Chesterton the Prophet

This little piece was commissioned by the capitalist magazine American Enterprise, but the editors prudently wanted to eliminate any contemporary references that might encourage readers to apply Chesterton's reasoning to US policies of imperial aggression.  The small-minded writer imprudently withdrew the piece, which was, I believe,  later published in several places.  If you have not already read it, I hope it will give some pleasure.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton

In the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men....And all these clever men were at work giving accounts of what would happen in the next age."  The discussion of prophetic literature with which Chesterton begins The Napoleon of Notting Hill is itself an accurate piece of prophecy.  As he points out, most of the books devoted to the ever-receding horizon of the future are really descriptions of the present carried one step further: "Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill.  And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ('shedding,' as he called it finely, 'the green blood of the silent animals'), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt.  And then came the pamphlet from Oregon ... called, 'Why should Salt suffer?'

In their extrapolated predictions, such would-be prophets as H.G. Wells and George Orwell were both myopic enough to have hailed from Oregon.   World wars have turned out to be too costly to sustain; continental federations too unwieldy to keep together.  Successful empires require subtler, less dramatic methods than Wells or Orwell, Hitler or Stalin could project from their experience of WWI and its aftershocks.  Aldous Huxley came far closer to reality with his fantasy of a world subdued not by jackbooted armies but by sexual freedom, mood-elevating drugs, and the soft propaganda of films, pop songs, and fact-free education.  Chesterton, who like Huxley was more a poet than a journalist, envisioned an absolute despotism run by colorless bureaucrats who would eliminate all the little ethnic and regional differences, all the eccentricities of class and profession that had made European civilization the gorgeous mosaic that it was.

In Chesterton's future, England is ruled by a bureaucratic machine in which the king is chosen by lot.  When the lot falls on a practical joker named Auberon Quinn (a dead ringer for Max Beerbohm), the new king decides, as a prank, to recreate the old London buroughs and invest them with a medieval pageantry of his own invention.  No one takes Quinn's posturing seriously, except the 19 year old Provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, who is fired with enthusiasm for the drab and familiar streets of his own neighborhood.  In the interests of progress and their own personal gain, the leaders of the other buroughs decide to run a thoroughfare through Notting Hill's Pump Street, and Wayne rallies the inhabitants to resist.  When the politicians seeking to buy him off deprecate the size of Pump Street, Wayne fires back: "That which is large enough for the rich to covet...is large enough for the poor to defend," and when King Auberon tries to make him see the ludicrous side of Notting Hill patriotism, he explains that "Notting Hill...is a rise or high ground of the common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die.  Why should I think it absurd?"

Not content with defending his burough from aggression, Wayne appeals to the professional imaginations of the shopkeepers.   "I can imagine," he tells the Pump Street grocer, "what it must be to sit all day as you do surrounded with wares from all the ends of the earth, from strange seas that we have never sailed and strange forests that we could not even picture."   At first his only convert is a toy merchant fond of war games, and together they plan the revolt of Notting Hill.  Their very success, however, is almost their undoing, as the businessmen and bureaucrats succumb to blood-lust and patriotism.  In the final struggle, a working-man tired of hearing "Notting Hill!" cried in his face, exclaims, "Well, what about Bayswater?....Bayswater forever," to which the mad Provost responds, "We have won....We have taught our enemies patriotism."

The victory of Notting Hill is at first a liberation of all London; eventually, however, the burough becomes arrogant and inspires the other neighborhoods to revolt against her empire.  But in his defeat Wayne achieves his greatest triumph, in teaching his enemies patriotism.

