Don Camillo and Peppone Reloaded: Father Brown and Comrade Slavoj [text]


Update (August 2017) – one text I have overlooked is the very good philosophical reflection on Žižek’s use of Chesterton’s allegorical story by George Fried ‘Where’s the Point: Zizek and the Broken Sword’. I agree with most of what he has to say and would probably have produced a much shorter piece which would have focused more on Father Brown’s methodology.


This post is not meant to be primarily a critique of Žižek, even though he occupies most of the space in it, but to use him as a contrast to bring out what is worth salvaging from Gilbert K. Chesterton’s form of thinking (though not much of its content). The work of deconstructing Žižek’s political rhetoric has already been done successfully by better writers. “Successfully”, that is, in terms of intellectual coherence and conclusiveness – less so in that Žižek still enjoys huge popularity among the academic Left. My favourite is Adam Kirsch’s 2008 ‘The Deadly Jester’ in The New Republic, despite some unjustified claims about the philosophical traditions Žižek draws on.
Further it should be noted that the parallel implied to the two heroes of Giovannino Guareschi’s Mondo Picolo finds its limit in the fact that both the Catholic priest and the Communist mayor are united in their unequivocal antifascism – which can be said of neither Chesterton (who was tempted by Mussolini) and nor Žižek (who congratulates Heidegger on joining the Nazi Party)

The BBC’s favourite “Marxist philosopher” Slavoj Žižek makes ample use of Father-Brown creator Gilbert K. Chesterton’s witticisms and stories in his grand project, the rehabilitation of the Western politico-metaphysical tradition from the Catholic Church to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[1] The title of his magnus opus in political theology In Defence of Lost Causes is taken from a chapter in Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World?  where Chesterton suggests that the ‘lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world’Žižek draws heavily on Chesterton in his reading of Christianity, but the most important thing he gets out of Chesterton is the rhetorical tactic of contradicting obvious truths by way of paradoxical statement. But, while the paradoxes of Chesterton lend themselves to frivolously totalitarian abuse, I will argue that the contrast between the two could not be much greater.



a quick note on Chesterton (Father Brown) and Zizek (Heidegger, Stalin) [#withoutwords]



The Sign of the Broken Sword and Persistent Lore of Empire: Chesterton’s knowing of colonialist immorality and his defence of postcolonial hypocrisy

Introductory remark: This is a reflection jotted down without much research – i.e. I have no claim whatsoever to any Chesterton scholarship and I have not checked whether anybody has not come up with a similar assessment of Chesterton’s story: a strong parable on Imperialist guilt and a highly problematic anticipation of the way the majoritarian postcolonials preserve Imperial nostalgia as a means to maintain a positive sense of self – also known as “doing a Gove”.
update: of course St Slavoj has used this story – how could I forget the notorious Defence of Lost Causes? Well – I’ve been trying to (mental economy: keep head clear from nonsense). And of course he affirms that it is precisely the immoral act of abandoning truth for the pursuit of a seemingly higher purpose that makes it interesting. This merits a few words, but really only very few, so I put some into a PS.

Strangely retrospective in style, Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Father-Brown story “The Sign of the Broken Sword” in which the crime to be solved is a historical one and the narration is that of a conversation between Father Brown and his companion, the ex-criminal turned private investigator, Flambeau, brings out the historically-investigative best and morally worst in the fictitious detective/priest. The crime (spoiler alert – if you want to enjoy what, despite being ideologically tinged – is an extremely well-constructed narrative – read it first here) is the following: the celebrated British General St Clare, celebrated for his role in the maintenance and extension of the Empire around the globe and very likely to be modelled on General Redvers Buller, murders one of his officers, Major Murray, while on campaign in Brazil. The Major had found out about the General’s immoral conduct and outright criminal activity. But while St Clare manages to kill him with a stab of his sword, the purpose of the crime is not achieved since the tip of the sword breaks off and remains in Murray’s body as evidence. St Clare ingenuously and callously covers up that crime by burying the corps in a forest of corpses, as Father Brown puts it:

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?”

“Well, well,” cried Flambeau irritably, “what does he do?”

“He grows a forest to hide it in,” said the priest in an obscure voice. “A fearful sin.”


Consumerism into Fascism – Part 2: The Chesterton Slide

I thought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried to compose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through into an epic. – King Auberon in G. K. Chesterton’s 1904 The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

In the first part I have highlighted how, despite suggestion to the contrary, consumerism as heir to Romanticism is incompatible with fascist politics in one crucial aspect, namely its anti-heroism and its rejection of immediate reality and realisation which lies at the heart of this anti-heroism. Their, so the damning verdict of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, ‘occasionism’ and refusal to act decisively in the world extended even to the reactionary visions of German Romanticism from Novalis’ medievalistic utopia to Wilhelm Hauff’s sycophancy of old Württemberg. But on the other hand it is difficult to deny that fascist propaganda does take inspiration from consumerism, especially from advertising. There are also some uncanny parallels in the mode of expression and the collective effervescences induced by both. And finally, the fundamental opposition of fascism to both Romanticism and consumerism[1] is one that concerns the mode of cultural production and consumption – not necessarily its content.

[footnote: By ‘consumerism’ I do not mean simply mass consumption of industrially produced goods, but the mass use of such products for identity-relevant hedonistic daydreams. I am also not claiming that totalitarian regimes had no such consumer culture at all. Especially Fascism more so than Stalinism allowed and encouraged consumer-cultural escapes by permitting apolitical, non-subversive cultural production for a free consumer market (as long, of course, the producers were not classified to be “racially inferior”). Walter Lacqueur points out that there were consumerist ‘joys of everyday life’ under fascist rule:

‘The less interest a person had in public affairs and the more he or she ignored politics, the freer that person could feel in his or her private world. The authorities in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (and equally in the Soviet Union) used propaganda to an unprecedented extent, but people were still not told what games to play, what movies to watch, what ice cream to eat, or where to spend their holidays. The authorities probably suspected this would be counterproductive.’ (Lacqueur 1996: 72f.)

The point is that this is a concession to the practicalities of governing a country with a developed capitalist economy – a deviation from the dream of an organically integrated, totally mobilised people. The total war which is the vanishing point of all fully-fledged Fascism notoriously makes sure that those private worlds would shrink away in the end and with it all the distractive Neugier, Zweideutigkeit and Gerede. end of footnote]

Wilhelm Hauff, for example, not only created in Georg von Sturmfeder (protagonist in Lichtenstein) the kind of steadfast Tatmensch (man-of-action) and true follower of his national cause the Nazis wrongly thought Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell to be – Hauff also delivered, with his antisemitic novella Jud Süß, a template that Veit Harlan and his team of writers could then further worsen into the script for their even more viciously antisemitic 1940 feature film of the same title, one of the most successful propaganda movies of the Nazi era. The overt ultra-nationalism, racism and misogyny at the core of fascist ideology is alien to consumer cultural products (although racist and sexist undercurrents remain pervasive – and a sublimated form is lived out into fantasies of annihilation when it comes to aliens from outer space).  The motif of the Tatmensch and celebrations of the heroic, the mythological and mechanised war, however, are quite common place. The question I am trying to tackle here, therefore, is whether and how there is a danger of a slide from the romantic consumerist imagination into fascist politics – a slide that was as mentioned envisaged in J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come.