16. The Man Who Was Thursday: G. K. Chesterton

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16. The Man Who Was Thursday: G. K. Chesterton

Post  Patguy on Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:51 am

“Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again. Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was now wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent, and unaccountable against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.”

The subtitle is: A Nightmare. This is Chesterton’s strange Catholic allegory masquerading as a spy thriller. Through a shaggy-dog series of semi-comic, semi-horrific events, our hero investigates a sinister plot that, in an entertaining reversal, becomes ever more benign the more he learns about it. Ultimately, in true Chestertonian fashion, all the disguises and role-playing are undone, and what we thought were shadows are actually light. Written in 1908, and set among the fictive conspiracies of European anarchists, this book, for all its quality, simply reeks of pre-Great War smugness. There is a strain of complacent Catholic intellectualism that I associate with the late 19th/early 20th century, which seeks to reconcile the messiness of the world and lived experience into a rigid theological model. No wonder Chesterton used the spy thriller as his allegorical framework—the genre conventions are much more able to support this sort of theological weight than a realist novel could.

For my part, although I enjoyed this book, I much prefer my Catholicism presented with a clearer eye toward real suffering experienced by real people in the real world—say, The Comedians or The End of the Affair. Graham Greene might indulge in a little too much self-romanticizing, but I’ll take that over Chesterton’s amused airy condescension.

Take this sentence, for example: “He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.”

That “adorable” tells you just about everything you need to know.

“’Who would condescend to strike down the mere things he does not fear? Who would debase himself to be merely brave, like any common prize-fighter? Who would stood to be fearless—like a tree? Fight the thing that you fear. You remember the old tale of the English clergyman who gave the last rites to the brigand of Sicily, and how on his death-bed the great robber said, “I can give you no money, but I can give you advice for a lifetime: your thumb on the blade, and strike upwards.” So I say to you, strike upwards, if you strike at the stars.’”

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