The craft of the painter or the sculptor, G.K. Chesterton would contend, can reveal, like a law, the rich complexity of reality: this law of fine art (when done finely) curbs man’s passion to control and dominate. It is a law which encourages man’s desire for standing in wonder for the Truth and its vastness. The craft of the novelist, on the other hand, must draw our mind back to the rich simplicity of reality. This is a different law, the law of literary simplicity.
The law of simplicity aims at the enervated pessimists who contend life is so various, that it is impossible to say what is worth doing or living for other than simple material comfort and what little pleasure can be found in the material world. The law of literary simplicity helps us to see the shabby ugliness of J. Alfred Prufrock, who amongst of surfeit of goods, can do no more than fantasize and wonder, if he should dare eat a peach. The law of literary simplicity puts us back in touch with the vividness and joy of things.
We find Chesterton exploring this law in his book on Robert Louis Stevenson (published in 1927). In assessing how the weary world will consider Stevenson, Chesterton states:
Again and again we are told by all sorts of priggish and progressive persons, that mankind cannot go back. The answer is that if mankind cannot go back, it cannot go anywhere. Every important change in history has been founded on something historic: and if the world had not again and again tried to renew its youth, it would have been dead long ago. As the poet makes his songs out of memories of first love, or the writer of fairy-tales has to play at being a child as the child plays at being a man, so every republican has looked back to the remote republics of antiquity and even the Communist talks about a primitive community of goods. The sharp return to simplicity, as the expression of the fiery thirst for happiness—that is one of the recurring facts of all history; and that is the importance of Stevenson’s place in literary history” (page 145).
In this work in particular, we find Chesterton defending the craft of writing novels which are attentive to history and historical texture, as well as literature that drapes itself in the robes of popular or even “children’s” literature—Stevenson’s Treasure Island, being pegged as popular, historical, and for young people, would exemplify this particular form. Chesterton’s truths are big truths, however, and not merely applicable to a subset of fiction. Nevertheless, it is Stevenson’s rediscovery of his own youth and the working out of the vividness and wonder first experience in childhood that attracts Chesterton, and should attract us. Lest you think this is going to soppy stuff, let me quote Chesterton’s first pronouncement on Treasure Island: “Treasure Island, if hardly a historical novel, was essentially a historical event. The rise or revolt of R.L.S. must be taken in relation to history, to the history of the whole European mind and mood. It was first and last, a reaction against pessimism.” Stevenson’s mature journey towards childhood has a vigor and pre-eminence that all Christians must appreciate, for wise men journeyed towards a child once, and the historic event of that child’s appearance among us caused kingdoms to fall and the iron ring of sin to be shattered.
“Familiarity” wrote Chesterton, has “dulled the divine paradox that we should learn morality from little children.” In his works, which jaded critics still dismiss as “summer reading,” Stevenson “seemed to say to the semi-suicides drooping around him at the café tables drinking absinth and discussing atheism: ‘Hang it all, the hero of penny dreadful play was a better man than you are!… Painting pasteboard figures of pirates and admirals was better worth doing than all this; it was fun; it was fighting; it was a life and a lark; and if I can’t do anything else, dang me but I will try it again!’” I believe that this is what Russell Kirk slyly called “polemical literary criticism.”
Play and playfulness in literature can lead the mind back to the vividness of life—but on the whole great and effective writing requires craftsmanship and tremendous human experience in addition to playfulness. This is why even great “children’s literature” is still rich with seasoned human emotions and experience. I have found particularly insightful Chesterton’s confession that when he read the book as a child, all the skeletons, and high-sea, rum-soaked murderousness of the book, did not strike him as dreadful or painfully realistic. Rather it was the suffocating ugliness of the early portions of the book: the ordinary sins of men and the ordinary dullness and stupidity of adults and even the seemingly ordinary paths of mercy. Chesterton the boy was more than ready to “wade in seas of gore.” Chesterton the adult went back and saw how carefully crafted Stevenson’s pirate tale truly was: vivid in its beaconing beauty, but shocking in its defiance of Calvinism, despair, materialism and all who would deny even a harden sinner like John Silver, the hope of God’s mercy.
Stevenson’s craft was directed, in the end, according to Chesterton, like “dash” towards freedom and happiness. It was “a defense of the possibility of happiness; a kind of answer to the question, ‘Can a man be happy?’” The answer of R.L.S and thumpingly affirmed by G.K.C. was ‘YES,’ a man can be happy, if he can learn to be happy as a youth or recapture a youthfulness of soul—pure and alive to adventure and the possibility of what is given to us. Many of Stevenson’s peers (and Chesterton’s … and ours) offer a literary path that would lead to a false freedom and a false happiness. Their warped craft insists that, as G.K.C would have it, “their books must be repulsive in order to be realistic or sordid in order to be true.” Enthrallment to passion is the modern “freedom” and abominable sardonic grimness about life’s prospects has become the new happiness. They create a desert and call it humor.
The man who turns toward childhood, on the other hand, is turning toward a universal fountain of human emotion and truth. The sad modern turns toward a solitary descent, toward the opposite direction from humanity and truth—in part because the journey is so radically individualistic. Stevenson bravely fashioned his tales athwart the modern impulse. “Stevenson was a Christian theologian without knowing it,” wrote Chesterton—meaning that Stevenson gave witness to the Fall, but in his heart looked with faith toward forgiveness and the Resurrection. Read the last page of Treasure Island if you wish to know how that plays out. It is not without reason nor without depth of emotion and wisdom that Chesterton named Robert Louis Stevenson “the Apostle of Childhood.”
The norms taught through good literature and the habit of contemplating reality through experiences are ones that put us back in touch with the freshness of things, and they take us on our pilgrimage of Sanity by route of the moral imagination. Shorthand: cultivate the moral imagination; these journeys take place as much through poetry as novels.
We should note here that this insight of Chesterton deals with universals, with principles that apply broadly to all men. Such is the manner of Chesterton. He sees through things to the truth. He trundles off towards the truths of everyman, for if they weren’t the truths of everyman, he would scarcely know the way nor be able to communicate them. Things stand for other things in the grand mystery of life. “A page of statistics, a plan of model dwellings, anything which is rational,” wrote Chesterton (in Heretics) is always difficult for the lay mind. “But the thing that is irrational anyone can understand… History unanimously attests to the fact that only mysticism stands the smallest chance of being understanded of the people.” This is not an argument against the life of reason, only about the death of rationalism. Chesterton wishes us to rise up and build good and holy lives passing first through the gates of toy castles and across the pirate-infested seas of Childhood. Where dreadful things and dragons and dark mystery abound, mercy, hope, and bright goodness will be found in their purest form.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a painting by N.C. Wyeth illustrated for Treasure Island.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.