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A READER'S JOURNAL

The Man Who Was Thursday
A Nightmare

by
Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Published by Dodd, Mead, and Co/NY in 1935
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007

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What is an anarchist? How do we recognize one? Chesterton devotes this novel to describing anarchists and how to identify them. It begins simply enough with two poets meeting in Saffron Park, one red-haired Lucian Gregory who is an anarchist and one Gabriel Syme who is a policeman.

Gregory equates an anarchist with an artist.

[page 8] "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.

This concept of an artist as someone who operates outside of the realm of the established order fits quite nicely with the concepts in my essay, Art is the Process of Destruction. What is destroyed in my opinion by the true artist is the sameness of the present state of art. Destroying sameness is like throwing a bomb into a room only in that whatever boredom may have existed in the room is gone with the blast. No one can become an artist simply by bombing because art involves liberating exciting possibilities by the destruction of sameness whereas a bomb simply destroys in an uncontrollable manner. The results of an artist is to lay down tracks for others' creativity whereas a bomb merely causes debris for others to clean up. Yes, one might rebuild in the place where some bomb has destroyed a building, but that rebuilding can only be considered as restorative unless some artist, an architect perhaps, designs the replacement building using a design which destroys or breaks out of the accepted patterns of building at the time. Frank Lloyd Wright was such an architect and artist and you can witness the results in his buildings.

Gregory offers Syme an interesting evening if he will swear not to reveal what he is about tell him to a single soul, especially not to the police. They enter a secluded dining room of a restaurant and suddenly the floor drops out from under their table.

[page 18] The next moment the smoke of his cigar, which had been wavering across the room in snaky twists, went straight up as if from a factory chimney, and the two, with their chairs and table, shot down through the floor as if the earth had swallowed them. They went rattling down a kind of roaring chimney as rapidly as a lift cut loose, and they came with an abrupt bump to the bottom.

The secret that Gregory has to tell Syme is that he is really an anarchist, but he masquerades at being one. Gregory's very way of proclaiming himself publicly, which no real anarchist would, keeps him from being suspected of being an anarchist. This is rather the inverse of Syme’s way of being a policeman. Gregory hides his being an anarchist by his professing to be one publicly. He gives Syme his long history of taking on various disguises to keep his vocation as anarchist secret. He took on the identity, at various times, of a bishop, a millionaire, a major, and a humanitarian and every time he was caught and revealed. So he sought help, and from the President of the Central Anarchist Council came this advice which Gregory has since followed: "Dress up like an anarchist, you fool! Nobody would expect you to do anything dangerous then."

So Gregory and Syme, two new fast friends, comprise an anarchist and a policeman, both pretending to be anarchist. Who was the man who gave Gregory this advice? The man who was Sunday. Seems there's an Order of the Days to be revealed and Gregory is on his way to becoming the Man who was Thursday. But a strange thing happens on his way to becoming the man who was Thursday. Syme reveals that he is a police detective:

[page 25] "Well," said Syme slowly, "I don't know how to tell you the truth more shortly than by saying that your expedient of dressing up as an aimless poet is not confined to you or your President. We have known the dodge for some time at Scotland Yard."

They are both held to secrecy about each other's identity in a mutual checkmate.

[page 26] "Don't you see we've checkmated each other?" cried Syme. "I can't tell the police you are an anarchist. You can't tell the anarchists I'm a policeman."

The two friends are in this underground meeting to elect Gregory as the next Thursday, and the motion is made so Gregory gives a bland pre-election speech as he seems assured of being elected unanimously. Sure, until Syme throws a bomb in their midst right before the call for votes, when the Chairman asks the group assembled:

[page 32, 33] "Does anyone oppose the election of Comrade Gregory? "
      The assembly seemed vague and sub-consciously disappointed, and Comrade Witherspoon moved restlessly on his seat and muttered in his thick beard. By the sheer rush of routine, however, the motion would have been put and carried. But as the chairman was opening his mouth to put it, Syme sprang to his feet and said in a small and quiet voice —
      "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 [what Gregory has just said]?"

