Monday, November 1, 2010

"On or about December 1910 human character changed"

Centenary reflections and contemporary debates: Modernism and beyond.
University of Glasgow, 10-12 December 2010

I'm giving a paper at this conference in December. Here's the abstract of my paper...

G.K. Chesterton's Politics Around 1910

In The Man Who Was Thursday (1907), G.K. Chesterton’s depicts an anarchist cell bent on destroying society. Except that as it transpires, the Central Anarchist Council is composed entirely of undercover policemen, aping the bloodthirsty views of anarchists but fiercely committed to defending the country from a ‘modern lawlessness’ articulated by ‘dirty modern thinkers’.

Yet as this paper will show Chesterton’s politics around 1910 were more complicated than his critics have tended to assume. He was seen by the modernist avant-garde as a spokesman for the old, Edwardian order, and was associated with a bland populism: ‘Chesterton is the mob’, Ezra Pound grumbled. When Virginia Woolf diagnosed the emergence of a new sensibility in 1910, Chesterton was hardly at the forefront of her mind: his hostility towards ‘dirty modern thinkers’ and his Christianity were hardly likely to appeal to Woolf’s sensibilities. Chesterton’s association with conservatism persists to this day: David Cameron’s in-house ‘philosopher’ Philip Blond cited his influence in his book Red Tory. Even Slavoj Zizek – whose interest in Chesterton is symptomatic of a minor revival – tends to cast him as a conservative.

This paper will make a claim for Chesterton as an intelligent critic of capitalism who – unlike some of his contemporaries – saw the dangers of communist collectivism. In fact, as time went on his fiercely egalitarian politics often put him to the left of Soviet sympathisers like Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, and he had more in common with anarchist thinkers such as Proudhon than The Man Who Was Thursday might lead us to assume. Focusing on What’s Wrong With the World (1910) and drawing in Chesterton’s fictional writings from this period, I shall argue that Chesterton has much to offer us in 2010, both as a political thinker and as a novelist.

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