Saturday, July 05, 2008
(1:16 PM) | Adam Kotsko:
Hitchens and ChestertonFrom Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker article on Chesterton, "The Back of the World" (not online):
The really startling thing in the book [The Man Who Was Friday] is Chesterton's imagining of the anarchists as philosopher-demons. It's easy to forget just how scary anarchists could seem at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the previous quarter-century, they had killed a French President, an American President, and the Russian Tsar, and had bombed the Royal Greenwich Observatory, near London. (The same score now--Sarkozy, Bush, Putin, and the London Eye--and we'd all be under martial law.) "Anarchism," for Chesterton, has the same resonance that "terrorism" has for English writers like Amis and Hitchens exactly a century later: it represents a kind of vengeful, all-devouring nihilism that is assumed to be pervasive and--this is the crucial thing--profoundly seductive, sweeping through whole classes, of intellectuals, or immigrants, or, especially, immigrant intellectuals. Chesterton's portrait of Syme could be the portrait of the "awakened" post-9/11 liberal: "He did not regard anarchists, as most of us do, as a handful of morbid men, combining ignorance with intellectualism. He regarded them as a huge and pitiless peril, like a Chinese invasion. [...]"If the parallel between Chesterton and Hitchens et al. holds, then let's see if we can extend it. On the one hand, at least as far as this article shows, Chesterton essentially missed a phenomenon that was actually hugely seductive to intellectuals and was going to exert actual world-historical influence on an unparalleled scale, namely, international Communism. On the other hand, his ideas wound up being pretty closely parallel to another world-historical force that represented a much more significant and systematic nihilism, namely, fascism. I think the second point is pretty clear in Hitchens' case. The question would be whether there is a parallel for the first in our circumstances.