Skip to comments.Belloc “and All the Rest of It”
Posted on 09/07/2002 5:40:59 PM PDT by JMJ333
Within the sphere of conservative Catholicism I have always sensed that whenever the name Hilaire Belloc is mentioned in a tract, a book or a conversation, a peculiar kind of apprehension emerges. Outside this sphere, of course, Belloc is or has been vilified and caricatured to be a religious fanatic who dabbled in all matters without qualification, a dilettante historian, or simply a brutish peasant who roared nonsense. Still, I think we must admit that a faint tension arises whenever Hilary, as Chesterton called him, becomes the focus of an issue in the round. I could be incorrect in my observation, though this short analysis will assume that it is a common acceptation.
Why is this? Excepting Bellocs more faithful devoteés, why only the quick reference to the now infamous incident when he pulled out his rosary in the British Parliament, and then a matter-of-fact continuation in the monograph onto another topic as if the occurrence can be catalogued as a Ripleys Believe It Or Not? Did not Belloc prognosticate with astonishing accuracy the frenetic and defiant paganism of our day when most at the time were constructing utopian fantasies rooted in Pelagian chimeras? Does not his Pelagian Drinking Song intimate the howling heretics of post-Vatican II leftist revisionism? Belloc warned of the imminent exigency associated with the stamina and twentieth-century resurgence of fundamentalist Islam when most in the West presupposed that it is just a foreign religion which will not concern them. Did he not contest and expose H.G. Wells very popular The Outline of History as mock history? In Land and Water, his speculations on the developments of the First World War won accolades from the Times. In his classic The Servile State, is there not an anticipation of that socialist choking of individual liberty as is evidenced in post-war Western governments? Already in 1913 Belloc seemed to see the coming Keynesian model of state control of the economy through money and taxes when he forecasted:
The future of industrial society... is a future in which subsistence and security shall be guaranteed for the proletariat, but shall be guaranteed at the expense of the old political freedom and by the establishment of that proletariat in a status really, though not nominally, servile.
From a personal viewpoint, and within the narrow latitude of my knowledge of English letters, I would put forward that next to Maritains seminal work on the philosophical implications of Luthers revolt, Bellocs thesis of the after-effects of the Reformation, in a socio-political context, were very accurate and not so outlandish as some of his critics have contested.
Admittedly, Belloc did not possess, and was the antithesis to, the almost tranquil, gentlemanly and methodical acumen of perhaps a higher ranking Christopher Dawson. Though this still does not detract from his enormous contribution to Catholic apologetics, whether one defers to him or not. In the early 1970s, James Oliver penned that Dawson came as a great relief to the generation after Belloc, exhausted by brutal polemics and insensitive dismissals of unchristened but honest motives. Yet Oliver, I believe, overlooked the fact that Belloc and Dawson were men of different times and social milieus, with dissimilar angles of attack, addressing themselves to differing intellectual audiences. Even in the 1990s we have a distinguished thinker like Pro fessor James Hitchcock who makes quite clear his dissension from Belloc. He described Belloc as:
...like a man with a machine gun by spraying shots everywhere he inevitably hit some targets, but many of his bullets went astray. He does not seem to have understood how historical judgments are formed, through patient sifting of evidence, and seemed rather to deduce them from his principles.
Yet, I conjecture, Professor Hitchcock, Mr. Oliver and others have placed too much emphasis on the tonality in Bellocs expositions and from this deduced a kind of deficiency in socio-historical interpretation. The range and multiformity of ones interests, including the style of ones writing be it coldly straightforward or appealing as quicksilver cannot be the only factors to gauge the aptitude of a thinker (I will return to this).
