Chestertonian Antinomies

by John Holbo on November 13, 2010

Somehow I ended up reading about Tolkien’s anarcho-monarchism in this First Things piece, by David B. Hart. (Yes, yes.)

There should be a rhetorical term for the sort of stock, boilerplate, conservative antinomian complex irony with which the piece concludes. (‘Antinomian’ from an + tinom, proto-Germanic for ‘on tin’. The earliest occurrence is in Wodehouse: “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.” By metaphoric extension, ‘antinomianism’ was retroactively picked up by the likes of Martin Luther – who would have found Chesterton a trying personality – and applied, generally, to anyone who, like Chesterton, considers that, for some obscure reason, the law doesn’t apply to him. Antinomians can mint paradoxes, while indignantly fulminating against paradox. They can speak up for plain, English commonsense in terms that would make a Frenchman blush at the extravagance of the gesture. That sort of business.)

I suppose we could do worse than just calling it a Chestertonian antinomy. Hart’s goes like this:

We all have to make our way as best we can across the burning desert floor of history, and those who do so with the aid of “political philosophies” come in two varieties.

There are those whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases. And then there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.

I like to think my own political philosophy—derived entirely from my exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows—is of the latter kind. Certainly Tolkien’s was. Whatever the case, the only purpose of such a philosophy is to avert disappointment and prevent idolatry.

Now how does Hart hope to evade the awkward consideration that trying to cross a desert with only a dog-eared copy of The Wind in the Willows as your guide is as likely to get the whole caravan killed as any other method that might be tried? Well, obviously he doesn’t mean it. But that’s the trick. Because this is the point in the discussion at which Hart is most obliged to mean something by something. Because this is the point at which the circular peg of anarcho-monarchism fits into the round hole of solid English conservatism – of plain common sense, disdaining all conceptual extravagance and idle concept-mongery! Well, how does it?

Imagine a world in which progressives penned pieces that ended like so: ‘I like to think there are two sorts of political philosophies. Utopian dreams, and down-to-earth, pragmatic proposals for things that just might work. My own ideas about politics – derived wholly from a bongwater-stained edition of the 1970 Whole Earth Catalogue and a close reading of the liner notes to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma – are decidedly of the latter sort.’ Rhetorical life – if not mental life – would be greatly eased if this sort of gesture – superficially silly – seemed to promise a sort of slow, serious, mature attunement to First Things. Ah, that would be The Life.

In other news, my copy of Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword [amazon] just arrived. Oh, joy! I think I’ll read it. You can read just the first 15 pages here.