The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Chesterton was trending the other day. A clip of Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, showed her concluding a fiery anathema against contemporary left-liberalism with a quote from the in-all-ways prolific English Catholic writer of a century ago:
Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.
As Sam Leith observes, this sounds like the common sense of Orwell and English empiricism when wrenched from its context; but within its context—both the whole paragraph from which the lines are drawn and the author’s entire immense corpus—it represents a much stranger and more paradoxical assertion: that to believe in the most sensuously immediate reality is already to believe in God, a view explained at length in Chesterton’s brilliant little biography of Thomas Aquinas, with its earthy subtitle: The Dumb Ox.
As for Chesterton’s own politics, Leith concedes that “fascism”—a label Meloni has attracted—is one plausible context in which we might place his brand of populist religious conservatism, especially given the writer’s anti-Semitism and sexual traditionalism. Different critics have come to different conclusions about this, not least because “fascism” lacks any stable definition—a tendency to which Marinetti and Heidegger both belonged is too syncretic to be a doctrine—and is moreover popularly used not to describe but only to delegitimize a bewilderingly wide range of views from left, right, and center. A man of letters who rivaled Chesterton for cheerful volubility, Clive James, was a bellicose and even imperialistic liberal, one who died recently enough not to leave us wondering about where he would stand on Europe’s right turn. Yet in his magisterial monument to liberalism, Cultural Amnesia, he finally exonerates his precursor in journalistic provocation:
[Chesterton’s] vice was wilful paradox, but his virtue was for asking the awkward questions about current liberal fashions. The virtue itself had a drawback: as a Catholic convert, he valued theological tradition to the point of embracing some of its blemishes, one of which was an abiding suspicion of the cosmopolitan. Anti-Semitism reared its head…There are a thousand brilliant sentences to prove that he was the natural opponent of state power in any form, so there can be no real doubt about the stance he would have taken had he lived longer. He defined true democracy as the sum total of civilized traditions. It was a conservative approach, but it could never have become a fascist one, since the idea of a civilized tradition was exactly what fascism set out to dismantle.
On the other hand, the Sinologist and belletrist Simon Leys, himself a Catholic cultural conservative, wrote a tribute to Chesterton with the beguiling subtitle, “The Poet Who Dances with a Thousand Legs” (collected in The Hall of Uselessness). There he hails Chesterton as a prophet who foresaw our sexual post-humanity, quoting him thus from an essay of 1926:
It has been left to the very latest modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility…the next great heresy is simply going to be an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. And it is coming not from a few socialists…The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, much more in Manhattan.
Yet I myself found Chesterton in adolescence, not through my Catholic education but in one of the subversive books I was reading to try to escape the nuns and priests: I discovered him in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, where he is not only quoted but actually appears as a character, ruddy cheek by rouged jowl with all the appealingly drawn gay and trans characters, a role he reprises in the recent Netflix adaptation of the comic, a show immersed in what James labels “current liberal fashions” to a fault. Leys, too, stresses Chesterton’s cosmopolitan affinities and influences, his style’s closeness to the pedagogical “jests and riddles” of Zen Buddhism, as well as his influence on Kafka and Borges (see also, in this vein, a recent study linking Chesterton to Native American art and spirituality). We might finally note Chesterton’s obvious rhetorical influence on two of the most influential leftist thinkers today, Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Žižek, who evidently judge his famous use of paradox to mirror the Marxist dialectic.
Though beloved of Catholics and conservatives, Chesterton, like any truly powerful and classic writer, is obviously too large to belong to one sect or party alone. But until now, I’d never read his fiction, give or take a Father Brown story. I had only read the commanding Orthodoxy, the aforementioned Aquinas biography, and the underrated literary criticism—those pocket-sized panegyrics on Chaucer, Blake, Dickens. To remedy this—and all the better on the threshold of October—I took his celebrated 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare from my shelf. Critics frequently compare this strange thriller and religious allegory to the work of Kafka, but Leys points out that it actually influenced Kafka, despite Chesterton’s putative English and Christian provinciality.
The novel begins at a bohemian party in a fashionable district of London, under a surreal sky that strikes the novel’s note of fantastical, unsettling, apocalyptic, and gorgeous scene-painting (Chesterton, we should remember, began as a visual artist):
This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world. All the heaven seemed covered with a quite vivid and palpable plumage; you could only say that the sky was full of feathers, and of feathers that almost brushed the face. Across the great part of the dome they were grey, with the strangest tints of violet and mauve and an unnatural pink or pale green; but towards the west the whole grew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red-hot plumes of it covered up the sun like something too good to be seen. The whole was so close about the earth, as to express nothing but a violent secrecy. The very empyrean seemed to be a secret.
In a garden hung with Chinese lanterns, a louche poet, Lucian Gregory, espouses fashionable anarchism (“The poet is always in revolt”) until he finds himself challenged by our hero, the rival poet Gabriel Syme, who claims by contrast—and readers familiar with Orthodoxy will recognize the thesis—that only order is truly poetical:
“I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”
From this germinal conflict between anarchism and what Chesterton calls “the romance of orthodoxy” the rest of the narrative sprouts in all its oddity. First, Gregory invites Syme to a cafe where they drop through a hole in the floor to an underground armory. In this underworld, Syme is inducted into a Council of Anarchists named for the days of the week. Eponymously, he becomes the man who was Thursday, under the directive of the massive and mysterious Sunday. Yet Syme, it transpires, is an undercover philosophical detective recruited to the police force because of his own fear and hatred of anarchism. The officer who recruited him voices Chesterton’s own populist rejection of elite radicalism in words that will still command attention in our own political context:
“We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. 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 ideal 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 fulness 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.”
