The New Bigotry

This is not a blanket-endorsement of everything the heretic G.K. Chesterton writes (I’ve read relatively little from Chesterton). Anyway, when I come across something by Chesterton that I find interesting, I try to post it here. In my opinion, G.K. Chesterton has a unique writing style.

“I notice with some amusement, both in America and English literature, the rise of a new kind of bigotry. Bigotry does not consist in a man being convinced he is right; that is not bigotry, but sanity. Bigotry consists in a man being convinced that another man must be wrong in everything, because he is wrong in a particular belief…We all know what used to happen sometimes in the Puritan period; or the more critical classicism of the eighteenth century. A young idealistic poet would write a copy of verses; mostly verses somewhat in this style:

O’er rushing waterfall and verdant grove
The languid moonlight throws a light of love.

The poet was considered quite respectable; perhaps the poem was even a prize poem. Then it was discovered that the poet, when slightly drunk, had expressed doubts about the exact date of the book of Habakkuk. There was a terrible scandal; the youth was hurled from his college as an atheist; and then the learned critics went back and looked at his poem with a new darkling and suspicious eye. The ‘rushing waterfall,’ after all, had a very revolutionary sound and hinted at pantheistic anarchy. The phrase ‘languid moonlight’ was an appeal to all the most profligate passions. ‘Light of love’ was a term notoriously of loose significance.

Today it is just the opposite; only equally bigoted. A young idealistic poet, full of the new visions of beauty, writes verses appropriate to such vision; as, for instance:

Bug-house underbogies belch daybreak back-firing.
Daylight’s a void-vomit; steadying legs to stump.

And all the young critics know he is all right; he has got a cosmic rhythm; he is a regular guy. And then the horrid whisper goes round that he was seen outside an Episcopal Church near Vermont. The whole horrid truth is soon known. He has admitted to a newspaper man that he believes in God. Then the young critics go back gloomily and stare at his poetry; and, strangely enough, see for the first time that there was something awfully oldfashioned in saying ‘daylight’ when Binx might have said ‘sky-bank’; and, after all, bogies are just the sort of thing Episcopalians are forced by their bishops to believe in.

This, though some of the worst examples have occurred in England, is a strictly correct biography of a man of genius who has come to us from America — Mr. T.S. Eliot. It would be an exaggeration to say that Mr. Eliot was expelled from Harvard for being a High Churchman, as Shelley was expelled from Oxford for being an atheist. Mr. Eliot’s character was not blasted by a religion until later in life, and after he had said all that can be said for modern scepticism and despair.

But this makes it all the funnier. An English critic actually accused him of asking us ‘to believe the unbelievable.’ Whatever is the sense of calling a thing unbelievable when a man like Eliot already believes it. The author of The Waste Land knows all there is to know about scepticism and pessimism; why not admit that his beliefs are beliefs, and go back to a proper criticism of his literature?” (G.K. Chesterton, The Common Man, pp. 226-227).