The Man Who Was Thursday is a sort of metaphysical thriller of the same generation of writers like Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad. The action takes place at an allegorical level, – much as in The Trial or Heart of Darkness – and so don’t expect a whole lot of character development or realistic plot points.
In fact, its worth pointing out that The Man Who Was Thursday – as a major work of conservative thought – is essentially the exact counter-point to Kafka’s The Trial. Where The Trial depicts a universe devoid of meaning, Thursday comes to the exact conclusion depicting a religiously-infused world meaning (even as it remains mysterious) G.K. Chesterton is one of the leading lights of the great British conservative tradition that starts with Edmund Burke’s rebuke to the French Revolution and passes with Winston Churchill. Think surreal Charles Dickens. As such, The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the most intelligent portrayals of actual conservative thought (as distinguished from the neoliberalism of Hayek and Rand and other more pernicious forms of right-wing thinking like Sorrel or Schmitt).
The book starts with main character Syme – a young gentleman of a poetic, passionate nature – entering a fashionable get-together of what today we might call know-it-all rich kids which dabble in left-wing politics. Holding court is Gregory, the outspoken leader who propounds the most radical anarchist ideas (revolt is poetic, better to live one day as a lion then a 100 days as a sheep, etc). In a very witty, allegorical conversation, Syme humiliates Gregory as a dilettante and a fool. Chesterton introduces his key insight: the idea that order, progress, monogamous marriage, and traditional bourgeois society are what is truely “revolutionary and poetic.” Using the key image of the lamppost (upright, technical/hierarchical society) and the tree (communal, organic/spontaneous society), Chesterton advances the idea that even common criminals have the decency to participate in the great order of life (there only crime is desiring property too much; presumably, if they got enough property, they would be content); it is the people who seek change in society who are the problem. These (largely intellectual) people want to change the established order of things: this is either spoiled childishness or a dark desire to “watch the world burn.”
To show Syme he is not a poser, Gregory swears Syme to secrecy and takes him to a subterranean meeting of Anarchists (which takes place in maybe one of the earliest conceptions of a Bond Villain hideout), where Gregory is about to be elected “Thursday,” one of seven members of the International Anarchist Council. Syme reveals he is a policeman to Gregory, who in his “vote for me” speech to the Anarchists attempts to temper his fears of Syme ratting on him by talking about how Anarchists want to uplift and help humanity; Gregory’s speech is not well received. Syme leaps up and delivers a fire-and-brimstone speech on the righteous, violent vengeance that Anarchism is about to unleash on the world. The Anarchists love it and elect Syme as the new Thursday.
At this point we are treated to a flashback to the recruitment of Syme as a member of a special squad of detectives bent on a last-ditch attempt to infiltrate and destroy Anarchism; he is told that he is being sent on a suicide mission. Syme attends the meeting of the Anarchist Council – which hides in plain sight, passing itself as a group of successful gentleman just having large brunch with some harmless banter. We meet the rest of the Council, headed by the grotesque and portentous Sunday, the cold, cruel scientific Dr. Bull, the ideologically fervent Secretary, the aristocratic and vaguely De Sade-esque Marquis de St. Eustache, and the stand in for German Idealist philosophy, Professor De Worms (the other members of the council are less significant). It should be obvious that there is little of character here, post figures in this book stand for ideas or notions. We learn that Sunday is planning some huge dynamiting “outrage” and one of the members of the council is revealed to be a police spy.
Syme is now pursued, one by one, by various members of the council, who, one-by-one are also revealed to be police agents. It is revealed that they were all hired especially by one head cop who hired them in a completely dark room. The plot builds until it seems like the whole world has turned to Anarchism and is trying to hunt down the detectives, but it is an illusion; soon the entire council of detectives set out to pursue the god-like Sunday, who leads them on a truely surreal chase around London, involving an elephant and daring balloon escape. The detectives chase the balloon across the English countryside, meanwhile engaging in metaphysical reflection. Eventually, the balloon comes down.
