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Sunday
Mar132011

The Strange Crime of John Boulnois

As our headlines proudly inform us, democracy continues to triumph in all pockets of mankind.  Maybe this is so because democracy is the natural way of things and maybe because after a while the aims of fairness and equality oddly dovetail with the aims of mediocrity.  Well actually, there is nothing odd about it.  Astute observers of humanity know that mediocrity in and of itself is a harmless banner for middle-class happiness and solidity, a euphemism for the bourgeois if there ever were one.  But they will also recognize the value of human achievement: that is to say, we may want everyone to have the same chances – only such a world may be deemed just – yet by definition we cannot all have the same degree of success.  Marx and his interpreters attempted to institutionalize precisely this nonsense and their slogans ended up adorning the walls of the most decadent and oppressive palaces.  It would then seem that a certain number would need to fail to use the opportunities provided, or just underperform enough to make us look better.  An appropriate introduction to this fine tale.  

Our protagonist is not the gentleman mentioned in the title, but an American journalist by the name of Calhoun Kidd.  I am not sure whether, strictly speaking, Calhoun Kidd can be a real name, but if it ever has been, it could only have belonged to a Yankee.  Like most Americans who glide through Chesterton's pages, Kidd is eager, not terribly cultured, a bit too literal for his own good, and not particularly observant of life's filigreed patterning, in short, a "curious compound of impudence and sensitiveness."  Kidd has found his way across the pond to interview John Boulnois, a "very unobtrusive Oxford man" who is also the author of a "series of articles on alleged weak points in Darwinian evolution."  Darwin is a favorite of the modern mind, not because he was a top-notch naturalist – which, of course, he surely was – but because this very unobtrusive Cambridge man supplied a justification for the selfishness that so many privileged members of the world's elite have felt over the years.  To wit, if all the world is the product of natural selection, then those who are rich and powerful and handsome and famous deserve all those accolades.  And one man to whom those four adjectives seem to have always pertained is Sir Claude Champion.  We all know Claude Champion or, at least, a close facsimile:   

Kidd ... had heard of (and written about, nay, falsely pretended to know) Sir Claude Champion, as 'one of the brightest and wealthiest of England's Upper Ten'; as the great sportsman who raced yachts round the world; as the great traveller who wrote books about the Himalayas, as the politician who swept constituencies with a startling sort of Tory Democracy, and as the great dabbler in art, music, literature, and, above all, acting.  Sir Claude was really rather magnificent in other than American eyes.  There was something of the Renascence Prince about his omnivorous culture and restless publicity: he was not only a great amateur, but an ardent one.  There was in him none of that antiquarian frivolity that we convey by the word "dilettante."  That faultless falcon profile with purple-black Italian eye, which had been snap-shotted so often both for Smart Society and the Western Sun, gave everyone the impression of a man eaten by ambition as by a fire, or even a disease.  But though Kidd knew a great deal about Sir Claude a great deal more, in fact, than there was to know it would never have crossed his wildest dreams to connect so showy an aristocrat with the newly-unearthed founder of Catastrophism, or to guess that Sir Claude Champion and John Boulnois could be intimate friends.

I will spare the reader the details of Catastrophism, because such a label is designed to adhere to its subject without any further divulgence of what it could possibly mean.  But what we can conclude is that the movement of Catastrophism, which is unknown and does not require advenient inquiry, and Championism, which is what Sir Claude might have very well dubbed his monolithic movement of one, have extremely little in common.  And that is why, when Boulnois somehow gains the hand of a "beautiful and not unsuccessful actress," Champion rolls himself into an avalanche of charm to seduce the new Mrs. Boulnois, who lives with her very unobtrusive husband in a small house on the Lord's properly grand and sprawling estate.

What happens next will not shock the regular reader of Chesterton; for those who have not experienced much or any of this remarkable genius, I can only recommend that you overhaul your library.  The Father Brown tales are such splendid miniatures of moral truth that their dazzling artistry is often overlooked or even rejected by those who think Catholic priests to a man conceal nefarious intent beneath dark garb.  It will not be giving much away to rejoin that moral truth does not need to be uttered by a priest to be valid or by a dandy to be mocked and debased.  No, the fact that Claude Champion might covet the wife of his alleged friend John Boulnois seems regrettably normal given the web of adultery, betrayal, and concupiscence that has destroyed lives from time immemorial.  It is therefore when Kidd is abroad on the grounds of the estate that a discovery of a fantastic object changes the game: 

It is vain to say that he felt as if he had got into a dream; but this time he felt quite certain that he had got into a book.  For we human beings are used to inappropriate things; we are accustomed to the clatter of the incongruous; it is a tune to which we can go to sleep.  If one appropriate thing happens, it wakes us up like the pang of a perfect chord.  Something happened such as would have happened in such a place in a forgotten tale.

The object is one of violence – we still need a crime or else why would this story have ever been devised?  Our small priest will get involved soon enough and have a tête-à-tête with Mrs. Boulnois during which he will famously denounce "a moral impossibility [as] the biggest of all impossibilities."  And we haven't even mentioned that lovely garden sundial.

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