A long time ago, it seems, and certainly thousands of miles away, I promised to review Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Life got in the way, but I have had time to read the annotated version this week. Surprisingly, life’s complex and not always pleasant experiences, as well as my own growth in Theravadan Buddhism, have helped me to better understand Thursday.
So let’s have a go at it.
The plot is . . .
This is the point where one should warn about spoilers, but that really isn’t a factor in The Man Who Was Thursday. It has no obvious plot. Rather than imposing one, Chesterton writes well enough and in such an archetypical way that the reader wants to frame the story according to his or her own liking.
Of course there are characters, action, and plenty of dialogue. The Man Who Was Thursday is the story of a small group of idealistic but reasonable young men who are uncompromisingly trying to find their role in life.
It came out just before Chesterton’s excellent Orthodoxy, so, not surprisingly, GKC’s framing of Thursday in Christian terms. It is set in the late 19th century, and so imperial Britain is also woven into the frame, along with Chesterton’s love of the simple English ways.
The struggles of Syme and the other young men are the struggles everybody goes through while coming of age in modern society – that clash between being at one’s physical and mental peak as an animal while being required to accept and fit into the social artifact called “civilization” – a human creation based on the Industrial Revolution. Technology has allowed civilization to wall off Nature, much to the consternation of young men who would be the natural chiefs and warlords in a wilderness world.
Syme and his fellows must exercise and yet also control themselves. They are still not ready to settle down into what GKC describes as “common things at last and marriage and a creed.”
We’ve all been there, even those of us who aren’t philosophers. Most of us get through it somehow and then forget everything as soon as possible, for it is an extremely unpleasant experience to lose childhood innocence and take on adult responsibilities.
Chesterton, in Thursday, holds up the mirror to this part of our lives, as well as he should, for it made us who and what we are today.
GKC wants to remind us that we have forgotten our own names as well as the two great questions that once consumed us: “why are good and evil just different sides of the same coin,” and “what is the meaning of my life.”
Those questions cannot be answered in words, and so, strictly speaking, there is no plot to The Man Who Was Thursday.
G. K. Chesterton loved paradoxes, however, and so he wrote this plotless book as, literally, a nesting set of plots (among detectives, or anarchists, or authorities, or individuals). Each one turns into another plot – the bottom falls out of the plotter’s world over and over again.
Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men’s faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), 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. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
And since these plots involved anarchists, policemen, and dynamite, Chesterton also had to deal with…
This book is also relevant for its approach toward anarchy as a philosophy. Chesterton wrote it at a time when people were throwing dynamite and killing heads of state; today, The Man Who Was Thursday still resonates.
Only the faces and philosophy have changed. The question is still what to do about terrorism. If you fight it, you create more terrorists and become more terrifying yourself.
I’ll never forget the shock I felt when reading somewhere, probably on one of the online parody sites, a little aside that said, paraphrased, holy s**t people, we are sending out flying machines that rain down death and destruction in other countries. I never thought about it like that before, and now I can only think about it that way.
Sometimes you can only see reality through somebody else’s mirror.
I also remember thinking, right after 9/11 (this is not a digression), that the US was going to own the Middle East before a week was over. A hush seemed to fall over the world, too. Would we nuke ’em?
Well, there was no solid “them” to nuke and we lacked the will, or else feared the backlash of international criticism, to lash out at some country (those who harbored bin-Laden seemed a likely target) and make an example out of them.
I’m very glad we didn’t do that, of course. It’s bad enough that we have Hiroshima and Nagasaki on our national conscience and always will. But because we lacked – and bin-Laden and the others thoroughly understood that we lacked – the inner fortitude to take a definite step, even if it might be the wrong one, we ended up with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We fought, we died, we pulled out, and the bad guys, who had learned well the basic lesson of the Vietnam War and had outwaited us, just stepped back in again.
It’s difficult to say what else could have been done, but the result clearly wasn’t worth the expense in lives and money.
The United States and our allies are immobilized when confronted by the type of bad guy who, as Chesterton makes him speak in The Man Who Was Thursday, says:
“My red hair, like red flames, shall burn up the world,” said Gregory. “I thought I hated everything more than common men can hate anything; but I find that I do not hate everything so much as I hate you!”
“I never hated you,” said Syme very sadly.
Then out of this unintelligible creature the last thunders broke.
“You!” he cried. “You never hated because you never lived. I know what you are all of you, from first to last – you are the people in power! You are the police – the great fat, smiling men in blue and buttons! You are the Law, and you have never been broken. But is there a free soul alive that does not long to break you, only because you have never been broken? We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe!…
How do you fight hatred like that? It’s a nasty question, in real life as in books.
