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G.K. Chesterton, distributism, communitarianism and more

8 July 2016

We had another of our book chats over coffee yesterday, and Duncan Reyburn, free for the university vacation, joined us, and told us something about his soon-to-be published book on G.K. Chesterton. And it seems that once that is published, he’ll be starting another.

In the ensuing conversation quite a lot of books were mentioned, and I’ll give links to some of them, in case anyone (including me) wants to look them up.

Duncan remarked that G.K. Chesterton had a very good memory, and could remember the plots of 10000 novels. I try to make notes of books that I read, but find that I sometimes can’t remember the plots of novels even when I read the notes I made at the time, so I think Chesterton’s feat was pretty impressive.

One of the central points of Duncan’s book is discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, and one’s sense of astonishment in the commonplace. Chesterton thought that we should never lose our sense of astonishment at the things that are closest to us. I recalled reading Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, in which the protagonist looks at something ordinary  — he is sitting on a park bench and looking at a tree root, and finds it utterly alien, and is indeed nauseated by it. Chesterton, on the other had, sees such things as commonplace, and finds their strangeness delightful.

David Levey mentioned Ndebele’s influential book Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture, which seems to have a similar theme, and I’ve put it on my “want to read” list. David also mentioned Chesterton’s poem The Battle of Lepanto. The poem was written in 1920, the battle took place in 1571, and remarks that “the site Catholic Culture calls the said naval battle, between Catholics and Turkish Muslims, ‘the battle that saved Europe’, which implies rather a lot.” My memory of that period of history is somewhat rusty, but I thought Venetian trading monopolies had quite a bit to do with it too.

We also discussed the phenomenon of the American religious right apparently trying to claim Chesterton as one of their own, which seems rather odd, since Chesterton was, by his own admission, that bête noire of the American Right, a liberal.

We touched briefly on Chesteron’s notion of political economy, Distributism, which I thought had quite a lot in common with Dorthy Day’s Communitarianism. I recommended that Duncan read Jim Forrest’s biography of Dorothy Day, All is Grace. We discussed briefly the differences between individualism, collectivism and communitarianism, and what I had to say on it is mostly set out in a couple of blog bosts — Individualism, Collectivism and Communitarianism, and you can find some more links here: Socialism, Communitarianism, Distributism.

I thought I’d better check some of this with Jim Forrest, the biographer of Dorothy Day, since he actually knew and worked with her, and he said, “Dorothy and the Catholic Worker embraced distributism wholeheartedly. As my friend Tom Cornell wrote not long ago:

In economics, anarchists call for more capital to more people. The distributists G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Eric Gill and Fr. Vincent McNabb  strongly influenced the Catholic Worker in its formative years. They held that law and government should promote crafts, small worker-owned and managed industry and farms. Individuals and small groups should take the initiative and not wait for government action.

Back in the 1990s I thought that the ANC’s original Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) looked quite a bit like that, and would at least encourage it. But within a year it was exchanged for the Neoliberal GEAR programme instead.

Another book that Duncan Reyburn mentioned in the course of conversation was Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford. He recommended it especially for those who are bothered by the new militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. He also recommended a film, The Tree of Life, which is a retelling of the story of Job in a modern setting.

Well those are the things I remember (and some I wanted reminders of) from our NeoInklings Literary Coffee Klatsch this month. If you live in or near Tshwane and would like to join us for free-ranging discussions on Christianity and literature, and sometimes presenting your own work (as Duncan Reyburn did this time), we meet at 10:30 am on the first Thursday of the month at Cafe 41, at the corner of Eastwood Road and Pretorius Street, Arcadia.

Cafe 41, venue for our month;y book discussions

Cafe 41, venue for our month;y book discussions

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