Shortly after G.K. Chesterton published Heretics in 1905, he was issued a challenge which went something like this: “Oh yeah? Well, tell us what you believe, then.”
Several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided supporting my precepts with example. “I will begin to worry about my philosophy,” said Mr. Street, “when Mr. Chesterton has given us his.”
This was (as GKC goes on to say) “an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.” I like to imagine that when Mr. Street took up Chesterton’s response, he felt rather like a school boy who finds to his dismay that the fat kid he’s been picking on is really a heavyweight boxing champion. It would not be a nice surprise, but getting the air beaten out of him might do the bully some good, provided he takes the drubbing to heart. We can hope Mr. Street did exactly that.
Orthodoxy is a poetic, precise, and screamingly funny right hook to the skeptical jaw. Ten pages in, the newcomer must inevitably feel that Chesterton is something of a nut; twenty pages will confirm this; thirty will bring about the conviction that we need more nuts like him, for his madness is a healthy madness. Chesterton appears insane to the modern reader precisely because he is saner than the modern reader. It is not he who wears the fool’s cap, but we. The Little Emperors have no clothes, and Chesterton is laughing at us.
Sitting down to write this review, it occurred to me that any sort of lengthy, wise-eyed, or “scholarly” analysis was simply out of the question. Firstly, because my head is still hurting; it’s a wonderful kind of hurting – the kind that settles in your stomach after feasting too long and too well – but something tells me that any serious attempt at moving around would result in a cranial blowout.
And brain matter is notoriously sticky to clean up.
The second reason is simpler and goes like this: one of the the chief joys in reading Orthodoxy is the joy of the unexpected. It’s like stepping onto a rollercoaster for the very first time as a kid: you’re not really sure how the thing works or where it’s going or how it will get there without spilling you and everybody else out onto the ground. Attempts to prepare you beforehand will ultimately fall short. You have to experience it for yourself.
When the ride is over, when you’ve screamed and laughed and maybe even thrown up a little bit, you’ll smile and say: “Can we do it again, please?”