Saturday, 4 April 2009

G K Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)


Chesterton's slice of spiced mundanity, a book dedicated to elaborating the peculiar thesis that God is—what we would nowadays call—a Bond villain. Of course, Bond's villains are always more interesting than Bond himself, not least because they work on a bigger scale than the individual. And perhaps people don't pay enough attention to the theological aspect of these films: JB falling just-ever-so-little short of JC.

11 comments:

Rich Puchalsky said...

That's all? This is one book that seems to require more. Aside from Chesterton's special pleading at the end (God hurts even good people so that ... they won't be like the fat, complacent policeman that everyone hates), it's a startlingly honestly religious book.

Oh, spoilers, I suppose. The scene near the end where the six head anarchists / policemen each confront Sunday by telling him how they've been hurt always seemed to me to be authentically Old Testament, in some form; they are the just men, He is the seemingly unjust but quite authoritative God. Or the strange sympathy for the devil shown to Gregory, the only real anarchist leader in the book, who achieves a strange authenticity by the device of pretending to be who he is; while the others are policemen pretending to be anarchists, he is an anarchist pretending to be harmless because he is an obvious anarchist.

But perhaps God-as-Bond-villain is an aspect of negative theology. We can't describe God by either of the human categories "hero" or "villain", but in the way he acts, he's often perceived -- well, he tells people his plans in advance, right? He's always lurking there, his minions carrying out what they think he wants them to do. He has a great confidence in his own rightness. He can never really develop, as a personality. If forced to fit for purposes of story into this binary, Jesus gets the hero role, but not many people have forthrightly cast God in the villain role -- unless, again, you're willing to read a lot of the OT not underlain by later, Christian additions.

Adam Roberts said...

I was going to link to this Michael Wood piece on Chesterton, from the most recent LRB, but the link is to subscriber-only content (boo! hiss!) so there didn't seem much point.

'Honestly religious?' Do you really think so? Wood makes the point that Chesterton repeats in a dozen places that the only really extraordinary things in the cosmos are the ordinary things; but that's pretty cheap zen. Chesterton is addicted to the extraordinary; and part of me reacts against Man Who Was Thursday precisely because the move at the end from all the bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland goings-on to the unveiled allegory in terms of a sort of mundane-ization of the whole. That sells the religious compontnt short, I felt.

Rich Puchalsky said...

But the move at the end ... well, this will take a bit of explanation. Chesterton's preferred reading of the book is that it depicts a nightmare; that is, if I remember rightly, its subtitle, and an authorial after-page in my edition alludes to that explanation in stuffy Chestertonian fashion. Of course no one need care about authorally approved readings. But the book does work very well as a nightmare: the scene-to-scene transitions have a dream quickness, the scenes themselves, like the anarchists meeting in an underground arsenal full of bombs that is itself shaped like a bomb, have a dream imagery.

Therefore the scene at the end is like Chesterton waking up. He looks back over his book / nightmare and thinks "Uh oh, I really do seem to think of God as a villain." He's confected a sequence of extraordinary events -- which, as you say, he's clearly addicted to -- and now he has to patch up an end to the whole thing that's acceptable, like someone who has an adventurous nightmare that ends with them falling who wakes up and says "Well, it must end with me landing safely."

So I suppose that I think it's honest because the very last bit is so dishonest. It's Chesterton's strongest book, in part, because it's so disreputable; as an allegorist, he's an adolescent pretending to be a grownup by using the themes of obvious adolescence.

Rich Puchalsky said...

One more addition. The explanation, or whatever it is, in the book comes very close to the end. Near the end, Sunday has revealed himself as God -- well, he says "I am the peace of God," a pun of sorts. And his chosen warriors / policemen promptly rebel, or at least question him. The six go through their objections, starting with the most advanced in rhetoric:

"If you were the man in the dark room, why were you also Sunday, an offense to the sunlight? If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? We wept, we fled in terror; the iron entered into our souls—and you are the peace of God! Oh, I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace."

to the least:

"And then Gogol said, with the absolute simplicity of a child—

'I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.'"

And that seems to me to be an admirable reduction of the problem of evil to its real terms, the terms of a child. Chesterton makes up his unsatisfying answer because he has no answer that he wants to recognize.

Adam Roberts said...

"And that seems to me to be an admirable reduction of the problem of evil to its real terms, the terms of a child. Chesterton makes up his unsatisfying answer because he has no answer that he wants to recognize."

