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The Defendant Paperback – May 16, 2012
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After reading As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader, I absolutely had to read more by this hilarious, unconventional, and sensible man Chesterton. So I read The Defendant, and I loved it! Very entertaining and thoughtful. Chesterton is so good at pointing out our modern prejudices and narrow-mindedness that I wonder if he's not really some sort of time-traveler in disguise. But he's at least a genius. This poem captures the tone of The Defendant perfectly:
When Plain Folk, such as you or I,
See the Sun sinking in the sky,
We think it is the Setting Sun,
But Mr. Gilbert Chesterton
Is not so easily misled.
He calmly stands upon his head,
And upside down obtains a new
And Chestertonian point of view,
Observing thus, how from his toes
The sun creeps nearer to his nose,
He cries with wonder and delight,
"How Grand the sunrise is to-night!"
-Oliver Hereford (from the reader)
But I think we're usually the ones seeing upside-down, and Chesterton sees it right-side-up, or at least he makes you think about what you take for granted.
_The Defendant_ consists, naturally enough, of a series of "defences," on the most varied topics. Chesterton defends the following things: penny dreadfuls, rash vows, skeletons (yes, skeletons), publicity, nonsense, planets, china shepherdesses, useful information, heraldry, ugly things, farce, humility, slang, baby-worship, detective stories, and patriotism. (Add "A Defence of..." to each of these topics, and that is the book's table of contents.) Except for a couple of exceptions, most of the things on the list were despised or regarded with suspicion by Chesterton's contemporaries, so it was inevitable that the Prince of Paradox should write apologias in their favor. According to Chesterton, we as human beings tend to undervalue our environment and even ourselves, so these defenses are necessary in order for us to regain our sense of wonder when faced with the miracle of existence.
Some of the defenses can be filed under the category "Popular Culture." One wouldn't necessarily think of G.K.C. as an apologist for popular culture, yet he proves that penny dreadfuls and detective stories are not only good, they are even necessary. Farce and slang could also be included under this category, maybe china shepherdesses too. These days, of course, we are used to this type of defense. Critical theory has become popular, especially in academic settings, so theorists have analyzed everything from soap to The Simpsons. Detective stories have been considered literature for a while. Folk songs are literature too, or at least they can get you a Nobel Prize. But Chesterton wrote these defenses in 1901, that is, decades before the academic world went crazy with structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructivism, and critical theory. It is well known that critical theory is often inspired by paradoxes; G.K.C. beat critical theory in the embracing of paradox by more than half a century. But unlike critical theory, Chesterton does not exclude the so-called common man. "Ordinary men," he says "will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them."
"A Defence of Rash Vows" and "A Defence of Baby-Worship" were two of my favorite pieces. One of the reasons why I continue to read Chesterton is that he allows the reader to see the world through his eyes, and his view of things is simply beautiful and awe-inspiring. To give an example, Chesterton defines a vow as an appointment with oneself at a distant time or place. Will one be able to keep this appointment? (This, incidentally, made me think of _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_, which is largely about keeping an appointment, with the green knight, yes, but Gawain is also proving his valor and his worth to himself.) "A Defence of Rash Vows" includes a wonderful defense of marriage, one of the most important vows in life. Lovers, Chesterton reminds us, impose the yoke of constancy on themselves, and are happy to do so, because they love each other. Chesterton points out: "It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word." "A Defence of Baby-Worship" is probably my favorite essay in the collection. Much of Chesterton's work is an appeal for us not to lose our sense of wonder, i.e., to continue to see the world as a magical place, the way we saw it when we were children. "We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not found--that on which we were born." In a sense, we would do well to treat adults the way we treat children, G.K.C. observes: with tolerance, with reverence for their faults, with "a condescending indulgence, overlying an unfathomable respect."
It is almost impossible not to look for quotes while one reads Chesterton. In this collection you will find pearls of wit and wisdom such as these:
"When Christianity was named the good news, it spread rapidly, not only because it was good, but also because it was news" ("Useful Information").
"Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed" ("Introduction").
"Only in consequence of [the decay of patriotism] could the current lust of territory be confounded with the ancient love of country" ("Patriotism").
"Everything has in fact another side to it, like the moon, the patroness of nonsense. Viewed from that other side, a bird is a blossom broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a quadruped begging on its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a man from the sun, a chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two" ("Nonsense").
If someone asks me where to start with Chesterton, I now know how to respond: start at the beginning, with _The Defendant_. Reading Chesterton fills me with joy, and I feel the most sincere gratitude and affection for this author, who helps me to look upon the world as if I were seeing for the first time. My next Chesterton book will be _All Things Considered_ (1908).
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!
In a very short, very early, and very readable book, GKC defends his most important ideas while defending things that, on the surface at least, seem flippant or trivial. Yet Chesterton demonstrates that it is in such unassuming and ordinary topics as, for example, "ugly things," "nonsense," "Penny Dreadfuls," and "baby worship," that the Truth of the cosmos is revealed. Chesterton helps us see the world as he does; it truly is a remarkable and wonderful place. Humans are beyond blessed to even exist at all. In this communication of such a realization (truly a spiritual experience for GKC) lies a challenge to courageously believe in the Creator and to fearlessly give thanks to Him. I should also say, this book is one of Chesterton's funniest.
This book is early (1901) and so predates Chesterton's better known works such as Heretics, Orthodoxy, and the Everlasting Man. Along with Tremendous Trifles, I think these five books will set up any reader on a wonderful path to understanding and fully enjoying this remarkable writer.