June 15, 2007
G.K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday
The Man Who Was Thursday, first published in 1908 and subtitled A Nightmare, is one of those books that I’ve always been meaning to read. It’s a sign of my shallow nature that I only did so this week, when Penguin caught my magpie eye by reissuing it in a new cover, along with a clutch of ‘derring-do’ titles from the same period, such as The Lost World, She and The Prisoner of Zenda. Which surprised me a bit, because I had always thought that (and wanted to read it because) The Man Who Was Thursday was a maddeningly clever philosophical tale, and not a ripping adventure yarn. In fact it turns out to be both.
The best of the book is in the opening chapters, when two men do verbal battle. Lucian Gregory is an “anarchic poet” who contends that entropy is, so to speak, the way forward.
An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one blazing blast of light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. … The poet delights in disorder only.
Against him stands Gabriel Syme, who speaks up for order and denounces chaos and Gregory’s notion that “the poet is always in revolt”:
You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is – revolting. It’s mere vomiting.
Gregory is stung by Syme’s accusations that his brand of anarchy is not “serious” and – with the faith in his own charms that distinguishes the true political extremist – invites Syme into the secret anarchists’ lair. There they take part in a meeting of the seven-man anarchists’ council – each named after a day of the week – and an election takes place for the post of Thursday, which gives us probably the funniest scene in the book.
What’s odd is that, for a man who was well on his way to becoming an orthodox Christian at the time of writing, and who disliked Oscar Wilde’s “desolate philosophy,” he doesn’t half sound like him at times. His stock in trade here is the very Wildean witty paradox – “Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it” – which is much in evidence at the council meeting and also at Syme’s account of his own secret past (I don’t know why I’m being so circumspect: the back cover tells us his true nature on the first line of the blurb).
The middle of the book, however, drops most of the cleverness and prods to contemplation and fills the space instead with action, chases and several revelations. Unfortunately these turn out to be the same revelation over and over, and if you didn’t see it coming the first time, soon you’ll be joining in.
So for all this time as the characters flickered busily past, I idly wondered instead when Chesterton’s godly side would show. In fact it already had: early on, Gregory declaims that the central anarchist aim is “to abolish God” which he equates with abolishing “vice and virtue … Right and Wrong.” This outdated (surely even in 1908) notion of religion as the source of morality is not alone, however. Toward the end of the book, religious references swarm up from the pages, and the majority of the story, it seems, has been an allegory for the inability of rational man alone to understand the world:
Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud.
The front, or interior, presumably requiring the assistance of something or someone to give us a leg up. All of which makes sense when we think of Chesterton’s famous saying:
When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.
In fact it turns out that this is a misquotation, or at least a conflation of two different lines. You can read about it here, as an alternative to the disappointing second half of this otherwise enjoyable and clever book. At least I didn’t wait another ten years before reading it.