Monday, June 27, 2016

Nightmare of Doubt and Dismay: The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

Gabriel Syme infiltrates the highest council of a society of anarchists as "Thursday" in the first book of Chesterton's I ever read. I'm considering adding Chesterton to the list of authors I must read every year. I sped through the book to follow the plot, but may read it again slowly to savor it more.

At the end of the book is an extract of an article by Chesteron in which he emphasizes the subtitle of the book: "A Nightmare."
It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.
I missed the subtitle myself (it being on the title page but not on the cover, and apparently Chesterton was right to criticize people like me who skip it). The word "nightmare" places the novel apart from those that describe the everyday and the natural world. I'm not sure exactly how Chesterton meant it, but it seems to me like a fairy tale, with all the connotations of those most traditional of fairy tales that disturb modern readers.

The protagonist is thrown at the very beginning into situations of fear and anxiety. Each time he is relieved by a series of events, the doubt and dread rise again.
Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.
In the midst of battles and fear appear descriptions of heightened awareness of the world around Syme.
He felt a strange and vivid value in all the earth around him, in the grass under his feet; he felt the love of life in all living things. he could almost fancy that he heard the grasses growing; he could almost fancy that even as he stood fresh flowers were springing up and breaking into blossom in the meadow -- flowers blood-red and burning gold and blue, fulfilling the whole pageant of the spring.
The nightmare continues as Syme begins to question everything.
Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten.
The last few chapters are wonderful, but I don't want to give anything away. The end is both surprising and fitting.

The italic print: Links to Amazon are affiliate links. As an affiliate with Amazon, I receive a small commission if you follow one of my links, add something to your cart, and complete the purchase (in that order). Every little bit helps - thanks! Our copy of this book has a college bookstore sticker on it, so I'm guessing Kansas Dad read it for one of his classes. Twenty-cough years later, I finally read it.

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