In this book (which is easier to deal with than real life), the answer depends on what you have brought to the story as you read it. Chesterton does provide a proper closing to his story…and people are still trying to figure it out.
Basically, Syme stops looking at Gregory, his tormentor, and…something…happens.
I think Chesterton discovered, but was wise enough not put into words, the ancient maxim expressed in verse 5 of Buddhism’s Dhammapada:
Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law.
You cannot fight unreasoning hatred with reason (or, as the US currently is trying to do it, with politics, bribes, and bombs). You can only fight it by going beyond reason – and beyond unreason, too.
That’s worth thinking about even though it is the most difficult thing in the world to do.
Across green fields, and breaking through blooming hedges, toiled six draggled detectives, about five miles out of London. The optimist of the party had at first proposed that they should follow the balloon across South England in hansom-cabs. But he was ultimately convinced of the persistent refusal of the balloon to follow the roads, and the still more persistent refusal of the cabmen to follow the balloon. Consequently the tireless though exasperated travellers broke through black thickets and ploughed through ploughed fields till each was turned into a figure too outrageous to be mistaken for a tramp. Those green hills of Surrey saw the final collapse and tragedy of the admirable light grey suit in which Syme had set out from Saffron Park. His silk hat was broken over his nose by a swinging bough, his coat-tails were torn to the shoulder by arresting thorns, the clay of England was splashed up to his collar; but he still carried his yellow beard forward with a silent and furious determination….
Holding onto that determination to reach the goal, through wrack and ruination, is very demanding. You go through beliefs the way GKC put his characters through plots, until you finally touch bottom. Only then do you really start to make progress.
People can do this individually, albeit with great difficulty. Nations can’t do it at all.
Politicians prefer easy, popular acts. They can’t end hatred and the terrorism it spawns. Soldiers insist upon efficiency and power, not taking six steps backwards for every one forward or accepting the ultimate truth that power does not confer freedom. There are no military solutions to hatred in this “war” on terror.
A century ago, as headlines carried tales of repeated dynamite outrages, Chesterton went beyond reason into the realm of unreason (though he would not have described it this way) and came up with The Man Who Was Thursday.
We can’t each of us do the same thing he did. However, it isn’t too hard to read the tale he wrote – The Man Who Was Thursday, a book that’s as relevant in terrifying 2014 as it was in anarchical 1908.
Order and Anarchy
Chesterton set his story in the late 19th century, when an ordered society underlain by faith – generally, either the Church of England or Catholicism – was considered the best society. Many of its basic assumptions seem foreign to us today until it is understood that we are exactly 180 degrees away.
Today’s ordered society is underlain by irreligion – God having been publicly announced dead in the 1960s or thereabouts. It is interesting that the topsy-turvy world of young adults struggling to find their role in society in The Man Who Was Thursday seems very like the one of today…if you take away the distracting electronic toys.
Of course, if you actually took away those toys, you’d have a revolution. But then, after the revolution was over, things would settle down again in much the same pattern of order based on some sort of faith because human beings are the same deep down where it matters, no matter when or where they live.
Let’s set aside the notoriously bad examples in recent history and just consider Gilbert Chesterton’s home nation. Throughout its history, people have instinctively respected authority if they understood it was based on a set of principles, whether CoE, Catholicism, the Aquarian Age, or whatever. They did this because those principles conferred some benefit and security to the majority of society’s participants.
Whatever system is chosen won’t be fair to everyone, of course, because it is human. This is why there will always be rebellion and iconoclasty. (There will also be attempts by the haves to dehumanize the have-nots and expel them from society, but Chesterton did not explicitly get into that in Thursday, so I won’t here.)
Just as an aside, it’s amazing how orderly and conventional the rebellion of the Sixties looks when it’s compared to the turn-of-the-20th-century Age of Dynamiters…probably because chaos and war are riding companions, and nuclear war is much more terrifying than the actual world wars that followed, chronologically if not always logically, the dynamite enthusiasts. There is no modern-day Western thinker saying “I am nuclear fire and radioactive fallout.”
Anyway, G. K. Chesterton cut through superficiality to get to the nitty-gritty struggle between order and anarchy, between idealism and acceptance of the world as it is, between childhood and adulthood.
This, most of all, is why The Man Who Was Thursday will always be mind-blowing and relevant.
Categories: Thursday Lit