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“Only If You’re New to Mail”: Gopnik on Chesterton’s “Conversion Sickness”

About a decade ago, Adam Gopnik wrote a long essay in The New Yorker on G.K. Chesterton and his works called “The Back of the World: The Troubling Genius of G.K. Chesterton.” Gopnik is both an admirer of Chesterton, but one with critical distance–meaning that he does not write hagiography and therefore deserves to be listened to.

One of the most penetrating passages of the essay is an acute analysis of Chesterton’s peculiar brand of religiosity and the psychological profile of Chesterton’s status as “convert,” having entered the Roman Catholic Church from elsewhere. Because Gopnik is an outsider to the church1, he is able to analyze the phenomenon with a good deal of disinterestedness. In his view, Chesterton’s post-conversion writing suffers from a kind of “sickness” that leads him to ignore reality while finding refuge in the fancy of his own imagination–a possibility that exists only and precisely because of his lack of actual experience with the thing he lionizes. The last five sentences are contain a brilliant, and cutting, example of prosopopoeia.

Thus Gopnik:

[Chesterton’s] writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII’s divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you’re new to mail.

Incidentally, Gopnik’s description of the viewpoint of the devout Frenchman or Italian is something immediately amenable to Protestants, even–or especially–those of the magisterial kind. The institutional church partakes of all the humanness, and all the flaws, of the visible and temporal kingdom–and that fact says nothing against either its necessity or its basic competence for the task it has been assigned: “to deliver the message.” So much is common sense, and it would take a concerted effort of the imagination to pretend something more glorious were required, and doubly so to demand that that putative requirement be met or else one must refuse to believe in the church at all. The latter supposition is nonsense, and Gopnik knows it.

Just because Chesterton is such a hero in conservative Christian intellectual circles, those who self-identify with such circles should ponder closely what Gopnik has to say–sometimes it takes a non-Christian at The New Yorker to puncture our overdrawn ostentation with a good dose of real reality.

 

  1. Note the small “c,” in order to understand the difference between my use of this phrase here and that in the quotation below.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.