The Flying Inn: Chesterton on Alcohol & the Sacramental Imagination

Feast of St Lucian the Martyr of Antioch

CHESTERTON anticipated many of our problems in 1914 when he published The Flying Inn, just before the outbreak of the First War. It’s a very funny book that deals, among many other things, with the question of alcohol. To say the least, alcohol is no less a problem in our time than it was in his time. In fact, it’s a much greater problem on college campuses. Students drink like fish, and they often drink with the express purpose of getting drunk. And I don’t mean just woozily drunk, but knee-walking drunk, bent-over-and-barfing-into-the-commode drunk. Chesterton deals with that problem, but not in the way we might anticipate. He was a vigorous opponent of Prohibition, especially when it was promoted in England. It actually triumphed in this country, of course. And when he visited the States during the Prohibition years he was horrified. He was horrified for more reasons than one.

There were many causes for Prohibition. Drunkenness was rife, families ruined, savings squandered, jobs lost. Yet Chesterton felt quite rightly that places like central Kansas, places like my own eastern Texas, places that were then essentially rural and agricultural, had risen up in resentment against the Catholic masses of the industrial cities in order to deprive them of their alcohol. Chesterton vigorously opposed Prohibition because it deprived the poor of one of life’s few meager pleasures available to everyone. To deny the poor of such small joys as an evening glass at the local bar was, for him, something reprehensible. For when rightly regarded, alcohol serves as a delightfully convivial beverage, and so it should never be used as a medicinal:

All the human things are more dangerous than anything that affects the beasts – sex, poetry, property, religion. The real case against drunkenness is not that it calls up the beast but that it calls up the Devil. . . . There is nothing bestial about intoxication. . . . Man is always something worse or something better than an animal. . . . Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness – or so good as drink. . . . The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine [and, by extension, all alcohol] as a drug and not as a drink. . . . Jesus Christ . . . made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament.

Chesterton also worried about the way in which the modern world often elevates the minor virtues while flattening the major ones. I think we’re going to wind up banning smoking, for example – we’ve almost done so already. I’m no advocate of tobacco (although my father was a great lover of cigars), and I object to the ruined flavor of food when it must be tasted through tobacco fumes. But the banning of smoking in restaurants, and in many other public places, is too easy a virtue. Like the outlawing of trans-fats from New York eateries, it encourages us to think we have made large moral accomplishments when, in fact, we have dealt only with peccadilloes.

Consider this story from a university professor who returned to his office late one night. As he got out of his car in the parking lot, he saw a sign that read, “This is a smoke-free campus.” He entered his own departmental building, and there he encountered a similar notice: “This is a smoke-free building.” He exited the elevator into the hallway leading to his office, and it too was declared tobacco free: “Smoking is absolutely prohibited.” When at last he arrived at the commons area outside his office, there was a sign affixed to the door. “Please do not disturb,” it read, “we’re having sex.” You can’t smoke anywhere on the campus of a major university, but you can have sex in the commons area of a Humanities department late at night, just don’t disturb.

Such an inversion of moral order should be answered not by outrage so much as by ridicule, laughing folly to scorn. And Chesterton does so. In many ways he can best be understood as a satirist. In The Flying Inn he satirizes the picayune victory of Prohibition as if the real cure to evil had been found. [. . .] [It] is one of his finest fantastic novels.

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THE ACTION of The Flying Inn occurs as the English Parliament is debating whether Prohibition should be introduced to England as a national policy. The movement is led by a man named Philip Ivywood. He’s a rich and powerful baron who is a member of the House of Lords. He is inspired largely – and this is a bit spooky – by a visiting Muslim philosopher, a thinker whose name is Misysra Ammon. The echoes are unmistaken: Misysra sounds a little bit like misery, and Ammon is one of the pagan gods of the Old Testament. (There were actually such intellectuals from the East making lecture tours in England at the time of the novel’s publication. One of them was Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian thinker who took England by storm. Yeats was his great enthusiast.)

Chesterton’s novel features a Muslim guru in order to demonstrate that Western culture – then as now, I would add – was not being threatened by invasions from without so much as by rottenness from within. A figure such as Ammon could be taken seriously because there was not enough moral and spiritual substance in British culture to resist him. And so this man, Misysra Ammon, has won a large following, especially in persuading Lord Philip Ivywood that alcohol is evil.

In persuading Parliament to close all the pubs of England, Lord Ivywood has hacked at the roots of British culture. For the pub is one of the most basic British institutions. The word “pub” is short for “public house.” You don’t frequent pubs to get falling-down drunk but to meet your friends, to throw darts, to have conversation. If you’ve patronized them, you know that cats are often sleeping on the tables, dogs gnawing bones beneath, with the food from the kitchen being of uncertain sanitation. A small and convivial gathering place where people enjoy each other’s company, they form a sort of secular church. They are a sheer delight. And of course that’s why the joyless reformer Ivywood wants them shut: people who are happy are not easily maneuvered into grandiose schemes of alleged social advances.

