By Cole Hartin
While I have a few podcasts in my feed, over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to mix in audiobooks as well. I’m cheap, so I don’t have an Audible subscription. I have found, however, a treasure-trove of audiobooks in the public domain through Librivox. Because these recordings do not generate an income, they are of varying quality.
Over the past few years, I have found too, that certain books “work” as audiobooks and others do not. I typically enjoy listening to novels, and, if the plot is lively, they are a pleasure to hear. I couldn’t manage much of Plato before falling asleep, but Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians was surprisingly delightful to listen to.
By far the books that have brought the most joy are G. K. Chesterton’s. In fact, I prefer listening to Chesterton’s works to reading them. He is a master of alliteration, and even his essays are fun to hear because of his constant plays on words. His writing exudes joy unlike almost any other author I’ve read.
In January, I “reread” The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare via audiobook. The first time I read the text, in my freshman year of college, I ploughed through a cheap paperback. I found it spellbinding, reading it almost completely in one sitting while I was on a plane from Toronto to Vancouver.
The novel is one of Chesterton’s masterpieces, rich with Christian imagery. It was originally published in 1908, over a decade before Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism. The plot of the text is somewhat complicated, but the narrative basically follows the adventures of Gabriel Syme, who is recruited as a secret police officer to spy on anarchists. The novel picks up with him meeting a genuine anarchist, Lucian Gregory, with whom he debates on the nature of poetry. Gregory’s argument is that poetry is lawlessness, rebellion, while Syme insists poetry’s nature is law and order. After lots of back and forth, the outcome of the argument is that Gregory brings Syme along to a secret council of anarchists.
The core council is made up of seven men, each named for a different day of the week. The position of Thursday is open, and Syme convinces the members to elect him to the spot. The rest of the plot unravels to show that six of the members of the council (Monday through Saturday) are in fact in the same position as Syme. They are all detectives who are playing the role of anarchists in order to infiltrate the anarchist underground. And the seventh member of the council, its president, Sunday, we find out in the end, is not a true anarchist either. But neither is he a police officer. He really is pulling the strings, but he stands in as a kind of figure of God, who, though he appears to be ominous and terrifying to everyone else on the council, we see in the closing chapters that he leads them to redemption.
It’s in these last chapters that the novel really shines. Trying to grapple with the identity of Sunday, the God figure, Syme notes:
When I first saw Sunday… I only saw his back; and when I saw his back, I knew he was the worst man in the world. His neck and shoulders were brutal, like those of some apish god. His head had a stoop that was hardly human, like the stoop of an ox. In fact, I had at once the revolting fancy that this was not a man at all, but a beast dressed up in men’s clothes.
And then the queer thing happened. I had seen his back from the street, as he sat in the balcony. Then I entered the hotel, and coming round the other side of him, saw his face in the sunlight. His face frightened me, as it did every one; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good. (255).
Sunday’s back is terrifying, but his face is beautiful. Chesterton is no doubt playing on Exodus 33:23 and perhaps Colossians 1:15. The terror and the beauty are one. The truth of Sunday is his beauty and goodness, but this is only visible when Syme can see his face. Sunday goes on to respond to Syme in the text, “I am the Sabbath,I am the peace of God” (274).
To this, Lucian Gregory, the only real anarchist, who stands in as a figure of Satan, responds,
I know what you mean… 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 offence 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. (274)
Gregory argues that his anarchism is justified because of how much he has suffered. He hates and only wants to destroy all sense of order simply because it is order, and he believes it is untouched by suffering. Syme rejoins that they have suffered, that they have suffered indeed.
It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell. We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man [Sunday] entered insolently to accuse us of happiness. (278-9)
Then Syme looks to Sunday and asks if he has suffered.
As he gazed, the great face [of Sunday] grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” (279)
The novel then ends by Syme coming to, still walking with Gregory, as if the whole adventure was a kind of dream.
Mark Knight links what Chesterton is doing in The Man Who Was Thursday to the book of Job. When Job is confronted with the problem of evil, he receives a response that is at once an answer and still leaves many threads undone. In his essay, “Chesterton and the Problem of Evil,” Knight writes that “because Syme is confident that there is sufficient reason to believe that the problem of evil has an explanation, he feels able to offer a speculative defence in response to the questions that remain” (381). He goes on to write, “Chesterton recognised that life could only be explained by taking this middle ground between reason and mystery” (382). William L. Isley Jr. makes a similar point in “Knowledge and Mystery in Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday,’” by arguing that Chesterton, “resolves the knowledge-mystery dilemma by claiming that mystery is increased by knowledge and by denying that empirical knowledge is exhaustive” (279). He writes further that “For this reason the answer to the mystery of The Man Who Was Thursday is a question. The solution to the problem is a riddle” (293).
What both Knight and Isley are pointing out is the complexity with which Chesterton is able to present the problem of evil and the darker sides of providence, while hinting at the light that is behind them. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton was able to convey the goodness of God, despite the way he may sometimes seem. Yet he does this without tidying up too many loose ends. His portrayal of the goodness of God is convincing precisely because it leaves some questions unanswered, gesturing ultimately to the cross. This recognition that we may never have all the answers we desire allows us to enjoy the peace that God brings because it is peace, not certitude, and this is surely enough.