The endlessly quotable G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was many things in his day: essayist, poet, radio broadcaster, art critic, and novelist.
His most popular novel (and my personal favorite) was his novella The Man Who Was Thursday. The book involves rival poets (who serve as archetypes) as they encounter a ring of anarchists who are named after the days of the week.
The book was written off as a “nightmare” by Chesterton (literally – he claimed the book was inspired by a bad dream) and was been dubbed a psychological thriller by its publisher. The book is better described as a powerful and highly-entertaining allegory, one that pits order and faith against relativism and anarchism.
Chesterton’s “nutty agenda,” author Jonathan Lethem writes in the book’s foreword, is rather simple: “to expose moral relativism and parlor nihilism for the devils he believes them to be.”
The book is a tightly-written yarn that is marvelous because—despite being dubbed a nightmare—it hums with optimism, joy, and Chesterton-style cheekiness. “He is so gay,” Franz Kafka later wrote, “one might almost believe he had found God.”
The fear underlying Chesterton’s nightmare is real, however, and can be summed up in two passages.
The first comes early in the novel when its hero, Syme, asks his anarchist counterpart what he is really after. “What is it you object to? You want to abolish government?”
Here is the response we get from the anarchist, Gregory:
‘To abolish God!’ said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. ‘We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.’ (italics mine)
The second passage comes near the end of the book, when Syme, who has been revealed to be a police detective posing as a poet, confronts the man he believes is the head of an anarchist mob besetting him:
‘Do you see this lantern?’ cried Syme in a terrible voice. ‘Do you see the cross carved on it, and the flame inside? You did not make it. You did not light it. Better men than you, men who could believe and obey, twisted the entrails of iron and preserved the legend of fire. There is not a street you walk on, there is not a thread you wear, that was not made as this lantern was, by denying your philosophy of dirt and rats. You can make nothing. You can only destroy. You will destroy mankind, you will destroy the world. Let that suffice you. Yet this one old Christian lantern you shall not destroy. It shall go where your empire of apes will never have the wit to find it.’
Chesterton completed Thursday in 1908, when anarchism in Europe was a very real and presumably very frightening phenomena. Yet what seemed to terrify him most was moral anarchism. This makes more sense, when one considers the age into which the Prince of Paradox was born.
Chesterton was about 8 years old when Nietzsche famously declared God dead. During his lifetime, Chesterton would bear witness to a steady erosion of the ideas that had bound Western culture for centuries.
Interestingly, Chesterton’s protagonist grew up in a similar situation.
In the novel, we’re told that Gabriel Syme grew up “surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy.” He had to revolt into something, he reasoned, “so he revolted into the only thing left—sanity.”
The Man Who Was Thursday essentially explores man’s long, lonely journey in a postmodern world.
C.S. Lewis called the book a “powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each of us encounters in his single-handed struggle with the universe.” And it is. But that’s not why it’s amazing.
The miracle is that Chesterton could write such a gay story dealing with such depressing subject matter. Perhaps Kafka was right after all.