By:Thomas Fleming | October 28, 2010
"In the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men....And all these clever men were at work giving accounts of what would happen in the next age." The discussion of prophetic literature with which Chesterton begins The Napoleon of Notting Hill is itself an accurate piece of prophecy.
As Chesterton points out, most of the books devoted to the ever-receding horizon of the future are really descriptions of the present carried one step further: "Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ('shedding,' as he called it finely, 'the green blood of the silent animals'), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon ... called, 'Why should Salt suffer?'"
In their extrapolated predictions, such would-be prophets as H.G. Wells and George Orwell were both myopic enough to have hailed from Oregon. World wars have turned out to be too costly to sustain; continental federations too unwieldy to keep together. Successful empires require subtler, less dramatic methods than Wells or Orwell, Hitler or Stalin could project from their experience of WWI and its aftershocks. Aldous Huxley came far closer to reality with his fantasy of a world subdued not by jackbooted armies but by sexual freedom, mood-elevating drugs, and the soft propaganda of films, pop songs, and fact-free education. Chesterton, who like Huxley was more a poet than a journalist, envisioned an absolute despotism run by colorless bureaucrats who would eliminate all the little ethnic and regional differences, all the eccentricities of class and profession that had made European civilization the gorgeous mosaic that it was.
In Chesterton's future, England is ruled by a bureaucratic machine in which the king is chosen by lot. When the lot falls on a practical joker named Auberon Quinn (a dead ringer for Max Beerbohm), the new king decides, as a prank, to recreate the old London boroughs and invest them with a medieval pageantry of his own invention. No one takes Quinn's posturing seriously, except the 19 year old Provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, who is fired with enthusiasm for the drab and familiar streets of his own neighborhood. In the interests of progress and their own personal gain, the leaders of the other boroughs decide to run a thoroughfare through Notting Hill's Pump Street, and Wayne rallies the inhabitants to resist. When the politicians seeking to buy him off deprecate the size of Pump Street, Wayne fires back: "That which is large enough for the rich to covet...is large enough for the poor to defend," and when King Auberon tries to make him see the ludicrous side of Notting Hill patriotism, he explains that "Notting Hill...is a rise or high ground of the common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die. Why should I think it absurd?"
Not content with defending his borough from aggression, Wayne appeals to the professional imaginations of the shopkeepers. "I can imagine," he tells the Pump Street grocer, "what it must be to sit all day as you do surrounded with wares from all the ends of the earth, from strange seas that we have never sailed and strange forests that we could not even picture." At first his only convert is a toy merchant fond of war games, and together they plan the revolt of Notting Hill. Their very success, however, is almost their undoing, as the businessmen and bureaucrats succumb to blood-lust and patriotism. In the final struggle, a working-man tired of hearing "Notting Hill!" cried in his face, exclaims, "Well, what about Bayswater?....Bayswater forever," to which the mad Provost responds, "We have won....We have taught our enemies patriotism."
The victory of Notting Hill is at first a liberation of all London; eventually, however, the borough becomes arrogant and inspires the other neighborhoods to revolt against her empire. But in his defeat Wayne achieves his greatest triumph, in teaching his enemies patriotism.
Chesterton's fable delighted its first readers, but his prophetic insight has taken longer to be recognized. It is partly the playful spirit of the book that prevents us from taking him seriously, but an even greater obstacle is our own stupid conviction that history moves in a straight line. If, we say, the tendency since the Renaissance has been the agglomeration of little powers into great powers--of Florence into the Duchy of Tuscany into the Kingdom of Italy into the European Union--then it does little good to speak wistfully of the days when an independent Florence was at war with Siena and Arezzo, and the very neighborhoods of Florence had their own names, their own flags, their own costumes, and--above all--their own honor for which the inhabitants contended in street fights. Even the United States, when they were a republic, more resembled medieval Siena or Adam Wayne's London than they do the mass-produced population that is sent to fight under the flag of the United Nations. But that, as we say, is history.
It is only at the end of the twentieth century that one can fully appreciate Chesterton's prophecy, because not only are the nations of the world tending more and more every day toward the lifeless bureaucracies that he predicted, but also because we are beginning to see the first flickers of resistance. In America the western states are passing 10th Amendment resolutions; in Italy the Northern League (whatever its political future) has been successful in recreating a Lombard identity; and in Eastern Europe the old nationalities are lifting their heads up out of the rubble of empire, singing their old songs, reopening the ancient wounds whose very throbbing shows they are still alive.
One of Chesterton's hunches was that a New World Order would not tolerate particularity, and at the beginning of his novel, Quinn meets the President of Nicaragua. When told that Nicaragua is no longer a country, the old man declares, "Nicaragua has been conquered like Athens. Nicaragua has been annexed like Jerusalem....The Yankee and the German and the brute powers of modernity have trampled it with the hoofs of oxen." One of Quinn's civil servant friends explains that Nicaragua was a stumbling block to civilization: "We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples." To understand Chesterton one must have some sympathy for the unabsorbed peoples, even when, as in the case of Nicaragua and Iraq, they were ruled by a brutal dictator, and for the poor Serbs of Bosnia and Kosovo, even though our whole great cosmopolitan civilization is against them.