a progressive friendship: shaw & chesterton

by Zach Kincaid
I want to start by placing Chesterton. He is considered part of the wider Inklings group that formally included Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and J.R.R. Tolkien. There are differences as well and it may be good to quip these off for the sake of placement. Chesterton lived from 1874-1936. That is prior to the formal Inklings and after George MacDonald who died in 1905 and of whom Chesterton wrote an introduction to a memoir written by MacDonald’s son. In it, Chesterton links MacDonald’s work as the place where he discovered that ordinary things like staircases can be enchanted. Late in life, he knew Sayers through a writers’ meeting called the Detection Club. But most of his friends, most famously, were those of whom he did not agree - politicians, authors and playwrights. He and his wife Frances never had children though they wanted them. Always orthodox, Chesterton did not formally join the Catholic Church until later in his life to the disdain of celebrities like Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw.

Chesterton was no academic in the sense of pedigree. He chose art school above traditional university and dropped out of it. Placed alongside the Inklings, his academic merit is failing.

But an academic’s life was not Chesterton’s. He became a public figure, well known for his work - week in and week out - as a journalist. And his fame extended worldwide. For example, the national and international press reported on his lectures when he visited America in 1922. In 1929, he accepted an invitation to visit with both Pope Pious XI and (separately) Mussolini (prior to Mussolini’s all-out fascism a few years later.) On the other side of the world, Gandhi was inspired by Chesterton. And in England, he made public appearances always with coattails on and sword stick in hand, usually geared up to debate the senior George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian playwright who was also his beloved friend and equally, if not, more famous than himself. Shaw called Chesterton “Man Mountain” because of his size and accused him of being “Cadbury’s property.” Chesterton had even harsher words for Shaw - heretic, puritan, and demagogue.

It is the friendship between Chesterton and Shaw that is progressive, a paradox unto its own since Progress is hotly contested between these two. They differ diametrically and I want to talk about these differences as it plays out primarily from Chesterton’s pen. I say primarily because there are exchanges of letters from Shaw to Chesterton as well as a series of debates where we hear Shaw’s point of view directly, but it is Chesterton who began fanning this difference in the public circuit and spoke out against Shaw’s propositions. There are several works of Chesterton I’ll refer to that dismantle Shaw’s modernism and showcase the threads of truth that weave him back together despite his errors.

First, Chesterton blacklists Shaw in 1905 with Heretics, where he says that he’s not concerned with the coherence of Shaw’s arguments, but rather that he is wrong, that he is a heretic of the top rank.

Second he publishes the kindly titled George Bernard Shaw in 1909, where he more gently but more extensively unmasks Shaw.

Third, Chesterton writes a play in 1913, a project Shaw had pestered him to do for years. The play is called “Magic” and it pits faith against reason, Chesterton’s sense of mystery versus Shaw’s matter of fact-ness. Shaw loved the play and financed it to release on stage but he wasn’t expecting its premise.

Lastly, is the 1926 publication of Do We Agree which is a rehash of the popular Chestershaw debate mentioned above that was moderated by Hillaire Belloc, Chesterton’s longtime collaborator.

Instead of organizing around these titles, I want to frame our time around three emphases: humor, humility, and a sense of what is holy or sacred. The real purpose is to see the Chestershaw relationship as a progressive one in that it challenges categories of simple tolerance and respect for the differences among people and forces fierce debate (a seeking out of truth) coupled with a deep love for the other person.

Each of these - humor, humility and the sacred stick on Chesterton and they fall off of Shaw. They give Chesterton the opportunity to be at once critical and light, esoteric yet exoteric, full of paradox and full of jolly Elizabethan foolishness. (Chesterton might say it’s due to his sheer body mass versus Shaw’s slender frame that these categories find a complimentary sticking point on him.)

Chesterton pegs his friend as a Puritanical progressive philosopher, dramatist, and critic. Shaw is no doubt both consistent and sensible in his approach to ethics and political systems but he is tone-deaf to the “mysterious laughter” of life. It is foreign to Shaw’s “purview altogether...” says Chesterton. “He is too grave; he is too serious.” While Chesterton talks about stars of heaven getting lost in the grass of earth, Shaw would pity the livestock that some stars might hit, or even tell you the facts that falling stars are not really stars at all... and say something like, “Beware of the man whose God is in the skies” (which he did say).

