Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

This is the title of G. K. Chesterton's 1904 novel, which I just listened to on a long car trip. I always enjoy Chesterton's humor. His later work, after his conversion, always makes me want to be a Catholic, at least while I am reading it. This book, pre-conversion, is quite muddled theologically.

The novel is set in the future, when big empires have conquered the world, government is all bureaucratic administration without the bother of elections, and the king is chosen by lot. A whimsical joker is chosen king, and sets about restoring separate governments in all the London boroughs, with romantic medieval pomp. The chosen head of Notting Hill -- which I think is meant to be the most inoffensive and inconsequential suburb -- takes it seriously. Warfare with the bureaucrats and merchants of neighboring boroughs ensues. The patriotism of (very) little nations is pitted against crushing, monotonous, soulless mechanism.

What Chesterton takes up here is the question of nationalism vs. imperialism. The novel was written at the time of the Boer War, in which the British extended their empire by crushing the Afrikaaners in South Africa, a war fought mostly for diamonds and gold. The war was intensely popular in Britain at the time -- this was the war that produced "jingoism" as a term for aggressive patriotism. Chesterton was part of a small group of "Little Englanders" who opposed the war and opposed imperialism. They were not pacifists. I think they could best be described as anti-imperialist nationalists.

I generally think that Chesterton is right until proven otherwise. I think he is not right on theology here, but that is not his main focus. The main point is that human greatness comes from attachment to the actual places and people of our ordinary organic life. We can't go wrong if we defend that from outside attack or assimilation. And we can go very wrong when we impose our ways on other people defending other places.

I am torn about this. On the one hand, imperialism has inevitably led to overreaching and creates, on the whole, more bad than good. On the other hand, I am a cosmopolitan in my daily life, and believe in national greatness. I think that it is possible to make a great nation that is expansive, generous, and exemplary without crossing the line into conquest and oppression. But I am chastened by the paucity of historical examples of great nations that have managed to consistently stay on the right side of the line.


Anonymous said...

gruntled said:
"On the one hand, imperialism has inevitably led to overreaching and creates, on the whole, more bad than good."
It seems to me that countries that England "conquered" are much better off today than those that were not.
Chesterton influenced my whole family's conversion to the Catholic church seventeen years ago. I guess that makes me a victum of his imperialism, for which I am very greatful.

Gruntled said...

Persuasion is the opposite of imperialism.

Anonymous said...

Good point but on the whole imperialism has created more good than bad. Not always just usually.