Moreover, the anti-Semite argument does not work anymore. These accusations come from critics not so much appalled by Bellocs occasional injurious statements, but by either their secret loathing for Bellocs clarity in elucidating Catholic truths, the diversity and scope of his knowledge, simple ignorance of his works, hearsay, jealousy, or, of course, that general anti-Catholic sentiment which secularity continuously revels in. Contrary to the standard anti-Semite label, the biographer Michael Coren wrote:
Bellocs polemics did periodically drift into the realms of bigotry, but he was invariably a tenacious opponent of philosophical anti-Semitism, ostracized friends who made attacks upon individual Jews, and was an inexorable enemy of fascism and all its works, speaking out against German anti-Semitism before the National Socialists came to power.
The issue is now settled.
First and foremost it must be remembered that with Belloc we are dealing with an altogether different species and it was the nature of his species, metaphysically speaking that is, that made him such an important and singular thinker. Yet it is with this striking nature, when he expressed it by pen or personality, that comes, I believe, the ambivalency surrounding Belloc. For Belloc, pen and personality were fused into one unit, so to speak. He did not write in a disinterested parlance, but in an interested and intense one. One apperceives an anomalous degree of personal involvement in his discourse. Speaking statistically, Belloc was an outlier, a large and loud deviation from the mean value of a lukewarmness. If someone dislikes Bellocs pen, then automatically does this person dislike Bellocs personality. True, the pen and personality of any writer are interlinked with one another. With Belloc, however, they were conjoined to a degree more than normal.
Now one might presume that such a man as described would be incapable of objectively approaching history and the affairs of the day, that he would blot out all else that did not dwell within the realm of his own concern. Indeed, open up any one of Bellocs books and immediately do we encounter a blunt, oratorical and sometimes bombastic discourse. A systematic abruptness is at once discerned and leaves one to query: Who is this fellow? Belloc will bluntly write of the Protestant thing and the Manichean thing; he will refer to members of the British Par liament as the dull herd (one of my favorites); he will supply a suite of causes to a particular historical eventuality and then conclude, in triumphal finality, with an and all the rest of it. Effectively does Belloc kick his reader in the face. He seemingly appears averse to any counterargumentation. He stands outside your door and bellows: I am Hilaire Belloc and as such will tell you the truths of Catholicism. Now at this juncture comes the question: Should one open the door and listen with expectation or must one recoil in disgust and tell him to depart the premises? Or, as is the case with some conservative Catholics, should one only open the door ajar, peek outside, and listen to his thunderous voice as it penetrates and rumbles the household?
Considering the aforementioned, one might, again, assume that Belloc took no heed of what others thought and propounded. Not so. In the preface to his Essays of a Catholic, he confesses otherwise:
I must apologize for the personal tone in each of the papers here printed: I can write no other way, and, indeed, I prefer in reading others to discover myself. It has the advantage in the present case of disengaging any one else of my communion from views I may express.
Hilary astonishes us once again. Instead of self-extrapolating his views and opinions outwards to make them totally representative and true with no room for counterposition, he rather insists that the personal tone in his writing separates himself from others. I interpret this to mean that Belloc was taking personal responsibility for what he expounded and that he was open to critique of his ideas. It is just the fact that he comes across as a cold blast of wind, that he (more precisely) so much believed in the truths of Catholicism, which has lead many to mistake this as closed-mindedness. To be sure, Belloc was hardheaded. But as his friend Chesterton keenly observed: A convinced Catholic is easily the most hard-headed and logical person walking about the world today.
Because Bellocs pen and personality were so inseparable, it could be asked what is the definition of personality? Is it akin to what Websters New Col legiate Dictionary defines as the totality of an individuals behavioural and emotional tendencies? Though there is something deterministic and vulgar about this definition. Such a view reduces the human person to the level of crass quantity, to a kind of nerve-ending which reacts only to external stimuli, and it seems that many have judged Bellocs abilities solely upon this type of definition. In other words, they have taken his personal habit of expression for personality only in a quantitative or immanent way. A habit is also a quality, says St. Thomas10, and personality should also be considered in a qualitative mode. Personality is much more than sensorial tendency. It transcends the moment and as such should be considered in a theological light. And I can think of no better person to define personality in this sense than Fr. George Rutler. Personality is:
...the positive attribute which makes the human an independent subject... that to which all that pertains to it attaches... the vernacular evidence of the speechless soul, the natural expression of the supernatural endowments of will and intellect... irrepressible despite its concealment.
