Sunday, December 24, 2017

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Introduction

Opening Passage:

The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical. It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable. The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit in to them. Nor when he met the people was he disappointed in this respect. The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream....

Summary: Gabriel Syme, a poet is recruited to be a philosophical detective, destroying the roots of anarchy, by a mysterious many in a dark room. In the pursuit of his duties, he gets himself elected as Thursday to the Supreme Anarchist Council, in which each member is given the name of a day of the week. He and his fellow philosophical detectives must work together to foil the leader of the Council, Sunday. But nothing is what it seems.

The Man Who Was Thursday is not intended to convey the way the world is, but how it can seem to be to a pessimist, one who thinks there might be no meaning, no purpose, no deeper significance to the world, one who thinks that, in fact, the world is in the hands of anarchy. But going through life and being human is itself enough occasionally to get glimpses of something more -- whether it is as a philosopher, dividing light from darkness, or a poet, making the sun and moon and stars signs for the times and seasons, or as a scientist, making man to rule to the world, or in any other fundamental way by which human beings interact with the world. However pessimistic we may be, the world itself sometimes seems to disclose a deeper meaning, as if we had only ever been seeing the back of things. It is, perhaps, meaning in a nightmare, when everything seem for a moment to turn topsy-turvy, but it seems to be meaning, nonetheless.

One of the great beauties of the work, of course, is the Council of Days, whether as leader of the anarchists, or as detectives in pursuit of Sunday, or in the final masquerade of the world when they meet as the Seven Days of Creation. In a sense it almost works too well -- it makes the work seem more charged with significance than Chesterton had intended it to be. It is striking every time I read it -- particularly the scene in which Syme sees Monday dressed as the fundamental philosophical function, the First Day of Creation, the dividing of light from the darkness.

Favorite Passage:

As Syme strode along the corridor he saw the Secretary standing at the top of a great flight of stairs. The man had never looked so noble. He was draped in a long robe of starless black, down the centre of which fell a band or broad stripe of pure white, like a single shaft of light. The whole looked like some very severe ecclesiastical vestment. There was no need for Syme to search his memory or the Bible in order to remember that the first day of creation marked the mere creation of light out of darkness. The vestment itself would alone have suggested the symbol; and Syme felt also how perfectly this pattern of pure white and black expressed the soul of the pale and austere Secretary, with his inhuman veracity and his cold frenzy, which made him so easily make war on the anarchists, and yet so easily pass for one of them. Syme was scarcely surprised to notice that, amid all the ease and hospitality of their new surroundings, this man’s eyes were still stern. No smell of ale or orchards could make the Secretary cease to ask a reasonable question.

If Syme had been able to see himself, he would have realised that he, too, seemed to be for the first time himself and no one else. For if the Secretary stood for that philosopher who loves the original and formless light, Syme was a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star. The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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