Why read a book of essays like Twelve Types,” (IHS Press, $8.95, 96 pages) about 12 individuals most people never heard of and all of whom are long since dead? Who cares what anyone wrote about Savonarola, William Morris or Thomas Carlyle?
Aiming at the Real Essence
Well, for one reason because the essayist is G. K. Chesterton, one of Catholicism’s most readable writers, whose gift for incisive wit and clever aphorisms is seemingly inexhaustible. Chesterton’s clear thinking and fresh view of the world makes for delightful reading no matter what the topic.
But there are more reasons to read Twelve Types. Twelve of them, in fact. Each essay in this wonderful little book has something stimulating to say not only on the figure written about, but also on our own times.
Chesterton’s relentless pursuit of truth, of aiming at the real essence of a subject, means whatever he had to say is never stale or dated. Unlike those who follow whatever trend is stylish or new and are quickly pitched into the dustbin once that fashion becomes passé Chesterton’s observations are never old because they’re never new. They were ancient and enduring when he wrote them, and will ever remain so.
Indeed, some of Chesterton’s bon mots seem truer now than when penned. Not only have they withstood the test of time, they’re standing even stronger as years pass.
The Beautiful vs. The Utilitarian
Consider, for example, the essay on the great but now rarely read novelist Sir Walter Scott. In an appreciation of Scott’s art, Chesterton levels this deadly critique of modern novelists: “He did not scorn the most revolting miscreant as the realist of today commonly scorns his own hero. Though his soul may be in rags, every man of Scott can speak like a king.” This trait Scott shares with Shakespeare: giving every character his due. It is not only a sign of great artistic maturity but increases dramatic effect and makes for memorable characters. Yet this artistic device is almost totally forgotten by today’s novelists and dramatists.
Chesterton also prophesizes the woeful state of art in our day, as he writes, “With all [Scott’s] faults, and all his triumphs, he stands for the great mass of natural manliness which must be absorbed into art unless art is to be a mere luxury and freak.” As it has come to pass, modern art did lose its manliness and has become a mere luxury and freakish. Consequently, few of today’s cultural creations are worthy of the label of “Art.”
Even the essay on Twelve Types most obscure figure, social reformer William Morris, contains some wry, perceptive comments on modernity. On the plague of modern architecture, Chesterton says, “It is difficult to account for the clinging curse of ugliness which blights everything brought forth by the most prosperous of centuries.” He continues, “There is a noble instinct for giving the right touch of beauty to common and necessary things, but the things so touched are the ancient things…but there are no modern things made beautiful. There are no beautiful lamp-posts, beautiful letter boxes, beautiful engines, beautiful bicycles.” In fact, sadly, the entire concept of beauty has been virtually effaced from our utilitarian society.
Remarkably Prescient About the Future
True, some of G.K.’s passing comments on the contemporary London scene are now unimportant or incomprehensible. More significant, though, is that in this book, as in so much of his writing, Chesterton was remarkably prescient about the future. This is why Chesterton is always worth reading he was given the artist’s gift of seeing the devastating implications of societal trends.
While many intellectuals of his day were espousing utopian nonsense, Chesterton accurately foresaw the Modern Age’s dark side, and denounced it loudly and proudly but with characteristic charity and grace. Consequently, Chesterton’s writings will be read as long as men and women are interested in hearing the unvarnished truth. That it is as attractively packaged and intelligently presented as this new edition of Twelve Types is simply a bonus.
(“Twelve Types” can be ordered from IHS Press, 222 W. 21st St., Suite F-122, Norfolk, VA 23517, or from their website at www.ihspress.com.)
James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)