Fine Arts Column: The forgotten wit of Chesterton’s essays

LUKE PONCE
FINE ARTS COLUMNIST

Luke PonceMy forthcoming work in five volumes, ‘The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature,’ is a work of such unprecedented and laborious detail that it is doubtful whether I shall live to finish it.” Thus reads one of Catholic author G.K. Chesterton’s most memorable opening lines. Quite fittingly it appears in an essay entitled “Cheese” from his 1910 volume “Alarms and Discursions”. 

It is a testament to Chesterton’s range that the same pen which brought us theological classics like “Orthodoxy” and kaleidoscopic novels like “The Man Who Was Thursday” should deliver an accomplished essay on so wildly different a subject. At first blush, an Englishman rambling about cheese for three long paragraphs may seem trivial, even stereotypical, but Chesterton’s knack for using the mundane to illustrate deeper realities is among his greatest assets as a writer.  

In a single paragraph, he laments the absence of cheese in works of great literature and explains what he sees as cheese’s most poetic qualities. In the second, he ruminates on variance of local custom (and local variety of cheese), and in the third, he notes modern society’s tendency to restrict the expression of custom within the range of a single perceived ideal. “Good customs,” he writes, “are universal and varied, like native chivalry and self-defence.” A lesser author would risk sounding scattered and unclear were they to cover all these points in as short a span but not so our pithy Englishman. 

Chesterton’s essays read like a microcosm of his larger canon, and it is a shame they are not more widely discussed. I was first introduced to them at a Catholic homeschooling conference in 2011 (an event I have only fond memories of and which was exactly as stereotypical as you might expect). Dale Ahlquist, a noted Chesterton scholar, had given a talk on the excellent and advice-filled essay “On Lying in Bed” which convinced me I had to hunt down his table in the vendor area. I tentatively handed him $20 I had begged from my mother in exchange for a collection of Chesterton’s essays entitled “In Defense of Sanity.” 

Eight years later, it remains among the best $20 I have ever spent. If asked to recommend a single volume of Chesterton to own, I might very nearly suggest this over any other. Even a glance at the table of contents reveals the breadth of the work. The book contains, for instance, serious-minded essays like “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” but also witty, narrative outings like “On Running After One’s Hat.”  

No matter the degree of levity with which the topic is presented, Chesterton uses these brief spaces to offer deep, common-sense reflections on society and the way we interact with it as individuals. This he does with equal skill in his novels and other non-fiction books, but here his points are distilled to their absolute essence. 

Often the apparent frivolity of his subject matter disarms the reader of any pre- or misconceptions they might have were he to announce his thesis up front. The aforementioned “On Running After One’s Hat” bears little to no hint of its eventual point in its title. Three paragraphs in, he finally remarks that “there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one’s hat” because it is humiliating. It is humiliating, he says, because it is comic, but if we had the nerve to change our perception of it so as to revel in the hilarity of the situation and the thrill of the chase, might not we experience a great deal less discomfort at it? 

One last thing I shall say about Chesterton’s essays is that often the corollary of his point is expertly concealed in his closing sentences. It is, of course, true that life is full of inconveniences as Chesterton details several times in “On Running After One’s Hat,” and I can think of several that have happened to me just today. If we react with annoyance at each instance, might we not spend a good deal of our time being annoyed?  

Hence, Chesterton’s concluding point becomes a tool for navigating life, summed up in its oft-quoted reminder: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” 

Whether it be the deeper significance of cheese, advice on lying in bed or the life lesson found in chasing after one’s hat, Chesterton’s essays had much to say to his contemporaries. Their humor, charity and unassuming profundity still have the power to inform and enrich us today. I encourage you, dear reader, to spend some time enjoying a few of them yourself.  

Whether you’ve read almost everything of Chesterton’s or barely know of him, you may just find yourself seeing more adventures where you once saw inconveniences. 

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