Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by GK Chesterton

If you were only ever to read one GK Chesterton book, I would probably recommend that you read this one. I would have some misgivings about you missing out on Orthodoxy, but Orthodoxy is essays; this is a story.
Gabriel Syme is a man not quite like other men. Brought up by cranks and rebels, in an age of constant revolution, Syme revolts into the only thing left for him to revolt into: sanity. Syme believes in law and order in the same way that revolutionists and anarchists believe in the opposite: desperately, savagely, and unto death. His unusual character makes him the perfect recruit into a special branch of the police force dedicated to hunting philosopher-criminals, even though he protests that he has no experience:
I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”
“I do,’ said the other—‘martyrs. I am condeming you to death. Good day.”
When the book opens we find Syme undercover in an arty suburb of London as a Poet debating another anarchist Poet, Lucian Gregory. Incensed by Syme's assumption that he, Gregory, is not a serious anarchist, Gregory recklessly introduces Syme to his local anarchist cell--and Syme manages to have them elect him to the Central Anarchist's Council! Codenamed Thursday, Syme manages to infiltrate the sinister Council of seven men, all named after days of the week. But bringing them down may be more dangerous and a far stranger experience than even Syme is prepared for.
This is a fun adventure story of spies and anarchists and a profound meditation upon the nature of evil in God's created world and a passionate refutation of modernism (and postmodernism). Syme, our everyman hero, faces a great and gigantic evil which he knows it is his task to defeat. How he goes about it is one of the most fascinating things in the book. The magnitude of his task depresses him, but he clings to a passionate chivalry.

He has sworn to the poet Gregory that he will not report the anarchists to the police; he keeps that oath, even when he realises they are about to unmask him as a policeman:--
This very pride in keeping his word was that he was keeping it to miscreants. It was his last triumph over these lunatics to go down into their dark room and die for something that they could not even understand.

Modernists do not understand the concepts of chivalry, of honour and glory very well, and Chesterton brings them bursting into wonderful life here. Syme keeps his word because that is what he is fighting for—the virtue of honour. And he and his allies determine to bring down the Council and its monstrous president Sunday because on a certain level the real question is not whether evil will win, but whether men will defy it:

"Yes," he said in a voice indescribable, "you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him on the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear that I would pull him down. […] Because I am afraid of him, […] and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid."
You think that it is possible to pull down the President. I know that it is impossible, and I am going to try it.”

This is why we must fight honourably—because we are fighting for honour itself. This is why we must show courage—because we are fighting for the very concept of bravery, against all the sneers and petty insults of modernity.
In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton's characters attempt what they think may be impossible: they stand up to an evil ready to swallow the world, and all the hearts and souls of men. I will try not to give too much away, but at the end of the book, when all fear has passed away, Syme once again faces Gregory and gives him the lie:

Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.'
"It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell.”
The Man Who Was Thursday is, on top of all this, frequently laugh-out-loud funny:
"I shall approach. Before taking off his hat, I shall take off my own. I shall say, 'The Marquis de Saint Eustache, I believe.' He will say, ' The celebrated Mr. Syme, I presume.' He will say in the most exquisite French, 'How are you?' I shall reply in the most exquisite Cockney, 'Oh, just the Syme -- ' "

and it shows us just how we should confront the evil in our world: with our heads held high, our honour intact, and a laugh on our lips.
Wikisource etext
Librivox recording
The Man Who Was Thursday, the Nightmare of Modernity, and the Days of Creation, a brilliant paper which I highly recommend, but only if you've already read the book.

1 comment:

Joseph Jalsevac said...

You forgot to mention it is also one of Chesterton's mystical-fantastical tales, like The Napoleon of Nottinghill, as opposed to his mystical-realistic stories like the Fr. Brown series. When I first finished TMWWT I almost went mad by how bizarre and inexplicable it seemed to me. Fortunately I found an edition with notes that included Chesterton's own words of explanation, which helped enormously to point me in the direction of a meaningful and fruitful interpretation.

Have you heard Orson Welles' radio adaptation for Mercury Theatre on the Air? It's pretty good. I certainly enjoyed the combination of breathless drama and dream-like mysticism.
You can find it online. Here is a link:


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