If you are a student of the Christian worldview, then you are probably familiar with the theme of Creation, Fall, and Restoration. Depending on who you read, some might also include Redemption in between Fall and Restoration. For this essay and the purposes of alliteration, I am going to use the terms Creation, Corruption, and Celebration in speaking about G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.[1] It is necessary to state upfront that this essay will not provide an exhaustive examination of each of three motifs (and there are more besides these three). A thorough analysis would require a much more extended treatment of Chesterton’s novel, perhaps a book in itself. The best that can be done in the space allotted is a brief sketch of each motif to allow the reader of this novel to see these themes a bit more clearly.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare is an exciting book solely on its surface. It is full of wild scenes, some that perhaps feel disjointed from time to time in their juxtaposition. It is a fast-paced detective story centered around the cat-and-mouse game of the anarchists and the Scotland Yard detectives who are determined to stop an assassination via bombing of a foreign dignitary on French soil. It is full of fantastical weather, a thrilling foot, horse, and car chase, a sword fight, and a gunfight. But it is more than just action; it is also full of deep philosophical themes such as order versus chaos, light versus darkness, sanity versus insanity, and transparency versus secrecy. However, this particular essay will focus tightly on the motifs of Creation, Corruption, and Celebration.

By way of a brief introduction to the story, the protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is a poet of order and sanity. His antagonist, Lucian Gregory, is an anarchist poet set on chaos and destruction. Syme intends to stop the anarchists by infiltrating the Central Council of Anarchists. He does so by stealing the vote from Gregory after he convinces the anarchists that Gregory is much too meek and mild to bear the responsibility of Thursday. We soon discover the Council is made up of seven anarchists, each monikered with a day of the week wherein the President of the Council is known as Sunday. From here, the speed of the story picks up in a whirling dervish of chaos, confusion, surprise, and triumph, and ends in celebration and sanity.

Creation

This section will focus on a few selected scenes of the main character Gabriel Syme as he relates to the Creation motif. In Chapter IV, “The Tale of a Detective,” we read of Syme’s background and how he came to be in the employ of Scotland Yard’s newest special corps of policemen, the philosopher detectives. Rather than catching criminals who have committed crimes, these peculiar policemen are trained in philosophy and attend parties and read literature and poetry to anticipate criminal activity and stop it before it occurs.

Syme is recruited and led through a “side-door in the long row of buildings of Scotland Yard.”[2] From there, Syme passes one at a time through four intermediate officials, until he enters a room where “the abrupt blackness of which startled him like a blaze of light. It was not the ordinary darkness, in which forms can be faintly traced; it was like going suddenly stone-blind.”[3] From out of the darkness, a heavy voice speaks to Syme, “and in some strange way, though there was not the shadow of a shape in the gloom, Syme knew two things: first, that It came from a man of massive stature; and second, that the man had his back to him.”[4] Immediately, this unseen man hires Syme into the corps. After some exchange of words between the two, Syme leaves, and we read: “Thus it was that when Gabriel Syme came out again into the crimson light of evening, in his shabby black hat and shabby, lawless cloak, he came out a member of the New Detective Corps for the frustration of the great conspiracy.”[5]

For the next two and a half pages, Chesterton bombards the reader with the language of light and darkness, weather, and seasons. Before looking at what Chesterton wrote, perhaps it would be good to remind ourselves of the fourth day of creation as recorded in Genesis 1:14-19:

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years. They will be lights in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights – the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night – as well as the stars. God placed them in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth, to rule the day and the night, and to separate the light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. Evening came and then morning: the fourth day.

The fourth day involves the creation of lights (sun, moon, and stars) as well as a way to mark time (days, years, and seasons). Compare Genesis with the next bit of writing by Chesterton. When Syme first encounters the philosopher detective, Chesterton mentions his unkempt appearance. We are told he was “shabby in those days. He wore an old-fashioned black chimney-pot hat; he was wrapped in a yet more old-fashioned cloak, black and ragged . . . his yellow beard and hair were more unkempt and leonine . . . [and] a long, lean, black cigar . . . stood out from between his tightened teeth, and altogether he looked a very satisfactory specimen of the anarchists upon whom he had vowed a holy war.”[6] Compare this with his appearance shortly after being hired by Scotland Yard, while keeping the Genesis passage in mind. After being called out of the void by some invisible voice, Syme trims his beard and hair, he buys a good hat, and he “clad himself in an exquisite summer suit of light blue-grey,” from disorder to order, and the mention of a season.[7]

