I’ve been in quite a mood for mysteries lately, only God knows why. Just in the past few months I’ve devoured a good chunk of Chandler, somewhat less of Borges, and even a slight bit of unread Conan Doyle. I’ve also been reading an author whose work I was only familiar with in the form of essays and religious polemics- the incomparable G.K. Chesterton.
I wasn’t all that impressed by the stories revolving around the character Chesterton is now most famous for- the seemingly dumb witted slueth, Father Brown who, Columbo like, solves crimes while leaving other to wonder how he’s managed to tie his shoes. But if Father Brown proved a less compelling character than Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, Chesterton made up for in spades by the last page of his metaphysical thriller- The Man Who Was Thursday.
Published in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday tells the story of Syme, a policeman who infiltrates the High Council of Anarchist a group of terrorists plotting a double assassination of the president of France and the Czar of Russia. Chesterton ripped this background right out of the news. Back in 1885 the anarchist Johann Most (great-grandfather of the Celtics broadcaster) had preached the Propaganda of the Deed. Most had even written a handbook with detailed instruction on how to make bombs and succeed in acts of violence- The Science of Revolutionary Warfare. The book earned Most a moniker worthy of a supervillain or a 1970’s disco act- Dynamost.
For the Dynamost and his ilk the quickest way to overthrow society was “by the annihilation of its exponents.” High profile murders played on the weaknesses of bourgeois society both fascinated and terrified by acts of violence. The new mass media of the industrial press could be exploited to amplify the impact of otherwise limited acts of political violence. Political murder as media spectacle thus predates the electronic, age and was already over a century old when it was picked up by late 20th century maniacs like Charles Manson.
Before writing The Man Who Was Thursday Chesterton would have lived through a number of such high profile assassinations and examples of the Propaganda of the Deed. In 1896 Sadi Carnot, the president of France stabbed to death. In 1897 the prime minister of France shot and killed. 1898 saw Empress Elizabeth of Austria stabbed to death, and 1900 King of Italy assassinated. By 1901 anarchist violence had come to the United States with the assassination of President McKinley. In the year The Man Who Was Thursday was published the King of Portugal and his son were shot to death.
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in some ways proved those preaching Propaganda of the Deed right after all. For with this one act the foundations of Europe would crumble leaving an era of war and revolution in their wake at the end of which would emerge a world likely unrecognizable to either Chesterton or the anarchists.
But in 1908 Chesterton wasn’t interested in all that. His point wasn’t to play into public fears and turn revolutionaries into uber- villains, or the staid middle class into heroes, but to show us something of the vanity, blindness and profound weakness behind the kinds of Manichean tales we tell ourselves.
You see, The Man Who was Thursday is a comedy. It’s a Keystone Cops style policemen, but it’s also a comedy in a metaphysical sense as well. As long as The Good lives life, existence itself, can only be deemed a comedy.
Whereas Syme, who is known as Thursday to the other anarchist of the High Council, thinks he is the sole policeman infiltrating the group in fact all of them, who are also called by a day of the week, are also policemen, with the exception of a towering man called Sunday- the mysterious figure who has brought the group together. In fact, none of the fake anarchists can even agree on who or what Sunday even is, for each only see him within the frame of their own narrow perspective as a kind of shadow on their relationship to the world.
Throughout the book, and to humorous effect, Chesterton plays on an all too common human weakness. Once we’ve deemed another person as “bad” it becomes extremely difficult to see them as good, and all of their actions are interpreted in the light of this moral judgement.
The only actually potentially villainous character in the novel is a man named Gregory, an actual anarchist- perhaps Satan himself- and the figure who Syme dupes into giving him his place on the High Council. What Chesterton does with this character is to give us insight into the origins of evil, which is not so much a matter of nature or nurture but a matter of perspective. What evil consists of is a certain stance by the individual visa-vi the world.
What that perspective consists of is a profound sense of victim-hood, entitlement and injustice. Gregory’s hatred of Syme and the others on the Council, his desire for the destruction of the entire world is driven by the belief that others do not suffer:
“Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you have suffered for one hour a real agony such as I –.” (190).
In more ways than we are merely in a digitally souped up version of Chesterton’s world. All of us are Thursdays now, turning real people into cartoon villains, the vast majority of whom are simply working their way through some alternative notion of The Good, or who are frightened by demons we can’t even perceive.
It’s a comedy of sorts, even if it makes necessities like governing impossible. Even when it’s deadly serious the echoes with Chesterson’s world remain profound. Gregory could easily be an Incel rather than an anarchist, we could replace dynamite with the AR-15, Johann Most’s deadly pamphlet upgraded to a digital manifesto and how to.
In our world, however, the puppet master isn’t a benevolent trickster and stand in for God, like Sunday, but those who foster and profit from the play. Perhaps these are the villains we should most seek to fight for they are making it increasingly difficult to distinguish good from evil in the first place- a nihilism of confusion rather than destruction, a world full of Thursdays chasing themselves.