The G.K. Chesterton Society and Nietzsche

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The G.K. Chesterton Society and Nietzsche
 
– Oct. 21, 2014

Recently, an FB posting brought to my attention this video about G.K. Chesterton and his writings/thoughts on Nietzsche (here).

Before I continue, let me give you the necessary preamble of biases. I have read most of Nietzsche's works, and most of those more than once. He is one of my more familiar companions to my explorations. As for Chesterton, because of FB I have seen some passing references to him and to the G.K. Chesterton Society; but, I cannot say (up until these last days) that I have ever read anything by him, or knew anything about him beyond that he was Catholic, that he was the author of the Father Brown stories, and that he had written some other works which people have considered valuable enough that it merited forming a G.K. Chesterton Society. And if you are reading that as an underhand jab at the Society you are reading it wrong; I am speaking only my complete ignorance about the man. This video, then, was my first real introduction to Chesterton.

Also, understand that my intent here is to approach that video and Chesterton's comments on Nietzsche from the outside, as an external observer of Chesterton, Ahlquist, and the culture of Chestertonism. I will refrain from speaking directly out of Nietzsche, from taking up the argument from the opposing side. That is until the very end, where I will not be able to resist pulling in Nietzsche for one moment, as a kind of flourish when I bring this to a close. I am not here going to try to defend Nietzsche against Chesterton. My want here is to take the video in a somewhat different direction.

 

The video is an excerpt from an episode of G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, a series about Chesterton that was (is?) broadcast on EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), a global, Catholic network. (If I have come upon EWTN previously, I do not remember the event.) The YouTube page tells me it is from season 6, so apparently this is a popular show on EWTN. (Imdb tells me it was first broadcast in 2000.) I believe the series is produced by the G.K. Chesterson Society, under the oversight of Dale Ahlquist (who speaks in the excerpt), the president and co-founder of the G.K. Chesterson Society. The series is, as I understand it, a presentation of the writings and thought of Chesterton, one which frequently dramatizes the engagements, as here.

If I have it right, Chesterton only wrote about Nietzsche in passing in various works. He never wrote an essay specifically about Nietzsche. What we have here in this video excerpt are some of those various moments gathered together. Likewise, most of what is spoken here by the Nietzsche character, when broken down into its separate elements, can be found to be fairly close to what you would find in his books, or at least (and this is what really matters) they are echoes enough of familiar phrases of Nietzsche.

But the use the words of Nietzsche is pretty much where the clip's relationship to Nietzsche and his writings ends.

My reaction to this video was intellectual and moral repulsion. It flashed me back to the kinds of speaking I have seen in video and heard in person back in fundamentalist church/religious environments, for it is precisely that: its purpose is to damn in every way possible the enemy while raising in every way possible the hero. In costuming, in performance, in tone, in words, the program's sole aim as it presents itself is to demonize Nietzsche in every way possible, to make him into as detestable a person and thinker as is possible. Even the use of that damned mustache, which Nietzsche did not wear until after his final breakdown, when his sister tended his grooming. With any object observation (and but a modicum of knowledge), it should be readily recognizable that visually and auditorally the program is creating a straw man that can be easily knocked down by well dressed and persuasive Chesterton.

The manufacturing of the straw man is not limited to sight and sound. The words – though they may be taken from Nietzsche – are so out of context (and thus so recontextualized) that they create a complete misrepresentation of the ideas of Nietzsche. The tone of presentation is no small part of it, granted. But the choice of words are also key to the representation.

But the show's manipulations are not merely the creating of a straw man for the purposes of the show's staging. The program is working to create a character that is representative of the ideas of Nietzsche as they are presented in Chesterton's writings. There too do we see the miscontextualization; and there too can we find the presentation of that tone of voice and personality, one which is wholly at odds with the tone of Nietzsche's writings, which are (increasingly as his ideas develop) to be read with joy and laughter, not this brooding, attacking, condemning seriousness. (That characterization itself is demonstration of a complete lack of knowledge about Nietzsche's thought on Christianity.) But then it should be no surprise that the program gets the tone of Nietzsche's ideas so absurdly incorrect, because the ideas attributed to Nietzsche as Chesterton himself presents them are equally as absurdly incorrect.