Next, we are transported forward to the story’s present-day, where Syme is boarding the steam-tug where he has the “singular sensation of stepping out into something entirely new; not merely into the landscape of a new land, but even into the landscape of a new planet.”[8] For the next few paragraphs, Chesterton continues to pile on words and phrases such as: “an entire change in the weather and sky,” “naked moon,” “naked sky,” he calls the moon a “weaker sun,” where it “gave, not the sense of bright moonshine, but rather dead daylight,” the entire land is “luminous” with an “unnatural discoloration” of some “disastrous twilight,” a “sun in eclipse,” which made Syme feel as if “he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star.”[9] Relentlessly, Chesterton continues his description of a “glittering desolation in the moonlit land” where Syme’s “chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire.”[10] Further on, Chesterton writes about the “inhuman landscape,” “bright, bleak houses,” “a man in the moon,” “the clear moon that…lit up Chiswick,” and how “day had already begun to break.”[11]

Moreover, subtly, this follows the same pattern as Genesis 1:19, which mentions, “Evening came and then morning.” The relevant description of Syme during his flashback has him leaving Scotland Yard in the evening. When we arrive in the present, we are in the evening as well, “at about half-past one on a February night.”[12] Finally, the scene ends with daylight breaking. Taking in a bigger picture of the entire novel, it follows this same motif, which is not surprising since the protagonist is Thursday. The opening line of the first chapter reads: “The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset,” while the novel closes with this final line of the book: “There [Syme] saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.”[13] [14] The imagery of the fourth day of Creation resounds throughout the story, from start to finish.

Corruption

While corruption typically points to the Fall, Chesterton deals with a specific insidious strain of corruption known intimately by him during his college days attending art school: nihilism. Nihilism is particularly caustic and corrosive as it works its destructive ways both externally and internally. Albert Camus was correct when he opens his Myth of Sisyphus with the claim that the only serious philosophical question for a nihilist is suicide.[15] Chesterton brings this idea of Camus into clear focus when he writes about those who merely play at being the anarchists versus those, like Gregory, who claims to be a serious anarchist:

They are under no illusions; they are too intellectual to think that man upon this earth can ever be quite free of original sin and the struggle. And they mean death. When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave. They have but two objects, to destroy first humanity and then themselves. That is why they throw bombs instead of firing pistols. The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody.[16]

The serious anarchist, in the stripe of Gregory, is happy to kill somebody, even if that means themselves.

In this section, we encounter a few short scenes where this attack against being and meaning is present. First, there is the introduction of the story’s antagonist, the anarchist poet Lucian Gregory:

His dark red hair parted in the middle was literally like a woman’s, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture. From within this almost saintly oval, however, his face projected suddenly broad and brutal, the chin carried forward with a look of cockney contempt. The combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape.[17]

Lucian lacks any sharp distinctions. In one light, he appears male and in another light female. In one setting, an angel and in another an ape, a messenger of light and a brute. It is this amorphous description, this lack of distinction, which marks Lucian’s stance against being. At one level, this attack against being is to destroy all external being apart from oneself. Still, the ultimate destruction of being is to extinguish even self and thus to wipe out all being in a single act.

In an early description of Safford Park, we see this language describing the vagueness of the village when we read that “the whole insane village seemed as separate as a drifting cloud.”[18] This idea of insanity is a break from reality, and it mistakes the delusion as being real. But the village is not just insane; it has no shape to it at all, no center, no essence, no nature because it is “as separate as a drifting cloud.” Drifting clouds do not hold their shape. They lose their distinction as the currents work upon them. They come into being and out of being, and there is nothing to ground them and give them persistence. They take on an appearance of solidity, but in fact, they are anything but solid. This is non-being masking as being.

