G. K. Chesterton once said that he had been “indefensibly” happy for most of his life. There is a note, not simply of happiness, but of joy, in much of what he wrote; but what meaning should one give to this happiness? Is there a self-delighting, whimsical, even wilful obliviousness in the merriness of Chesterton? Was he just a bit silly? T. S. Eliot once said that he found the cheerfulness of Chesterton entirely “depressing”. Yet Chesterton claimed that his levity came from his deepest beliefs: “Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy”. That is, of course, the sort of thing that Chesterton often said, the sort of thing not likely to satisfy anyone in a captious mood. (T. S. Eliot had been a Christian for just under a year when he said that he found Chesterton depressing; but then it is difficult to imagine Eliot ever being wholly in sympathy with the high spirits of Chesterton.) It could be that Chesterton saw Christianity as “jolly” because he was temperamentally inclined to be cheerful; but it could also be that this made him responsive to something essential in Christianity.
More from Bernard Manzo at the TLS here.