By taking the initiative, Syme proceeds to be elected as Thursday in place of Gregory who is bound by his solemn oath not to reveal that Syme is a police detective. Right before he is spirited away in a tugboat, he thanks Gregory for an interesting evening. Only then does the narrator reveal that Gabriel Syme was actually a poet who became a detective. And the way he became a detective was to meet the Chief who interviewed him in a totally dark room who appointed him as a detective. But first he was recruited by a policeman who said he would make a good philosophical detective, not someone who found people who had committed a crime, but someone who found someone who was going to commit a crime. This theme was made into a science fiction movie in 2002 called Minority Report in which technology is used to predict a crime and the person who will commit it is arrested ahead of the crime. Likely the idea for the movie came from Chesterton and was simply updated into a technologically-based futuristic setting.

[page 42] "The work of the philosophical policeman," replied the man in blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr. Wilks (a smart young fellow) thoroughly understood a triolet."

As a smart older fellow who has never read a triolet before, I did a little research and found a quite famous triolet by Frances Cornford, "To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train" and a reply written by Chesterton on the lady's behalf. First Cornford's triolet followed by Chesterton's reply in not-quite-triolet form(1).

      To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train (by Frances Cornford )

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
      Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
      And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
      Missing so much and so much?

      The Fat White Woman Speaks (by G. K. Chesterton)

Why do you rush through the fields in trains,
      Guessing so much and so much.
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
      About people in gloves and such?

In this next passage, Chesterton is at his satiric and insightful best as he urges us to stop trying to stop crime by the ignorant and the desperate when the educated criminal with the philosophic bent is far more dangerous. Ponder Chesterton's point: "thieves respect property," "bigamists respect marriage," and "murderers respect life." Prepare to have Chesterton open up your mind as a deft oyster shucker would blithely release a succulent morsel from its fortress of stone:

[page 43] "Do you mean," asked Syme, "that there is really as much connection between crime and the modern intellect as all that?"
      You are not sufficiently democratic," answered the policeman, "but you were right when you said just now that our ordinary treatment of the poor criminal was a pretty brutal business. I tell you I am sometimes sick of my trade when I see how perpetually it means merely a war upon the ignorant and the desperate. But this new movement of ours is a very different affair. We deny the snobbish English assumption that the uneducated are the dangerous criminals. We remember the Roman Emperors. We remember the great poisoning princes of the Renaissance. We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fulness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people's."

One by one Syme and the others in the Anarchist society discover that they are each a policeman spying on the Anarchists. Soon the semblance of a grand plot is sniffed out — it seems that the man who was Sunday had put all his enemies into a Supreme Council which he completely controlled! What can it mean? It could mean Sunday was a day to be reckoned with.

[page 126, 127] "Mean!" said the new policeman with incredible violence. "It means that we are struck dead! Don't you know Sunday? Don't you know that his jokes are always so big and simple that one has never thought of them? Can you think of anything more like Sunday than this, that he should put all his powerful enemies on the Supreme Council, and then take care that it was not supreme? I tell you he has bought every trust, he has captured every cable, he has control of every railway line-especially of that railway line!" and he pointed a shaking finger towards the small wayside station. "The whole movement was controlled by him; half the world was ready to rise for him. But there were just five people, perhaps, who would have resisted him . . . and the old devil put them on the Supreme Council, to waste their time in watching each other. Idiots that we are, he planned the whole of our idiocies! Sunday knew that the Professor would chase Syme through London, and that Syme would fight me in France. And he was combining great masses of capital, and seizing great lines of telegraphy, while we five idiots were running after each other like a lot of confounded babies playing blind man's buff."

Chesterton's wit and insight sparkles throughout this book and a few examples should act as hors-d'oeuvres do to attract one to a great feast.

[page 141] "I have a suspicion that you are all mad," said Dr. Renard, smiling sociably; "but God forbid that madness should in any way interrupt friendship."

[page 145, 146] "I mean that we shall never get there," said the pessimist placidly. "They have two rows of armed men across the road already; I can see them from here. The town is in arms, as I said it was. I can only wallow in the exquisite comfort of my own exactitude."

[page 171] Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.

In this next passage Syme holds up his lantern as a metaphor for Christianity. He makes the Secretary stare at the light, then hits him with it, and then whirls around his head til he lets it go flying off as a rocket precedes an infantry charge. This is Syme's paean to civilization and battle cry against those who would destroy it.

[page 155] "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."

When the Secretary tries to arrest Syme in the name of the law, the nature of the Anarchist Council is revealed to all. Syme asks incredulously, "Of the law?"

