Some Chesterton research

Take note, lit-heads! A tale of paraphrase masquerading as quotation on the high seas of popular debate! Startling discoveries! A cunning plan!

A friend posted the following on my facebook wall:
Do you know where this comes from in Chesterton's writing?

"A society that claims to be civilized and yet allows the sex instinct free-play is inoculating itself with a virus of corruption which sooner or later will destroy it. It is only a question of time"

Which prompted this response:
Now this is such an interesting case, I think I'll make a blog post of it (partially because I hope my method of literary detection might come in handy for others).

As soon as I read the quote, I suspected it was a paraphrase, and not a quote at all. Chesterton is known for his aphorisms, but this is too brief, and frankly too shallow. Beyond that, even in his day "it is only a question of time" must have seemed like one of those tired young phrases trying to seem like an old phrase, something Chesterton would have avoided.

Yet, Chesterton had an enormous output, so it's inevitable that he didn't always rise to his standards. So I began my search.

I found that the paraphrase comes from this article: http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/sexual_insanity/

"As G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago: A society that claims to be civilized and yet allows the sex instinct free-play is inoculating itself with a virus of corruption which sooner or later will destroy it. It is only a question of time. He is worth quoting at length:

What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole,"...

Ah-ha! It does seem like a paraphrase in the first case, and a quote in the second. Let us use (and here's the really useful bit) Google Books "inauthor" search.


Absolutely nothing there for "it is only a question of time." in all of GK Chesterton's works. How vindicated I feel by modern technology!

Let us try the second section.


And there it is a quote. "What had happened to the human imagination" immediately gets us Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi, in both collected and uncollected form. If you read the full quote, below, you will see how much more specific and deep the analysis is - though it is saying "essentially" the same thing it says it both with more care and with more understanding, and makes an argument rather than just a statement.

"What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago."

I suspect many others have the same feeling of suspicion when they read quotes that seem too convenient, and I hope this record of my own suspicions and investigations has proved helpful.

Now go search inauthor:Tocqueville for "America is great because she is good" and see where that gets you.

1 comment:

peregrine said...

Excellent article -- lucid and resonant. Sound byte cultures tend to frown on or disregard anything longer than 140 characters (generalization), but it's rare that a subject lends itself to such summarization. Moreover summary statements are often made a the cost of accuracy, clarity, or are dependent upon too many unshared assumptions.