Message from Fr. Ian Boyd, CSB
Introduction to The Chesterton Review, Special Journalism Issue
Vol. XLIII, Nos. 3 & 4
Chesterton was proud to describe himself as a journalist, and "journalism" is the most accurate description of his writing. Admittedly it was journalism of an unusual kind, including not only newspaper articles, but also poetry, plays, short stories and novels, and literary criticism as well. But whatever its form, it was always directed towards what he called "training the minds of men to act upon the community" and "making the mind a source of creation and critical action."
Something else should also be remembered. Chesterton belonged to a group of writers known as the Victorian sages. Thomas Carlyle, Mathew Arnold and John Ruskin were among their number, and they were men who shared a passionate belief in the ability of literature to present a particular social philosophy. In Chesterton, this ability was combined with a quality the Bible calls the gift of wisdom. As Etienne Gilson, the historian, once said, Chesterton had a mind which intuited the truth without having to use discursive reason to work his way towards it. But he possessed another and equally unusual gift. His deepest insights were the products of his imagination. For this reason, parables, allegories, riddles and the apparent contradictions called paradoxes were his favourite vehicles for expressing truth. But perhaps the most delightful quality of this imaginative writing is the way in which it combines the serious and the humourous: Chesterton's weightiest writings are always suffused with laughter.
At the same time, these joyful parables are fundamentally religious. As Franz Kafka noted, Chesterton's writing makes it clear that he was an author who had found God. Yet because he adhered to a sacramental tradition, the meaning of his work is seldom expressed in explicitly religious language. And so, when his devoutly Christian wife suggested that he should write more often about God, he answered that he had never written about anything else. Consider, for example, his most successful novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, a book which under its surface is an extended reflection on the problem of suffering—a work of fiction inspired by the Book of Job. And yet, this is a novel containing few obvious comments on a religious theme; superficially, it is nothing more than a fantasy about international terrorism.
It is appropriate, therefore, to devote a special issue of the Review to the subject of Chesterton's journalism, and specifically to the journalism he cast in the form of parables. His choice of this approach is not surprising. Beginning with his training at London's Slade School of Art, and throughout his life as a writer, he retained an artistic outlook which, as he said, "sees things as they are in a picture." The advice he once offered a child to whom he gave the present of a picture book constitutes a good summary of his view of life, and of the journalism to which he devoted his life: "So mind your books my little man/ And listen to the pedants' screeds and strictures,/ But don't believe in anything that can’t be told in coloured pictures." No wonder then that in a late novel, The Return of Don Quixote, the central character echoes this appeal for a radically symbolic view of life. "I doubt," says Gabriel Gale, "whether any of our action is really anything but an allegory. I doubt whether any truth can be told except in parable."
So, in this issue of the Review, we present a study of the journalism in parables to which Chesterton devoted much of his writing career.