Later in the story, when Thursday (Syme) and Wednesday (Marquis de Saint Eustache) finish their sword duel, they are running for their lives from the anarchists through a forest. Chesterton draws on his art background here in painting this word scene:

The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man’s head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers . . . Was he wearing a mask? Was any one wearing a mask? Was any one anything? This wood of witchery, in which men’s faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people.[19]

Similar to Gregory and the drifting clouds, nothing is as it seems. All is an illusion. There are no real things, but vague objects that appear to be one thing and then another thing and then something else entirely. There is no being; all is in flux and, thus, anti-being. “For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.”[20] This final skepticism is nihilism, where all values and conventions are obliterated, as if by dynamite. Like a drifting cloud, there is no floor; there is no foundation. In an earlier discussion between Lucian and Syme, Lucian says of the anarchist movement, “We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”[21] To which Syme responds, “And Right and Left . . ., I hope you abolish them too.”[22] Here his request is fulfilled.

Celebration

Finally, the story arrives at a restoration of sorts. Here the madness of non-being gives way to the celebration of being. All things that exist, no matter what they are, are dancing with life. Syme and the other six days dress in attire that does not conceal but instead reveals their true identities.[23] For in wearing his Thursday clothes, Syme “seemed to be for the first time himself and no one else.”[24] As the Days of Creation make their way to their seats in the garden, they see a:

vast carnival of people . . . dancing in motley dress . . . [with] every shape of Nature imitated in some crazy costume. There was a man dressed as a windmill with enormous sails, a man dressed as an elephant, a man dressed as a balloon . . . one dancer dressed like an enormous hornbill, with a beak twice as big as himself . . . there were a thousand other such objects . . . a dancing lamppost, a dancing apple-tree, a dancing ship.[25]

It seemed as if “all the common objects of field and street [were] dancing an eternal jig.”[26] The celebration of existence lasted so long that Syme lost track of time. And after all the Days were seated, including Sunday, “that huge masquerade of mankind swayed and stamped in front of them to marching and exultant music. Every couple dancing seemed a separate romance; it might be a fairy dancing with a pillar-box, or a peasant girl dancing with the moon; but in each case it was, somehow, as absurd as Alice in Wonderland, yet as grace and kind as a love-story.”[27] In this final chapter, we have the triumph of life and being with all of Creation dancing with joy in celebration of being alive. What a contrast this is to the anarchist’s pessimism that ran throughout the whole of this grand story. In the end, being wins out; existence is celebrated. The fact that anything exists is reason enough to celebrate all of life and all of existence.

Conclusion

The motifs of Creation, Corruption, and Celebration are not unique to this Chesterton work. They show up, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, in many of his other writings. For Chesterton, Creation appears to be the starting point of seeing the world as it is. There is an acknowledgment that we are not the creators of our reality, a message which today’s culture needs. There is an external reality that is not dependent upon us; it was here before we arrived and will continue after we are gone. It is not subject to our subjectivity. Sadly, the Corruption of this Creation is seen everywhere. In fact, in his seminal apologetic work Orthodoxy, Chesterton reminds us that the only thing provable about Christianity is original sin. The particular failure on display in this novel is brought about by a fatal flaw of thinking in a specific direction. The pessimism of nihilism is corrosive and crushing. Yet, thankfully, it is not the end of the story. Near the end of The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, order, and sanity are restored during a garden party thrown by Sunday. On display are some of the magnificent works of creation in attendance, full of life and joy, participating in a grand celebration, as if the world were new. After reading this timeless tale of Chesterton’s, how will we see the world? Can we celebrate the small and ordinary with the realization that even the small is not so small, where even the ordinary is not so ordinary?

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Citation Information

Shawn White. “Creation, Corruption, and Celebration on a Thursday.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 151-166.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/creation-corruption-and-celebration-on-a-thursday/


Endnotes

[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999). I will be using this version of the book exclusively throughout this essay.

[2] Ibid., 84.

[3] Ibid., 84-85.

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 77-78.

[7] Ibid., 85.

[8] Ibid., 86.

[9] Ibid., 86-87.

[10] Ibid., 87.

[11] Ibid., 87-88.

[12] Ibid., 86.

[13] Ibid., 31.

[14] Ibid., 265.

[15] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1991), 3.

[16] Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 84.

[17] Ibid., 36.

[18] Ibid., 35.

[19] Ibid., 188-189.

[20] Ibid., 189-190.

[21] Ibid., 54.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 253.

[24] Ibid., 254.

[25] Ibid., 255.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 257-258.

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