Chesterton on Essays

In The Well and the Shallows, Chesterton has a chapter on writing styles and egotism. (It is called An Apology for Buffoons, for those interested in reading the whole thing.) In it, he talks about style and what is true egotism; the problem comes up that people are amusing may seem to be drawing attention to themselves, when actually they are drawing attention to the their subject. Conversely, there are people who may seem to be not talking of themselves and yet talk of little else. The second part contains the quote I’m writing this post to to quote, but the first part is worth mentioning.

As an example of someone who draws a great deal of attention to himself through his wit, the purpose of which is to draw attention away from himself and onto his subject, Chesterton uses Mr. George Bernard Shaw. The paragraph where he does is worth quoting in full, because it sets up the last sentence very well.

It is not an idle contradiction to say that Mr. Shaw is flippant because he is serious.  A man like Mr. Shaw has the deliberate intention of getting people to listen to what he has to say; and therefore he must be amusing.  A man who is only amusing himself need not be amusing.  Generally, when he is a perfect and polished stylist, he is not.  And there is a good deal of misunderstanding about the relative moral attitude of the two types; especially in connection with the old morality of modesty.  Most persons, listening to these loud flippancies would say that Mr. Bernard Shaw is egotistical.  Mr. Bernard Shaw himself would emphatically and violently assert that he is egotistical; and I should emphatically and violently assert that he is not.  It is not the first time we have somewhat tartly disagreed.  And perhaps I could not more effectively perform the just and necessary public duty of annoying Mr. Shaw than by saying (as I do say) that in this matter he really inherits an unconscious tradition of Christian humility.  The preaching friar puts his sermon into popular language, the missionary fills his sermon with anecdotes and even jokes, because he is thinking of his mission and not of himself It does not matter that Mr. Shaw’s sentences so often begin with the pronoun “I.” The Apostles Creed begins with the pronoun “I”; but it goes on to rather more important nouns and names.

Now that Chesterton mentions it, there is something very interesting in the fact that the Apostles Creed, as too does the Nicene Creed, starts with the word “I”. In fact, the Nicene creed has it more than once. And yet it is the very opposite of egotistical.

This is related, I think, to how the most momentous things a human being can do is to subsume himself into the mass of humanity. In a strange way, a man becomes most individual when he is in a group of people and reciting the same creed, word for word, all of the other men are reciting too, and which Christians have recited for many centuries.

Be that as it may, it’s really the second part—the disguised egotist—which is why I’m writing this post. Chesterton introduces this with:

Father Ronald Knox, in his satire on Modernism, has described the courteous vagueness of the Oxford manner which
….  tempering pious zeal
Corrected, “I believe” to “One does feel.”

It is quite true that “I believe” is a statement about other things, though admittedly with a bit of a caveat as to who the authority is. “One does feel” is just a description of an experience, if, still, in this more original form, a somewhat generalized feeling. In our own times it has become “I feel.” There is much that can be said about the move from thought (“I think”) to emotion (“I feel”). Suffice it to the moment, though, the timidity which drives it does change it into something that is about the person speaking far more than about the thing spoken about. And the epitome of this is what Chesterton calls, “the essay,” though that term now refers to other things. It is well known, even, now, though. It is a thing with great style and no substance, though often the pretense to substance. The style is unmistakable, and Chesterton imitates it rather well:

“The pond in my garden shows, under the change of morning, an apprehension of the moving air, hardly to be called a wave; and so little clouding its lucidity as to seem rather vacuity in motion.  Here at least is nothing to stain the bright negation of water; none of those suburban gold-fish that look like carrots and do but nose after their tails in a circle of frustration, to give some sulky gardener cause to cry ‘stinking fish’.  The mind is altogether carried away upon the faint curve of wind over water; the movement is something less solid than anything that we can call liquid; the smoke of my light Virginian cigarette does not mount more unsubstantially towards the sky.  Nor indeed inaptly:  it needs some such haven of patriarchal mildness to accent sharply the tang of mild tobacco; alone perhaps, of all the attributes of Raleigh’s red-haired mistress, rightly to be called virginal.”