G. K. Chesterton is so full of wisdom and wonder, and sanity and sanctity, that it comes as a surprise to learn of his darker side. Yet there were two particularly dark and bitter periods in his life that should not be overlooked. The first was the unholy and unhealthy darkness that descended during a period of mawkishness in his teenage years, the second was a similar descent into darkness and bitterness following the death of his brother Cecil. With respect to the latter, Chesterton was so angry following his brother’s death on active service in France in 1918, that he succumbed to a degree of uncharitable anger that was utterly uncharacteristic. This is epitomized in the bitterness and resentment of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, the very title of which is a satirical sneer at the elegiac spirit of Thomas Gray’s famous poem of the same name:
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.
The other dark period was much earlier, in the early 1890s, during the time that the young Chesterton was a student at the Slade School of Art in London. The chapter in my biography of Chesterton which deals with this period is entitled “Soul in a Ferment”, an allusion to a phrase of John Keats from the Preface to Endymion, in which Keats speaks of the “mawkishness” that characterizes the mind during the gloom that follows the twilight of childhood and the gloaming that precedes true manhood. “I deal here,” wrote Chesterton in his Autobiography, “with the darkest and most difficult part of my task; the period of youth which is full of doubts and morbidities and temptations; and which, though in my case mainly subjective, has left in my mind for ever a certitude upon the objective solidity of Sin.” In Orthodoxy, a book he wrote in 1908, he confessed that he was “a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.” By the time he was nineteen, in 1893, he had regressed still further:
I am not proud of believing in the Devil. To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil. I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led to devil-worship or the devil knows what…. What I may call my period of madness coincided with a period of drifting and doing nothing; in which I could not settle down to any regular work. I dabbled in a number of things … among these dabblings in this dubious time, I dabbled in Spiritualism.
The devil finding work for idle hands, Chesterton and his brother Cecil experimented with the planchette, or what Americans call the Ouija board. Such dabbling with diabolism left a permanent mark on his psyche. “We were playing with fire,” he wrote, “or even with hell-fire”:
I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will. Whether it be produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide. The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisble power, is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.
Adding to this lurid morbidity were the nihilistic philosophies which were fashionable in the decadent atmosphere of the fin de siècle. By 1894, Chesterton wrote that he had thought his way back to thought itself. “It is a very dreadful thing to do; for it may lead to thinking that there is nothing but thought.” Such was the degree to which he had descended into the fathomless thought of Thought itself that even the materialism of the atheists seemed to require a leap of faith: “While dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind.”
There is something in the very being of being human which recoils in horror and disgust from the negation of being itself. It is the something that healthier and holier philosophers have called the divine image in which we’re made. In Chesterton’s case, the recoil took the form of ontological optimism:
When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.
It was from this firm foundation of gratitude for being itself that Chesterton would find his way to the Christian orthodoxy that would be the hallmark of his life and work. In 1908, the year in which he wrote Orthodoxy, he also wrote The Man Who was Thursday, a novel, subtitled “a nightmare”, which conveys the spirit of darkness that had descended on the youthful author fifteen years earlier. The novel is the witness of one who had met the devil and had delved in the devil’s darkness but who had emerged into the light through the power of the Light Himself. Having known the devil, Chesterton would fight the devil’s lies with the light of truth, exercising reason to exorcise demons and fighting heresy with dynamic orthodoxy.
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The featured image is “The Polish folklore legend Pan Twardowski and the devil” (1895), by Michał Elwiro Andriolli. This image is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.