Indeed, when the Chesterton character comes on screen, his "refutation" of Nietzsche is predicated on an understanding of Nietzsche that is so entirely wrong that it cannot even be directly addressed. While having a look about on line, finding mentions of places in Chesterton's writings where he spoke of Nietzsche, I am presented with moment after moment of demonstration that Chesterton had no understanding of Nietzsche at all. What I am saying here is not that Chesterton misunderstands certain subtleties of Nietzsche, or has made common errors as are often seen by people who have not read Nietzsche enough to understand his ironies. What I am saying is that Chesterton is wholly and completely amiss as regards Nietzsche's ideas. It is not a matter of misunderstanding; it is flat error. As blatantly in error as if you were to say that the Kantian idea of the a priori involved over-cooked spinach. The error of misunderstanding is so great that to try to refute it by going to Nietzsche's texts is a false step, just as it is an absurdity to go to Kant's writing to refute the idea of the involvement of over-cooked spinach. The only valid response is to simply say, "No; that is completely wrong; now go away you silly person."

Running through a search for mentions of Nietzsche in Chesterton's Heretics, my response to each appearance is the same. "No, that is a response to something that does not occur in Nietzsche's writings." As already said, I have seen no evidence in my looking about that Chesterton at all understood Nietzsche, and I am not the only person to come to this conclusion. Though, I would go a step further and say that there is no evidence to me that Chesterton even read Nietzsche to any degree whatsoever. His comments about Nietzsche are so entirely in left field – if not more accurately described as out in the parking lot of the neighboring bus depot – they read to me to be the same kind of discourse of someone speaking about a subject whose entire knowledge of that subject lies in other people's poorly understood criticisms of the subject.

All of which leads me to two observations.

 

(1) It is no surprise that the presentation of Nietzsche in the video is primarily a straw man fallacy. Chesterton's understanding of Nietzsche is so ridiculous that he himself has created in his own writings a straw man out of the person and writings of Nietzsche, through which he can give a false sense of solidity to statements that are in nature but argumentative wisps of air.

But the manipulations of the program goes far beyond what Chesterton did: the program is trying to create a straw man so repulsive that the viewer themselves will be prompted – if not led by emotional nose ring – to knock it down before the Chesterton character (in his buttoned-up presentation of authority) even appears on the screen. That is the most important aspect: for in creating something revulsive, the program creates a void into which any positive counter-statement can slide in as a voice of reasoned authority – and rightness.

This is the nature of a great amount of religious and conservative thought and propaganda, especially within fundamentalist circles. You establish a straw man out of the enemy so repulsive that the willing audience will on its own reject everything about the enemy, finding themselves then willing to accept anything that is said in counterpoint afterward. This is the methodology of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, for those old enough to remember of the Christian, anti-rock-music crusades of the 80s, and ever-but-increasingly of anti-abortion politics. Three examples out of countless. (Indeed, one might be able to tell a history of religion in general that is centered upon such portrayals.)

So what am I to think that this portrayal exists on a television show on a global, religious station; a show that is produced by (or at least in connection with) that station?

