"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Current Read: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton (Blog Part 1)

This is a current read and I’m about three quarters of the way in at this point.  What a remarkable little novel.  I can only describe it as a mix of a thriller and an intellectual comedy.  The work was published in 1908 and deals with the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century that were trying to overthrow European countries through terror.  Actually in 1917 they were successful with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  But the motive of these “terrorists” of their day—terrorists because their signature act was a bomb—was to undermine the authority of the state.  They were usually associated with a left wing agenda.  Perhaps the best novel ever written on this cultural phenomena that I am aware of was the year before in 1907 by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent.  That novel is certainly more tragic; Chesterton’s is more satiric.
Gabriel Symes is an undercover policeman who is drawn into a secret anarchist society when he befriends a member named Lucian Gregory.  Both are poets, Gregory a poet of anarchy, Symes a poet of law and order and respectability.  They start with a debate on who is the true poet.

Gregory resumed in high oratorical good-humour. 

"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 everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common 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."

"So it is," said Mr. Syme.

"Nonsense! " said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox. "Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for, that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!"

"It is you who are unpoetical," replied the poet Syme. "If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!"

"Must you go?" inquired Gregory sarcastically.

"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 hair-breadth 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."

Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

"And even then," he said, "we poets always ask the question, 'And what is Victoria now that you have got there ?' You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt."

"There again," said Syme irritably, "what is there poetical about being in revolt ? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I'm hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is -- revolting. It's mere vomiting." 
-From chapter one.

You can see why I say this is an intellectual satire.  They continue on in this fashion until Gregory not knowing that Symes is a policeman invites him to an anarchist rally.  The purpose of the rally is to hold an election for one of the seven governing seats of the society (the Central Anarchist Council), each seat named after a day of the week and this seat up for election is the seat, “Thursday.”  Gregory is running for the seat and gives a rather uninspired speech as a platform offering.  Still he is expected to be confirmed but when it is asked if anyone objects to Gregory being elected, Gregory Symes speaks  up. 

"Yes, Mr. Chairman, I oppose."

The most effective fact in oratory is an unexpected change in the voice. Mr. Gabriel Syme evidently understood oratory. Having said these first formal words in a moderated tone and with a brief simplicity, he made his next word ring and volley in the vault as if one of the guns had gone off.

"Comrades!" he cried, in a voice that made every man jump out of his boots, "have we come here for this? Do we live underground like rats in order to listen to talk like this? This is talk we might listen to while eating buns at a Sunday School treat. Do we line these walls with weapons and bar that door with death lest anyone should come and hear Comrade Gregory saying to us, 'Be good, and you will be happy,' 'Honesty is the best policy,' and 'Virtue is its own reward'? There was not a word in Comrade Gregory's address to which a curate could not have listened with pleasure (hear, hear). But I am not a curate (loud cheers), and I did not listen to it with pleasure (renewed cheers). The man who is fitted to make a good curate is not fitted to make a resolute, forcible, and efficient Thursday (hear, hear)."

"Comrade Gregory has told us, in only too apologetic a tone, that we are not the enemies of society. But I say that we are the enemies of society, and so much the worse for society. We are the enemies of society, for society is the enemy of humanity, its oldest and its most pitiless enemy (hear, hear). Comrade Gregory has told us (apologetically again) that we are not murderers. There I agree. We are not murderers, we are executioners (cheers)."

Ever since Syme had risen Gregory had sat staring at him, his face idiotic with astonishment. Now in the pause his lips of clay parted, and he said, with an automatic and lifeless distinctness --

"You damnable hypocrite!"

Syme looked straight into those frightful eyes with his own pale blue ones, and said with dignity --

"Comrade Gregory accuses me of hypocrisy. He knows as well as I do that I am keeping all my engagements and doing nothing but my duty. I do not mince words. I do not pretend to. I say that Comrade Gregory is unfit to be Thursday for all his amiable qualities. He is unfit to be Thursday because of his amiable qualities. We do not want the Supreme Council of Anarchy infected with a maudlin mercy (hear, hear). This is no time for ceremonial politeness, neither is it a time for ceremonial modesty. I set myself against Comrade Gregory as I would set myself against all the Governments of Europe, because the anarchist who has given himself to anarchy has forgotten modesty as much as he has forgotten pride (cheers). I am not a man at all. I am a cause (renewed cheers). I set myself against Comrade Gregory as impersonally and as calmly as I should choose one pistol rather than another out of that rack upon the wall; and I say that rather than have Gregory and his milk-and-water methods on the Supreme Council, I would offer myself for election -- "

His sentence was drowned in a deafening cataract of applause. The faces, that had grown fiercer and fiercer with approval as his tirade grew more and more uncompromising, were now distorted with grins of anticipation or cloven with delighted cries. At the moment when he announced himself as ready to stand for the post of Thursday, a roar of excitement and assent broke forth, and became uncontrollable, and at the same moment Gregory sprang to his feet, with foam upon his mouth, and shouted against the shouting.

"Stop, you blasted madmen!" he cried, at the top of a voice that tore his throat. "Stop, you -- "
-From chapter three.

That is just good and funny.  As it turns out the undercover policeman Symes is elected to the society as one of Council members, the man who was Thursday. 
So Symes sees first hand undercover the workings of this seven member council and their plans to blow up the president of the French Republic.  I won’t say the dynamics of the satire are along the lines of Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies, but they are not far off.  I wonder if the writers of the Pink Panther movies had this novel in mind.  Symes is not a bungler like Clouseau, but each of the characters has those kinds of moments.  At times you will laugh and at times smile.
As you can see, the characters are not quite two dimensional but not truly three dimensional either.  But good satire rests on characters being a little flat.  I have to say that for a subject that can easily sink into cliché, Chesterton is incredibly imaginative, especially with his plotting.  Events move rapidly with a good humor beat.  There is wit at every turn and below the satire there is real penetration into societal issues.

I’m going to leave it here.  There will be more in the near future.

Excerpts are indebted to Literature Network, where you can also read the novel as an e-text.


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