The detectives are then met by carriages staffed by elegant attendants; they are taken to a estate where they are given symbolic garb to match their respective day and personality. Ushered into the presence of Sunday (who is now truely God), they sit as a symbolic unity of seven and look on as a massive costume party (people are dressed as animals, the elements, etc) goes on for several hours. The detectives are revealed as sort of cosmic principals originating with Creation. Syme has been “Thursday (the day the moon and stars were created)” all along. It’s a magical evening, but Gregory the only real Anarchist comes (as the Devil?) to complain about how God is running things; he implies that God has never suffered, doesn’t understand humanity or the human predicament. In response, the last words of the book are Sunday’s: “would ye drink of the same cup as I have?”
Intellectually the book peters out once you realize that the entire council are all police detectives – in fact, the opening two chapters make up the meat of the book in terms of actual debate and argument. In this sense, it’s curious, half-finished book which never quite susses out it’s full vision. What does it mean that God is at once Top Anarchist and all his acolytes are all police detectives? It begs the question: “What are they actually fighting? What are they actually afraid of?” The more I think about the book, the less intellectual traction of engaging with the material I find.
And while it is all tremendously witty, with a tremendous sense of playacting – Anarchist Gregory dresses up as his idea of establishment figures like a bishop, an army major, and a millionaire to avoid being detected as an Anarchist, the police detectives dress up as their ideas of Anarchists (an Idealist philosopher, the cold man of scientific reason, the exotic, yet somehow slightly asiatic decadent despotic-ness of the Marquis, the Worker).
Chesterton’s most insightful point, again, is that there is something poetic, something revolutionary about establish society (he uses the idea of a train system that runs on time, not as an example of rigid monotony, but of an thrilling departure from the lassitude of the natural world). Another way of putting it is that a successful heterosexual monogamous marriage is the truely “rebellious” relationship because of true unique/rare it is. Behind this all lays the fundamental conservative view: there is an established order to things and any attempt to change this established order is, at best foolishness, and at worst, a sinister destructiveness.
And one can easily why this would be a powerful point of view – it as the emotional bonus of being both optimistic (of a sort) and poses as a sort of timeless wisdom. The mindless destructiveness of Edwardian terrorism, masked with Romantic rhetoric was truely obnoxious. But for me, that is where the strength of the book ends. Conservatism fundamental denies that there is a problem – the only problem is people who mistakenly believe there is a problem that should be addressed with social change. You do no have to think about this for too long to realize the chilling consequences of this concept: it’s a massive endorsement of the status quo – no matter how savage or cruel – and any attempt at change, no matter how modest or sensible becomes a crime against The Order of Things. Chesterton is unable to engage with any background to Anarchism – aside from a sense that Gregory wants attention and to be taken seriously – he is unable to explain social problems, unable to grapple with what might lay behind any alternative to his world view. He denies that there are any social problems; crime and poverty are eternal, part of the cycle of stars it seems, not manufactured social circumstances which can obviously be addressed.
His ultimate response to Gregory – that God has suffered (on the Cross), is suffering infinitely more, and thus knows all (this is the way it had to be)- both dismisses actual human suffering and at the same time makes God into something of a martyr, a cosmic playing of the victim. Chesterton’s ultimate response to real, humanly manufactured suffering is a sort “yeah, well, we all have a sob story pal” but told in an optimistic, wise sort of way. The cosmic dance at the end of the book answers no questions, solves no problems, and upon reflection leaves one wondering why God is presented as a rich eccentric who has nothing better to do than to play Anarchist.
It’s interesting to see the birth and development of the traditional conservative critiques of liberals, ones that we are all too familiar with today. The sense that people interested in change are either apocalyptically destructive, bent on global despotism, or rich intellectual fools interested only in getting attention. Additionally, one can detective the growth of the spy and superhero genres – there were many scenes which reminded me of the 1960’s TV show The Prisoner for example.
Witty, enjoyably surreal and ideologically instructive. Probably one of the best, most sane /gentle portrayals of conservative thought from a time when being conservative meant something.