Now, in my looking about I also watched an episode of EWTN Live (here) which had Ahlquist as a guest and on which he spoke about the upcoming season of The Apostle of Common Sense, the season which included the above episode. That EWTN Live episode explains much of of the above. I will admit, while it was perturbing to watch, there was something strangely if perversely comforting in being shown that there is a Catholic version of the fundamentalist Protestantism that is seen in such as The 700 Club and in Hal Lindsey's various projects (what with such statements as "I like to encourage our parents to keep an eye of what happens on Earth Day"; "The problem with compulsory state-sponsored education is we don't have any control over what's being taught"; and "Right now college is a very dangerous place"): that perverse comfort perhaps simply in that I now know that there is at the core no essential difference between fundy Protestantism and fundy Catholicism, and an astounding amount of commonality. In truth, there was an astonishing amount of overlay between the rhetoric of the EWTN Live episode and the rhetoric of the Hal Lindsey/Pat Robertson ilk (though without Lindsey's end-times spiel).

It is not surprising to me, then, that the Chesterton show was produced for or broadcast on a station whose title show is of such fundamentalist nature. And the straw man methodologies of the Apostle show were repeated by Ahlquist (with an increased order of magnitude) on the EWTN Live episode. For example, this description of Nietzsche by Ahlquist (at around 22'), prompted by Chesterton's words in Orthodoxy:

He ended in madness. He died in an insane asylum. He spent the last of his 11 years as a gibbering idiot. And yet he's taught as a serious philosopher in all our universities and colleges. He was truly an evil and insane thinker. Do they teach Chesterton who was good and who taught common sense? No they don't.

Could you have a more blatant demonstration of conservative-Christian character assassination? Or a more blatant demonstration of the methods of fundamentalist thought control (and it is correctly labeled <"thought control"): i.e., the demonization and complete mischaracterization of a person and their thought to the defense of and thus re-affirmation (a.k.a. performance) of a particular religious world view? [FN] – something, of course, which is always at the same time the demonstration of the absurdity of that very world view: for if it were not so absurd, why would they need to go to such lengths, contortions, and outright lies to defend it?

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[FN] It is not for naught to note how the opening of the EWTN Live episode is demonstration of the reverse use of the straw man fallacy: the creation of a particular image of the guest, the positive humanization and by extension piety of Ahlquist and by extension then also of Chesterton through the opening remarks about Ahlquist's daughter. Some may think me fishing for desired conclusions here, but I assure you I am not. Such humanization is common to the Christian rhetoric of the demonization. It is the use of the subtle elevation and assurance-of-rightness of the one as affirmed by the violent degradation of the other.
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(2) Which moves me from EWTN to the G.K. Chesterton Society.

This is the situation. Chesterton is so astoundingly incorrect in his understanding of Nietzsche there is every reason to believe that he was knowingly talking about something about which he knew only the most trivial amount. There is no reason to believe that he at all engaged Nietzsche's writings to any honest extent; even, that he would have been willing, if capable, of such an engagement. Whatever the cause, a person could not be more wrong about a subject matter than Chesterton was about Nietzsche.

Coupled with that comes the recognition that Chesterton himself utilized the methods of character assassination and straw man attacks that were presented in the EWTN shows – if, as should be expected, far less aggressively, far more glancingly.

This is my question. How am I to think about a Society so dedicated to a person’s writings and thought that they do not or more importantly cannot or more essentially will not recognize openly that that person was entirely wrong about a particular subject? A Society that continues to assert if not defend the statements of the person even though they are wholly indefensible. A society – at least as represented by the person who is both president and co-founder of that society – that will openly utilize those ideas to religious ends when even the most casual exploration would demonstrate that the ideas are nonsensical if not idiocy for the degree of error?

The next question, one which I will, for this moment, encase within religious rhetoric. Is this not idolatry? Is this not the worshiping of a false prophet? For is not idolatry, is not the following of a false prophet often marked by the refusal of anything to the contrary?

As but one point of evidence, I offer the language that Ahlquist uses with the EWTN Live broadcast as regarding a new publication of Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World:

That book is so prophetic. And we are going to be talking about all the things that Chesterton prophesied about what is wrong with the world.

Prophesied"?! Once words like that show up in a discourse you know there is no longer any place for the honest exchange of ideas. The person speaking those words has pretty much closed their minds to any alternatives, and will only regurgitate the language of their chosen religious leader. Which is itself demonstrated in the glee that Ahlquist seems to show in his mockery of Nietzsche.