In an act of seeming mercy, Lord Ivywood persuades Parliament to enact a “grandfather” rule that will close the inns only after their signs can be taken down. Yet he fails to account for the ingenuity of the novel’s two leading characters. Humphrey Pump is the bar keeper, or public house manager. The other is Patrick Dalroy, a navy captain who has just returned from the Crimean War. They hit upon the idea of taking down the sign of “The Old Ship,” the name of their inn, and then flying (the old word for fleeing) with it over all England. As true literalists, they feel free to serve alcohol beneath their inn-sign, since it has not yet been removed and destroyed.

Pump and Dalroy have acquired a huge round of cheddar cheese and a gigantic cask of rum to accompany them in their flight from the police. Wherever they plant the sign of the Old Ship, they serve rum and cheese. And they set up their portable pub in the most politically incorrect places. For example, to provide an alternative to Christianity, England’s new hygienic regime has created community halls where citizens can have properly secular discourse. So the pub-keeper and the naval captain plant the sign right in front of the community hall, prompting the people inside to pour forth to enjoy their rum and cheese instead of discussing high-minded abstractions. Or else they seek out teetotalist churches – remember that Welsh Methodists were stern abstainers – and set up the sign of jovial bibulosity outside such alcohol scorning chapels. And of course the Welsh coal miners come flocking to the rum and cheese. They also erect the sign of the Old Ship on the beach where the bathers gladly gather round to lift a glass and to nibble on cheese. Everyone has a grand time.

The novel contains splendid celebrations of such conviviality – not least of all because Chesterton was what he himself called “a beef and beer Christian.” For him, good meat and drink were among the great gifts of God’s good creation. [. . .]

Humphrey Pump and Patrick Dalroy are successful at escaping the police and thus maintaining the life of their splendidly gamboling pub. Yet their struggle is not only against the flesh and blood of Lord Ivywood’s pub-closings: they are also battling what St. Paul (in Ephesians 6:12) calls the principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness, the spiritual wickedness that dwells in high places – namely, in Lord Ivywood’s utopian desire to turn English culture inside out as if it were a sock whose patterns he could reverse. He wants a crown-to-ground reform of English life, so as to remake it in his own idea of what should and should not be. Ivywood’s displeasure lies not only with the unhygienic and inefficient state of English life; he confesses that he is also dissatisfied with the way the world itself is ordered. Hence his Luciferian dream of realizing Nietzsche’s vision of a world that lies “beyond good and evil”:

I would walk where no man has walked; and find something beyond tears and laughter. My road shall be my road indeed [. . .] And my adventures shall not be in the hedges and the gutters, but in the borders of the ever advancing human brain. I will think what was unthinkable until I thought it; I will love what was never loved until I loved it – I will be as lonely as the First Man.

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“The world was made badly,” said [Lord] Philip, with a terrible note in his voice, “and I will make it over again”

For Chesterton, there is nothing deadlier, nothing more demonic, than the determination to make the world over again. The Cambodian dictator Pol Pot had such a determination. To signal his determination to begin again from the start – even though his regime slaughtered between five and six million people – he created a new calendar that began with the Year Zero. Such wholesale attempts to improve the human condition – refusing to embrace the order of the world as God has given it – often begin with schemes that seem salutary. What, after all, could be harmful about stopping drunkenness and its attendant evils? As we shall see, what seems at first benign soon proves to be malign indeed.

For in the midst of the comic chase involving the police and the flying inn-sign, there is a terrible battle involving a woman, Lady Joan Brett. She was once in love with Patrick Dalroy, but she has now fallen under the sway of Lord Philip Ivywood. He’s offered her almost everything, including a palatial mansion in which they will live in the pure ecstasy of aesthetic delight. Or she can go live as an impoverished wife of the retired sea captain named Patrick Dalroy. So she’s caught right in the middle between these men who represent the crisis of our times: Ivywood’s high-flown nihilism versus Dalroy’s humble humanism. She must choose one or the other. Therein lies the outcome of the novel’s plot.

Lady Joan ends by choosing Dalroy. But it’s a very dark ending. It’s almost Dostoevskyan in its vision of the end to which nihilism inevitably leads. Lord Ivywood gradually begins his permanent slide into madness, living in a self-made world whose only inhabitant is himself. This is hell indeed, the pain of absolute loss, the self-enclosed confinement where neither God nor other human beings can enter.

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WHAT MAKES The Flying Inn so strangely relevant for our time is the way in which it makes a very strong critique of Islam – not an easy “conflict of civilizations” critique, nor a culture-wars call to strike down the Muslim menace, but rather a subtle and complicated critique that also applies to our own secular culture. Let’s try to get a grip on it. It has to do, surprisingly, with the Islamic rejection of alcohol. What Chesterton enables us to see in The Flying Inn is that rum-drinking can have a virtually sacramental quality. For wherever Pump and Dalroy’s pub-sign is erected, there can rum be served. The sign thus produces the event.