I believe that if Bellocs personality (and thus his pen) are considered in this way, much of that longstanding bewilderment and uneasiness surrounding the status of Belloc in the field of Catholic letters will eventually disappear. Furthermore, a lesson might be learned when reference is made to an observation made by Newman in his Essay on the Development of Chris tian Doctrine. Though Belloc did not explicitly concern himself with doctrine, the passage of time will indicate corruption in this case, Bellocs works. Here, I will agree with Aidan Mackey who said that Belloc was a social and political thinker of considerable power, significance and integrity... he stands amongst the greatest writers of English prose whose work will, in time, find its deserved placed in English letters.
But even if that slight antagonism towards Belloc is still there, it should never be forgotten that he was in a large part responsible for Chestertons conversion. If these two men within one communion were able to remain friends throughout their lives these two diametric personalities I might add then so can those of us today with different personalities, in that same communion which is called Catholic.
When I am dead, I hope it may be said, "His sins were scarlet, but his books were read." Hilaire Belloc first came to New York in steerage. He had met a California girl named Elodie Hogan in London in June 1890. She departed for San Francisco, and Belloc suddenly told his mother that he wanted to look up her relatives in Philadelphia. "After I had journeyed on the ocean many days in no great comfort, for I did not travel as the rich travel," he later wrote, "I passed through the Narrows into New York Harbor..." He visited his Philadelphian cousins. Then he went west. He later wrote: "Kings live in Palaces, and Pigs in sties, And youth in Expectation. Youth is wise."
Bellocs luck at cards running out at Cincinnati, he hopped freights or walked. Six months after leaving England, he knocked on the Hogans door in Napa: "...like one who brings his merchandise to Californian skies."
Mrs. Hogan was having nothing of it.
Miss Hogan was terrified with joy. She was of medium height, with a graceful figure, but her glory was a mass of red-gold hair, and the translucent-looking white skin that so often accompanies it. She had met Belloc while she and her mother were visiting a friend. A door opened and Belloc, preoccupied with his zine, The Paternoster Review, his dark clothes disheveled and his hair awry, burst into the room.
Three years before, W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, had commissioned Belloc, then 17, to write a string of articles on his impressions whilst bicycling through France. Belloc had then turned to editing his own paper. Then he fell in love. She saw a stocky, broad-shouldered man, with a severe face, strong jaw and direct, unwavering glance, and fell in love at a moment. Even in youth, Hilaire Belloc had great presence:
"the ...impression of power, of energy under command, of dignity, of distinction," wrote Gertrude Atherton.
Each seized the imagination of the other. They saw each other often in London. He talked to her endlessly of politics, modern literature and his plans for the future, as one does with the person who occupies ones mind for fear of learning ones emotions are not returned. She listened to him, at least for the pleasure of seeing his face; then, one day in a cab, she seized his hand and kissed it.
In Napa, however, Mrs. Hogan was adamant. Miss Hogan declined his proposal of marriage. He returned home. They wrote to each other constantly.
Belloc returned to New York five years later. After serving in the French artillery, he had been a brilliant scholar, debater and writer at Oxford. An eyewitness wrote of his first appearance at an Oxford Union debate:
As he rose, men started up and began to leave the house; at his first sentence they paused and looked at himand sat down again. By the end of his third sentence, with a few waves of his powerful hands, and a touch of unconscious magnetism and conscious strength...Belloc held his audience breathless.
Then Elodie begged him to come for her: he did, and they were married in California. After they settled in Oxford, he began earning their bread by the pen.
