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07 June 2010

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare - G.K. Chesterton

The subtitle "A Nightmare" is instructive. This is a surreal tromp through the world of early 20th century anarchy. The entire time I was reading, I wished I knew more about the anarchy of that era but I ended up, for better or worse, substituting our 21st century notions of terrorism for Chesterton's concept on anarchy and, with that subtext, I found a hook upon which to hang my hat.

I've never read Chesterton before and found his style marvelously funny. But was I supposed to find it so? Certainly the humor added to the surreal nature of the book, which Adam Gopnik describes as, "...a Surrealist atmosphere, in the sense that the awful and the extraordinary don't intrude on the normal but rise from the normal - are the normal in another dimension ... [Chesteron] recaptures a childhood sense of what it feels like to be frightened by a nothing that is still a something, and by a sense that ordinary things hold intimations of another world, that the crack in the teacup opens a lane to the land of the dead so easily that the dead are already in the living room, pouring out of the broken porcelain." 

Chesterton views anarchy as a threat to society but also as an oxymoron, "...law and organization which is so essential to anarchy" being one of his many jabs at the idea.

Chesterton's hero, or anti-hero, depending on one's perspective, is Gabriel Syme, a poet who, "being surrounded by every conceivable revolt from infancy...had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left - sanity."

Syme meets a police officer who fills him with notions that Syme had always held but could never state succinctly; "We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people's." This officer takes Syme into a pitch black room where he is inducted into the special police force against anarchy by a disembodied voice and given a small blue card when he leaves to identify him as the law fighting lawlessness.

And so the romp begins.

Sketching out the plot would be a useless affair. Chesterton himself might have created the most useful synopsis in the description of an episode in the chapter entitled, "The Criminals Chase the Police."

"The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows ... Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them.  Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a Negro ... This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned white and black by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people ... Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforseen, and always forgotten."

Another brilliant description of the concept of "things are never as they seem;"
"Walking up the road at night, I have seen a lamp and a lighted window and a cloud make together a most complete and unmistakable face. If anyone in heaven has that face I shall know him again. Yet when I walked a little farther I found that there was no face, that the window was ten yards away, the lamp ten hundred yards, the cloud beyond the world ... [this] has made me, somehow, doubt whether there are any faces. I don't know whether your face, Bull, is a face or a combination in perspective. Perhaps one black disc of your beastly glasses is quite close and another fifty miles away."

And, in fact, it is not the plot that makes the book worth reading (though it is entertaining), but the ideas Chesterton throws out almost casually, as when an anarchist says, "The knife was merely the expression of the old personal quarrel with a personal tyrant. Dynamite is not only our best tool, but our best method. It is as perfect a symbol of us as is incense of the prayers of the Christians. It expands; it only destroys because it broadens; even so, thought only destroys because it broadens. A man's brain is a bomb ... a man's brain must expand ...'"

"Through all his ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy."

"Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength in levity."

Chesterton caps what Kingsley Amis refers to as "not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but something of all three" with an unbelievable ending which makes more surreal sense, if there is such a thing, when one, again, remembers the subtitle, "A Nightmare." And in this ending explosion of fantasy and conflicting philosophies, Chesterton gives his reader the following,

"'Listen to me,' cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. '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. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front -'"

And that, to me, is the main point of the book, if such a book can be said to have a main point. We see what we see but nothing is real. So if that's the case, what is the point of anarchy? Or government? Or religion? Or philosophy? All are ways of organizing oneself in order to make sense of the world. Even anarchy is organized around the idea that there is no order.

And, somehow, I think Chesterton, an avowed Catholic spiritualist, would be crestfallen to discover that his book has allowed me to find worth in both anarchy AND Christianity. That was probably not his intent. At all.