Seeing Things As They Are

G.K. Chesterton and the Drama of Meaning

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Duncan Reyburn
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Lutterworth Press
    , August
     310 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When I read the central claim in Duncan Reyburn’s Seeing Things as They Are: G.K. Chesterton and the Drama of Meaning, my first thought was: you’re kidding; no one has done this yet? My second: how on earth are you going to pull this off? “Chesterton,” Reyburn writes, “so often encourages us to find a clear view of things” (2). Reyburn is interested not only in the view, but in the mechanics of Chesterton’s seeing. Reyburn wants “to consider Chesterton’s work in the light of philosophical hermeneutics, which is the intellectual discipline that seeks to interrogate and appreciate the coordinates of (the possibility of) interpretive understanding” (2). 

Readers delighted by Chesterton’s stories, imagery, wordplay, and lines of argument are struck by Chesterton’s way of seeing. Much Chesterton scholarship, Reyburn writes, concerns Chesterton’s way of seeing the world. However, as Chesterton’s output is so vast, expansive, flamboyant, and—to use Chesterton’s own idea about himself—journalistic, defining that way of seeing is a daunting task. Before Reyburn’s book, writing a formal hermeneutics of Chesterton would have seemed to me akin to putting a St. Bernard through a sieve: highly unpleasant and highly unlikely to produce a result worth keeping.

Enter Seeing Things as They Are, which succeeds at doing exactly what it sets out to. Reyburn has written a scholarly account of how Chesterton sees the world. Reyburn has done this with obvious delight in Chesterton’s work, yet also with an ability to recognize and reject Chesterton’s excesses—such as his prioritizing “insight over accuracy” in a way that led to repeated source misquotation (7). What is more, Reyburn has done it without dissecting Chesterton’s work in a way that takes the life out of it. 

This book presents, not a discourse on Chesterton, but a distillation of Chesterton into a scholarly form. Reyburn’s central argument is that, for Chesterton, seeing things as they are is a matter of recognizing the “perichoretic performance that is reality,” and of “joining in the play” (11). For Chesterton, not only is life dramatic, so is reality. Reyburn’s book is dramatic: it is a performance, not of ventriloquizing Chesterton, but of attempting to write hermeneutics in a Chestertonian spirit, “in character.” For example, Chesterton wrote without footnotes, and Reyburn’s footnotes throughout contain only bare references. Their absence makes for an immediate read. Reyburn’s channeling of Chesterton also materializes in the way that he constructs his own sentences: given Chesterton’s distinctive writing, I was surprised that some memorable lines were found outside the quotation marks. Chesterton wrote criticism from a clear, first-person perspective, as he believed we are most accurate and honest when we are forthright about our own position. Reyburn places himself as present in the text, mentioning a preference for certain passages, and joking about taking time off from writing to play with his daughter—without breaking his scholarly stride. 

Reyburn states early that, in this book, he chooses to do things Chesterton’s way, even if he does not always agree (10). The only exception is that Reyburn attempts to be accurate in his quotations (12). Therefore Reyburn, like Chesterton, uses male pronouns; and in the sections where humanity as a whole is discussed, it is not only inside the quotation marks that we are collectively referred to as “man” and “mankind.” If presenting Chesterton’s hermeneutic is the book’s primary goal, doing that task in Chesterton’s way is a secondary goal. “De-ghettoizing” Chesterton scholarship is a tertiary goal, and one which Reyburn achieves admirably in the clarity of his prose. He is hospitable in the introduction and the analyses of Chesterton’s work; he avoids jargon and shorthands, and provides needed background. The goal of keeping in Chesterton’s style, and the goal of appealing to those who do not already study Chesterton, are in conflict on the point of pronouns. Many of those who dismiss Chesterton will struggle to feel welcome in a text that refers to humans as “man.”

In the introduction, Reyburn sets out his task for the book and accounts for some of the assumptions he will make throughout, for example, “that being—our being as ourselves, our being with other beings, and our being as participating in Being—is always mediated by language” (2). He then takes four chapters to build to a final one on “the event of understanding.” The first of these chapters is a study of the context for Chesterton’s hermeneutic, which discusses Chesterton’s palimpsestic reading practices—made evident in the ways Chesterton covered the books he read with notation, commentary, and marginalia—his approach to criticism, which focuses on “what is salvageable rather than just what should be discarded” (42), and “the patriotic idea,” which is Chesterton’s passionate claim that we cannot love well any human place or set of people unless we first love well the place and set of people closest to us.

The next chapter takes on the foundations of Chesterton’s hermeneutic: his cosmology (which focuses on creation as a “made” thing that always—though sometimes obscurely—points back to the goodness of its creator), his epistemology (while reality will always be deeply mysterious, meaningful knowledge is possible), and his ontology (being is a glad riddle, or in Chesterton’s words, “every stone and flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key” (111)). Then follows a chapter on the task of Chesterton’s hermeneutic, which is centered on subjects that have to do with ordinary human beings: human dignity, “the common man,” and democracy. The last of the four chapters is on Chesterton’s hermeneutic tools: analogy (in the Thomistic sense), paradox (in the sense that humans live in a world too big and too good for us to understand, which seems to contain contradictions only because our map is too small), and defamiliarization (one cannot see familiar things well except by finding some way of getting distance from them; hence Chesterton’s repeated use of the trope of traveling around the world to return to one’s home place and “see it for the first time”).

These four chapters lead to Reyburn’s chapter on “The Event of Understanding in Chesterton’s Hermeneutic,” an extended study of Chesterton’s several writings on the book of Job. Like Job, Reyburn’s chapter begins with a long section on language and mystery, which explores the ways in which our ability to know and to reflect the mystery of things as they are is mediated, made possible, and limited by language. Then comes a shorter section on revelation, which follows Chesterton’s reflections on the passages within Job in which God appears. Instead of providing us with answers to our questions, which are always too small, Being provides us with bigger, deeper questions. For Chesterton, God is the arch-skeptic Sunday in The Man Who Was Thursday, whose purposes transcend the characters’s understanding in a way that makes them characterize him alternately on the one hand as monstrous, and on the other hand, as the source of all good. Revelation, in Job and Chesterton, is utterly strange and yet deeply hopeful.

In his conclusion on mediation as a grace Reyburn takes a step back—or forward—from the mystical intensity of the revelation chapter. He argues that Chesterton seeks in his work to return us (his readers) to a state of wonder over the fantastic gift of plain fact.

Throughout Seeing Things As They Are, Reyburn builds his account by close readings of extended sections of Chesterton’s writing—often whole works—showing up their inner logic, and then stitching together these readings into an argument that is both genuinely Chesterton’s and genuinely Reyburn’s.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Gehring is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Duncan Reyburn is senior lecturer at the department of visual arts at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.


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