This is precisely what a sacrament does. Though still eight years away from his reception into the Church of Rome, Chesterton comes close to depicting the Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato. It’s a phrase that means, “by the work worked,” not “by the worker worked.” Against all subjective reliance on the worthiness of the priest who administers the sacraments, they have sheer objective validity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church thus describes sacraments as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”

Chesterton’s imagination was sacramental virtually from the outset. He possessed, almost instinctively, what Hugh Kenner describes as “a metaphysical intuition of being.” What Kenner means is that Chesterton saw and read the physical world through the lenses of an analogical mind. Already as a child, young Gilbert thought analogically – i.e., his mind was always seeing one thing in light of another, so that the ordinary was not seen only “in itself” but also as what it could be likened to so as to grasp its extraordinariness. A tree thrashing in the wind, for instance, seemed to him as if it were a huge paintbrush stroking the sky, coloring it with various shades of blue.

For Chesterton, it follows, we do not have a “battle of civilizations,” as the culture warriors try to claim; we have, instead, a battle of imaginations – the sacramental versus the unsacramental. For him, the most troubling quality of Islam is that it permits no analogies of God. That’s why the great mosques of Spain – now occupied by Christians as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has been turned into a mosque – are all beautifully symmetrical. The Muslims did wonders with all sorts of geometric oblongs and squares and triangles and circles and the like, but no image is present. As a friend of mine at Providence College says, “Salvation for the Muslim comes through the Book which denies that God can be imaged; salvation for Christians comes through the Person who is the very image of God.” And therein lies all the difference.

She declares, even more startlingly, that we should really not call Islam an Abrahamic religion. It is wrong to speak of the three Abrahamic religions as all basically belonging in the same company: Jews, Christians, and Muslims. She says that, in the Qur’an, Abraham is never allowed to question Allah in any way. Consider, by contrast, Abraham in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. He challenges Yahweh often. She adds, moreover, that it is impossible to imagine a book such as Job in the Qur’an, since for 39 chapters he rails against the Lord’s unjust treatment of him. Chesterton contends, in like fashion, that it is the Book of Job, not Isaiah 53, that is the main Old Testament type of Christ. Job is a prefiguration of Christ because he is the Man who suffers the supreme injustice but who finally says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So for Chesterton, the Muslim refusal to discern any analogues of God in the world is its essential problem and its essential threat. Because when we have no icon of God – Jesus Christ and all of the analogical icons of the Christian tradition – look at what happens to our estimate of human nature and human beings: they become mere abstractions to be done with as we wish. If, by contrast, we saw all human beings as icons of God – as creatures made by Christ in his own image – consider what such a vision would do to our world. It would totally revolutionize our estimate of poverty, of hunger, of abortion, of capital punishment, and most of all, of war. When we lose our vision of humanity, of human beings, as icons of God, then they become dispensable. So behind the Talibanic terrorism lies something like that: “These are not human beings. I can blow myself up as well as all those around me.”

Thus does The Flying Inn constitute a very subtle critique not only of Islam but also of late modern culture, for they both are devoid of the sacramental imagination. For G. K. Chesterton, the sacramental imagination lies at the core of the Christian faith. And it can be maintained only by sacramental practice. [. . .]

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CHESTERTON was not panicked by the approaching death of Western civilization. He pointed out that Christianity has already survived the collapse of Roman civilization, and that it will no doubt survive the ruin of European and American culture – the culture that we can now see is crumbling before our very eyes. If we do not faithfully remember and act according to our Lord’s promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the coming of his Kingdom, we will end by doing really stupid, horrible, violently destructive things – thus becoming the mirror image of our enemies. The one sure remedy against such evil-doing is to participate in God’s own life by way of his Son’s shed blood and broken body. Let us thus conclude by hearing the final lines of one of the great poems on the Eucharist. It was written by Chesterton’s friend Hilaire Belloc, and it is entitled, “Epic Poem in Praise of Wine”:

But when the hour of mine adventure’s near
Just and benignant, let my youth appear
Bearing a Chalice, open, golden, wide,
With benediction graven on its side.
So touch my dying lip: so bridge that deep:
So pledge my waking from the gift of sleep,
And, sacramental, raise me Divine:
Strong brother in God and last companion, Wine.

To be “raised divine” is also to live divinely in this present life by cultivating the sacramental imagination. Far from being a solemn and dour existence, it often entails the most delightful carefreeness. Hence Belloc’s splendid ditty applies not to Roman Catholics alone but to all sacramental Christians as well:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

Let us bless the Lord indeed!

*Excerpted from original lecture delivered at the second annual Eighth Day Symposium on January 28, 2012; printed in (Micro)Synaxis I, Fall 2012.


Ralph Wood has served as University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor since 1998. He previously served for 26 years on the faculty of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he became the John Allen Easley Professor of Religion in 1990. He has also taught at Samford University in Birmingham, at Regent College in Vancouver, and at Providence College in Rhode Island.


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