IF THERE is one word which describes the personality of G.K. Chesterton it is paradoxical. He wrote in paradoxes, he thought in paradoxes. He was a paradox. He is a paradox. And this is the reason so many biographers over the years have felt compelled to recount the story of his life and art. They have been motivated by the same adventurous spirit of exploration that inspired men to discover uncharted territories. It is the insatiable desire to understand truths which are hidden.
The latest biographical explorer to attempt to scale the mountain of Chesterton's intellect and plumb the depths of his thought is Michael Coren, a freelance journalist who has written for the New Statesman and Time Out amongst others. As with previous biographers Mr Coren claims to have solved some of the paradoxes which surround Chesterton. For instance, the notes on the dust jacket of his biography, Gilbert - The Man Who Was Chesterton (Jonathan Cape, 1989), boast that Coren's biography "tackles head on the charge of anti-Semitism and finally exorcises it".
G. K. Chesterton
The fact that this boast is somewhat presumptuous was exposed by Bernard Levin in his review of Coren's book in The Sunday Times: "Why do his biographers and commentators feel impelled to pretend that he wasn't anti-semitic?"
Levin, for his part, states squarely that Chesterton "was fat and anti-semitic". Yet Levin, who describes himself in the same review, as "thin and Jewish" admits to being a great admirer of G.K. Chesterton; "those good judges of mankind were plainly right; he is one of the most lovable figures in all literature, and we long to be in his company, his teddy-bear shape truly reflecting his character and his rather fierce moustache belying the charity and benignity which plainly flowed from him".
On reading these lines it is patently obvious that Bernard Levin loves Chesterton, a fact further borne out by the choice of All Things Considered as the title of his latest book, a clear tribute to Chesterton who wrote a book bearing that title in 1908.
Yet if Levin loves Chesterton is it possible that someone "fat and anti-semitic" like Chesterton could love Levin? Here, of course, lies the question from which Coren argues that Chesterton was not an anti-semite. Let's look at the evidence which Coren offers.
On page 199 he observes that "as a boy he had Jewish friends, and many in the Junior Debating Club were Jewish ... He maintained friendships with those he had met at school throughout his life, and though the defence that 'some of my best friends are Jewish' is trite and absurd, Gilbert's relationships with these men were sincerely warm and reciprocated. They would not have continued to hold him in such high esteem if his real attitudes had been acrimonious".
By way of reinforcing this point he quotes Chesterton himself: "Oddly enough, I lived to have later on the name of an Anti-Semite; whereas from my first days at school I very largely had the name of a Pro-Semite. I held by instinct then, as I hold by knowledge now, that the right way is to be interested in Jews as Jews ... I am not at all ashamed of having asked Aryans to have more patience with Jews or for asking Anglo-Saxons to have more patience with Jew-baiters. The whole problem of the two entangled cultures and traditions is much too deep and difficult, on both sides, to be decided on impatiently. But I have very little patience with those who will not solve the problem, on the ground that there is no problem to solve. I cannot explain the Jews; but I certainly will not explain them away."
Ironically, Coren then reverts to the oldest, and lowest, of all the tricks of the self-righteous bigot to prove his case: the tactic of finding a scapegoat! The scapegoat in question is Hilaire Belloc, one of Chesterton's closest friends.
There is a vitriolic invective throughout whenever Belloc is mentioned. He is the 'something' which insisted on dragging Chesterton towards prejudice: "Belloc found hatred an easy emotion to indulge in, and Jews ranked highly on his list of opponents. His book The Jews, while impressive in some of its predictions and warnings, saw the Jews as natural plotters, a strange people who could not and would not assimilate, and who would change their names so as to disguise their identity; hence easing their way into gentile society. He would blithely employ the word 'Yid' in public, revelling in its shock value."
Yet it seems singularly absurd to single out Belloc as the scapegoat, bearing the brunt of the blame of Chesterton's over-indulgent attacks on the Jews, especially when Coren then quotes two candid rhymes by Chesterton:
I am fond of Jews
Jews are fond of money
Never mind of whose.
I am fond of Jews
Oh, but when they lose
Damn it all, it's funny.
And, in the same vein...
Oh I knew a Dr Gluck
And his nose it had a hook
And his attitudes were anything but Aryan.
So I gave him all the pork
That I had upon a fork
Because I am myself a vegetarian.
There can be little doubt that the rhymes cited above have one very important factor in common other than their allusion to the Jews, that is they are intended to be funny. Yet the Jews are no longer a laughing matter. For, as Mr Coren writes, "this makes for distasteful reading, especially in the light of the holocaust which was to follow".
Whether or not the holocaust did follow, it is apparent that Michael Coren is as obsessed by the Jewish question as were Chesterton and Belloc. He spends a whole chapter in an ultimately futile attempt to clear Chesterton of the heinous crime of anti-semitism. Yet all he does is pose further paradoxes.
For instance, what is anti-semitism? Certainly, neither Belloc nor Chesterton hated the Jews in the perverse, almost pornographic, way that Julius Streicher did in Germany. Certainly also, once one knows 'the man who was Chesterton' properly, it seems inconceivable that he had the capability of hating anyone at all. Perhaps the final word on the subject should be left to Bernard Levin: "A man who adopts the kind of persona Chesterton assumed must inevitably get to the point where it cannot be distinguished from reality. GK's swashbuckling becomes tedious, but it was genuine, and we should not forget that it was rooted deep in his love for England; Father Brown and the rolling English road and King Alfred are all one to him, and the thing he could not forgive the Jews was that they lived in England but weren't really English".