but the play as everything- all that is and should be part of the public conscience. That is why the introductions really introduce, and the prefaces present not merely books but men. And verily there is a gentle art of introducing. If I suggested that that art also pierced out the imperfections of other people with his thoughts, bridging any hiatus of other people’s thoughts and supplying any lacunae in their philosophy, I should feel the tremor of a mountain flying shrieking, or even more dangerously, advancing against me. But it would yet be true to say that in that art, into a thousand parts, or somewhere near it, was divided one man. And whether his words have anteceded the classic masterpieces or the modern messages, at length or in brief, there have always been expressed his mind and character whole. That, I think, is, in a Shavian and, therefore, a humble and abstract phrase, the quintessence of Chestertonianism. And I believe that that essence will still reveal an identity, even when the perfect cipher has been worked out in future academies and when a man’s contribution has become a canon and the man himself conclusively proven to have been a myth.