Humor and humility coat most of Chesterton’s work. While offsetting the serious tone of Shaw and other Fabians, Chesterton’s humor sparks his ability to be at once clever and poignant and create a level of comfort as laughter should do. It grounds the levity of those Goliath subjects like the philosophy of humankind inside humankind itself, the point that matters. Chesterton tells a story of a monster attacking a castle and there seems to be no hiding place. But the princess finds the only secure spot, inside the mouth of the beast. It’s the soul discovered inside carnality, the philosophy baked inside the bread of life. For example, when a publication wanted his opinion about what is wrong with the world he simply sent back the reply, “I am.” And when he published his book What is Wrong with the World, he said that he wanted to call it simply What is Wrong but discovered that when he told people “I have been doing ‘What is Wrong’ all this morning,” it didn’t receive a good response.

Shaw is not without humor (as an example, he ended a letter to the Chesterton’s “My love to Mrs. Chesterton, and my most distinguished consideration to Winkle. To hell with the Pope!” Winkle was their dog). But Chesterton says it is always trampled underneath the puritanical stranglehold of legalism. His life is void of poetry and withdraws from the “wild chastity” that allows careful or careless belief to bombard reason, weakness to take over strength, and hope to sacrifice security. That’s why biographer Garry Wills names Shaw as vain and Chesterton as humble. And laughter certainly does lead to humility rather than vanity.

Don’t you know, Chesterton surely exclaimed as loud as his high voice could take him and in-and-out of the soft laughter that lay hidden beneath nearly every sentence when he says, “It is better to speak wisdom foolishly, like the Saints, rather than to speak folly wisely, like the Dons.” According to Chesterton, Shaw is a man we should admire - the “Venus of Milo” as he calls him, but at heart he is boring, stale, and exhausted by being, for example, a vegetarian not out of moral conviction but because it is good taste to be such - it is the proper and refined alternative to cutting “lumps off of what was once living.”

Chesterton uses humor to alleviate the peculiar state of life- to be able to relate to the oddity of the rhinoceros and discover that it’s a creature that shouldn’t exist but does anyhow. When it comes to philosophy and the people behind the philosophies, Chesterton is not frivolous nor is his humor a mask that he wears, where underneath it sits what he really wants to say. He is not dishonest in his humor, but rather brutal at times.

To Chesterton, Shaw is a first rank heretic. True, Shaw is sincere and cannot err even the slightest from what he thinks is right, but that doesn’t make his theories right. And, Chesterton flat out tells him he is wrong. He measures his friend’s success by his dense consistency. If Shaw dislikes patriotism or lawlessness in one camp, he dislikes it in every camp. He does not play favorites. But this makes him robotic more than human and any sensibilities unnatural. And that goes for the progressives as well, a lot that found a certain affinity for science after religion, in their minds, was disestablished. Then Shaw enters the scene and resounds that science is a “mystical fake.” The result is a progressive movement that is void of anything outside effectively mattering - like how far the stars are from the earth or the origins of life. What is left is a very bloated Shaw who wipes clean his emotions toward people as people. They are now faceless, part of a mechanical modernity, a socialist superman who on their own have no value. But people are not faceless. “Every face in the street has the incredible unexpectedness of a fairy-tale,” says Chesterton. People make grace messy. No, Shaw rebuts, all people are idiots. What is to be done, then? Instead of asking for a new philosophy Shaw asks for new people - these two-legged types are not working out. Chesterton says he is like, “a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.” Basically, Shaw has hung the world upon nothing because nothing is good enough at present.

How do these two even talk? When you stack it up, they are nearly in complete opposition with each other: Catholic vs. puritan, humble vs. vain, beer vs. tea, magic vs. logic, at home vs. homeless, disarray vs. order, Victorian vs. modern. But they share some common ground even though at every turn their is a conjunction that leads to a qualification. They are both optimists, both masters of paradox, both under the premise the world is moral, both willing to challenge and be challenged. But, they share an anxiety that leaves Chesterton knowing he’d be Shaw without Christendom and, according to Chesterton, that Shaw would be a saint in an earlier age where reason didn’t loom over but illuminate the mystical. “Shaw kept telling Chesterton to quit believing in God, while Chesterton replied that if Shaw did not rediscover the reason for believing in God, the human race was lost.” (Ward)

This leads us to the most significant difference that causes Chesterton to forge friendships with anyone or anything and Shaw to stand by, fascinated and puzzled at the big and jolly G.K.C., full of intellectual vigor yet on his knees every Easter, as he says in “The Case Against Chesterton.” The sense of sacred - that wonder and amazement of both miracle and commonplace - is Chesterton’s legacy. In Shaw the sacred is replaced with harsh criticism of life and liveliness even as it runs alongside optimism for a more moral, able super race. To wrestle this down completely demands a more extensive ring than we have today, but let’s enter “Magic” to see a slice of the sacred, a moment when the holy beads out.