Indeed, after watching the EWTN Livebroadcast, I cannot here resist speaking of how I have seen that particular look that Ahlquist’s face bears through the whole of the broadcast many times before. It is a look that I know by experience signals the immediate need for distrust and care. It is the look of a person who is reveling in the joy that people are hanging upon their every word; but a variation that almost always, if not exclusively, appears upon the face of a person who does not understand the words they are speaking beyond but a surface understanding, and that knows intuitively if not cognitively that such understanding is irrelevant to his saying the words, because his audience is eager and waiting, and does not at all themselves care about anything below the speaking other than that the words spoken are what they want to hear, are smooth things, referring here again to my current, favorite, Biblical moment, Isaiah 30:10.

 

Three comments to close this.

First: This is meant to be exploration. I present the questions asked as questions because there is no need for me to answer them here. The point of this is merely to make the exploration and ask the questions: something I believe (from my small readings) that Chesterton would disdain, just as I know it is precisely what Nietzsche would praise. For to present an answer to be accepted as the correct answer is only ever the arrogance of I am right; you are wrong; everybody should follow me.[FN] As well, the asking of questions keeps the door open for the possibility of being shown that I am wrong. Though, I do not believe so here. What I have seen is too familiar an event.

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[FN] As a complete aside, there is an interesting interaction between the Nietzschean want to guard against falling into the position of the "I am write; follow me" doctrinality and Emerson's statement in "Self-Reliance" that a person should speak with a confidence of correctness even if on the next day they have changed their mind and are speaking another stance with equal correctness. There is at their core no real difference except in the temporarily presented. In both, the central characteristic is, simply, the ability to go "Oh, wait! I was wrong! I've changed my mind!"
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Second: As I said at the fore I knew nothing about Chesterton before watching that video. In the explorations to the writing of this little essay I have read some small parts of Orthodoxy and Heretics, and some articles about Chesterton presented online – and obviously watched some vids on YouTube. Normally it is not my habit to write about something or someone without familiarizing myself with them. But the intent here does not require it, for I am merely offering a response to what I found in one video excerpt, a video that to me is not a terribly uncommon sight. (At least, not where religion is concerned.)

Though, it is an interesting thing to approach someone about whom one knows nothing: it is for me, who is perhaps overly broadly read, not a frequent event. But then it is my habit to look up the people I meet in others' writings that I did not before know and make an acquaintance. Which I have done, if only lightly, here with Chesterton. And I have to say, that I have read nothing yet that has changed substantially the opinion of Chesterton that I received from watching that first video excerpt. If anything, it has been strengthened. For, for example, reading Orthodoxy carefully (specifically the second chapter, “The Maniac"), I find in it far too often the cues of a person talking (if with assertion if not conviction) of subjects outside their understanding; too often the phrasing of a person more interested in being believed than in being correct, too often the willingness to speak an absurdity or an error so long as it gets them to their argumentative ends, and too often the use of rhetoric that hides such flaws and manipulates the reader to the desired ends despite that content: too much for me to want to continue to pursue or explore Chesterton's thought or writing. The language I find is the language of the the old lawyer's joke: “If the law is on your side, pound the law; if the facts are on your side, pound the facts; if neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound the table." It is a curious sociological event how well humor and grandiosity works to the ends of “pounding" the table. (The EWTN Live episode is rife with evidence to such.)

Third: the promised flourish; a flourish in that it is made with the final motions of the pen while writing the words just before, but also, being a flourish, is not truly a part of the subject or argument or explorations of the text, no more at least than a frontispiece image. There is no small irony in Chesterton’s confrontation with Nietzsche, especially as found demonstrated in the title of the series: The Apostle of Common Sense, for, as Nietzsche laughs, “whatever can be common always has little value."