Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursday: G. K. Chesterton

(Caution: major plot spoilers ahead)

There was a certain charm to Father Brown, arguably G. K. Chesterton’s most famous creation. I could never be sure whether the Father Brown stories were crime fiction, whether they were parodies of crime fiction or whether they were just plain humour. Whatever they were, they were delightful. So it was with the same expectation that I picked up The Man Who Was Thursday. However, the sub-title, A Nightmare, suggested something ominously different. And when C. S. Lewis opined that the book was a powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each of us encounters in his single-handed struggle with the universe, my fears were exacerbated.

Was I in for some bleak reading, I wondered. I could’ve been, if I had read the book when it was first released almost exactly a century ago, when the anarchists were a real group. But stripped of that social surrounding (thankfully, from a reader’s perspective), Thursday read more like a parody of the anarchists than the depressing commentary it could have been.

The plot is simple enough – it is about the (intended) activities of a group of seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who name themselves after the days of the week. Together, they constitute a Central Anarchist Council. But that is not really the point of Thursday. It is the ideas it explores, using the characters.

Many small but significant threads make Thursday a true classic. An unmistakable Christian allegory jumps out from the book. How else would you explain the chief of the anarchists going by the name of Sunday? Who does he represent? Make what you will of this conversation between two of the council members about Sunday.

“Professor,” he cried, “it is intolerable. Are you afraid of this man?”

The professor lifted his heavy lids, and gazed at Syme with large, wide-open, blue eyes of an almost ethereal honesty.

“Yes, I am,” he said mildly. “So are you.”

Syme was dumb for an instant. Then he rose to his feet erect, like an insulted man, and thrust the chair away from him.

“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.”

Then there is the whole idea of double agents. As the book moves on, the revelations become predictable. Surely the man who produced the Father Brown stories would have foreseen this? So possibly the intent is something else? A commentary on the hypocrisy of the anarchists’ movement perhaps? A parody on the real identity of man may be?

And then there are those brief but delightful asides. The debate on the nature of poetry right at the beginning is one example, including this comparison between poets and anarchists.

“An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to anything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

And while artists and anarchists share similarities, what about criminals and philosophers?

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 mere wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s.

A bit glib and extreme perhaps, but makes for good reading nevertheless.

The fleeting comment on German philosophy is another gem.

But perhaps I misunderstood the delicacies of your German philosophy. Perhaps policeman is a relative term. In an evolutionary sense, sir, the ape fades so gradually into the policeman, that I myself can never detect the shade. The monkey is the only policeman that may be. Perhaps a maiden lady on Clapham Common is the only policeman that might have been. I don’t mind being the policeman that might have been. I don’t mind being anything in German thought.

Of course, an undercurrent of humour pervades the entire book, including a hilarious side conversation in sign language, which to me is the high point of the book.

Chesterton seems to express his opinion on anarchy through the voice of one of the characters: anarchy is childishness. No wonder he has handled it in such a light manner in Thursday.

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