[page 156] "Certainly!" said the Secretary. "I am a detective from Scotland Yard," and he took a small blue card from his pocket.
       "And what do you suppose we are'?" asked the Professor, and threw up his arms.
      "You," said the Secretary stiffly, "are, as I know for a fact, members of the Supreme Anarchist Council.
      Disguised as one of you, I — "
      Dr. Bull tossed his sword into the sea.
      "There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council," he said. "We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn't be wrong about the mob," he said, beaming over the enormous multitude, which stretched away to the distance on both sides. "Vulgar people are never mad. I'm vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here."

We only know the back of the world, Syme tells us, and it looks like an animal, but if we ever saw the front of the world, we would recognize it as a god, as something divine. He comes to this understanding by noticing how each of the men in his group projects something of himself onto the man who was Sunday. Let us follow his argument; it is truly one of the best of Chesterton's productions in this novel. Syme, the man who was Thursday, speaks to rest of the Order of the Days.

[page 174, 175] "Have you noticed an odd thing," he said, "about all your descriptions? Each man of you finds Sunday quite different, yet each man of you can only find one thing to compare him to — the universe itself. Bull finds him like the earth in spring, Gogol like the sun at noonday. The Secretary is reminded of the shapeless protoplasm, and the Inspector of the carelessness of virgin forests. The Professor says he is like a changing landscape. This is queer, but it is queerer still that I also have had my odd notion about the President, and I also find that I think of Sunday as I think of the whole world."

Syme then begins to notice his own projection on Sunday — he first saw his back and thought he looked like an ape with oxlike features. "I had at once the revolting fancy that this was not a man at all, but a beast dressed up in men's clothes." But then he saw his face and all this changed.

[page 175] "And then the queer thing happened. I had seen his back from the street, as he sat on the balcony. Then as I entered the hotel, and coming round the other side of him, saw his face in the sunlight. His face frightened me, as it did everyone; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good."
      "Syme," exclaimed the Secretary, "are you ill?"
      "It was like the face of some ancient archangel, judging justly after heroic wars. There was laughter in the eyes, and in the mouth honour and sorrow. There was the same white hair, the same great, grey-clad shoulders that I had seen from behind. But when I saw him from behind I was certain he was an animal, and when I saw him in front I knew he was a god."

We have only known the back of the world because we are chained to Plato's Cave with our backs to the opening. We can only see the shadows of the beings which move across the opening of the cave. In modern terms, we can only see the surface of the world with our vision — while what is essential, the Fox's Secret tells us, is invisible to the eye. Syme has discovered for himself this secret that Plato, Saint-Exupéry, and others have written about before:

[page 176, 177] "Listen to me," cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. "Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front — "

This book contains Chesterton's vision of the world as a place of good and evil of law and freedom. Gregory shows up at the end to put the matter straight to Syme:

[Page 190] "We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe! You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them. You are the seven angels of heaven, and you have had no troubles."

Gregory's words set fire to Syme who jumps to his feet with another revelation to share. He sees a way to rebut Gregory's claim that he has no troubles. Syme grasps that when we suffer we can throw the lie back into Satan's face. It is in suffering that human beings achieve freedom even while obeying the strictures of law.

[page 190, 191] Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot. "I see everything," he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.'
      "It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell. We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered insolently to accuse us of happiness. I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused. At least — "

Syme is stopped by the great face of Sunday which was smiling. "Have you," he cried in a dreadful voice, "have you ever suffered?" The face grew larger and larger filling the sky and everything went black.

[page 191] Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?"

We awaken from this vision conjured up by Chesterton and we notice that we are holding a book in our hands about a man called Thursday. We look out the window and Spring is breaking in with its bright greens and warm colors. It is time for us to take a walk "along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion" like Syme did with Gregory to talk about some triviality. Chesterton tells us about Syme, "He felt he was in the possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality." We feel like Syme did, like Paul did, like every one who receives the grand good news. The snapdragons are blooming in yellow and in white with a border of pink on each petal. And somewhere in Syme's world, "the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair" is "cutting some lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl."



---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. The discovery of a new poetic form led me to shape an idea I had for a poem into a triolet. It may be an office romance or an off-chance meeting anywhere.

       Destiny at Work

When a lucky gal meets a lucky guy,
      there must be destiny at work —
It leads to more than hello and goodbye.
When a lucky gal meets a lucky guy
They needn't do more than give it a try.
      For here is the amazing quirk —
When a lucky gal meets a lucky guy
      there must be destiny at work.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.

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