Thursday, October 23, 2014

G.K. Chesterton and Michael Collins

An Irish revolutionary who sounded the emboldened trumpet that set the sun upon the British Empire was the last person one would expect to have been an avid fan of a middle class British writer. But, as Richard Williamson once observed, Catholicism is the great unifier of men in thought and action. When two people are practising Catholics, they will have more in common within the space of a few minutes than two non-Catholics can often have even after years of companionship or knowledge of one another.

For this reason, Michael Collins was able to read Gilbert Keith Chesterton's works and read into them some concept of  Sensus Catholicus and with it, an unworldly sense of opposition to oppression and injustice.



Anyone who has ever read Chesterton (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?) will attest to the Englishman's ability to make the complex seem lucid and undeniable with language at once dazzling and easy to decipher.



Wherein Everlasting Man had succeeded in converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity and Orthodoxy was able to inform much of Archbishop Fulton Sheen's telecasts to millions of Americans, Chesterton's novels The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill had the unlikely effect of stirring the imagination of an impressionable Michael Collins. Collins moved to Dublin as a young man and was give a copy of The Man Who Was Thursday , into which he was entranced with the metaphysical and bewitching meanders into espionage, shadowy allegiances and divine justice. Particularly influential upon the young Cork man was the phrase, uttered by the novel's anarchist that if you don't seem to be hiding, no one hunts you out. This mantra became the signature of an individual who saddled around Dublin city on a bicycle whilst waging covert war against British agents in the nation's capital. By the same token, Collins was influenced by The Napoleon of Notting Hill and its fantastical character Adam Wayne who embarks upon a rallies his local men in a seemingly novel but ultimately life affirming and grandiose revolt against plans for a highway. Wayne becomes a real life and realistic defender of honour in a fantastical world where nothing is supposed to be taken with seriousness. Such are the paradoxes of war and literature.



Catholics, especially those in the public eye, should never underestimate the effects that their words and deeds can have. Granted, Chesterton converted after he had written these, but nonetheless they were at a time when he was grasping for the fullness of truth to which eventually he would wrap his mind and hands around in a manner very few cradle Catholics could ever dream of doing. Collins was a practising Catholic and though he was involved in violent acts during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War, his legacy is a complex one given the subsequent partition and ensuing pain for Northern Catholics left behind.

But this we know of. His achievements (and whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, he had achievements) are testament to the mysterious power of art and the creative endeavour. Their imprint upon the human soul are immeasurable and can lead us to God in our most disparate moments of misery.



Another Catholic, Seamus Heaney, spoke of the unintended but uncontrollable effects that an artist's actions can impress upon the world when he wrote his poem The Forge. 

                                              All I know is a door into the dark.
                                         Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
                                      Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
                                      The unpredictable fantail of sparks
                                          Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
                                       The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
                                          Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
                                             Set there immoveable: an altar
                                          Where he expends himself in shape and music. 
                                       Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
                                      He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
                                      Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
                                   Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
                                          To beat real iron out, to work the bellows. 



I assigned some of my English students last year with the task of completing a project on G.K. Chesterton. On the off chance they ever come across this blog post, I still have the project and read over it from time to time such was its quality! What amazed me most, besides their effort , was reading to their and my amazement that this man who inspired Gandhi, C.S. Lewis and Michael Collins could have become such a peripheral figure in Western intellectual tradition. The notion that someone like Eavan Boland could work her way onto a course over classic figures such as Chesterton is so far beyond the realms of logic to be plausible, a bit like the novels that Collins enjoyed. Maybe good Catholic literature needs a crusade like that of Adam Wayne in Napoleon, it sure beats letting our youth slip into a lifetime of mediocrity.



The Church recognizes that the media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men's entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss.

- Decree Inter Mirifica
Second Vatican Council 


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