The play opens with Patricia in her garden encountering a stranger who she thinks is a wizard. He turns out later to be the hired entertainment - a conjurer - for the evening to celebrate the return of Patricia’s brother Morris from America. Inside the house, a doctor and preacher are joined by an aristocrat and Morris. It’s the natural up against the concrete lines of modernity.

And when Patricia comes inside, she announces she has met a wizard who has told her “very many true things” and talked “the language of the elves.” What does the Doctor say? "We old buffers won’t be too strict with you if your view of things sometimes gets a bit-–mixed up, shall we say? If the stars get loose about the grass by mistake; or if, once or twice, the sunset gets into the east... But don’t forget the difference . . . between the things that are beautiful and the things that are there. That red lamp over my door isn’t beautiful; but it’s there." Essentially, the doctor says that if you believe in magic, take caution because beliefs are, in the end, superstitions. In contrast, physical objects like lampposts are facts. You can’t dismiss them.

The conjurer starts his routine. He does a few tricks - slights-of-hand, easily explainable tricks. Morris says, "I guess I wish we had all the old apparatus of all the old Priests and Prophets since the beginning of the world. I guess most of the old miracles and that were a matter of just panels and wires... I just want that old apparatus that turned rods into snakes. I want those smart appliances, sir, that brought water out of a rock when old man Moses chose to hit it... I guess it’s a pity we’ve lost the machinery." Then the conjurer does something that no one expects. He changes the red light to a blue one with no strings attached. In the end, the conjurer has to lie to Morris in an effort to keep him sane. The preacher says rightly, “The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night’s rest.”

And so is the restlessness of Shaw and the restfulness of Chesterton. In what became known as “A Duel at Dusk,” Chesterton and Shaw debated in 1922 after his formal reception into the Catholic Church.

Shaw: Up to a certain point I am willing to believe that all this paradox-prancing, all this intellectual hunt-the-slipper and anachronistic nursery-nonsense, appealed to you. Whether you ever seriously believed in it, whether you have ever seriously believed in anything, I am quite incapable of deciding, since you don’t really know what you believe or disbelieve yourself... You are just like Don Quixote; and though your lunacy on some occasions makes his seem pale by comparison, you yet contrive in some mysterious manner to be your own Sancho Panza.

Chesterton: Exactly... The Catholic is not so pragmatic as the atheist or the Puritan. His faith is built on Belief, not on Knowledge (falsely so-called). He is consequently able to appreciate and sympathize with every form of human activity. He takes the whole world at heart. He loves because it is human to love, hates because it is human to hate, eats, drinks, and is merry because it is human to eat, drink, and be merry. He leads a crusade, not because it is right, but because it is glorious, to do so. He is neither positive nor conservative. He is not even consistent... Life is contradictious, and we are Life. We accept Life as a gift from God; we do not accept God as a gift from Life.

Chesterton is light enough with the gravity of life to take Shaw in stride and not be grounded by him. He finds humor in Shaw’s eagerness for super creatures because he knows where all those believers reside - in the insane asylum. And it is the sane that can look at ordinary life and see in it the workings of a schoolboy God who sits down and recreates the day, everyday, declaring to the sun “do it again,” and it happens again. We live inside those days, fresh with magic and filled with a lightness that allows humility to say the last will be first, the dead will be brought to life, and weakness is strength. Chesterton on Shaw --

"It is not easy to dispute violently with a man for twenty years, about sex, about sin, about sacraments, about personal points of honour, about all the most sacred or delicate essentials of existence, without sometimes being irritated or feeling that he hits unfair blows or employs discreditable ingenuities. And I can testify that I have never read a reply by Bernard Shaw that did not leave me in a better and not a worse temper or frame of mind; which did not seem to come out of inexhaustible fountains of fair-mindedness and intellectual geniality; which did not savour somehow of that native largeness which the philosopher attributed to the Magnanimous Man. It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend."


(May 2008)