I have sometimes fancied that this practice, the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time — G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography
Chesterton seems to have experienced two breakdowns in his life, the first a depressive slough from which he emerged while courting his wife-to-be, and the second a full-out nervous collapse which neither his wife nor doctor thought he was likely to recover from.* Recover he did, however, and it is the first which is of interest to me, since it set the template for Chesterton’s second recovery, and the prodigious output that followed.
In the above quote, Chesterton speculates that perhaps his experiments with the Ouija Board contributed to his depression. He was, at the time, a young man in art college, hanging out with the hipster nihilists of his day. He conducted his forays into the occult, however, with his brother and father.
He only devotes a few paragraphs to the misadventures that followed. Whatever was moving the planchette during these experiments was, Chesterton thought, cunningly deceitful and intent on luring these would-be Spiritualists into grievous mischief. Chesterton promptly quit with the fiddling, but descended further into gloom.
He filled his journals with grotesque drawings of apparitions that seemed to follow him everywhere, appearing at the most inconvenient times. He slept poorly, if at all. His condition showed no sign of improving, and threatened to grow worse. Persuaded of an essential Evil at work around and within him, he determined to unveil its polar opposite.
Even at this unhappy point in his life, he somehow managed to court his future wife Frances, and she in turn seems to have enticed him into the High Anglicanism she and her family were rooted in. He quit art school and found employment at, weirdly enough, a publisher of occult works, and turned his creative energies from sketching to writing. The two literary works that emerged from that time of inner torment are Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday, both of which continue to define the public person that Chesterton became.
In his Autobiography, Chesterton seems happier with that early collection of essays than he is with his first novel. I may be misreading him (dude’s difficult to draw a bead on, more often than not), but he seems almost discomfited by the latter’s enduring popularity — particularly among the sort of folk he usually faced across from his podium during his many debates. He suggests Thursday is popular because it is widely misread.
At a superficial level, Chesterton’s opinion is surely correct. There are, however, many other levels to read a work, especially when it comes to weird fiction, which the authors themselves are often blind to. I hope to explore some of this in my next post.
What is notable to me is how Chesterton’s artistry in Thursday continues to serve as the model intersection of myth and contemporary imagination, not just for the usual Christian suspects (Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Sayers) who energetically sided with Chesterton’s larger cause, but also for decidedly post-Christian Brits like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville and Grant Morrison.
*One curious aspect to the second episode: GKC wrote his most notoriously anti-Semitic stuff (the "Marconi Affair" hooey) just prior to his collapse.