What does it mean when Giorgia Meloni quotes G.K. Chesterton?
Is it fascist or anti-fascist to quote G.K. Chesterton, or neither?
1 October 2022
For a UK audience, the most striking moment in the new Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s victory speech will have been that she anchored its peroration to a quote from G.K. Chesterton. ‘Chesterton wrote, more than a century ago,’ she said, ‘“Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.” That time has arrived. We are ready.’
G.K. Chesterton? The creator of the excellently herbivorous Father Brownmysteries, the Isaac Newton of what we now call ‘cosy crime’? That G.K. Chesterton? The author of a poem, memorised by many a previous generation of English schoolboys, about how ‘the rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road’? That one? The man who wrote ‘we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet’? The one whose very voice conjures up cricket on the village green, spinsters on bicycles and warm beer?
In the popular imagination, Chesterton is a half-forgotten avatar of small-c English conservatism: the quintessence of a BBC-talk-giving, tweed-upholstered, pince-nez-wearing Anglo-Catholic buffer of the old school. So it seems on the face of it very odd that an Italian politician in the 21st century would be quoting so utterly English a figure; odder still that it should be a politician so widely condemned as ‘far-right’. You’d think Gabriele d’Annunzio would be more her speed. And if you had only this vague idea of Chesterton as a sort of English teddy bear, you might well take that view.
The columnist Allison Pearson even tweeted: ‘Funny kind of “fascist” quoting G.K. Chesterton.’ Well, yes and no. Chesterton wasn’t a fascist in the Italian or even the German tradition – for a start, he loathed modernism and all its works, and would have had none of your Marinetti-style worship of the machine. And he never dug Hitler. But he did hold some views that could be charitably described as ‘fash-curious’. ‘Fascism is worth looking at,’ he once wrote, ‘whereas parliamentarianism is not worth looking at.’ He may, indeed, be fondly remembered in certain Italian political circles for hobnobbing with Mussolini and refusing to condemn Il Duce’s expedition into Abyssinia.
Chesterton spoke openly and often about the ‘Jewish problem’ – they ‘control other nations as well as their own’ – and wanted British Jews to be deported to Palestine (‘should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews. I am an Anti-Semite if that is Anti-Semitism’). If they were to continue walking these rolling English roads, in the meantime, they should be made to wear ‘Arab dress’ so ‘we should know where we are’. Turns out it was a bit of a family business. Chesterton’s brother Cecil banged on about the ‘Jewish problem’ too, and his second cousin founded what became the National Front.
Last year Richard Ingrams published a book called The Sins of G.K. Chesterton (it was reviewed in our pages by the scholar Duncan Wu) in which he laid out just this case, which he says has been suppressed by a Chesterton industry that prefers the teddy-bear version. But even aside from his politics, Chesterton was always a much odder and spikier writer than you would know from watching Father Brown on telly or remembering the best-known lines of his poetry. His novel The Man Who Was Thursday starts out like a comic spy thriller – all secret agents and agents provocateurs and secret bases and anarchists – before going completely off the rails into something that’s half-Christian allegory and half-Kafka-esque absurdism.
And the lines that Ms Meloni quotes, from the concluding section of his essay collection Chesterton’s Heretics, are not at all straightforward in meaning. ‘Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.’ Wrenched out of context like that, they seem to be promising that common sense will need to be defended with violence. A rhetoric of fire and the sword in defence of truth – in modern terms, taking arms against a sea of postmodern epistemology – is not uncongenial to fascism.
But the quote, in context, is more confusing than that. Chesterton immediately goes on to say: ‘We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face.’ That’s intriguing because it suddenly looks like a swerve into something more mystical or numinous.
It becomes clearer when you read it as what it is: the peroration to a lavishly paradoxical passage in which he argues that even the most apparently rational or common-sensical belief is identical in character to a religious dogma:
Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape. We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Every-thing will become a creed.
Is that a modest rebuke to the limits of rationality – an observation that at root we have only faith to go on in the face of an incomprehensible world – and a wan acknowledgement of how human nature shapes our intellectual disputes? It is a florid gloss on your basic Hegelian back and forth? Or is it, rather or also, an intellectually slippery assertion of the sacredness of mumbo-jumbo: making that case that ‘we know [patriotism] to be unreasonable and that we know it to be right’? If everything is a matter of faith, why not hoist the flag for reactionary mysticism? If so, that too is not in itself uncongenial to fascism.
In short, quoting G.K. Chesterton doesn’t make you a fascist. But if you were a fascist, there’d be no reason to find it peculiar that you’d quote G.K. Chesterton.
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