Much of the novel’s dialogue reads like this—like, that is, Chesterton’s nonfiction: a seductive sequence of sentences that pointedly if predictably reverse doxa. Chesterton shared this style with his older contemporaries Wilde and Shaw. But Wilde and Shaw, who belonged to an earlier generation, used paradox to overturn conservatism and middle-class morality; by the time their subversions had become routine, at least among cultural elites, Chesterton reversed their reversals and subverted their subversions, paradoxically using paradox to restore the very doxa Wilde and Shaw had supplanted. (This whole episode in literary history has much to teach us as we live through yet another swing of this pendulum, especially considering the shift from Wildean and Shavian socialism to Chestertonian Catholicism; when Syme ironically drawls to Gregory, “we are all Catholics now,” we denizens of 2022 might almost be reading another report from Dimes Square.)
If the dialogue is predictably Chestertonian, the descriptions are less so. These disorienting urban landscapes, the correlate of Syme’s confusion as he spins deeper and deeper into the apparent anarchist conspiracy, earn the novel its Kafka comparisons and its “nightmare” subtitle, and lift it as well above the popular detective fiction with which we might be tempted to compare it at first:
Over the whole landscape lay a luminous and unnatural discoloration, as of that disastrous twilight which Milton spoke of as shed by the sun in eclipse; so that Syme fell easily into his first thought, that he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star. But the more he felt this glittering desolation in the moonlit land, the more his own chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire. Even the common things he carried with him—the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol—took on exactly that concrete and material poetry which a child feels when he takes a gun upon a journey or a bun with him to bed. The sword-stick and the brandy-flask, though in themselves only the tools of morbid conspirators, became the expressions of his own more healthy romance. The sword-stick became almost the sword of chivalry, and the brandy the wine of the stirrup-cup. For even the most dehumanised modern fantasies depend on some older and simpler figure; the adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane. The dragon without St. George would not even be grotesque. So this inhuman landscape was only imaginative by the presence of a man really human. To Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon. But even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.
Yet that last sentence—not to mention the Spenserian, Miltonic, and Dickensian allusions elsewhere in the passage—hints at an agenda more final and more consoling than what the terminally ambiguous and pessimistic Kafka has to offer. The Man Who Was Thursday is like The Trial if it ended with a verdict of “not guilty.”
For it so happens—and this is no spoiler since it’s telegraphed almost from the novel’s first quarter forward—that all the men on the Council of Anarchists from Monday through Saturday are undercover police agents, a secret disclosed in a series of tense, dream-like confrontations among these detectives: a foot chase through the nighttime London snow, a double conservation in which two men tap out a secret dialogue in cypher beneath their spoken words, a brutal duel in the French countryside in which no blood is spilled. The novel concludes when our detectives, having put aside their confusion, conspire to take down Sunday in an especially whimsical chase sequence through and out of London that involves a zoo, an elephant, and a hot-air balloon. And then this odd thriller departs from its initial genre entirely and becomes a pageant-allegory inspired not by Conan Doyle or Kipling but by Dante and Spenser. The menacing Sunday turns out to be menacing only when you see him from the back; seen from the front, he is beatitude itself—like life, if only we recognized it as God’s holy handiwork.
In the garden of Sunday’s estate, our detectives dress as their namesake days at the origin of creation and learn to abide as an earthly paradise the mystery of life. Then the anarchist poet Gregory intrudes on this garden party, as he had presided over the initial one. He accuses Sunday in proto-Foucaudian fashion of creating not a mysterious and organic order but an intolerable and mechanistic power. The secret to the novel’s allegory—its anarchists-as-policemen and policemen-as-anarchists—stands revealed when Syme again rises to refute Gregory:
“I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is. 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.’”
In other words, pain and power test the human capacity to recognize through their guises the beauty, the wonder, the sheer unlikelihood of the ordered creation. Without conflict, we would repose in complacency, mere sybarites and sensualists; but through conflict, we rise to religious awareness, to spiritual gnosis, and therefore earn a pleasure on earth we build with our own minds and hands. But if we negate without synthesis, destroy without building, dismiss order as imposition and suffering as a meaningless burden, then we will become mere nihilists, worse even than the evildoer who in doing evil at least implicitly recognizes and ratifies the good. (As an aside, readers of Hegel will find it obvious why Marxists like Eagleton and Žižek prefer this style of Christian conservatism to Nietzsche and his postmodern progeny’s un-dialectical anarchism.) Accordingly, the novel ends when Syme, fresh from his vision, meets Gregory’s sister Rosamond for the second time; he had met her before at the party in the novel’s first chapter. And in this rose of the world, the allegorically-minded reader will see an embodied promise of earthly bliss.
If The Man Who Was Thursday has too palpable a (Christian) design on the reader to do more than gently anticipate its own more obscure legatees in Kafka and Borges, its imagery is so persistently strange, so genuinely drawn from an unfathomable well of dreams, that it undermines the allegory and returns us to the mystery Chesterton set out to honor by dispelling. Here the novel resembles its poetic precursors in Dante and Spenser, in both of whose allegorical epics the concrete phantasmagoria often overwhelms its own implied exegesis until, like suddenly awakened sleepers, we are left not with dogma but with scraps of strange sensation, a vague and emotive memory of having visited another and weirder world that was somehow also this everyday and waking world seen in its truest significance. With such dreamy ambiguities, antithetical to decisive action as to unquestioning certitude, I am sure fascism has little in common.
This is brilliant! I just recently finished the Aquinas biography and even there Chesterton cannot resist the paradoxical. You are spot on.
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