Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An ill-fated, not-quite-completed explanation of The Man who was Thursday

I'm sorry. This post may not make a lot of sense to those of you who have not read G.K. Chesterton's The Man who was Thursday. In fact, it may not make sense even to those of you who have read it. But I'm writing it anyway.
I also apologize for the length. This post is getting longer and longer as I think about more and more things. But I'm not going to just throw it away, nor will I break it up into chunks, none of which will make any sense without the others. So, here it is.

It's very important to remember that the complete title of the work is
The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare. Chesterton says in his introduction that Sunday is not meant to have a 1:1 correlation with God. That said, I do believe Chesterton has something meaningful to say here about the nature of the world.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

There was complete silence in the starlit garden, and then the black-browed Secretary, implacable, turned in his chair towards Sunday, and said in a harsh voice—
"Who and what are you?"
"I am the Sabbath," said the other without moving. "I am the peace of God."
The Secretary started up, and stood crushing his costly robe in his hand.
"I know what you mean," he cried, "and it is exactly that that I cannot forgive you. I know you are contentment, optimism, what do they call the thing, an ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. If you were the man in the dark room, why were you also Sunday, an offense to the sunlight? If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? We wept, we fled in terror; the iron entered into our souls—and you are the peace of God! Oh, I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace."
End Quote
I love this paragraph. It comes right at the beginning of the ultimate climax of the story, where the 6 policemen are gathered to face the person (Sunday) who they believe to be the leader of the Anarchists, bent on destroying the world. Sunday reveals to them that yes, he was the leader of the Anarchists. But he was also the one who commissioned the policemen and sent them out on their quest. At this revelation, one of the policemen asks him who he is, to which Sunday replies, "I am the Sabbath. I am the peace of God," playing on his name as "Sunday." This prompts the quoted outburst from the Secretary, a policeman who, because of his duties, has experienced pain, terror, and hopelessness, and strayed, as one character puts it, "too near to hell."

Initially I thought there was only one complaint here: how can Sunday admit to being the peace of God while his followers have not been peaceful? However, I now think that there are two distinct yet connected aspects of this complaint. The first is that he has suffered, and the second is that Sunday has remained at peace throughout the process, even as he sends them out. Why, he asks, did Sunday set them to hunt the anarchists of which he himself was the head? How dare he admit to being the peace of God? How dare he be peaceful, be peace and rest itself, while his followers wept, fled in terror, and had iron enter into their very souls? How dare he?

The Secretary speaks as a policeman: Gregory, the true Anarchist of the story, speaks from his own perspective:
"You never hated because you never lived. I know what you are all of you, from first to last—you are the people in power! You are the police—the great fat, smiling men in blue and buttons! You are the Law, and you have never been broken. But is there a free soul alive that does not long to break you, only because you have never been broken? We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe! You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them. You are the seven angels of heaven, and you have had no troubles. Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I—" These complaints, either that of the Secretary or that of the Anarchist, are the complaints of all of us, Christian and non-christian alike. How can God ask us to go through these hardships while he sits on his throne in heaven, lacking nothing (by definition of being God)? Chesterton's novel raises this complaint, albeit in a crazy, confusing, sometimes humorous fashion--raises it and answers it, or makes an attempt at answering it. Syme, the main character, interrupts Gregory's rant with a cry: "I see everything," he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.' Without suffering, what good is strength and steadfastness? Without fear and terror, of what value is courage? How can man be truly good when he has never been assailed by evil? This is the question Syme raises. The dynamiter fights against the law, and can be brave and true and strong in his beliefs. Is the Law to go without? Is the Law to fight no one? Will those in the right never face pain, terror, or hopelessness? If this is so, then those in the right will never have the chance to fight through pain, be courageous in the midst of terror, or hold fast even when all hope has gone. They will have no glory, and when Satan the accuser comes to them, they will be forced to admit that he has had the greater struggle, that he has gone where they have not, that he has fought pain and adversity while they have been kept safe. But still we are left with the question: how can God be at peace while all this suffering is going on? The Real Anarchist objects that God has never left his throne, never suffered, and so cannot blame those of us who fail i their struggles. Not only that, but God cannot even claim to have fought in the face of defeat or remained strong in the midst of suffering--even Satan can claim to have fought against adversity. And this claim stuns us. We try to deny its validity, we scramble for a response, stalling for time, mumbling, searching wildly through our memories of sunday school and church and finding nothing but more and more support for Satan's claim, that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, impassible, unchangeable... and Syme, having affirmed his suffering and that of his 5 companions, turns to Sunday and asks the question: Have you... have you ever suffered? And Sunday answers him with "a commonplace text" we all have heard somewhere: "Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?" And I remember reading this book for the first time, having my mind totally and completely blown by that one line. For this is the ultimate answer to Satan's charge. God says to his accusers, "I too have been unhappy. I too have felt pain, and I have felt death." I'm done. I don't know if this made any sense, even to those of you who have read the book. I think it makes sense to me. Or I feel it does, anyway. But I cannot find the words to explain it further. As I have been writing this, I've had a growing awareness of the folly of attempting to unpack even a small portion of Chesterton's works in this format.

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