Whenever Hilaire Belloc found himself without a book, he wrote one. From 1896 until 1942, he wrote 156 books, more than three a year. This does not count pamphlets, poems and articles. He published the enduring hit, The Bad Childs Book of Beasts, a collection of whimsical cautionary verse, in 1896. It has never gone out of print. After a string of respectable biographies, he again hit the jackpot in 1902 with The Path to Rome, a travelogue describing his one-man pilgrimage to the Holy City; it, too, remains in print. His works diversity is astonishing: history, literary criticism, comic and serious verse, novels, economics, military tactics and strategy, satire, topography and travel, essays, translations, religious, social and political commentary. And he was unusually focused: as a subject took form in his mind it fell almost automatically into paragraphs and then into sentences. Pen in hand, he wrote James II in eight days at El Kantara, in Algeria; he later wrote Milton in 10. In later life, as he took to dictating his work, Belloc talked with amazing fluency, as if his memory held an army of books and articles in serried ranks, ready to march from his lips upon command.
He advocated an alternate vision of history: Catholic Europe had seen the decline of slavery and the rise of a largely independent property-holding peasantry in the Middle Ages; this balanced economic arrangement was upset by the Lutheran revolt of the 16th century. Aristocrats ostensibly promoting religious reformation while bent on filling their own pockets polarized classes, creating a propertyless proletariat. Bellocs social analysis, denounced in his lifetime, has been largely vindicated by recent scholarship.
In 1899 he moved to London where he joined the Liberal Party. More importantly, he met and became the closest friend of G.K. Chesterton: their partnership in the Catholic literary revival was so patent that George Bernard Shaw called them the "Chesterbelloc."
Belloc made and kept friends for life. Even in his flaws he could be likable. Thus, he often grumbled for hours: but with such exaggeration and bombast as to put his companions in stitches. He was a tremendous talker, interested in an unusual variety of subjects and curious about every aspect of human affairs. Bellocs temper was skeptical. He never believed anything because he wanted to believe it. But he knew that what we seek is not to be found in our brief years on Earth. This did not agitate him: with Pascal, he believed "we are not commanded to see that the Christian faith prevails, but only to strive that it should."
It followed that his piety was matter-of-fact. To him, the church was home. Thus, although he attended Mass daily, he believed (it is theologically sound) that a Low Mass should last no more than 10 minutes. If I attended Mass daily and were as hungover as he often was at that hour (Belloc was occasionally known to almost stagger to church, murmuring, "Oh, what we must endure for our holy religion"), I suspect I, too, might prefer similar brevity. I would not imitate H.B.s criticism of a slow priest by standing up after 10 minutes, taking out a pocket watch, opening it and staring at its face.
In 1906 the Liberal Party nominated him for Parliament in Salford South, near Manchester. No Liberal had ever been elected there, which may explain why one of the countrys two great parties would nominate an eccentric French-born Roman Catholic journalist who had been naturalized for only three years. The voters were mostly Methodist, and Bellocs campaign manager warned him to avoid religion.
Belloc rose to his feet in a packed hall at his first meeting of the campaign. "Gentlemen," he began, "I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [reaching into his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads, every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!" There was an absolute silence. One imagines the campaign manager contemplating the razor and his wrists. Then the crowd exploded with applause. His constituents may not have shared his religion, but they admired his guts, openness and ebullient temperament. (Perhaps, too, his capacity for drinking most of them under the table.) He was elected.
Belloc argued finance capitalism and socialism between them were grinding down civilization: the solution was "to apply the fruits which the Catholic culture had produced when it was in full vigor, the restriction of monopoly, the curbing of the money power, the establishment of cooperative work...and the jealous restriction of usury and competition, which have come so near to destroying us."
Belloc was often charged with anti-Semitism. His attacks on high finance sometimes drift into bigotry. But so does the diary of Eleanor Roosevelt. Moreover, Belloc, at his worst and most ungenerous, when hungover and past his deadline for an article with a bill collector at the door, never wrote anything even in private as coldly inhuman as H.G. Wells wrote in Modern Utopia:
And for the rest, these swarms of black and brown and dingy white and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency... I take it they will have to go.
