Happy Birthday, Mr. Chesterton!

HAPPY 147th BIRTHDAY TO GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON!

To us he appeared to be indeed the Man with the Golden Key, a magician opening the gates of goblin castles or the sepulchres of dead heroes; and there was no incongruity in calling his lantern a magic-lantern. But all this time he was known to the world, and even the next-door neighbours, as a very reliable and capable though rather unambitious business man. It was a very good first lesson in what is also the last lesson of life; that in everything that matters, the inside is much larger than the outside. – G. K. Chesterton, thoughts on his father from his autobiography.

Gilbert Chesterton to many of his fans is also like a man with a golden key.

On May 29, 1874, a genius was born to Marie Louise, née Grosjean, and Edward Chesterton in CampdenHill, Kensington, London but I’ll let him tell you how it happened….

“Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.” – G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography

Chesterton on birthdays…

“The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive….But there is a second fact about Birthdays, and the birth-song of all creation, a fact which really follows on this; but which, as it seems to me, the other school of thought almost refuses to recognize. The point of that fact is simply that it is a fact. In being glad about my Birthday, I am being glad about something which I did not myself bring about.”
–from G.K.’s Weekly, 21st March, 1935

Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.

But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

-G. K. Chesterton, The Ethics of Elfland, Orthodoxy

ChestertonBirthdayCake640

Image sources: G.K.Chesterton at 17 and Campden Hill, Kensington in 1905 with the Water Tower that Chesterton refers to at the end of the street.

One thought on “Happy Birthday, Mr. Chesterton!

  1. A couple other GKC quotes on birthdays:

    “I understand from my daily paper that William Shakespeare was born some time ago, and that people are celebrating his creditable conduct in this respect. It is a very deep and noble trait or mark […] that, when we wish to give people presents or to light bonfires in their honor, we select for admiration an incident which they could not possibly help. With the humility of true mystics we shall praise each other in such a manner that it shall be clear that we are only praising God. If ever we should fall into a habit of giving a man presents on the day of some meritorious action of his own, on the day that he wrote a poem or shot a millionaire, we may be perfectly certain that we have become pagans with all the heartless arrogance of paganism.”

    -“Christian World”, quoted in “The Unitarian Register”, volume 84 (1905)

    “The Book of Job is certainly among ‘the best that has been written’, etc., and there is something compact and contained in the thought that the best blasphemy is in the Bible […] Now what can we really pit against a poem like that of Job to express a saner statement about a man’s birthday? […] The best answer to it is not any individual composition; it is a universal custom. It is the simple fact that men do keep birthdays and keep them as feast-days. The answer is in all the birthdays of men and even in the celestial paradox of the birthday of God. Christmas Day is the real answer to the Book of Job. The nativity even of a true Man of Sorrows is itself a day of joys, and even of jokes [..] It is perhaps a less sublime literary achievement to say “Many happy returns of the day” than “May the day perish wherein I was born.” But the whole point of it is that, apart from the many happy returns of the day, there will certainly be many happy returns of the remark. The birthday is a dogma no normal men deny, a formula of fundamental confession; and it thanks Heaven by implication for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life […] If men really thought a baby unlucky for being born, they would have behaved otherwise from the beginning; they would have black-edged cards instead of birthday cards, black bread instead of birthday cake, readings from Schopenhauer instead of Birthday Odes or the more delicate of a man’s friends might avoid alluding to his father’s son having been born, as they would to his father having been hanged.”

    -July 5, 1917, The New Witness, “The Pessimist and the Birthday Book”
    Found in Brave New Family, ed. Alvaro de Silva (1990)

    Liked by 1 person

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