When G.K.’s sense of humor failed him

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January 18, 2006 by AK

G.K.Chesterton in Autobiography:

It was at the house of Lady Juliet Duff; and among the guests was Major Maurice Baring, who had brought with him a Russian in uniform; who talked in such a way as to defy even the interruptions of Belloc, let alone of mere bombs. He talked French in a flowing monologue that suavely swept us all before it; and the things he said had a certain quality characteristic of his nation; a quality which many have tried to define, but which may best be simplified by saying that his nation appears to possess every human talent except common sense. He was an aristocrat, a landed proprietor, an officer in one of the crack regiments of the Czar, a man altogether of the old regime. But there was something about him that is the making of every Bolshevist; something I have felt in every Russian I ever met. I can only say that when he walked out of the door, one felt he might just as well have walked out of the window. He was not a Communist; but he was a Utopian; and his Utopia was far, far madder than any Communism. His practical proposal was that poets alone should be allowed to rule the world. He was himself, as he gravely explained, a poet. But he was so courteous and complimentary as to select me, as being also a poet, to be the absolute and autocratic governor of England. D’Annunzio was similarly enthroned to govern Italy. Anatole France was enthroned to govern France.

Russian poet and critic Valery Shubinsky relates how another Russian poet and critic, Nikita Yeliseyev, interpreted that episode:

Nikita Yeliseyev tells me that Chesterton was an extremely unbalanced person; that at the start of WWI he spent a year in a coma [?] caused by a nervous breakdown [na nervnoy pochve], finally converting to Catholicism thereafter. But, most likely, he remained on the needle [sidel na igle — said of drug addicts] even after that.

That should explain a lot. If someone preaches — so zealously — common sense as a panacea against all evils, one begins to suspect: isn’t it therapy? Let us now cast a fresh glance on this episode… [A long quote follows — see extract and link above.]

…The “mad Russian officer” (this is known) is none other than Nikolay S. Gumilev [Akhmatova’s first husband, father of Lev N. Gumilev]. Gumilev’s mental health was uncommonly sound for a poet but he was indeed in favor of people of art taking part in government (which is why, apparently, he got mixed up in Tagantsev’s crazy conspiracy [Gumilev was executed in 1922]) — but in table talk, he would drive everything to extremes, provoke and tease the opponent. (Besides[…] Gumilev did not speak perfect French so some subtleties and nuances would be lost.) [He probably knew some English — the only translation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner I know is by him.]) One can imagine how Chesterton, the convalescent mental patient, reacted: “Get thee gone! Fall to pieces! Better Prussian bombs!”

No, I don’t think either gentleman was mad. If Chesterton had been just an educated Englishman, I would say their ideas of a dispute were too different. To make the same point, one would resort to absurd overstatement, the other to dried-out understatement.

But wasn’t Chesterton fond of ostensible paradoxes? Wasn’t he given to radical generalization? Yes. Perhaps he refused to concede that his vis-à-vis could be, too.


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