In my review of the The Truth About Organic Foods, I had occasion to quote Chesterton, and this raised an important question in the minds of some — where do I get off quoting Chesterton in the midst of a post that, for all intents and purposes, looked to some like a valiant attempt to keep my Monsanto stock from collapsing completely? It didn’t look that way to others, like to me, but let’s leave that to the side for a moment, and simply address the Chesterton question.
Chesterton was the genuine article, and the contemporary organic foods movement isn’t. He wore an artificial and manufactured cape to cover a heart that did nothing but overflow with Christian insight. This, as opposed to those who wear a Central American coarse-woven authenticity cape to cover up the aching hollowness within. There is a difference, as he might say, between a man who stands in the face of all the prevailing winds, and the one who is driven before them. And when we have grasped the difference, we will have also grasped that the difference is not a subtle one.
He had no use for cant and the poseurs who delivered it. The contemporary hipster is a recent phenomenon (in terms of what we used to call in the Navy the uniform-of-the-day), but the broader category of hipster has been with us since at least the time of Rousseau. The type was well-known to Chesterton, and had there been a Whole Foods in Victorian London, we would have had some choice epigrams from him on the kind of poet who shopped for exotic cheeses there. In fact, here’s one, written long before the word metrosexual was even coined.
“The old artist remained proud in spite of his unpopularity; the new artist is proud because of his unpopularity; perhaps it is his chief ground for pride.”
If you can’t find an outlet to plug this into, then you clearly have the wrong kind of adapter.
Chesterton would never, ever cop a pose because he thought it was ironic and clever — although he would grant that he had ordinary human vanity and say that he thought it ironic and clever because he had copped it.
He once said that fallacies do not cease to be fallacies simply because they have become fashions, and who better to take this warning to heart than that contemporary class of person for whom virtually all intellectual energy is devoted to staying fashionable?
Of course Chesterton loved paradox — he said that a paradox was truth standing on its head to get attention — but he knew the difference between paradox and simple confusion and contradiction. Throughout his body of work, again and again, he demolishes the contradictions of pretension and builds lasting monuments to true Christian irony. One of our current confusions (which Chesterton is not here to address, unfortunately), and which his heirs must therefore take up in their own inadequate fashion, is what to say about a movement whose two patron saints are Wendell Berry and Steve Jobs.
“Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”
And by not being his descendants.