Chesterton's fable delighted its first readers, but his prophetic insight has taken longer to be recognized.  It is partly the playful spirit of the book that prevents us from taking him seriously, but an even greater obstacle is our own stupid conviction that history moves in a straight line.  If, we say, the tendency since the Renaissance has been the agglomeration of little powers into great powers--of Florence into the Duchy of Tuscany into the Kingdom of Italy into the European Union--then it does little good to speak wistfully of the days when an independent Florence was at war with Siena and Arezzo, and the very neighborhoods of Florence had their own names, their own flags, their own costumes, and--above all--their own honor for which the inhabitants contended in street fights.  Even the United States, when they were a republic, more resembled medieval Siena or Adam Wayne's London than they do the mass-produced population that is sent to fight under the flag of the United Nations.  But that, as we say, is history.

It is only at the end of the twentieth century that one can fully appreciate Chesterton's prophecy, because not only are nations of the world tending more and more every day toward the lifeless bureaucracies that he predicted, but also because we are beginning to see the first flickers of resistance.  In America the western states are passing 10th Amendment resolutions; in Italy the Northern League (whatever its political future) has been successful in recreating a Lombard identity; and in Eastern Europe the old nationalities are lifting their heads up out of the rubble of empire, singing their old songs, reopening the ancient wounds whose very throbbing shows they are still alive.

One of Chesterton's hunches was that a New World Order would not tolerate particularity, and at the beginning of his novel, Quinn meets the President of Nicaragua.  When told that Nicaragua is no longer a country, the old man declares, "Nicaragua has been conquered like Athens.  Nicaragua has been annexed like Jerusalem....The Yankee and the German and the brute powers of modernity have trampled it with with the hoofs of oxen."   One of Quinn's civil servant friends explains that Nicaragua was a stumbling block to civlization: "We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples."  To understand Chesterton one must have some sympathy for the unabsorbed peoples: for Nicaragua, even under the Sandinistas, for Iraq, even when it is ruled by a brutal dictator, and for the Bosnian Serbs, even though our whole great cosmopolitan civilization is against them.

 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Bagby says:

    Long ago, in an undergraduate literature class, I re-wrote the speech of the exiled President of Nicaragua and made him an exiled Southerner, drawing the flag of his prostrate country with table condiments and his own blood. I could not figure out where the blue would come from.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Three cheers for imprudent, small-minded writers and craftsmen

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!

  4. Harry Colin says:

    One of the great glories of Chesterton is his timelessness; most of his works read as if written last night. His “Hudge” and “Gudge” are exactly what our big government and big business have become, and his critiques of empire-building – he so savaged the British in the Boer War – are profound. Our current crop of politicos could learn much from them if they would (could?) read him.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Maurice Baring, the English scholar on Russian literature and poets, was converted by the following epitaph he once stumbled upon in Rome.

    “Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live apart from his country’”

    The love of heaven and earth is what all those friends of that age had in common. Belloc described it once:

    “There is an inn in the town of Piacenza into which I once walked while I was still full of immortality [at 31!], and there I found such good companions and so much [Carrara] marble, rooms so large and empty and so old, and cooking so excellent, that I made certain it would survive even that immortality [marble sculpture and marble decor] which, I say, was all around. But no! I came there eight years later, having by that time heard the noise of the Subterranean River [i.e., the River Styx] and being well conscious of mortality. I came to it [that Old Inn] as to a friend, and the beastly thing had changed!”

  6. Michael Strenk says:

    NYC used to be, even in my lifetime, a patchwork of blocks and neighborhoods that gangs of young men thought worthy of protecting from incursion. Now the gangs suck the life blood out of their own neighborhoods and war to control the neighborhoods and victims controlled by other gangs. There were always criminal gangs, but the ones I speak of above were not necessarily so, although the criminals liked to recruit from these local patriots because they wanted fighters that they could co-opt to their own goals; sounds a bit like national governments looking for canon fodder.

    It amazed me, while visiting family in Europe many years ago, the animosity between villages that had extensive blood ties, but the “Union” having consumed many Orthodox villages proved to do anything but unite on the local level.

    Everything in my life these days seems to be following the pattern in the Belloc quote that Mr. Reavis was so good to share; constant “Change” seemingly designed to create despondency.