Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Metaphysical anarchy (and old-school dynamite-throwing anarchy too).

On the surface, if there is a surface, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, is a crackling little metaphysical mystery and a socio-ideological detective story about the insidious effects of anarchy on stable, placid, reliable society. But by the end, it was some kind of mind-bending allegory with the six days of the week at a massive costume ball, dressed in vestments corresponding with the days of creation in the Christian bible, overseen by Sunday (the day of rest) a giant and brilliant man who may or may not be god. Or nature. Or an anarchist. Or no one. Or everyone.

The setup is compelling — an artist, overcome by his passions, confesses to an annoyingly logical poet that he is an anarchist and part of a global conspiracy. On a lark and to prove a point (that art, and especially poetry, is anarchic by definition), he invites the poet to a meeting where he hopes to be appointed to the “international council” of bomb-throwing anarchists intent on overturning the stifling sense of order. As it turns out, the poet is actually a member of an elite branch of law enforcement — philosopher police convened to battle against nihilistic ideologies. As the poet policeman is drawn deeper into the mystery, it soon becomes clear that there’s more — and less — to the anarchists than meets the eyes.

As it speeds along from seedy pubs and shadowy ports to the lap of luxury, it sparkles with brilliant little asides about human nature, art, religion, politics and more.

“Syme had for a flash the sensation that the cosmos had turned exactly upside down, that all trees were growing downwards and that all stars were under his feet. Then came slowly the opposite conviction. For the last twenty four hours the cosmos had really been upside down, but now the capsized universe had come right side up again.”

After commencing with a duel: “When the jar of the joined iron ran up Syme’s arm, all the fantastic fears that have been the subject of this story fell from him like dreams from a man waking up in bed…The first was the old fear that any miracle might happen, the second the more hopeless, modern fear that no miracle can ever happen. But he saw that these fears were fancies, for he found himself in the presence of the great fact of the fear of death, with its coarse and pitiless common sense. He felt like a man who had dreamed all night of falling over a precipice, and had woke up on the morning when he was to be hanged.”

And especially relevant in today’s world: “You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came, it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than any one else in there being some decent government. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

I’m not sure I “got” exactly what the author was going for, but it may not matter — that’s the beauty of image-rich allegory: there’s enough symbolism and wonder to make it meaningful, probably through many reads. I certainly enjoyed it and (at least this time) was left with the sense that the two most important forces in the universe are nihilism and creativity (sorry gravity), and that we have infinite stores of both inside us, and either can be used for good or bad.