Saturday, February 08, 2014

A Nightmare Fantasy

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)The Man Who Was Thursday: 
A Nightmare 
by G.K. Chesterton

“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.”   ― G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

More than one hundred years ago in 1908 Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a mysterious fantasy called The Man Who Was Thursday. Sixty years later while I was a student at The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin I discovered this wonderful book. 
More recently I attended a stage adaptation by Chicago's New Leaf Theatre Company of the satire about a man who finds himself tapped by Scotland Yard to infiltrate a council of anarchists.  The unique qualities that fascinated me as a college student remain.

Chesterton's satire is part metaphysical and part philosophical. It is a comic fantasy, which he calls on the title page "A Nightmare," and in which free will is symbolized by anarchism. Man's freedom to do wicked things, as Augustine said, is the price we pay for freedom. If our behavior were entirely determined then we would be mere automatons with no more genuine free will than a vacuum cleaner. But we are not automatons. We have a knowledge of good and evil and a freedom to choose, within limits, of course, between the two. Somehow our choices are not totally determined, yet somehow they also are not random, as if decisions were made by shaking tiny dice inside our skull. This is the dark, impenetrable paradox of will and consciousness. "I see everything," Gabriel Syme shouts in the book's last chapter. "Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? … So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist."

The philosophical references abound, like this moment that recalls Socrates' myth of the cave in Plato's Republic:  “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--” 

The story's mysterious developments and relationships make a creation that fascinates as the policeman from Scotland Yard, Gabriel Syme, poet extraordinaire, battles with "anarchists" in London. The conspiracy he discovers, the highlighted London background, and the way that Chesterton tells the story is both compelling and profound. While the story is at times dreamlike, even nightmarish, it also is filled with humor. A great chase scene closes the book, as if Chesterton were using the Keystone Cops to make philosophical points. The novel must have seemed daring in 1908 and it remains fresh and compelling.

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Brian Joseph said...

Sounds fascinating. I love these metaphysical and philosophical ruminations.

By coincidence I am currently reading Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. I have just read a part where the narrator is decrying freedom as the source of malevolence. He remarks,

"The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom."

I wonder if Zamyatin was influenced by this work.

James said...

Chesterton's novel is a sort of philosophical fantasy. I also read We about a year ago and enjoyed it.
Your question about the possibility of Chesterton influencing Zamyatin is fascinating.