Saturday, August 29, 2015

G.K. Chesterton: Men and the Gentleman.

In my last post I left a remark to commentator Mark Citadel with regard to what I think is one of the problems of modern Christian masculinity.

I think among the "cultivated Right" Trumps crassness and boorishness is a huge turn off and they would rather a polite but politically correct candidate than a boorish man. It's an interesting reflection on the hierarchy of their values. It's just occurred to me that Chersterton has an interesting essay on the subject I'll try and hunt it up for my next post.

Well, its not exactly an essay but an extract from G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography (1936), recanting an unexpected meeting between Henry James and Hilaire Belloc.; we are halted at the moment when Mr. Henry James heard of our arrival in Rye and proceeded (after exactly the correct interval) to pay his call in state.

Needless to say, it was a very stately call of state; and James seemed to fill worthily the formal frock-coat of those far-off days...He brought his brother William with him, the famous American philosopher; and though William James was breezier than his brother when you knew him, there was something finally ceremonial about this idea of the whole family on the march. We talked about the best literature of the day; James a little tactfully, myself a little nervously. I found he was more strict than I had imagined about the rules of artistic arrangement; he deplored rather than depreciated Bernard Shaw, because plays like Getting Married were practically formless. He said something complimentary about something of mine; but represented himself as respectfully wondering how I wrote all I did. I suspected him of meaning why rather than how. We then proceeded to consider gravely the work of Hugh Walpole, with many delicate degrees of appreciation and doubt; when I heard from the front-garden a loud bellowing noise resembling that of an impatient foghorn. I knew, however, that it was not a fog-horn; because it was roaring out, "Gilbert! Gilbert!" and was like only one voice in the world...

I knew it was Belloc, probably shouting for bacon and beer; but even I had no notion of the form or guise under which he would present himself.

I had every reason to believe that he was a hundred miles away in France. And so, apparently, he had been; walking with a friend of his in the Foreign Office, a co-religionist of one of the old Catholic families; and by some miscalculation they had found themselves in the middle of their travels entirely without money. Belloc is legitimately proud of having on occasion lived, and being able to live, the life of the poor. One of the Ballades of the Eye-Witness, which was never published, described tramping abroad in this fashion:

To sleep and smell the incense of the tar,
To wake and watch Italian dawns aglow
And underneath the branch a single star,
Good Lord, how little wealthy people know.

In this spirit they started to get home practically without money. Their clothes collapsed and they managed to get into some workmen's slops. They had no razors and could not afford a shave. They must have saved their last penny to recross the sea; and then they started walking from Dover to Rye; where they knew their nearest friend for the moment resided. They arrived, roaring for food and drink and derisively accusing each other of having secretly washed, in violation of an implied contract between tramps. In this fashion they burst in upon the balanced tea-cup and tentative sentence of Mr. Henry James.

Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He had left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the traditions of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-panelled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.[ED]
The operative term here is "the Puritan refinement of Boston". I think the reader should not mistake that Chesterton was critiquing Jame's Americanism, rather his aesthetic puritanism which which led him to prefer the "the oak paneled rooms" of England to the relatively uncouth life of the U.S.

In Chesterton's eyes James was a type of Aesthete, Belloc was a man, and I think it is important to remember the point. 

Belloc was famously belligerent in debate, praised the crusades and preached a from of Christianity that was muscular and unapologetic. He was also a bit of a poet;

The world is full of double beds
And most delightful maidenheads,
Which being so, there’s no excuse
For sodomy of self-abuse.
Henry James remained celibate all his life.