I’ve at times found the great English writer and apologist G.K. Chesterton wearisome for his seemingly unending parade of paradoxes, some of which strike me as the discovery of paradoxes for paradox’s sake. Yet paradox, as Peter Kreeft notes in his Foreword to ABCs of the Christian Life: The Ultimate Anthology of the Prince of Paradox (Ave Maria Press, 2017), is both the fundament and the essence of Chesterton’s thought, not simply his preferred means of expression. In other words, no paradox, no G.K. Chesterton. “He shows us,” Kreeft says, “that what seems to us outrageously paradoxical is in fact simple truth, and what we see as simple truth is in fact outrageously paradoxical. That’s the real paradox.”
ABCs is an anthology consisting of 26 chapters, one for every letter of the alphabet. Thus, Chapter One, “Asceticism,” Chapter Two, “Bethlehem,” etc. All selections are taken from his many books save one, “On Lying in Bed,” which comes from Tremendous Trifles, itself comprising the author’s early essays published in the Daily News. These include some of his greatest works: Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, the biographies of Ss. Francis and Thomas Aquinas (praised by Etienne Gilson, the great Thomist scholar, as the best thing ever written about Thomas), and The New Jerusalem.
This book is a good introduction to GKC, as well as being a pleasure in itself, the perfect bedside volume whether for prayer or simple interest, as the selections are mostly brief ones. Here indeed is the best of Chesterton—but only examples of the best. On “General Theories”: “[I]n the decadence of the great revolutionary period . . . [g]eneral theories are everywhere condemned. . . . Atheism itself is too theological for us today.” On “Questing”: “A certain break or sharp change in history can hardly be sketched more sharply, than by saying that up to a certain time life was conceived as a Dance, and after that time life was conceived as a Race.” On “the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred for the other”: “He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God.” On “Insanity”: “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.” The mental confusion Chesterton observed in the first part of the 20th century remains with us—squared—in the 21st.
Unfortunately, ABCs has been very carelessly proofread, which is a shame. GKC deserves better.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Letters once meant many things, beyond mere characters of the alphabet. There were letters, as in the writings of cultivated (litteratus) men, and during the Age of Enlightenment (or Something), belles-lettres circulated in la république des lettres. And there were letters, the scratchings of one man conveying his thoughts to another, delivered over time and distance via a postman or a bird.
These letters are largely ruined. The former, by modern/postmodern man’s obsession with his own innate perfection, which meant the replacement of cultivation with expression, “confession,” and songs of myself. The latter, by the World-Wide Web and the arrival, like Fat Man in Nagasaki, of the oxymoronic (and just plain moronic) “electronic mail.” Nothing is free, including electrons and pixels. But the cost of the reduction of letters to pixels and electrons is, like the war in Afghanistan, difficult to estimate. The mushroom cloud has not yet dissipated.
Musing on this nuclear holocaust of civilization, I found myself engrossed in The Lytle-Tate Letters, published by the University Press of Mississippi. For pennies more than the price of shipping, I obtained the aforementioned book via the Web-Beast and the Scarlet Woman who rides upon it, Amazon.com. Judging the book by the DCC sticker on its spine and the stamp on its tail, I have determined that the librarians of Southern Methodist University deemed its services to be required no longer.
Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, two of the Twelve Southerners, authors respectively of such masterpieces as A Wake for the Living and “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” had a near-lifelong friendship, and these letters are that friendship’s time capsule. As the literate and literary world collapsed around them, these men of letters retained their classical and Christ-haunted sensibilities, always striving for the right word and writing only for an audience that would appreciate right words. They took their stands, never surrendering the field to the Beats, confessionals, and Marxists, and always demanding the best work from each other. And they stood by each other in friendship—through Tate’s tumultuous marriages to Caroline Gordon and Isabella Gardner, and through Lytle’s financial woes, health problems, and the cancer of his beloved wife, Edna. The letters stop in 1968, when Allen and the third Mrs. Tate (a former student 34 years his junior and also a former nun) moved near the widower Lytle’s famous Monteagle cabin, where “Brother” (as both had addressed and signed their letters over the years) could speak with “Brother” on any given day.
Yet conversations (rich as they undoubtedly were whenever these two were involved) are not the same as letters, which are carefully composed. Men of our electronic times find such composure to be disingenuous, false, and formal. But our thoughts need forming, as do ourselves, and it is with melancholic delight that I read Lytle’s frank evaluation of his rootless Brother in media divorce (“you’ve always been a wanderer, and yet you’ve never wandered in your mind because you live there”; or see them in the planning stages of the T.S. Eliot tribute issue of The Sewanee Review; or hear them discuss young Flannery O’Connor’s ability to write dialogue in a pitch-perfect rural Georgia dialect, “with the minimum of distorted, or phonetic, spelling”; or watch them conspire to get Lytle an appointment at Vanderbilt so he might afford his daughter’s tuition. And all of it “Aff’ly yours, Brother.”
—Aaron D. Wolf