The first sentence, there, is I think spot on; but the second perhaps lets Chesterton off the hook a little too easily. It seems to me that 'there is pain and evil in the world, because the world is run by a lunatic Bond villain, except that in the end he's neither lunatic nor villainous it's just that we aren't well placed to see what he's up to' is emotionally and intellectually (if not quite theologically) honest. I know you're not a big film buff, but the spider vision in Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly would make a better ending here.

Rich Puchalsky said...

But it seems to me that Chesterton has to provide something like that answer. Sunday is God is the father, after all; it's alluded to specifically in the "If you were from the first our father and our friend" speech, and indirectly through the book with respect to Sunday's impression of sheer size, like the bulk of an adult as seen by a small child. "Except that in the end he's neither lunatic nor villainous it's just that we aren't well placed to see what he's up to" is, for better or worse, the answer that most children have to settle on, at least temporarily. What I mean by honesty isn't a well-worked-out attempt to provide a searching intellectual examination, it's an honest replication of a common human reaction.

Adam Roberts said...

You're right, of course, that Chesteron could hardly have ended the book any other way.

Cormorant said...

I hope you don’t mind my responding to an old post—I’m a big fan of your novels and was delighted to find that you have such an interesting blog, even if you do seem to consider my favourite book to be more or less a failure.

I really think that too much attention paid to the allegory leads to a misjudgment of The Man Who Was Thursday. Just as he uses anarchists as a symbol without really having anything to say about anarchism as a political movement, Chesterton is using the discussion of the problem of evil as a tool to support his larger point.

The point of the book, I think, is to bring the reader to the same emotional state that Syme is in when he wakes up feeling so perfectly contented with the universe. We go through all these moments of escalating tension followed by mingled relief and disappointment (that things aren’t as desperate and exciting as they seem), we feel the joy in the final light-hearted chase scene, and in the final argument/masque scene we’re meant to be able to simultaneously feel the exhilaration and bravery of being alone in the universe and the relief and joy of feeling that everything is safe and everyone is on the same side. For Chesterton, the kind of emotion he evokes here is a very religious feeling, so he puts it in a religious context.

I think this idea is supported by all the references to the Book of Job in the final chapter. Job (at least according to Chesterton, who wrote a very convincing essay about it) can’t be consoled by his friends’ sophistry about how God must have a reason for making him suffer so much. The only thing that comforts Job is the direct experience of God—a kind of overpowering emotional experience that makes everything clear to him, but not in a way that can be conveyed through logical prepositions. Similarly, The Man Who Was Thursday’s explanation of the problem of evil doesn’t really make much sense, but the point is to experience Syme’s wild emotional journey and thereby come to a kind of joyful religious feeling.

I could go into a lot more detail about this, but I don’t want to be annoyingly longwinded, so I’ll just say that I think The Man Who Was Thursday is a much trickier and subtle book than is apparent when it’s read as a straight allegory. Although I do kind of like the image of God as a Bond villain.

Adam Roberts said...

Hi Cormorant: thanks for your comment (of course I don't mind!) Didn't mean to give the impression that Man Who Was Thursday was a failure; it's a strange little book, but that's a bonus not a demerit as far as I'm concerned.

What you say about the book as a sort of machine designed to manufacture a particular and unusual emotional intensity is very interesting indeed.

Nari said...

I actually understood the ending to be a kind of prank on the reader. After all the madness from which it follows, the reader is relieved that someone else (Sunday) is about to offer some transcendental explanation to put right the whole mess. If you read the afterword on the Penguin Red edition by Chesterton, this relief is exactly the point of the novel, as he reminds us it is a nightmare. The point is not so complex I think as God is responsible for both good and evil, but rather a simple warning against accepting seemingly transcendentally nonsense answers in the vain hope that your understanding of the facts is wrong and that the universe does work simply in your favor. This is represented in more subtle terms in the ridiculous council of anarchists and the anti anarchist police force, an imaginary farce that everyone buys because it so obviously explains everything.

Nari said...

I actually understood the ending to be a kind of prank on the reader. After all the madness from which it follows, the reader is relieved that someone else (Sunday) is about to offer some transcendental explanation to put right the whole mess. If you read the afterword on the Penguin Red edition by Chesterton, this relief is exactly the point of the novel, as he reminds us it is a nightmare. The point is not so complex I think as God is responsible for both good and evil, but rather a simple warning against accepting seemingly transcendentally nonsense answers in the vain hope that your understanding of the facts is wrong and that the universe does work simply in your favor. This is represented in more subtle terms in the ridiculous council of anarchists and the anti anarchist police force, an imaginary farce that everyone buys because it so obviously explains everything.