In 1908, Belloc began advocating campaign finance reform: that party funds (today, we call this "soft money") be subject to reporting and audit. The Liberals dumped him at the next general election. But South Salford liked Old Thunder and he was reelected. He chose not to run at the December 1910 general elections and resumed his staggering output. He published 17 books in the next two years, including his major social thesis, The Servile State (1912).
Elodies health began declining in 1913. It may have been cancerwe do not know. In her delirium, her English accent fell away and she spoke once more as a Californian. On Feb. 2, 1914, she died. He had watched by her bed for five weeks. He embraced her, and they led him away. Her body was taken downstairs and prepared for the grave. The next day, he went to her room. He glanced about it once more. Then he came out and turned the key in its lock. The door never opened again in his lifetime, nor did he ever pass it without pausing to trace upon it the Sign of the Cross, and to kiss it. He did this for 40 years.
In 1923, Belloc returned to New York on a lecture tour. He had not wanted to leave home, had demanded an outrageous fee and, to his distress, got it. The tour was hard work: he spoke in New York, Cincinnati and Chicago, and numerous towns between. He liked Americans, yet resented never being left alone: "If you sit down to write a man at once sits down beside to talkvery slowly, heartily, full of good heart and with a limited vocabulary. If you are in a public place, [it could be] any stranger...[and] there is no shutting ones ears."
Of course, he had been trying to write his finest book. He loved sailing. Ten years before, an admirer had given him a small yacht. In 1925, he published The Cruise of the Nona. It describes not a single cruise, but some 10 years intermittent voyaging round the coast of Great Britain and a lifetimes reminiscences. He wrote the book in full maturity, to his own plan and in his own time, in nearly perfect prose: economic, sinewy, flexible, as shining and thunderous as the sea.
In February 1935, Belloc returned to the United States. He stood on deck as the liner passed Sandy Hook, heading for the Narrows, remembering almost against his will the woman for whom he had made his first and second journeys. After 20 years he still grieved. As the ship came up the outer bay, something happened to him. To call this event a vision would have invited his laughter. He later wrote to a close friend that his faith had been experienced as well as believed: that "the original matter returned completely, armed with life, unaffected in any way by time, easily unconquerable. Certain. Fully existent." Perhaps the events full measure is that a hard-headed, practical, articulate, skeptical man had experienced something he could not put in words. His lectures proved so successful that he returned two years later. In 1942, Belloc suffered a stroke. He no longer practiced the writers trade. On July 12, 1953, he lost his balance and fell into his studys fireplace. Though the burns were not serious, the shock was fatal. At sunset on July 16, he slipped away, going, as he had written in Cromwell, "...to discover whether there were beatitude for his reward who had hewn to pieces the enemies of Jehovah; or whether he should fall shrieking into the hands of an angry God; or whether Death be indeed no more than a mighty sleep."
What a delightful little love story in the middle of this.
I am not familiar with the author, however, or read any of his books.
I just now finished reading a few very moving stories from the News/Activism section of FR and so I would like to post one relevant quote from his book:
The Mohammedan temper was not tolerant. It was, on the contrary, fanatical and bloodthirsty. It felt no respect for, nor even curiosity about, those from whom it differed. It was absurdly vain of itself, regarding with contempt the high Christina culture about it. It still so regards it even today.
Belloc was no politically correct wussie and he called it like he saw it even back then.
The next day, he went to her room. He glanced about it once more. Then he came out and turned the key in its lock. The door never opened again in his lifetime, nor did he ever pass it without pausing to trace upon it the Sign of the Cross, and to kiss it. He did this for 40 years.What a devoted widower. He sounds like a genuinely good person, whatever his politics or theology.
I'll never forget the Hilaire Belloc childrens book given to me by my mother, made up of drawings that could be turned over to see a second interpretation (smile/frown) along with humorous comments.
Nice to see you.
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