And Other Absurd Nightmares
a review of The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton is an odd book. It is well-written, with humor and, at times, even poetry. Considering when it was written (1907), it even has elements that could be seen as avant-garde. At the same time, it reflects its author, at the very least, his Britishness.
The book is said to portray anarchists in an extremely negative light. This might be true if it actually portrayed anarchists. But, despite appearances, there is only one genuinely anarchist character in the book. While it is true that his anarchism is somewhat of a caricature, toward the end of the book, when he presents his accusation against Sunday (the "president" of the "Central Anarchist Council"), it is fairly well-argued. But this character plays a minor role in the book, appearing only at the beginning and end. Every other anarchist in the book, spouting rhetoric of random violence and destruction, turns out, in fact, to be a cop working on a special anti-anarchist force. Unknown to each other, these six cops make up the "Central Anarchist Council" under the leadership of Sunday.
Sunday is himself an ambiguous character. This ambiguity has led some to interpret the book theologically and identify Sunday with God. This is not mere whimsy on the part of these interpreters. Chesterton was a christian, and toward the end of the book he brings in some explicitly biblical imagery. But the edition of the book I read follows the story with an excerpt from an article Chesterton wrote, in which he states explicitly that this was not his meaning, that he was not attempting to "describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was". He emphasizes that he had subtitled the book "A Nightmare". And it is as such that it should be read. Nonetheless, Chesterton was an "orthodox" christian (as he liked to put it), and noting his use of biblical imagery toward the end of the book, I am convinced that he was making some sort of commentary about a particular view of god, perhaps the view held within what he called "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..." He did, wrongly, identify anarchists with these pessimists, when certain reactionaries of the time may have been closer to those views.
In any case, flinging away all the theological garb from Sunday, throughout most of the book, but especially when the six cops who were on the "Central Anarchist Council" confront him and he decides to give them a run for their money, this more than merely human character proves to be an exuberant, prankish lover of life and the absurd, a sort of dadaist joker. In fact, perhaps the greatest failing of the book is the pompous ending with its biblical imagery. It didn't quite ring true after the dadaist exploits of the Sunday of the chase, evading the cops, while sending them mocking, absurd messages. This Sunday is a portrayal of an anarchist prankster to whom I could relate. How does he become the pompous apologist for order at the end of the book? Perhaps that is something only a christian could understand.